My recent post “Here Comes Everybody” at the Open Tabernacle drew a query in the comments thread from a prolific commenter, Mark, who asked for some substantiation of my statement that in the Biblical world, women were seen as property. Responding, I assured Mark that I had a post in preparation in which I would provide this. That post has now been completed in draft, but given the importance of this topic, I thought it would be helpful to discuss it first in its own, dedicated piece.
Even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible should make clear the appallingly low status of Hebrew women, and their complete dependence on their men folk. It is this very dependence that makes the story of Ruth and Naomi important: deprived of family and male support, they sustain each other, until at last they can re-establish economic security- by working together to arrange Ruth’s re-marriage.
But to more fully appreciate the extent of women’s subservience, we need the help of writers who have looked more closely at the texts, and reflected on them to show us their significance. William L. Countryman is just one of many who have done this, but his book “Dirt, Greed and Sex”, with a full chapter on women and children as property in the Hebrew Bible, is the one I have at hand, and the one I have drawn on for what follows.
The story of Job is one of many that illustrate the position. In Job 31, he runs through a long list of (hypothetical) sins he might commit, and suggests possible punishments or penances he might have to endure for them. Of adultery, he says:
“If my heart has been enticed by a woman, and I have lain in wait at my neighbour’s door, let my wife grind for another and other men kneel over her.”
Isn’t this astonishing? In the modern view, a man’s adultery is a sin against his wife. In the Jewish view, the sin is against his partner’s husband – only. The adulterer’s wife is so far from being the victim, it is she that must pay the price, by offering sexual services to other men (note the plural). How do we explain this? The point is that adultery here was seen primarily as a sin against property. It was essential that any children born to a man’s wife should be known to be his own.
“It (adultery) constitutes a theft of her husband’s right to legitimate offspring.”
This, it was a crime against sexual property. Indeed, adultery was only defined in terms of sexual intercourse with another man’s wife. The adulterer’s own marital status was irrelevant, he was not under any obligation of sexual fidelity to his wife. If he had intercourse with an unmarried woman, especially a virgin, that was an offence against the woman’s family (because it reduced her value to them in the marriage stakes) – but was not classed as adultery.
This explains Job’s response. Adultery with another man’s wife was not only an offence against his property, it also reduced its value and brought shame on him. By yielding his own wife to the sexual use of other men, he was likewise bringing shame on himself and reducing her “value”. He was, quite literally, “paying the price” for his adultery.
Surprising as it seems to us, even incest was conceived as a crime against sexual property. The incest laws are complicated, so I give here just Countryman’s summary:
- First, a man must not infringe on the sexual property of his father, or other males who rank above him, or on the same level as him in the family hierarchy.
- Second, a man must not infringe on the sexual property of his sons and daughters (i.e. the sons’ wives and daughters, and the daughters of his sons-in-law – his daughters’ husbands.)
- Third, a women must not put two women in a position that would force them to to violate the hierarchy prevailing among female relatives.
Women and Property
Throughout the books of the law, and even in the Ten Commandments , instructions against adultery, or even lusting after women, are routinely placed alongside instructions against theft or greed for material property. Even the Hebrew language (as with Greek) shows the pattern. There is only one word to do duty for “woman” and for “wife”. When the Hebrew uses the possessive pronoun, “his” wife, it can be taken quite literally. Now all wives were in a sense their husband’s property: but for some wives, this was true quite literally.
Remember that a Jewish man could (and often did) include in his household several “wives” (by which is meant that dowries had been paid for them), concubines (whose families could not afford dowries) and also female slaves. In a discussion on the treatment of slaves, Exodus
“makes the assumption that she was originally purchased as a wife, for either her master or his son.”
Another writer who describes women as sexual property in the Hebrew bible is the Domincan theologian Gareth Moore – although more briefly. He says quite bluntly,
“Married women were considered as, roughly speaking, the property of their husbands.”
“A man may repudiate his wife, just as a he may dispose of his property. But there is no provision for a woman to repudiate her husband: property cannot free itself from its owner.”
“In general, it was th role of the man to be active, to lead, to command, to possess, and of women to be passive…. to be possessed.”
“If a man sexually penetrated a woman, that meant that he subordinated her to himself, that he took possession. sexual penetration was a symbolic taking and giving of possession.”
That is the Old Testament. What of the New? Countryman quotes Tertullian, writing in the late second or early third century. In the context of the early Christian ideal of holding all property in common, he wrote:
“All things are without distinction [of ownership] amongst us, except wives.”
There you are. Although women are a class apart from other forms of property, they are still discussed and viewed as property. They also are quite clearly not seen as included among “us” (not unless Tertullian thinks they too had wives, which seems unlikely).
Countryman concludes his chapter:
“The picture that the Torah offers of the place of women in the family seems to have been generally stable over a long time, into and part of the New Testament era. There were changes of course, in detail,….. Wives, however continued to be a particular class of property, whose function was to produce heirs and help administer the husband’s household.”
I have laboured this point because it is of fundamental importance. It underlies not only the outdated Catholic understanding of gender and sexuality, it also goes to the heart of the destructive patriarchal structure of the institutional church.
In this post, I have depended on Countryman, but this is not an idiosyncratic view. I shall return to the theme repeatedly over the moths ahead, and will later draw in other reliable sources for the argument.
- “Adultery”, and the Problem of Heterosexuality, Revisited (Queering Theology)
- Clobber Texts: A New Reading of Leviticus (Queer Scripture)
- Memo to Cardinal George: “Redefining” Marriage. (Queering the Church)