Three: The Data from the "Leisure Literature" of the Monarchy-period.
As the monarchy consolidated, and the internal wars between the house of Saul and the house of David died off, the nation entered a relative time of peace. This was predominantly at the time of Solomon, but probably included the later years of David as well. In this time of peace (relatively speaking), the people began to have 'leisure' time, and occupy 'literary' type responsibilities. David and Solomon appointed singers and musicians, and Solomon was famous for the proverbs he authored. It is during this period in which 'leisure' time was used to produce non-narrative literature, and in which 'official' jobs were created that focuses on literary and/or historical writing, that we find the production of the Song of Songs, Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. While these writings were probably edited later on numerous occasions (e.g. Proverbs 25.1), their core material was probably constructed during this time period. As such, they provide us with some 'reflective' material to examine, for the portraiture of women in the period.
The material we have to work with here is:
I will consider these in the order of 'ease' and 'obviousness' of contents. For example, the Song is a veritable dance in celebration of personal love, whereas the probable "Devil's Advocate" position of Ecclesiastes makes its pronouncements more difficult to understand.
This work is a purely 'secular' work. It is a love story, like other love stories and poems of the ANE, and does not reveal much theological content. Yet it is quite elevated in its view of female sexuality. So, WS:WWR:187:
The general biblical view of sexual love is that within marriage it is right and good. Thus the Song of Songs praises erotic love, reaching a biblical high-water mark regarding healthy sexual attitudes. Most scholars are of the opinion that the Song of Songs originally was secular love poetry, and for our purposes its most remarkable quality is the lovers' mutuality. The female is able to pursue the male without fear of being branded a harlot; the male is able to submit to the female without being branded unmanly. Insofar as the Song of Songs was taken to be an allegory for Israel's relations with God, it placed sexual passion near the heart of the covenant. The biblical God therefore became very different from the apathetic God of Greek philosophy. Yahweh could yearn, suffer, and lament the transgressions of his beloved, like a wronged husband (see Hosea).This is not to say this was the norm, but it does reveal that it was certainly understandable in the period. So, Evans in WS:WIB:23-24: "There is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex. The woman is independent, fully the equal of the man...it does show that in Old Testament thought the concept of mutuality and equality between the sexes could be envisaged as possible and even perhaps as desirable..."
But the inclusion of this book in the biblical canon--in spite of the vast amount of human dissension, discussion, and reservations--leads me to believe that the Author felt rather strongly about making this statement!
Again, this is fairly obvious in its point--the hero and main characters are women. A woman is used to demonstrate the essence of loyalty. She is praised by men and women alike, and is the only Moabite known to have entered Israelite society (against the prohibition in Deut 23.3). She even shows up in the genealogy of Jesus.
Ruth is a marvelously crafted short story, presumably written down during the reign of David [the genealogy at the end stops at David and not Solomon]. It is very woman-centered in its language (e.g. 1.8--"return to your mother's house") and in plot (WS:TSOS:115ff). We have noted before that the setting demonstrated that childless widows could own and sell property (e.g. 4.9)Ruth is said in the end to be better than "seven sons."
The Psalms are generally focused on God and the individual, and accordingly do not furnish much data about women. There are a few references, though, that are in keeping with the general themes we have seen lived out in Israel.
The book of Job is a fascinating study. Job is held up as a model of faith by God Himself in Ezek 14.14,20. Job is NOT an Israelite (he is from the land of Uz--probably northeast of Palestine), but is an occasion of God's boasting(!)
As such, Job represents the cultural and legal context of Israel, many laws and customs of which were shared by the Israelites. [It is generally understood that the content of the Law in the OT would not have been adequate to administer the society--see the discussion by Walton in AILICC:83] Although we cannot assume that Israel shared all of Job's practices/ethics, it is safe to assume that she had "equal or higher" requirements on the part of YHWH.
With that in mind, let's look at some of the women-related ideas in Job:
First, in Job 38.28, God is speaking:
Does the rain have a father?NOTICE: God describes Himself in terms of BOTH genders--father and mother.
Who fathers the drops of dew?
29 From whose womb comes the ice?
Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
Second, in Job 42.13, we see that daughters could receive inheritance ALONG WITH living brothers, at the discretion of the dad:
And he also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. 15 Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job's daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.NOTICE: The daughters are named and lauded, but not the sons. The daughters were given an inheritance ALONG with their brothers. This means, in the legal context of Israel, that daughters did NOT have to be "brother-less" to inherit property (like the daughters of Zelophehad were). If it were possible outside of Israel, it quite possibly was a part of Israel's legal system as well. (The fact of the naming of the daughters in the Job passage, might suggest that in those genealogies in which a 'sister' is named, what is in view is this type of inheritance, although we have no hard evidence one way or the other.)
Overall, we see a rather high treatment of women in Job, ranging from Job's inclusion of his daughters in every aspect of their culture--festive, ritual, legal--, to God's use of the female image to portray his relationship to creation.
Proverbs is the quintessential wisdom literature. It contains many different forms of wisdom sayings and instructions, and has much to say about women. Let's go through it and note some of these passages.
Listen, my son, to your father's instruction
and do not forsake your mother's teaching. (Prov 1.8)
My son, keep your father's commands
and do not forsake your mother's teaching. (Prov 6.20)
Listen to your father, who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old.
23 Buy the truth and do not sell it;
get wisdom, discipline and understanding.
24 The father of a righteous man has great joy;
he who has a wise son delights in him.
25 May your father and mother be glad;
may she who gave you birth rejoice! (Prov 23.22ff)
Drink water from your own cistern,
running water from your own well.
16 Should your springs overflow in the streets,
your streams of water in the public squares?
17 Let them be yours alone,
never to be shared with strangers.
18 May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
19 A loving doe, a graceful deer --
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be captivated by her love.
20 Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress?
Why embrace the bosom of another man's wife?
Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates leading into the city,
at the entrances, she cries aloud:
4 "To you, O men, I call out;
I raise my voice to all mankind.
5 You who are simple, gain prudence;
you who are foolish, gain understanding.
6 Listen, for I have worthy things to say;
I open my lips to speak what is right.
Wisdom has built her house;Notice that this female figure stands at 'the gates', calls to the men (8.4, 34), and throws a well-announced banquet for teaching the simple. That a female is portrayed as a personification of wisdom certainly seems reasonable in light of the historical narrative sections studied so far, and these passages in Proverbs will only carry their force if a female sage is an intelligible (and perhaps even common) figure in that historical period.
she has hewn out its seven pillars.
2 She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.
3 She has sent out her maids, and she calls
from the highest point of the city.
4 "Let all who are simple come in here!"
she says to those who lack judgment.
5 "Come, eat my food
and drink the wine I have mixed.
6 Leave your simple ways and you will live;
walk in the way of understanding.
Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion. (11.22)
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. (31.30)
14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.There have been entire books written on the virtues of this woman, but for our purposes here we need only to notice verse 26: She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.. This is a wise woman, and one that everyone pays attention to, for instruction.
15 She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
29 "Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all."
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
This raising up of wisdom as a female image is contrasted throughout the text with attacks on loose women, on adventuresses, on those women who lead men astray. This is, in fact, a textbook for young men, and as such it established polar opposites of female imagery; ethereal wisdom contrasts sharply with living, sexual women.This seems a bit wide of the mark. There are so many more negative statements about men in Proverbs than women (e.g. 1.18; 2.12; 3.31,32; 4.14-17; 5.22; 6.19; 6.32; 9.7; 11.7; 11.12; 11.16, 17, 18, 20; 12.7; 12.12...just for starters!). Perhaps in this text "ethereal righteousness contrasts sharply with living, practical men."
This book is one of the strangest in the bible. It is classified in ANE studies in the genre of 'pessimism literature,' along with such works as the Egyptian "Dispute of a Man with his Soul (ba)" [HI:ANET:405] or "The Harpers' Songs" [HI:ANET:467]. These non-Israelite works:
These all express a high degree of cynicism regarding the value of life, the coherence of the created system, and the role played by deity. (AILICC:187)In his analysis of the practical differences between Ecc. and these pessimistic works, Walton summarizes (AILICC:189):
...the practical results were not very much different. What difference did exist resurfaced in beliefs about God. For the author of Ecclesiastes, though ritualism and legalism are both discarded (5.1-7; 7.15-18), the fear of God is one tenet not singled out as meaningless; it is rather encouraged because of the meaninglessness of everything else (5.7). God is taken seriously. In contrast to this, the Egyptian works do not bring deity into the issue, while the Mesopotamian work includes religious practice (ritual) in its cynicism...The ancient Near Eastern advice then is "Enjoy life," while the Israelite advice is "Enjoy life and fear God."Now, this is a rather significant difference. This MAY imply that Ecc was written as a counter-pose to ANE 'pessimism', or that large portions of the text are a teaching device to get the student to see the logical conclusions of judging things that way --that is, only applying "under the sun" values.
Indeed, one of the best scholars on the wisdom literature, Derek Kidner, suggests that the Teacher devotes large chunks of the text to the "devil's advocate" position, while always concluding each section with a bit of more realistic (in the context of God) optimism [The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, IVP:1985.]
Think about this for a second. IF as traditional evangelical scholarship maintains, the author of the Song of Songs, much of Proverbs, and Eccly are all Solomon or a close circle of associates, then Eccly MUST be taken in the context of the glowing praises and valuation of women (and wisdom, and rationality, etc.) in those related books. Consider some of the more bizarre statements of Eccly that would make sense in either a (1) "spoof" of ANE pessimistic positions; or (2) a teaching "devil's advocate" approach:
[Now this contrast between "one good man, but NO good women" could be a simple 'stair-step' proverbial device of the form "N things the Lord hates; yea, N+1 things He despises". This would make the verse fit the verse 29, which glups them all together in their aberrant behavior.]
If this understanding is correct, then the (possibly negative statement about no righteous women) plays into a "devil's advocate" position and is NOT the real position of the author(s) of Eccly, Song, and Proverbs (!). Indeed, the author in another bitter passage says 26 I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare. (7.26), but this escape is apparently not from ALL women, for he advises the student to Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, (9.9), In other words, "they can't ALL be bad"!
This view is essentially supported by Murphy in WBC. He points out that
the comment on women in 7.26 (" I found more bitter than death the woman
who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters;
one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. ") a comment
on adultery, and not on women:
And Murphy explicitly finds the author rejecting the proposition of asymmetry:
This instructional motif is also present in the use of the "under the sun" phrase. The teacher often points out that using the valuation-grid of "under the sun" leads to this frustration (i.e. revelation is needed!!!). And, without proper valuation standards, all men and women look bad, life looks meaningless, and we had best just have a party.
All in all, the "leisure literature" shows an EXTREMELY high view
of women (parts of it are even authored by women). When the nation of Israel
got around to reflecting on its historical situation, its worldview, and
its blessing by YHWH, women were recognized as being key (and beneficial)
players in the covenant community.
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