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In order accurately to understand the position of woman in Israel, it is only necessary carefully to peruse the New Testament. The picture of social life there presented gives a full view of the place which she held in private and in public life. Here we do not find that separation, so common among Orientals at all times, but a woman mingles freely with others both at home and abroad. So far from suffering under social inferiority, she takes influential and often leading part in all movements, specially those of a religious character. Above all, we are wholly spared those sickening details of private and public immorality with which contemporary classical literature abounds. Among Israel woman was pure, the home happy, and the family hallowed by a religion which consisted not only in public services, but entered into daily life, and embraced in its observances every member of the household. It was so not only in New Testament times but always in Israel. St. Peter's reference to "the holy women"in the old time" (1 Peter 3:5) is thoroughly in accordance with Talmudical views. Indeed, his quotation of Genesis 18:12, and its application: "Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord," occur in precisely the same manner in Rabbinical writings (Tanch. 28, 6), where her respect and obedience are likewise set forth as a pattern to her daughters. *
* The following illustration also occurs: A certain wise woman said to her daughter before her marriage: "My child, stand before thy husband and minister to him. If thou wilt act as his maiden he will be thy slave, and honor thee as his mistress; but if thou exalt thyself against him, he will be thy master, and thou shalt become vile in his eyes, like one of the maidservants."
Some further details may illustrate the matter better than arguments. The creation of woman from the rib of Adam is thus commented on (Shab. 23): "It is as if Adam had exchanged a pot of earth for a precious jewel." This, although Jewish wit caustically had it: "God has cursed woman, yet all the world runs after her; He has cursed the ground, yet all the world lives of it." In what reverence "the four mothers," as the Rabbis designate Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, were held, and what influence they exercised in patriarchal history, no attentive reader of Scripture can fail to notice. And as we follow on the sacred story, Miriam, who had originally saved Moses, leads the song of deliverance on the other side of the flood, and her influence, though not always for good, continued till her death (compare Micah 6:4). Then "the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom" contribute to the rearing of the Tabernacle; Deborah works deliverance, and judgeth in Israel; and the piety of Manoah's wife is at least as conspicuous, and more intelligent, than her husband's (Judg 13:23). So also is that of the mother of Samuel. In the times of the kings the praises of Israel's maidens stir the jealousy of Saul; Abigail knows how to avert the danger of her husband's folly; the wise woman of Tekoah is sent for to induce the king to fetch his banished home; and the conduct of a woman "in her wisdom" puts an end to the rebellion of Sheba. Later on, the constant mention of queen mothers, and their frequent interference in the government, shows their position. Such names as that of Huldah the prophetess, and the idyllic narrative of the Shunammite, will readily occur to the memory. The story of a woman's devotion forms the subject of the Book of Ruth; that of her pure and faithful love, the theme or the imagery of the Song of Songs; that of her courage and devotion the groundwork of the Book of Esther: while her worth and virtues are enumerated in the closing chapter of the Book of Proverbs. Again, in the language of the prophets the people of God are called "the daughter,"the virgin daughter of Zion,"the daughter of Jerusalem,"the daughter of Judah," etc.; and their relationship to God is constantly compared to that of the married state. The very terms by which woman is named in the Old Testament are significant. If the man is Ish, his wife is Ishah, simply his equal; if the husband is Gever, the ruler, the woman is, in her own domain, Gevirah and Gevereth, the mistress (as frequently in the history of Sarah and in other passages), or else the dweller at home (Nevath bayith, Psa 68:12). *
* Similar expressions are Sarah and Shiddah, both from roots meaning to rule. Nor is this inconsistent with the use of the word Baal, to marry, and Beulah, the married one, from Baal, a lord--even as Sarah "called Abraham lord" (1 Peter 3:6, the expression used of her to Abimelech, Genesis 20:3, being Beulah). Of course it is not meant that these are the only words for females. But the others, such as Bath and Naarah, are either simply feminine terminations, or else, as Bethulah, Levush, Nekevah, Almah, Rachem, descriptive of their physical state.
Nor is it otherwise in New Testament times. The ministry of woman to our blessed Lord, and in the Church, has almost become proverbial. Her position there marks really not a progress upon, but the full carrying out of, the Old Testament idea; or, to put the matter in another light, we ask no better than that any one who is acquainted with classical antiquity should compare what he reads of a Dorcas, of the mother of Mark, of Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Lois, or Eunice, with what he knows of the noble women of Greece and Rome at that period.
Of course, against all this may be set the permission of polygamy, which undoubtedly was in force at the time of our Lord, and the ease with which divorce might be obtained. In reference to both these, however, it must be remembered that they were temporary concessions to "the hardness" of the people's heart. For, not only must the circumstances of the times and the moral state of the Jewish and of neighboring nations be taken into account, but there were progressive stages of spiritual development. If these had not been taken into account, the religion of the Old Testament would have been unnatural and an impossibility. Suffice it, that "from the beginning it was not so," nor yet intended to be so in the end--the intermediate period thus marking the gradual progress from the perfectness of the idea to the perfectness of its realisation. Moreover, it is impossible to read the Old, and still more the New Testament without gathering from it the conviction, that polygamy was not the rule but the rare exception, so far as the people generally were concerned. Although the practice in reference to divorce was certainly more lax, even the Rabbis surrounded it with so many safeguards that, in point of fact, it must in many cases have been difficult of accomplishment. In general, the whole tendency of the Mosaic legislation, and even more explicitly that of later Rabbinical ordinances, was in the direction of recognising the rights of woman, with a scrupulousness which reached down even to the Jewish slave, and a delicacy that guarded her most sensitive feelings. Indeed, we feel warranted in saying, that in cases of dispute the law generally lent to her side. Of divorce we shall have to speak in the sequel. But what the religious views and feelings both about it and monogamy were at the time of Malachi, appears from the pathetic description of the altar of God as covered with the tears of "the wife of youth,"the wife of thy covenant,"thy companion," who had been "put away" or "treacherously dealt" with (Mal 2:13 to end). The whole is so beautifully paraphrased by the Rabbis that we subjoin it:
"If death hath snatched from thee the wife of youth, It is as if the sacred city were, And e'en the Temple, in thy pilgrim days, Defiled, laid low, and levelled with the dust. The man who harshly sends from him His first-woo'd wife, the loving wife of youth, For him the very altar of the Lord Sheds forth its tears of bitter agony."
Where the social intercourse between the sexes was nearly as unrestricted as among ourselves, so far as consistent with Eastern manners, it would, of course, be natural for a young man to make personal choice of his bride. Of this Scripture affords abundant evidence. But, at any rate, the woman had, in case of betrothal or marriage, to give her own free and expressed consent, without which a union was invalid. Minors--in the case of girls up to twelve years and one day--might be betrothed or given away by their father. In that case, however, they had afterwards the right of insisting upon divorce. Of course, it is not intended to convey that woman attained her full position till under the New Testament. But this is only to repeat what may be said of almost every social state and relationship. Yet it is most marked how deeply the spirit of the Old Testament, which is essentially that of the New also, had in this respect also penetrated the life of Israel. St. Paul's warning (2 Cor 6:14) against being "unequally yoked together," which is an allegorical application of Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:10, finds to some extent a counterpart in mystical Rabbinical writings, where the last-mentioned passages is expressly applied to spiritually unequal marriages. The admonition of 1 Corinthians 7:39 to marry "only in the Lord," recalls many similar Rabbinical warnings, from which we select the most striking. Men, we are told (Yalkut on Deu 21:15), are wont to marry for one of four reasons--for passion, wealth, honor, or the glory of God. As for the first-named class of marriages, their issue must be expected to be "stubborn and rebellious" sons, as we may gather from the section referring to such following upon that in Deuteronomy 21:11. In regard to marriages for wealth, we are to learn a lesson from the sons of Eli, who sought to enrich themselves in such manner, but of whose posterity it was said (1 Sam 2:36) that they should "crouch for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread." Of marriages for the sake of connection, honor, and influence, King Jehoram offered a warning, who became King Ahab's son-in-law, because that monarch had seventy sons, whereas upon his death his widow Athaliah "arose and destroyed all the seed royal" (2 Kings 11:1). But far otherwise is it in case of marriage "in the name of heaven." The issue of such will be children who "preserve Israel." In fact, the Rabbinical references to marrying "in the name of heaven," or "for the name of God,"--in God and for God--are so frequent and so emphatic, that the expressions used by St. Paul must have come familiarly to him. Again, much that is said in 1 Corinthians 7 about the married estate, finds striking parallels in Talmudical writings. One may here be mentioned, as explaining the expression (v 14): "Else were your children unclean; but now are they holy." Precisely the same distinction was made by the Rabbis in regard to convert, whose children, if begotten before their conversion to Judaism, were said to be "unclean"; if after that event to have been born "in holiness," only that, among the Jews, both parents required to profess Judaism, while St. Paul argues in the contrary direction, and concerning a far different holiness than that which could be obtained through any mere outward ceremony.