Saturday, May 27, 2017

Woman in Wisdom Literature

We have come to the middle of the Old Testament, and a change in genre.  Up till now, most of the Bible has related the grand story of Israel, from the Creation to the Exile in Babylon and the beginnings of return.  Space has been made for the stories of two heroic women -- Ruth and Esther -- who played important roles in the establishment and salvation of Israel.  We have also seen long stretches dedicated to legislation -- the legal code of ancient Israel, which included quite a few sexual boundaries.  (Some still recognized today, while others have fallen out of favor.) 

Now we come to Israel's Wisdom Literature.  And it is magnificent. 

Chesterton compared the Book of Job to a secret treasure that the Jewish people had kept hidden from the ancient world.   Admittedly, the hero in this case being male (no luck to him!), while Job is one of the longest books in the Bible, there is not much about women specifically in it.  (Beyond a famous line from a depressed and depressing wife, a few imprecations to take care of widows, one of two strictures in the Bible against lust, and the like.) But the themes of the book transcend gender: the mystery of suffering, how not to counsel a man who is suffering, and then the glory of creation which, if nothing else, gives us something happier to think about.  And the poetry is magnificent, with many lines from Job memorable to this day. 

Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, but also only occasionally touches directly on gender relations.  Again, the themes it does emphasize: the glory of God, the call to all creation to worship, the hiddenness of God, salvation of Israel in the face of its enemies, the king, pleas for or recognition of divine help -- are universal. 

Proverbs is another matter.  A set of maxims and guidance for youth, presumed to be male, some of that advise centers on what kind of woman to seek, or avoid.  Young men are advised to avoid adulterous women for their own sakes.  But wisdom is also imperonized as a woman who, parallel to the adulterous woman, calls out to the young man, calling him to happiness not tragedy.  The book ends with a magnificent description of the successful, strong, intelligent woman. 

Most of these passages are self-explanatory, so I will not make notes on each and every passage.


Image result for job and wife(131) "Curse God and Die!"

2.9-10: "His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”  He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

In all this, Job did not sin in what he said."

(132)  Taking Care of Widows -- every day! 

22. 9: "And you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless." 

This is a false accusation against Job intended to explain his suffering.  The implication is that one should help widows and orphans. 

(133) Mother Love. 

23:20: "Even mothers forget their children . . . "

Job is describing the many evil acts which people commit, which God seems to allow.  The point is how terrible this world often seems. 

(134)  Taking Care of Widows -- every way! 

29:13-14: "The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing.
 I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban."

Job sets the record straight about his own history of aiding the poor and needy.

(135) No Lust

31. 1, 9-16: "I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman."

“If my heart has been enticed by a woman,    or if I have lurked at my neighbor’s door,
  then may my wife grind another man’s grain,
    and may other men sleep with her.
   For that would have been wicked,
    a sin to be judged.
  It is a fire that burns to Destruction;
    it would have uprooted my harvest.
   “If I have denied justice to any of my servants,
    whether male or female,
    when they had a grievance against me,
   what will I do when God confronts me?
    What will I answer when called to account?
    Did not he who made me in the womb make them?
    Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?
   “If I have denied the desires of the poor
    or let the eyes of the widow grow weary . . . "

Here Job calls curses upon himself if he has stalked women, or in fact, dealt compassionately with various categories of the needy.  Among those are named widows and female servants. 

"Did not He who made me make them?" carries great import for "hot" social issues of later times, including slavery as well as women's rights.   One is obliged by God, who made all people equal on some level -- such as being created by Him -- to be just to social inferiors, and not only just, also generous and allow the poor what they need and desire to live upon.  And stealing women from others is also an injustice. 

(136) Eyes on the Road, Please

42. 10-16: "After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before.   All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.  The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part . . .  he also had seven sons and three daughters.  The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch.   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.   After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation.  And so Job died, an old man and full of years."

Job is restored only after he prays for his overly-critical and under-sensitive friends. 

One might ask why Job's relatives took so long to show up.  But when they did come (maybe they got detailed at the camel caravan terminal), both brothers and sisters contributed to restoring his fortune.  And that fortune included beautiful daughters who are given an inheritance with his sons  (Hopefully some before he died 140 years later!)  One might quibble with "defining feminity" in terms of beauty -- shouldn't ugly girls also receive love from their parents? -- but Job is praised for going beyond the cultural norms of the time in treating with his daughters. 


(137) No Lust

45. 9-15: "Daughters of kings are among your honored women; at your right hand is the royal bride in gold of Ophir.   Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention: Forget your people and your father’s house.  Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord. . .  All glorious is the princess within her chamber; her gown is interwoven with gold.  In embroidered garments she is led to the king; her virgin companions follow her— those brought to be with her.  Led in with joy and gladness, they enter the palace of the king."

(138) Defender of Widows

68.5: "A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling."

(139) Young Ladies Make Music

68.24-25: "Your procession, God, has come into view, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary.   In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the young women playing the timbrels."

(140) Women also suffer from War

78.62-64: "He gave his people over to the sword; he was furious with his inheritance.  Fire consumed their young men, and their young women had no wedding songs; their priests were put to the sword, and their widows could not weep."

The worst of judgement seems to descend upon the men of Israel.  Young men are killed so young women don't have any marriage partners.  The (male) priests are killed but the widows merely are not given the chance to weep.

(141) Evil Men Kill Widows (among others)

94.6: "They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless."

The psalmist is calling on God to judge "the proud" for their evil deeds.

(142) God gives children to barren women

113.9: "He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children." 

Three such instances have already been covered in the Bible to this point: Sarah's birth of Isaac, Rachel's birth of Joseph and Benjamin, and Hanna's birth of Samuel.  Each of these births are belated answers to prayer (or at least the last two), and involve some doubt, but prove especially providential and significant. 

Two of my friends in Taiwan named their son Isaac because he was born in similar circumstances.  The couple had been abusing drugs, and a doctor informed her that she was unable to conceive.  A Filipino doctor in the US prayed over her and said she would, in fact, bear a child, which she later did.  Of course, not all barrenness, or all singleness, or all divorce, ends so happily, but in other cases, believers unable to have children have taken such verses as a call to ministry to the young. 

(143-4) Children, Male and Female, are a blessing.

127: 3-5: "Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth.  Blessed is the man
    whose quiver is full of them."

144.12: "Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants, and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace."

Straight-forward expressions of gratitude from a less-narcissistic era!    Also a rebuke to parents in China and India who engage in sex-selective abortions.  Yes, girls are also a blessing to the people of God, and we should thank God for them -- pillars to adorn a palace. 

(145) Widows Again

146. 9: "The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked."

(146) Praise the Lord, Women!

148. 12-13: "Young men and women, old men and children.  Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted . . . "


(147) Listen to Mom!

1.8-9: "And do not forsake your mother’s teaching.  They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck."

(148) Avoid Other Men's Wives!

2.16-19: "Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth
    and ignored the covenant she made before God.   Surely her house leads down to death and her paths to the spirits of the dead.  None who go to her return
    or attain the paths of life."

(149) Wisdom is a Lady

3.13-20: "Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.
   She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her.  Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.  She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place . . ."

I don't know if it carries any particularly profound implications for the status of women that both Wisdom and Folly are introduced as female characters in the Proverbs.  I will argue elsewhere that the worship of female divinities does not seem to do much for mortal women in societies like India.  Still, as allegories, women are here given clear role models and the nobility of being viewed as agents who are free to choose.   That can't be bad. 

(150) Drink from your own Cistern

5.3-20: "For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword.
   Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave.
  She gives no thought to the way of life; her paths wander aimlessly, but she does not know it.
 Now then, my sons, listen to me; do not turn aside from what I say.
Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house, lest you lose your honor to others and your dignity to one who is cruel, lest strangers feast on your wealth and your toil enrich the house of another.
 At the end of your life you will groan,  when your flesh and body are spent.  You will say, “How I hated discipline!  How my heart spurned correction!
 I would not obey my teachers or turn my ear to my instructors.   And I was soon in serious trouble in the assembly of God’s people.”
 Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares?
 Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers.
 May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deermay her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love.
Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife?  Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman?"

The poet raises a good point, here.  Who, at the end of their lives, is going to say, "Gee, I wish I'd chased more whores?"  However, this does raise the question of a relationship in which the woman is frigid and sexually withdrawing. 

(151) Listen to Dad and Mom -- avoid whores. 

6.20, 24-35: "My son, keep your father’s command and do not forsake your mother’s teaching."

"Keeping you from your neighbor’s wife, from the smooth talk of a wayward woman.
Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes.
For a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread, but another man’s wife preys on your very life.
 Can a man scoop fire into his lap  without his clothes being burned?
 Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?
  So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife;  no one who touches her will go unpunished.
 People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.
 Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house.
 But a man who commits adultery has no sense; whoever does so destroys himself.
 Blows and disgrace are his lot, and his shame will never be wiped away.
For jealousy arouses a husband’s fury, and he will show no mercy when he takes revenge.
He will not accept any compensation; he will refuse a bribe, however great it is."

The emphasis here is on the practical downside of sleeping around -- the husband is going to come after you with a .45.   Herein lies the theme of half the plays in Athens and half the movies in Hollywood -- plus not a few true-life stories. 

(152) The Vamp

7. 5-27: "They will keep you from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words.

 At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice.
 I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense.
He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house at twilight, as the day was fading, as the dark of night set in.
Then out came a woman to meet him, dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent.  (She is unruly and defiant,  her feet never stay at home; now in the street, now in the squares, at every corner she lurks.)
 She took hold of him and kissed him and with a brazen face she said:
“Today I fulfilled my vows, and I have food from my fellowship offering at home.
 So I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you!
I have covered my bed with colored linens from Egypt.  I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.
Come, let’s drink deeply of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love!
 My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey.
 He took his purse filled with money and will not be home till full moon.”
With persuasive words she led him astray;
    she seduced him with her smooth talk.
 All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter like a deer stepping into a noose till an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life.

Now then, my sons, listen to me; pay attention to what I say.  Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths.
Many are the victims she has brought down; her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death."

(153) Wisdom Calls, Too

8. 1-5:  "Does not wisdom call out?  Does not understanding raise her voice?  At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gate leading into the city,
    at the entrance, she cries aloud: “To you, O people, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind.  You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, set your hearts on it."

(154) Reason is God's Lady 

8. 22-36:  “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth,  before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth.
I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
 Then I was constantly at his side.  I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.
“Now then, my children, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways.  Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not disregard it.
Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway.  For those who find me find life and receive favor from the LordBut those who fail to find me harm themselves; all who hate me love death.”

These verses rebuke those who claim that the Bible is anti-science.  God created by reason, which was with him from the beginning, helping him form space and the nebulae, the atmosphere and the oceans, the drifting continents and Homo Sapiens which alone begins to share His delight in the natural world. 

(155) Wisdom Calls

9 1-6:  "Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars.  She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, “Let all who are simple come to my house!”  To those who have no sense she says, “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed.  Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight.”

(156) So Does Folly. 

9. 13-18: "Folly is an unruly woman; she is simple and knows nothing.  She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, calling out to those who pass by, who go straight on their way, “Let all who are simple come to my house!" To those who have no sense she says, “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious! But little do they know that the dead are there,  that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead."

Proverbs of Solomon

(157)  Sorrows of Motherhood

10.1:  "A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother."

The poetic Hebrew device of parallelism is in play here, of course.  But men do seem to focus on bragging about their kids' accomplishments, while women seem to like to worry more.  (Watching movies about children who are kidnapped or who die of cancer, that sort of thing.)

(158) Kind Women

11.22: "A kindhearted woman gains honor, but ruthless men gain only wealth."

(159) Beauty without Taste

11.26: "Like a gold ring in a pig's snout, so is a beautiful woman who neglects good taste." 

Solomon had the number of modern celebrities. 

Job, recall, valued his daughters, who were beautiful, especially highly.  You can't blame the OT both for valuing women just for their beauty, and complain when the Bible criticizes women for only carrying about physical beauty and neglecting reason, ethics or pursuit of the good life.   Read together, the texts suggest balance.

(159-160) A woman's character influences her family. 

12. 4: "A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones."

14.1: "The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down."

Most of us could tell tales to illustrate these observations.   

(161) Poor Mom

15:20: "A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish man despises his mother."

This is another instance of the Hebrew poetic device of parallelism, which is meant to elicit confirmation more than contrast.  But I think there is something to this contrast: both fathers and mothers feel pride and pleasure in their children's accomplishments, but I think men do tend to focus more on the positive, women tend to be pained more by the negative. 

(162-4) Wives are a Blessing from God (good ones: bad ones are more like a leaky roof).

18.22: "He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord."

19.13-14: "A foolish child is a father’s ruin, and a quarrelsome wife is like the constant dripping of a leaky roof.  Houses and wealth are inherited from parents,
  but a prudent wife is from the Lord."

21.9: "Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife."

(165) Watch out for Adulteresses, again!
22.14: "The mouth of an adulterous woman is a deep pit; a man who is under the Lord’s wrath falls into it."

(166) Listen to Dad & Mom, again. 

23.22-28: "Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.  Buy the truth and do not sell it— wisdom, instruction and insight as well.
 The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him.   May your father and mother rejoice; may she who gave you birth be joyful! . . .
 An adulterous woman is a deep pit, and a wayward wife is a narrow well.  Like a bandit she lies in wait and multiplies the unfaithful among men."

(167) Shameless Floozies and Elizabeth Bennett's Little Sisters 

30.20-23: "This is the way of an adulterous woman: She eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.'

“Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up:
 a servant who becomes king, a godless fool who gets plenty to eat,
a contemptible woman who gets married, and a servant who displaces her mistress."

The minor characters in Pride and Prejudice furnish wonderful illustrations of these adages.

(168) King Lemuel's Mom Warns against fast women. 

31. 1-3:  "The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.
Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!  Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!
Do not spend your strength on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings."

(169)  The Wife of Noble Character

31. 10-31:  "A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.
 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.
 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
 Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate."

In her chapter of Christianity is Not Great: How Faith Fails, Annie Gaylor claims:

“As I read the Bible with increasing incredulity, I realized how little women could be valued in a society whose most valued book utterly devalues women. It is impossible for women to be free and equal in a culture that refers to a violent and demeaning handbook for women’s subjugation as ‘the good book.’ Among the most common of the biblical epithets for women are ‘harlot,’ ‘whore,’ ‘unclean.’ Biblical women play one of two roles: they are either superfluous . . . or diabolical.”

Having now purveyed 169 passages on the Bible on women, one cannot but read Gaylor's ludicrous summary with "increasing incredulity," as she puts it.  Her take on this passage is particularly revealing.

The final chapter of Proverbs describes the ideal wife, the sort of woman a young man should look for.  Is she a Barbie doll?  Is her face covered with a black cloth to protect men from temptation?  No and no.  She has “strong arms,” which provide for her family’s welfare and comfort.   She’s an independent businesswoman, who buys raw materials, adds value to her product, and trades on the open market.  She purchases real estate.  She laughs at the future, because she has planned ahead.  She is also a teacher, "and faithful is the instruction on her tongue."  Furthermore, she proactively "opens her arms to the poor, and extends her hands to the needy."  Don’t be so shallow as to look just at physical beauty, the writer instructs his son (having learned this from his mother!): look for a strong, wise, and generous woman like this for your life partner.

What does Gaylor make of this marvelous image of womanhood, which totally nukes her claim about “diabolical” women in the Bible?  (As if there were anything more than rubble left of that claim after a few minutes sifting through the Old Testament, already.)  She calls this portrait, get this, the “ultimate put-down” of women.  This poor lady is an “uncomplaining workhorse” who has to get up before dawn!   (As adults generally did in those days, indeed it is dark outside as I type right now!) Gaylor even quotes the line, “her price is above rubies,” without remembering her own claim that women are “utterly devalued” in the Bible.

Wouldn’t “utterly devalued” mean, “less valuable than paper clips” rather than “more valuable than rubies?”

Gaylor attempts to interpret this passage as somehow demeaning towards women.  After all, this poor lass needs to get up early to go to work!

Yes, because she's an independent businesswoman.  Lots of adults in that line, and many outside of it, get up while it's still dark.   (Mind you, we're talking about a fairly low-latitude country where you don't get really long days, even in summer.)  Her husband trusts her to wheel and deal.  She purchases commodities, manages employees, deals in real estate, works hard, and makes a profit.  Having made that profit, she engages in charitable activity to care for the poor.  Her husband and children recognize what a wonder-woman they have on their hands, buy her Mother's Day presents and toast her on her birthday.  Good looks aren't everything: character and productive activity ennoble a woman far more.

Can anyone read this single passage and deny that the Bible takes a high view of women, one from which modern men and women would do well to study, and ditch our ditzy devas and flashy flirts? 

I challenge you to find a more ennobling image of a worthy woman in Hollywood. 

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