The Hebrew Bible's Radically Feminist Beginnings
I came up with the idea for this article in a coffee shop this past week. As I created a rough outline and began to collect my thoughts, a friend, who happened to see the title to this article, turned to me and said:
“You better not be writing one of those classic apologetic articles about how the Torah is really protecting and helping women with all of its sexist laws and stories!”
We often don’t view the Bible as a beacon of feminism. And for good reason.
The Bible, like any other book, largely reflects the sociological context in which it was created and composed. Like many ancient texts and legal codes, the Bible treats females as a different (read: lower) class than their male counterparts. Within the pages of the Hebrew Bible women are given a low level of legal power, scant rights, and extremely limited freedom in their day to day lives. This trend continued well throughout the rabbinic era.
To my friend’s comment, many modern apologetics have centered around explaining away these sexist undertones by arguing that males and females are on different spiritual planes - usually inserting the claim that women are naturally closer to God and therefore don’t need to do as much (or have as many rights) in this world to attain spirituality.
Needless to say this is not what I wish to discuss.
A far more interesting point regarding the intersection of feminism and the Hebrew Bible arises when we consider some of its earliest composed texts.
For years biblical scholars have recognized that the composition and origins of many of the poetry and songs dispersed within the Hebrew Bible comes from a much earlier period than the various stories in which they appear. Atop this list of ancient biblical writings are two songs composed by females: the song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21) and the song of Deborah (Judges 5:2).
Using an elementary and fundamentally unorganized grammar, the Hebrew of these biblical hymns is a much older and basic Hebrew than that found in many later biblical texts. Additionally, these songs record only parts of the specific narrative that they discuss, leading scholars to believe that they represented the most authentic and ancient version of their respective stories, which were later embellished as they were passed down between the generations.
Both of these texts were probably composed well before the Davidic era, back when the people of Israel were first beginning to transition from groups of disparate Canaanite tribes into a nation united under the idea of monotheism. The fact that two of the oldest texts in the Hebrew Bible were composed by and center around female initiative and leadership should not be taken for granted.
As pre-Davidic Israel was first beginning to gain national consciousness there were no kings, royal dynasties, or temples. Leadership came from outspoken and morally conscientious leaders known as prophets.
Perhaps the most important thing to note about prophetic leadership is that unlike kings and priests, anyone was able to be a prophet. It didn’t matter if you were a man or woman, rich or poor, or who your parents or tribe were, all that mattered was that you, yourself, was an upstanding citizen fit to represent the word of God. In fact the book of Judges, which historians note is probably the best historical depiction of pre-Davidic Israel, is full of prophets and leaders who come from all sorts of lowly backgrounds.
This was the reality in ancient, pre-Davidic, Israel. A society where there was no such thing as a stereotypical leader, rather leadership was given out based on merit instead of inheritance or identity. Let us remember that when the people of Israel came to Samuel asking for a monarchy, they simply wanted to be like “all the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). Other nations who have stereotypical leaders.
In the modern era of Judaism we no longer have kings or temple running priests. And even rabbinic authority means almost nothing with today’s widely spread anti-authoritarian sentiment.
What we do still have though are prophets.
These are the people within the Jewish community, regardless of background or identity, who are speaking up and trying to create positive change. While some members within the Jewish community may try and silence those who are not the “typical” Jewish leader, it is crucial to remember that the most pure historical form of Jewish leadership was always a-typical.
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