Are Women Possessions?

I have been reading through the Bible, from start to finish, and trying to blog about what I read as honestly as I can. Obviously I am partly a product of my upbringing (not necessarily bad) but I wanted to look with fresh eyes, to try and take the words written and understand them.

I ran into problems fairly early on. There was lots I didn’t understand, and then, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, I came across things that just seemed wrong. Completely wrong. Which caused bit of a problem. How could I challenge the words, spoken by a prophet of God, as a direct quotation from God? Either I wasn’t understanding something fundamental, or the words of God were not something I felt was fair. It did not reflect my own understanding of God, a God who is just, loving, fair. The words reflected a God who I did not want to know.

Let me give you some examples. Now, I am a woman, but actually, this isn’t about female issues. I would think the laws were unfair whichever sex they related to. For example, in Deuteronomy, if a man thinks his wife might have been unfaithful to him, even if she hasn’t, and he has no grounds for thinking she has, he can take her to the priest to be ‘tested’. This test involves untying her hair (which I understand was a sign of shame in those days – perhaps like being shaved bald today). Then she is forced to drink poison. The poison will make her ill. If, when she recovers, she is unable to bear children, this will be proof that she has been unfaithful. If she recovers fully, she is deemed innocent. There is no penalty for the suspicious husband. How can that be okay? That is physical and psychological abuse.

I therefore took a break from reading through the Bible and blogging about it, and did a little research. I wanted to know, did God rate men above women, to the extent that women, and animals, and possessions were all equal, with men above them all?

There are multiple instances of wives being little more than possessions, with no rights whatsoever. If a man wanted to sell his daughter as a slave (including as a prostitute) then, that was okay. If a man wanted to beat his wife, provided he didn’t beat her enough to kill her, then that was okay. If a woman made a decision that either her father or husband didn’t like, they could overturn it, and that was okay. And to be clear, these are not the rules that evolved over time, these are the rules which are presented as dictated from God to Moses. Which caused me a problem. So I did a little research. This is what I have discovered so far (though I still have a way to go).

Firstly, in contrast to the apparent disregard of all females, there are some powerful women in the Old Testament. I hadn’t previously heard much about them. Perhaps churches should focus a little more on powerful women in the Bible, so everyone (men and women) realise the place they might have in today’s society.

I especially like the story of Deborah. (Deborah is the Hebrew for “honeybee”, which I think is a pretty cool name!) Deborah was a prophet, in the days when prophets, as direct messengers from God (like Moses) were more important than the priests. She sat under a tree, and people came to her to ask her judgement on matters. This was a woman with authority. She then summons Barak (which means “lightening bolt”) to come to her. Barak is the commander of the Israelite army, so somewhat powerful himself, yet he obeys and presents himself before her – a woman. Deborah then gives precise details of a military operation, and tells him to do it. Barak is too frightened to attempt it unless Deborah goes with him, so she does. They defeat the enemy. The leader of the enemy escapes, and another woman, Jael, tricks him into falling asleep under some blankets, and then hammers a tent peg through his head and into the ground. Not a woman to mess around one feels.

This shows that God does use woman. He even used women in the Old Testament, in a completely male-dominated society, and sometimes put them in positions of authority over men. You don’t get much more ‘in charge’ than hammering a tent peg through someone’s skull! So, what does it mean? Why is there the apparent discrepancy between women having absolutely no rights, and being in God-given positions of power.

As I read on, it became very clear to me that how women are treated by God, is very different to how they are treated by men. Men in the Bible absolutely view women as inferior, something to be used, owned. Even some of the ‘Bible greats’, like David, treated women in a shocking manner. David collected wives and concubines at will – if he fancied a woman, he acquired her. A bit like collecting horses. Even when he encountered a wise, Godly woman (Abigail, who defied her husband to save her people), he didn’t show much respect to her when he then “took her as his wife” – another wife added to the hundreds he already had. Being a wife was to be owned. (I don’t think I would like King David if I met him. ‘Womaniser’ comes to mind.)

Even later, in the New Testament, women are treated unfairly. When two people are found committing adultery, it is the woman who is hauled before the people and criticised, the man isn’t mentioned again. But in the New Testament, we see a change. We see how Jesus treats the women, and this is copied by his followers. Jesus treats women with respect, as equals to men. So do his followers.

There has been a lot preached about St Paul’s writings, how he said women shouldn’t speak in services, should cover their heads, and so on. He writes about man being created before woman, which some people believe means women are ‘second’ to men. But obviously that can’t be what Paul means, or all the animals would be above man. If you read commentaries by historians who understand the culture of the day and who are translating the original texts, it seems clear that actually, Paul viewed women as equal to men, with an equal right to speak and teach and lead worship. If you disagree with this, read some of the writings by Kenneth Bailey.

So, to conclude (I could write a whole thesis on this, but I’m trying to keep it short!). When you read the Bible, much of it is written as a historical account – it tells you what happened, what the laws were, but it does not make value judgements. So we might interpret that stories are ‘meaning’ something, but actually, they might not. They are simply accounts and to interpret them is always open to error. So yes, King David may have done some great things, but that did not mean he was always right. The way he treated women was appalling. Men in the Bible, pretty much always treated women as inferior. God did not. Men only appointed male priests, male teachers, male leaders. God appointed women as prophets, he used women to save the Israelites, he spoke to women, and gave them as much responsibility as he gave men. God does not see women as inferior. Men in the Bible treated women badly, but it does not mean that God thought that was okay; an historical account does not mean the actions described were condoned by the author. I still don’t understand those early laws which were so cruel to women – did Moses fudge what God had said, or were they modified by God to suit a corrupt male-dominated society? I don’t know. But when viewed in the light of the rest of the Bible, my belief is that the fault is man-made, not from God.

Churches today are perhaps slightly better balanced than the church I grew up in. When I was a child, men preached, men welcomed people at the door, men were the deacons who made all the decisions; women did the catering and looked after the children and played the piano. I think however, we still have a way to go before we are behaving towards women how God does. We need to be hearing more about the strong women in the Bible, women used by God to do amazing things. Because then our children will grow up knowing that a woman leader isn’t ‘second choice because no men were available’, they will understand that God treats men and women equally, and so should we. And women will realise that they have as much responsibility as men to listen to God, to speak out in society when something is wrong, to lead people in the right direction.

As a woman, I personally find it rather thrilling that God wants to use me. God doesn’t see me as ‘just a woman’ – he values me as highly as any man. Which makes me feel special, and love him even more. Thank you for reading.

I will continue to write my Bible Blog as I find things to write about.

The British Library – Women and Literature

I’ve never been to the current British Library before – have you? I did go, many years ago, when it was part of the British Museum. Now it’s housed in a building (which I think is rather ugly) next door to St Pancreas Hotel (which I think is rather beautiful). Always a shame when a building is not how we imagine.

There are statues and sculptures in various places. Lots were donated when the current building was built. I expect that must be a minefield of diplomacy – where to place the extremely ugly statue that a wealthy benefactor has donated? Perhaps that’s why some are more visible than others. You don’t want to be the one in the staff toilets… Anyway, I have photographed a few, but the quality is bad due to my extremely old phone (which could be in a museum itself).

I was meeting a group of friends for a lecture about how the place of women in society can be seen in contemporary literature. ‘Contemporary’ means the last few hundred years, so it was interesting. I met the rest of the group in the foyer. There’s a bench there, in the shape of a book (like the ‘book benches’ that popped up around London in 2014). This one was metallic. When I walked round to take a photo in better light, I noticed it was attached to a ball and chain. Apparently the chain reminds people that in the past, books in libraries were chained (I’m guessing so they weren’t stolen). The ball represents the permanency of ideas – that once you have read a book, it becomes part of you, you can never ‘unread’ it.

The books and pamphlets we were shown seemed to fit into three types:

There were those that accepted the role assigned to women in the past, the domestic science books, the recipe books, the ones advising women married to colonial workers in India how to manage their staff. There were some lovely cookery books, the older ones had fairly random capital letters, because they had been printed before their usage was standardised. I was allowed to photograph pre-copyright books, so I hope you can see this one. They wrote ’s’ as ‘f’. Until 1845, they didn’t make a list of ingredients in recipes, as they weren’t expected to be followed like they are today – they were for women to read and learn.

Then there were the books protesting the roles designated to women. The literature by the suffragettes, the books ridiculing the sexist books by men, the play refuting that women should be degraded. There was a lot of this defensive literature, encouraging women to rebel and defend themselves. Some of it was about the right to control fertility – and one had a photograph of a poor woman who had eleven children, all alive. She looked tired.

Finally, there were the books, written by women, that simply broke the mould. These were brilliant. The Woman and the Car by Dorothy Levitt (1902) was one of these. She was the first British female racing driver. Her photograph showed a wealthy, attractive woman, and her book showed she would have been lots of fun. We weren’t allowed to touch the books, which was a shame, as I would’ve loved to read this one. It was open on a page that began: “If you are going to drive alone in the highways and byways it might be advisable to carry a small revolver”. There was a picture, showing a secret drawer under her seat, where the revolver could be hidden. She also wrote, “If you are driving alone, a dog is great company.” It was thanks to Dorothy that cars now have rear-view mirrors, as she advised women drivers to keep a hand mirror next to them, so they could see what was behind them without having to turn round.

It was an interesting lecture, followed by interesting chat. We were all women, so we (of course) started to discuss how women are treated in society today. In many ways, we are now considered to be equal with men. Yet Joanna Rowling was still advised to use her initials rather than her name when publishing Harry Potter, because some men/boys do not read books by women. There are still echoes of sexism in modern society – and of course, in some cultures, not much has changed and women are still basically ‘owned’, with very few rights. However, someone mentioned an art exhibition, which only exhibited women’s work. For me, this is too much. I am a woman, but I would want my work exhibited because it was good enough, not because I was woman. I know that companies now must consider the balance of their employees. Again, I would want to be employed because I was the best candidate, not because I was a woman, or foreign, or a certain religion. I’m not sure society has the balance quite right yet….


Thank you for reading.