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A Reader Responds: Mark F on “Women as Property”

Comment threads are designed as spaces for brief, pertinent responses to posts. MarkF’s response to a post yesterday was clearly pertinient, but far too long for a comment. I have transferred the full comment here (excluding a single sentence which was more personal than pertinent).  If any reader would care to engage with Mark’s thinking here,  please do so

In response to the post “Women as Property“,  Mark F wrote:

“The point is that adultery here was seen primarily as a sin against property.”

You left out the part where you explain HOW what Job says refers to property. What actually is in the text is that Job is confessing his sins. He conditionally admits to adultery (he says “if”). He then says that if he has committed his adultery, let his wife leave him and go with another man. No mention of property. No mention of buying or selling her. Doesn’t property involve the exchange of money? Does Job buy and sell is wife here?

That quote bears looking into. The text reads, “If I ever lost my heart to any woman, or lurked at my neighbor’s door, let my wife grind corn that is not mine, let her sleep between another’s sheets..” (Jerusalem Bible, 1966 ed., translated by J. R. R. Tolkein) In the RSV it reads, “…then let my wife grind for another, and let others bow down upon her.” The same language is found in the KJV, NKJV, English Standard Version, and New American among others. The literal translation (Young’s Literal Translation) refers to her grinding (grain) for “another” (singular, not plural) and “over her, let others bend.”

What I see here is that Job is wishing upon himself a just punishment for himself if he has committed adultery. Job is wishing that if he has committed adultery, then let him lose his wife to another man for his sin and let her be respected by others. (let others bow down upon her)

You said, “The adulterer’s wife is so far from being the victim, it is she that must pay the price, by offering sexual services to other men (note the plural)” In order to get to that interpretation you’d have to read all that “bowing” down as sexual services being performed on her. Now, this is not an isolated interpretation of this verse. The New International Version says, “and may other men sleep with her.” The Douay Reims has something similar. This is where Young’s Literal Translation comes in handy. It’s not a translation that is meant to be read. It’s a reference translation to show the original language. The original language refers to her grinding for another (singular) Most translations (KJV, NKJV, ESV, New American, RSV, Jerusalem Bible, etc.) construe that to mean that she’s to grind grain or corn for another man, meant as a metaphor for her being married to another man. However the bowing that is done over her is done by a plural. So what’s all this bowing down over her? I did a search through the whole Bible for the word “bow” and it is NEVER used as a metaphor for sex, only for respect, “and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land, to bow down to them” (Lev. 26:1) In order for us to conclude, as you do, that this woman will be the partner of MULTIPLE sexual partners, you’d have to have the word “bow to” equal sex, a way that it is not used in any other part of the Bible.
No, Job is not wishing that his wife become a whore if he has committed adultery. He is wishing that he accept a just punishment for his actions by losing her to another man, and by having others pay respect to her, presumably for having put up with him for so long.

But what does the interpretation of this verse really have to do with the issue of women being legal property in the Bible? I’d say nothing really, no matter how the verse is read. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Job did in fact wish that his wife becomes a whore for his sins. That may show that Job is a spiteful guy. It may show that Job was a pretty kinky guy. But it doesn’t show that women in general were considered to be property. If this interpretation is correct, which I don’t believe it is, then Job is just wishing revenge on someone else. He’s not forcing her to become a whore. He’s wishing that she become a whore, a big difference. To wish revenge on someone else is not the same thing as owning them. I can wish revenge on anyone, but that does not establish that I own them. I’m going to leave it up to you to show how to wish for revenge on someone (which Job did not do here anyway) is to show legal property ownership over them.

Secondly, is Job speaking here as a person, or is he speaking for God, through the spirit? Job was a holy man but he’s not the author of Jewish law, nor is he Moses who was the medium through which the Law came to man. In other words, Job can be wrong. Personally I believe that Job’s sentiments here are very righteous, but even if they were not, that is not the same thing as saying that God ordained women to be property, or even that women were treated as legal property in ancient Israel.

But even all of this is a side issue. I don’t think you’ve even come close to showing that women were considered to be legal property in the Bible. In fact I don’t think you’ve even tried to show that. What you’ve done, and done successfully, is to show that William Countryman thinks that women are considered to be legal property in the Bible. Those are two different things. I’m sure his book says this. I’d say that you’ve proven that. But to say that an author thinks something is not the same as showing that what he says is true. The largest part of what you wrote is merely quoting other authors, with no proof or support for WHY they say all this:

“(adultery) was a crime against sexual property.”

“a man must not infringe on the sexual property of his father”

“a man must not infringe on the sexual property of his sons”

““Married women were considered as, roughly speaking, the property of their husbands.”

Yeah. We get the point. But saying something, even saying something over and over again is not the same thing as proving it. All that that does is to prove that someone else said something. The trouble with this is that after a while, something becomes accepted and repeated that has not been proved. This is what is happening here.

(There’s also the whopper of a statement saying “The adulterer’s own marital status was irrelevant, he was not under any obligation of sexual fidelity to his wife.” Um…any proof of that one? But this is a side issue.)

What’s wrong with all of this from what I can see is that it starts with a conclusion and then looks for evidence for it, all of it without looking at the Law of Israel. You cite this Countryman character, but not the Bible.

But…you do start with something that is very true, though I think you missed its significance.

“In the modern view, a man’s adultery is a sin against his wife. In the Jewish view, the sin is against his partner’s husband .” You’re right that the modern view is not the same thing as the view in the Bible. But then you go to place a modern understanding upon something that is, thankfully, not modern. Let’s start with what the Bible says. And yes, we have to start with Genesis because without an understanding of Genesis, the rest that follows will not make sense.

In Genesis 2:24 it says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Hmmm…the man CLEAVES to his wife. He does not own her, he cleaves to her. He freely joins with her. And they “become one flesh.” He does not own her. She does not own him. They have become one. This is what God intended for us. And it is always back to the Garden that we are heading, through Christ. But after the fall, everything changed. In fact, the relationship between the sexes even explicitly changed. God said to Eve about Adam, “and he shall rule over you.” Now to our modern ears, that sounds strange. Some may still live by that injunction, others may reject it. But we can’t make it say what it does not say. The word in Genesis is rule, not own. Like it or not, reject the concept of man ruling woman or not, it does not say that a man owned his wife. We are ruled by our government even today. We can be locked in jail by the government, but we can’t say that the government owns us.

Mankind lived for a long time between Adam and Eve and the time of Moses, certainly many hundreds of years. It was at least several hundred years between the time of Abraham and Moses. All this while, man lived with no Law from God, yet right was still right, wrong was still wrong. The story of salvation is the story of God drawing closer and closer to man, and that process is continuing to this day. But mankind, in the form of God’s chosen people of Israel proved to be very unfaithful. Even after God had delivered Israel from Egypt, and after they had seen countless great miracles, the people of Israel continued to turn away from them. So God gave them the Law, something so detailed and so specific that it regulated their whole lives. It was given to Israel so that all mankind would be saved because without Israel, Jesus would not have been born.

So the Law concerning the family was to make sure that the family continued and that Israel would not die out. But the Law also reflected a glimmer of God’s original intent for mankind as seen in the Garden. So in the Mosaic Law we see signs of a man ruling his wife and signs also of a man being made one with his wife. In Leviticus 18:8 we have, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.” There follows a whole series of sanctions on sexual behavior, all relating to the “uncovering” of the nakedness of someone else. And the reason given for not doing this is that it uncovers the nakedness of that person, i.e., “it is your father’s nakedness.” So we have Lev 18:16, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; she is your brother’s nakedness.” I trust that we’re all reading this as referring to sexual relations in the sense that “uncovering the nakedness” refers to sexual acts and not just to simply taking the clothes off of the person without any sexual acts. To “uncover someone’s nakedness” means to have sex with them.

Now, I suppose that it is from Leviticus where you get the idea that “man must not infringe on the sexual property of his father, or other males who rank above him, or on the same level as him in the family hierarchy.”

But is that what Leviticus says? Is it property that is mentioned here? No, Leviticus says that when a man has relations with his father’s wife, that he uncovers the nakedness of his own father. Now what can that mean? If the phrase “to uncover someone’s nakedness” means to have sex with them, as is the only reasonable interpretation, then the passage means that if you have sex with your father’s wife, then in essence you’ve had sex with your own father. Sound strange to our ears? Probably. But that is what Leviticus says. Where do you get the idea that property is involved here, when Leviticus is clearly speaking not in terms of property, but in terms of the sexual union. If Leviticus had wanted to say that the reason why sleeping with your father’s wife was that she was the property of your father, then it would say that. It doesn’t. It gives the reason as something very different, that to do so is the equivalent of having sex with your own father.

But why is this so? Go back to Genesis, “and they become one flesh.” This isn’t just a metaphor. It isn’t a just nice sentiment. It’s meant at a deep spiritual level, and in a profound sense it prefigures the heavenly marriage between Christ and his Church. It is reaffirmed in the New Testament by St. Paul when he tells us why sexual sins are so much more serious than other sins. 1 Cor 6:16-18, “Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh. But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body.”

Not only is the assertion that the sanctions on adultery were based on rules of property NOT proven, I’ve shown here that the real reasons were not physical at all, but spiritual. Again, you can disagree with the reasoning that is given in the Bible, but you’re not free to say that it doesn’t say it. Adultery is prohibited because it violates the sacred union of man and woman. “The two shall become one.” Not, “one owns the other.”

A small point. You said, “When the Hebrew uses the possessive pronoun, ‘his’ wife, it can be taken quite literally.” Well…maybe not. The bible also consistently uses the term “her husband” too. If by saying “his wife” it shows property ownership, then what does it mean when it also says “her husband?” (Gen 3:6, 16:3, 30:15, Lev 21:7, Num 30:14, Deut 25:5, 25:11, etc.)

A bigger point lies in the confusion between the concepts of ruling versus ownership. Wives were ruled by their husbands in the OT. But they were not owned by them. Ownership applies to property, which you can buy and sell. Rulership implies control over something, but does not include the ability to buy and sell. You quote Gareth Moore as saying, “A man may repudiate his wife, just as a he may dispose of his property. But there is no provision for a woman to repudiate her husband: property cannot free itself from its owner.” Well, no. A man could divorce his wife. But he couldn’t SELL her for money. Another big difference. True, a woman could not divorce her husband, but not because he owned her, but because he ruled her. But it seems that women could LEAVE their husbands. “Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 3:20)

This may seem like a small distinction, but I’ll say it again. Right now we are ruled by our government. But we are not owned by the government. There is a difference.

The Pentateuch gives the basic rules governing survival issues, issues of the life and death of Israel. But it does not tell husbands how to treat their wives, nor does it tell wives how to treat her husband. The Pentateuch is solely concerned with the survival of Israel, so it gives laws relating to the worship of God, cleanliness and sexual rules that ensure the survival of Israel. The Law was made at a time of crisis.

The Wisdom books give us more guidance for how men and women should treat each other. As befitting the later books, they show God moving closer and closer to man, and are not concerned with mere survival like the Pentateuch.

Proverbs 5:18-20, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely hind, a graceful doe. Let her affection fill you at all times with delight, be infatuated always with her love. Why should you be infatuated, my son, with a loose woman and embrace the bosom of an adventuress?”

Proverbs 6:32-33, “He who commits adultery has no sense; he who does it destroys himself. Wounds and dishonor will he get, and his disgrace will not be wiped away.” (Not, “If you commit adultery, your wife will be punished” as you said.)

Proverbs 18:32, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the LORD.”

Proverbs 19:14, “House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD.”

You said, “I have laboured this point because it is of fundamental importance. It underlies not only the outdated Catholic understanding of gender and sexuality, it also goes to the heart of the destructive patriarchal structure of the institutional church.”

Yes, it is important, but what you’ve done is to quote other authors second hand, who themselves don’t quote from the Bible itself. What’s more interesting to me is why are you doing this? For you’re not saying as many people do that the Bible has been misinterpreted here. You’re not saying that that Bible has been twisted to make it seem like women are the property of man. You’re saying that the Bible TEACHES that women are the property of man. You’re saying that the Bible teaches something horrible. This is very different from saying that it has been interpreted wrong. Am I wrong to assume that you call yourself a Christian? If so, then what happens to Jesus if this is true about the OT? Because unless I’m wrong, Jesus didn’t slam the OT for being so horrible to women. I can’t find a quote of Jesus that ever criticizes the Law because it places women as property. He may criticize the behavior of the Jews, but he never criticizes the Law itself. In fact he says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-19, see also Luke 16:17)

So then I have to ask, since Jesus did not criticize the Law as you are doing here, what does that do to the status of Jesus? Was it an oversight of Jesus that he didn’t notice how horrible the Law is towards women? Who is wrong here? And if Jesus is wrong, then why be a Christian at all?

3 Responses

  1. This is an intriguing discussion. I think I’d be interested in the Hebrew words implying property and also the ones regarding bowing and grinding. This is beyond my expertise, however.

  2. Also, Mark, I think I’d really like to read your blog if you had one.

  3. Thanks for taking some time in order to post
    “A Reader Responds: Mark F on Women as Property The Open Tabernacle:
    Here Comes Everybody”. Thanks again ,Randy

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