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Women as Property: The Biblical View

My recent post “Here Comes Everybody” drew a query in the comments thread from a prolific commenter, Mark, who asked for some substantiation of my statement that in the Biblical world, women were seen as property. Responding, I assured Mark that I had a post in preparation in which I would provide this. That post has now been completed in draft, but given the importance of this topic, I thought it would be helpful to discuss it first in its own, dedicated piece.

Even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible should make clear the appallingly low status of Hebrew women, and their complete dependence on their men folk. It is this very dependence that makes the story of Ruth and Naomi important:  deprived of family and male support, they sustain each other, until at last they can re-establish economic security- by working together to arrange Ruth’s re-marriage.

Ruth and Naomi: William Blake

But to more fully appreciate the extent of women’s subservience, we need the help of writers who have looked more closely at the texts, and reflected on them to show us their significance.  William L. Countryman is just one of many who have done this, but his book “Dirt, Greed and Sex”, with a full chapter on women and children as property in the Hebrew Bible, is the one I have at hand, and the one I have drawn on for what follows.

Job

The story of Job is one of many that illustrate the position.  In Job 31, he runs through a long list of (hypothetical) sins he might commit, and suggests possible punishments or penances he might have to endure for them.  Of adultery, he says:

“If my heart has been enticed by a woman, and I have lain in wait at my neighbour’s door, let my wife grind for another and other men kneel over her.”

Isn’t this astonishing? 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 – only.  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). How do we explain this? The point is that adultery here was seen primarily as a sin against property. It was essential that any children born to a man’s wife should be known to be his own.

“It (adultery) constitutes a theft of her husband’s right to legitimate offspring.”

This, it  was a crime against sexual property. Indeed, adultery was only defined in terms of sexual intercourse with another man’s wife. The adulterer’s own marital status was irrelevant, he was not under any obligation of sexual fidelity to his wife. If he had intercourse with an unmarried woman, especially a virgin, that was an offence against the woman’s family (because it reduced her value to them in the marriage stakes) – but was not classed as adultery.

This explains Job’s response. Adultery with another man’s wife was not only an offence against his property, it also reduced its value and brought shame on him. By yielding his own wife to the sexual use of other men, he was likewise bringing shame on himself and reducing her “value”. He was, quite literally, “paying the price” for his adultery.

Incest

Surprising as it seems to us, even incest was conceived as a crime against sexual property. The incest laws are complicated, so I give here just Countryman’s summary:

  • First, a 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.
  • Second, a man must not infringe on the sexual property of his sons  and daughters (i.e. the sons’  wives and daughters, and the daughters of his sons-in-law  – his daughters’ husbands.)
  • Third, a women must not put two women in a position that would force them to to violate the hierarchy prevailing among female relatives.

Women and Property

Throughout the books of the law, and even in the Ten Commandments , instructions against adultery, or even lusting after women, are routinely placed alongside instructions against theft or greed for material property. Even the Hebrew language (as with Greek) shows the pattern.  There is only one word to do duty for “woman” and for “wife”. When the Hebrew uses the possessive pronoun, “his” wife, it can be taken quite literally. Now all wives were in a sense their husband’s property:  but for some wives, this was true quite literally.

Remember that a Jewish man could (and often did) include in his household several “wives” (by which is meant that dowries had been paid for them), concubines (whose families could not afford dowries) and also female slaves. In a discussion on the treatment of slaves, Exodus

“makes the assumption that she was originally purchased as a wife, for either her master or his son.”

Another writer who describes women as sexual property in the Hebrew bible is the Domincan theologian Gareth Moore – although more briefly. He says quite bluntly,

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

“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.”

“In general, it was th role of the man to be active, to lead, to command, to possess, and of women to be passive…. to be possessed.”

“If a man sexually penetrated a woman, that meant that he subordinated her to himself, that he took possession. sexual penetration was a symbolic taking and giving of possession.”


Christian Writers

That is the Old Testament. What of the New? Countryman quotes Tertullian, writing in the late second or early third century.  In the context of the early Christian ideal of holding all property in common, he wrote:

“All things are without distinction [of ownership] amongst us, except wives.”

There you are. Although women are a class apart from other forms of property, they are still discussed and viewed as property.  They also are quite clearly not seen as included among “us” (not unless Tertullian thinks they too had wives, which seems unlikely).

Countryman concludes his chapter:

“The picture that the Torah offers of the place of women in the family seems to have been generally stable over a long time, into and part of the New Testament era.  There were changes of course, in detail,….. Wives, however continued to be a particular class of property, whose function was to produce heirs and help administer the husband’s household.”

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.

In this post, I have depended on Countryman, but this is not an idiosyncratic view. I shall return to the theme repeatedly over the moths ahead, and will later draw in other reliable sources for the argument.

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5 Responses

  1. Wow! Go out for the track team. You’re good at jumping high hurdles.

    Mark’s response here is far too long for a comments thread. However, he has obviously spent a lot of energy in attempting a reasoned and pertinent reply, so I have transferred his entire comment (less one sentence) to a “Reader Responds” guest post. Follow the link to read it. This part I will respond to here:

    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? If the Bible is so horrible, as you clearly believe it to be, then why be a Christian at all? 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.

    • Mark:
      I’m not going to attempt to go into your full comments, as you have clearly misunderstood the entire post. I am impressed though, and flattered, that you have taken the trouble to go into so much analysis in response.
      What I will respond to is two points:

      * I’ve quoted at second hand, because you specifically asked me where I got my information in the first place. And Countryma, like Nissinen, Moore, McNeill and various others who have covered this, most certainly do quote biblical chapter and verse, as well as the original languages, and also their own sources for details of interpretation. If you ant those, read teh books,as I have done.

      * I most certainly do not “hate” the bible, as you suggest. What I hate is the sloppy misuse and inappropriate misinterpretation of waht the Bible actually says, in complete contradiciton of the Church’s own guidelines for the misinterpretation of Scripture. My intention is not to deny or denigrate the Bible, but to improve our understanding of it. You may disagree with myy achievement, but not with my intention.

      * I’m not saying that the Bible “teaches”£ women are treated as property. I am showing that that is an unstated assumption of society in Biblical times.

      * The point here is that it is completely inappropriate to try to interpret Scripture, particularly the Old testament, from modern understanding of social structures. We need to understand that societies were different then, as most obviously by the established practice of slavery, but also in their understanding of gender, of sex, of family, and of society itself.this is not my view – it is the clear teaching of the Pontifical Bible Commission, which insists that understanding the social and historical context is important (See (“Scripture and Catholic Tradition“). All I’m trying to do, is to offer some of that context.

  2. That women are the property of men — first their fathers, and later their husbands — is never explicitly stated in the Bible, but many biblical texts presuppose it.

    Lot offering his virgin daughters to the rape gang in Sodom (Gen 19.8) strikes me as one particularly obvious example.

    Consider also that a man’s wife is listed among his other possesions in the Decalogue (Ex 20.17).

    Then there’s this:

    “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife.” (Deut 22.28-29)

  3. Well done. As a student of theology and child of a right-wing minister, I have wrestled and debated this topic more than any other. People seem to be unbendable on the idea of extramarital sex. Even though many, if not most disregard their own ideas when they are tempted.

    And while you are 100% correct on the issue of property, one point you failed to point out ( possibly on purpose to avoid the negative comments ) is the act of sharing property. Whether in a so called open marriage, or in a free marriage. Where both husband and wife hold no animosity towards the idea of extramarital sex.

    The “sin” in adultery is either stealing another’s property. leaving him with a child to raise and split inheritance with that is not actually his. Or the simple lie of denying the fact that you did it. these are the sins of adultery.

    The sex act itself is not the sin. And to say that the act is the sin not only deny’s what Christ said about it. It also confuses the point of why it was a law in the first place.

    If we were all open, honest and free of jealousy there would be no need for an explanation of the spirit of the law of adultery.

    • There are many other issues I did not go into: there is simply a limit to how much one can cover in a single post, especially when so many people are wedded unquestioningly to the so-called 2traditional views they have been brought up with. A further consideration that is overlooked, is that the biblical view on pre-marital sex (for women: there was no such prohibition for men) was that in a time when pregnancy outside of marriage was not only scandalous, but would leave the woman unmarriagable, and thus dependent on her parents for material support; when there were no reliable methods of contraception available; and when women were in any case married off young, there were very sound reasons for taking every precaution to guard against early pregnancies.

      Today, people are marrying at much later ages, (and reaching maturity much younger) than in Biblical times; pregnancy can be more reliably prevented; totally changed social conditions mean that an unplanned pregnancy is no longer the disaster that it once was. The bible was not written all at once, in a sitting. It evolved over thousands of years, adapting to changing times and circumstances. Yet Catholics are stuck with sexual theology that has barely budged over the thousand odd years since Aquinas – and is still written primarily by men who necessarily have no practical knowledge or undersanding of the amtter (or none they can admit to).

      Pope Benedict has repeatedly reminded us that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to us in our own day. So she does. One of the ways we can hear and understand what the Spirit is saying, is by prayerful, shared reflection on experience. As the theologians in the clergy canhave no meaningful experience here to reflect on, it is crucially important that teh rest of us do so. In this, frank and honest sharing of our own prayerful reflection onexperiences is essential if our theology of sex is to ahve any connection to reality – which at present it does not.

      Speaking for myself, I started out when a young man committed to the principle of at least aiming to comply with all the church’s official teaching. The experience in my own life led me one by one to reject many of the regulations as inappropriate, not founded in scripture, and no longer justified. The restriction on extra-marital sex is one I have not rejected for myself, but accept that others may disagree. Certainly, there are some respected academic theologians who point to Christ’s injunction to leave our families as a justification for forming open networks of erotic relationships instead. I do not go that far myself, but do believe that there is a need for sincere, reasoned discussion which goes beyond just parroting the traditional rules.

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