Recently I’ve heard a new reason that people reject the Bible: it commands the stoning of women. Stoning was an ancient punishment involving what its name implies: throwing rocks at a person until they died. The assumption behind the objection is that females were subject to barbaric punishment but males either received a far more lenient sentence or are not punished at all. It’s a form of gender apartheid [1].

One girl said she didn’t want to live in a society based on Judeo-Christian ethics because she didn’t want to be stoned. She is a university lecturer so, even though this is in sociology, so she should have seen her error in logic: the ethic doesn’t determine the punishment. That is, an ethical statement, such as “Theft is wrong”, doesn’t tell us how to punish the thief. We could tell them not to do it again, give them a suspended sentence, fine them – as was the case in the Old Testament! – imprison them, or administer corporal punishment, from six of the best with a cane to cutting off their hands.

The Mosaic Law prescribes death by stoning for eight offences:
1. child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:1);
2. being a medium, spiritist or necromancer (Leviticus 20:27);
3. blaspheming God (Leviticus 24:13-16);
4. one who tries to entice others to worship gods other than Yahweh (Deuteronomy 13:6-11);
5. a constantly rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21);
6. a newly married bride whose groom finds that she isn’t a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13-20);
7. a person, of either sex, who has sex with anyone they are not married to (Deuteronomy 22:20-27). The one exception to this seems to be if the woman was single: in which case the man has to marry her even if he is already married. (There does not appear to be a limit on how many wives a man could have; although the implication of Genesis 2:18-24 is that the original intention of marriage was to be one man and one woman. The first bigamist named in the Bible is Lamech, the great-great-great-grandson of Cain). “Marriage” applies only to a heterosexual relationship. It also includes being engaged; and
8. anyone, even an animal, who climbed on Mount Sinai when God manifested Himself there (Exodus 19:12-13); although the offender might also have been shot with arrows.

There were other reasons one could be put to death, such as murder (Exodus 21:12), attacking or cursing your parents (Exodus 21:14; Leviticus 20:9), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Leviticus 20:15-16), and any sexual activity that was not between a man and woman married to one another. The exception to this last was that a man should not marry both a woman and her mother or daughter (Leviticus 20:15).

Generally, the Mosaic law set a higher worth on people than did the Sumerian Code of Hammurabi [2]. The worth of the person offended, or of the thing damaged, is what determines the severity of punishment, which is why the Mosaic Code prescribed comparatively harsher penalties for offences against people. For example, if a man struck his father or mother, the Code of Hammurabi stated that the man’s hand should be cut off. The Mosaic code stipulated death.

The Bible treats men and women as having equal worth to God. Both are subject to the same ethics, although there were also laws particular to the man or the woman because of their biology. For example, if a man suspected his wife of adultery, he could have her undergo a trial by ordeal (drinking water with dust and ink in it: Numbers 5:11-31). There was no similar provision for the wife. On the other hand, if a man slandered his wife she or her parents could seek redress from him. There was no similar provision for the husband; however, if a man was found to have had sex with a single girl he had to marry her, unless the parents (although the father had the final decision) rejected him. In that case, the man would still have to pay the girl’s parents the dowry (Deuteronomy 22:16-17).

These discrepancies seem odd, unfair, even misogynistic, to the 21st century middle class Western mind. The punishments were related to the function of the person in society: to the woman as the bearer of children, to the man as the labourer. Certainly the woman could not divorce the man. This was in a time and society where almost all labour was manual and heavy. Most people stood up to work and did so in physically demanding conditions. Fathers taught their sons their trade, so men had skill in only one area, while a woman taught her daughter the various skills necessary to run a household.

This doesn’t mean that women were not allowed to work outside the house: there are many instances in the Bible where women worked in fields and vineyards, usually gleaning, which was less physically exhausting that harvesting with a scythe. Even so, the people of ancient times would generally be more fit than we are.

Role division does not mean that men and women are unequal. Right at the start of the Bible, we read that both men and women are made in the image of God, and that both have a purpose and role in society. Different roles do not mean different worth: a business must have people to do all the various tasks necessary. One person must take oversight of the whole organisation but if they do not have the time to do everything, there must also be the people who make and deliver the products, and others who work with the finances. But while the roles and pay differ, the person on the factory floor is of no less worth, as a human being, that the person in the boardroom. Same worth, different roles. Equality does not mean we must be clones: we can have unity without uniformity.

Gender differences do not mean that roles cannot change; that men must always work and women must always stay home to bring up the children. In every relationship each person has their strengths and weaknesses. The couple can decide for themselves what roles they will take in their relationship.

How men and women act in and view relationships is, generally speaking, different. (Read Why men don’t listen and women can’t read road maps, or Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.) Naturally no one thinks the same as anyone else; nevertheless, men see a problem as a thing to be fixed but women see the problem more as a way to reaffirm relationships, through communication, with people they love. There tend to be differences in how men and women relate to children: women tend to speak at the child’s level and provide a sheltering, comforting environment but men tend to speak above the child’s level and to expose them to more physical risk, like throwing the child in the air and catching them, or wrestling with them. Both types of behaviour – nurturing and challenging – are necessary for a healthy emotional life.

Differences between roles do not mean men are superior to women or vice versa. It’s like yin and yang – complementary opposites; both husband and wife create a synergy, becoming better people as a couple than would be alone.

This does not mean that if you’re single you’re not a whole, fully rounded or emotionally healthy person; nevertheless, being in a relationship brings a fuller, greater wholeness: the good times are better for being shared; the bad times are darker, especially if one or the other is suffering. But if the bad times are shared, they can also be less dark. As the saying goes, Don’t grieve because it’s over; smile because it happened. People in a relationship grow beyond what they could by themselves: living with another person means we have to live with their strengths and weaknesses, and they with ours. We adapt and change in a way that we don’t when we’re single, not even if we’re sharing a house with other people.

But this above is about men and women in relationships. We’re also, primarily even, considering men and women as two groups divided by gender. Consider the digression added value. Let’s keep going with gender relations in the Bible.

One of the classic events in the New Testament is the story of the woman caught in adultery. I suggest you read it (The Gospel according to John, chapter 8). It was obvious that the woman’s accusers made use of the situation to trap Jesus: to be caught in adultery there must have been two people, so where was the man? The implication is that they let him get away.

Jesus answer to the prosecutors – “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” – does not mean that we suspend moral judgement because we are all sinners. People use this verse to turn aside criticism of their behaviour. But if that interpretation were true we could not have laws, police, judiciary or prisons. Society would be ruled by the power of the sword. It’s the same use people make of “Do not judge, or you will be judged” (Luke 6:37) but continue with the next verse: “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Does this mean that if we want to escape conviction, we say nothing is wrong? Of course not. It’s about our attitude to people: read the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18.

Those who think that the stories about Jesus were mere inventions should note this next point: women were first to see Jesus after his resurrection. I understand that, according to Jewish legal practice at the time, a woman’s testimony was not legally valid; neither was a shepherd’s or a tax collector’s. If people invented the Gospel of Jesus, they certainly would not have had women be the first to see Jesus resurrected, as well as see the angels at the tomb.

Another well known event in Jesus’ life was his meeting with a Samaritan woman at midday. Generally, Jews despised Samaritans as hybrids, both by birth and religion; and the contempt was mutual. The woman had been married five times and currently had de facto living arrangements. She would have been considered, shall we say, as not the ideal girl to bring home to meet your parents. This explains why she was at the well during the hottest part of the day: to avoid the other villagers. Given this context, not to mention that it wasn’t done for a man to speak to a woman in public if he was not related to her, Jesus serves her by talking to her and asking her for a favour: a drink of water. A Jewish man – a rabbi no less – speaking to a Samaritan woman with many failed relationships transgressed at least three social taboos.

Usually, when women are mentioned in the Gospels, they are portrayed as having strong faith and as being faithful to Jesus. Luke records that all those who knew Jesus watched his crucifixion from a distance (23:49), including the women; but Matthew and Mark record that only the women were there (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41).

Now to move from Jesus and the Gospels to the letters of the man some people credit with creating the Church. A frequent accusation against Paul the apostle is that he was a misogynist. This is based upon certain of his statements such as, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a women to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Tim. 2:11-12) [3]. Scholars differ on how far this teaching applies: just to the church on Crete, to all first century Christian gatherings, or to the church through all places and ages. It would be interesting to know how many people who think that Paul was a women-hater also believe that such of his statements are limited to his cultural context, and so should not be applied universally. If these statements are so limited, how can we tar Paul as a misogynist? We do so by applying our 21st century Western bourgeoisie standards to first century Mediterranean society [4]. We must measure Paul by the standards of his time, place, culture and society, not by ours. What else about first century Mediterranean culture would we consider barbaric or misanthropic? For example, death matches were real life, not computer games; and this was considered sport. If you were imprisoned, the gaolers would not take care of you. It was up to your family and friends to provide your food and clothing. There was also that minor social issue called slavery.

As it is today, the family was the basic unit of society. The head of the household wielded the patria potestas. He literally had the power of life and death over everyone in his household – wife, children, servants, slaves and animals – but he was also held responsible for everything they did. He could sell his children into slavery and if they later bought their freedom, he could sell them again. The head of the household determined the fate of a newborn child: if the father picked the baby up, the child was taken in. If he didn’t, child was taken outside and exposed to the elements to die. In this environment, submission to the head of the household was a matter of fact rather than of choice.

It is this context we are to read another of Paul’s currently contentious statements: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). Read the immediate literary context: verses 5:21-6:9. Verse 21 says we are all to submit to one another; that is, we are to serve each other’s needs, not satisfy our own self-centred wants. But as with all human organisations and institutions, there is to be a social order in the family.

Obedience is required of children and of slaves; those who are dependent on others for the necessities of life. In contrast, submission can only be required of those who are equals. Whenever there is more than one person involved in anything, there will eventually be arguments about what is best for the family or the business. If the couple cannot agree then, in order to break the stalemate, one person must decide. The wife is to allow the husband to make the final decision if they cannot agree on what is best for the family, but she should not submit to him if he wants something that goes against what the Bible says. This includes abuse of any kind.

This does not mean the husband can demand the wife’s submission. Like love, submission cannot be demanded or forced. A person must choose to submit to another. This idea of the wife submitting to her husband is a reversal of what happened in the Garden of Eden: Adam shirked his responsibility, stayed silent and allowed Eve to be seduced by the serpent. (This is why the Bible blames Adam, not Eve, for the Fall: Eve was deceived; Adam was not but he let Eve do what she wanted, and didn’t protect her from the serpent’s deceit.) God’s judgement on the woman was “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Rather than sexual, the woman’s desire will be to take responsibility for the family when her husband neglects it. When he senses this he might take it back but not necessarily in a good way nor for a good purpose; rather, only to assert that he is in control. For more on this, see the relevant article on this blog in the “Biblical Misconceptions” series.

The wife is told to submit to her husband; not all women to submit to all men. The reason for this is Jesus holds the husband responsible for his family’s welfare. Look again at Ephesians: the text directed to the husband is three times as long as that directed to the wife. Moreover, what is commanded of the wife is what they were expected to do anyway. It is what is commanded of the husband that would have startled Paul’s audience – love your wife, give your life up for her (not to her) just as Christ gave himself up for us all. Crush your own desires and live for the good of your family. In a time when men had “mistresses for our enjoyment, concubines to serve our person, and wives for the bearing of legitimate offspring” (Demosthenes), Paul’s commands would not be welcome to men brought up in the contemporary Graeco-Roman culture.

Graeco-Roman society wasn’t dominated entirely by men though. Six of the most powerful women in Roman society were the priestesses of Vesta: they could free a condemned prisoner or alternatively have a person condemned. Women also ran businesses: Luke writes about Lydia from Thyatira, as a seller of purple cloth. Genuine purple dye was a luxury article, being expensive to acquire.

As to Paul’s views about women not teaching, Paul ranked them as his fellow servants of Christ and greeted them by name in his letters. Priscilla and Aquila were a husband and wife ministry team. They are mentioned six times in the New Testament and five times Priscilla is mentioned first (Acts 18:18-19, 26 – written by Luke; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19 – written by Paul) and Aquila is mentioned first only once (1 Corinthians 16:19 – written by Paul).

Other women Paul greets as fellow workers are Phoebe, Mary, Junias, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, Nereus’ sister, Euodia, Syntyche, Nympha, and Claudia.

As for other books in the Bible… Two books in the Old Testament are named after women (Ruth and Esther). Jewish genealogies were patriarchal; that is, tracing descent through the father, but Matthew records five women in Jesus’ genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (although she isn’t mentioned by name) and Mary. Three of these women were outstanding for their faith, especially as Rahab and Ruth were not Israelites by birth, and Tamar is called righteous (Genesis 36:28). Women won crucial battles (Judges 4:17-22; 9:52-55), led Israel and its warriors (Judges 4:4-10).

Compare this with The DaVinci Code. There is a review on this blog called “The DaVinci Code: for the honour of women.” From my perspective, perhaps a cynical one, The DaVinci Code seems to imply that a woman’s value lies in her service to the man, in which the preeminent religious function women served was to enable men to experience the divine realm through sex, specifically at orgasm. There are several issues this raises but for our purposes it seems to me another form of objectification: women are ostensibly honoured as conduits for men to experience the divine.

Contrast this with the Bible, where all people, no matter their gender or religion or race, are made in God’s image. That is where our fundamental value lies; although I find it difficult to find my value in who I am, not in what I do. But that’s for another article.

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Addendum

1.
LEV 20:1 – The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him.’”

2.
LEV 20:27 – “A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads.”

3.
LEV 24:13-16 – Then the LORD said to Moses: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. Say to the Israelites: ‘If anyone curses his God, he will be held responsible; anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.’”

4.
DT 13:6-11 – “If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’ (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.”

5.
DT 21:18-21 – “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”

6.
DT 22:20-27 – If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you. If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.

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Endnotes

[1] Where there are groups of people there will always be some form of division. All people want to feel both accepted and important, and the easiest way to achieve this is to find a person or group different to us, and make that difference the reason they are inferior to us. Experiments have been conducted in which the only difference between two homogeneous groups was what they were named, yet inter-group rivalry arose instantly. Any difference, no matter how superficial or contrived, can generate a separation mentality: social activity, hobby, ability, education, hair style, social status, eye colour et cetera.

[2] The Code of Hammurabi was written about BC 1800; 300 or possibly 500 years earlier than the Mosaic.

[3] 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 also speaks of women not speaking in the gathering of the Church. The reason Paul gives is not the creation order and Eve’s deception as in 2 Timothy, but the Mosaic Law. The context of the statement is how the Corinthian Christians should behave in their gatherings (read verses 33). Verse 40 is the key to the interpretation of this section: ”Everything is to be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

[4] Moreover, if social, cultural and moral standards vary with time and culture, how can we be certain that we have our knowledge is right? We don’t know everything about human biology, neurology and psychology yet so it would be arrogant to claim our standards are the right ones. If we have got it right, why do fifty per cent of marriages and long-term de facto relationships break up? Going one epistemological step deeper, on what basis do we decide what’s right and wrong?

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