Women in the Law

“In many cases law in the Ancient Near East (ANE) more generous to women than the biblical law,” said my Pentateuch/Torah professor today.  That’s a direct quote.  Sheesh, what’s an evangelical Christian–or an Orthrodox Jew for that matter– to do with that?

For those of us in such categories that like social justice, the Jewish law is a place we turn to for support.  “Look, even though white American evangelicals don’t understand that poverty matters to God it undeniably does!  It’s even in the Torah!”  And there are laws concerning widows, the poor (of both what we could consider the “homeless” type and the “working poor” type), the orphan, the resident alien that has joined the community.  We take pride in these laws and think that maybe this proves how advanced Yahwism was and still is.  After all, some of the laws concerning the underprivileged (like not charging interest from your own people) sound like an improvement in our society.

But it’s not that simple.  There is still a heck of a lot in the law with which we don’t know what to do.  An example would be the value of various persons by gender and age, based on potential productivity.  A woman over 60 is apparently worth 2/3 a man of the same age, but in both the 20-60 category and the 1 month-5 yr category, a woman is three fifths a man.  The original Three-Fifths Compromise.  Gives pause to anyone skeptical of comparing struggles for women’s rights to struggles of ethnic minorities and other oppressed groups in various societies, huh?

Other problems abound in law relating to rape, divorce, and whatnot.  Women can’t consent to sex–that’s the role of her father, husband, or owner.  A married woman can’t be raped, even by someone that’s not her husband.  A man need merely claim he’s seduced by a woman and get out of the death penalty for illicit sex.  (She still dies.)  The list goes on…

There are various ways of dealing with this “problem” in the text:

* We can embrace patriarchy (as many do throughout the world, Christian and otherwise).

* We can claim the cultural context excuses it; that the law had to not be too far past what was going on in other societies or else the Israelites just wouldn’t have even understood it.  (Of course, God doesn’t push them toward something friendlier toward women in this case–he actually goes backwards, which doesn’t make it sound this is about mere contextualization…)

* We can say these particular laws–or the Jewish law in its entirety, if we want–didn’t really come from God.  Supposedly this is all a part of the revelation at Sinai.  Of course if we trust the Documentary Hypothesis, this stuff wasn’t written down, at least in its final form, for centuries, but nevertheless, we might believe the text is inspired and captures some spirit of what happened in terms of God’s revelation to Israel at Sinai or throughout its history, even if it is not word for word, historically accurate.  The fact that this text isn’t even much of an improvement (if any) over other ANE law, calls into question that assumption.

So what do we do with this?

I mean, admittedly, God sometimes contradicts himself in the Bible if you’re not about uber-harmonization.  But this seems like a pretty clear instance of the God we like–the gospel’s God (who isn’t just present in the NT but OT as well in a number of laws and stories and other writings)–being absent.

A solution that’s not a cop-out but still upholds inspiration (though not inerrancy–we’re not even starting form there, in my mind) is difficult to come by.  We could do some theological gymnastics and say that perhaps the text is just a record of what Israel thought God was saying then and that that is still “inspired” because God wanted us to have that record, even of the times Israel thought it knew what God wanted but didn’t…

But this makes things rather complicated, don’t you think?

Add to this the fact the the Gospels claim Jesus was a Jew that, while interpreting the law differently from some at the time, still said that the law was important…

So, budding theologians, any ideas?

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