Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East

  • V. H. Matthews, B. M. Levinson, T. Frymer-kensky
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

V. H. Matthews, B. M. Levinson, and T. Frymer-Kensky eds. Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. JSOTS 262. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. 251 pp. Hardback £35.00/US$57.50. ISBN 1850758867.

In the space of eleven articles a wide variety of implications regarding biblical laws that touch upon women are discussed.

Brettler comments on the religious reality of women in the Bible and observes the dominance of men in the composition of psalms but the manner in which women sang and prayed them. Dempsey's discussion of Ezekiel 16 argues the presence of verbally and physically abusive acts on the part of God toward Israel and yet holds on to the picture of a faithful and covenantal deity. Frymer-Kensky probes the question of honor and shame when a woman is no longer a virgin but not (yet) given in marriage in an acceptable manner. She argues that the role of the family's honor was key in Genesis (Dinah) and Exodus (Covenant Code) but that this changed to enforcement by the society as a whole in the legislation of Deuteronomy. Still, "generation superseded gender" insofar as both sons and daughters were obligated to honor both mothers and fathers. Matthews continues this discussion with observations on public demonstrations of chastity from the legislation of Numbers 5 and Deuteronomy 22.

Miller's analysis of Judges 5 as a riposte assumes that the Israelites were interested in answering hypothesized insults from the Canaanites to the effect that Israelites were uncouth hillbillies and that their women were man-like and their men were led by women. Miller's study represents the only one that does not deal directly with legal issues.

Otto examines the Deuteronomistic law code as the product of development and evolution that increasingly gave women more rights in the cult and in society. Washington takes an opposite approach, finding the language and justification of male domination and violence in Deuteronomy 20-22 as seen through the lens of Foucault.

Two articles, those of Pressler and Westbrook, deal with the interpretation of the slave laws regarding women in Exod. 21:1-11. Pressler denies that vv. 2-6 deal with women and considers several classes of women as addressed in vv. 7-11, all of whom have a male authority figure. Their relative degrees of freedom or slavery are dependent upon the status of the male authority figure. Westbrook denies any relationship between these laws and the Nuzi kallatu status, observing that the Exodus legal materials envision the women becoming a slave primarily for sexual and reproductive purposes. Both Pressler and Westbrook agree that the female slave mentioned in Exodus 21 is one who achieves her status according to debt slavery. Roth's contribution is most important here in that she demonstrates that ancient Near Eastern law is not consistent (according to Western standards) in its treatment of women and that legal issues do not always depend on legal assumptions about gender as the primary factor. However, the heart of her study is the analysis of the Nippur Homicide trial in which the wife, although not actually a participant in the murder of her husband, is judged as possessing greater guilt than the murderers due to her knowledge of the murderous intent and her silence in the matter.

This collection has much material of interest for the interpretation of legal texts in the Pentateuch and gender issues related to them. Works of Evangelical scholars such as Chirichigno and Sprinkle are noted but there is no representation of their point of view.

Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary