Women in the Bible

In the Bible, women are sometimes portrayed as men's equals and other times, as men's subordinates--or property.

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queen esther

Queen Esther

 Widows do not inherit from their husbands at all, but are dependent on their sons or the generosity of other heirs. According to the practice of levirate marriage, childless widows are the legal responsibility of their husband's oldest brother (Deuteronomy 25:5‑10).

Susan Niditch notes that the most noticeable laws of fencing off and boundary making vis-à-vis women are the priestly laws pertaining to purity. According to these regulations menstruating and postpartum women are unclean and sexually unavailable to their husbands for prescribed periods of times (Leviticus 12, 15), during which they also have the potential to render ritually impure people and objects around them. […]

Changes in Society Affected Attitudes Toward Women

Carol Meyers has applied insights gleaned from sociology, anthropology, and archaeology to reconstruct models of Israelite social life and the ordinary women's place within it in various periods of biblical history.

She argues that when agricultural work and childbearing, two spheres in which women played an active role, were central to biblical society, social and religious life in ancient Israel was relatively egalitarian. When the political state and the monarchy emerged, and religious life was institutionalized in the Temple cult and priestly bureaucracy (beginning in the tenth century B.C.E.), however, women were increasingly excluded from the public arena and lost access to communal authority.

The negative images of wealthy and leisured urban women in Proverbs and some of the prophetic books may reflect this new reality, in which women's traditional roles have been transformed and devalued. […]

Female Rituals, Female Deities

References to girls' puberty rites (Judges 11:39‑40), harvest dances (Judges 21:20‑21), and childbirth rituals (Leviticus 12:6‑8) give fleeting illumination to exclusively female ceremonies that were not of interest to male biblical writers and editors.

A number of scholars additionally have discussed the persistence of goddess worship in ancient Israel and the particular place of the Near Eastern fertility goddess, Asherah.

While Frymer‑Kensky argues that biblical monotheism was generally successful in absorbing the central ideas of polytheism and the functions and roles of goddesses, she agrees that remnants of goddess worship remained. Jeremiah's condemnations of worship practices involving "the Queen of Heaven" (Jeremiah 7:17‑18, 44:15‑25) and frequent archaeological discoveries of ancient Israelite female clay figurines, particularly prominent in the period of the monarchies, indicate that aspects of such worship may have lingered, if only as unconscious affirmations of the power of fertility that was seen as the reward of devotion to the invisible, transcendent God.

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Judith Baskin

Judith Baskin is the Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.