I agree with the author on just about all of this. But to me it seems like we’re missing the elephant in the room. Why do these sexist ideas persist more in traditional Abrahamic religions? To me there is really no mystery where these kinds of blatantly sexist attitudes come from. They come from long patriarchal traditions all over the world, yes, but they also come from the Bible.
I know we don’t like to talk about it, but the Mosaic Law explicitly given by Yahweh to his chosen people is incredibly sexist and cruel to women. I’m not talking about human actions (like the rape of Dinah or the Levite’s concubine), I’m talking about the specific commands and instructions from Yahweh on how his people were supposed to live in relation with each other on earth. They are immoral, sexist and cruel to women, and they have helped establish a patriarchal tradition that has percolated down through the millennia and into our modern minds. And it is actively harming women right now.
It doesn’t take much more than a cursory read through the Mosaic Law to see that women are treated as property, without power over even their own bodies. For starters, in Exodus 20, Exodus 21:2-4, Exodus 21:7-9, Exodus 22:16-17, Exodus 21:22-25, Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Leviticus 12:1-5, Deuteronomy 22:28-29, Numbers 5, Numbers 30:1-8, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and Deuteronomy 25:11.
It seems pretty easy to draw a straight line from the formalized patriarchy of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to our modern ideas of masculinity and the appropriate “roles” of women. If that role inherently comes with less opportunity, power, self-determination, religious privilege and respect, then it’s not just a “different role,” it’s a sexist and harmful one. I mean… I don’t think explicitly saying that women are worth 3/5ths of a man (Leviticus 27:1-8) is going to win anyone a feminist of the year award, doubly so if you’re omniscient and omnipotent and are claiming to give your people ideal instructions on how to live. Then it just seems intentionally cruel.
But! People say, the Mosaic Laws actually protected women when compared to other societies of the time! Maybe so. Probably so, even. There certainly are some limited protections for women in Israelite society, but they are all firmly within the context of a system in which women had very few rights and were always under the authority of their father or husband. I’m not claiming that Israel was worse for women than other nations. I am claiming that Yahweh’s laws were sexist and cruel toward women, EVEN IF they were marginally better than other nations at the time. We wouldn’t, for instance, claim that southern slave owners who “protected” their property from theft and made sure that they were cared for were fundamentally moral! No, it doesn’t work. And neither do the hollow appeals to “progressive revelation.”
According to the Bible, Yahweh gave Israel a whole raft of requirements that were odd, out of step with the prevailing culture, and really hard for them to follow! Monotheism was HARD for them, but that was far from the only requirement in the law. Why place so much significance on shellfish and circumcision and yet forget to tell Israel that people should be inherently valued? Israel’s failure to live up to God’s requirements seems like a really poor excuse for Yahweh to forget to mention that women are people, and should be valued for more than their bride price and ability to have children. And, oh yeah, maybe don’t take them as sex slaves when you get to feeling frisky.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14: “When you go out to do battle with your enemies and the Lord your God allows you to prevail and you take prisoners, if you should see among them an attractive woman whom you wish to take as a wife, you may bring her back to your house. She must shave her head, trim her nails, discard the clothing she was wearing when captured, and stay in your house, lamenting for her father and mother for a full month. After that you may have sexual relations with her and become her husband and she your wife. If you are not pleased with her, then you must let her go where she pleases. You cannot in any case sell her; you must not take advantage of her, since you have already humiliated her.”
Oh good, for a minute I thought this female victim of war was going to be taken advantage of, but Yahweh says no, just humiliate her! Cool, cool. Calling that absolute garbage is about the only thing I can say that won’t break Spectrum’s commenting policy. Honestly, I am outraged at not just this law governing barbaric ancient warfare, but the modern communities who have enshrined this stuff, either explicitly or implicitly, as holy and moral. Religious figures I was taught to respect make apologies for Yahweh’s character and try to claim that stuff like this MUST be moral, simply because it is God’s command. IT. IS. NOT. MORAL. Anyone who even thinks of making such an argument really, really needs to examine their moral foundations to figure out how they can think that such treatment of humans could be justified.
Perhaps Yahweh, if he exists or existed, never laid out these rules at all. Maybe they were the invention of the regressive patriarchy of the time, but either way, we do women an immense disservice by not boldly calling this out as WRONG. It wasn’t right then but wrong now. It doesn’t get a pass because of “progressive revelation.” No. It hurt people and it’s wrong. By not clearly discussing the treatment of women in the Bible and deciding as a community what is and isn’t moral and ok, SDAs are perpetuating sexist and harmful attitudes in the church.
Oh, and just in case we ever forget what “wife” means in this context and are tempted to think of it in anything like equitable(ish) modern terms, verse 15 of Deut. 21 goes on to describe how Israelite men were supposed to manage conflicts between multiple wives. Functionally, can you think of a relevant difference between a sex slave and a woman captured in war and taken forcefully as a third wife? I really can’t. At least the woman gets to mourn the father and mother her husband probably killed before settling in for a lifetime of sexual slavery. At least she wasn’t taken advantage of thanks to those merciful and fair Levitical laws! What an astounding witness of Yahweh’s character to surrounding nations.
This is also in the law of God:
Deuteronomy 22:23 “Suppose a man comes across a virgin who is not engaged and overpowers and rapes her and they are discovered. The man who has raped her must pay her father fifty shekels of silver and she must become his wife because he has violated her; he may never divorce her as long as he lives.”
If a man follows that law exactly as it is written and pays the father for his acquired-via-rape wife, is he oppressing or harming a woman? I don’t understand how anyone could claim that this law is not harmful to women, and sexist.
To me, it is impossible to try to argue that the Mosaic Law isn’t sexist. You have to either say verses like the above aren’t sexist, or that it wasn’t REALLY given by God. But you can’t have it both ways. Either:
- Yahweh gave humans a law and moral code that is fundamentally sexist and cruel to women
- The OT doesn’t give us the real law of god.
- Or, we try to argue that laws like the one above AREN’T sexist or cruel to women.
And yet, it seems like most people avoid examining sexism in the OT at all. If pressed, Adventists often appear to instinctually take option number 3. In order to believe that the OT is both completely true and that God is completely good, we have to blink at the sexism. We have to, on some level, accept a patriarchal paradigm. We become more ok with injustice. We become used to sticking to the harmful status-quo in order to protect our deeper beliefs in the Bible and God’s goodness.
This matters. I’m not taking theological potshots for the sake of my own amusement here. I honestly believe that the sexist traditions in the Bible have been inextricably woven into the theological and cultural fabric of many Christian belief systems. It’s linked to every single issue listed in the article above. It influences our ideas about sexual purity (focusing the most on women!), the roles of women in the home or workplace, how we raise and treat our daughters and sons, our views of women’s sexuality, and our expectations for women in every conceivable facet of modern life. Even if it’s no longer acceptable (in the West at least) to execute women for “crimes” against their male owners, many of the patriarchal attitudes are still there, and not even hidden.
These attitudes don’t come out of nowhere. To stop their growth, we need to examine the source. One powerful source of sexism, as you can see above, is the Bible itself. What you do with that is up to you. I know many people who retain a belief in a loving God, represented by Jesus, and simply reject much of the Old Testament as the ancient beliefs of a people in their moral infancy. They choose to believe that most of the recorded commands and actions of Yahweh simply didn’t happen, and what we have preserved are the words of men. For me, that’s the only way Christian faith can be morally salvageable.
I wish more people could see the harm this causes and work to correct it. It doesn’t have to destroy your faith to admit this stuff! Maybe the Old Testament simply isn’t all that accurate. Maybe people got laws from Moses and they were mostly informed by the moral views of the time. Is that so bad? If we just admit that then we can dismiss the Old Testament for its archaic blood guilt morality, punitive justice, cruelty toward women, and all rest!
Believing that Yahweh in the OT was inherently good is a cancer at the heart of Christian morality. It’s causing people harm, robbing the church of societal and cultural relevance in people’s lives, and preventing personal moral development in Christians.
One day the world will look back at the overt sexism in communities like the SDA Church with the same type of embarrassment and disgust that we reserve for slave owners and others complicit in the systematic subjugation of any group of people. For the sake of the women now fighting against the patriarchy, I hope that day comes soon.