Priestly Material

When approaching the intersection of gender and priestly writing, a number of central questions emerge. (1) What actually constitutes a priestly text? (2) What pieces of the Hebrew Bible do we examine for gender-related content? (3) What is the gender identity of the author or authors of priestly writing? (4) What is the approach of the author(s) to gender-related issues such as hierarchy, power, and exclusivity?

Identifying Priestly, priestly, and Holiness Material.

Identification of the authors of biblical writing inevitably incites strong scholarly responses, ranging from denial that it can be done to the promulgation of a reliable methodological approach. When used as a tool for greater understanding rather than as end in itself, source criticism (identifying sources/authorship in the Pentateuch) provides a helpful point from which to begin a set of inquiries. Priestly writing can be divided into two or more subsections. For this article, the lower case “p” as “priestly” indicates writing either by the Priestly (P) writer (primarily the narratives in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, and Leviticus 1—16) or the Holiness (H) writer (Lev 17—26).). Although dates for priestly writing vary substantially among scholars, linguistically focused studies place P in the preexilic period (1000–587 B.C.E.), followed by H in the late preexilic period (650–587 B.C.E.). Numerous scholars follow Wellhausen (1957, pp. 127–145) and others, however, in placing P and H in the exilic (587–538 B.C.E.) or postexilic periods (538–400 b.c.e.). Some scholars separate priestly narratives in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers from the corpus of priestly laws in Leviticus and in sections of Numbers. I do not see a convincing reason to do so.

Gender Identity of the Author.

Although most consider the question of whether a man or woman wrote sections of the Hebrew Bible irrelevant (since we have no definite proof and since it is unlikely that a woman was trained to read and write in this age), it may be worth considering why the question arises. Understanding the biographical details of a writer’s life is always illuminating to us as readers. If someone purports to be an expert on mysticism, we wonder if that person has had any real engagement with mystical experience. It changes the way we read a text if we think someone has an inside perspective about what she or he is writing. Friedman (1987, p. 86) wonders if the author of J (Jawist) Source could have been female, and students regularly ask whether it is possible that the book of Ruth was written by a woman. These questions arise because these stories read as if the person writing understands the life of women.

If one writes about women, we naturally wonder if the writer is an insider. Although some men can write as insiders as Wally Lamb does in She’s Come Undone or even Alexander McCall Smith in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, it is difficult to think of men writing these books. In the case of priestly writing, nothing suggests that the writer is a woman, but there are some theological principles that do suggest the writer knows something about female anatomy and has some appreciation for women as divinely ordained counterparts for men. Because the worldview of the priestly writers is hierarchical, it is doubtful that someone on a lower rung of the hierarchy would have been selected either to copy or create sacred literature.

Power, Hierarchy, and Exclusivity.

The priestly worldview is hierarchical and follows a descending order as follows:

  • 1. High priest and his family, including women (Lev 1)
  • 2. Priest and his family, including women (Lev 1)
  • 3. Levite man (Num 16:8; 1:47–53; 8:20–22)
  • 4. Israelite man and woman (Lev 16:16)
  • 5. Wife and daughter of a priest (Lev 22:12–13)
  • 6. Non-Israelite resident alien (Lev 17:8, 10; 22:17–18; 19:33)
  • 7. Israelite male slave/servant (Lev 25:35–43)
  • 8. Israelite female slave/servant (implied by above?)
  • 9. Foreign slave to the priest (25:44)
  • 10. Foreign (nonresident) man (Lev 22:10)
  • 11. Foreign woman (based on metaphor and narrative such as Num 25:6–19)

No list such as this appears in one place in the Hebrew Bible, but this hypothesized one may be helpful. This ladder stipulates who can get closest to the Holy of Holies and who can partake of sacred food. Saul Olyan’s (2000, p. 31) work on hierarchy in the biblical representation of the cult breaks down each of these categories and finds helpful nuances: for example slaves of foreign origin who live in the homes of priests are treated differently than foreigners in general.

Thus far we have acknowledged that priestly writing imagines a Deity concerned with categorical distinctions and their prioritization. Though partaking of special food (Lev 22:10) and securing a cohesive connection to the clan by encouraging endogamous marriages (Lev 22:12) constitutes exclusivity, other areas that seemingly lend themselves to exclusion or gender hierarchy do not. We find this both with regard to the purity laws and in priestly narratives, where priestly writing constructs male and female identity in relationship to one another and to the Deity.


Because of the ways in which the Priestly writer constructs hierarchy, the assumption has been made that the priestly conception of bodily impurity is also hierarchical with men closer to the “pure” and women closer to the “impure.” However, though no one doubts that taboos about menstrual blood were present in Israelite society (the word for menstruating woman, ndh, carries with it a linguistic relationship with “throwing away” or discarding), the Priestly writer, through a carefully constructed chiastic (a chiasm is a literary structure, showing parallel words or themes in, typically, an ABCC1B1A1 schema), goes out of his way to demonstrate that both men and women have the potential to become impure and both have remedies for their impurities.

This chiastic structure is located in Leviticus 15 and has been identified in two separate ways. Some prefer reading verse 18 as the chiastic midpoint (Meachem, 1999; Milgrom, 1991; Whitekettle, 1991). This verse posits that pollution results from hetero-sexual (for the Hebrew Bible—“normative”) intercourse. Others argue, to my mind more convincingly, that verse 18 is not the midpoint of the chiasm (Ellens, 2003; Philip, 2006; Wenham, 1979); rather, the center of the chiasm is found in two sets of verses. The first set outlines the pollution of healthy/normative male discharge (vv. 16–18) and the impurity that results for a female partner during intercourse. The second outlines the pollution of healthy female discharge (i.e., menstrual blood; vv. 19–24) and the resulting pollution for the male sexual partner.

The way in which we interpret the intention of the biblical writer has implications for how we understand the construction of gender in priestly writing. One could argue that in both schemas there is an attempt to demonstrate parity when disclosing the potential impurities of men and women. This is an essential point. It dispels the myth that somehow women are at the bottom of the priestly hierarchy because their impurity is more contaminating than that of their male counterparts (Ruane, 2007; Wegner, 2003). Normal female impurity is more contaminating than normal male impurity, but the text never indicates that their impurity is the reason that they may not function as priests.

The implications of the second schema are important to understand as well. If the chiasm is understood according the second division, it is not intercourse that is highlighted but rather the dual direction of the impurity from male to female and then from female to male. Although it is widely assumed that the chapter focuses on the general notion that bodies convey impurity rather than on the act of intercourse per se, the second schema suggests that men have the ability to pollute all things and people, and specifically women with whom they come into sexual contact. Complementarily, women have the ability to pollute all things and people, and specifically men with whom they come into sexual contact.

The Priestly writer goes out of his way to build this literary structure, even while he understands that menstrual blood pollutes for a longer time than does semen. Both fluids, however, are categorized under normal or expected impurities, in contradistinction to the abnormal emissions that can be present in both men and women. The Priestly writer could have easily created a set of laws distinctive for women and relegated female bodily impurities to women’s space. He could have done this by placing the laws of menstruation and abnormal female emissions in Leviticus 12, alongside the impurities connected with childbirth. The writer even adds the comparative statement that lochial (blood connected to childbirth) blood is like menstrual blood (Lev 12:2), suggesting an even more logical decision to place the laws together. But the Priestly writer does not organize the laws in this way. As Milgrom (1991, p. 905) has intuited, the organization moves from the longest period of pollution, the woman who has given birth (Lev 12)), to the one who has scale—disease (tsara’at; Lev 13—14), to the lesser bodily impurities described above (Lev 15). If anyone fails to adhere to the correct purification processes, and/or fails to adhere to other ethical commandments, the following rites of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16) serve to purify the whole house of Israel and those who live among them.

Some have argued against the parity of gender expressed in the chiasm. Wegner (2003, p. 457) and Ruane (2007, p. 74) have rightly noted that in Leviticus 15 the woman, unlike the man, does not come “before Yahweh” to offer the sacrifice. When she brings an offering to mark the end of her period of impurity, the woman must access the priest to complete her final step toward purification. Milgrom (1991, p. 934) also noted the lack of parity in the wording but felt that the woman’s participation in the cult is implied by the literary structure. Ruane (2007, p. 74) noticed the lack of parallel language in the description of washing as a means of purification before the sacrificial offering. Ruane (2007, p. 77) argues that this lacunae suggests that the author of the text simply did not include this information because, building on Wegner, the woman never got close enough to offer the sacrifice. Furthermore, Ruane (2007, p. 78) argues that the woman is disqualified from the offering because she menstruates, an impurity that has more potential to pollute than does semen.

Both objections to the clear parallels in the chiastic structure are valid but the conclusions drawn may be overstated. Although Milgrom may dismiss the issue as a wording problem, women may not have come as close to the offering as men did. Ruane’s suggestion that the woman is disqualified from these rites because she menstruates, however, is overstated. There is not enough evidence in the text to suggest this conclusion. Furthermore, I would submit that women of priestly descent were not disqualified from service in the sacred precinct because of their proclivity to menstruate: the text never states this nor does it imply this.

Yahweh is constructed as male in the text, and even though it is the Priestly writer who says “in the image of Elohim he created it/him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27), there is a profound sense of maleness that infuses the Priestly conception of the Deity. Like Leviticus 15, however, Genesis 1:27 also demonstrates that the Priestly writer attempts to portray a parity of the sexes in the creation of the human being. Although we cannot know the true extent to which women were involved in the offering of animal sacrifice, we can say that the Priestly writer attempted, to the best of his ability, to present a picture in which both men and women are the potential bearers of bodily impurities. Both men and women have normal and abnormal emissions and both have the potential to purify themselves from these ritual impurities. Although men serve as priests, we must distinguish between those who operated within that hierarchy and the writer/theologian who carefully constructed a redeeming paradigm of gender relationships in both Genesis 1 and Leviticus 15. The writer may benefit from priestly privilege, but he strives to situate that privilege in the context of the totality of human experience.


The other way in which the Priestly writer creates a complicated picture of gender relations is in the narrative sections of the Pentateuch. We have shown that Genesis 1:1—2:4A suggests that the original birth of the human being is a spontaneous and simultaneous creation of male and female. In the Priestly conception of the primeval world, the time before time (Gen 1—11), there is no gender hierarchy. However, the writer lives in a divided world where men lord over women, the Deity has power over human beings and animals, and the Israelites are at war with their neighbors. Although the Priestly writer will go to great lengths to redeem Israelite women, such as in the chiastic construction in Leviticus 15, foreign women are on the lowest rung of the hierarchy.

Before exploring the Priestly writer’s perspective on foreign women, we look more closely at another narrative concerning Israelite women. It has been demonstrated that the Priestly writer is in a dialogue of sorts with the combined Jahwist and Elohist (JE) narratives. Genesis 1 is a priestly response to J’s (the Jawhist source) Genesis 2—3. An entirely different creation story is put forth by P in which the Deity speaks an ordered universe into existence, in contradistinction to J’s Deity who shapes the human being from the clay of the earth and breathes life into it. J’s deity walks in the garden and rebukes the first creatures for disobedience. Friedman (1987, pp. 54–60), and more recently Wright (2011), has shown that the Priestly flood narrative is crafted in direct response to J’s flood story. Goldstein (2009; 2010) has shown that in the Priestly version of the announcement of the birth of Isaac, the matriarch Sarah is redeemed from J’s depiction of her as doubting. In J (Gen 18:12), Sarah laughs at the news that she will bear a child in her old age, while in P Sarah is identified as “she from who kings will come” (Gen 17:16); it is Abraham who scoffs at God’s messenger. Goldstein (2010, p. 45) describes the Priestly writer as a benevolent patriarch in his depiction of Israelite women. In P’s view, furthermore, it is the women who give freely of their jewelry to construct the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:22, 26), in contrast to the jewelry given by men (but likely from their wives) in Exodus 32, the E source.

In contrast to the benevolence shown to Israelite women, the Priestly writer has nothing good to say about foreign women. In the narratives about foreign women, we see a xenophobic misogyny creeping into the gendered images in Priestly writing. The most difficult episodes are found in the book of Numbers in the heresy and its aftermath at Baal Peor. In Numbers 25, Israelite men “whore” (Hebrew, znh) after Moabite women, evoking retributive plague. In the same episode (seemingly spliced together, as vv. 1–5 appear to be J), priestly material adds that a Midianite woman and an Israelite man are discovered in a sexual encounter at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Phineas drives a spear through the offensive couple and the plague ceases ((Num 25:11–13).

The act of zealotry is rewarded and contextualized as both reparative and salvific for the people. Almost more disturbing is Numbers 31:14–15, in which Moses rebukes his army for sparing the women in the battle against Moab, casting blame upon them for leading his people astray. Certainly there are some geopolitical issues in the case of both Moab and Midian, and as such, the Bible is often ambiguous in both its hatred and love of the foreigner (such as the book of Ruth’s generous portrayal of Moab and the shining portrayal of Jethro, Moses’s Midianite father-in-law). But these episodes involving foreign women are definitively Priestly in nature and cast a dark shadow over the some of the more redemptive aspects of Priestly writing that have been highlighted above.




  • Ellens, Deborah. “Menstrual Impurity and Innovation in Leviticus 15.” In Wholly Woman, Holy Blood: A Feminist Critique of Purity and Impurity, edited by Kristin de Troyer, J. A. Herbert, J. A. Johnson, and A. M. Korte, pp. 29–43. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
  • Friedman, Richard Elliot. Who Wrote the Bible?? New York: Summit, 1987. Repr. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997.
  • Goldstein, Elizabeth. “Genealogy, Gynecology, and Gender: The Priestly Writer’s Portrait of a Woman.” In Embroidered Garments: Priests and Gender in Biblical Israel, edited by Deborah W. Rooke, pp. 74–86. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009.
  • Goldstein, Elizabeth. “Impurity and Gender in the Hebrew Bible: Ideological Intersections in the Books of Leviticus, Ezekiel and Ezra.” Ph.D. Diss., University of California, San Diego, 2010.
  • Meachem, Tirẓah “An Abbreviated History of the Development of the Jewish Menstrual Laws.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by R. R. Wasserfall, pp. 23–37. Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 1999.
  • Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus 1–16. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
  • Olyan, Saul M. Rites and Rank: Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Philip, Tarja. Menstruation and Childbirth in the Hebrew Bible: Fertility and Impurity. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
  • Ruane, Nicole, “Bathing, Status and Gender in Priestly Ritual.” In A Question of Sex: Gender and Difference in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond, edited by Deborah Rooke, pp. 66–81. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2007.
  • Wegner, Judith Romney. “‘Coming before the Lord’: The Exclusion of Women from the Public Domain of the Israelite Priestly Cult.” In The Book of Leviticus, edited by R. Rendtorff and R. A. Kugler, pp. 451–465. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.
  • Wenham, G. J. The Book of Leviticus. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979.
  • Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel: The Classic and Original Statement of the Theory of “Higher Criticism” of the Old Testament. New York: Meridian, 1957.
  • Whitekettle, Richard. “Leviticus 15:18 Reconsidered: Chiasm, Spatial Structure and the Body.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 49 (1991): 31–45.
  • Wright, David. “Profane versus Sacrificial Slaughter: The Priestly Recasting of the Yahwist Flood Story.” International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, London, England, 2011. Section 5–16, 5 July 2011.

Elizabeth W. Goldstein

Deuteronomistic History

The phrase “Deuteronomistic History,” hereafter DH, is used by scholars to refer to the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. The phrase is associated with the German scholar Martin Noth, who argued in the 1940s that these books comprised a single literary document created during the Babylonian Exile, which is the context in which the history concludes in 2 Kings 25. While this literary work incorporated older sources and traditions, Noth believed that a single author/editor, referred to as the “Deuteronomist,” was responsible for putting it together in something close to its present form. The resulting theological-historical narrative suggests to its audience that the Babylonian Exile and other disasters took place because the Israelites failed to live up to the stipulations of the covenant God made with them, which are laid out in the book of Deuteronomy.

Since the time of Noth, numerous scholars have proposed variations on his theory. These variations recognize that DH contains within it multiple layers and traditions. While some scholars work to reconstruct those layers, others argue that this heterogeneity is significant enough that it is no longer useful to refer to the books together as a single “Deuteronomistic History.” In spite of such disagreement, it remains clear that recurring theological themes and literary-linguistic features appear across the books. Thus, even scholars who dispute or take no position on Noth’s original theory sometimes retain the phrase “Deuteronomistic History” as a way of acknowledging such continuities.

Gender: Audience and Perspective.

Although the book of Deuteronomy opens with an address to “all Israel” (Deut 1:1), a close analysis of DH indicates that much of it assumes a male audience and patriarchal perspectives. The second person masculine pronoun, “you,” which appears frequently in both plural and singular forms beginning already in Deuteronomy 1:6, may in some cases be inclusive of women, but in other cases it is clear that males specifically are being addressed. In Deuteronomy 3:19, for example, where three tribes are addressed as “you” in the masculine plural, Moses explicitly tells them to leave “your women, your children, and your livestock” while fighting alongside the other tribes. In Deuteronomy 5:21, God uses a second person masculine singular pronoun to tell the Israelites, “You will not desire the wife of your neighbor. You will not desire the house of your neighbor, or his field, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” These and comparable passages indicate that, while legal texts are meant to direct the conduct of women as well as men, their literary form and content assume a male audience and a society structured around male heads of households, to whom women are subordinate (Fewell and Gunn, 1993; Pressler, 1993; Anderson, 2004).

The narratives of DH also reflect a patriarchal society. Women appear much less frequently than men in the narratives; when they do appear, they often are subordinate to their fathers and husbands. Fathers give their daughters away in marriage through negotiations with other men (Josh 15:16–17 [=Judg 1:12–13]; Judg 15:2; 1 Sam 18:17–27; 2 Sam 13:13) and otherwise control their fates (Judg 11:34–40; 19:24). The word usually translated “husband” may be used interchangeably with words for “master” (e.g., Judg 19:3, 27). Although polygyny is evident from multiple narratives, women may have only one husband at a time. The subordination of the pilegesh, sometimes translated as “concubine” or “secondary wife,” to her husband or “master” may make her more vulnerable to sexual violence (Judg 19:25; 2 Sam 16:20–22).

Yet there are also women who play powerful and/or crucial roles in DH. Although some of these women are represented negatively, such as Delilah (Judg 16:4–21), Jezebel (1 Kgs 18:4, 19:1–2, 21:5–26; 2 Kgs 9:30–37), and Athaliah (2 Kgs 11), others are represented positively, including Rahab (2:1–21, 6:22–25), Deborah the prophet and judge (Judg 4:4–16, 5:7), Jael (Judg 4:17–22, 5:24–27), and Huldah the prophet (2 Kgs 22:11–20). Even women in subordinate social roles may act assertively without negative consequences as does Achsah (Josh 15:18–19 [= Judg 1:14–15]).

Thus, it is unhelpful to assume that gender symbolism in DH can be explained solely on the basis of a simple distinction between powerful men and subordinate women, though gender subordination obviously exists. More complicated dynamics are also at work, and need to be teased out.

Characterization and Gender Role: Between Conformity and Nonconformity.

Because much of DH consists of narrative literature, the most common use of gendered imagery involves characterization. Narrative texts often represent characters in roles or behaviors that are assumed by the texts’ writers to be appropriate to the characters’ identities as male or female. For example, many male characters in DH, including some of the most significant characters such as Joshua, Saul, and David, are frequently represented in situations of military conflict. By contrast, very few female characters are represented as being directly involved in military situations. Apart from women who may be specified as objects of mass slaughter along with other inhabitants of their towns (e.g., Josh 6:21, 8:25; Judg 21:11; 1 Sam 15:3, etc.), the female characters who play roles in military situations, such as Deborah and Jael, do so in situations that are described in ways that allow us to understand them as exceptional. Otherwise, women are usually represented playing nonmilitary roles in military stories, such as waiting for returning soldiers (Judg 5:28; 2 Sam 6:16) or singing and dancing in celebration of returning soldiers (Judg 11:34; 1 Sam 18:6–7). Similarly, many male characters in the books of Samuel and Kings are represented as kings, while only two female characters—the Queen of Sheba (1 Kgs 10:1–13) and Athaliah (2 Kgs 11:1–20)—are represented as monarchs rather than kings’ wives.

As these examples illustrate, gender expectations frequently link literary characters to specific social roles in DH (Brenner, 1984). Although in many cases such expectations remain in the background, in other cases the representation of characters acting in conformity with gender expectations plays a role in moving the narrative forward. For example, the assumption that a woman will be unhappy unless she bears children and grateful when she does structures the story of Hannah and makes possible the story of Samuel (1 Sam 1). The assumption that a brother will feel compelled to respond in a forceful way to the man who sexually dishonors his sister and, through her, the honor of her family structures the story of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom and makes possible the story of conflict between Absalom and David (2 Sam 13:20–33). In these and other cases, behavior that conforms to gender expectations does not simply contribute to characterization; it also drives plot development.

Narrative effects of characterization and plot are not only achieved in DH when characters act in conformity with gender norms. They are also achieved when characters act in ways that do not conform to gender norms. This use of gender imagery recognizes that, while societal expectations for proper gendered behavior exist, individuals embody such expectations to varying degrees. The speech of biblical characters themselves occasionally acknowledges that this is the case. When the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4:9 use the exhortation “Be strong and act like men” to encourage one another to fight, or when David in 1 Samuel 26:15 taunts Abner by asking, “Are you not a man?” their rhetoric indicates an awareness that it is possible to act in more manly and less manly ways. The context of warfare in these passages is significant. If masculinity was “measured” in the ancient Near East by the demonstration of military fortitude, as biblical scholars have long recognized (Hoffner, 1966, p. 327; cf. Chapman, 2004), then a male who is unsuccessful in battle is in danger of losing his manhood. Thus, in DH as in other parts of the Hebrew Bible, men who lose wars are in danger of “becoming women,” as Jeremiah 51:30 indicates has happened with the Babylonians. Female characters, too, may conform to expectations for women’s behavior to greater or lesser degrees. The representation of mothers eating their own children during a military siege (2 Kgs 6:24–31; cf. Deut 28:53–57) shocks Israel’s king, and by extension the reader, precisely because it transgresses expectations for maternal behavior.

DH makes use of this gender variability for narrative effect. Because gender norms are often implicit rather than explicit, and because ancient assumptions about gender may be different than contemporary norms, the interpretation of passages that utilize this narrative device can be challenging. Nevertheless, a reading that takes into account images of gender nonconformity may shed light on connotations that particular passages had for an ancient audience.

Political Leadership, Gender, and Power.

In DH, some of Israel’s political and military leaders are represented more positively and others more negatively, with several leaders represented both positively and negatively at different points in their story. Evaluations of these leaders are more explicit in some cases than others. In particular, DH evaluates leaders according to their willingness or ability to suppress religious practices that DH considers to be in violation of God’s covenant with Israel, promote religious practices that DH considers to follow that covenant, and deliver Israel from its enemies.

On a more implicit level, however, gender dynamics also play a role in DH’s representation of Israel’s leaders, their reputations, and their contests for precedence. As noted above, most of Israel’s monarchs and judges are male. Their struggles for power and prestige are sometimes narrated in ways that suggest that men who aspired to political leadership had to demonstrate that they were more “manly” than their rivals. Leaders and aspiring leaders apparently felt threatened at times by rivals who were perceived as being more “manly” by others. In 1 Samuel 18:7–9, for example, Saul becomes angry when the women of Israel greet the returning Israelite army by singing, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” Saul is suspicious that David’s superior reputation as a warrior indicates that he will acquire, or wants to acquire, Saul’s kingdom (18:8).

The gendered imagery that structures the narration of David’s rise to power goes beyond military skills, however. Two Samuel 3:1 notes that, during a war that followed the death of Saul, “David was becoming stronger and stronger while the house of Saul was growing weaker and weaker.” This statement is followed immediately by a list of six sons who are born to David by six different women (2 Sam 3:2–5). Although Deuteronomy 17:17 warns that kings who gather too many wives or too much silver or gold—or, in Deuteronomy 17:16, too many horses—may turn away from God’s path (as Solomon eventually does in 1 Kings), God is represented in 2 Samuel 12:8 as making a connection between David’s acquisition of multiple women and David’s acquisition of “the house of Israel and Judah,” that is, the throne. This link between women and kingship may seem odd until we recognize, in Jo Ann Hackett’s words, “that a man’s public display of masculinity is one key to his ability to rule” in DH (Hackett, 2012, p. 158). David is able not only to gather multiple women (including some wives of former rivals, e.g., Abigail and possibly Ahinoam [Levenson and Halpern, 1980]) but also to sire children, another signifier of manhood in the ancient Near East (Hoffner, 1966, p. 327). Thus the list of David’s sons and their mothers is not neutral genealogical information, but a demonstration of David’s “potency” in both senses of the word: he is a powerful man, demonstrating military skills and an ability to gather women, and he is able to generate offspring. The symbolism works in reverse when David becomes an old man: in 1 Kings 1:1–4, both David’s age and the impending end of his rule are symbolized by his impotence with Abishag, the beautiful young woman he sleeps with to keep warm.

Whereas David’s rise to power is symbolized in part by his manliness, the legitimacy of the house of Saul may be undermined in part through gender symbolism. Although Jonathan’s love for David works to David’s benefit, the narration of it calls into question Jonathan’s manhood. Jonathan’s narrative functions parallel to those of such women characters as Abigail and his sister Michal, who also assist and/or love David (Jobling, 1998, p. 162). The implication of homoeroticism in Jonathan’s love for David, though attractive for queer readings of the Bible, may have been understood in the ancient world as denigration of his manhood and hence his ability to rule (Ackerman, 2005). Aspersion on the manhood of the house of Saul continues after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. When Saul’s surviving son, Ishbaal (or Ish-boshet), confronts Abner about his sexual relations with Saul’s concubine Rizpah, Abner angrily puts him in his place and asserts that he will help David gain the throne. Ishbaal’s unmanly fear (2 Sam 3:11) may confirm Abner’s recognition that Ishbaal is not kingly material.

Although David’s performance of manhood demonstrates his ability to rule, David’s rivals can also attack David’s manhood to call into question his legitimacy as a leader. The clearest example of such an attack occurs in the story of Absalom, who revolts against the rule of his father. After David flees from Jerusalem before the arrival of Absalom’s army, Absalom rapes ten of David’s “concubines” on the roof of the palace “before the eyes of all Israel” (2 Sam 16:22). By usurping his father’s place sexually as well as militarily, Absalom attempts to strengthen claims he has already made that he can fulfill kingly duties more effectively than his father (15:1–6). His sexual actions also build on other signifiers of masculinity, such as vengeance of his sister’s rape (13:20–33), good looks (14:25), exceptionally long hair (14:26), and the ability to sire children (14:27). By publicly taking his father’s women, he attempts to assert symbolically that his own manhood is superior to that of his father. Although Absalom’s revolt is ultimately unsuccessful (perhaps because he dishonors his own father), his actions fit into a series of stories in which male characters jockey for power and prestige by manipulating relations with women and symbols of gender and sexuality (Stone, 1996).

Symbolic Emasculation.

Absalom’s attempt to show that his manhood is superior to that of his father might be seen as a symbolic emasculation of his father. The use of symbolic emasculation in situations of conflict is clear at other points in DH.

Sometimes symbolic emasculation is accomplished through the rhetorical speech of characters. In 2 Samuel 3:29, for example, David angrily exclaims, “May the house of Joab never lack someone with a discharge, and someone who is leprous, and someone who takes hold of a spindle, and someone who falls by the sword, and someone who lacks food.” Work with a spindle is associated with women and so is shameful for men. David in effect is cursing Joab by declaring that the men of his house will be effeminate (Hoffner, 1966, p. 332).

Symbolic emasculation can also be accomplished through actions rather than speech. Saul’s request for Philistine foreskins (1 Sam 18:25), though intended as a trap for David (18:21), may contribute to DH’s representation of the Philistines as “womanish” (Jobling, 1998, p. 216). When an Ammonite king cuts the beards and skirts of David’s messengers, he performs a kind of symbolic castration on them and insults David, who has sent them (2 Sam 10:4). The men are ashamed and remain away from court until their beards have regrown (10:5). The cutting of Samson’s hair can also be interpreted as a kind of symbolic castration (Judg 16:19). Significantly, it takes place near the conclusion of a story in which Samson has been continually represented in terms of such symbols of manhood as strength, the ability to fight and kill enemies, and a sexual desire for women.

Symbolic emasculation also takes place in DH through descriptions of death. In Judges 4:21, Jael kills Sisera by driving a tent peg through his head. Scholars have long noted connections between death and eroticism in this scene (e.g., Niditch, 1989; Fewell and Gunn, 1993). Conventional gender positions are reversed when the active female killer penetrates the body of a male object. Thus Gale Yee argues that Jael’s tent peg functions as a “ravaging phallus” in the “unmanning” of Sisera (Yee, 1993, p. 116). Similar dynamics are at work when a woman drops a millstone from a tower and crushes the head of Abimelech in Judges 9:53 (Stone, 2007; 2009). In both stories, a woman kills a man by causing a deadly, phallic weapon to penetrate him from above. The structural positions of the characters—with the woman on top and the man below—contribute to the symbolism of unmanning. Abimelech himself calls attention to the shame that accrues to a soldier who is killed by a woman (Judg 9:54). A somewhat different conjunction of death and symbolic emasculation appears in Judges 3, where Ehud the Israelite slaughters Eglon, the Moabite king. A number of biblical scholars have noted that the narration of this killing scene involves what Deryn Guest calls “sexual innuendo” (Guest, 2006, p. 171). Through the use of multiple words and images that elsewhere have sexual connotations (for example, “hand,” which can be a euphemism for the penis; “belly,” which can also mean “womb”; “he came into,” which can also refer to intercourse, etc.), the killing of Eglon is represented as a symbolic rape, and hence emasculation, of a Moabite king by a phallic Israelite hero.

The Dangerous Foreign Woman.

Several of the stories that rely on symbolic unmanning also utilize another recurring gender-related image: the dangerous foreign woman. DH’s suspicion of foreign women is apparent already in Deuteronomy 7:3–4, which warns that intermarriage with non-Israelites may lead Israelite men to worship other gods. Judges 3:5 states that intermarriage had exactly this consequence after the Israelites settled in Canaan. Although Samson’s desire for foreign women is partly caused by God (Judg 14:4), it also leads to multiple conflicts. Solomon is criticized not because of the extraordinary number of his wives and concubines (which symbolizes the extent of his power) but rather because foreign wives and concubines cause him to worship foreign gods (1 Kgs 11:1–8).

The chief example of a female character in DH who embodies the dangerous foreign woman is Jezebel. Like Solomon’s women, Jezebel, a Phoenician, is blamed for causing her Israelite husband, Ahab, to do evil (1 Kgs 21:25). Her wicked deeds go far beyond that, however. She also kills prophets of Yahweh (18:4, 13), supports prophets of Baal and Asherah (18:9), and threatens to kill Elijah (19:2). In 1 Kings 21, where her husband appears weak and passive, and hence unmanly, after Naboth refuses to sell him a vineyard (21:4), Jezebel takes the initiative to have Naboth killed on false charges, allowing Ahab to acquire the vineyard. The contrast between Ahab and Jezebel reverses gender expectations, casting aspersion on both characters simultaneously. Due to her wickedness, DH describes her as dying under gruesome and shameful circumstances: after she is thrown from a window and trampled by horses, dogs eat most of her body (2 Kgs 9:30–37). Although 2 Kings 9:22 refers to Jezebel’s “whoredoms” and “sorceries,” the sexual language is likely to be an example of the symbolic use of sexual promiscuity as a metaphor for religious infidelity, discussed further below. Jezebel’s sexual reputation is largely a consequence of later tradition rather than the Hebrew Bible itself. Nevertheless, DH’s use of sexual metaphors for Jezebel’s wickedness may be one source of the later popular association between her name and sexuality.

In spite of the characterization of Jezebel and some other women (e.g., Athaliah in 2 Kings 11) as wicked, DH does not uniformly represent dangerous foreign women as evil. It also characterizes some foreign women as dangerous to Israel’s enemies and helpful to Israel. Examples include Rahab and Jael, referred to above.

Sexual Symbolism and Religious Infidelity.

In Deuteronomy 31:16, God warns Moses that the Israelites will “whore” (zanah) after other gods and break their covenant. Though DH does not make significant use of this metaphorical representation of religious infidelity as female sexual promiscuity, God’s warning is fulfilled in Judges 2:17.. There, in the course of describing the cycle of religious infidelity, punishment, repentance, and deliverance that characterized the period of the judges, the narrator states that the Israelites “whored [zanu] after other gods and bowed down to them.” Similar language can be found in the story of Gideon ((Judg 8:27, 33). Such passages, together with the reference to Jezebel’s “whoredoms,” indicate that the writers and editors responsible for DH were aware of this tradition of using sexual imagery for religious transgression, which is found more extensively in other parts of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Latter Prophets.




  • Ackerman, Susan. When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Anderson, Cheryl. Women, Ideology, and Violence: Critical Theory and the Construction of Gender in the Book of the Covenant and the Deuteronomic Law. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
  • Brenner, Athalya. The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1984.
  • Chapman, Cynthia R. The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2004.
  • Fewell, Danna Nolan, and David Gunn. Gender, Power, and Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1993.
  • Guest, Deryn. “Judges.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona White, and Thomas Bohache, pp. 167–189. London: SCM, 2006.
  • Hackett, Jo Ann. “1 and 2 Samuel.” In Women’s Bible Commentary: Revised and Updated Third Edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, pp. 150–163. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2012.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. “Symbols for Masculinity and Femininity: Their Use in Ancient Near Eastern Sympathetic Magic Rituals.” Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966): 326–334.
  • Jobling, David. 1 Samuel. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998.
  • Levenson, Jon D., and Baruch Halpern. “The Political Import of David’s Marriages.” Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980): 507–518.
  • Niditch, Susan. “Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy L. Day, pp. 43–57. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
  • Pressler, Carolyn. The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993.
  • Stone, Ken. Sex, Honor and Power in the Deuteronomistic History. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
  • Stone, Ken. “Gender Criticism: The Un-Manning of Abimelech.” In Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, 2d ed., edited by Gale A. Yee, pp. 183–201. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  • Stone, Ken. “How a Woman Unmans a King: Gender Reversal and the Woman of Thebez in Judges 9.” In From the Margins 1: Women of the Hebrew Bible and Their Afterlives, edited by Peter S. Hawkins and Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg, pp. 71–85. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2009.
  • Yee, Gale A. “By the Hand of a Woman: The Metaphor of the Woman Warrior in Judges 4.” In Special issue: Women, War, and Metaphor: Language and Society in the Study of the Hebrew Bible, edited by Claudia V. Camp and Carole R. Fontaine. Semeia 61 (1993): 99–132.

Ken Stone

Prophetic Literature

The books of Isaiah through Malachi, designated as the Latter Prophets in the Jewish canon and Prophets in the Christian canon, employ a wide range of literary devices. In short prose sections and especially in extended poetic passages, prophetic literature reframes reality through alliteration, assonance, paronomasia, hyperbole, and irony.

Perhaps the most distinctive and ideologically fraught characteristic of prophetic language is its propensity toward comparison. Episodic similes and extended metaphors transport one set of characteristics or relationships into the conceptual domain of another. In the Prophets, the divine-human encounter becomes a warrior’s rape of a woman captured in war, a father’s anguished yet justified beating of a disobedient son, a husband’s jealous battering of his whoring wife, a mother’s compassion for her helpless infant, or a farmer’s care for and exasperation over his fickle crops.

Drawing heavily from the conceptual domain of human relationships, prophetic metaphor reflects the patriarchal/heteronormative character of ancient Israelite society and the patriarchal patterning of the ancient Israelite family. Yahweh’s power is depicted through masculine images—Warrior, Father, Husband, and King—while divine anguish is depicted as a woman’s cry in childbirth or a mother’s care for an infant. The dependency and infidelity of Israel (and other nations) are typified in feminine terms—Daughter, Wife, and Whore—while chosenness is compared to the favor given a first-born Son. When Son Israel is punished, he is beaten; when Daughter Zion is punished, she is sexually violated. In metaphor as well as in culture, gender matters.

Second-wave feminist biblical criticism (beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the present) has insisted that gendered prophetic metaphor is misogynistic not only in origin but also in effect. Offering scenes of women’s sexual violation for the reader’s instruction/pleasure and normalizing the male right to control female sexuality, prophetic literature has been deemed pornographic and dangerous to women’s well-being. Third-wave feminism and queer studies, on the contrary, have found gender unstable in the Prophets. Underscoring the grammatical ambiguities of prophetic language and the essentialist assumptions of many feminists, more recent gender critique has suggested the ways in which the Prophets not only reflect but also subvert ancient and modern constructions of gender.

The Conceptual Domains of Prophetic Metaphor.

The linguist George Lakoff describes metaphor as “cross-domain mapping,” the construal of one set of relationships within the conceptual realm of another (1993). In this mental operation, the rules of the “source domain” to which the comparison is drawn (also called the “frame”) govern the “target domain” under consideration. According to Lakoff, metaphors are not simply rhetorical devices but structures in which we think. They thus serve ideological functions, perpetuating the power dynamics inherent in the source domain and limiting perceptions of the target domain. Seen in this light, the imputation of heteronormative gender to other categories of human existence serves to normalize and naturalize heteronormativity itself.

Prophetic literature crafts myriad individual comparisons (at least eleven in Hosea 13 alone), but three heavily gendered conceptual domains dominate prophetic metaphor: family, warfare, and “nature.” Of these, the family domain is the most significant, not only due to its greatest frequency but also due to its reach into the other two realms. Indeed, family is the “home” to which prophetic metaphor repeatedly returns.

The family domain.

Prophetic literature frames various relationships as “family.” When insisting that two parties are equal in origin, interests, and/or faults, the Prophets dub them siblings: in Malachi and Obadiah the nations of Edom and Judah become brothers bound by birth and loyalty, and in Ezekiel 16 and 23 the cities of Jerusalem and Samaria appear as unequally depraved sisters. As discussed below, Jerusalem is Daughter when vulnerable, and Yahweh is Mother when nurturing. Most often, however, prophetic literature most often depicts Yahweh’s interactions with Israel and Judah as (1) that of a father with his son and (2) that of a husband with his wife (commonly called the marriage metaphor). These metaphors pervade Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, though they also appear in almost all of the prophetic books.

Many interpreters laud these metaphors for depicting God’s care for humans in intimate and emotionally poignant terms. Walter Brueggemann, for example, has repeatedly stressed the pathos imputed to Yahweh in the book of Hosea by means of metaphor: in Hosea 2:14–23, Yahweh is a “resilient and determined lover” (2008, p. 14) who will not give up Wife Israel even though his honor has been violated and an anguished father who, in an irrational display of love, cannot abandon the son that he once loved and taught to walk. According to Brueggemann, the parent-child and husband-wife metaphors provide readers hope that “YHWH’s commitment goes beyond formal obligation to the irrationality of emotional attachment” (2008, pp. 15–16).

To the contrary, second-wave feminists have forcefully insisted that the pathos of these metaphors constitutes their greatest danger. By sympathetically characterizing the deity’s feelings, prophetic metaphor justifies not only divine brutality but also patriarchy and its promotion of violence against women and children. Indeed, the family reflected and constructed by prophetic metaphor is consistently patriarchal. Human fathers are lords and masters over their children (Jer 3:14), with the implied right to disown them (Hos 2), adopt them (Ezek 16), name them (Hos 1—2), and physically punish them for disobedience (Isa 1, 3; Mal 3:17). While both parents deserve honor (Ezek 22:7; Mic 7:6), fathers alone are owed obedience (Isa 1; Jer 3; Mal 1:6, 3:17). In Hosea’s marriage metaphor, only the husband’s “irrational emotion” can disrupt his “rational” right to control the sexuality of his wife: he can threaten, strip, withhold food and clothing, and “slay her with thirst” (Hos 2:5 [Eng 2:3]).

Modern English translations often obscure the degree to which familial relations in the Prophets are dictated by gender. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), for example, consistently translates the Hebrew term bēn/bānı̑m (“son/sons”) as “child/children,” a translation that could be justified on the grounds that Hebrew has no gender-inclusive plural forms but nonetheless ignores Israel’s gender-differentiated rules for sons and daughters. While fathers in ancient Israel “owned” both sons and daughters, sons (at least oldest sons) alone inherited their fathers’ property and authority; contra the NRSV, Jeremiah 3:19–22 likely refers to the intention of Yahweh God to give land to sons rather to children. Moreover, the term “marriage metaphor” is misleading, since the relationship imagined by the Prophets is not the romantically sparked partnership of equals celebrated by many in the modern West. Since biblical Hebrew has no word for “marriage,” all references to “marriage” or “marry” in the Hebrew Bible have been added by a translator; in the text, a man “takes” (lqḥ; Hos 1:2)) or “rules over” (bʿl; Isa 62:5) a woman. Translators often offer “wife” for Hebrew ʾiššȃ (“woman”; Hos 1:2) and “husband” for Hebrew ʾiš (“man”; Hos 2:16) and bʿl, (“master”; Jer 31:32).

The prophetic characterization of Israel as Whore (Hebrew znh) also reflects highly differentiated gender norms. As Phyllis Bird’s classic study (1989) has shown, while literally znh signifies a professional prostitute, the term is widely used as slur against all women whose sexuality remains beyond patriarchal control, including those within the family. Adultery (nʾp) is equated with harlotry (znh) in Isaiah 57.3, Jeremiah 3.8, Hosea 2: 3 (Eng 2:1), and Hosea 4.13–14. In Ezekiel 16 and 23 both charges are made against Samaria and Jerusalem, the unfaithful daughters-turned-wives of Yahweh: they play with dildos (Ezek 16:17), pay multiple partners for sex (Ezek 16:32–34), and dote on males whose “members are like those of donkeys, whose emissions are like those of stallions” (Ezek 23:20). When Israelite males are called znh, they are denigrated by use of a feminine-specific slur.

Such language, contend second-wave feminists, is not only patriarchal but also misogynistic, justifying and taking pleasure in the debasement of women. The anger-abuse-romance cycle of Hosea 1—2 has been linked to classic patterns of domestic violence (Weems, 1995; O’Brien, 2008; Scholz 2010), and Drorah Setel (1985) has deemed passages such as Hosea 1—3 and Ezekekiel 16 and 23 as pornographic, prompting Athalya Brenner (1993) to coin the term “pornoprophetics” for ways in which the Prophets revel in sexual violence against women. As elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, men are assumed to desire and penetrate women, while women desire and are penetrated by men.

The military domain.

Prophetic metaphor also draws heavily from the conceptual domain of military conflict, frequently depicting Yahweh as a warrior who marches either to punish or save Israel. Thorough studies of the Divine Warrior motif have traced its likely roots to ancient Near Eastern cosmological combat myths and explored its development through the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Of greatest interest to gender critics, however, have been the constructions of masculinity and femininity reflected in this metaphor.

As demonstrated by Cynthia Chapman, biblical texts join Assyrian art and literature in linking masculine identity with military performance (2004, p. 7). Just as Assyrian reliefs depict victorious kings lifting massive clubs of war in muscled arms and portray vanquished soldiers as sexually submissive, so too prophetic literature depicts Yahweh wielding nations as clubs of war (Isa 10:5; Jer 51:20–23; Zech 9:13) in his powerful arm (Isa 30:30, 40:10, 52:10; Jer 21:5, 32:21) and tauntingly calls defeated foes “women (Nah 3:13). In the Prophets, “unrivaled, royal masculinity was reserved for their god Yahweh” (Chapman, 2004, p. 60).

Weakness, in turn, is marked as feminine. In this metaphor, Judah and other nations most often become women whose fates rest in the warrior’s strong hand. Bracing for the Warrior’s march against them, Egyptians tremble like women (Isa 19:16); anticipating the Warrior’s rescue, Daughter Zion shouts in joy (Zeph 3:14–20).

Throughout the Prophets, vulnerable cities and countries are characterized as Daughter, sometimes Virgin Daughter. While clearly drawn from the conceptual domain of the family, this metaphor does not operate relationally, as those discussed above do. The City-as-Daughter is invoked in relation not to Yahweh as Father but to Yahweh as Warrior. As Chapman explains, every occurrence of the “Daughter Zion” metaphor appears in a military context: “Daughter Zion is always the pawn or prize in a military battle between men and Yahweh” (Chapman, 2004, p. 93). Just as in an ancient Israelite family, daughters are powerless to control their marriages, safety, vows, and bodies, so too, the Prophets claim, nations are powerless in the face of Yahweh the virile Warrior (O’Brien, 2008).

Second-wave feminists have drawn attention to the ways in which the Warrior’s vengeance on metaphorical daughters, like the Husband’s vengeance on this metaphorical Wife, is graphically described as sexual violation. In both domains, vocabulary for such assault includes “lifting up the skirt” (Nah 3:5; Jer 13:22–27); the revealing of one’s “shame” (Jer 13:26; Isa 47:2–3); the opening of “gates” (Isa 3:26; Gordon and Washington, 1995); and violence done to the “hind parts” (Jer 13:22). Females in both conceptual domains are called znh, taunted, and raped; in both conceptual domains, Yahweh perpetrates these acts and invites other men to watch (Jer 13:25–27; Nah 3:6; Hos 2:12 [Eng 2:10]).

The domain of “nature.”

In addition to these and other human relationships, prophetic metaphor also draws from the conceptual domain of the nonhuman world. In Hosea alone, the deity is likened to a lion, leopard, maggot, bear, cypress, and showers; Israel becomes a heifer, unturned cake, dove, wild ass, grapes, figs, palm, luxuriant vine, dew, mist, chaff, smoke, lily, and forest. Micah depicts Israel as a heifer who treads grain and sheep gathered in a pen. An extended metaphor in Isaiah 5 portrays Yahweh as a vinedresser whose work proves futile when his vineyard produces wild grapes rather than good fruit.

These and other comparisons allow the Prophets to underscore characteristics conceptually identified with various aspects of the world: the ferocity of bears and lions, the perdurance of the evergreen, the repulsive destruction of maggots. Many interpreters value these nonhuman images as liberating alternatives to sexist imagery—“natural” rather than “social” or “political.” In these metaphors as in human society generally, however, gender constructs not only shape perceptions of the world but also grow in power when they become the unquestioned template for all of reality.

The prophetic proclivity to imbue the world with gender deserves a fuller discussion, but several aspects are noted here:

  • 1. The imposition of patriarchal family roles onto the behavior of animals. Nahum 2 imagines patriarchally defined gender roles as operating in a lion’s den: the (male) lion hunts prey and provides for his “family.” This metaphor shames the king of Assyria (the lion) as unable to fulfill his masculine duty to protect Nineveh (his lioness) and the inhabitants of his land (the cubs)—one of the many ways that the book of Nahum seeks to insult the king of Assyria by maligning his manhood (O’Brien, 2008).
  • 2. The imposition of gendered characteristics onto land. In Isaiah 5, Yahweh the vinedresser digs, clears, plants, builds, and hews his vineyard, but it fails to produce and thus deserves to be destroyed. The underlying assumption of an active agent who inserts seed into a passive agent reflects not only ancient views of agriculture but also, as Carol Delaney (1998) has shown, patriarchally shaped ideologies of procreation. In the Hebrew Bible, both land and women are implanted with seed and prove either fertile or barren; neither male infertility nor farmers’ failures are considered. The fusing of land with the feminine is evident not only in Isaiah 5, in which a love-song is sung for the vineyard, but also strikingly in Hosea 2, in which Israel-the-whoring-wife becomes indistinguishable from Israel-the-land: Yahweh controls not only his wife’s access to food but also the production of the land itself.
  • 3. The combination of conceptual domains. Prophetic literature often pairs nonhuman imagery with gendered human imagery in ways that underscore gender assignments. Depictions of Yahweh as lion interweave with depictions of Yahweh as a Warrior (Isa 31:3–9; Jer 4:6–7, 25:8), both underscoring Yahweh’s masculine might. In Micah 4:13, Daughter Zion becomes a threshing heifer, strong yet subservient: Yahweh’s beast of burden. Isaiah 1:2–4 claims that sons naturally obey fathers just as oxen and donkeys naturally obey masters.

Responses to Gender in the Prophets.

Most second-wave feminists, as noted above, have strongly critiqued the gender ideology of the prophetic books, especially the book of Hosea and its “marriage metaphor” (see multiple essays in Brenner, 1993). Contending that depictions of God the Raping Warrior, God the Beating Father, and God the Abusive Husband are detrimental to women, Cheryl Exum (1995), Gerlinde Baumann (2003), Judith Sanderson (1992), and a host of feminist interpreters have called readers to recognize and resist these appalling misogynist claims about people and about the divine. Many, like Yvonne Sherwood (1996), excoriate interpreters who ignore, explain, or mirror the patriarchal assumptions of these texts. Second-wave feminists have explored other misogynistic imagery in the Prophets as well, including the depiction of evil itself as a woman in Zechariah 5:5 (Barker, 1978) and the repulsion toward the female body in Ezekiel 24 (Galambush, 1992).

A countermovement within second-wave feminism has undertaken the task of retrieval, attempting to discern positive aspects of prophetic imagery. Julianna Claassens (2012), for example, reclaims the positive feminine imagery for Yahweh neglected in feminist discourse: God as Mourner or Wailing Woman (Jer 8:22—9:1) and God as Mother (Isa 42:13–15; 49:15). Sophia Bietenhard praises Micah’s imagery for Daughter Jerusalem, “a kind of imagery that begins with women’s experiences of life, integrates them into its theological reflection, and eventually becomes the creative, formative energy that enables one to manage the present and hope for the future” (Bietenhard, 2012, p. 425). Christl Maier takes a middle ground, suggesting that the feminine personification of Zion as daughter, wife, whore, mother, and queen is so multivalent that its value can only be judged by individual readers (2008, p. 217). While recognizing the marriage metaphor as abusive, Renita Weems (1995) also praises its insistence on human responsibility and the possibilities of love; she calls not for resistance to Hosea’s imagery but for great readers who can both appreciate and talk back to this emotionally powerful text.

Within and alongside second-wave feminism, some interpreters have highlighted the textual and ideological instability of gender in prophetic imagery. In numerous performances of the marriage metaphor, feminine and masculine pronouns unexpectedly shift (O’Brien, 1996), leading Erin Runions to claim that binary gender is assumed not by the text but by the reader (2001). Sherwood’s classic study of Hosea (1996) traces the inconsistencies in its comparisons (Gomer was unfaithful prior to being “taken,” while Israel was once a pure bride). For second-wave feminists, deconstructionist readings the Prophets reveal just how untenable patriarchy’s claims about women really are.

To the contrary, twenty-first-century queer criticism of the Prophets attributes gender shifting in prophetic imagery not to accidental slippages but to the inherent fluidity of gender and sexual desire. In such discussions, Jeremiah has taken center stage. Stuart Macwilliam explores the homoerotic resonances of Jeremiah 20:7 which portrays Yahweh as a “demanding and ineluctable [male] seducer” (Macwilliam, 2002, p. 402) of the unmarried male prophet and criticizes second-wave feminists for essentializing gender, failing to notice the way in which Woman Israel is not only lambasted Whore but also the positive model for the community’s future. Ken Stone (2007) deems the prophet’s repulsion-attraction response to the violent Yahweh in Jeremiah 20:7 as sadomasochistic. Reading from a “translesbigay” perspective, Angela Bauer-Levesque (2006) contends that Jeremiah “embraces gender-fluid images and traditional sexualized power dynamics with pornography dimensions, all mixed together” (p. 388).

Conclusion and Trajectories for Exploration.

Second-wave feminists and queer critics generally agree that prophetic imagery reflects the patriarchal structures of its various source domains. Just as the “everyday” realities of ancient Israel—family, warfare, and the “natural” world—are saturated with power dynamics, so too are the metaphors that rely on those domains. Scholars disagree, however, on the degree to which this imagery necessarily reinforces patriarchy. If readers reject binary definitions of gender and the assumption of heteronormative desire, must they also reject prophetic texts? Might they instead find in the Prophets a kindred queer spirit?

Focused primarily on power dynamics within the source domain of prophetic metaphor, biblical scholars have explored less fully the significance of particular metaphors for the Prophets’ theological/ideological target domain. Comparing Yahweh to Father and Husband within a patriarchally structured family allows the Prophets to promote a theological worldview in which divine power is normal, justified, and beneficent: just as a caring patriarch “must” control the disobedient sons whom he loves, so too the compassionate divine “must” inflict suffering on errant humans. These familial metaphors offer a single explanation of the fall of Israel and Judah: national defeat is divine punishment for human transgression of known commandments. Obscured from view are other causes for Israel’s fate: superior strength of opposing armies, failure of national leadership, divine absence, or divine caprice.




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  • Baumann, Gerlinde. Love and Violence: Marriage as Metaphor for the Relationship between YHWH and Israel in the Prophetic Books. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003.
  • Bietenhard, Sophia. “Micah: Call for Justice—Hope for All.” In Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature, edited by Luise Schottroff and Marie-Therese Wacker, pp. 421–432. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2012.
  • Bird, Phyllis. “‘To Play the Harlot’: An Inquiry into an Old Testament Metaphor.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy L. Day, pp. 75–94. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
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  • Galambush, Julie. Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992.
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  • O’Brien, Julia M. Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
  • Runions, Erin. Changing Subjects: Gender, Nation, and Future in Micah. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.
  • Sanderson, Judith. “Nahum.” In The Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, pp. 217–221. London: SPCK, 1992.
  • Scholz, Susanne. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.
  • Setel, T. Drorah. “Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea.” In Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Letty M. Russell, pp. 86–95. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985.
  • Sherwood, Yvonne. The Prostitute and the Prophet: Hosea’s Marriage in Literary-Theoretical Perspective. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
  • Stone, Ken. “‘You Seduced Me, You Overpowered Me, and You Prevailed’: Religious Experience and Homoerotic Sadomasochism in Jeremiah.” In Patriarchs, Prophets, and Other Villains, edited by Lisa Isherwood, pp. 101–109. London: Equinox, 2007.
  • Weems, Renita J. Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Julia M. O’Brien

Wisdom Literature

The canonical wisdom books (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes/Qoheleth, and the Song of Solomon) span the entire length of ancient Israel’s history. Their content, ascriptions of authorship, and editing range from the period of settlement (1200–1000 B.C.E.) through the monarchies (1000–587 B.C.E.) to the Second Temple period of postcolonial rule (539–63 B.C.E.). Deuterocanonical and other late wisdom books (Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira [Sirach], Wisdom of Solomon, Qumran, New Testament, and Talmud) range from the Greco-Roman periods into late antiquity and beyond (second century B.C.E. to seventh century C.E.).

Gender in the World of the Sages.

Through these varying social contexts, the views of the sages on gender fluctuate over time. The authors’ primary goal of promulgating practices and points of view for a secure Jewish future that would be both rooted in an ancient past and flexible enough to weather changing historical conditions accounts for many strange manifestations of gender ideology in these monotheistic, patriarchal texts, such as scribal goddesses and a female Wisdom participant in God’s work of creation. In every case, the wisdom traditions of the Jewish sages drew from a robust international milieu of bureaucratic, diplomatic literature found throughout the ancient Near East and used in the education of elite males. Sages readily drew from those worlds and their views of women but refined and tweaked those legacies based on the Israelite experiences of the Iron Age through the Roman period. Their gender ideology is uniform in viewing women through the lens of male expectations, experience, and needs, both positive and negative.


Proverbs, the earliest of the wisdom books, provides the basic matrix for thoughts about gender in Israelite and later Jewish society. The book is a composite, probably edited in the Persian or Ptolemaic period but containing materials that might have originated orally among highland tribes (Prov 10—15); clear collections produced under the monarchies (Prov 16—30); adaptation of Egyptian wisdom texts (Prov 22—24); and a final postexilic coda (Prov 31) that is entirely devoted to the trope of positive women. This thematic ending on women, their place in society, and their teachings forms a clear parallel to the Second Temple “theological” introduction of Proverbs 1—9, with its emphasis on a cosmic, female Wisdom and her contrast, the Negative Female.

Scholars disagree about the genesis of these female pairings: Did the goddess-like Woman Wisdom and Woman Stranger shape views of real women of biblical times, or did the experience of real women give contours to the cosmic female figures? Clearly, both arenas interact continuously to shape the sages’ teachings and reflect a single ideology of gender. Though the views on the Female Other shift as a reflection of the different life settings of the sections of Proverbs, especially as the elite, city society begins to predominate over portraits of village life, it is fair to say that no other book within the Law or Prophets gives cosmic or everyday females such a starring role in both structure and content of the text itself.

Wife and mother.

The wife and her role in village and town life during the monarchies is featured in Proverbs 10—30, showing many shared affinities with female characterization found in the rest of the Bible. Some of the characterizations are positive: the sages knew fully well that without the significant participation of women in the economic life of the family, no man or male organization could expect to succeed (Prov 18:22, 19:14; cf. 11:16, 22; 12:4; 14:1). Village economies were based on subsistence agriculture, where women’s work in the “maintenance” activities of production (food, fabrication of textiles, and progeny) and consumption (food preparation and delivery, allotment of clothing, socialization of children) were essential to all aspects of social and material life (Meyers, 2009). Women of the agricultural household often worked in groups of mutual aid based on kinship or contiguity, directed by the senior wife of the unit. Their activities produced informal networks of information and assistance, extending well beyond the nuclear or extended family household. As such, women had vital information about community well-being necessary to the political and leadership activities of their menfolk. Female networks provided many opportunities for the display of daily wisdom in management, settlement of disputes, and training of young children. The use of the “house” motif (that is, the family unit and the spaces it occupies) makes clear that wives have paramount roles in this sphere (Prov 11:19; 12:7; 14:1; 14:11; 15:6; 15:25; 15:27). Their wisdom or folly was rooted in their performance as “lady of the house.”

Other characterizations are negative. A bad wife is a disaster for husband and household. She is compared to dripping leaks in the roof (Prov 19:13; 21:9); it is better to live on the corner of a rooftop than share a domicile with her, and a deserted island is a better option as a dwelling place than her home (Prov 27:15–16). Of course, the sages never question why a woman nags or scolds, but behind every shrew is a husband who has failed in some duty: a sluggard, a lazy or inept worker, a violent or hasty male who troubles his household and disrupts a woman’s smooth running of domestic tasks or, perhaps worst of all, a man who fails to father the precious boy who establishes a wife’s full status and personhood.

The most important form of female “production” was that of creating the next generation, both in terms of biological fertility and subsequent socialization of the young. Any disruption in fertility was disastrous all around. In child rearing, the mother was the earliest teacher for both genders and continued in that role for her daughters as they grew, while men took over the training of sons. Daughters worked inside the household, and though they are never mentioned in Proverbs, the terms for “female servant” probably refer to them. The “mother’s teaching” (literally, “the Torah of the mother”) was binding on children, and valued equally with the father’s (Prov 1:8; 4:3; 6:20; 31:1–9, 26).

The Woman of Substance (Prov 31:11–22).

Proverbs begins with a female Cosmic Wisdom in Proverbs 1—9 (see below); it ends with her earthly incarnation: the exemplary “Strong Woman,” or “Woman of Worth/Substance,” “Strong Woman,” “Good Wife.” This praise poem extolls the wife of an elite household of the Persian or Hellenistic period. She is the source of all of the material goods that Woman Wisdom extended to her male followers in Proverbs 1—9: increased wealth, an orderly, productive household, income from her entrepreneurial work in textiles—all of which bring honor to her husband (Yoder, 2001, pp. 75–93). Like Woman Wisdom, the elite city wife engages very little in the tedious, labor-intensive maintenance activities of her earlier, agricultural, village sister (maidservants/daughters take care of that aspect of production). Rather, she is shown more as household manager, teacher, and highest exemplar of women’s wisdom. Her role as religious teacher and leader is exemplified in her use of language: she teaches a “Torah of ḥesed,” a fleshed-out example of the mother’s Torah of earlier chapters (Prov 31:26). Her special outreach to the poor (that is, a community beyond her household) is especially featured as a subset of her “motherly” knowledge and action. This gendered Torah is elaborated as a different—perhaps even uniquely female—kind of teaching: Motherly Torah is a “Torah of compassion” or “loving kindness.” The Hebrew word for “compassion” is ḥesed, the same word used for “covenant love,” which is God’s special gift to those in Israel’s covenant. This association elevates her teaching and action theologically to a level that far surpasses the image of a meek, kindly, self-effacing, helpful homebody. This connection is usually overlooked by interpreters: clearly, it is easier or more comfortable for some to emphasize the negative characterizations of women that feed a gender ideology of female inferiority and contingencies.

Negative females.

Several different groups of women inversely related to the positive ideology of wives and mothers appear: loose women (usually rendered as “adulteresses”), foolish women, prostitutes, and “strangers” (either due to ethnicity or because they are the wife of another man and thus “strange” and forbidden). In the cosmic treatment of the Negative Female, we will see that this category as a whole aligns with the actions of the forbidden goddesses of surrounding cultures.

The adulteress.

Worse than a simple fornicator, the adulteress earns her horrific portrayal from the fact that she is someone else’s property. A crime of theft and not interpersonal betrayal, adultery persistently poses the potential for male shame. Few things are more heinous to the sages than male inability to control a woman’s sexual activity or secure progeny whose parentage is absolutely beyond reproach. Whether in the tribal life of the village, in the elite life at court, or out of postcolonial concerns over keeping inheritance pure and within the ethnic group, the adulteress evokes patriarchal fears, leading to a transfer of negative goddess characteristics to her and the threat of death to any man who sleeps with her. Worse than a prostitute (zonah; whom one need only “buy” for a day’s bread), this nokriyah, literally “foreign,” is the sum of all male fears.


Far less worrisome to the sages is the simple prostitute (Heb. zonah). Clearly not belonging to any one man, she represents only the opportunity for fornication (not adultery) and can simply be bought for a small sum ((Prov 6:26) and then discarded. Across the ancient international spectrum, young men were advised against such fascinations or sexual outlets: Mesopotamian proverbs consider prostitutes a danger because they do not show loyalty to any one man and possess a ready source of income that makes them independent. Such indulgences lessen a man’s status with other men, and only the legitimate wife can provide a bulwark against her charms.

Like other writers from antiquity, the sages do not consider the dire circumstances that force women into prostitution. The prostitute may be a true “foreigner” with no relative to defend her honor; indeed, it is the lack of a male protector that condemns the prostitute to low status. Her unreliability is showcased in the case of Rahab in Joshua 2, who is portrayed as without loyalty to her own people.

Woman Wisdom and Woman Stranger.

Woman Wisdom appears in the materials of the Second Temple period, as does her Wicked Twin, the composite Woman Stranger. Hebrew language lacks a neuter gender, so abstract concepts (Torah, wisdom, knowledge, insight, etc.) are rendered by the feminine gender, and yet the shocking portrayal of intellectual knowledge as an active, exalted personified female is not simply a matter of grammatical convention.

Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 1—9 has been seen as an Israelite shadow of scribal goddesses Ma’at in Egypt, whom kings must possess or fail as kings, or Nisaba in ancient Sumer, who rewards the sages with all kinds of benefits (Lang, 1975; Clifford, 1999). She carries the traits of other goddesses as well: the flexible Hathor of Egypt, goddess of love, war, and acrobats, may be the origin of the Darling Girl frolicking before the biblical God at creation (Prov 8:21 ff.; Lang, 1975); Isis, the foundation of the Pharaoh’s throne, may give the mothering aspect to personified Wisdom of the Jesus Movement (Meyers et al., 2000). The Goddess-Bride of the sacred marriage rites between kings and goddesses (represented by elite priestesses) may underlie the sages’ urgings to make Wisdom one’s mate (“say to Wisdom, ‘My Sister,’” Prov 7:4). For other interpreters, Woman Wisdom is the Jewish answer to the wisdom goddesses of the Greco-Roman philosophy with which Israel came into contact during the Second Temple period (Fox, 2000). Along with the goddesses found lurking behind her skirts, Wisdom is also imaged in ways that relate directly to biblical traditions of wife and mother, teacher and manager, elite wife, and loving partner (see above). She also shares traits with Israelite prophets in her angry, public denunciation of those who stray from her teachings.

The negative repository of all the sages’ fear is Wisdom’s twin, Woman Stranger/Woman Folly. Imaged as vindictive goddess, adulteress, forbidden wife of another, outsider to the insider ethnic group, or just an overwhelming compilation of all negative gendered traits, she too displays strong mythological influences. She brings death to innocent (or just plain stupid) males who fall for her allure (Prov 2:16–19; 6:26; 7:22–27; 9:18), like the scorned goddess of epic traditions (Clifford, 1999). Emphasis on female speech is a trope: her words are “smooth” and oily—that is, pleasing and seductive, thus dangerous to men. Only the blessings and rewards of sweet-talking cosmic Woman Wisdom (Prov 2:16–19; 5:1–23; 6:20–35) or the charms of one’s own wife (Prov 5:18–20) are proof against the charms and tricks of the Negative Female.

The Book of Job.

Job’s story is set in the patriarchal ancestor period but was in all likelihood composed in the Second Temple period. Although Job is a foreigner, all of his values reflect the biblical ideals, and gendered concepts continue the basic themes found in Proverbs. Job’s wife encourages him to end his suffering by cursing God, prompting a quick death by retributive punishment. While this may be quite sensible, it prompts Job to compare her speech to that of “foolish women” (Job 2:9–10), implying that “wise women” exist as well. By the end of Job’s tribulations, he has reconsidered the meaning of female kin: his daughters are cited by name in Job 42:13–15 (his new sons are not), and Job defies custom by giving them an inheritance along with their brothers (Fontaine, 1982; Follis, 1987). The “Wisdom” that is the topic in Job 28’s Wisdom Hymn is usually interpreted as an abstraction, but ecotheologians have questioned whether it might well be Woman Wisdom appearing here, witnessed to by all of Earth’s creatures and entities, even the Pit (Habel, 2003)


The latest canonical book, Ecclesiastes, displays an elite ennui and disgust with life that has been correlated with male shame induced by colonial rule (Seow, 1997). Such shame causes the author to view all others as instruments (concubines, slaves, entertainers or as allegorical tropes for the body in old age), not as persons related to him in a meaningful way; he has no use for women’s procreative capacities. While his summary teaching suggests “seizing the day” by rejoicing with one’s own wife, he spends more time warning about the woman who traps men in her snares (Eccl 7:26–28). “Woman as threat” is a familiar motif from Proverbs and other regional wisdom traditions.

Gendered Wisdom in the Apocrypha.

Jewish wisdom literature (Sirach Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and Esdras) continues the tropes begun in Proverbs: Woman Wisdom is Mother, Bride, Teacher, and Torah. She gains significant enhancement from her association with the hallmark of Jewish identity, the revealed Torah, but also absorbs many of the features and activities of the Hellenistic Isis (Kloppenborg, 1982; Reese, 1970). In her composite form, which links goddesses in a positive way to the traditions of an exemplary Torah given to the Jews, she is more than a match for the Greek Athena and Roman Minerva, or the various ideologies of Philosophy as superior to Jewish traditions.

The Dead Sea Scrolls.

Female Wisdom appears in the sectarian instructions of 4Q185 and 4Q525, where she is decisively equated with the Torah. This move continues Proverbs’ celebration of Woman Wisdom, a source of instruction for godly and pure living (Harrington, 1996). Even more interesting is the treatment of Woman Folly/Strange Woman in 4Q184 where she has become the complete amalgam of death-dealing goddesses, lurking to lure men into the pit. This epitome of wickedness has been thoroughly demonized, with her “filth” (that is, menstrual blood) in her skirts almost more abhorrent to the authors than the death that it symbolizes. In the heightened purity fixations of the Qumran communities, female blood—a positive source of pure heritage that secures the election of the chosen community—has utterly morphed into the defiling symbol of embodiment and become equivalent to the rotting grave.

Wisdom in the New Testament.

The New Testament fully appropriates the Cosmic Wisdom of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus interprets himself as a sage-child who vindicates Mother Wisdom in Luke 7:35. Woman Wisdom’s deeds vindicate her in Matthew 11:19, and she sends prophets and apostles in Luke 11:49 (all three passages are derived from the Sayings Source, Q). In 1 Corinthians 1:24, the identity of Jesus is handled differently with respect to female personification: Paul symbolically transforms Jesus’s gender, calling him the sophia (Gk.“wisdom”) of God, thus removing the Mother Wisdom of the Gospels from the equation. Many of these ideas are developed more fully in noncanonical Christian literature of the period: the Sayings Source Q, the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of John (Gilhus, 2008), the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and various Gnostic texts of wisdom mythology. The Christological hymns in John and Colossians clearly draw on Jewish wisdom mythology derived from Proverbs 8, Wisdom 7:25–28, and Sirach 24:3–22, positing Christ as preexistent, like Wisdom in Proverbs 8.

The Song of Solomon.

Viewed by most as a collection of love lyrics thematically organized around seeking and finding, the Song of Solomon links earlier ideas to later, lush love poems, mostly in the female voice. Usually dated to sometime in the Hellenistic period, it has much earlier antecedents in Mesopotamian ritual texts (the Sacred Marriage Rite; Nissinen and Uro, 2008, pp. 173–218) and Egyptian love poetry from the New Kingdom (Songs of the Harper; Fox, 1985). Some have postulated their use as an epithalmion, a praise poem recited as part of wedding feasts (Murphy, 1990). However, the poems are drenched in the local territory and key vocabulary of the Promised Land that invite a more materialist interpretation. The explicit language and astonishing portrait of female speech and agency outside of (or preceding) a marital relationship scandalized both Jewish and Christian authorities, prompting deliberate mistranslation of some pronouns to gender the sexual advances made as male. The overall allegorizing of the characters, locations, and motifs transforms the Song into a story of love between God and Israel (both land and inhabitants) or Christ and the church/soul. Interpretations resulting from such allegorizing have been far-fetched, but unsuccessful in dampening the plain sense of the text: love is as strong as death.

Gender-bending characterization.

The love story between a rural girl and her shepherd love, or a young woman at court, betrothed to King Solomon and denigrated by the city women of Jerusalem, is told in images and scenes that drip with honey. They conjure up visions of luscious and dangerous love that drives the partners to daring acts of pursuit. Neither character is directly named. “Solomon” appears in the “king fiction,” a technique often used to render atypical texts acceptable to conservative editors (so, too, with the cynical and agnostic Ecclesiastes’s linkage to Solomon). The male lover is sometimes shepherd, sometimes elite king of the Jerusalem court; he is imaged as an apple (?) tree, grand sculpture, and gazelle; and he also shyly peeps through the lattices of the girl’s home. The female protagonist, “Beloved,” is similarly difficult to identify. She is sometimes a village guardian of vineyards familiar with the hills where her shepherd love finds pasture; at other times, she is associated with the royal court, seen coming up from the desert in a luxurious (wedding?) procession, and sometimes also saddled with officious brothers seeking to marry her off advantageously. She is mistaken for a prostitute and portrayed as a bride dancing between two (hostile?) kin groups at her marriage celebration. She initiates intimate encounters, seeking her love in the nighttime streets or by the daytime watering holes of his flock. She imagines him in her dreams, in her mother’s bedroom, in gardens with pure springs and wells, in fields bursting into bloom, beneath the apple tree where her mother enjoyed intimacies, and at private meals in a banqueting house or his chambers, where his lovemaking is the sweetest food of all. She talks about her love openly to the all-female group of onlookers, the Daughters of Jerusalem, who interact like background singers to the lead vocal diva.

Both lovers are likened to elements of the natural world that “cross-gender” ancient expectations: each partner is both mobile and stationary. The common gender ideology is evident: she is fixed and civilized, busily providing fruits to be consumed, while he is mobile and wild, doing as he pleases according to his animal nature. While the image of the male lover as a gazelle suggests unrestricted movement, he also is portrayed as standing still, a nonthreatening tree or sculpted work of art reminiscent of columns of the Temple. Likewise, images for Beloved are dual: some emphasize her “rooted” and fertile nature to which access is restricted (a locked garden, a dove in a rock cleft, a dweller inside garden walls), but others show her remarkable mobility (searching night and day, a flock of goats or ewes, flowing waters). Striking military imagery is applied to her; delicate animal beauty is attributed to him. The two find parity when they move toward each other or find stillness in each other’s company.

Reversing the curse.

Genesis 3:16B has long been interpreted as enforcing gender hierarchy on the basis of a supposed “curse” in response to an “original sin” of a sexual nature. While essential to patriarchal control of women, such an interpretation cannot be supported textually (Meyers, 1989; Trible, 1978). Beloved’s words in Song of Solomon 7:10 correct perverse readings of Genesis 3 and foreground the equality of sexes both made in the Divine Image (Gen 1:26–28): “I am my Beloved’s; his desire is for me!” Desire between the cross-gendered partners—both moving, both fixed—is underscored for its equalizing effect: she desires him, he desires her, and it leads not to death but to new life. If the Song was indeed collected, edited, and promoted by the Sages, it embodies a cosmic wisdom most essential to the children of Earth.




  • Clifford, Richard. Proverbs: A Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1999.
  • Follis, Elaine R., ed. Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 40. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987.
  • Fontaine, Carole R. Traditional Sayings in the Old Testament: A Contextual Study. Bible and Literature 5. Sheffield, U.K.: Almond, 1982.
  • Fontaine, Carole R. Smooth Words: Women, Proverbs, and Performance in Biblical Wisdom. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
  • Fox, Michael V. The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
  • Fox, Michael V. Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
  • Gilhus, Ingvild Sælid. “Sacred Marriage and Spiritual Knowledge: Relations between Carnality and Salvation in the Apocryphon of John.” In Sacred Marriages: The Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity, edited by Martti Nissinen and Risto Uro, pp. 487–510. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2008.
  • Habel, Norman C. “The Implications of God Discovering Wisdom in Earth.” In Job 28: Cognition in Context, edited by Ellen vanWolde, pp. 281–297. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.
  • Habel, Norman C., and Shirley Wurst. The Earth Story in Wisdom Traditions. Earth Bible 3. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.
  • Harrington, Daniel J. Wisdom Texts from Qumran. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Kloppenborg, John S. “Isis and Sophia in the Book of Wisdom.” Harvard Theological Review 75 (1982): 57–84.
  • Lang, Bernhard. Frau Weisheit: Deutung einer biblischen Gestalt. Düsseldorf, Germany: Patmos, 1975.
  • Meyers, Carol. Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Meyers, Carol. “In the Household and Beyond: The Social World of Israelite Women.” Studia Theologica 63 (2009): 19–41.
  • Meyers, Carol, ed. Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
  • Murphy, Roland E. The Song of Songs: A Commentary on the Book of Canticles or the Song of Songs. Edited by S. Dean McBride Jr. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.
  • Nissinen, Martti, and Risto Uro, eds. Sacred Marriages: The Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2008.
  • Reese, James M. Hellenistic Influence on the Book of Wisdom and Its Consequences. Analecta Biblica 41. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970.
  • Seow, C. L. Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible Commentaries 18, pt. 3. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
  • Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.
  • Yoder, Christine Roy. Wisdom as a Woman of Substance:a Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1–9 and 31:10–31. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001.

Carole R. Fontaine

Apocalyptic Literature

Readers of the great literary apocalypses may quickly discern that they have entered a man’s world. The most influential apocalypses all feature male narrators: Enoch, Daniel, Ezra, Baruch, Abraham, John, Hermas, Peter, and Isaiah. Apocalyptic visions often depict the world in terms of men (or male beings) and their struggles: the Watchers of Enoch, the Son of Man of Enoch and Daniel, the wise of Daniel, and the 144,000 of Revelation are all male. Commentators still grapple with assessing Revelation, which defines its feminine symbols primarily in terms of sexual status—whore, mother, and bride—while its “men” experience a fuller range of activities, including the use of women. However, when we attend to the texts in more detail, and when we apply gender analysis to male as well as female imagery, things grow more complicated—and more interesting.

Apocalyptic Visionaries.

With notable exceptions, Jewish and Christian literary apocalypses feature pseudonymous male narrators, who describe the experience of their visions. For example, when the book of Daniel turns from the section of court legends (chs. 1—6) to its visionary section, the narrative voice moves from third person to first person, from a description of the adventures of Daniel and his colleagues to an extended recitation of Daniel’s own visionary experiences (7:2; see 10:1–2). The rest of the book continues as first person reportage (though see 10:1–2). The notable exceptions include Revelation and Hermas, which do not rely on pseudonymity, along with the Sibylline Oracles and the two apocalypses of Mary, which feature women as visionaries. Although the Sibylline Oracles do reveal the future, as some apocalypses do, they do not technically constitute literary apocalypses.

The apocalyptic visionaries function as characters within their own first-person narratives. Their pseudonymity provides several clues for gender-sensitive approaches to their characterization. For one, all of the pseudonymous visionaries bring authority to their apocalypses. Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Ezra, Baruch, Peter, and Paul all represent important figures in these sacred stories. Daniel’s history remains murkier, though the attachment of his visionary reports to legends concerning his wisdom and ability to interpret dreams suggests that ancient audiences may have been more familiar with him. Moreover, the visionaries all carry mystical associations: some traditions credit Enoch, Moses, and Baruch with having escaped death, while Moses and Isaiah have directly seen God.

In addition to their authority and mystical credentials, apocalyptic visionaries inherit an array of conventional behaviors from the biblical tradition, including encounters with sacred beings. Visionaries therefore deport themselves according to the same patterns that apply to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and other biblical characters who encounter angels and experience theophanies. Such encounters place heroic men in a complicated social space: though they are great masculine heroes who lead households and peoples, display remarkable courage, and exercise great authority, they find themselves facing beings of higher status. In apocalypses they fall prostrate, plead ignorance, act as suppliants, undergo (sometimes severe) correction, and lose control of their own bodies. The apocalypses go to great lengths to demonstrate not their masculine self-control but their human vulnerability.

Daniel provides a fairly typical case. Daniel 1—6 locates Daniel among those high-status young men who were “without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace” (1:4, NRSV). Daniel and three colleagues demonstrate their religious fidelity by abstaining from the king’s luxurious diet, yet after ten days they look more impressive (“better and fatter”) than their peers (1:15). In addition to his trust in God, Daniel’s skills include facility regarding visions and dreams (1:17). Daniel and his friends demonstrate “ten times” the competence of the king’s resident magicians (1:20). In the king’s service Daniel achieves success and status, serving as patron for his friends (2:49). He even shows generosity toward the Babylonian wise men competing with him for status (2:24). Daniel remains faithful to God despite potentially deadly tests. Parts of the story go so far as to contrast Daniel’s masculine resolve with the debasement, confusion, and inconstancy shown by the great kings (see 4:32–33; 5:1–10; 6:14–18).

In contrast, the book’s visionary section features a different Daniel. First-person verbs figure prominently, inviting readers to align their perspective with Daniel’s. “I watched” and “as I was watching” recur in chapters 7 and 8. Heavenly beings address Daniel directly (7:16; 8:16–17; 9:21–23; 10:10–21) and affirm Daniel’s favor in the sight of God (9:23; 10:11, 19; 12:13). Daniel shows a great deal of initiative in this visionary section. He fasts, prays, and seeks clarification from his heavenly guides. But Daniel also records his moments of weakness, confusion, and fear (7:15, 28; 8:15–17, 27; 10:8–9, 15–17). The section even suggests that Daniel’s visions make him ill (7:28; 8:27; 10:8). Daniel, like all the apocalyptic visionaries, embodies a combination of virtue, strength, and vulnerability that complicates stereotypical presentations of ancient Mediterranean masculinity.

Characters and Symbols.

Given the nature of apocalyptic discourse, interpreters may struggle to distinguish between an apocalypse’s straightforward characters and its symbols. For example, Revelation 2 characterizes a woman prophet as “Jezebel.” The name is symbolic, as it invites readers to imagine connections between this prophet and the biblical Jezebel, but the text seems to connote an actual individual known to the audience. By contrast, we interpret Revelation’s Whore as a symbol. Though most commentators agree that the Whore has something to do with Roman imperialism, she does not indicate a single individual or institutional reality but evokes a larger set of associations. The distinction is challenging for gender-critical interpretation.

First Enoch and Jubilees relate a common tradition concerning a group of angels called the Watchers. (Though Jubilees is not a literary apocalypse, it participates heavily in apocalyptic motifs.) Both texts provide interpretations of the bizarre passage in Genesis 6:1–4, in which the “sons of God” see that mortal women are beautiful and take (lqḥ) women for themselves, producing a race of Nephilim, or giants. The Genesis account immediately precedes the story of the great flood. Enoch and Jubilees link the two stories by identifying the Watchers as rebellious angels who cause great corruption and violence, thereby provoking God to send the flood. In both 1 Enoch and Jubilees God judges these angels, consigning them to a realm of punishment.

The first section of 1 Enoch, the Book of the Watchers (chs. 1—36), devotes more attention to these angels than does Jubilees. It even provides their names (6:7–8). The account says little about the Watchers. They are male, and they are motivated by desire. They know in advance that their deed is sinful. The account does not reflect any interest in the women’s responses: they give birth to the Watchers’ monstrous offspring, and the Watchers provide the women with forbidden knowledge. The combination of gigantic offspring and forbidden knowledge leads to the violence that provokes divine judgment. From the point of 1 Enoch and Jubilees, that the Watchers find the women attractive provides sufficient explanation for their motives. The two traditions show no interest in the responses or experiences of the women: not only are they passive sexual objects, they are also passive recipients of forbidden knowledge.

Some apocalypses devote a great deal of attention to male angels and their place in the heavenly realm. First Enoch opens with references to God’s mighty army and thousands of holy ones, an appearance that terrifies the Watchers (1:4–9). This scenario implies a militant host of male heavenly beings, some aligned with God and others in opposition. The Book of the Watchers offers conflicting traditions regarding the names of the angels and their rankings. Shemihazah leads the wicked Watchers with the support of a hierarchically ranked set of other named angels (6:3–7). Each possesses specialized knowledge (8:1–3). Meanwhile, God commissions four archangels—Michael, Sariel, Raphael, and Gabriel—with distinctive assignments (chs. 9—10): 1 Enoch 87:2 assigns their appearance as that of “white men.” However, 1 Enoch 20:1–7 names seven (not four; see 90:71) archangels and their jurisdictions. All of these beings receive masculine names. The Book of the Luminaries, another of 1 Enoch’s constituent parts (chs. 72—82), begins with the motions of the sun and the moon but goes on to elaborate the jurisdictions of various angels who regulate the heavenly bodies (see esp. 82:9–20).

Every literary apocalypse includes an interpreting angel, a male being who instructs the visionary and interprets the vision. These beings, who sometimes but not always receive names, routinely inspire fear through their very appearance. On occasion, however, visionaries “talk back” to these angelic mediators. Though Uriel admonishes Ezra that his “understanding has utterly failed” (4:2), Enoch abandons neither his questions nor his complaint.

The enigmatic Son of Man figure emerges in apocalyptic literature. Some interpreters translate the term as “Human One,” reflecting ordinary use. Ezekiel, for example, employs the phrase 93 times (Collins and Collins, 2008, p. 75; the NRSV renders the Hebrew term, ben adam, as “mortal” in Ezekiel). Ezekiel shares some characteristics with the literary apocalypses: the prophet experiences miraculous transportation and receives visions of the divine throne and the ideal Jerusalem; his visions include a climactic battle; and the vision of the dry bones sounds very much like a resurrection. Indeed, Ezekiel heavily influences the great literary apocalypses. However, in Daniel, the Similitudes of Enoch (1 En. 37—71), 4 Ezra, and Revelation, “Son of Man” clearly indicates more than an ordinary mortal.

Daniel describes “one like a Son of Man” riding the clouds of heaven (7:13). The imagery recalls Yahweh, who rides upon the clouds (see Pss. 68:4; 104:3), though this one like a Son of Man is presented before the Ancient of Days. Among other things, the one like a Son of Man receives dominion while all peoples serve him. The Similitudes of Enoch adapts the scene from Daniel, including its description of the Ancient of Days (46:1; see Dan 7:9), but now the Son of Man is a definite figure: an eschatological judge and messiah who attains divine status. Revelation draws upon this same imagery, though with differences: the risen Jesus himself takes on the characteristics of the Ancient of Days (1:13–15). Fourth Ezra, a Jewish apocalypse written very close to the composition of Revelation, likewise blends messianic aspirations with the Son of Man as a heavenly being: he flies with the clouds, vanquishes his enemies, and forms a peaceable people (13:1–13). The apocalypses present somewhat diverse images of the Son of Man, but they all involve an eschatological figure who restores order. The Similitudes, Revelation, and 4 Ezra attach messianic associations to the figure, as does Revelation. With respect to gender, this male eschatological actor embodies ferocity and executes justice.

Animals figure prominently in apocalyptic imagery. In almost every case the animals are male, but we encounter some exceptions. All of the menacing beasts are male, though their masculinity is more assumed than emphasized. Daniel’s fourth beast is “terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong” (7:7), while the ram with two horns is also characterized by his strength (8:4). Revelation’s enormous dragon, identified as Satan, fights against Michael and the angels and chases the woman clothed with the sun. Frustrated in his pursuit, the dragon demonstrates anger and makes war on the saints (Rev 12:1–18). The beast of Revelation 13 reflects features from Daniel 7, notably arrogance and hostility. The Shepherd of Hermas 23—24 likewise features a beast, though this beast represents persecution rather than a particular political reality.

The “Animal Apocalypse” (1 En. 85—90) lays out human history through a succession of animals. Adam appears as a bull, Eve as a cow, and their descendants as a race of bulls and cows. When one of their children, a red calf, disappears, the Eve-cow searches for it and laments until the Adam-bull comes to quiet her (85:6–7). The Animal Apocalypse treats wicked characters as black bulls or as predatory species—all male—and the elect as calves, bulls, sheep, and other domesticated animals. Beyond Eve and the women who are impregnated by the Watchers (who take the guise of black bulls with prominent penises), the account includes women among the cattle but does not dwell upon them in any specific way. The actors are all male, including rams and shepherds, who receive authority over the sheep from time to time.

Revelatory Women.

Both 4 Ezra and the Shepherd of Hermas feature women whose presence provides a primary vehicle for revelation.

Fourth Ezra consists of a series of seven visions, and many interpreters regard the fourth vision as not only the center of the series but also its turning point. In visions 1–3 the seer continues to pose challenges to his heavenly interlocutor, but in visions 5–7 he is compliant. Vision 4 (9:38—10:59) offers the most dramatic moment in the overall apocalypse, characterized through a grieving mother. After Ezra has spoken his mind, he turns and sees a woman who is clearly in a state of grief. Her only son, born after thirty years of barrenness, has died upon entering his wedding chamber. She intends to mourn and fast until she dies. Ezra, preoccupied with his own grief over Jerusalem’s destruction, offers poor consolation. Having called her “most foolish of women” (10:6), he compares her devastation to Zion’s, offers her hope of meeting her son in the resurrection, and tells her to return to her husband. Ezra attempts to counsel the woman a second time, but then the woman is transformed. Her face flashes like lightning, and she cries aloud, shaking the earth with the volume of her voice. Terrified, Ezra averts his gaze. When he looks up, the woman has disappeared and in her place stands a great city. Uriel comes and explains to Ezra that the woman “is” Zion. The vision has allowed Ezra to see Zion’s true glory.

Many contemporary readers will find themselves taken aback by the gendered dynamics of Ezra’s encounter with the woman. The story affirms that Ezra receives the vision of her glory because he truly tried to comfort her (10:49–50). Few would find his behavior particularly comforting. On the other hand, the seer finds himself overwhelmed by the intensity of the woman’s transformed appearance and her loud cry (10:25–26).

Fourth Ezra’s woman Zion provides an interesting contrast with Hermas’s woman church. Both images provide interpretations of a collective reality, the glory of God’s people (Humphrey, 1995). However, the woman who appears in Hermas plays an even more critical role in the development of that apocalypse. Hermas begins with a series of five visions, four of which feature the woman. In the first the former slave encounters his owner, Rhoda, whom he had once desired. Rhoda scolds him for this sin and calls him to pray for mercy. Later Hermas encounters a different woman, elderly and radiant in appearance. She too admonishes Hermas for his conduct and exhorts him to manliness. Hermas’s second vision again features the elderly woman, who hands over a book she had read to Hermas in the first vision. Hermas wrongly guesses that the woman is the Sibyl, only to learn that she instead embodies the church. Her age reflects how the world was created for the church’s sake. The elderly woman again appears in Hermas’s third vision, encouraging him to pray for righteousness. The woman now reveals a tower: “The tower that you see being built, it is I, the church” (11.3, author’s translation). Throughout Hermas the tower constitutes the prevailing symbol for the church: good stones fit in, and poor stones do not. (At this point the apocalypse also introduces seven women who embody the virtues necessary for inclusion in the tower: faith, self-control, simplicity, knowledge, innocence, dignity, and love.) Vision 3 concludes with a revelation concerning the three forms in which the woman has revealed herself: elderly and seated, elderly but standing and with a more youthful face, and finally young and beautiful. These three forms reflect diverse states of spiritual strength. A young woman, dressed as if coming from her bridal chamber, guides Hermas through vision 4.

Hermas’s reference to the Sibyl reflects ancient women’s frequent participation in oracular activity. In Greco-Roman tradition the Sibyls are aged women who deliver their oracles in a state of fierce frenzy. Often based at revered sites, the Sibyls uttered veiled prophecies concerning public events. Roman officials routinely consulted the Sibyl at Cumae. Jews and Christians alike developed books of Sibylline Oracles, which often addressed their own historical and cultural concerns.

Assessing Revelation.

Revelation poses a classic case for gender-sensitive interpretation of apocalyptic literature. Its dramatic symbols include four women: “Jezebel” (a pseudonym for an actual woman), the woman clothed with the sun, Babylon the prostitute, and the New Jerusalem, adorned as a bride for her husband. Aligned with the lamb are the woman clothed with the sun and the New Jerusalem, the lamb curses Jezebel, while Babylon is aligned with the beast and consigned to destruction. All four figures are defined primarily in terms of their sexual status: the wicked women are identified with sexual sin (porneia), the woman clothed with the sun gives birth, and the New Jerusalem dresses as a bride.

We may also assess the roles of Revelation’s male characters. Male protagonists fight to establish their power (Moore, 1999) and relate to these women in sexualized ways: the lamb throws Jezebel on a bed, the dragon (Satan, 12:9) pursues the woman clothed with the sun and seeks to devour her child, Babylon rides the beast, and the lamb marries the New Jerusalem. If we may assume Revelation’s saints to be male, they receive instructions to “come out” from Babylon (18:4) and an invitation to “come” to the bride and enter the city (22:17; Pippin, 1992, p. 82). Meanwhile, both Jezebel and Babylon participate in porneia with the lamb’s enemies and later suffer sexualized degradation (2:21–23; 17:16; 18:3, 9). Most remarkable is the depiction of the lamb’s 144,000 followers, who “have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins” (14:4).

Clothing imagery attends three of the four women. The woman of Revelation 12 is clothed with the sun and wears a crown (12:1); Babylon wears purple and scarlet and is “adorned with gold and jewels and pearls” (17:4); and the bride wears white linen (19:8)—though the New Jerusalem herself is also adorned with precious stones, gold, and pearls. Clothing provides a less significant marker for the male counterparts of these women, though tattoos do play a role for both male and female symbols (13:1; 17:5; 19:12, 16): the lamb’s robe is dipped in blood (19:13; see 1:13); the lamb, dragon, and beast alike wear crowns or diadems (12:3; 13:1; 19:12).

With respect to gender, ethical and theological appraisals tend to cluster around the sexualized ways in which Revelation presents “Jezebel,” the woman clothed with the sun, Babylon, and the bride. Some interpreters regard this pattern as irredeemably misogynistic: positively or negatively, Revelation values women only in terms of their sexual status (Pippin, 1992). Others emphasize that Revelation appropriates stock images from biblical prophecy and Greco-Roman iconography: the images may indeed carry misogyny, but they aim to destabilize Roman kyriarchy (Rossing, 1999; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1991). Still others acknowledge Revelation’s problematic symbolism but also point out the power and influence assigned to Revelation’s female symbols (Collins, 2009). And still others observe that while Revelation participates in ancient misogynistic imagery, it undermines that system in significant ways (Huber, 2007).

Fewer interpreters have addressed masculinity in Revelation. Stephen Moore (2009) reads Revelation as striving toward masculinity through dominance, a “hypermasculinity” that betrays its own vulnerability and ultimately undermines itself. Tina Pippin (1992) perceives in Revelation not merely the subordination of women but a deep aversion toward them: the New Jerusalem includes only men.

Sexuality and Asceticism.

Ancient apocalyptic literature reflects an emphasis on sexual asceticism and sexual sin. The Book of the Watchers and Jubilees share a common concern regarding interspecies sex between the Watchers and mortal women. The Essenes, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul apparently all practiced celibacy (see also Rev 14:4). In his dispute with the Sadducees Jesus imagines a postresurrection state in which marriage is obsolete (Matt 22:30; Luke 20:34–36): the Essenes apparently believed they lived among angels, while Jesus imagined an angelic postresurrection state, a tradition reflected in Hermas (101.24; 102.2; Bucur, 2006). Hermas begins with the visionary being scolded for looking upon Rhoda with desire (1.1–9), though sexuality constitutes a relatively minor interest for that apocalypse (though see Hermas 29—32). Quite striking are the punishments for sexual sin set forth in the Apocalypse of Peter and the (later and derivative) Apocalypse of Paul. These sins receive no more attention than others, but the Apocalypse of Peter does reflect ancient assumptions about gender roles and sexuality: women who adorn themselves to attract men hang by their hair, while adulterous men hang by their genitals.


Ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature features male visionaries, male heavenly beings, and for the most part male actors. On the other hand, this literature also includes women and men as vehicles of revelation, occasionally imagines women in powerful albeit symbolic roles, and sometimes undermines conventional gender expectations.




  • Bucur, Bogdan. “Observations on the Ascetic Doctrine of the Shepherd of Hermas.” Studia Monastica 48 (2006): 7–23.
  • Collins, Adela Yarbro. “Feminine Symbolism in the Book of Revelation.” In A Feminist Companion to the Apocalypse of John, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, pp. 121–130. Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings 13. London: T&T Clark, 2009.
  • Collins, Adela Yarbro, and John J. Collins. King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008.
  • Huber, Lynn R. Like a Bride Adorned: Reading Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse. Emory Studies in Early Christianity 12. New York: T&T Clark, 2007.
  • Humphrey, Edith McEwan. The Ladies and the Cities: Transformation and Apocalyptic Identity in Joseph and Aseneth, 4 Ezra, the Apocalypse and the Shepherd of Hermas. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement Series 17. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
  • Levine, Amy-Jill, ed. A Feminist Companion to the Apocalypse of John. Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings 13. London: T&T Clark, 2009.
  • Moore, Stephen D. “War Making Men Making War: The Performance of Masculinity in the Revelation to John.” In The Apocalyptic Imagination: Aesthetics and Ethics at the End of the World, edited by S. Brent Plate, pp. 84–94. Glasgow, U.K.: Trinity St. Mungo, 1999.
  • Moore, Stephen D. “Hypermasculinity and Divinity.” In A Feminist Companion to the Apocalypse of John, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, pp. 180–204. Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings 13. London: T&T Clark, 2009.
  • Pippin, Tina. Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse of John. Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1992.
  • Rossing, Barbara R. The Choice between Two Cities: Whore, Bride, and Empire in the Apocalypse. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1999.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Proclamation Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.

Greg Carey


Both “imagery” and “gender” are highly contested categories in New Testament scholarship; thus, some definitions and caveats are in order. For this entry, “imagery” refers to mentions of concrete objects, actions, or scenes that evoke sense impressions for the audience. Imagery functions on multiple levels, drawing upon the conceptual domain(s) invoked by concrete references to suggest deeper significance. In literary-critical terms, “imagery” includes such figures of speech as metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, synecdoche, archetypes, and symbolism. Interpreting literary imagery is complicated because such images carry different connotations for readers across temporal, geographic, and linguistic divides. Furthermore, with the exception of “parables,” the Gospels rarely explicitly label literary images as such. (The only place where “image” [eikon] is mentioned explicitly in the Gospels is when Jesus points to Caesar’s image on a coin in Matthew 22:20//Mark 12:16//Luke 20:24.)

Furthermore, contemporary gender theory underscores that “gender” is a socially constructed category that does certain kinds of ideological work. Categories like “female,” “male,” “femininity,” and “masculinity” are necessarily context-contingent; gendered behavior is subtly acculturated, performed, upheld, and contested across different cultures. Thus, “gender” should not be simplistically equated with so-called natural, biological gender, or fixed “sex.” Queer studies helpfully challenges the monolithic heterosexual male/female binary, understanding gender and sexuality as open to constant variation.

Recognizing that gender is socially shaped illuminates the essentialist discourses about gender found in many ancient sources. As Colleen Conway and others demonstrate, ancient views of gender were constructed on a sliding scale, with ideal “manhood” or “womanhood” dependent upon social status, im/moral character, and specific roles and behaviors (2008, pp. 164–167). Most extant ancient literature, crafted by elite males, reflects a dualistic understanding of “maleness” and “femaleness,” often using this reductionistic view as a metaphorical means of organizing society. Ancient elite male authors typically further their own patriarchal interests; traditionally, modern scholars have reinscribed these assumptions in their readings of biblical texts. Contemporary feminists rightly deconstruct such tendencies, pointing out that gender constructions have always been contested, subverted, and destabilized; the Gospels exhibit deep ambivalences over “appropriate” gender roles and spaces. Although masculine imagery is ubiquitous, this androcentrism reflects males’ hegemony at the time, not their inherent moral or spiritual superiority. Gender is not tied to goodness or badness per se in the Gospels; men and women provide positive and negative examples. The Gospels also lack explicit references to standard Greco-Roman tropes regarding gender, such as the view that male bodies were hot, dry, dense, and strong, whereas female bodies were cold, wet, porous, and weak. Biblical scholars have begun identifying potentially transgender, gender-neutral, and/or cross-gender Gospel imagery in order to broaden the conversations around gender and biblical interpretation.

An additional complicating factor is that Greek and English indicate gender differently. Translation is always inexact due to semantic asymmetry (when the source language lacks lexical equivalents in the target language). For instance, Greek indicates gender using inflected nouns, adverbs, and adjectives, whereas English restricts gender designators to pronouns like “she” and “he.” Some Greek words are lexically gendered (e.g., sophia, which is feminine), but the referent itself is not gender-specific. Writers also describe male figures engaged in biologically female activities like childbirth (e.g., Septuagint [LXX] of Deuteronomy 32:13). Thus, identifying “gendered” images invites further reflection on if/how gender is relevant in any given context.

In light of the foregoing, this entry describes the multiple, sometimes contradictory ways that Gospel imagery constructs, utilizes, and represents gender. The discussion is organized into categories of conceptually gendered referents.

Gendered Imagery for the Godhead.

Language projects gendered imagery, drawn from human experience, onto God, who transcends gender. Although the preponderance of male God imagery and grammatically masculine God references leads many to think God is ontologically male, the Gospels include feminine images for the Godhead as well.

Gendered imagery for God.

Perhaps the most familiar biblical archetype for God is that of “God as Father.” Jesus calls God “Father” (or the more intimate Aramaic term “Abba,” Mark 14:36) throughout the Gospels (e.g., Matt 5:16, 45; 6:8, 14–15, 32; 10:20, 29, 32–33; 11:27; 16:17, 27; 18:10, 14, 19, 35; 20:23; 24:36; 26:29, 39, 42, 53; 28:19; Luke 10:21//Matt 11:25–26; 26:39, 42//Luke 22:42; 23:46; John 5:18). He teaches his disciples to pray to “our Father” (Matt 6:9//Luke 11:2), exhorts them to be perfect like their heavenly Father (Matt 5:48; cf. Luke 6:36), and reassures them that their heavenly Father will give them good gifts (Matt 6:6, 18; 16:27; 7:7–11//Luke 11:11–13; Luke 12:32). Jesus even instructs his disciples to “call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt 23:9). Contemporary scholars disagree about whether this metaphor legitimates or undermines what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls kyriarchal structures—unequal “stratifications of gender, race, class, religion, heterosexualism, and age” resulting in domination and submission (Nasrallah and Schüssler Fiorenza, 2009, p. 9).

Several related images stem from the metaphor of God as Father. In ancient Rome, the ideal father was the paterfamilias (“father of the family”), the head of the household, who alone owned property and passed it on to the oldest legitimate male heir. Though the New Testament includes exceptions (e.g., Lydia in Acts 16)), the Gospels only portray males atop the household hierarchy as “lord” (kurios) and “master of the house” (oikodespotes, oikonomos). Through both simile and metaphor, Jesus’s parables depict God as the oikodespotes (Matt 20:1–16; 21:33–44; Luke 14:15–24), kurios (Matt 18:23–35; 20:1–16; 21:28–31, 33–44; Luke 16:1–13), or oikonomos (Luke 16:1–13).

The paterfamilias was responsible for sowing procreative seed. Using offspring imagery metaphorically, the Gospels pick up on the well-established belief in antiquity that procreation resulted from male desire and action; women were vessels for the man’s seed. In John 1:12–13, Jesus’s followers “become children of God … born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (cf. Matt 3:9). Peacemakers will be called “sons of God” (Matt 5:9) and will “inherit” the kingdom (Matt 25:34). More implicitly, agricultural imagery points toward God’s initiative as the “Lord of the harvest” (Luke 10:2) who sows spiritual seeds and begets spiritual offspring (Matt 15:13). Throughout the Gospels, especially in the parables, God is portrayed as the ultimate authoritative property-owning, procreative male (Matt 21:33–43//Luke 20:14//Mark 12:7; Luke 15:11–32).

The Matthean parables depict God in the exclusively male role of king (Matt 18:23–35; 22:2–14). The theme of divine kingship, woven throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exod 15:3, 18; Pss 10:16; 47; 66:7; 93; 96—99; 145; Jer 10:10), also extends into the Gospels implicitly through references to the “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven.”

The Lucan parables portray God as a woman working leaven into bread, a stereotypically “female” activity (Luke 13:21). Some of the parables describing God fit the Lucan pattern of so-called gender pairs—pairings of a story about a male character with a similar story about a female character. In Luke 15, for example, God is pictured as a woman seeking a lost coin (15:8–10), and then as a father rejoicing over his son’s return (15:11–32).

Gendered imagery for Jesus.

Inextricably connected to the imagery of God as Father is the prevailing Gospel metaphor of Jesus as Son. God explicitly calls Jesus his “beloved son,” the “chosen” one (Mark 1:11; 9:7//Matt 3:17; 17:5//Luke 3:22; 9:35). Despite later Trinitarian formulations, the Gospels emphasize the Son’s submission to the Father (Mark 14:36//Luke 22:42; John 5:19, 20, 30; 6:38; 7:16; 12:49; 14:31; 15:10). Some scholars have argued that this obedience feminizes Jesus, while others insist that this strictly refers to his position vis-à-vis God while fulfilling his earthly mission. Jesus’s sonship is further developed through a thinly veiled allusion in the parable of the wicked tenants, where the tenants kill the heir (Jesus), whom the vineyard owner (God) sends to collect his share of the crops (Matt 21:33–43//Mark 12:1–12//Luke 20:9–19).

In addition to relational metaphors, the Gospels also apply imagery used for God directly to Jesus. Like God the Father, Jesus is depicted as a master (John 15:15–20)) over members of his household (oikodespotes in Matt 10:24–25; 13:24–30, 36–43; Luke 12:39, 13:25–27; kurios in Matt 10:24–25; 24:45–51; 25:14–30; Luke 12:35–48; John 13:16). Jesus appears as the sower of seed, where the good seed are “children of the kingdom” (Matt 13:24–30, 36–43). Jesus also refers to himself metaphorically in stereotypically male roles and vocations: at times he is a bridegroom, whose presence alludes to messianic times (Matt 9:15; implied in 25:1–13; Mark 2:19–20; Luke 5:34–35; John 3:29). Elsewhere, he is a king (Matt 25:34–46) or a shepherd (Matt 25:32; Luke 15:1–7; John 10:11, 14). In Luke 19:11–27, a nobleman leaves home to claim royal power; many have taken this as an allusion to Jesus’s own impending departure.

Still, Jesus is not only associated with masculine imagery. Jesus himself uses maternal imagery, lamenting over Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (Matt 23:37//Luke 13:34). Elsewhere, a woman blesses Jesus by blessing his mother—a common Greek circumlocution. Using a gendered metonymy, she cries, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!” (Luke 11:27).

John’s particularly rich repository of imagery has been interpreted variously with respect to gender. John’s Jesus is called the “Logos,” a particularly complex Greco-Roman philosophical concept. Typically translated “the Word,” Logos signifies reason/thought/idea/wisdom (1:1–3, 14) and has generative power (1:3, 10), though note that the latter references use the general term ginomai (“to come from/originate from”), not the specific term for conception and birth (gennaō). Many scholars argue that John’s depiction of the masculine Logos becoming flesh in a male Jesus eclipses the feminine Sophia (Wisdom) tradition found in Matthew and Luke ((Matt 11:19; Luke 7:35, 11:49). Others, however, discern similarities between the Johannine Jesus and images of Sophia elsewhere in contemporaneous literature.

Barbara Reid asserts that John’s symbolic imagery transgresses conventional gender expectations “throughout the whole gospel” (2011, p. 191). For instance, John uses birthing language (gennaō) to describe God begetting spiritual children ((1:13; 3:3–8; cf. 16:21). When a soldier pierces the crucified Jesus, blood and water flow from his side—the two fluids integral to the birth experience (19:34); theologically, Jesus’s death “births” new life for Christians. In John 7:38, Jesus refers to the source of living water as koilia, a term usually translated “belly,” but used elsewhere to indicate a mother’s womb (e.g., Matt 19:12; Luke 1:41, 42, 44; 2:21; 11:27; 23:29; John 3:4). For some, the ambiguity suggests that, as the source of the Holy Spirit who nourishes believers, Jesus is like the mother who nourishes her child. Another image often connected with (feminine) nourishment is Jesus’s reference to himself as the “bread of life” (John 6:35, 48, 51).

Queer readings focus on Gospel passages with homoerotic undertones (e.g., John 13:23, where the Beloved Disciple reclines on Jesus’s bosom, or John 19:26–27, where Jesus establishes a new “family of choice,” just as homosexual couples do today). Some propose that Mark’s “naked young man” was Jesus’s lover (Mark 14:50–52). Queer theology reads Jesus’s resurrection as God’s “coming out”; whereas closeted bodies are dead, coming out engenders freedom, truth, and new life.

Gendered imagery for the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit has long been considered feminine. Although in Greek “Holy Spirit” is neuter, some ancient church traditions (like the Syriac church) used feminine pronouns, probably because in Hebrew, “Holy Spirit” is feminine. As Jesus teaches Nicodemus, the Spirit metaphorically gives birth to new believers (John 3:3–13; cf. 1:13); this creative, life-giving force often is understood as maternal. Portraying physical birth as a metaphor for spiritual rebirth, Jesus’s evocative teachings in John 3 are deepened by the double meaning of the terms “spirit” (pneuma), also translated “wind,” and “born again” (gennaō anōthen), also translated “born from above” ((John 3:3, 7).

In each Gospel, the Holy Spirit descends “like a dove” at Jesus’s baptism (Matt 3:16–17//Mark 1:10//Luke 3:22//John 1:32–33). Though “dove” is not explicitly gendered in the Gospels, for ancient Mediterranean readers, the image may have evoked the well-known iconographic uses of the dove as a symbol of feminine fertility generally and of the goddess Asherah specifically.

Gendered Imagery for the Christian Community.

Historically, the Christian community has been conceived in feminine terms, partly because the Greek word for church, ekklēsia (“civic assembly,” Matt 16:18; 18:17; Acts 5:11; Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:22; 3:10; Heb 12:23), is grammatically feminine. Still, kaleidoscopic clusters of gendered images for the Christian community emerge in the Gospels, and while several of these are gendered, inconsistencies abound. Broadly, we find familial, pastoral, and national images, as well as gendered social categories and characters that represent the church symbolically.

Familial images.

Many components of the Gospels’ depictions of the Christian community coalesce under the rubric of familial imagery. For instance, when Jesus is called the “bridegroom,” by implication, the church becomes the “bride of Christ” (Matt 9:15; 25:1–13; Mark 2:19–20; Luke 5:34–35; John 3:29), an image also applied to God’s people in the Hebrew Bible (Isa 62:5; Jer 2:2; Hos 2:16–20).

Jesus often discounts biological families to emphasize spiritual kinship (Matt 10:21, 35, 37; 12:46–50; 19:29; 23:8; Mark 3:31–35; 10:29–30; 13:12; Luke 8:19–21; 14:26; 18:29; 21:16). Additionally, while God is consistently depicted as the father, his people concomitantly are cast as “sons of God” (Matt 5:9), “sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36), and heirs of eternal life (Matt 19:29). Though daughters were not primary heirs in a patriarchal culture, their honor was valued as a reflection of the father’s honor. Jesus uses “daughter of Abraham” as a term of endearment (Luke 13:16), and employs a similar Hebrew idiom for the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “the daughter of Zion” (Matt 21:5). Several times, Jesus refers to the people of God using gender-inclusive terms for “child/ren” (Matt 2:18; 3:9; 7:11; 9:2; 10:21; 11:25; 15:26; 18:3–5; 19:14, 29; 21:16; 23:37; Mark 7:27–28; 9:37; 10:14–15, 24, 29; 13:12; Luke 3:8; 6:41–42; 7:35; 9:47–48; 10:21; 13:34; 14:26; 15:32; 17:3; 18:16–17, 29; 19:44; 22:32; John 1:12; 8:39; 11:52). Jesus also uses fraternal imagery (though note that in Greek, “brothers” often was gender-inclusive, “brothers and sisters”) to describe spiritual unity within the family of God (Matt 5:22–24; 7:3–5; 18:15, 21, 35; 20:17; 21:23; 25:40; 28:10). This Matthean metaphor depicts an entire spiritual family: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50).

Pastoral images.

The Gospels commonly draw ecclesiological imagery from the natural world; scholars debate the gendered dimensions of such references. For example, when Jesus is the good shepherd, God’s people are the flock (Matt 7:15; 9:36; 10:6, 16; 12:11; 15:24; 18:12; 25:32–33; 26:31; Mark 6:34, 14:27; Luke 12:32, 15:4–6; John 10:2–27, 21:15–17). Behind this image may be the common ancient identification of sheep (men’s animals) with masculinity (honor, strength, superiority) and goats (women’s animals) with femininity (shame, weakness, inferiority); such thought patterns would render passages like Jesus’s allegory of the final judgment thoroughly gendered (Matt 25:31–46).

Jesus’s juxtaposition of the “lilies/flowers,” who “do not spin” (Matt 6:28//Luke 12:27), with the “ravens/birds,” who “do not reap” (Matt 6:26//Luke 12:24), has been read as gendered imagery: the lilies are associated with the “female” task of sewing clothes, while the birds are associated with the “male” task of reaping the harvest. Another possibly gender-related agricultural image is Jesus’s extended metaphor in John 15:1–6, where he insists that only “branches” (believers) that abide in the “vine” (Jesus) will “bear fruit” (live abundantly). Although scholars typically agree that this passage draws upon the common Hebrew Bible idiom that the people of God are a vine or vineyard (e.g., Isa 5:1–7), they disagree over whether this image should be read as celebrating female sexuality (Song 1:6), dehumanizing women as commodities valued for fertility (Ps 128:3), or gender-neutral.

National-religious images.

Ancient Israelites commonly spoke of “Zion” in feminine terms, while “Israel” was typically masculine. The early church adopted the name “Israel” for itself (Matt 15:24; Luke 2:32, 34; Mark 12:29), along with synonyms closely related to the male gender (e.g., “circumcision,” “the patriarchs,” “Abraham and his posterity,” “the twelve tribes,” Matt 3:9; 8:11–12; Luke 1:55; 3:8; 13:28–29; John 7:22). Twice in the Gospels, we find the idiomatic phrase “daughter of Zion” referring to God’s people (Matt 21:5; John 12:15). Congruous with national-religious language is the implication that God rules over the heavenly kingdom (e.g., Matt 18:1–35; 22:1–10; 25:1–13).

Gendered categories used symbolically.

Complex historical ambiguities notwithstanding, the Gospels portray gendered social categories as representatives of certain groups, or of particular virtues or vices. For example, widows emblematically represent society’s poor, vulnerable, and marginalized insofar as they depended upon patriarchal social systems (Matt 22:24; Mark 12:19, 40; Luke 4:25; 7:12; 20:28, 47). At the same time, widows embody virtues such as selflessness, generosity, and persistence in prayer (Mark 12:41–44//Luke 21:1–4; Luke 2:36–37, 18:1–8; 21:1–3).

Jesus utilizes another gendered social category in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1–13), which is likely grounded in the Hebrew Bible picture of the Jewish people waiting dutifully for God, their bridegroom. Note that a similar contrast between wisdom and folly can be found, though differently gendered, in the simile of the wise man who builds his house on rock and the fool who builds his house on sand (Matt 7:24–26//Luke 6:48–49).

Jesus describes discipleship using a mix of gendered images. In John 16:20–22, Jesus likens the disciples’ suffering at the crucifixion to a woman in labor: both experiences entail suffering but end in joy. Elsewhere, Jesus teaches his followers to reveal the truth and wait expectantly for his return by comparing them to the master of a house (Matt 13:52; 24:43//Luke 12:39). To illustrate the cost of discipleship, Jesus employs the images of a tower builder planning his work and a king preparing for battle—both stereotypically male domains (Luke 14:28–32).

Using the gender-ambiguous category of the eunuch, Jesus commends those who “become eunuchs” (usually interpreted as embracing celibacy and self-control) for the gospel (Matt 19:12). This saying has been read as a direct challenge to Roman cultural notions of masculine privilege (Kuefler, 2001) and/or as Jesus “queering” normative heterosexual conceptions of the family. Others consider Jesus’s affirmation of eunuchs to represent acceptance for all who have (what some consider) physical abnormalities.

Specific characters who function symbolically.

Many Gospel characters have been interpreted as paradigms for virtue or vice. Jesus himself uses a female character this way when he refers to Lot’s wife (alluding to Genesis 19:26) as a negative example (Luke 17:32). Still, whether the people populating the Gospels’ pages conform to or transgress gender expectations remains the subject of much scholarly debate.

Jesus’s virgin mother, Mary, epitomizes godly obedience; when Jesus commits her to the Beloved Disciple’s care in John 19:26–27, some scholars see her as symbolizing the (feminine) Johannine community, entrusted to the leadership of the (male) Beloved Disciple (Malina and Rohrbaugh, 1998, pp. 272–273). Martha’s sister Mary has been read as the church, learning silently at Jesus’s feet (Luke 10:38–42) and waiting dutifully for her messiah/bridegroom to call her (John 11:20, 28–29).

The disciples on the Emmaus road have been read as “queer” representatives of the church: outside the male Jerusalem leadership circle, they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread (the brokenness of their experience), and, as Goss writes, they have a “natural gift of queer hospitality” (Guest et al., 1996, p. 545).

In contrast to the people of God as a wise, faithful virgin, the Hebrew Bible depicts foolishness as an adulterous temptress (e.g., Dame Folly versus Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 9). The Gospels implicitly connect a temptress with folly when Herodias convinces Herod to behead John the Baptist (Mark 6:14–29; Matt 14:1–12). On the other hand, the Gospels challenge such associations by including women known for their sexual indiscretions in Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–28), through Jesus’s commendation of the “sinner in the city” who anoints his feet (Luke 7:36–50), and through Jesus’s forgiveness of an adulteress (John 8:1–11; though note that the earliest and best Greek manuscripts do not contain this pericope).

Gendered Imagery for the End Times.

Jesus uses gendered imagery to describe the eschaton: the end times will be like “birth pains” (Mark 13:8//Matt 24:8) and will be especially hard for pregnant or nursing women (Matt 24:19). To underscore the horror of coming calamities, Jesus reverses typical associations of barrenness with judgment, declaring that barren women will be grateful for their childlessness (Luke 23:29).

In addition to childbirth imagery, Jesus describes the Son of Man’s sudden return this way: “There will be two women grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:35//Matt 24:41). If this is paired with the saying about the men in the field (Luke 17:36//Matt 24:40; though the earliest and best Lucan manuscripts do not contain this saying), this could indicate that gender will be unimportant at the end of the age; in the meantime, gender roles are upheld (Luke 17:20–37//Matt 24:29–44).




  • Conway, Colleen M. Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Foxhall, Lin. Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Guest, Deryn, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, eds. The Queer Bible Commentary. London: SCM, 2006.
  • Kuefler, Mathew. The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Lee, Dorothy A. Flesh and Glory: Symbolism, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad, 2002.
  • Malina, Bruce J., and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.
  • Minear, Paul S. Images of the Church in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.
  • Nasrallah, Laura, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
  • Neyrey, Jerome. “Jesus, Gender, and the Gospel of Matthew.” In New Testament Masculinities, edited by Stephen D. Moore and Janice Capel Anderson, pp. 43–66. Semeia Studies 45. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
  • Patella, Michael F. The Gospel According to Luke. New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament 3. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005.
  • Reid, Barbara. “Birthed from the Side of Jesus (John 19:34).” In Finding a Woman’s Place: Essays in Honor of Carolyn Osiek, edited by David L. Balch and Jason T. Lamoreaux, pp. 191–214. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2011.
  • Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998.
  • Seim, Turid Karlsen. The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke-Acts. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994.
  • Van der Watt, Jan G. Family of the King: Dynamics of Metaphor in the Gospel According to John. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

Michal Beth Dinkler

Pauline Literature

Paul makes abundant use of bodily and familial imagery and social tropes, all of which are gendered in complex ways. These may be broken down into familial and household metaphors, military and athletic metaphors, and body language. Such gendered imagery is not to be confused with Paul’s practices and teaching in regard to women and men, but it does introduce the question of its effects in the early churches and the subsequent reception history of the Pauline literature.

Family Metaphors.

Paul uses both paternal and maternal metaphors to talk about God and about himself, as well as sibling language to address the members of his churches. The references to God as father are ubiquitous, while Paul’s references to himself as father are relatively rare. Conversely, maternal references to God are rare, occurring primarily through echoes of prophetic texts, while maternal imagery for Paul’s own ministry occurs with roughly the same frequency as his paternal self-references.

Paternal imagery.

Paul occasionally refers to himself as the father of his congregations. This imagery is more complex than may be immediately evident, however. Thus, for example, he uses the masculine sense of the verb “to beget” (gennaō) to denote the event of conversion, whether through his own preaching or that of others ((Phlm 10; 1 Cor 4:14–15; Gal 4:23, 29); insofar as this denotes a punctiliar event more than an ongoing relationship, it is not precise to translate the verb as “I became your father” (Phlm 10; 1 Cor 4:15B). Paul does, however, call himself “father” in relationship to the churches he founded, albeit rarely. In 1 Corinthians 4:15A he invokes his paternal authority to issue a call to imitation, in line with the widespread Greco-Roman view that the father is to be a role model for his children. Hence in 1 Thessalonians 2:11–12 Paul says that he and his coworkers Sylvanus and Timothy dealt with the Thessalonians “like a father with his children” by encouraging them to lead a life worthy of God. So also in Philippians 2:22 the metaphor of father-son relationship denotes intimacy in service of the Gospel. Similarly, in the deutero-Pauline 1 Timothy 5:1, speaking to someone as to a father is contrasted with harsh treatment.

In accordance with Jewish tradition, Paul also refers to Abraham as “father”; Abraham is the father of Israel. In Paul’s interpretation of the Abrahamic traditions, however, Abraham is the father of all who believe in Christ, whether circumcised or uncircumcised (Rom 4:11–12, 16–18; Gal 3:29).

By far the most frequent use of “father” in Paul’s letters denotes God (twenty-two times in the undisputed letters, and seventeen times in the deutero-Pauline letters, including Colossians). The source of this paternal language for God is debated. There are precedents in Judaism, although relatively few. For example, using the language of royal adoption, God promises to be a father to the house of David (2 Sam 7:14; cf. Pss 2:7; 89:26–27) and is addressed as the father of Israel (ISA 63.16; 64:8; Jer 31:9 [38:9 Septuagint (LXX)]). In Hosea 11:1 God says, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” The term implies a relationship between God and God’s chosen people, and thereby denotes a history characterized by protection, deliverance, covenant, judgment, mercy, and promise. Paul evokes this history explicitly when he says of his fellow Jews, “To them belong the adoptive sonship [huiothesia], the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” ((Rom 9:4, lit.). The question is how much this history is invoked every time Paul calls God “father.” Insofar as in Paul’s usage elsewhere the language of adoption includes gentiles, as well as Jews, as God’s adopted children through baptism into Christ (Gal 4:5–6; Rom 8:15–17), Paul refigures the meaning of God’s identity as “father” Christologically. This does not leave behind Israel’s history, but rather includes gentile Christians in that history, even as Christ is in Israel’s story. Hence Paul can say to the gentile Corinthians, “Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea…. For they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:1–4; emphasis added).

Whether Paul’s frequent designation of God as father derives from traditions about Jesus’s own practice is difficult to say. Insofar as Paul’s letters predate the writing of the Gospels, they are our first written evidence that early Christians called God “father.” At the same time, it is intriguing to note that the phrase “Abba father” occurs only in Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15, each time attributed to the active presence of the Holy Spirit in human hearts, and in Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane in Mark 14:36. Did the author of Mark know Paul’s letters, or do these texts jointly attest to an earlier Jesus tradition? Furthermore, insofar as Paul refers to God as “the father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6; 2 Cor 1:3, 11:31; cf. Col 1:30; Eph 1:3), he links the designation either to the usage of Jesus, a statement about Jesus’s identity in relationship to God, or both. Furthermore, at times Paul claims that those who are baptized into Christ share in Christ’s sonship and thereby call God “father.” “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith” (Gal 3:26)); through receiving adoption as children (huiothesia) believers receive the Spirit of God’s son in their hearts, crying “Abba father” ((Gal 4:5–6; Rom 8:15). Whether or not the terminology comes from earliest Christian practice dating back to Jesus, it seems clear that Paul linked the naming of God as father to union with Christ.

Maternal imagery.

Paul refers to his own ministry with explicitly maternal imagery in three places: One Thessalonians 2:7, linked to his first use of the term “apostle”; 1 Corinthians 3:1–3; and Galatians 4:19. He also uses maternal metaphors to denote the labor of creation (Rom 8:22), and the labor-free childbearing of “Jerusalem above” who is “our mother” (Gal 4:26–27). The imagery is diverse and richly allusive, with echoes of prophetic texts from Israel’s scripture on the one hand and appeals to the daily experience of life in the Roman Empire on the other.

Infants and nurses.

one Thessalonians 2:7 contains a variant in the earliest manuscripts. Some manuscripts read, “We became gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her children.” Others read, “We became infants among you, like a nurse caring for her children.” The difference in Greek between “gentle (ēpioi)” and “infants (nēpioi)” is one letter, suggesting the ease with which a scribal error could be made. External textual evidence points to the priority of “infants” as Paul’s intent, although the struggle to make meaning of the text has led scholars and translators to adopt “gentle” (NRS, RSV, NAB, NASB, NEB). Giving weight to the external evidence, however, suggests that Paul employs a mixed, highly gendered, and countercultural metaphor to amplify the meaning of his first use of the term “apostle” in reference to himself and his coworkers (Gaventa, 2007). If so, then the term “infants” contrasts the apostles’ guilelessness with the characteristics of charlatans: greed, flattery, and praise mongering ((1 Thess 2:6–7A; cf. 1 Cor 14:20). The term “nurse” evokes the widespread presence of nurses in the empire and their reputation as nurturing, intimate caretakers of young children. The combination of two such contrasting images in one mixed metaphor suggests not only the fluidity of Paul’s appropriation of familial metaphors—especially since a few verses later he will refer to himself as a father to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:11)—but also the new relational dynamics present in the metaphorical family grouping of those who belong to Christ. Here family metaphors serve not to reify existing social structures but to destabilize them.

Mother’s milk.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1–3 Paul employs mother and child metaphors somewhat differently. Here the image of children (nēpioi) denotes immaturity rather than innocence: the Corinthians are still children who need milk rather than solid food. Paul, however, is again like a nurse, in that he is the one who provides milk. Whereas the metaphor of milk versus solid food is frequent in both Jewish and pagan writing (Philo, That Every Good Person Is Free, 160; On the Preliminary Studies, 19; Epictetus, Discourses, 2.16.49), the designation of oneself as a nursing mother is not, perhaps because it would subvert one’s identity as a “real man” (sklēros anēr; cf. Aristotle, Physiognomonics 807a–b). Paul, however, seems willing to appropriate such a countercultural self-description in line with the more radically countercultural message he proclaims—the reign of a crucified lord (Gaventa, 2007). Thus his maternal self-description expresses the lowly status he exhibits as a spectacle to the world, foolish, weak, disreputable, poor, and hungry (1 Cor 4:9–14).

As in 1 Thessalonians 2, this lowly imagery paradoxically leads directly into Paul’s self-designation as a “father” to his converts. Paul writes “to admonish you as my beloved children” (hōs tekna mou agapēta) and immediately adds, “For though you may have ten thousand pedagogues, you do not have many fathers. But in Christ Jesus I begot you through the Gospel” ((1 Cor 4:14–15, lit.). And while the image of a nursing mother evokes the experience of intimate care and provision, the image of the father leads to two culturally familiar exhortations: a call to imitate the father rather than, by implication, other purported leaders (1 Cor 4:16–17), and a threat of corporal punishment when Paul visits the recalcitrant Corinthians (1 Cor 4:21; cf. 2 Cor 11:2). Yet the preferred mode of Paul’s appearance is not “with a rod” but with the feminine quality of “a spirit of gentleness.” And his “ways in Christ” to be imitated are his downward social mobility for the sake of the Gospel.

It thus appears that Paul utilizes gendered cultural tropes in paradoxical ways as he presents and defends his apostolic authority in the service of a fleshly, crucified Lord. He willingly assumes the lower status and vulnerability of women, slaves, and children, yet he also asserts his authority in masculine terms. On balance, however, the traditional marks of male power are reframed through the message Paul preaches, his own physical and mental sufferings, and his valorization of weakness. The Paul who threatens the Corinthians with a rod is also the Paul who himself has been beaten with rods, as well as flogged, stoned, made homeless, exposed to the elements, and afflicted with anxiety, and who in the midst of all this chooses to “boast of my weakness” (2 Cor 11:24–30).

Labor pains.

In Romans 8:22, the metaphor of labor pains signifies the groaning and distress of the created order as it awaits deliverance from futility and death (cf. also 1 Thess 5:3).). The metaphor dates back at least to Homer’s depiction of battle (Iliad 11.268–272), and is frequent in the prophetic texts. It denotes the intense terror and agony of those who suffer the depredations of war, whether as soldiers, as the citizens of the mother city, or indeed as the mingled lament of the prophet and the LORD (Jer 8:21). Notably, in Isaiah 42:13–14 the Lord both “goes forth like a soldier” and says, “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant. I will lay waste mountains and hills.” The imagery thus combines both masculine and feminine characteristics in one intense metaphor. Isaiah 45:10 even more explicitly combines paternal and maternal imagery by addressing God as both a father who begets and a mother who labors. Such combined imagery for God also occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QHa 17:35–36; Eastman, 2007).

Paul himself also suffers maternal “labor” with the Galatians, whom he calls “my children” (tekna mou; Gal 4:19). Here the metaphor draws on prophetic images both of Jerusalem the mother city and of God as the one who miraculously brings the people of God to birth, even in the face of barrenness and human futility. Possibly Paul is echoing Isaiah 45:9–11, noted above. Shortly thereafter in Galatians 4:27, Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 to depict the heavenly Jerusalem as a mother city who miraculously bears children without experiencing labor pains, and in fact, without a man. This miraculous childbirth signifies the birth of the Galatian churches through God’s faithfulness to the promise to Abraham, rather than through merely human—indeed masculine—agency. In the context of Galatians, Paul is refiguring the story of Sarah and Hagar from Genesis 16: Hagar was a slave woman who bore Abraham a son, Ishmael; Sarah was Abraham’s barren wife who subsequently bore Isaac. Both Hagar and Sarah signify mother cities, one in slavery and the other free; one with children/inhabitants through merely human, indeed masculine, means and the other only by divine power and faithfulness. The gendered imagery is complex and susceptible to a variety of interpretations, but at the very least it valorizes the miraculous power of God over merely human agency, and it uses the ancient trope of a barren mother to do so.

Language of the household.

Paul’s use of parental language serves a polemical purpose insofar as it militates against divisions in his communities, particularly between Jewish and gentile believers. It is as “sons of God” through baptism into Christ that believers are also Abraham’s offspring and therefore heirs of God’s promises to Abraham (Gal 3:26; 3:29, cf. Rom 8:15–17). The language of sonship here confers the status of heirs; that it does not exclude women is clear from the intervening claim that in Christ there is “not male and female” (Gal 3:28 lit.). Indeed, when Paul quotes 2 Samuel 7:14 in 2 Corinthians 6:16 he not only changes the singular “you” to a plural, but also adds the phrase “and daughters” to the promise, thereby reading “I will be a father to you, and you will be sons and daughters to me” (lit.).

Paul also frequently uses the neuter plural term “children” (tekna) to address believers, both as God’s children and as his own children (cf. Rom 8:16–21; 1 Cor 4:14–17; 2 Cor 6:14; Gal 4:19).). Overwhelmingly, however, Paul uses the term “brothers” (adelphoi) to address his fellow believers. As part and parcel of the familial metaphors throughout Paul’s letters, this terminology locates Paul’s addressees in a fictive kinship group that provides a new relational matrix for both gentile and Jewish Christ-believers. This new place of belonging entails both a support system and obligations, as indicated by the metaphor of brotherly relationship. It is a matter of scholarly debate whether the masculine metaphor included women as individuals with their own gifts and standing or whether women were simply viewed as adjuncts to the male members of the congregation. Given, however, that women clearly had distinctive leadership roles in Paul’s churches, and that he addressed some of them by name, the former seems more likely (cf. Rom 16:1–15; 1 Cor 1:11; Phil 4:2). The question remains, however, how the imagery functioned. That it did not foster simple equality between Paul and his converts is evident from the fact that he never refers to himself as a brother (Aasgaard, 2004). Rather, the language appears to warrant his calls to mutual acceptance within the fellowship (Rom 14:10–21); it binds the new believers into a primary social group that surpasses other bonds.

“Masculine” Metaphors.

In addition to the familial imagery throughout his letters, Paul employs two cultural tropes associated with “real men”: the soldier at war and the athlete.


Paul calls on his converts to be “soldiers” in the service of Christ when he exhorts them to present their bodily members to God as “weapons (hopla) of righteousness” ((Rom 6:13). He uses the same imagery in 2 Corinthians 6:7, where “the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” are elements in a lengthy description of his ministry as a “servant of God” (2 Cor 6:4). The exhortation combines both high-status and low-status descriptors: “in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute” (2 Cor 6:8). This military imagery belongs to Paul’s conviction that “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11), and that therefore those who are in Christ are enrolled in God’s apocalyptic war against the powers of sin and death (1 Thess 5:8; Rom 13:11–12; cf. Eph 5:11). Both women as well as men are enrolled in this war, thereby attributing culturally “masculine” characteristics to women.

In 2 Corinthians 10:3–6, however, Paul writes.

"“For though we walk in the flesh we do not wage war according to the flesh. For our weapons [hopla] are not fleshly, but have power through God to destroy fortresses. We destroy arguments [logismoi] and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God. We take every thought [noēma] captive to the obedience of Christ. We are ready to punish every disobedience when your obedience is complete” (author’s translation)."

This is heavily gendered language. Paul attributes to himself the role of a soldier, using a common philosophical topos for the virtuous man who erects a fortress of reason within himself against the passions that wage war on the soul (Malherbe, 1989). But Paul reverses the imagery from a defensive posture to an offensive one, in which arguments (logismoi) are not the means of defense against passions but the target of Paul’s attack. Furthermore, his weapons are not fleshly, but powerful through God. In the larger context of the passage, Paul also defends his “unmanly” appearance, which is “humble” (tapeinos—2 Cor 10:1)), while his bodily presence is “weak” (asthenēs) and his speech (logos) is “contemptible” (exouthenēmenos—2 Cor 10:12). He brags about beatings that mark his body as “whippable” and therefore of low status (2 Cor 11:23–25; Glancy, 2010). Paul is differentiating his ministry from that of culturally acceptable “manly” preachers, the “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). By implication, the impressive appearance and rhetoric of the “super-apostles” belongs in the category of “fleshly weapons.” The warrant for this judgment is none other than Christ himself, whose “gentleness and kindness” are the basis of Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10:1).


Paul also uses the agonistic imagery of the Isthmian Games, which took place near Corinth, to depict the struggles of Christian existence:

"Do you not know that in a race [en stadiō] the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Every athlete [agōnizomenos] exercises self-control [enkrateuetai] in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified." (1 Cor 9:24–27, lit.)

Again, this is heavily gendered imagery, drawing on a widespread philosophical trope of the virtuous man as one who has mastery of himself and his body. In the context of the passage, the imagery supports Paul’s call for his converts to exercise self-control and restraint on behalf of their siblings “for whom Christ died” (1 Cor 8:11; cf. Thiselton, 2000). Here true “masculinity” (for both women and men) consists in self-mastery in service to others.

Body Language.

For Paul, the disposition of individual physical bodies cannot be separated from their partnership in the larger, metaphorical social “body” of all who have been baptized into Christ. Thus he follows his exhortation to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God” with the proclamation, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Rom 12:15). The imagery is familiar in Hellenistic speeches designed to facilitate social order and harmony (Martin, 1995). For the purposes of gender analysis, of note is Paul’s implicit destabilizing of the social hierarchy, in which women’s or effeminate men’s bodies were lower than manly men’s and were associated with shameful parts of the body. Paul does not explicitly refer to matters of gender. He does, however, insist that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect” (1 Cor 12:22–23). He does not do away with differences nor indeed with hierarchy, but he does potentially subvert their effects within relationships in the fellowship.

“Not Male and Female” (Galatians 3:28).

It is apparent that Paul combines “masculine” and “feminine” traits, as understood in Greco-Roman culture, in paradoxical ways. This is particularly evident in his self-descriptions: he is weak yet deploys divinely powerful weapons to destroy fortresses; he is infant, nurse, and father; he opposes the “reasonings” of the typical virtuous wise man, yet also exercises the self-control that characterizes such a wise man. He labors like a woman in childbirth; he bears the rod as an authoritative father while also suffering under the rod. He is weak and thereby strong. For Paul these gendered paradoxes derive directly from the identity of Christ, who was “crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4).




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Susan Grove Eastman