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Gender and the Hebrew Bible

Rhiannon Graybill
Rhodes College

Gender is an important topic in the Hebrew Bible. This guide provides basic definitions for "gender" and related terms, surveys approaches to gender in the Hebrew Bible, and reviews what we know about gender in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East. It then considers the representation of gender in a range of biblical texts and genres (narrative, legal, prophetic, poetic and wisdom).

An Introduction to Gender

When approaching the topic of gender in the Hebrew Bible, it is helpful to begin with a brief discussion of terms. Scholars differentiate between "sex," "gender," and "sexuality." "Sex" refers to a biological identity as "male" or "female" that is ordinarily (but not always) fixed. "Gender" is produced by personal, social, and cultural forces. Sexuality encompasses sexual orientation, an object or objects of sexual desire, and sexual practices. There are many dynamic scholarly discussions about what gender consists of and where it comes from; some scholars emphasize individual identity, while others stress social and cultural influences. There are also scholarly discussions over whether gender identity is fixed over time, or whether it is fluid and even mutable. The Hebrew Bible offers its own theories about gender and answers to many of these questions, some of which will be considered below.

Sex and gender are not always the same; gender identity does not necessarily correspond to biological sex in a particular way. Gender theorists often use the terms "cisgender," from the Latin prefix "cis," same, to refer to a gender identity that is the same as biological sex (for example, a masculine gender identity and a male biological sex) and "transgender," from the Latin prefix "trans," across, to refer to a gender identity that is different from biological sex (for example, a masculine gender identity and a female biological sex). A specific gender identity also does not imply a specific sexuality or sexual orientation; "sexuality" is a third, distinct category of identity. In spite of this, many biblical texts that emphasize gender also figure in discussions of sexuality—for example, Gen. 2–3, which introduces themes of gender identity, the differences between men and women, and the origins of sexual desire (Gen. 3:16).

Approaches to Gender in the Hebrew Bible

There are many approaches to understanding and studying gender in the Hebrew Bible. The approaches often (though not always) employ Methods of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. As with feminist interpretation, the study of gender frequently (but not necessarily) emphasizes the status of women and female roles in the biblical texts. Other readers emphasize texts that describe the treatment of women (often quite disturbing), such as Ezekiel's fantasy of Israel as a woman (for example, Ezek. 16; 23; Hos. 2) or the Sotah ritual for detecting female adultery (Num. 5:11-31). Sometimes, this interest in female characters or the treatment of women is accompanied by an interest in the gender or experience of readers and interpreters.

Not all approaches to gender in the Hebrew Bible are exclusively or even primarily concerned with women. Some interpreters are interested, for example, in how the text creates categories of masculinity. Other readers take up the question of how gender is used in the text as a stand-in for other issues, such as religious practice (as in the association of idolatry and adultery) or how gender identity plays into Israelite religious identity (for example, in the representation of Israel as woman and in the tension this creates for the male Israelites who belong to this religious community).

In addition to the frequently employed Historical-Critical and Literary feminist methods, gender approaches draw on a range of other methods of interpretation. Womanist and mujerista interpretation bring together feminist interests in gender with a critical awareness of race and ethnicity. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Interpretation (also called Queer interpretation) has many thematic connections to gender approaches, and is especially helpful in understanding gender identity, both transgender and cisgender – a topic that is quite recent in biblical interpretation. Queer approaches are also useful for scholars interested in "deconstructing" gender categories, which feminist critical approaches sometimes reify. Materialist approaches such as Archaeology and Social-Scientific Criticism are helpful for reconstructing the lived realities of gender in ancient Israel.

Gender in Ancient Israel

Using archaeology, textual analysis, and other methods, scholars work to reconstruct how gender was understood in ancient Israel. While there are many challenges to this project, scholars have made significant progress in reconstructing ancient norms and experiences of gender. In ancient Israel, gendered divisions of space were the norm, with domestic space understood as feminine space, while public and outdoor space were masculine. Scholars have found a visual representation of this division in plaques that represent a woman looking out a window (see Gender, Bronze and Iron Age; Judg. 5:28; 1 Sam. 6:16; 2 Kings 9:30; Prov. 7:6.) Gendered space reflects as well gendered divisions of labor and of family roles. The maternal role is an especially important one, and women in the Bible are often identified in their roles as wives, daughters, or mothers (for example Jael, "the wife of Heber the Kenite," Jud. 5:24; Bathsheba, "daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite," 2 Sam. 11:3; Dinah, described unusually as "the daughter of Leah" as well as "the daughter of Jacob" (Gen. 34:1, 3)). While the domestic sphere is primarily female, women also draw water, work in the fields, and perform other labor. Prostitution was another female occupation and figures in multiple biblical stories (for example, Tamar, Gen. 38).

Class also matters to the performance of gender. Both biblical and nonbiblical sources confirm that upper-class women had a greater degree of freedom and autonomy. Cuneiform documents from Mesopotamia show that women had the ability to enter into legal contracts, as probably do also Israelite seals with women's names. The religious life of women is another intriguing question for researchers of gender. In the Hebrew Bible, God is represented as male; the official ritual is likewise primarily operated by and for men (see Women and the Cult). The text includes some hints of women's religious practices that differ from this norm, such as the prophet Jeremiah's condemnation of women baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven (Jer. 7:16-20, 44:15–28), and Ezekiel's report of women weeping for the Mesopotamian god Tammuz at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezek. 8:14).

Gender in Narrative Texts

Gender and the Pentateuch

Many discussions of gender in the Hebrew Bible begin with the Pentateuch, and with Genesis in particular. Just as the opening chapters of Genesis present two creation stories, they also present multiple attitudes toward gender. In Genesis 1, human beings are created by God "in our image, according to our likeness" (Gen. 1:26–28); male and female humans are created at the same time. In Genesis 2, however, the man, Adam, is created first, while the woman, Eve, is created subsequently from Adam. Both texts have a rich history of interpretation. For some interpreters, the simultaneous creation of male and female humans in Gen. 1 suggests an ideal of gender equality, while the secondary creation of women in Gen. 2 implies an inferior status for women. Other interpreters point to the man's celebration of the woman (Gen. 2:23) as indicating a joyful equality that only comes to its end with the expulsion from Eden (which represents a fall into gender difference and inequality). There is also the question of how Eve is created—is she made from a small piece of Adam, or is Adam split into two beings, with gender only coming into existence at that moment of division? Building on these questions, the eating of the fruit and the expulsion from Eden in Gen. 3 are another key text for debates about gender in the text, including the responsibility of Eve and the meaning of God's curse (Gen. 3:16–19).

In the remainder of Genesis, strong gender distinctions endure. While a number of female characters play important roles, the central relationships are between the male God and the male patriarchs. The role of women is to bear children, especially male children. The womb becomes the central point of connection between women and God; the matriarchs, moreover, all struggle with infertility. Genesis does describe some relationships between women, such as women and their maidservants (Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Bilhah, Leah and Zilpah); and between sisters (Rachel and Leah). Interestingly, nearly all of these relationships are fraught with conflict, as are the relationships between brothers.

It is not only women who are subjected to norms of gender in Genesis. The male characters, too, face a series of normative expectations of masculinity in the text. The sign of the covenant, the cut of circumcision, is a modification of the male body that links Abraham and his male descendants to their male God. Masculinity also entails both violence (Abraham and the kings, Gen. 14, Simeon and Levi, Gen. 34:25–31) and cleverness (Jacob and Laban's sheep, Gen. 30:25–43). Here Jacob is an intriguing figure, as his early characterization in the text—smooth-skinned, cooking, remaining in and around the tents—draws on a number of traditionally feminine motifs. Does Jacob enact normative masculinity or subvert it? The text can be read in multiple ways.

Turning to the remainder of the Pentateuch, Moses is another interesting character for considering gender. As the leader of the Israelites and God's designated intermediary, he is in many ways a masculine ideal, a status confirmed by his confrontations with Pharaoh (Exod. 7–12), his success in battle (Exod. 17:8–15), and the praise lauded on him at his death (Deut. 34:7–10). Yet Moses is repeatedly saved by women (Exod. 2, Exod. 4:24–26), a reversal of ordinary gender relations. Moses' sister Miriam, who is called a prophet (Exod. 15:20), plays an important role in the Moses narrative without being identified as either a wife or mother as is remembered as a national hero (Mic. 6:4).

Gender and the Deuteronomistic History

Gender figures in the Deuteronomistic History in a number of ways. As in the Pentateuch, the narratives of Joshua—2 Kings alternately uphold and subvert normative representations of men, women, and gender performance. There are many examples of strong, dominant masculinity in the Deuteronomistic History, and the representation of male characters can offer a useful entry point for gender-oriented reading. Joshua is figured as the new Moses (Josh. 1); at the same time, he seems to have a more stable relation to masculinity and masculine performance. As the military leader of the Israelites during their conquest of the land of Israel, Joshua achieves a masculine ideal. This ideal of warrior or military masculinity is picked up in the representations of the kings of Israel, especially Saul and David, each of whom is a successful military leader.

David is a key figure for considering the biblical construction of masculinity. In many ways, David seems to be the ideal biblical man, and he has been taken as a model of masculinity by many readers and scholars. David is skilled warrior, leader, and king. However, other scholars have suggested that David breaks with, or fails to achieve, normative masculinity. David's close relationship with Jonathan, which David describes as "passing the love of women" (2 Sam. 1:26) is often read as homoerotic or even sexual (see also 1 Sam. 19:1–7; 20:1–17, 35–42). This raises the question of homoeroticism and how the relationship fits within, or beyond, biblical norms of masculinity. Jonathan, Saul's son and David's friend, is himself interesting figure for exploring masculinity in the Deuteronomistic History.

Though there are a number of women in the David story, the representation of women is less nuanced. Bathsheba, for example, is at once central and wholly passive. David sees her bathing on the roof, fulfilling the obligations of purity; everything that follows is initiated by and between men. Bathsheba, like Dinah, represents the woman as an object negotiated (frequently violently) between men. It is only subsequently in 1 Kings, as Bathsheba negotiates with the prophet Nathan to ensure that her son Solomon ascends the throne, that her representation in the text becomes more complex (1 Kings 1:11–31). Women figure in the narratives of the kings that follow David, most frequently in relation to men, though also as Queen and Queen Mother. Thus the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon in an erotically charged scene and confirms Solomon's wealth and wisdom (1 Kings 10:1–13); like Rahab (Josh. 2), she is the sexualized foreign woman who recognizes the greatness of the Israelite king/people. At other points, the sexualized foreign woman proevesproves a threat, as with the foreign wives who lead Solomon to apostasy (1 Kings 11:1-8). The representation of Jezebel, another foreign woman—this time a Phoenician princess—likewise conflates gender and foreignness, this time with deleterious effects to her husband King Ahab (whom she leads away from God) and the nation. Interestingly, though the text gives no suggestion of sexual transgression by Jezebel, the history of interpretation has largely represented her as highly sexualized.

Gender in Other Narrative Texts

The Book of Ruth is unique in the Bible for the amount of attention it devotes to two women, Ruth and Naomi. The story is often read as an account of female loyalty and friendship, though some have suggested that Naomi's actions are closer to manipulation, and that the book restages the common biblical plot of the exchange of women for the benefit of (male) others. Ruth's promise of loyalty to Naomi (Ruth 1:16–17) is sometimes used by Jews and Christians seeking gender-neutral language for wedding vows or a ketubbah. Gender also plays an important role in the Book of Esther. Here, female beauty becomes an important narrative and textual marker, first for Queen Vashti, then for Esther herself. The book of Esther offers a strong argument for beauty as a marker of successful femininity; like Ruth, it also raises the question of whether the central heroine acts under her own auspices or whether she is controlled by other people in positions of power (here, her uncle Mordecai). The figure of Esther is often referenced in contemporary Jewish discussions of gender and Jewish womanhood.

Gender in the Legal Texts

Gender is a meaningful category in ancient Israelite law. A number of laws, especially those related to purity and sexuality, are gender specific. Laws concerning menstruation (Lev. 15:19–24) and childbirth (Lev. 12) are clear examples. The birth of a female child renders a woman impure for twice as long as the birth of a male child. Other laws prohibit behavior that transgresses cultural gender norms, such as the prohibitions on cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5) and on same-sex sexual activity between men (Lev. 18:22; 20:13); female same-sex activity is not addressed. The laws concerning rape and adultery are differentially applied to men and women (thus "adultery" depends upon the marital status of the woman but not the man; see Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), embedding the regulation of sexuality in a set of gender-specific norms. In the case of the legal texts, it is also worth noting that the implied audience is male; the laws are addressed to men.

Gender in Prophetic Texts

The Latter Prophets are another important textual locus for gender. All of the latter prophets are male, and the negotiation of masculinity figures importantly in many of the prophetic texts. As the mediator of the divine word from a male God, the prophet is placed in an ambiguous gender position. Sometimes, the prophetic role is figured as passive and receptive, as when Ezekiel swallows the divine scroll (Ezek. 2:8–3:3) or Jeremiah is seduced and overpowered, perhaps sexually, by God (Jer. 20:7); this stands in contrast with the dominant, active masculinity associated with figures such as Joshua, Samson, and David. At other points, the highly aggressive rhetoric of the prophets suggests a performance of traditional masculinity.

Though there are few female characters in the prophetic literature, gender is an essential part of the metaphorical world of the text. The representation of Israel as a woman is a favored prophetic trope, with Israel as the adulterous wife of God (Hos. 1–3, Jer. 22: 20–3, and Ezek. 16, 23). In figuring idolatry or the worship of other gods as adultery, the marriage metaphor casts religious transgression into easily understandable metaphorical categories. However, the metaphor has attracted attention and criticism for its negative attitude toward women, and especially the violence to which the female body is subjected. In Hosea 1–3, the oldest instance of the marriage metaphor in the prophetic literature, Israel is stripped naked (Hos. 2:3), hedged up with thorns (Hos. 2:6), and perhaps even murdered (Hos. 2:10–13) before she is re-seduced by God in a scene that some scholars call a love story, but others criticize as a potent representation of domestic violence.

The marriage metaphor, while the most famous representation of the feminine in the prophets, is not the only one. Images women in labor (Isa. 26:17–18, 66:7–9, of barrenness (Isa 54:1) of female adornment (Isa 3:16–26), and of Daughter Zion (Mic. 4:10, Zeph. 3:14) all appear across the prophets, along with metaphors of men giving birth (Jer. 30:6, Hos. 13:13). Among the most famous images is the maternal bereavement of "Rachel weeping for her children" in (Jer. 31:15). When non-metaphorical women appear in the prophets, it is often for symbolic purposes, as with Hosea's promiscuous wife Gomer (Hos. 1:2). As the example of Hosea shows, the prophets' own marriages are often drawn into the demands of prophecy. Thus Ezekiel's wife is killed by God and Ezekiel is forbidden to mourn her (Ezek. 24:15-18), while Jeremiah is prohibited from marrying at all (Jer. 16:1–4); both are symbolic actions directed toward Israel. Isaiah conceives a child with a female prophet (Isa. 8:3). Miriam, (Exod. 15:20), Deborah (Judg. 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chr. 34:22), and Noadiah (Neh. 6:14) are the other women identified as prophets in the Hebrew Bible (see also Ezek. 13:17; Joel 2:28).

Gender in the Poetic and Wisdom Literature

The poetic and wisdom literature contain a wider diversity of representations of gender than elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. The Song of Solomon is unique among biblical texts for a number of reasons: its celebration of love and sexual pleasure, its vivid descriptions (including descriptions of both male and female bodies), and its female poetic speaker. For readers interested in gender, the Song offers alternative ways of thinking about femininity and the performance of female gender in the text; sexual pleasure is celebrated and actively pursued by the woman, in contrast with the representations of female sexuality elsewhere in the biblical text. The Song also includes elaborate descriptions of the male body. The text likewise confines its celebration of sexual pleasure and eroticism to heterosexual desire, implying gendered norms for sexuality.

A female speaker may also appear in Lamentations, though with a far different purpose. Here, some scholars argue, the unnamed speaker is Daughter Zion, who laments the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering of the people. Proverbs likewise contains a female speaker—this time, Wisdom personified (Prov. 8). Wisdom's speech has sometimes been read as an alternative gender script that challenges the otherwise masculine monopoly on authoritative speech. Wisdom has also been taken as a feminine aspect of the divine. However, the speech of Wisdom is integrated into a larger narrative with a set of clear gender norms. The feminine Wisdom and the capable wife (Prov. 31:10-31) are set against other representations of women as temptation, sexuality, and transgression (Prov. 2:18-19, 5:5-9).

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