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Wisdom and Woman in the Old Testament
Women and Wisdom in the Old Testament
In recent years, scholars and Bible commentators have analyzed extensively the way in which women are portrayed in the Old Testament. The matter has also been the focus of many feminist studies that research the role of the women in the patriarchal Israelite society. However, in spite of the fact that there are indeed many instances of harsh treatment of women in the Old Testament, as their social roles were constrained by many serious restrictions, there are also a few cases where women are associated with divine wisdom and understanding. For example, in Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a feminine figure that directs the believers towards true understanding and godly illumination. Likewise, in Judges 4 and 5, Deborah is described as both a judge of Israel and as the leader of the army, whereas Jael, another woman, is the one that manages to kill Sisera, the Moabite leader who menaces Israel. In 1 Samuel 19:11-13, David's first wife, Michal, tricks the soldiers and engineers David's escape. Also, in 2 Samuel 14 and 15 there appear two wise women who intervene in the course of action and save their people without making use of political authority or political skills, but merely by uttering wise proverbs. Overall, the view on women that the book delivers seems to be ambivalent. As it is well-known, many parts of the Old Testament associate women with sin and temptation. Nevertheless, the perspective on women in the Bible needs to be broadened so as to include the women's relationship with wisdom.
First of all, the investigation needs to take into consideration the exact type of wisdom that was granted to certain women in the Bible, and then the consequences of this fact on the status of women in the ancient Israel tradition. It is important to notice however that a unified view of women in the Old Testament cannot be achieved, as there are too many contrasts and contradictions in the text with respect to their status. Thus, the analysis should begin with a few isolated cases of women in the Bible who achieve important things through their wisdom. One such example would be David's wife, Michal, who delivers her husband from the enemies by letting him escape and placing an idol into his bed to deceive Saul:
But Michal, David's wife, warned him, "If you don't run for your life tonight, tomorrow you'll be killed." So Michal let David down through a window, and he fled and escaped. Then Michal took an idol [b] and laid it on the bed, covering it with a garment and putting some goats' hair at the head. When Saul sent the men to capture David, Michal said, 'He is ill.'"
In this case, as in a few other instances, a particular woman is seen as wise and plays an important role in saving the life of her husband, a man that God himself shields because he is a chosen leader of his people. Therefore, Michal acts here as an instrument that fulfills the divine will. Other similar acts of wisdom in the text point to the fact that important actions were sometimes attributed to women.
Another example of women that play significant parts in the ancient history of Israel are the two women, Deborah and Jael, that appear in the fourth and the fifth books of Judges. These two particular chapters of Judges contain a remarkable example of the women's triumph over the patriarchal society. Thus, the texts relates the story of the Moabite invasion that takes place in the time when Israel was ruled by Deborah, the only female judge that is recorded in the Old Testament. As the fragment indicates, Deborah holds sway on the people, and she is respected throughout the land:
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappodoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment."
She and Jael manage to save Israel from the Moabites, and to direct the people into the ways of God again. A crucial aspect of this narrative is precisely the fact that Deborah's role is obviously not limited to her political victory: she manages to reconcile the people of Israel with their God and to ensure peace for their land for a long time after her rule. A further note should also be made on the fact that Deborah and Jael are the ones that deliver the people, and not the male leader of the army named Barak. In her wisdom, Deborah seeks the help of God and takes courage to rescue her countrymen from the harsh oppression. She significantly introduces her summon to the people by revealing the command of God to them and proceeds with the rest of the plan in the same way. Deborah therefore knows and follows the divine will, and acts as an intermediary between God and the people. Her speech is very important, as it tokens the fact that the army and the commander that will actually fight the battle against the enemies are not the ones that actually save the land. Deborah clearly states that she will give Sisera, the general of Jabin's army into their hands:
So she sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kadesh in (Southern) Naphtali, and said to him, 'The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, 'Go gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'"
Deborah is therefore on a pair with the male prophets in the Bible, as God fulfills his role through her. Her statute is obviously known to the people, and the best evidence of this is the fact that Barak, the commander of the army agrees into following Deborah's orders with the condition of being accompanied by her on his way, and thus being guided by her wisdom. The prophetess approves of Barak's demand, but lets him know that the glory of the victory will not belong to him, but to the hand of a woman:
Barak said to her, 'If you will go with me I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.' And she said, 'I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman.'"
The glory of the victory thus obtained belongs obviously to Deborah and Jael, the woman that lures Sisera in her tent and kills him with the peg of her tent, after she puts him to sleep: "And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle."
Deborah acts here as a divine prophetess who is advised in her actions by God himself, and Jael as the instrument through which these actions are completed. The fact that the both are women is significant in more ways than one: first of all, this points to the complete triumph of the people of Israel, and implicitly of their God and religion over the Moabites and their gods. The morale of the narrative is obviously that the strength of Israel comes from their spirituality, and this is why they are apt to vanquish their enemies without using force or weapons. Women, who are not usually associated with physical strength or with warring skills act here as the perfect instrument for the delivery of Israel: they indicate the spiritual, religious force of Israel that makes it triumph over the other peoples of the Earth. The fact that Jael kills the mighty Sisera through shrewdness merely and by using a light weapon is also important, as it signals the fact that the Moabite religions are already feeble and dying, whereas Israel stands stronger than ever. In the next chapter of the book, the people of Israel celebrate their victory with a song to God, in which the two wise women are praised in turn. Deborah is significantly called a "mother of Israel," an almost sacred figure, that delivers her people:
The peasantry ceased in Israel, they ceased until you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel."
Jael is also praised as the "the most blessed of women," implying the same idea of sacredness and divine superiority:
Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed."
It is obvious that women had more than just these instrumental roles in…[continue]
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