The Cost of Mis-Reading Part I Reclaiming the Bible’s Terminology

The cost of mis-interpreting the Bible has been largely borne by women. Women’s voices have been under-represented in many of the loudest conversations about the sections of Scriptures that impact them most. This has further left women out of the conversation, as their very right to speak has been called into question. This is not because there are fewer women Bible interpreters. There are in fact far more women Bible interpreters then there are men. I can say this as one who has been a guest speaker at hundreds of churches. In them I have found women making up the bulk of the congregation, doing the bulk of the work, and often, showing a greater zeal for the study and application of God’s Word in daily life. I assess, we have far more great women Bible Interpreters, but fewer of them are published then among the men. In leadership, men seem to be busy talking, while women are busy doing. Men seem also busy publishing interpretation, while women are about the business of living it. That is simply observation and generalization, but it is on the whole what I have seen.

We are looking at 2 texts that have been used by detractors of the Bible to say the book is unfair or de-moralizing particularly to women. Sadly, they have been used also by “believers” in the Bible to subjugate women. We have grown used to hearing that women an ancient Israelite culture were considered property and that marriage was an institution by which women were simply bought and sold.    The tradition of reading these words and concepts in terms of female servitude is fairly recent.  Scholars like Paul Koschaker in the early 1900’s forwarded these ideas as part of their conception of social evolution. 

Baal– Lord, or homeowner.  This word is frequently used for husband.  Many times ish is used instead.  In the pairing ish and isha are equal.  But the term Baal expresses rule and ownership.  However the text does not say how this ownership is to be understood.  For the last two centuries, western scholarship has argued that it referred to the husband’s ownership of the wife.  However the picture of husband and wife from the Garden to Abram and Sarah, to the book of Proverbs is one of shared rulership.  The Biblical idea is the man entrusted with a portion of land and he and his wife/co-ruler giving that land order and fruitfulness.  When the LORD tells Israel how their restored relationship will look, He said, you shall no longer call me “Bali” (my Lord), you shall call me “ishi” (my Husband).  If that is the model for the LORD and His people, how much more should it be between two human partners?

Lachach (To “Take a wife”)-  Following the lead of Baal, having the idea that the husband ruled his wife, the modern interpreters decided that to “take a wife” carried with it that women were pressed into marriage as a servile condition. 

Mohar (Brideprice)- In the early 1900’s the idea was floated that the Mohar referred to money paid to the bride’s family to purchase her.  This idea was long lived considering the commands against such a practice and also the narrative of the Bible and social/historical evidence.   Genesis 31 is an excellent example.  There the daughters of Laban complain that he has already spent the money he received for them.  If they had been purchased from their father that money would be his to spend.  The mohar was meant to be held in trust for the bride.  That money could be invested by the trustee (often her father or uncle), but it was not to be spent.  It was to be given to her in payments at the death of her husband or to support her in the case of divorce.  Only in a divorce that involved extreme misdeeds on the the part of the wife would the bride price be returned to the husband.

Women, Property and Inheritance– because of the complex vocabulary, customs, and conditions of thetime period, this takes a lot of time to sort out.  We tend to think of primary unit of a society the individual.  For the Israelite, the primary unit was the household, which consisted of usually multiple families. 

Women and legal rights– One matter that comes up in Deuteronomy 22:19 and in 29 is whether a woman can initiate divorce proceedings.  In both cases the Law reads, “he cannot divorce her all his days.”  In both cases, if she cannot initiate divorce proceedings, the woman is trapped in the marriage- the first began with her husband falsely accusing her of immorality, the second beginning with her husband enticing her secretly to marry her, and then sleeping with her without formal commitment- these could end up badly for her.  Unless you know about the rights of the woman it sounds like she is being unwillingly trapped.  Instead, she is being placed in a place of power because the false accuser or the smooth talker is now stuck with her as long as she is willing to tolerate him only she can say when. 

Since many of the Laws in the Torah regarding marriage and family are regulating and mitigating existing practices, many of the customs need to be known in advance.  In much of the ancient Near East we have Law Codes and customs permitting either party to initiate divorce actions.  Though it has been said that the Jewish Law followed Egyptian convention in their practices, we now have early Law Codes from Jewish Communities in Egypt that are far more advanced in their care for women rights than native Egyptian Laws of the same period.  We know that a woman right to initiate divorce was protected even during the time of Jesus, as the Gospels read:

10 In the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again. 11 And He *said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12 and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” Mark 10:10-12

Lastly, we need to consider that the Bible is both descriptive and prescriptive.  Not everything the Bible tells is something that the LORD endorses.  The treatment of Leah (Genesis 29), of Dinah (Genesis 34), Tamar (Genesis 38), the unnamed woman (Judges 19), and so many others, is not okay.  Rather, the LORD’s prescriptions are meant to limit these kinds of terrible acts from occurring.  Similarly, the Bible illustrates repeatedly that when a society is furthest from the LORD, one indicator is that women are marginalized and mistreated. 

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