Gluppit the prawling strangles, there (elettaria) wrote in bible_as_lit,
Gluppit the prawling strangles, there
elettaria
bible_as_lit

Women and pollution in the Bible

I'm currently attempting to read through the Bible, something I've been meaning to do for years. I do a half-hour stint every morning while perched in front of my lightbox, using my lovely New Oxford Annotated Bible which people here recommended. (For certain values of "every".) At the moment I'm half-way through Deuteronomy, and something has just struck me.

There's a passage in Deuteronomy 22 when penalties for rape and illicit sex are imposed. If a man marries a woman and goes off her when he sleeps with her, all is dependent on whether or not there's a stain on the sheet to prove her virginity (a myth for which there is no medical evidence, as the NOAB tartly points out). If there is, he gets a fine and a bad reputation, but has to stay married to her; if there isn't, she gets stoned. If a couple are caught in adultery, both get stoned. If a man rapes an engaged woman in the town, they both get stoned (she because she didn't scream for help, "and the man because he violated another man's wife. You must purge the evil from among you"); if it's in the country (i.e. no one could hear her scream) then only he dies. If a man rapes an unengaged woman, he must marry her and pay her father a fine. Many of these end with "you must purge the evil from among you", or however it's translated (NIV was the best I could find online at my usual site). From Deuteronomy 20, if a man fancies a captive woman, he must give her a month to mourn her parents then marry her, he can't enslave her.

I read this without thinking about it much because I'm up to my eyes in early modern lit at the moment and quite used to women being seen in this way, forced marriages, insane paranoia about cuckoldry, and rape being viewed as a property crime. On thinking about it further, what has really struck me is the sense of extreme pollution concerning that delicate and peculiar construct, female chastity. It's something which continues to echo through literature - look at Fletcher's The Tragedy of Valentinian, for instance, when a woman who's clearly protesting strongly is raped by the Emperor, and as soon as her husband realises he immediately assumes she'll kill herself, which she promptly does - but I've never seen it so strongly expressed in this way. There was a footnote somewhere earlier in Deuteronomy commenting that adultery is seen as not only a crime against the husband but a crime against God, which is why it incurs the death penalty and causes ritual pollution, so maybe it's just that. But it does seem extreme. If there's the slightest hint that a woman may have indulged in pre-marital sex, the entire community is polluted by "evil" and she has to be stoned to death? It's all the stranger because Deuteronomy 19:15 declares that, "One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offence he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses", and ancient Jewish law is generally very careful about such matters. Thoughts, anyone?

ETA: I know I mentioned Jewish law at the end, but I'm actually talking about ancient biblical practices and how they've influenced Western society, not about what ended up in Jewish law, which is an entirely different matter.
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"Chastity" in the ancient Hebrew (as well as general Jewish and Islamic) sense was/is only that the woman maintains loyalty to her "proper" husband, and not a perpetual state of virginity. It was the husband's "natural right" to have sex with her, and sexual activity between the husband and wife (and wives) were greatly encouraged, unlike in the Christian sense which regards carnal pleasures as evil and that a perpetual state of chastity must be maintained. These novelists, if they were reacting to the bible, are most likely interpreting the bible with a very instinctually Christian bias, taking for granted the Christian interpretation of the bible.

Are you familiar with the Documentry Hypothesis theory? Deuteronomy was one of the last book of the Torah to be written, and its conjectured to have been written in the 9th and 8th centuries, during Hezekiah's and Josiah's reigns, then also redressed after the Babylonian captivity. There were two main "editions" of Deuteronomy which were merged as a concession between the two to three main schools of priests, despite the content blatantly contradicting. This is probabley yet another example of that.

The more extremist school that wrote about the stoning "just in case" were probabley reacting to the cult of Astrate/Asherah which was rampent amoung Hebrews, where things like "sacred sexuality" and Dionysian-like orgies were common. The heno-/monotheistic organizations of Yahweh/Elohim also exhibited very little influence amoung the mainstream Hebrews and even much of the upper classes, and were obviously a minority. I also seriously doubt that even after the Exilic period that this concept of purity was observed by the majority of people.

This heno/monotheistic cult were also heavily into this notion of what they percieved as the unmixed and pure, which is a reoccuring theme in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, as well as Dtr., such as kosher law, unmixing of certain cloths and fabrics, milk and meat (which were viewed as diametrically opposed categories of food), and the split of the hooves were an indication of its status on the food chain.
Actually, I was talking about dramatists, Fletcher's a Jacobean playwright, and the novel didn't get going until later. Yup, I do know the difference between virginity and chastity. I've seen "chastity" used to describe virginity but only because it includes virginity as well as marital sexuality. You can be at it like rabbits, but if you're a married couple you're still being chaste. What did you mean by "a perpetual state of chastity"?

Thanks for the source info, I'll read it again tomorrow when I'm less tired. The main thing I was asking about was the way that a woman's sexuality seems to be seen as a potential source of extreme pollution, that any lapse in her chastity can pollute the entire community.
Dramatists, artists, whatever. Generally speaking, artists and writers are unaware of/apathetic towards what is precieved as "scholarly quibbles" over sources, details, and historicity, and take it for face value. Perpetual state, as in, always refraining from sex and intercourse as a whole (I didn't mark the distinction as you have between chastity and virginity.)

There were several other extreme sources of pollution, like the breaking of sabbath, refraining from doing holidays, breaking dietary laws, failure to do proper priestly rituals. But women the women one is peculiar because women were generally treated quite well in the Near-East in those days. Its also interesting to note that the Torah/bible as a whole regards only the man as capable of performing religious services. Meanwhile, all of the other cults/temples in the Near-East and much of the world had priestesses. Have you read the Mosiac law that quarantines women during menstration? That was completely not done in the Near-East, though it was not uncommon for a woman to be sent to the local fertility cult shrine and perform a fertility ritual after this happens.

This may seem farfetched, but many things throughout history happen like this: I think its because the Yahweh-cult priests reactioning against the cults of Astrate and Asherah, which were almost entirely run by women, and worshipped a henotheistic (and almost monotheistic) goddess. Very attractive to the young women too, somewhat akin to the Hellenic Eleusyian mysteries but magnified. Some of these cults were more syncretic, and ascribe a wife to Yahweh. Thus, the hatred of this cult by the clergy probabley fueled their misogynistic sentiment and sought to harshly contain the liberty of women much more, including these purity laws so they could say, "Look! These women are defiling our natural covenant with Yahweh by thinking themselves worthy of being preistess and worshipping a false goddes!"
At this point I put "chaste" into the OED. As I suspected, it came up with:

1. Pure from unlawful sexual intercourse; continent, virtuous. (Of persons, their lives, conduct, etc.)
2. Celibate, single. Obs.

I thought I was using it correctly, we discuss the term a hell of a lot in literature of that period. I've seen things like, "Then hath she sworn that she will ever live chaste?" (Romeo and Juliet, quoted from memory but I think it's correct), where "chaste" seems to imply "celibate" (though it could just mean "are you saying Rosalind won't let you into her knickers if you're not married to her?"), but that's 400-odd years ago so would fall into the "obsolete" category. That said, if you're using words like "chaste" which aren't used much any more, you're often assuming an older definition. I principally associate it with lit from the Middle Ages to the eigtheenth century; it still turns up in the nineteenth, but I think it's more in imagery such as "her pale skin, chaste as snow" rather than being thrown around all the time as a concept. Same with "cuckoldry". It wasn't whether or not the writers of later Western literature were aware of scholarly quibbles I meant (and you'd be surprised on that one, anyway), it was how the concept got into society, as we're seeing reflected later on in literature. I'm obviously doing a crap job of explaining myself. I'm not trying to talk about general misogyny (which I'm taking for granted anyway), and the discussion of legislation about rape was actually about this pollution question.

I thought that quarantining during menstruation was actually practised in the ancient Near East? A modified form of that is still current in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, it's why ultra-Orthodox Jews don't touch members of the opposite sex (with certain exceptions) and have elaborate purity rituals surrounding menstruation, similar to the Muslim ones.

Yup, I'd noticed the way the Bible addresses itself to men alone; the Ten Commandments are only addressed to men, for instance! It depends what you mean by "women were generally treated quite well"; I wouldn't call what I'm seeing reflected in Biblical texts "quite well", though obviously it could still be worse.

I know there's the death penalty, with examples, for breaking the Sabbath, it turned up somewhere in...Numbers? I can't remember what happened if you were to break the dietary laws, probably similar. It just struck me that women, specifically their sexuality, are automatically seen as a source of pollution. Having finished off Deuteronomy this morning, this bit also turned up in chapter 24:

1 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,
2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man,
3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies,
4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

See? Defilement again, even though the behaviour throughout is actually chaste (no extra-marital sex etc.).

Ooh, and there was a bit right at the end, in the Song of Moses, where God is actually portrayed as female, giving birth to Israel. I know there's stuff in Judaism about God having a male and a female side (the latter is the Shekhinah), but I don't know where it occurs.

Aha, interesting point about possible reactions to goddess cults. And obviously there's an element of "let's keep the women down" in all this, I'm just interested in how they're doing it.

Ach, I'm trying to finish making notes on Henry V before the Sabbath comes in and I've only got a few hours left. I'll write more on this later, I want to rifle through Mary Douglas and quote some of her stuff about orifices being seen as portals of danger, that sort of thing.
Ah, its definately not celibacy then. The Hebrew term that is translated is B-TH-L-H, Btholah specifically refers to not having engaged in sexual activity prior to marriage who is thus pure, so, the first one (lawful sex) would be a good rendition. Celibacy was frowned upon, since procreation was/is seen as the natural function of human not to be transgressed. Many translations (ones into other languages as well) render it very neutrally as "virgin", but it could be use figuratively to mean the purity of a woman/something feminine-- we can see how the Christians used this concept on Mary, who is not only figuratively a virgin, but also literally one. So when a Christian was/does read[ing] the bible, and the word "virginity" is read, its interpreted in the theologically Christian sense designated pure celibacy.

The Bible is very much an existential document, thus external dogma or philosophy exists to provide its meaning and significence, determine what is allegorical and symbolic from what is literal, etc. Its inconsistancies, internal contraditions, yet powerful language pretty much strengthen the need for a certain dogma to interpret/give meaning to the Bible. Even when a literalist reads the Bible, they are reading it with the dogma of literalism (this was one of the attacks on Karaite Judaism.) So, pollution in the ancient Israelite sense is significently different than the way that the Church Fathers interpreted it and laid the foundations for the Christian tradition. In the ancient Israelite, that which was evil or "abhorrent" is because Yahweh dictated that it was (the gods were arbitrary and/or not clearly defined), rather than it being because it actually is objectively evil. I think you're risking the fallacy of anachronistic interpretation by, on the one hand attempting to understand what the ancient Hebrews understood by these laws, and what Western Christianity has understood from them. If you're purely interested in its literary impact on Western culture, you may want to read the Church fathers, Augustine, and some of the early Protestant reformers who had, and still have a monopoly in biblical exegesis.

Menstration would usually warrent a trip to the local shrine of the fertility goddess, not locking them up a jail cell. The Torah is uncanny in this (as well as the other laws), but it might have been done in rural agrarian society. Rural religious practices aren't very well documented. Sexuality, especially procreation (not excluding carnal pleasures), in the Near-East was so important that every single goddess-- be it a goddess of love, beauty, warfare, hatred, death, so long as it was a goddess-- was also a fertility goddess (just imagine going to the shrine of the goddess of death for a fertility rite!) The woman's function as a woman was to give birth, and this concept was so ingrained in the Near-Eastern people that it was never called into question. Are you looking for some sort of an explaination of what was considered pure and corrupt in the ancient Israelite sense? Its quite arbitrary and even superstitious, but you could find a book on it (actually, I recall reading a chapter on the concept of Yahweh purity. Yes, it was arbitrary and seemingly superstitous because the priests took for granted certain taxonomic distinctions of the world which today would seem superstitous/arbitrary.) This would have changed significently after the ancient period, and Talmudic law is not nearly as arbitrary as the ancients had it.
Also, the Bible is not exactly the most common piece of ancient Near-Eastern literature. When I say the Near-East, I don't just mean the little backwater regions of the Levant which the Hebrews lived in, I mean it as a whole, from Egypt to Sogdiana. The Yahweh cult is to a large extent an exception to much of the religious traditions in the Near-East, and their misogynism and containment of women was definately something extreme for the times. I'm not exactly sure of the situation of women in the Near-East, but its not nearly as bad as people seem to think it is for their anachronistic thinking, and there are quite a bit of records of prominant females able to exert direct influence on monarchs and aristocracy alike. Most importantly were their role in matters of religion as priestesses (the head priest was usually a male though in public temples, but not so in private cults.) The lack of religious ritual participation on the part of women as we see in the Torah was also something especially peculiar and just not done in the Near-East (except for the Magi)-- women were the most important participants in cult and temple organization.

The Song of Moses was written after the Babylonian exile when they were singing a lot of strange things at this point. The prophets would personify Zion as a female. You know what Zion as a basic noun connotes, correct? The prophets are somewhat of an epoch in themselves, I'll have to comment about them sometime, feel free to ask.

By the way, which translation(s) are you using?