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Religious roots

Implicit sexism won't go away until we rid ourselves of the sexism in our religious texts

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The implicit sexism lamented by the editor in “Reality check” (New Times, Oct. 27) is deeply rooted in our culture in a paradoxical source: the Bible. (And until these roots are extirpated, latent sexism will continue.) This is obvious in many Old Testament and New Testament texts. These texts, starting with the sex roles of Adam and Eve, are inculcated in the impressionable minds of infants. Even the 10 Commandments classify the (male) neighbor’s wife as his property, similarly to his donkey and slaves. Eve is faulted for original sin. Then New Testament writers cite these precedents to command an eternal female servility. The parallels between how Trump views women and how patriarchal alpha males in the Bible viewed women are striking! 

However, because the dominant religious culture in the United States is Christian and these texts are embarrassing to it, they are largely swept under the proverbial rug. Most Christians believe that only the Bible can provide a code of morality and they are loath to recognize the fact that the Bible is saturated with patriarchal sexism. Indeed, precisely like the Bible was the primary source justifying slavery from the Stone Age to the Space Age, the Bible has been the primary source legitimizing misogyny. It was also the basis for denying the vote to women throughout Christendom for hundreds of years. And these same biblical customs were incorporated into the Quran and are still used by fundamentalist Muslim patriarchal governments, like Saudi Arabia, to keep females eternal minors—not even permitted to drive cars. 

Numbers chapter 5 is the most bizarre and glaring example of how Christendom’s most revered text devalues women. Numbers 5:11-31 describes a lengthy magical ritual that women were forced to perform if their husbands suspected them of having had an affair. It really must be read and re-read to be fully appreciated. However, it’s not on Christian clergy or parishioners’ favorite reading list. And one can understand their embarrassment. The following is a brief summary:

A priest prepared a potion composed of holy water mixed with sweepings from the floor of the tabernacle. He pronounced a curse. He wrote the curse on some object and then washed off the writing with the muddy water. (Remember that sheep, goats, cattle, and other animals and their feces made the dirt of the tabernacle floor rather unhygienic.) He proclaimed a curse over the potion and required the woman to drink it. If she were guilty, she would suffer greatly: Her abdomen would swell and her thighs waste away. 

There is no similar magical test for husbands suspected of having an affair with another woman. Women are of so little account in the Old Testament that it simply did not cross the patriarchs’ minds to consider this.

Indeed, men were often expected to have multiple wives and concubines. King David and Solomon were admired by other men largely due to the fact that they were capable of having multiple wives and concubines.

Therefore, Israelite alpha males, like the famous patriarchs and kings, were rather expected to have multiple wives and concubines. The more prestigious the male, the more females he could have in his harem. Thus it came to pass that Solomon—being the wisest, ruling the largest territory, and being the most prestigious (at least after David)—had hundreds of wives and concubines. But famous judges and warriors, like Gideon of the magic fleece, had so many wives and concubines that he managed to beget 70 sons (Judges 8:30). David, the messianic precursor of Jesus, also had many wives and concubines. And Yahweh explicitly endorsed David’s polygamy. He did not merely tolerate it; Yahweh claimed to have initiated it. After David murdered Bathsheba’s husband, Yahweh rebuked the murder (but not the polygamy) saying, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more” (2 Samuel 12:7-9). That is, Yahweh gave David multiple wives and concubines and would have given him even more wives and concubines—if David had only asked properly.

All this might be overlooked as crude Bedouin sexual politics somehow accidently incorporated in God-breathed ancient literature; however, in the tables of stone engraved directly by God’s own finger—without all-too-human prophetic intermediaries—Yahweh classified females right along with oxen and asses as male property. Not just once, but twice (Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21). “Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife, nor his man slave, nor his female slave, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” This ordering of property is ratified in Numbers 31:35 where, after the jihad against Midian, the booty is enumerated: 61,000 asses and 32,000 virgins who fell under the stipulations mentioned elsewhere regulating the fate of female sex slaves. 

Deuteronomy 21:11 gives more details on how such female booty of war was to be processed. Today when one hears of women captives being raped and being made sex slaves (in Yugoslavia, Africa, and elsewhere) by the males who’ve just massacred their fathers, sons, and husbands, it’s considered to be close to the zenith of barbaric behavior. Yet this appears to be the explicit ethic of the day—loosely regulated and/or commanded by Yahweh (Numbers 31:17-18).

Old Testament texts could be cited almost ad infinitum. The same basic implicit sexism continued in the New Testament. Suffice it to say that the largest Christian ecclesiological group, the Catholic Church, still invokes biblical misogyny to justify maintaining a patriarchal monopoly of the clergy. Yet who can doubt that had women been bishops and cardinals, they would not have covered up blatant, chronic pedophiles, shuffling them from parish to parish? A rigid insistence on a monopoly of supposedly celibate males while excluding females from the priesthood doubtless contributed.

King David and Solomon had trophy wives just as Donald Trump has had multiple trophy wives. Trump never clarified whether he was lying when he said he used his “star power” to legitimate his grabbing women “by the pussy,” or whether he was lying when he later denied it. But the locker-room prerogatives of rich, powerful, alpha males will continue as long as their cultural roots in Christendom’s religious literature are not extirpated. 

Don Casebolt studies religion from Santa Maria. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

-- Don Casebolt - Santa Maria

-- Don Casebolt - Santa Maria

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