Daughters of Eve

The women portrayed here all played decisive roles in the biblical narrative.

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The legal status of biblical women is unequal to the status of men. Women are second-class citizens living under the authority of the head of their family, usually their fathers or husbands. And yet, surprisingly enough, the women are neither downtrodden nor crushed by stern, brutal patriarchs. Within the family, the women wield enormous power. When they see their family or their tribe in danger, and the men fail to act, women fill the vacuum, taking the risks and assuming responsibilities for the destiny of their people.The narrative also suggests that women are a metaphor for all minorities struggling to make their voices heard. The women's situation is analogous to that of the Israelites, a tough, small people set among more powerful pagan cultures. In biblical times, polygamy was practiced widely. Yet each polygamous family portrayed in the Bible is unhappy. Whether the problem is the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the two sisters married to Jacob, or between Hannah and Peninnah, both married to Elkanah, or the conflicting demands by David's many wives and their feuding children, the biblical authors subtly point out the disadvantages of a polygamous marriage.In contrast, Sarah and Abraham form a distinctly monogamous marriage within a polygamous culture, as do Rebecca and Isaac. In the Garden of Eden, too, we have one woman and one man. The narrative makes clear that an intense relationship between husband and wife in a polygamous marriage is nearly impossible. The presence of multiple, contending wives dilutes all the relation-ships within the family unit. The Bible strongly implies that polygamy does not work, that monogamy is a preferable structure. The intensely committed personal and loving relationship between one male and one female parallels the intensely committed relationship between one human and God.In the Old Testament, sexuality is by no means a secret, sinful, or forbidden subject. Instead, sex is discussed with remarkable openness and with no trace of prudishness. We are carried away by the beautifully written Song of Songs, as it celebrates in explicit terms the sensual love between Shulamite and her lover. The Bible regards sexuality as the Creator's gift, integral to all human life, a tool for strengthening the bonds of intimacy, trust, companionship, responsibility, and commitment.On the other hand, sexuality can also be abusive and selfish. The Bible's unvarnished realism does not spare us this aspect of human ambivalence. The Israelite hero Samson becomes addicted to Delilah's sexual favors. She hands him over to her people, Israel's enemies, who blind, torture, and imprison him. The worst example of sex as a destructive force is Amnon's inexorable plot to rape his virgin half-sister Tamar, King David's beautiful daughter. She staggers out of his house, her life forever ruined.The Bible instructs even as it entertains. It does not whitewash any aspect of human psychology or conduct. It draws the reader in by exposing its protagonists' feet of clay. No one is spared critical comment or the depiction of unflattering weaknesses—and no one is above the law. The women, like their men, are responsible for their actions and the consequences. The women and the men are neither saints nor sinners, and, interestingly enough, their actions are treated with equal candor.The stories of the women in the Bible offer us a prism through which to consider our own lives. After all, human nature has not changed one iota since the day Eve questioned the rules in the Garden of Eden in response to her God-given drive to acquire knowledge and create life. The outcome is the first exercise of free choice and the first lesson in personal responsibility and morality.In his 1955 book God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder." In these words, we hear an echo of the biblical narrators who, thousands of years earlier, offered a similar observation in the book of Proverbs, attributed to King Solomon: