Sunday, May 20, 2007

Women's Rights in Old Testament Times

Now online,

Women's Rights
Old Testament Times

James R. Baker

Signature Books; Salt Lake City
© 1992 by Signature Books.
Table of Contents:


People's lives generally reflect the social norms of their times, some of which find expression in codified law. Deciphering stories of ancient Hebrew women requires cultural sophistication, especially an understanding of their usually murky backdrop. Although women are partly concealed by the patriarchal emphasis of the Bible, they exerted considerable influence in their communities and were often adept at working the law to their advantage.

The study of ancient Israel has long been the province of religious scholars, one of whom observed, "Biblical Law is too important to be left to lawyers."1 But after looking to the puzzling social and historical context of Hebrew women, I discovered a void and have decided to take on the task myself.

One incidental point of interest to me as a lawyer is the consistency between the Bible and what I can discover of contemporaneous, external legal codes. This affirms for me that the Hebrew Bible was written by scribes who lived at or near the times they were describing, whatever the historicity of any particular story. Historians and theologians continue this debate.

There are several limitations to understanding ancient law, not the least of which is linguistic. No one has spoken Akkadian or Sumerian or written in cuneiform or hieroglyphics for centuries. Scholarly debate continues over the accuracy of various translations. For example, who is a muskenum versus an awelum in the Code of Hammurabi? The context makes it clear that these are class distinctions, but their comparative status cannot be determined. Laws and punishments were administered differently for a nobleman than for a commoner, for a temple priestess than for a matron.

I rely heavily on the opinions of Middle Eastern scholars who have made the study of ancient legal texts their lifelong vocation. Not surprisingly, there are significant debates over most major legal theories and principles. What exactly was a concubine? How was the first born chosen? My guiding principle has been to prefer conclusions which most reasonably explain the narratives without textual manipulation.

There are other interpretive difficulties, including chronological contradictions, little surviving information about legal customs in some countries, the borrowing of legal theory from one country by another and from one century to the next,2 the rendering of judgment in the absence of law or in spite of the law due to political realities, 3 and the scarcity of nomadic as opposed to urban law. In addition, so little is recorded about some women that next to nothing can be deduced at all. I also omit consideration of Deborah, Esther, and others because their stories do not involve legal issues.

Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible. I have elected to use this translation due to its popularity rather than its interpretive superiority. In quoting translations of legal documents, I used French brackets to add material, allowing translators and editors their standard brackets and parentheses for lacunae and clarifications. Outside of quotations from other authors' commentaries, I use parentheses.

I should also add that I am not a student of feminist theory, although the potential significance of my work to women's studies is hopefully apparent. Finally, readers should note what I see as one overall theme of the Bible: the inevitable downfall of the arrogant by those less privileged and more deserving. Implicit here is an acknowledgment that all was not rosy for women of ancient times. But they were protected in some rights and asserted themselves in other areas, sometimes heroically.

Publication of this book is the culmination of a fifteen-year dream. During that time many people assisted me. In particular, I appreciate Doug Parker, my mentor in law school, who aided me in other classes when I persisted in writing papers on ancient legal principles instead of current issues. I am grateful to David Thomas and the library staff of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, as well as to Doug Gould and the staff of the Harold B. Lee library, for research privileges granted me. Assistance provided by Anna and Dick Jacobsen, Joy Rigby, and Margaret Sanders is also appreciated. Lavina Fielding Anderson was very helpful in reviewing, critiquing, and editing the text; and I owe a debt of gratitude to her. Most of all, I cannot begin to express my gratitude for my wife who sacrificed financially and remained cheerful through some very trying times. Lastly, I would like to express appreciation for a Supreme Creator, in whom I have a firm conviction and without whose support I would not have attempted such an undertaking.

The above notwithstanding, I alone am responsible for any errors in this work.

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