Sexism in the Bible: Judges

This post is part of an ongoing series. The series is introduced here.

The book of Judges was likely written during the reign of David, though perhaps it was written after his death. Regardless, it is a pro-monarchical book describing the evils of early Israel in adopting the customs of the Canaanites, “Canaanization.” There is a cyclical structure to the book, a cycle of apostasy. It goes like this:

  1. Israel sins by following the practices of the nations.
  2. God sends oppressors to punish Israel.
  3. Israel cries out to God for help.
  4. God remembers his covenant and sends a judge to deliver Israel.
  5. The judge delivers Israel, and the land enjoys peace while the deliverer lives.
  6. The deliverer dies, and Israel sins by following the practices of the nations.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The cycle of apostasy isn’t stable, however. With each fall into sin, Israel gets worse. They become more like the nations, more sold out to wickedness. At the end of the book, even the Levites are worshiping idols (ch. 17), and the men of Gibeah (which, by the way, is Saul’s hometown) are acting exactly as the men of Sodom had done (19:22, cf. Genesis 19:4-5).

In modern parlance, we would that Jael is "crushin' it."
In modern parlance, we would that Jael is “crushin’ it.”

How does any of this address the question of sexism in the Bible? Given the burden of the author, to prophetically stand against the Canaanization of his day by rehearsing the past, we can see certain motifs which the author uses to powerfully undergird his argument. I believe the treatment of women is one of these motifs.

There are only about ten references to women at all in Judges, and only six of those are thematically significant. In the beginning of the book stands Achsah, Caleb’s daughter. She marries Othniel, and inherits land (1:13-15). She is respected and honored.

Following Achsah are Deborah and Jael, women who are honored and respected, but forced into positions of war. Barak plays the coward, and Deborah chides him for it (4:8-9). Ultimately, the battle against Sisera is won as Jael kills him in his sleep. These women are respected, but they are placed in positions of vulnerability in which they weren’t intended to be. The language suggests that though these women were valiant, Barak should have been more on the ball.

A few chapters later, Jephthah vows to the Lord that, if given victory in battle, he will offer as a burnt offering the first thing to come out of his door to greet him when he returns home (11:30-31). He is victorious against the Ammonites, and it is, of course, his daughter who greets him when he returns home. He dedicates her as a burnt offering, in accordance with his vow (11:39). Now things have gotten really terrible.

Following close on Jephthah’s heels comes Samson, and his story is known well enough. He takes a Philistine wife in order to find cause for war against the Philistines, and after a series of events she ends up being burned alive (15:6). Then he engages in prostitution with Delilah, who is seemingly a pawn for both Samson and the Philistine lords (ch. 16).

Finally, and most horribly, there are two instances at the end of Judges connected to Gibeah. First, the men of Gibeah rape a concubine to death (19:25-28), and then the Benjaminites (after some fallout from the Gibeah episode) go wife-stealing from Shiloh (ch. 21). Here at the end, women are treated as worse than cattle, things to be abused, no more than property.

The story of Israel’s fall into depravity and sin can be told in terms of its treatment of women. Women, in Judges, go from being land-owners and prophetesses to pawns, sacrifices, war casualties, and ultimately sex-toys. This says something about the treatment of women. Poor treatment of women is a part of the Canaanization of Israel. Right treatment of women as those equal to men in dignity and worth is a mark of Israel’s righteous obedience to God’s covenant.

Is the Bible sexist? If the book of Judges is any indication, then the poor treatment of women is viewed as an evil worthy of judgment and death.

2 thoughts on “Sexism in the Bible: Judges

  1. Katie Gatsis

    Your interpretation is wrong.
    The judges are the bringers of Peace from the Lord unto the heathen Israelites oppressed by sin and the evildoer until they are reproved by faith in having followed worthy god-loving authority figures.
    The bible is sexist.
    It does treat women as chattels, and as honourable, interchangeably but without any accord.
    Deborah is a judge, so the one thing you are correct about is that we are meant to examine the role of women in the book of Judges.
    The message Judges scripture seems to me to send is that women who are faithful to men first and foremost and God also will be raised up and worthy of everlasting life.
    However, women who do not first submit to the will of men, regardless of their faith in God and Jesus Christ, are not treated as innocent sheep, but as objects to be used (just as slaves are stripped of their personhood by their masters).
    Sexism was written by men, not by women.
    The Bible is an important manuscript that normalizes sexism in Western civilization.
    Your interpretation is a dream, but your version of the story strays from the meaning of the Biblical Verses. Maybe you are frightened by what is says or perhaps you disagree so would rather glean the truth waxing a gloss or veneer over it to soften and make it more palatable or easy to digest for your comfort.
    The fact remains, your vision is preferable to the one that’s been written.
    The good news is that the Bible, and in fact no book, is written in stone. We can change the future, though we may not be able to effect change on what horrors have occurred in the past.

    1. Katie, thanks for following the blog, and for commenting. Can you explain what you mean specifically when you say that the Bible is sexist, and that it normalizes sexism? What texts do you think support this claim?

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