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.

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