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Women in a patriarchal context

· ​In the Old Testament ·

Over the long, long history of the interpretations and the fortunes of biblical texts the explanation and presentation of the figures of the Scriptures have differed widely. As is commonly known, with the passing of time and especially in the Christian context, exegesis has moved between the literal and the allegorical, arriving in our own times at the so-called historical-critical method. It is indispensable to bear in mind this method, into which today other interpretations are increasingly being integrated, such as, for example, those offered by anthropology or psychoanalysis. Over the course of a whole year the varying focus of the authors of this brief gallery of 10 figures present in some of the best-known Old Testament narratives – Sarah, Hagar, Tamar, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Bathsheba, Ruth, Esther and Judith – is that of women who have read stories of other women, even though these figures are often the fruit of literary creation and fill a symbolic need. These 10 Old Testament women were considered by the same number of women writers, of different origins and cultures, who wished in this way to orientate themselves primarily to the subject of women, looking at the sacred texts of Judaism and of Christianity from this perspective, without denying the need for a historical-critical view.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham”

As well as their biblical origins, the 10 women in question have in common the fact that they are non-historical figures: for example, Esther and Judith are heroines of two edifying accounts, whereas Tamar is the protagonist of a short story, quite the opposite of edifying, constructed on the interweaving of two literary topoi characteristic of the Hellenistic erotic novel, that of the substitution of a person or of an identity and that of the recognition at the end (anagnorismos). It may well be that some of the other female figures have behind them traditions that date back further than their written record in the biblical text, especially Sarah and Hagar, but nothing more. In the case of Sarah and Hagar it does not seem that the women authors of the portraits who have presented these biblical figures in such a captivating way have given this fundamental characteristic its rightful importance, resulting in various completely incongruous considerations, such as when it is hypothesized that Hagar, as an Egyptian, may perhaps have been purchased by Abraham when he went down to Egypt.

In the context of these unifying characters, the stories of these biblical women are more varied than ever. The protagonists of the two short stories are presented in a very different way: Esther is described to us as a model of faith in God and love for her people, who are saved thanks to her courage; in Judith we should note the deliberate contrast between her traditionally modest condition of widowhood and her ability to carry out courageously and astutely a more violent action than ever, which might also appear morally questionable and which reminds us of the old proverb saying that the end justifies the means. Tamar by contrast is an absolutely secondary figure in the vast scriptural context into which her brief and well-constructed short story is inserted, so that in order to illuminate it in the space assigned to her, the woman author who treated it had to have recourse in particular to the figure of Judah, the other protagonist of the account, and to the surrounding details.

Another three figures are of a quite different consistence and complexity. Miriam is named several times in the book of Numbers, but mostly in brief contexts, and she is a problematic figure: on the one hand a prophetess but on the other, the author of an action for which she receives a divine and by no means light punishment. If we consider that not only is Aaron presented in a similar manner, but that the biblical text also reveals attitudes of Moses which are sometimes hardly consistent with his role as leader of Israel by divine will, we may conclude that his sister Miriam also shares in the – albeit marginal – problematic nature of her brothers. We are in a substantially edifying setting, where the narrator, revealing transgression and immediate punishment, has desired to denote more explicitly the invasive presence of the divine will of which the three siblings are interpreters.

School of Rembrandt “Judah and Tamar”

The presentation of Sarah and Hagar, the drama of whose story brings its characters to life, is quite different. Without prejudice here to the liberating function of the divine will, which reminds us of the deus ex machina of Euripidean memory, we should note above all the contrast between the submissiveness – one might even say the lack of will – of Abraham, the obedient executor of Sarah’s commands even though in his heart he does not approve of them, and the harsh personality of the two women in conflict with each other: the slave who when she becomes pregnant makes the most of this in some ways privileged status to claim a role of independence from her mistress; the mistress who, having previously seen her slave in a favourable light, at this point begins to hate her and acts accordingly.

Unlike the edifying literariness of the figures of Esther and Judith, here we have to do with a conflict of situations and characters that has nothing edifying about it, and for this very reason indicates an original tradition older than the date at which it was set down in writing, on the part of a narrator for whom the unavoidable tendency to point out the intervention of the divine will does not overshadow the problematic nature of the story and consequently the effectiveness of the account. Moreover the ancient Jewish exegetic tradition, as well as the Christian, reveals the polyvalent complexity of the story of Sarah and Hagar over and above the literary qualities of the text itself. Thus we have Abraham viewed as a symbol of faith, Sarah as wisdom, Hagar as being of pagan culture, while the fact that Sarah conceives her son after Hagar has conceived hers, points to the contribution of Greek culture to the progress of true wisdom: therefore for Hagar too it is a positive kind of allegory. Moreover, the sons of the two women are constantly assumed to signify respectively Isaac the Christian people (positively) and Ishmael the Jewish people (negatively).

Indeed, even though these women are presented in Scripture in an order which has not the slightest claim to be chronological, it appears obvious that the accounts of Esther and Judith are relatively recent, while Miriam is inserted into the context of the story of Moses, a figure in some ways enigmatic, the events of whose life, with their evident pervasive intention to edify, leave us perplexed with regard not only to his historicity but also to whether he dates back to a very ancient tradition. Of course this cannot, by contrast, be said of Abraham and therefore of his two women, whose stories are certainly rooted in Israel’s most ancient memories despite obvious reworking: in fact the most ancient tradition placed Abraham in Damascus and not in Ur of the Chaldees.

Marc Chagall, “The Dance of Miriam”

The character of the different female figures examined in this book essentially corresponds to this more than generic chronological view of them. Sarah and Hagar are presented with connotations that point to their problematic characters, to their constituting a deliberate affirmation of femininity – look at Abraham’s weakness compared with Sarah’s strength – in a predominantly patriarchal context, while Judith, and above all Esther, are portrayed by the authors in a far more kindly manner indicative of a different view of women, today deemed fit to work efficiently and positively in an environment that was hitherto the traditional preserve of men.

Effectively in the story of Sarah and Hagar the figure of Abraham certainly does not make a good impression, but ultimately the task of taking the decision is demanded of him; on the contrary, in the stories of Esther and of Judith, as the authors of their respective presentations in this book emphasize, the male presence serves merely to highlight to the maximum the leading role of the two women. And, through this leading role, the difference of character in terms of their sexual identity stands out clearly: both are determined in their resolution, but Judith impresses herself on the reader by her ruthless strength, while Esther impresses by her gentleness and by her total entrustment of herself to the divine will.

The positioning of these stories in the narrative course of the Scriptures varies: Judith and Esther are complete protagonists of short books dedicated exclusively to their stories and their insertion into the Christian canon at the end of the section of the historical books of Scripture, almost by way of an appendix, reveals their function to reinforce the presence of women in a context, precisely that of the historical books, in which that presence was previously entrusted only to the very short Book of Ruth. The stories of the other women are instead inserted into very demanding narrative contexts: Bathsheba enters into the events of King David’s life. Hannah is the mother of Samuel, Deborah as the only woman integrates the series of the Judges of Israel, Miriam belongs with full entitlement to the narrative concerning Moses; the story of Tamar is one of the various episodes which characterize the events in the lives of Jacob’s sons, whereas Sarah and Hagar play a non-secondary role in the story of Abraham, the most important of the different figures of the Book of Genesis.

The separate and very full treatment given to each of this collection of Old Testament figures stemmed from an extrinsic objective, the aim, that is, to demonstrate the importance of the presence of women in the context of Jewish Scripture, an expression of a strongly chauvinist culture as were both the culture of ancient Israel and the subsequent Judaism. Therefore, only if the reader has this context, both historical and literary, clearly in mind will he or she be able to evaluate in a balanced manner the interpretation our women authors propose to us of the incidence of this concentration of femininity in Israel’s history, in such modern colours albeit properly based on Scripture.

Manlio Simonetti


The author

Manlio Simonetti, a philologist and a historian of Christianity (1926), has taught at the Universities of Cagliari and of Rome and is an Italian national member of the Lincei. He has edited critical editions of Latin and Greek authors (Rufinus, Gregory of Elvira, Cyprian, Origen) and has written many essays and books. These include: Studi agiografici (1955), Letteratura cristiana antica greca e latina (1969), La crisi ariana nel iv secolo (1975), Lettera e/o allegoria. Un contributo alla storia dell’esegesi patristica (1985), Studi sulla cristologia del ii e iii secolo (1993), Ortodossia ed eresia tra i e iisecolo(1994)and Il Vangelo e la storia (2010).




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 15, 2019