Woman in Sacred History
Woman in Sacred History A Series of Sketches Drawn from Scriptural, Historical, and Legendary Sources
The object of the following pages will be to show, in a series of biographical sketches, a history of Womanhood under Divine culture, tending toward the development of that high ideal of woman which we find in modern Christian countries.
All the characters comprised in these sketches belong to one nationality. They are of that mysterious and ancient race whose records begin with the dawn of history; who, for centuries, have been sifted like seed through all the nations of the earth, without losing either their national spirit or their wonderful physical and mental vigor.
By this nation the Scriptures, which we reverence, were written and preserved. From it came all the precepts and teachings by which our lives are guided in things highest and holiest; from it came He who is at once the highest Ideal of human perfection and the clearest revelation of the Divine.
We are taught that the Creator revealed himself to man, not at once, but by a system progressively developing from age to age. Selecting one man, he made of his posterity a sacerdotal nation, through which should gradually unfold a religious literature, and from which should come a succession of religious teachers, and the final development, through Jesus, of a religion whose ultimate triumphs should bring complete blessedness to the race.
In tracing the Bible narrative from the beginning, it is interesting to mark the effect of this great movement in its relation to women. The characters we have selected will be arranged for this purpose in a series, under the following divisions: —
I. Women of the Patriarchal Ages
II. Women of the National Period
III. Women of the Christian Period
We understand by the patriarchal period the interval between the calling of Abraham and the public mission of Moses. The pictures of life at this time are interesting, because they give the clearest idea of what we may call the raw material on which the educational system of the Divine Being began to work. We find here a state of society the elements of which are in some respects peculiarly simple and healthful, and in others exhibiting the imperfections of the earth's childhood. Family affection appears to be the strongest force in it, yet it is family affection with the defects of an untaught, untrained morality. Polygamy, with its well-known evils, was universal in the world. Society was broken into roving tribes, and life was a constant battle, in which artifice and deception were the only refuge of the quiet and peace-loving spirit. Even within the bounds of the family, we continually find fraud, artifice, and deception. Men and women, in that age of the world, seem to have practiced deceit and spoken lies, as children do, from immaturity and want of deep reflection. A certain childhood of nature, however, is the redeeming charm in all these pictures. There is an honest simplicity in the narrative, which refreshes us like the talk of children.
We have been so long in the habit of hearing the Bible read in solemn, measured tones, in the hush of churches, that we are apt to forget that these men and women were really flesh and blood, of the same human nature with ourselves. A factitious solemnity invests a Bible name, and some good people seem to feel embarassed by the obligation to justify all the proceedings of patriarchs and prophets by the advanced rules of Christian morality. In this respect, the modern fashion of treating the personages of sacred story with the same freedom of inquiry as the characters of any other history has its advantages. It takes them out of a false, unnatural light, where they lose all hold on our sympathies, and brings them before us as real human beings. Read in this way, the ancient sacred history is the purest naturalism, under the benevolent guidance of the watchful Father of Nations.
Pascal very wisely says, "The whole succession of men during the long course of ages ought to be considered as a single man, who exists and learns from age to age." Considered in this light, it is no more difficult to conceive of an infinite Father tolerating an imperfect childhood of morals in the whole human race, than in each individual of that race. The patriarchs are to be viewed as the first pupils in the great training-school whence the world's teachers in morals were to come, and they are shown to us in all the crudity of early pupilage. The great virtue of which they are presented as the pattern is the virtue of the child and the scholar – FAITH.
Faith, the only true reason for weak and undeveloped natures, was theirs, and as the apostle says, "it was counted to them for righteousness." However imperfect and uncultured one may be, if he has implicit trust in an infallible teacher, he is in the way of all attainment.
The faith of which Abraham is presented as the example is not the blind, ignorant superstition of the savage. Not a fetish, not a selfish trust in a Patron Deity for securing personal advantages, but an enlightened, boundless trust in the Supreme power, wisdom, and rectitude. "The Judge of all the earth will do right." In this belief, Abraham trusts him absolutely. To him he is willing to surrender the deepest and dearest hopes of his life, and sacrifice even the son in whom center all the nerves of joy and hope, "accounting," as the Apostle tells us, "that God was able to raise him from the dead."
Nor was this faith bounded by the horizon of this life. We are informed by the Apostle Paul, who certainly well understood the traditions of his nation, that Abraham looked forward to the same heavenly home which cheers the heart of the Christian. "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. They – the patriarchs – desired a better country, even an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God." (Heb. xi. 8-10, 16.)
We are further told that this faith passed as a legacy through the patriarchal families to the time of Moses, and that the inspiring motive of his life was the invisible God and the future world beyond the grave. "By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, for he had respect unto the recompense of reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the great king; for he endured as seeing him who is invisible." (Heb. xi. 24-27.) It has been blindly asserted that the hope of a future life was no part of the working force in the lives of these ancient patriarchs. Certainly, no one ever sacrificed more brilliant prospects of things seen and temporal, for the sake of things unseen and eternal, than Moses.
Finally, one remarkable characteristic of all these old patriarchs was the warmth of their affections. Differing in degree as to moral worth, they were all affectionate men. So, after all that Christianity has done for us, after all the world's growth and progress, we find no pictures of love in family life more delicate and tender than are given in these patriarchal stories. No husband could be more loyally devoted to a wife than Abraham; no lover exhibit less of the eagerness of selfish passion and more of enduring devotion than Jacob, who counted seven years of servitude as nothing, for the love he bare his Rachael; and, for a picture of parental tenderness, the story of Joseph stands alone and unequalled in human literature.
In the patriarchal families, as here given, women seem to have reigned as queens of the interior. Even when polygamy was practiced, the monogamic affection was still predominant. In the case of Abraham and Jacob, it appears to have been from no wandering of the affections, but from a desire of offspring, or the tyranny of custom, that a second wife was imposed.
Female chastity was jealously guarded. When a young prince seduced Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, although offering honorable marriage, with any amount of dowry, the vengeance of the brothers could only be appeased by blood; and the history of Joseph shows that purity was regarded as a virtue in man as well as in woman. Such, then, was the patriarchal stock, – the seed-form of the great and chosen nation. Let us now glance at the influences which nourished it through the grand growth of the prophetic or national period, up to the time of its consummate blossom and fruit in the Christian era.
Moses was the great lawgiver to mold this people into a nation. His institutes formed a race of men whose vital force has outlived conquest, persecution, dispersion, and every possible cause which could operate to destroy a nationality; so that, even to our time, talent and genius spring forth from the unwasted vigor of these sons and daughters of Abraham. The remarkable vigor and vitality of the Jewish race, their power of adaptation to every climate, and of bearing up under the most oppressive and disadvantageous circumstances, have attracted the attention of the French government, and two successive commissions of inquiry, with intervals of three or four years between, have been instituted, "on the causes of the health and longevity of the Jewish race."
In the "Israelite" of February 9, 1866, we have, on this subject, the report of M. Legoyt, chief of a division of the ministry of commerce and public works, one of the first statisticians of France. He says: "We have seen that all the documents put together are affirmative of an exceptional vitality of the Jews. How can this phenomenon be explained? Dietrici, after having demonstrated its existence in Prussia, thinks it is to be attributed to greater temperance, a better regulated life, and purer morals. This is likewise the opinion of Drs. Neufville, Glatter, and Meyer. Cases of drunkenness, says Dietrici, frequent among the Christians, occur very rarely among the Jews. This regularity and discipline, and greater self-control, of Jewish life is confirmed by the criminal statistics of Prussia, which show fewer Jews condemned for crime."
M. Legoyt goes on to account for this longevity and exceptional vitality of the Jews by the facts of their family life: that early marriages are more common; that great care is taken to provide for the exigencies of marriage; that there are fewer children born, and thus they are better cared for; that family feeling is more strongly developed than in other races; that the Jewish mother is the nurse of her own infant, and that great care and tenderness are bestowed on young children.
It is evident that the sanitary prescriptions of the Mosaic law have an important bearing on the health. If we examine these laws of Moses, we shall find that they consist largely in dietetic and sanitary regulations, in directions for detecting those diseases which vitiate the blood, and removing the subjects of them from contact with their fellows.
But the greatest peculiarity of the institutes of Moses is their care of family life. They differed from the laws of all other ancient nations by making the family the central point of the state. In Rome and Greece, and in antiquity generally, the ruling purpose was war and conquest. War was the normal condition of the ancient world. The state was for the most part a camp under martial law, and the interests of the family fared hardly. The laws of Moses, on the contrary, contemplated a peaceful community of land-holders, devoted to agriculture and domestic life. The land of Canaan was divided into homesteads; the homestead was inalienable in families, and could be sold only for fifty years, when it reverted again to the original heirs. All these regulations gave a quality of stability and perpetuity to the family. We have also some striking laws which show how, when brought into immediate comparison, family life is always considered the first; for instance, see Deuteronomy xxiv. 5: "When a man hath taken a new wife he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business; but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken." What can more strongly show the delicate care of woman, and the high regard paid to the family, than this? It was more important to be a good husband and make his wife happy than to win military glory or perform public service of any kind.
The same regard for family life is shown, in placing the father and the mother as joint objects of honor and veneration, in the Ten Commandments: "Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee." Among the Greeks, the wife was a nonentity, living in the seclusion of the women's apartments, and never associated publicly with her husband as an equal. In Rome, the father was all in all in the family, and held the sole power of life and death over his wife and children. Among the Jews, the wife was the co-equal queen of the home, and was equally honored and obeyed with her husband. Lest there should be any doubt as to the position of the mother, the command is solemnly reiterated, and the mother placed first in order: "And the Lord spake to Moses, speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them, Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Ye shall fear every man his MOTHER and his father. I am the Lord." (Lev. xix. 3.) How solemn is the halo of exaltation around the mother in this passage, opened with all the authority of God, – calling to highest holiness, and then exalting the mother and the father as, next to God, objects of reverence!
Family government was backed by all the authority of the state, but the power of life and death was not left in the parents' hands. If a son proved stubborn and rebellious, utterly refusing domestic discipline, then the father and the mother were to unite in bringing him before the civil magistrates, who condemned him to death. But the mother must appear and testify, before the legal act was accomplished, and thus the power of restraining the stronger passions of the man was left with her.
The laws of Moses also teach a degree of delicacy and consideration, in the treatment of women taken captives in war, that was unparalleled in those ages. With one consent, in all other ancient nations, the captive woman was a slave, with no protection for chastity. Compare with this the spirit of the law of Moses: "If thou seest among thy captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her that thou wouldst have her to wife, then thou shalt bring her to thy house, and she shall remain in thy house and bewail her father and mother a full month; and after that thou shalt go in unto her and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife." Here is consideration, regard to womanly feeling, and an opportunity for seeking the affection of the captive by kindness. The law adds, furthermore, that if the man change his mind, and do not wish to marry her after this time for closer acquaintance, then he shall give her her liberty, and allow her to go where she pleases: "Thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her."
The laws of Moses did not forbid polygamy, but they secured to the secondary wives such respect and attention as made the maintenance of many of them a matter of serious difficulty. Everywhere we find Moses interposing some guard to the helplessness of the woman, softening and moderating the harsh customs of ancient society in her favor. Men were not allowed to hold women-servants merely for the gratification of a temporary passion, without assuming the obligations of a husband. Thus we find the following restraint on the custom of buying a handmaid or concubine: "If a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out to work as the men-servants do, and, if she please not her master which hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed; he shall have no power to sell her unto a stranger, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her as a daughter. And if he take another wife, her food and her raiment, and her duty of marriage shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three things unto her, then shall she go out free without money." (Ex. xxi. 7.) This law, in fact, gave to every concubine the rights and immunities of a legal wife, and in default of its provisions she recovered her liberty. Thus, also, we find a man is forbidden to take two sisters to wife, and the feelings of the first wife are expressly mentioned as the reason: "Thou shalt not take unto thy wife her sister to vex her during her lifetime."
In the same manner it was forbidden to allow personal favoritism to influence the legal rights of succession belonging to children of different wives. (Deut. xxi. 15.) "If a man have two wives, one beloved and the other hated, and they have both borne him children, and if the firstborn son be hers that is hated, then, when he maketh his sons to inherit, he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn."
If a man slandered the chastity of his wife before marriage, she or her relations had a right to bring him before a tribunal of the elders, and, failing to substantiate his accusations, he was heavily fined and the right of divorce taken from him.
By thus hedging in polygamy with the restraints of serious obligations and duties, and making every concubine a wife, entitled to claim all the privileges of a wife, Moses prepared the way for its gradual extinction. For since it could not be a mere temporary connection involving no duty on the man's part, since he could not sell or make merchandise of the slave when he was tired of her, since the children had a legal claim to support, – it became a serious matter to increase the number of wives. The kings of Israel were expressly forbidden to multiply wives; and the disobedience of Solomon, who followed the custom of Oriental sovereigns, is mentioned with special reprobation, as calling down the judgments of God upon his house.
The result of all this was, that in the course of time polygamy fell into disuse among the Jews; and, after the Babylonian captivity, when a more strenuous observance of the laws of Moses was enforced, it almost entirely ceased.[1 - Michaelis, Laws of Moses, III. 5, § 95.] In the time of Christ and the Apostles, the Jews had become substantially a monogamic nation.
Another peculiarity in the laws of Moses is the equality of the treatment of man and woman. Among other nations, adultery was punished severely in the wife, and lightly, if at all, in the husband. According to the Jewish law, it was punished by the death of both parties. If a man seduced a girl, he was obliged to marry her; and forcible violation was punished by death.
While in many other nations, prostitution, in one form or other, formed part of the services of the temple and the revenues of the state, it was enacted that the wages of such iniquity should not be received into the treasury of the Lord; and, finally, it was enjoined that there should be no prostitute among the daughters of Israel. (Deut. xxiii. 17, 18.)
In all that relates to the details of family life, the laws of Moses required great temperance and government of the passions; and, undoubtedly, these various restraints and religious barriers raised by the ceremonial law around the wife and mother are one great reason of the vigor of the Jewish women and the uncorrupted vitality of the race.
The law of Moses on divorce, though expressly spoken of by Christ as only a concession or adaptation to a low state of society, still was, in its day, on the side of protection to women. A man could not put his wife out of doors at any caprice of changing passion: a legal formality was required, which would, in those times, require the intervention of a Levite to secure the correctness of the instrument. This would bring the matter under the cognizance of legal authority, and tend to check the rash exercise of the right by the husband. The final result of all this legislation, enforced from age to age by Divine judgments, and by the warning voices of successive prophets, was, that the Jewish race, instead of sinking into licentiousness, and losing stamina and vigor, as all the other ancient nations did, became essentially a chaste and vigorous people, and is so to this day.
The comparison of the literature of any ancient nation with that of the Jews strikingly demonstrates this. The uncleanness and obscenity of much of the Greek and Roman literature is in wonderful contrast to the Jewish writings in the Bible and Apocrypha, where vice is never made either ludicrous or attractive, but mentioned only with horror and reprobation.
If we consider now the variety, the elevation, and the number of female characters in sacred history, and look to the corresponding records of other nations, we shall see the results of this culture of women. The nobler, the heroic elements were developed among the Jewish women by the sacredness and respect which attached to family life. The veneration which surrounded motherhood, and the mystic tradition coming down through the ages that some Judæan mother should give birth to the great Saviour and Regenerator of mankind, consecrated family life with a devout poetry of emotion. Every cradle was hallowed by the thought of that blessed child who should be the hope of the world.
Another cause of elevation of character among Jewish women was their equal liability to receive the prophetic impulse. A prophet was, by virtue of his inspiration, a public teacher, and the leader of the nation, – kings and magistrates listened to his voice; and this crowning glory was from time to time bestowed on women.
We are informed in 2 Kings xxii. 14, that in the reign of King Josiah, when a crisis of great importance arose with respect to the destiny of the nation, the king sent a deputation of the chief priests and scribes to inquire of the word of the Lord from Huldah the prophetess, and that they received her word as the highest authority. This was while the prophet Jeremiah was yet a young man.
The prophetess was always a poetess, and some of the earliest records of female poetry in the world are of this kind. A lofty enthusiasm of patriotism also distinguishes the Jewish women, and in more than one case in the following sketches we shall see them the deliverers of their country. Corresponding to these noble women of sacred history, what examples have we in polished Greece? The only women who were allowed mental culture – who studied, wrote, and enjoyed the society of philosophers and of learned men – were the courtesans. For chaste wives and mothers there was no career and no record.
In the Roman state we see the influence upon woman of a graver style of manhood and a more equal liberty in the customs of society. In Rome there were sacred women, devoted to religion, and venerated accordingly. They differed, however, from the inspired women of Jewish history in being entirely removed from the experiences of family life. The vestal virgins were bound by cruel penalties to a life of celibacy. So far as we know, there is not a Jewish prophetess who is not also a wife, and the motherly character is put forward as constituting a claim to fitness in public life. "I, Deborah, arose a mother in Israel." That pure ideal of a sacred woman springing from the bosom of the family, at once wife, mother, poetess, leader, inspirer, prophetess, is peculiar to sacred history.
WOMEN OF THE PATRIARCHAL AGES
SARAH THE PRINCESS
One woman in the Christian dispensation has received a special crown of honor. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, mother of the Jewish nation, is to this day an object of traditional respect and homage in the Christian Church. Her name occurs in the marriage service as an example for the Christian wife, who is exhorted to meekness and obedience by St. Peter, "Even as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord; whose daughters ye are, so long as ye do well, and are not subject to a slavish fear."
In turning to the narrative of the Old Testament, however, we are led to feel that in setting Sarah before wives as a model of conjugal behavior, no very alarming amount of subjection or submission is implied.
The name Sarah means "princess"; and from the Bible story we infer that, crowned with the power of eminent beauty, and fully understanding the sovereignty it gave her over man, Sarah was virtually empress and mistress of the man she called "lord." She was a woman who understood herself and him, and was too wise to dispute the title when she possessed the reality of sway; and while she called Abraham "lord," it is quite apparent from certain little dramatic incidents that she expected him to use his authority in the line of her wishes.
In going back to these Old Testament stories, one feels a ceaseless admiration of the artless simplicity of the primitive period of which they are the only memorial. The dew of earth's early morning lies on it, sparkling and undried; and the men and women speak out their hearts with the simplicity of little children.