Although we may not consciously be thinking about gender when we read the Hebrew Bible, gender shapes how we understand the stories and what we think their messages are. Think about it: what if Eve had been a man or David a woman? How different would our interpretations of their stories, and the religions that draw inspiration from them, be? How different would many of our societies today be?
Categories of gender, like “man” and “woman” or “male” and “female,” are central to the ways in which we think about the world and our place in it. Although we tend to take these categories for granted, different cultures vary radically in the number of genders they see as naturally occurring, as well as in the characteristics they attribute to each gender. Accordingly, people dress, behave, sexually orient, and make life choices based on their culturally conditioned understandings of what is proper for the gender to which they have been assigned.
What is gender criticism?
Scholars who read the Hebrew Bible through a lens of gender criticism are interested in learning about the complex social relationships and power structures between people based on the connection between biological sex and culturally conditioned gender assignments. To some extent, this is a matter of understanding that according to the ancient authors, women and girls had certain expectations and roles placed on them by society, and men and boys had other expectations and roles. Because biblical males tended to have more power and authority than females, particularly in the political sphere, in the past many historians have asserted that ancient Israel was patriarchal, thus ending the discussion of gender with a generalization that implies that all men have power over all women. Many feminist critics have also operated with this framework, looking for evidence of patriarchal structures, even while they are also looking for evidence of biblical women seeking to subvert male power and exercise their own.
Gender criticism, however, recognizes that the reality is far more complex. With a focus on power relationships between people, we can see that, in fact, while certain hierarchies do exist, many of them differ and overlap with each other. For example, a female who is subordinate in one relationship (say, Sarah in relation to Abraham) may be dominant in another (say, Sarah in relation to Hagar). A household matriarch like Sarah would also have been in a dominant position over her male slaves, and a queen mother or other powerful female would have power over almost all the other males in her kingdom. Thus gender criticism also takes into account social factors that impact both gender construction and power differentials, such as age, class, and ethnicity. For example, according to the biblical texts, priestly males, as well as their wives and daughters, had powers and privileges unavailable to nonpriestly families; certain ethnicities were excluded from participation in temple worship whether male or female; and both unmarried daughters and unmarried sons were considered property of their fathers, who had the power to sell offspring into debt slavery.
How can thinking about gender help us better understand the Hebrew Bible and the world that produced it?
In addition to thinking about social structure and power relationships, gender critics are also interested in gender construction; that is, how cultures think about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. For example, there are a variety of masculine ideals portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, and they often differ from each other. Sometimes these differences demonstrate the existence of different classes: for example, the priestly ideal is to be a master of ritual regulations and represent the people in their proper worship of God, and the warrior ideal is to be a strong and skilled fighter who helps keep his nation physically secure from foreign intrusion. Other times such differences show the possibility of divergent masculine ideals for the same class. For example, King David is portrayed as a great warrior and conqueror who forges a united kingdom by his sword and astute political decisions. His son Solomon, however, is not a warrior but a shrewd monarch whose famed wisdom allows his kingdom to prosper via vast trade networks and careful political alliances forged through marriage and diplomacy.
Differences in constructions of masculinity can also demonstrate a change in cultural constructions of gender over time. For an example of this, think about the differences between David and the figure of Daniel. David is an active fighter and fierce warrior who founds a nation based on bloody battles and military strategies. Daniel is a wise and loyal advisor to Babylonian and Persian kings, known for his unshakeable faith in God’s deliverance, willing to martyr himself in the name of this faith, and repeatedly saved on account of it. To be sure, the texts about David and Daniel were written under very different historical circumstances. Stories about David represent a time in which the Israelites ruled themselves in their own country, whereas stories about Daniel attest to centuries of foreign domination and oppression of Israel by Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks. In fact, Daniel is written in the aftermath of the bloody Maccabean wars as a kind of protest against those who would seize the land of Israel back by force, advocating instead that firm faith in God could overcome all circumstances. Gender criticism notes the ways in which historical and political circumstances help shape categories and constructions of gender, recognizing that the masculine ideal represented by David and that represented by Daniel reflect very different time periods.
By applying the tools of gender criticism, scholars can learn a lot about the ways in which ancient biblical authors thought about what it meant to be male or female. In turn, those authors and their cultural constructions of gender have had a great deal of influence on the ways in which subsequent cultures that read the Bible as sacred literature have continued to think about gender throughout history.