“Judges and Misogyny” by Barry G. Webb

Barry G. Webb is senior research fellow emeritus in Old Testament at Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia, and author of The Book of Judges, the latest volume in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

Barry Webb
Barry Webb

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Words are slippery things. Their meaning changes with time and through use in different circumstances, especially when they get caught up in controversy and become labels that people apply to others they don’t like or agree with. In the context of a recent controversy in Australia, the Macquarie Dictionary changed its definition of misogyny from “hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women,” a definition that brings it close to what is commonly referred to as “patriarchy.”

Whatever definition is adopted, the biblical book of Judges is certainly vulnerable to the charge of misogyny. There are a lot of women in Judges, many of whom fare badly (to put it mildly) at the hands of men. Jephthah’s daughter is sacrificed by her father in fulfillment of a rash vow. Samson’s wife and her family are burned alive. A concubine is raped and dismembered. Hundreds of girls are seized and carried off as conscript brides. All these incidents are related without any word of condemnation from the (presumably) male  author. In the patriarchal world of Judges, it seems, women are disposable commodities, valued only as providers of sexual and other services to men. Judges shows that patriarchy and misogyny go hand in hand.

It is no wonder, then, that many recent commentators have been driven to rescue these women from disempowerment and abuse by reading the text from their point of view and letting their voices be heard. Read in this way the Judges narratives show how fear of women’s sexuality leads to violence as a means of control. In a patriarchal society, men blame women for the violence of which the women themselves are the victims. This is seen particularly in the stories of Jephthah’s daughter and of the concubine in chapter 19. Read this way, Judges becomes a textbook study of the evils of patriarchy. Patriarchy is misogyny institutionalised, and it inevitably leads to violence against women. Judges proves it. Right?

Rightly or wrongly (that is another issue), Judges is patriarchal: leadership by men is the norm. But it is also, and fundamentally, a theological work, and when that fact is acknowledged a rather different perspective on women emerges. The “evil” that people do, both men and women, is abandoning Yahweh for other gods and taking on the ways of the Canaanites. And as that movement away from covenant faithfulness progresses through the book, the status and welfare of women deteriorates.

At the beginning, in a context of covenant obedience, Achsah has name, dignity, and voice. She is vulnerable, to be sure: the subject of an arranged marriage. But she is proactive in the presence of men, free to make her voice heard, express her needs, demand her rights, and get what she is entitled to. The Achsah narrative of Judges 1:11-15 contributes to the themes of blessing and inheritance in that chapter.

The Book of Judges (NICOT)
The Book of Judges (NICOT)

By the end of the book, however, women are nameless, silent, and abused. And although there is no explicit condemnation there of the way they are treated, the whole book tells you it is wrong. What it shows you powerfully in chapters 19-21 is the kind of world you end up with when covenant faithfulness is abandoned: a morally bankrupt society in which women, especially, suffer abuse.

In between, the roles played by women are almost as varied as the women themselves: judge, prophet, mother, heroine, assassin, wife, concubine, daughter, sacrifice, prostitute, betrayer, rape victim. Some, like Deborah, are wise and righteous and shame men by their initiative and heroism. Some, like Delilah, are mercenary and traitorous. Some are powerful, some are weak. Some are good, some are bad. The deeds of Deborah and Jael are celebrated in song. The remarkable slaughter of Abimelech by a woman with a millstone in chapter 9 is the turning point of that story. She too is a hero. Delilah’s betrayal of Samson is simply shown us without comment. But there is no stereotyping of women here. Some are victims of male violence, some are not; and when abuse of women happens, it is never condoned. It is presented as a symptom of a sick society, in which everyone does what is “evil” in Yahweh’s eyes, and “right” only in their own eyes.

In short, if the theological message of Judges is allowed to be heard, the accusation that it is written by men who “hate women” or who have an “entrenched prejudice” against them is not easy to sustain. And if patriarchy does not result in misogyny — at least not in Judges — then perhaps patriarchy does not arise from misogyny either. But that, too, is another issue.

Click to order Barry Webb’s New International Commentary on the Old Testament volume The Book of Judges