Scripture Day takes look at ancient,
and not-so-ancient attitudes towards women
By Dave Myers
Southwest Kansas Catholic
The Oct. 26 Scripture Day presentation by Father Raymond Collins entitled “Sex in the Bible”, offered a reminder about just how much things have and haven’t changed over the centuries.
While a later presentation highlighted the New Testament and a more progressive attitude toward women written by the disciple Paul in his letters—and certainly in the teaching of Jesus Christ who allowed women into his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3 in the telling of the Parable of the Sower)--Father Collins’s first talk, about sexual mores in the Old Testament, produced more than a few eye rolls and groans of disapproval at the ancient ideas.
The annual Scripture Day was held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Dodge City. Father Collins is an expert on the New Testament and is the former dean of the School of Religious Studies and professor of New Testament at The Catholic University of Americas. A Spanish language presentation was offered concurrently by Jaime Gil (see Page 16).
The Old Testament is filled with wondrous examples of God’s interaction with His people, examples of saints--men and women--moved to heroic action by a loving God.
And, it offers a direct reflection of the time when “women were second class citizens,” Father Collins admitted.
In the Judaical tradition (the Jewish culture that is reflected in the Old Testament), the first commandment is to “Go forth and multiply,” Father Collins said. It was the first commandment given to Adam and Eve. It was the first command to Noah and his family after the flood.
It is this attitude that drove much of the cultural norms of the time. If a man had several wives, for example, it was to produce many children.
“One wife only produced one child a year.” The more wives, the more children. “Procreation contributed to the physical strength of the Nation of Israel. The people of Israel could not marry people of another nation.”
This focus on having children was particularly poignant when considering that “10 percent of children died in their first year, and half by age 10.”
Divorce was not unknown, and was certainly easier on the man, for it was a simple thing to banish the woman from the home. And because women were uneducated, if she couldn’t quickly find another husband, she would be forced into prostitution.
Understanding some of the sexual meaning in the passages of the Old Testament requires an understanding of the language used in the Bible.
For example, Father Collins said that “The most common word in the Old Testament about sex is ‘knew.’ Man ‘knew’ his wife and she conceived.’ This meant that the man had a full sexual experience with his wife.”
There are stories of adultery in the Old Testament; there is lust. There are stories that would make script writers for soap operas blush. And there is great beauty.
“Think of the Song of Songs,” Father Collins said. Not only is it a deeply romantic poem written by King Solomon to his lover, it is also very erotic.
“It’s interesting that ‘Song of Songs’ ever made it into the canon,” Father Collins said with a laugh.
Father Collins was referring to the ancient mores when he noted, “But when did this really change? Think about it. When did women gain the right to vote? When were they allowed to be issued credit cards?” [The answers are 1920 and an astounding 1974, respectively.]
“Women have been oppressed, taken advantage of, and abused.”
In his second presentation, Father Collins’s main focus was on St. Paul, whose letters expressed an ideal that “what was good for the man was good for the woman.” In other words, many of those rules set forth for the woman in the Old Testament should apply to the man, too.
Paul, in most cases, was more progressive and less chauvinistic than earlier writers.
“Jesus tried to do something about it,” Father Collins said. “Paul tried to do something about it. But nobody would listen.”
Despite being more progressive toward the role of women, being a man of his time, Paul too reflected a second-class-citizenry for women that was ingrained into the time and place.
“Jesus says little about sexuality, unlike Paul,” Father Collins said. “We don’t have in the Gospels the same kind of practical direction.”
Instead, we have the examples of Christ, who brought women such as Mary Magdalene into his inner circle. Women sat at his feet to listen to his parables, something unheard of in an age when women rarely ever were allowed to learn as the men did.
Of course, Christ did give direction: In Matthew 22:37-39, he said: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”
Christ makes it clear: In the world his Father created, he declares that real love leaves no room for chauvinism, prejudice, or sexism.