Gender-Specific Language of the Major Prophets in The Hebrew Bible: The Case of the First and Second Isaiah

By Iulia O. Basu-Zharku
2011, Vol. 3 No. 02 | pg. 1/5 |

Prophecy is one of the most important institutions in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet is regarded as the voice of the Lord, bringing God’s will and commandments to the people who often forget to follow the rigors of the Law. The prophets have, also, designated roles. Some are advisors to the king (in the way Samuel advises Saul and Nathan advises David), sometimes even admonishing the monarch. Others are mendicants, unattached to a specific court and living off of what people give them. They travel extensively, prophesize the word of God, and they also perform symbolic actions (Elijah and Ahijah are examples of mendicant prophets). The used by the prophets might differ but at times it is similar and makes use of specific terms, motifs and metaphors. In this context, I consider that one of its most interesting characteristics consists in the gendered associations used particularly in the books of the Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The three Major Prophets arise at a turning point in the Judean history, and cover the pre-exilic time, during the Babylonian exile and the postexilic time. The Book of Isaiah covers the largest period of time, is evidently edited at a postexilic time and is divided into three large sections: First Isaiah comprises of oracles against various nations, especially Assyria and Babylon, oracles against , and important themes such as social justice and condemnation of pride1; Second Isaiah, in contrast to Fist Isaiah, focuses on consolation for Israel, and rebuke against Babylon, especially against its idolatry, while some of its major themes are the portrayal of suffering as positive and the prominent figure of the “servant of the Lord”-who could be Israel, the prophet or other individuals, such as Cyrus, king of Persia2; and Third Isaiah focuses on the problems of the post-exilic divided community, the prophecy of a new world, that will arise from universal destruction).3

The metaphors involving women abound in the lines attributed to different prophets in the Hebrew Bible and especially the three major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The female personifications found in Isaiah are different, making reference either to Israel, to individuals (usually comparing warriors with women), to people or to God. When one of these is presented as a woman, it usually emphasizes a particular phase or role from a woman’s life: daughter, wife, laboring mother, mother, virgin, harlot, widow. In addition, these metaphors can have positive or negative connotations. Tables 1 and 2 present a summary of these metaphors as they appear in the Book of Isaiah. This paper will focus on two of these metaphors, specifically metaphors that involve a comparison with a woman in labor and metaphors that compare enemies of Israel with women. In addition, a second analysis will focus on the way First Isaiah differs from Second Isaiah in the use of these metaphors.

Warriors Metaphorized as Women

In First Isaiah we find three instances of enemy cities portrayed as women and one instance of actual warriors portrayed as women. The latter instance has a specific meaning, which can be traced down to other Near Eastern sources. All these sources attribute certain characteristics, vestments and tools to women and the same to man, thus emphasizing the essential differences between the two.4 In general, in the Ancient Near East, a woman lived in the house of her father until she married. When she moved into the house of her husband, the was official. She was supposed to produce male heirs. Their husbands could divorce them but a woman could be killed for leaving her husband. Thus, women were defined either as daughters or as wives.5

Nonetheless, women could practice trades and they could own property. Prominent for this were women who were not defined as daughters or wives of a man or another, and sometimes regarded as prostitutes: the hamritu. By and large, though, women were confined to the house, in their roles of mothers and wives, tending to the house chores.6 And even when they participated in activities that were done by men, as well, like production of textile, cultic tasks and making pottery, women did not engage in some activities which were regarded as strictly masculine, like warfare, hunting, fishing, carrying heavy loads and construction tasks.7 Archeological evidence (such as seals, statues and reliefs) shows that men were often portrayed naked or scantly clothed, compared to women. This was done so as to emphasize the physical strength and prowess of men, whereas female nudity would have sexual connotations.8 In this context, comparing a man to a woman invariably takes the connotation of portraying that man as a coward, a weak man9 so much so that it became “a standard curse against the enemy”10.

In Assyrian treaties these curses are explicit in the use of the “woman metaphor.” Thus, in the Treaty of Aššur-nerari V with Mati’-ilu, King of Arpad11:

“If Mati’-ilu sins against this treaty
with Aššur-nerari, king of Assyria, may Mati’-ilu
become a prostitute, his soldiers women, may
they receive (a gift) in the square of their
cities like any prostitute […]
may Ištar, the goddess of men, the lady of
women, take away their bow […].”

This curse makes ample references to women: the taking away of the bow, for example, is a symbolic gesture of transforming these warriors in women, since women did not use to carry arms. In addition, in the Assyrian world, the prostitutes plied their trade, and “the faithful mother continued to be the norm”12, taking care of the household, though women did have a certain legal status13. Women were supposed to produce and reproduce,14 were excluded from religious duties and their was restricted15.

Again, in Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, Ištar is invoked in the curses against those who do not respect the oath16:

“May Ištar, lady of battle and war, smash
your bow in the thick of the bat[tle], may she
bind your arms, and have you crouch under
your enemy.”

In this curse, the crounching at the feet of the enemy and the binding of arms are symbolic actions, representing the defeat in battle, and thus a symbol of the warriors’ inability to be who they are supposed to be.

In yet a third instance, also in Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, another curse includes the comparison of a warrior to a woman17:

“May all the gods who are called by
name in this treaty tablet spin you around
like a spindle-whorl, may they make you like
a woman before your enemy.”

A soldier’s oath in the Hittite language that invokes the same type of metaphor reads18:

“Whoever breaks these oaths…, let these oaths change him from a man into a woman! Let
them change his troops into women, let them dress in the fashion of women and cover
their heads with a length of cloth! Let them break the bows arrows (and) clubs in their
hands and [let them put] in their hands distaff and mirror!”

As these examples show, the comparison of warriors with women is done specifically in order to denigrate the warrior, since it involves the taking away of weapons and the replacement of these with objects specific to women-an action that symbolically represents their de-masculinization. Since women’s sphere of influence was restricted to the family and household, in spite of their having a certain legal status19, women were viewed as silent, working hard, weak (in the curse, the person is said to crouch at the enemy’s feet, this position being more fitted for a woman than for a man), and related to certain occupations, such as spinning (a spindle-whorl is an object specific to women, not to men) and beautifying activities (represented here by the mention of the mirror). Moreover, in the Babylonian and Persian world (626-332 B.C.E.), women in the public sphere were not viewed positively and queens were even considered “a bad omen in Mesopotamia”20.

Warriors compared to women can be found in Greek ancient literature, as well. Herodotus (8, 91) quotes Xerxes as saying: “My men have become women on me, and my women, men!” on seeing Artemisia sinking a Greek ship21. The meaning is plain, especially considering the Greek view of women: they were supposed to be secluded, excluded from the public sphere, confined to the house22, often uneducated, and having little freedom and equality to men23. Plato reinforces these ideas when he talks about “the art of weaving, and the management of pancakes and preserves, in which womankind does really appear to be great”24, but rejects the idea of the women’s influence in the public sphere.

These examples from the ancient civilizations that were living and interacting with the ancient Hebrew civilization, are an insight in the significance of the same type of metaphors that are used in the Hebrew Bible. In First Isaiah 13:19-21, Babylon is personified as a woman:

“And Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
the glory and pride of the Chaldeans,
Shall be overthrown by God
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She shall never be inhabited
Nor dwelt in, from age to age,”

whereas in First Isaiah 15:2, Dibon and Moab are personified as women:

“Up goes daughter Dibon
to the high places to weep;
Over Nebo and over Medeba
Moab wails.”

Further on, in First Isaiah 23:12, Sidon is the one personified:

“You shall exult no more, he says,
you who are now oppressed, virgin
daughter Sidon.
Arise, pass over to Kittim,
even there you shall find no rest,”

and again, in First Isaiah 23:15-17, Tyre is the one addressed:

“On that day, Tyre shall be forgotten for seventy years. With the days of another king, at the
end of seventy years, it shall be for Tyre as in the song about the harlot:
Take a harp, go about the city,
O forgotten harlot;
Pluck the strings skillfully, sing many
that they may remember you.”

Chapters 13-27 mostly consist in prophecies against foreign people (Babylon, Moab, Phoenician cities portray here but also against Philistia, Damascus, Ethiopia, Edom, Kedarite Arabs).25 But all these oracles have also a specific function, since they have been associated with warfare,26 and thus can be considered in the same context as the Near Eastern treatise curses exist. Oracles could have been associated with magical practices and expected to function in the same way the Near Eastern curses did. Isaiah 13-14 seems to have been a later addition, inserted to make sense of the clues that the history of Judah and Assyria provide about the Babylonian rise to power.27 Isaiah 19-21, however, deals with the fate of Babylon, and specifically prophesizes its fall. The passage deals with a proclamation of punishment, both local and universal,28 and the terms used to describe Babylon (“jewel,” “pride,” “glory”) can be seen throughout Isaiah as employed in describing the divine reality and some aspects of earthly reality, though the latter is often portrayed with a measure of irony.29 But the comparison of Babylon with a jewel makes one think of a woman. In this particular case, though, this woman-Babylon-has lost everything: her jewels, her pride, her land-to which the comparison with Sodom and Gomorrah brings to the forefront the devastation, pollution and depopulation of the land.30

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