Monday, January 23, 2006

Women and Slaves in Genesis

More scattered passages in Genesis

Next in the Bible (beginning at Genesis 12) is the story of Abraham – very important. But before I get directly into that story, there are a few more observations and puzzlements I would just like to note.

Multiple Wives

First of all, apparently during these times it was common for men to have several wives. The first mention of this practice is at Gen 4:19.

Not only did men sometimes have several wives, but sometimes took female servants as wives or concubines. Since Sarai (later named Sarah) did not have children (yet), she offered her female servant Hagar, to sleep with Abram (later named Abraham). Sarai says, “it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2). Hagar had a son, Ishmael. Later Sarah did finally have a son of her own, Isaac.

Another notable example is Isaac’s son, Jacob. It is Jacob who fathers the 12 sons who are the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, but with the help of four wives, or, to be more exact, two wives and two concubines. His two wives were Leah and Rachel. Jacob also had children with Leah’s servant, Zilpah, and with Rachel’s servant, Bilhah. The full story can be found in Genesis, chapters 28-30. Besides Jacob’s 12 sons, he also had a daughter.


It is also clear that people had slaves during this time. Even though we may want to think of them as servants instead of slaves, multiple passages point out that their rights were very different, and that in fact they were bought and sold, so it is clear that they really were slaves, not hired servants who were free to quit whenever they wanted to quit.

Two other stories in Genesis have me worried, not only about the practice of having slaves, but about the status of all women (slaves or not).

Men Who Don’t Want to be Killed for Having Beautiful Wives Pretend Their Wives are Their Sisters

Abraham himself pretends that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife – not once, but twice! Later, his son follows his example in this respect. Here are the passages:

First version: Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt during a famine in their land. Because Sarah is so beautiful, Abraham is worried that he will get killed, so he tells Sarah to pretend she is his sister. Sarah then is “taken into Pharoah’s house” (Gen 12:15). In fact, he took her for his wife (Gen 12:19).

Second version (Gen 20): they are living in Gerar for a time. Same story. This time, King Abimelech takes Sarah, but apparently doesn’t actually sleep with her before he realizes (through a dream) that she is someone else’s wife already. What is even more bizarre about this story is that it is placed after the Lord’s promise to Abraham that he will father a child with Sarah. Why on earth does he not only endanger Sarah, but expose her to the possibility of conceiving someone else’s child instead of his?!? What’s also strange here is that it now seems as though Sarah is in fact his half-sister!!!

Later, Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac does the same thing: he and his wife Rebekah go to Gerar; Isaac pretends that Rebekah is his sister; King Abimelech looks out a window one day and notices Isaac “fondling his wife Rebekah” (Gen 26:8) and so he calls for Isaac and questions him about this. “Abimelech said, ‘What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us’” (Gen 26:10).

Another Shocking Story on the Status of Women

Genesis 18:16-18:33: A foreshadowing that the Lord is greatly displeased with the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and will wipe them out. Abraham, knowing that his nephew Lot is there, questions the fairness of wiping the cities out if there are still some good people left. The Lord agrees that even if there are just 10 righteous people there, the cities should not be destroyed.

It is not at all clear what specifically is so wicked about Sodom and Gomorrah. The common interpretation comes from just one cryptic passage: when the angels come to Sodom, and Lot invites them in, all the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring out the men he had invited in, “so that we may know them” (Gen 19:5).

The notes explain that this is a threat of homosexual rape. If it is, it is still not at all clear that that is the exact nature of the “sinfulness” of Sodom and Gomorrah. Maybe it is an isolated event, and there are other significant ways that Sodom and Gomorrah are wicked.

At any rate, at first I thought what was so objectionable about the mob’s behavior was the threat of rape, not necessarily its homosexual character. But the passage that follows seems to suggest that a mob of men threatening rape is not really so horrible: “Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof’” Gen 19:6-8). This makes it clear that what is specifically wicked is to want to rape one’s guests instead of one’s family members. Or is it one’s guests instead of one’s children? Or is it one’s guests instead of one’s daughters? Or is it – men instead of women?

This is the passage that, on my first attempt to read the Bible, stopped me in my tracks. Lot is supposed to be the righteous one who is being saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah! He is the nephew of the great Abraham! So, what is he doing, offering his daughters to the angry mob?!?!? The mob refuses Lot’s offer (I’m sure his daughters were grateful to the mob about that!), and in the morning, Lot and his wife and two daughters flee. They are warned not to look back. Lot’s wife does glance back, and turns into a pillar of salt.

Then, to top off this most remarkable story: Lot and his daughters live in a cave in the hills, and Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him in order to have children, who become the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites.

Ok, now that I've confessed to all of what horrifies me in Genesis, let me now shake the dust off my feet and try to turn my attention towards more positive observations in my next posting! Thanks for bearing with me through this very difficult part of the journey!


  1. The status of women and the presence of slaves seems to undermine a core part of the book. God wipes out all people except Noah's family, who are left to populate the earth.

    God says that if any person kills another human being that they themselves will be killed, since all people are made in God's image.

    Going off these facts, how can it be considered reasonable to enslave any human being? They are from Noah's bloodline and are modelled on the image of God.

    The more of the bible I read the more I believe alot of people choose to base their faith only on certain sections of the whole text, ignoring challenging aspects.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Sorry not to respond sooner -- somehow I missed this.

    Yes, what you point out is very puzzling indeed. Both the Adam and Eve story, and the Noah story, suggest that all humans really are related. What then are the origins of some groups of people enslaving others or regarding others as enemies?