bible, old testament, patriarchy, sexual agency

Tamar and Ruth: Sexual Agency in a Patriarchal World

Tamar in Genesis and Ruth in the Book of Ruth had to use their bodies to be taken care of in a patriarchal society and that was empowering. Women in the ancient world were considered valuables just like land and animals for the most part.Some women in certain areas had better luck in rights but for the most part, the ancient world was not a good period for women. Women were property and in marriage belonged to men. Women were expected to be virgins c,f Deut 22.21 and were even put to death if they were not virgins . Men on the other hand, could have multiple wives, concubines and even have sex with prostitutes c.f Jacob, Abraham and were only told not to have sex or marry certain women from certain nations c.f Deut 7,17, Ezra 9, Ezra 10 1Kings 11. According to Tracy M Lemos,” Unions were based mostly on economic and social considerations rather than romantic notions although there were texts like Songs of Songs.” . Men could choose who they marry for the most part example Samson chooses his wives. Lemos states that ” the relationship between husband and wife was not equal in the ancient near east including Israel. Ba’al the Hebrew word for husband was also a word for master or lord and men had life and death over their wives. This was the world Ruth and Tamar lived in. A world ,where males were preferred over females and a world depending on the biblical writer foreign women were not liked. Tamar in Genesis 38 was determined to be a mother at whatever means. She knew in her culture that if she didn’t have a child she would be an outcast in society. Namoi in the Book of Ruth knew that without a child mainly a son Ruth and her would not be able to survive According to Susan Ackerman “the norm within marriage was for women to bear children. Sons in particular were important for maintaining a father’s lineage within ancient Israel’s system of patrilineal descent and for transmitting through the generations the landholdings that every Israelite family claimed perpetually to hold as its inalienable patrimony. In addition, both sons and daughters were an important source of labor on the self-sufficient farms that typically comprised a family’s patrimony and that were the means of livelihood for most ancient Israelites. ” Because of this s culture norm both Tamar, Ruth and by association Namoi had to use what they their bodies. Although both these women could have been killed in the mere act of sex outside of marriage they were willing t o take the risk of having a child in Tamar’s case and a kinsman redeemer in Ruth’s case although the child came after she and Boaz were married.
Imagine a young widowed woman who in Israel custom has to marry her dead husband’s brother to keep the line going and for her to have a child, as bearing a child was what she was born to do in this ancient culture. Imagine Tamar going to her father in law each time that her husband died asking for the hand of his other son. Imagine Judah seeing his sons die one by one after marrying Tamar, he must have thought that she was the problem and since sons were valued, he did not want to give another son to the kiss of death from Tamar. Tamar did what she could only do to retain her autonomy, hav her independence and have what in the culture she was born the child she desired and needed to have. Since speaking to Judah did not work, she had to restort to the only thing she had her body. Her body that was commodity in ancient Israel. While prostitution wasn’t allowed for women , men could sleep with prostitutes Tamar knew what she had to get what she needed . She disguised herself as a prostitute and had Judah to sleep with her, 3 months later she was pregnant and when she was found out to that she was carrying a child Judah ordered her burnt. It is ironic that he could sleep with a woman outside of marriage and sleep with a prostitute and get away with it, however Tamar couldn’t. Tamar however was smart holding on to something that Judah had to prove that it was him she slept with . In the end she was not burnt and Judah acknowledge that she was right and Tamar got what she wanted her children which was part of a woman’s duty in those times. Ruth a foreigner In a society that not only hates women but depending on the biblical writer sometimes hate foreigners , Ruth was in an awkward position. She left her family to take care of her mother in law but when she arrived in her mother in law’s home land she realized and so did Naomi that they needed someone to take care of them . Hence Naomi instructions to Ruth in chapter 3 reeks sexual agency. Naomi an older woman knew that in patriarchal Israel Ruth and by extension her would need a man to take care of them , the instructions that Naomi gave Ruth ““uncover his feet and lie down” may seem innocent enough however feet in the ancient world usually meant male sexual organs and lying down near someone’s feet meant something sexual was going on. Usually when someone touches or lies down near feet it usually means someone is touching the male organs c.f Ex. 4:25, where Moses’ wife Zipporah circumcised their son and then touched Moses’ “feet” with the foreskin. When Boaz realized what happen. He decided to marry her. Whether to save his own reputation or save Ruth , one cannot be sure, although one can assume nothing much would happen with Boaz since he was a male and that maybe after all he was a kind and noble man who decided to marry Ruth a foreigner and a woman who he had sex with outside the sanctions of marriage in order to protect her. In both Tamar and Ruth cases sex was used in order to protect both these women and to make sure that they were both taken care. Ruth and Tamar were not judged by the writers or the society they came from. In fact it they both were deemed righteous in what they did and they were included in the genealogy of Jesus. In an age of patriarchal and were women were stone if they act out of their normal society values and norms. Tamar and Ruth understood that they needed to do and use what they got to survive in that kind of world and yet though they acted outside of these societal norms were praised. Their sexual agency saved them from world of being childless, marriage-less and saved them ( Ruth and Naomi ) from starving where men were the ones who were taking care of the family.
In the 21st century we have thousands of women who are in similar situations like Ruth and Tamar that use sex to get a husband or to be make sure that they are not starving. Our Society is still male dominated and patriarchal but unlike the writers of the biblical text in Genesis and in the book of Ruth society do not deem these women as righteous but instead are slut shamed and judged. In these kind of societies women who do what they need and what they have to do including using sex to survive , should be respected and cared for not judged. They should be allowed to used their sexual agency if they choose to live how they want.
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