Women, Religion and the Devil Incarnate
This essay by Michelle Zobel for the course Mysticism and Magic in Medieval and Renaissance Italy was selected from the Director’s List of Best Papers at Richmond in Florence, Spring semester, 2009. Its focus is on the subordinate status of women in the past and the religious motivations for this treatment in the Jewish and the Christian traditions.‘When analyzing the texts and development of the Jewish and Christian religions, one can find both negative and positive things written about the female sex. Some interpret various excerpts to be positive and others interpret the same passages to be negative. Most importantly, various interpretations can be given to laws written forbidding women to do certain things, and demanding that they do others. When people have analyzed these laws and texts, a common interpretation is that the inferior treatment of women and the subordination of women by men in the past led to the demonization of women in these religions.In the eyes of some ancient priests, rabbis and philosophers, just as the devil in the Bible and in history is viewed as a bad creature who only wishes to put men off their path and corrupt the life on man, so too was the women viewed as a corrupt creature who wished to tarnish the life of man.There are many chapters and quotes in the Hebrew Torah that lead to the belief that women are inferior to men. This so-called inferiority is one of the major view-points that led people to believe that women were not worthy of the afterlife and of many objects men were able to achieve. The inferiority also led to the belief that the woman was an incarnate of the devil and acted in evil ways.One of the major and most famous texts that lead people to believe that women were inferior to men is the story of the Garden of Eden and the creation of Adam and Eve. Genesis Two “presents man as leader and woman as helper, follower and subordinate.” (Osburn, 114) Over time, various interpretations have been given on Eve’s role in the banishment from the Garden of Eden and the committing of the infamous sin. Many people believe that the Devil approached Eve to sin, rather than Adam, because women were gullible and prone to sinning. (Osburn, 112) Some analyzers of the text say that Eve was the assistant of the devious serpent and others say she was not at sole fault for committing the sin in the Garden of Eden. (Higgins, 1)
‘It is written in Genesis that Eve first took fruit from the tree,
ate the fruit and then gave a piece to her husband, Adam’.One reading this excerpt would surely say that it was Eve who committed the sin, as she was the one who physically took the fruit from the tree and convinced her husband to do so. Eve cannot control her desires, and convinces her husband to have the same lack of control. Many people take from this that Eve was the one who should be punished and that Eve was corrupting Adam. This goes along with the religious idea that women are the partners of the devil, who are solely seeking to corrupt men.Many parallels can also be found between the serpent and Eve, which led people to believe that Eve was the devil, as the serpent was often interpreted as such. Just as the serpent is deceiving, so is Eve in her effort to make her husband sin. This demonic parallel gave many people the foundation for linking women with the devil. (Higgins, 4) Genesis states that man created Adam from the dust, and then created Eve from the rib of Adam, thereby stating that woman was merely a sub-creation of G-d, not even coming from the dirt, but coming from a piece of man. This may be interpreted as a physical subordination. Woman is underneath man forever, as that is how woman was created in the first place.Many other incidents in the Torah make its readers believe that women were not as important as men. In the times of Moses, King Pharaoh ordered all first-born Jewish males to be killed in the Nile River. However, he completely disregarded the females. This shows us the lack of care for female. The Torah also states that Jewish women are not allowed to be priests. A last example is that Jewish law states that when a woman gives birth to a boy, her body remains unpure for a week. However, if a woman births a girl, her body remains unpure for two weeks. These examples that come directly from Jewish law give clear evidence to the subordination of women in the time of the Bible. Women were not regarded as equal beings to men and this subordination led to demonization. Without equality of genders, men, the church and many religious adversaries needed reason to disregard women and give an explanation for their inequality.
Within Judaism, there exists a ‘Myth of a Matriarch Era’,
in which women were strong matriarchs that ruled without love or compassion.They were cruel rulers who needed to be overpowered, and men did just that. The male sex fought the women and won to become the dominant patriarch in the family. Followers of this myth attribute the subordination of women to the domination of women during this era. Women were thought to be cruel creatures, similar to the devil. They were evil, mean, and powerful people who used a strong hand against the men of the time. (Myers, 1).The Jewish anonymous tale of Lilith, dating back to the 9th century and cited in the book, “The Alphabet of Ben Sira,” is about a woman who supposedly lived alongside Adam in the Garden of Eden. The tale is another myth that entails people to believe of women as devil creatures, who only seek to do evil. The story tells us that a woman, Lilith, was created at the same time as Adam, and demanded equality with Adam. Lilith refused to be a subordinate partner for Adam and eventually escaped the Garden of Eden. The name Lilith was supposedly a name meant to be given to a devil. This is the first connection made with the female and the devil in this myth. It is believed that after leaving the Garden of Eden, Lilith lived a life as devilish as one could imagine, murdering children and seducing men. Even today, religious Jewish households fight to keep Lillith and her demonic ways far from the home. (Myers, 4) While many incidents in the Torah lead people to believe that women are subordinate to men, there are also many instances and philosophical interpretations that lead us to believe that G-d created man and woman to be equals on earth. Many excerpts from the Bible can be interpreted in various ways, both negative and positive.
For instance, G-d’s written name, spelled with the Hebrew letters yud, kay, vuv, kay, involve both masculine and feminine letters in the Hebrew language. The letter yud is a masculine one, and the letter hay, often pronounced kay when used in spelling the name of G-d, is feminine. This spelling indicates G-d’s actual name, thought to be too holy to be said out loud or even written on paper. A name this sacred combines the masculine and the feminine to create something unworthy of human utterance. G-d created His name to be something He wanted both genders to share, and the indication of male and female in such a holy and sacred name proves this. (Munk, 117)
Many other things lead us to believe in the equality between man and woman as ordered by G-d and all the Jewish people in the past.
The Talmud, a book of Jewish traditions and laws, states that,
“in the merit of righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt, and in the merit of righteous women our future redemption will come.”
(Talmud Sotah 11b).
The Talmud attributes the freedom of the Jewish people to the hands of the women of that time. Jewish families therefore worship Jewish women and women in the family are meant to carry out many responsibilities of the religion. The woman begins the Sabbath ceremony with the lighting of the candles and cares for the Jewish home.
The interpretation of the womb by many is just another symbol of loveliness that is involved with the woman’s body. The womb is something that creates life. This life is not tainted with sin or any evil. It is a new life that can do anything and be anything, as it is pure. If something like this is entailed within the woman’s body, we can ask how something so pure can come from an evil creature. It is another signification that Judaism believes in the purity and equality of women. (Munk, 144)
However, while some look at women in the Jewish religion as lovely beings that care for their family, take on responsibilities in their faith and are the creator of their families, there are many interpretations for ways in which Jewish women were not treated well within their faith. There were many acts that men were allowed to do and women were not, leading again to the idea that women were subordinate to men. Women could not testify in court, appear publicly or talk to strangers. These were all acts appointed solely for men, and the Jewish faith disregarded women entirely when contemplating these acts.
One act that is perceived both negatively and positively by people in the Jewish faith is the dipping of women into the Mikvah. The Jewish religion calls for women to dip themselves in a Mikvah, a bath used in the Jewish religion to cleanse the female body before sacred times and during their menstruation cycle. The menstruation cycle in general was perceived by some to be dangerous in the Jewish faith. Some found it a burden and some found it spiritual and meaningful. Many Jews believed that menstruation was another terrible thing about women that made them subordinate to men. The Bible says, “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” (Leviticus, 15:19) During the menstruation cycle, women were believed to be unpure and had to separate themselves entirely from men, having separate bedrooms and separate rituals entirely for the week.
The subordination of women in the Bible, while having mixed reactions in the Jewish faith, lead the Christian church to convince it’s followers that women were the devil.
The church attempted to equal femininity with heresy. Being a woman was equally as bad as going against the church and worshipping other things and other G-ds. During the Renaissance, the church even led campaigns against women to say the devil in them was insatiable. The church relied on the demonization of women during these campaigns and needed its followers to agree with them in demonizing women. (Denike, 12) Many Christians follow the statement of Paul, that says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands…the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” (Osburn, 115) This quote leads to the Christian subordination of women and confirms the subordination.
‘Do you not know that you are each an Eve…You are the Devil’s gateway…You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your dessert even the Son of God had to die.’
This quote came from St. Tertullian, who like many church leaders of the time, believed women to be evil incarnates of the devil that were at fault for any corruption of man. With this particular quote, we are led back to one Christian interpretation of the Garden of Eden tale. St. Tertullian believed that Eve was the initial temptress who steered man in a wrong way and therefore deserved to be punished in the same way that man was punished at the time. He makes direct reference to linking women with the devil. He perceived women to be the devil’s “gateway” into our world, and into the minds of men on earth. (Denike, 17)
While many Christians believed that women were the devil, or an incarnation of the devil, many Christians based their treatment of women off of Jesus, who was believed to treat all men and women as equal. The fact that Jesus treated women so well during his time was very progressive. Women were usually not regarded or respected, and were certainly not treated as equals. Jewish religion during that time told people not to teach women the words of the Torah.
However, Jesus denied this law and taught women anyways.
Jesus allowed women to be disciples, had discussions on religion with women and had women care for him. We have also been told that many of Jesus’ followers were women and that he never turned his back on women who wished to learn his ways. Jesus went against Jewish laws by treating women fairly at that time. (Osburn, 125)
Mary Magdalene was a figure in the New Testament that represents the progressive treatment of women in Christianity, especially by Jesus. When Jesus was resurrected, Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene was one of the first people to greet him upon his return. This statement tells us how important Mary Magdalene, a woman, was in the life of Jesus. She was the follower who was with him in this most holy time of Jesus’ life and she was the follower we are initially told about. (Matthew, 28:9-10)
Many other Christian writings, however, tell us to push away witches and followers of the devil, meaning women of the time. The Canon Episcopi was an early Christian document detailing thoughts on witchcraft and women as influenced by the devil. The book went on to describe witchcraft and it’s dealing with the devil. It describes the church’s take on witchcraft, as well, stating that, “those who believe such things have lost their faith and no longer belong to G-d.” (Denike, 27)
The Canon Episcopi bases its teachings upon the story of Diana, the Pagan goddess of fertility and children. It condemns the followers of Diana and says that the “cults” who worship her should be done away with. Diana worshippers were viewed as followers of the devil and this was another basis to accuse women of witchcraft. (Denike, 27)
The treatment of women today in Christianity is an incredibly debatable topic, possibly the most debated in the church today. (Osburn, 1) Between religious interpretations of the Bible and current misogynistic outlooks of women in culture, the status of women in the church is not a status that can be defined. Many women today are reverends over their churches. St. Claire is just one example of a saint who was a woman, showing us Christianity’s appreciation for women. However, while many Christians have progressed, many followers still believe that women today are subordinate to men, going along with the old belief that women are evil beings. (Osburn, 4)
The Jewish faith today has progressed in some ways and in some ways has remained the same. Judaism is divided into three separate observances: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Orthodox followers tend to follow the old way of Jewish life. They do not allow women to be rabbis or to sit alongside men at temple, as they believe it will lead to the impure thoughts of men during services. Women are not allowed to read from the Torah and are not presented with the same rituals as men during the services. This strongly ties in with old beliefs that women lead to the corruption of men. However, in less religious practices, such as Reform and Conservative practices, female rabbis reside over many of the congregations. Women read from the Torah and are embraced during services. They are often given the same roles as men during the reciting of prayers and the reading of the haftorah, the weekly Jewish lesson.
In conclusion, the scriptures of the Christian and Jewish religions have shown us that through the subordination of women in the past, the two religions took it upon themselves to demonize women. Women were thought of as sub-creations of man, having covenants with the devil in order to corrupt man. However, women were also sometimes regarded with respect, love and humility and were often thought to be the bearers of children, purity and love. Through these various interpretations, one could see that women were regarded with all types of emotions and opinions and although the religions sought to demonize women for their so-called provocative nature, the demonization was not successful as women are commonly regarded as equals today.’
Bock, Darrell L. Luke 9:51-24:53. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1996.
Denike, Margaret. “The Devil’s Insatiable Sex: A Genealogy of Evil Incarnate.” Hypatia Vol. 18, No. 1 (2003): 10-43.
Hendricksen, William. Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1981.
Higgins, Jean M.. “The Myth of Eve: The Temptress.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 44, No. 4 (1976): 639-647.
Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus: The Traditional Hebrew Text. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society Of America.
Mesorah, ArtScroll /. Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud – English Full Size [#11b] – Sotah volume 2 (folio 11b). Brooklyn: Artscroll / Mesorah, 2000.
Munk, Michael. The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet (Artscroll (Mesorah Series)). New York: Artscroll, 1986.
Myers, Jody Elizabeth. ” The Myth of Matriarchy in Recent Writings on Jewish Women’s Spirituality.” Jewish Social Studies, New Series Vol. 4, No. 1 (1997): 1-27.
Osburn, Carroll. Women in the Church: Reclaiming the Ideal. Abilene: Abilene Christian Univ Press, 2001.
Ranft, Patricia. Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe. New York: Diane Pub Co, 1996.
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