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The Power of Women in the Ancient World

I am not insensible to the rage many women feel over the modern misconception that the plight of women in the world is almost solely the result of a grand conspiracy by men to hold women down. Abuse of power, wherever it is found, against whomever it is levied, is worthy of rage. Blind, however, to the complexity of cultural development and the role that gender strength, weakness, and inclination have played in it in the face of often brutal struggles for survival, it is all too common to defend almost anything that women do in their desire to “turn the tables.” We pawn off this blindness and rage fueled table turning as social justice.

Personally, I am surprised more women don’t find the characterization of women as so insignificant in their ability to survive that they have been the helpless victims of men since people first began to congregate. If the power of women is only valid so long as government agencies give it and put their tanks and guns behind it, then it is a sham, a house built on clouds.

An accurate study of gender issues, one that is not held prisoner to blind rage and unchecked bias, will find that the complex interaction of the sexes has, from the beginning, been a playing of one form of power against another. Just as some men fall victim to other men, women have fallen victim to some men, and men have fallen victim to some women. Each gender has its variables even in the face of generalities, its wise and foolish, its strong and weak. The power of women is not in physical strength and not in great endurance, though some women are stronger than some men and have more endurance. Exceptions do not nullify the validity of the pattern. Women as a category have always been strong survivors using what strengths they have to compensate for what strengths they lack to sustain themselves and their families. While some women have proven more skillful than others, women have always exercised power—the power to influence.

There is a wonderful piece of ancient literature, I thought might illustrate my point. In 1st Esdras the guards of the king have a contest to name the strongest thing in the world. The first declares it to be wine, that renders even great men insensible. The second says that it is the king… he was obviously a sycophant out for a promotion. The third, our dear Zerubbabel from Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah, however, says Women are the strongest.[1]

13 The bodyguard who had written about women and the truth – it was Zerubbabel – spoke last. 14 “Gentlemen,” he began, “the emperor is certainly powerful, men are numerous, and wine is strong, but who rules and controls them all? It is women! 15 Women gave birth to the emperor and all the men who rule over land and sea. 16 Women brought them into the world. Women brought up the men who planted the vineyards from which wine comes. 17 Women make the clothes that men wear; women bring honor to men; in fact, without women, men couldn’t live. 18 “Men may accumulate silver or gold or other beautiful things, but if they see a woman with a pretty face or a good figure, 19 they will leave it all to gape and stare, and they will desire her more than their wealth. 20 A man will leave his own father, who brought him up, and leave his own country to get married. 21 He will forget his father, his mother, and his country to spend the rest of his life with his wife. 22 So you must recognize that women are your masters. Don’t you work and sweat and then take all that you have earned and give it to your wives? 23 A man will take his sword and go out to attack, rob and steal, and sail the seas and rivers. 24 He may have to face lions or travel in the dark, but when he has robbed, stolen, and plundered, he will bring the loot home to the woman he loves. 25 “A man loves his wife more than his parents. 26 Some men are driven out of their minds on account of a woman, and others become slaves for the sake of a woman. 27 Others have been put to death, have ruined their lives, or have committed crimes because of a woman. 28 So now do you believe me? “The emperor’s power is certainly great – no nation has the courage to attack him. 29 But once I saw him with Apame, his concubine, the daughter of the famous Bartacus. While sitting at the emperor’s right, 30 she took his crown off his head, put it on her own, and then slapped his face with her left hand. 31 All the emperor did was look at her with his mouth open. Whenever she smiles at him, he smiles back; and when she gets angry with him, he flatters her and teases her until she is in a good mood again.[2]

It is hard to discuss this topic in a time when feminist prejudice has eradicated the hope of open dialogue and investigation into gender issues, in a time when power for women has been equated with a complete breakdown of distinction and role, the abandoning of the home, the forsaking of child care, the power of life and death over their offspring, the exploring of their own sexuality without limits. My fear is that many modern women have sold their gender birthright for a bowl of pottage, forsaking their true power as women for the mere semblance of it. ‘Drive nature out of the door and it will fly in at the window.’[3]


[1] He then cheats and adds a fourth nomination—truth.

[2] http://www.biblestudytools.com/gnta/1-esdras/4.html; Good News Translation with Apocrypha.

[3] Book 3, Chapter 13 of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

[4] media pic is from sxc.hu

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