The Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy detail the journey of the Israelites toward the Promised Land, where—if the story is to be believed—Mosheh called them to exterminate entire peoples (Dt. 20:17). In this episode, Father Jayme explores the feminine imagery that filled the Tent of Meeting where the Israelites encountered their God, the many ways in which this structure and the later Jerusalem Temple resembled the pagan religions of surrounding cultures, the priesthood that served the Tabernacle and Temple, various taboos concerning menstruation, child birth and death, and the absolutely unbelievable story of subsequent conquest in the name of God. It would be tempting to relegate such stories to the past—except that one to eight million people died in the Americas as a result of the Spanish conquest by “sword and cross” and even today one major U.S. holiday is, when all the myths are stripped away, a day of “thanksgiving” for the genocide of 700 Pequot inhabitants of the land claimed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Have you seen the latest issue of Extraordinary Catholics magazine?
[Becky & Terry Ann]
Welcome to “Extraordinary Catholics,” a podcast for—you guessed it—extraordinary Catholics! In a world with over a billion ordinary Catholics, the Good Samaritans of Vatican-free Catholicism are truly extraordinary, seeking to model Jesus’ inclusive spirit and his discipleship of equals. Like Roman Catholicism, Inclusive Catholicism possesses valid lines of apostolic succession and shares valid sacraments. One in every ten adult Americans self-identifies as a former Roman Catholic. If we were to band together, we would form the second-largest religion in America. In Mexico, over 1,000 Roman Catholics leave the church every single day. To learn more about Inclusive Catholicism, please visit www.ExtraordinaryCatholics.faith, and join our Extraordinary Catholics Facebook group. And now, meet the host of Extraordinary Catholics, the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, the only inclusive Catholic community in Austin, Texas: Father Jayme Mathias!
[Father Jayme Mathias]
Welcome, extraordinary Catholics! I am Father Jayme Mathias, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.
We thank the special saints who helped make this episode possible:
* Corey Hurt Montiel and Heather Lucas of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas;
* Very Reverend Ben Jansen of the Congregation of the Servants Minor in San Diego, California, part of the Progressive Catholic Church International;
* Maria Esquivel of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas
* Father Scott Carter of the Pilgrim Chapel of Contemplative Conscience in Ashland, Oregon, part of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch;
* Reverend Canon MichaelAngelo D’Arrigo of Agape Fellowship in Atlanta, Georgia, part of the Convergent Christian Communion; an
* Bishop Tony Green of St. John of God Parish in Schenectady, New York, part of CACINA, the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America
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And now, let’s continue our exploration of the theological foundations of Inclusive Catholicism!
According to the stories that have come down to us, the Hebrews who escaped from slavery in Egypt made that journey of some 11 likely days to Mount Sinai, where they received the Law of Moses that was later “discovered” within the Temple walls, which brought them together in covenant as a new people, the people of Israel, with their God. If the story were to be taken literally, they then circled around the desert for some 40 years, a symbolic number to mark important time periods—perhaps even a stylized expression for a generation—before entering the Promised Land. What else might we learn about these stories of the sojourn of our ancestors in the wilderness?
These stories, of course, were written centuries after the Jerusalem Temple was built, and they suggested that our ancestors in the wilderness carried with them a prototype of the Temple. We call it the Tabernacle or the Tent of Meeting, a dwelling place for the shekinah, the presence of God among us.
Think of the Tabernacle as a large tent that resembled the design of the Jerusalem Temple—and indeed many contemporary churches. Inside the entrance was the kodesh, the sanctuary, which occupied two thirds of the tent. It was the ancient equivalent of the nave, the part of our churches where the pews are found, except that only priests could enter there. The other third was the kodesh kadashim, the Holy of Holies, which was separated from the kodesh by a veil. The Holy of Holies was the precursor of the modern-day sanctuary, the space in our churches that used to be separated from the nave by a communion rail. In the middle of the Holy of Holies sat the Ark of the Covenant, which was topped with two cherubs and was believed to contain Moses’ second set of stone tablets. The Holy of Holies was an intense place, entered only once a year on Yom Kippur and only by a single person, the high priest. The story went that anyone else who tried to enter the Holy of Holies would immediately be killed, and that the high priest would be killed, too, if he made the slightest misstep during the Yom Kippur service. God was believed to reside atop the Ark of the Covenant, the portable “throne” of God that was later lost—and that Indiana Jones searched for in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Interestingly, as Bernhard Anderson points out, the stories of the Tabernacle and of the Ark of the Covenant come from two different peoples and two different traditions, the first emphasizing a theology of “manifestation,” of God appearing from time to time, and the latter focusing on a theology of “presence,” of God being in the midst of the people (p. 117).
Feminine Symbols in the Tabernacle
Feminine symbols abound. Tents were a feminine symbol, and the matriarchs all had their tents. Unlike his manly brother, Esav, Yaakov was depicted as more feminine, as one who stayed in his tent (Gen. 25:27). Inside the Tabernacle were found three mitzvot, the three spiritually-significant symbols for women of bread, blood and light, which together form the portmanteau, ChaNaH, the root of Chanukkah. The challah, the 12 loaves of showbread, were the work of women’s hands. The blood on the altar of incense brought to mind the niddah, the rituals surrounding the female menstrual cycle, and the menorah, which was lit on the sabbath and for festivals, was a tremendous symbol of light.
Rabbi Rashi likened the veil that covered the Holy of Holies to the veils that covered the faces of brides. He said that the curtains were joined together (Ex. 26:3) like sisters, and that the poles of the Ark pressed into the curtains, resembling female breasts (Yoma 54a). Rashi also noted that the Tabernacle was a great symbol of God's forgiveness, with all its gold calling to mind the gold that was fashioned into the people’s idol of a golden calf. Judith Antonelli notes the practical function of the Tabernacle, which weaned the Israelites from their former idolatry.
The Role of Women in Building the Tabernacle
Antonelli explains that the clothing woven by the women for the priests had an even more fascinating story and were important in light of the belief that God would kill any priest who entered the Tabernacle or offered sacrifice inappropriately dressed (Ex. 28:43). The Hebrew alphabet is comprised of 22 letters, seven of which (bet, gimel, dalet, kaf, peh, resh & tav) are called double letters. Together they spell BeGeD KaPoReT, which means “clothing of atonement,” and each piece of clothing offered atonement for a particular sin. The pants atoned for sexual sins, the sash for sins of the heart, the tunic for the sin of bloodshed (think the blood-dipped tunic of Joseph in Genesis 37:31), and the turban for sins of arrogance and haughtiness. The high priest’s golden headband atoned for brazenness, of being headstrong, his ephod (an apron-like garment) to atone for idolatry, and its 72 bells atoned for lashon hara, the “evil tongue,” a sin of sound. Finally, the 12 gems on his breastplate, one for each tribe of Israel—and they would dim when the tribes sinned (Jos. 7:14)—atoned for neglect of civil laws. And Lord knows they had enough laws! Another fun fact: Antonelli points out that the priests wore round turbans, but that the high priest wore a pointed turban, perhaps like a modern-day miter.
The women also contributed to the building of the Tabernacle, contributing their gold jewelry (Ex. 35:21-22) and their bronze mirrors, which were used to create the bronze laver outside the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8). Antonelli notes the earliest reference in Scripture to an association of women: The “host of women” who assembled at the entrance to Mosheh’s tent in Exodus 38:8 were a sisterhood, eager to worship the God of Mosheh, Aharon and Miryam, who did not require their sexual service as pagan gods and priests did. I very much like Judith Antonelli’s interpretation: She writes that pagan religions “demanded that women focus on their physical attractiveness and act in bewitching and seductive ways. Now, after liberation, the women of Israel could abandon sexual objectification, which is a form of slavery, and move on to human dignity and personhood, which is the essence of freedom. They had no further inclination to sit in front of a mirror decorating themselves, but chose instead to focus on their spiritual and intellectual development” (p. 225).
Antonelli suggests that this sisterhood best expressed itself in the traditional female tasks of spinning and weaving. The scriptures say, “Every skilled woman spun with her hands and brought what she had spun—blue, purple, or scarlet yarn or fine linen—and all the women who were willing and had the skill spun the goat hair” (Ex. 35:25-26). Antonelli notes that a better translation might be “every woman wise of heart” and “all the women whose hearts uplifted them in wisdom spun the goats.” Antonelli continues, “Spinning and weaving, traditional female tasks, are not just physical activities, but also basic, primordial symbols of time, fate, destiny, and the interconnectedness of all life. Women have universally been considered the archetypal weavers of the web of life, the spinners of the threads of fate. These mundane activities are therefore full of spiritual significance, and allusion to weaving as a symbol of women’s wisdom as found in the Talmud. When a wise woman asked Rabbi Eliezer why the death penalty was not the same for everyone associated with the golden calf, he cryptically replied, ‘All wisdom of women is in the spinning wheel.’ Spinning, weaving and related tasks, such as embroidery, have even formed the chief purpose of a kind of ‘secret society’ from which men were excluded. Perhaps it was men’s jealousy of such exclusion that led to the social denigration of the ‘spinster,’ originally meaning ‘one who spins.’ The term later became a derogatory epithet for a woman who does not get married” (p. 227). Antonelli notes the play on words: While women spin, they ‘spin a yarn.’ They tell stories. A Talmudic proverb even states, ‘while a woman talks, she spins.’ The sisterhood of women who wove the temple curtains and the priests garments were passing on their own oral tradition, well aware of the spiritual mysteries in their woven works” (p. 227). Antonelli even that the kruvim, the creatures of Ezekiel 10, come from this oral tradition passed down by women.
Pagan Religious Roots of the Israelite Tabernacle & Jewish Temple
The new religion of these wilderness tribes enthroned God as king, whereas the rulers of neighboring peoples were worshipped as the incarnation of gods. The Israelites had an intriguing insight that no person was a deity. God alone was—forgive the gendered reference—king. The ancient Israelites stole many of their religious ideas from neighboring cultures. They modeled their temple on pagan temples, which had golden altars in their courtyards. Their altars of incense were modeled on Chaldean altars, which offered 5,000 pounds of incense each year. Their thought of having a Holy of Holies that faced the west was stolen from the Babylonian temples dedicated to Marduk. Their ideas for what should be contained in the Holy of Holies—think the Ark of the Covenant—was based on pagan cultures, which had portable shrines there, with wooden poles, so that they could be carried on the shoulders of the priests during religious ceremonies. Hittite temples similarly contained outer courts with brass altars, and inner sanctuaries where only their high priest and those nearest the gods could enter the Holy of Holies, which was separated by a veil. Egyptian temples, too, contained the Holy of Holies, where idols were kept inside wooden arks. In all these cultures, these idols were believed to speak, to inspire prophetic dreams, to settle legal disputes, and to heal the sick.
Like the Babylonian high priests who entered the Holy of Holies once a year for the celebration of the Babylonian New Year before slaughtering a white bull, the high priest of the Israelites entered the Holy of Holies once a year in preparation for the Jewish New Year and offered one bull, two goats, two rams and two lambs, with accompanying meal offerings: wine, libations and incense offerings. Like modern-day images of Catholic saints in some places, the pagan idols were clothed, cared for, and even “fed” by their servants. Antonelli makes clear how the priests ensured the routine of their temple god: The priests roused the god in the morning with hymns of praise. They decked the god’s idol with robes and crowns, and perfumed it with incense. “Breakfast” was served in the form of a morning sacrifice. Then the god was ready to receive petitions and to sit in judgment over the people. After an afternoon “rest,” the god enjoyed its evening “meal,” its evening sacrifice. The robes and crown were removed, incense was burned, hymns were sung, and the temple doors were shut, so that the god could rest in peace. Many of these ancient elements of religion survive today.
Rather than possess a gilded wooden image of their god-king, though, the Israelites forbade images and idolatry. Their god was an invisible presence between the cherubs that crowned the Ark of the Covenant, which contained their Law. Antonelli writes, “Moses took over the function of lawgiver and judge. Aharon, with his breastplate, was able to obtain oracles. Only the barest outline of pagan worship remained: feeding God through regular sacrifices, offerings and libations, burning incense, and praising God through song (which was deeroticized). Such a structure gave this group of emancipated slaves something familiar to hold on to in the midst of a radical, sweeping change in content: the worship of an invisible King” (p. 212). It’s within this context that we can better understand the ‘adulterous’ Hebrew urge to have and worship an idol, like a golden calf (Ex. 32).
Because of ancient Judaism’s apotropaic tendencies—its need to avert God’s wrath—the priests of the Jerusalem Temple encouraged animal sacrifice, writing several instances of this into the Law that was ‘discovered’ inside the Temple walls, to justify the practice. Animal sacrifices were practiced since the beginning of the world, they said. Hevel (Abel) offered God the firstborn of his flock (Gen. 4:4). Noach offered animal sacrifices (Gen. 8:20). Abraham’s covenant with God was effected with the sacrifice of a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon (Gen. 15:9). We might shake our heads at such ancient practices, but many commentators point out that we were actually making a great stride from the human sacrifices of neighboring cultures.” Noting the human sacrifices that were practiced in ancient Egypt, Antonelli writes, “Getting the Jews out of Egypt was nothing compared to getting Egypt out of the Jews. Forty years wandering in the wilderness was needed for this band of newly-freed, runaway slaves to develop a more sanctified approach to both human and animal life” (p. 234). Animal blood became the substitute for human blood and, thankfully, any Israelite or Jew could offer an animal sacrifice (Lev. 1:2). Ancient Jews were no doubt influenced by a universal myth of an earth goddess and a grain god, and of the fertility rituals that resulted. Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Cybele and Attis in Asia Minor, Ishtar and Tammuz in Babylonia, Astarte and Anat in Syria and Phoenicia, Asherah (or Anat) and Baal in Canaan, Aphrodite and Dionysus in later Greece, or Aphrodite and Adonis in Cyprus. All these stories were shared through ritual enactments of the death of the grain god, the ensuing mourning of his death, and, you guessed it, his resurrection from the dead. Antonelli quotes at length Eric Neumann’s The Origins and History of Consciousness: “The fertility ritual was originally performed between the great mother and her son-lover and culminated in his sacrifice. In ancient times, a human victim, whether god, king or priest, was always offered up to ensure the fertility of the earth. Originally, the victim was the male, the fertilizing agent, since fertilization is only possible through libations of blood in which life is stored. The female earth needs the fertilizing blood-seed of the male. Blood is dew and rain for the earth, which must drink blood in order to be fruitful” (p. 234). The next, natural step in our spiritual evolution as a human species was to replace the sacrifice and dismemberment of a human male with the sacrifice and dismemberment of a horned (and thus powerful) male animal, like a bull. In Asia Minor, initiation into the death of Attis was effected through a “baptism” in the sin-cleansing blood of a bull, an image brought to mind by the story of Mosheh sprinkling the people with the blood of young bulls (Ex. 24:5-8). Antonelli speaks of the importance of blood: “Blood was sprinkled in rainmaking ceremonies and smeared for protection. Worshipers smeared the blood of their god on themselves or on the woodwork of their houses to propitiate the forest spirits who may still be in the timber. Hunters smeared the blood of an animal on themselves and their weapons” (p. 236). Such actions help us to better understand the context and beliefs that underlay the ancient Passover tradition of smearing the blood of a sacrificed lamb on one’s doorposts and lintel (Ex. 12:7). When a child asked her parents the reason for this blood-smearing ritual, the answer was no longer to scare away the forest spirits; equally superstitious, it was a signal for a god who would otherwise visit the house with a destructive plague (Ex. 12:13)! Many beliefs were attached to that blood: It ensured fertility, it atoned for our sins, it protected us from evil, and, when we drank the blood, we felt a communion with our God. And we believed that we were receiving the spiritual characteristics of the sacrificed animal: By drinking the animal’s blood, we received the strength and courage of the bull, or the life-giving potential and productivity of the heifer (think milk, calves and leather), or the unblemished innocence of the lamb, or the affection and peace of the turtledove. Many analogies might be drawn to our drinking of the blood of Christ today. Interestingly, the Israelite Law repeatedly forbade the drinking of blood (Lev. 3:17, 7:25-27 & 17:10-12). The Israelite Law also drastically cut down on the sacrifices that were necessary to placate the Israelite God. Antonelli, for instance, notes that one Babylonian temple daily offered to its god 1,100 pounds of bread, two bulls, one steer, eight lambs, 70 birds and ducks, four wild boars, three ostrich eggs, dates, figs, raisins, and 54 containers of beer and wine each day. One Egyptian temple, Antonelli says, daily sacrificed 3,220 loaves of bread 24 cakes, 144 jugs of beer 32 geese and several jars of wine. Each day! In contrast, the Jerusalem Temple offered a single sheep in the morning and a single sheep in the evening, each with a quart of wine and eight cups of wheat flour mixed with a quart of olive oil (Num. 28:3-7). The sabbath offering was an additional two sheep and an additional 16 cups of flour with oil, and the new moon offering—when it seemed the moon had disappeared—was two young bulls, one ram, one goat, seven sheep and 120 cups of flour (Num. 28:9-15).
The ancient Israelites slaughter of rams is especially intriguing. Rams were sacred in ancient Egypt, and the creating god Khnum was depicted with the horns of a ram. Due to their sacred status, rams could only be sacrificed once a year, on the festival of Aries, which was the spring equinox. Antonelli writes, “By killing and eating rams out of season, Jews were flaunting their complete and utter disdain for the ram gods of Egypt” (p. 238). Before we leave the topic of animals, we note that bestiality was apparently not uncommon in the ancient world, since there are four prohibitions of it in the Torah (Ex. 22:19, Lev. 18:23 & 10:15-16, Dt. 27:21). The Avodah Zarah even forbade Jews to leave their animals unattended at the inns of non-Jews since “idolaters prefer the cattle of Israelites to their own wives” (p. 246).
The Ancient Israelite Priesthood
Because some of our notions of priesthood are rooted in ancient expressions of the Jewish faith, it’s important for us to see what we might learn in this respect. The scriptures give no reason why the sons of Aharon and the tribe of Levi were chosen for priestly duties. The Leviticus Rabbah suggests that Aharon’s descendants were able to atone for his sin of fashioning the golden calf (LR 7:1), and the Exodus Rabbah suggests that the Levites were the only tribe not to worship the calf (ER 37:4). The priestly office was hereditary. Like most occupations in the ancient world, it was passed from fathers to sons. Various specialties and ranks emerged, from the high priest, to the scribes (the writers), the readers of sacred texts, the horologers (the time tellers), the astrologers (those who watch the heavenly bodies), and the dream interpreters.
Every religion had its priests. In previous episodes, we spoke of Melchizedek, the priest of ʾĒl ʿElyōn, “God Most High” (Gen. 14:18), of Mosheh’s father-in-law Jethro, the Midianite priest (Ex. 3:1), and of Pharaoh and his sorcerer-priests (Ex. 7:11, 8:18-19). The kehunah, the Jewish priesthood, was exclusive through and through. To belong to it, you had to be male of a certain tribe. Antonelli clarifies, “The Torah had to use an all-male priesthood serving a symbolically-male (without a phallus) God, in order to eliminate sexuality from religious rites. There was no service for priestesses in Judaism, because removing sex from religious ritual meant eliminating all the religious roles that were for women at that time” (p. 253). These male priests couldn't shave their heads (like the hairless Egyptian priests) or cut their locks (Lev. 21:5-6). They couldn’t be “blind, lame, disfigured or deformed, with a crippled foot or hand, or hunchback or a dwarf, or with any eye defect or festering or running sores or damaged testicles” (Lev. 21:18-20). The Mishnah, the first major collection of Jewish oral traditions, went further: Priests couldn’t be bald, have a flat nose, have bushy eyebrows, or any asymmetry of the body. A priest couldn’t be a eunuch, one who received a “dog’s pay,” like the pagan temple prostitutes (Dt. 23:18-19). Priests were also prohibited from becoming intoxicated (Lev. 10:9) or from having any contact with the dead, except for their mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter or wife (Lev. 21:1-2).
It was in that era of human history, that we see the roots for our feminine conceptions of the church. Think about it: We use feminine images to refer to “holy mother Church.” The Tabernacle, too, was portrayed in feminine imagery. Its Holy of Holies, where the shekinah dwelled, was likened to a woman’s sexual organs, and the veil that covered it was a symbolic “hymen” that was not to be opened except at the appropriate time by a single man, the high priest. The later desecration of the Temple by pagan invaders was thus akin to the rape of Dinah (Gen. 34:2).
Finally, in contrast to the compulsory clerical celibacy of the Roman Catholic Church, we note the expectation that all priests in Israel would be married. The story of Aharon’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were consumed by fire (Lev. 9:24—10:2) was explained in two ways in the Midrash tradition: Rabbi Rashi suggested that they made the decision to stoke the fire on the altar themselves, rather than defer to Mosheh on this, but the Zohar Leviticus suggested that the fire—which was spoken of with the feminine isheh, rather than masculine esh, consumed them because they were not married. Antonelli writes, “While men in general are considered incomplete if not married, this was accentuated for a priest” (p. 256). The Leviticus Rabbah states, “They were arrogant. Many women remained unmarried, waiting for them, but they said, ‘Our father’s brother [Mosheh] is a king, our mother’s brother [Nahshon] is a prince, and our father [Aharon] is a high priest, and we are both assistant priests. What woman is worthy of us?” (LR 20:10). Pure hubris.
Childbirth in Ancient Israel
The views on childbirth in the Hebrew scriptures are also worthy of note. In the same way that, according to the ancient imagination, a woman’s menstrual flow made her impure for seven days, a woman who gave birth was tamae (unclean) for seven days after the birth of a son or for 14 days after the birth of a daughter. She then passed from tamae to taharah for an additional 33 days of purification after the birth of a boy or 66 days of purification after the birth of a daughter (Lev. 12:1-8). In plain English, our ancient ancestors believed that the woman’s blood was becoming taharah. It was being purified. It was healing and repairing itself. It was a healthy recognition of the “baby blues” and postpartum depression that many mothers experience.
To acknowledge that the gender binary was inadequate, the Midrash tradition combined the female and male time periods for the birth of hermaphrodite babies, in which case the mother was tamae for 14 days (the time period of a girl), then taharah for 33 days more (the time period for a boy) (Bikkurim 4:2-3). The existence of non-binary persons was taken for granted in the Hebrew scriptures.
Why the longer time of purification for a daughter? Judith Antonelli explains, “The Torah’s view is not egalitarian, but unabashedly pro-woman. Women do not have to be generous in providing for their husbands’ sexual desires. A period of postpartum recovery, free from sexual pressure, has been legislated for them. If a husband is understanding, all the better, but, even if he is not, he must obey the Law. Why should that tumah-taharah cycle be twice as long for a daughter as for a son? Since tumah has been mistakenly defined as ‘defilement,’ feminists have seen ‘double time’ for a daughter as just more evidence that the Torah is innately misogynist. In other words, a female baby makes the mother ‘doubly dirty.’ However, this is not the case. Instead, the postpartum sexual taboo gives the woman space to focus on bonding with her baby without having to divide her bodily affection between her baby and her husband. The Torah gives her twice as long with a daughter as with a son” (p. 268). Did you hear that? “Tumah has been mistakenly defined as ‘defilement.’” Let's dwell on that point for a moment. Tumah is not a state of defilement or a lack of holiness. It is an accentuated state of holiness!
When we as a human race began to conceive of the human soul, tamae was imagined to be a state when the soul had to be rejoined to the body. The question naturally arose: When does the soul join the body? Unlike the later Roman Catholic belief that the soul enters the body immediately at conception, the ancient Israelites had a few insights: that children were not born with “original sin” and that they acquired a soul at some unspecified point before birth. This helps us to understand why many of our Jewish sisters and brothers have much more open minds on such issues as women’s reproductive health. Antonelli summarizes, “The Roman Catholic idea, far outside the bounds of science, that the soul enters the body immediately at conception is the inevitable result of an overemphasis on the spiritual role of the sperm. Aristotelian philosophers believed that the sperm alone formed the baby, while the mother was simply the ‘fertile field’” (p. 265). Thank God for updated views on human biology!
Menstrual Taboos in Ancient Israel
Prior to such updated views of human biology, though, tamae, this heightened state of holiness, was thought to come from three sources: contact with death, the process of birth, and also from menstruation and ejaculation (or seminal emission). The man who ejaculates and any person who receives it is tamae until the evening (Lev. 15:16-18). But if a man had relations with a menstruating woman, both were tamae for a week (Lev. 20:18). Judith Antonelli helpfully elucidates various menstrual taboos, as well as the “menstrual hut,” the abode to which women escaped for seven days after menstruation. She shares the words of Robert Briffault: “Women, it appears from most accounts, segregate themselves of their own accord. They isolate themselves without consulting the men. They warn the latter not to approach them. Menstrual taboos were a veto originally laid by women on the exercise of the sexual instincts of the male” (pp. 280-281). Antonelli concludes, “Men’s fears of what will happen to them if they touch a menstruating woman may therefore have been instilled by women themselves, to keep men away from them. The idea that women instituted menstrual taboos to set limits with men enables us to understand more clearly why God would command such taboos at Sinai. They were intended to set limits to human sexuality and hence to sanctify it” (p. 281).
Antonelli sheds light on the menstrual huts that provided women a cyclical “sabbath,” if you will, a break from their normal labors for one week each month, where they could connect with other women, free from other demands on their time and energy. She writes, “The menstrual hut was thus its own kind of sanctuary, releasing a woman from her daily labors and her husband’s demands, so that she could simply sit around and be. Virginia Woolf said that every woman needs a room of her own. The menstrual hut, however, gave every woman a house of her own one week a month” (p. 283).
After a supposed 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites now prepared to cross the Jordan River into the land of Canaan, the land promised to Avraham and Sarah, where the Israelites were to drive out the inhabitants, destroy their altars and images, and settle their land (Num. 33:51-53). Ancient colonization! Now, in the Book of Numbers, this is a very different account from the Book of Exodus, which suggested that God would send an angel (Ex. 23:23) or a plague of hornets to clear the people (Ex. 23:28). The Israelites themselves, they believed, had a divine mandate to exterminate the seven tribes of Canaan. “Wipe them out, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, just as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Dt. 20:17). The Girgashites aren’t mentioned here, but the general occupation of the seven tribes of merchants (ketnani) gave rise the name of their land, Canaan.
And now the story gets especially messy, as God is said to order the extermination of entire peoples. The Hebrew word cherem was used of things consecrated to God. In English, we often translate this word as “holy, “dedicated” or “consecrated” (Lev. 27:21 & 27:28, Num. 18:14). Then Israel had this notion that if their warrior-god delivered them victory at the city of Hormah, (Num. 21:2-3), they would make the city cherem. They would dedicate their spoils to God! They practiced this new cherem of annihilation against Og the king of Bashan (Num. 21:35, Dt. 3:3 & 3:6). In his book, Understanding the Old Testament, Bernhard Anderson writes, “Considering the terrible suffering involved in the conquest of Canaan, especially for the defeated people, it is difficult for most of us to understand the Israelite conviction that God was actually taking part in the struggle. Yahweh is portrayed as a god of holy war, who ruthlessly demands the cherem, the sacrificial destruction of Israel’s enemies. In Israel’s experience, the conquest of Canaan did not happen by accident of circumstance or by the assertion of superior human power. It occurred within the providence of God” (p. 112).
In the story of the conquest of Canaan, after the Israelites took captive the women and children of Midian (Num. 31:9), the Hebrew scriptures even placed on Mosheh’s lips the order to kill women and children (Num. 31:15-17), lest another 24,000 people should die as a result of Israel’s idolatry (Num. 25:1-9). The following description of the division of spoils, including the 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 virgins, defies words—and belief (Num. 31:32-35). In his work, The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Thomas Cahill writes: “The conquest of Canaan…is a grisly business, reminding us of just how primitive a society we have been considering. All the Canaanites—‘men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys’—are put to the sword, their settlements burned to the ground” (p. 171).
The Imposition of Patriarchal Religion
In this act of ruthless violence and colonizing destruction, the sacred trees and stone maṣṣēbâ pillars, the phallic symbols of male fertility gods of the ancient Canaanite religion, were to be destroyed (Ex. 34:13, Dt. 7:5 & 12:3). We now recognize how such stories helped to explain the obliteration of the mother goddess religions of the ancient Near East: the worship of Asherah in Canaan, Astarte in Syria, Ishtar in Babylonia and Isis in Egypt.
Enter the religion of male supremacy and all patriarchal models of church. Citing the words of Mary Daly, who famously observed that “If God is male, then the male is God” (p. 408). Judith Antonelli writes, “Determining which came first, male supremacy or the masculine image of God, is an unresolvable chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. What is important is how exclusively-male God language ‘functions to legitimate the existing social, economic and political status quo in which women…are subordinate.’ …Even in ‘enlightened’ human societies, a father is still regarded as the head of the family. Women and children as subordinate ‘wives and offspring’ of men are put in a position of servitude, humility, self-effacement and obedience to the ‘master,’ the male head of the household” (p. 408). The oppression of the feminine divine resulted in patriarchal images of God, as Mary Daly makes clear in her work Beyond God the Father: “The symbol of the Father God has spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn, rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in ‘his’ heaven is a ‘father,’ ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the nature of things and according to divine plan that the order of the universe in that society be male-dominated.”
The Catholic Church—yes, even including expressions of Inclusive Catholicism—is guilty of the sin of patriarchy. Judith Antonelli suggests that this is rooted in Catholicism’s penchant for graven images of God. Whereas reformers of the Church rejected image worship, the Catholic tendency to cling to visual images “allowed the metaphor of God the Father, which is a purely mental/verbal image in Judaism, to be crystallized into an actual physical image in Christianity—of an old (white) man with a white beard, who has impregnated a ‘perfect’ (but not divine) human mother, who gives birth to a divine son….Judaism, since it never had statues, pictures or relics, has never had a male physical image of God, and thus, no cult spawned by God’s wife (or a one-time stand, like Mary) and her son” (pp. 409-410). I’m personally fond of Antonelli’s translation of elilim in Leviticus 26:1, often translated as “idols” or “graven images” as “no-gods,” a reminder that we not confuse images with the divine they claim to symbolize.
Sadly, Conquest in the Name of God Continues
Why are we dwelling on this period of Israel’s history—its sojourn in the wilderness, where it received its Law—but now why are we especially focusing on the conquest of Canaan? Because we, as a people, have looked to these stories to justify our own human desire to conquer and oppress others. When Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) stepped foot in the New World, they subdued the people they encountered by “sword and cross.” They told stories of Mary the mother of God fighting on their side, kicking dust into their enemy’s eyes. And in their great patriarchal act of syncretism, they stole the Nahuatl goddess Tonantzin, whom you might recognize now as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Historians estimate that some one to eight million people were killed as part of this conquest.
When other European settlers came to New England, increasingly after 1660 they saw themselves as the New Israel, as God's chosen people. They fled the bondage of the “Egypt” that was their homeland. They journeyed across the Atlantic, just as Mosheh and the people passed through the Sea of Reeds. They now found themselves in the Promised Land, and, as Antonelli suggests in this extended passage, “the next logical step of this mentality was a perception of the indigenous inhabitants as New Canaanites, whose extermination as idolaters could then be easily rationalized. They believed that their conqueror of Native Americans was like the war against the Canaanites—not only sanctioned by God, but effected by God. Divine intervention, not military might was responsible for the victory in battle. Each victory was followed by a special weekday thanksgiving sermon delivered by the local pastor. One such thanksgiving day was celebrated in 1637, after a massacre of the indigenous Pequots. In this massacre, 700 men, women and children who were giving thanks to their Creator for the annual corn harvest—a four day festival at the first new moon after the autumn equinox—were shot down or burned alive. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed the next day an official holiday, Thanksgiving Day. The holiday, as it is observed today commemorates a Christian crusade against the indigenous peoples of North America” (p. 487). We might wonder: Will religion ever be able to atone for all the sins and evil committed in its name?
We conclude. Ordinary Catholics may be blind to the effects of patriarchy, sexism and colonization on our religion and our world. Ordinary Catholics might try to justify and consecrate the oppressive and even sinful systems that have resulted. Ordinary Catholics may even give in to ancient notions of a warrior-god marching on their side (“God bless America”). Let’s not be ordinary Catholics. Let's be…extraordinary Catholics!