By April 14, 2008 Read More →

Image of Women in Qumran Poetry, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.

The Dead Sea Scrolls
A few poetic texts found at Qumran portray women in erotic contexts. Even though those texts show no evidence of having been composed by the sectarians, and in some cases were definitely not, they are important to this discussion because their presence in the Qumran collection suggests that they were of interest to the group and constituted part of the literary and religious heritage the sect had received. Accordingly, they help to create a context for the material analyzed earlier, and they give us a sense of how women were portrayed and understood. We will encounter several basic archetypes here- woman as seductress, leading men astray; woman as symbol of wisdom, the acquisition of which is described in erotic terms; woman as birth mother of the messiah and the messianic era; and woman as beautiful erotic partner. In fact, all these images of women derive directly from the Hebrew Bible but appear here greatly expanded and enriched.

A Qumran document in the wisdom text genre discusses the wicked woman who leads men astray. Some have interpreted this harsh condemnation as indicative of the sect’s negative view toward women. In reality, the poem simply rehearses an ancient biblical-wisdom trend that warned against the dangers of a wanton woman who entices even the best of men.

Preserved in a first century B.C.E. manuscript, this is a text that, in fact, need not have been authored within the Qumran community, for it evinces no particular sectarian features. Some scholars have read it as an allegory, depicting such ideas as the evils of false doctrine. I prefer to see it as a wisdom exhortation—in the style of Proverbs 7 and other passages in the Bible—that sets forth the timeless truths that some women use their feminine charms irresponsibly and that men need to guard against their own proclivities to fall into the traps laid for them.

The poem, known as Wiles of the Wicked Woman, is too long to quote in full, but following are some representative portions-

[From] her [mouth] she brings forth vanity,

and on [her tongue she expresses nou]ght.

Error shall remain always [on her lips],

she shall [make] smooth [her] words with ridicule and flattery. . . .

Her hands have taken hold of the Pit,

her legs have descended to do evil,

and to go in (the way of) [guilty] transgressions,

[and to probe] the foundations of darkness. . . .

For she is the beginning of all the ways of iniquity,

trouble (and) misfortune to all who possess her. . . .

For her ways are the ways of death,

and her paths are the paths of sin. . . .

Her [g]ates are ga[t]es of death,

at the entrance to her house she steps [into] Sheo[l].

[Those who enter it will not] return,

and all who possess her have gone down to the Pit. . . .

[Her feet] hurry [always],

her eyes search to and fro.

To se[e] a righteous [man] so that she can ensnare him,

and a man of [perfec]tion so that she can cause him to stumble.

The upright to turn (them) aside from the path,

and those chosen for righteousness from the observance of the commandment . . . ,

so they not [wa]lk in the paths of uprightness.

To cause men to go astray in the ways of the Pit,

and to seduce with lies the sons of man.

A poem bearing certain similarities to this one appears in the Book of Ben Sira (c. 180 B.C.E.) and also appears as part of the additional, noncanonical material included in the Psalms Scroll. The presence of this poem in the Qumran Psalms Scroll suggests that it had attained a measure of status among the sectarians.

This poem is actually the converse of the one just previously examined- Here the erotic imagery dramatizes the pursuit of wisdom. The man’s seduction results not from going astray after the vices of an evil woman, but rather expresses his deep, erotic attraction to the secrets of wisdom, symbolized as a beautiful and sensual woman. The man’s consummation of the sexual act is not a transgression and fall as in the first poem, but is rather a symbol of the highest level of personal attainment. The following is the preserved portion of the poem in the translation of James A. Sanders (Psalms Scroll 21-11–17)-

I was a young man before I had erred when I looked for her.

She came to me in her beauty when I finally sought her out.

Even (as) a blossom drops in the ripening of grapes, making glad the heart,

(So) my foot trod in uprightness; for from my young manhood have I known her.

I inclined my ear but a little and great was the persuasion I found.

And she became for me a nurse; to my teacher I give my ardor.

I purposed to make sport- I was zealous for pleasure, without pause.

I kindled my desire for her without distraction.

I bestirred my desire for her, and on her heights I do not waver.

I spread my hand(s) . . . and perceive her unseen parts.

I cleansed my hand(s). . . .

To understand this poem, we need some familiarity with the erotic language of ancient Israel. Both the “foot” and the “hand” are often euphemisms for the male sexual organ. The verb to “know” often connotes sexual relations, and to “make sport” means to make love. What we have here is the learning process pictured in totally erotic images. Wisdom, portrayed in the poem as a woman, is the greatest of all acquisitions. Curiously, the Greek translator of this poem as it appears in the Septuagint was so pious that no trace of eroticism comes out in his rendering. He speaks only of the acquisition of wisdom.

The positive image of women and sexuality, used here to portray wisdom, is possible only in the context of a positive attitude both to male-female relationships and to sexuality. The same attitude underlies the portrayal of a woman as giving birth to the messiah, an image found in another beautiful poem in a clearly sectarian poetry collection.

The Thanksgiving Hymns (3-6–10) describe a woman in labor with her first child. This difficult birth represents the birth pangs of the messianic era-

They caused [me] to be like a ship on the deeps of the [sea],

and like a fortified city before the [enemy].

[And] I was in pain like a woman in travail with her firstborn child,

upon whom pangs have come and grievous pains in her throes,

to cause (her) to writhe with anguish in her womb.

For the children have come to the throes of death,

and she who gives birth to a man labors in her pains.

For amidst the throes of death she shall bring forth a male,

and amidst the pains of hell there shall spring from her womb

a Marvelous Counselor in his strength;

and a man shall be delivered from out of the throes.

This graphic poem depicts the birth of the messiah. This birth is not to be unnatural in any way, but rather, following certain biblical traditions, is to be preceded by tremendous suffering, here pictured as a difficult birth that endangers the very life of the child. In the end, the messianic era will dawn and the Marvelous Counselor will lead his people.

What interests us here is, again, a positive picture of woman. She herself gives birth to the End of Days. We are here shown not a world without women, but one that recognizes the difficult, indeed painful, role of women in the eschatological process. Though clearly we deal here with poetic imagery, it is imagery based on the assumption that birth is a positive and creative process.

Yet in this context we must note that some passages in Thanksgiving Hymns picture the female sexual and reproductive organs in a negative light. These passages place the origins of mortal man in the filth of the birth canal and may tend toward the notion found in early Christianity that sexuality is inherently sinful. However, despite the presence of such imagery, found occasionally in rabbinic tradition as well, we consider the vast majority of Qumran sectarian passages we have surveyed as affirming a positive view of women.

An idealized picture of women’s beauty is found in the Genesis Apocryphon. In retelling the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt (a passage to be discussed in a survey of the apocryphal texts), the king is told how beautiful Sarai is, and he sends for her and desires to wed her. The text goes to great lengths to describe Sarai’s beauty, elaborating on the brief account in Genesis 12-14–15- “When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was. Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace.”

The Aramaic text of the Genesis Apocryphon here turns poetic, borrowing images from the Song of Songs. Here is the courtiers’ description of Sarai as told to Pharaoh (Genesis Apocryphon 20)-

How splen[did] and beautiful is the appearance of her face!

How . . . fine are the hairs of her head!

How lovely are her eyes!

How desirable her nose and all the radiance of her countenance . . .

How fair are her breasts and how beautiful all her whiteness!

How beautiful are her arms and how perfect her hands,

and how [attractive] all the appearance of her hands!

How fair are her palms and how long and slender are her fingers!

How comely are her feet, how perfect her thighs!

No virgin or bride who enters the marriage chamber is more beautiful than she;

she is fairer than all other women.

Truly her beauty is greater than theirs.

Yet together with all this grace she possesses abundant wisdom,

so that whatever she does is perfect.

As in rabbinic midrash, Sarai is here depicted as the most beautiful of women. In this idealized portrait of feminine beauty, the author of the poem not only describes Sarai’s beautiful face and slender fingers but also praises parts of a woman’s body usually covered, such as her breasts and thighs, and imagines her being led to the marriage chamber. After describing her physical appearance, he adds that she also possesses wisdom. Thus, a woman, provided she is suitably wise, is to be praised for her beauty and sensuality. Sarai, the archetype of the Jewish woman, is indeed endowed with such characteristics. The beauty of the matriarch is pictured in terms both feminine and erotic.

There is no question that this text was composed before the Qumran sect came into being. This is the case with all the Aramaic texts preserved at Qumran. Some individual sectarian lovingly stored the text in a jar, wrapped in protective cloth. And clearly, the sect must have treasured its contents.
The Qumran scrolls envisioned women in many guises—as wives, mothers, temptresses, and beautiful captives—and as possessing purity or impurity, wisdom or guile. The texts portray women variously as the embodiment of sexuality, the desired bride, the woman in childbirth. They mandate laws regulating women’s ritual purity. In all cases, we can see that women were very much a part of the lives of most Second Temple men, who indeed expected to marry and build families. In the same way, I would argue, they were part of the life of the Dead Sea sect. There simply is no evidence that the sectarians of Qumran were celibate.

Now that we have established the structure of the sect, its social framework, and its leadership, we turn to its theological views. We will see that the Qumran sectarians had distinctive ideas about the nature of God and his relationship to the world and the Jewish people.

Pages 138-143

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