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The Mediterranean concepts of honour and shame as seen in the depiction of the biblical women

Renata Rabichev


The lives of women in biblical society are often vague -- the codes according to which they live are unclear. Cultural anthropology offers the potential to shed light on the everyday existence of biblical women. This article aims to demonstrate how modern Mediterranean cultural concepts of shame and honour can lend insight into the behaviour of the Old Testament women: what they strove for and what they wished to avoid.


When dealing with ancient texts in general and biblical texts in particular, the modern reader has to bridge the vast cultural/historical gap between him/herself and the text. Since the interpretation of biblical words often comes from our societal systems, `what one says and what one means to say can often be quite different, especially for persons not sharing the same societal systems' (Malina 1981:2; see also Fewell 1987; Franklin 1978:79; Patte 1976:6--7). There are a number of ways of tackling this problem. One is to place the text in its sociohistorical context (Archer 1986; Camp 1986). Another useful approach is to examine the cultural anthropology of the Mediterranean, a region generally considered by scholars a consistent unity, which would produce similar cultural patterns (Boissevain 1979:83; Gilmore 1982:178; Malina & Neyrey 1991b:71). This would help us `in analysis of more remote societies' (Davis 1977:1) by reading the Old Testament and New Testament texts in their cultural context (Malina 1981:2). Our aim in this article is to analyse some prominent cultural Mediterranean values, and apply them to selected texts of the Old Testament, relating them to women. We hope to show that such an approach can help understand the behaviour of women in the Bible in its proper cultural context.


Anthropology is the study of humanity, concerned with `all facets of human life and culture ... deals with questions of human origins, social organization, customs' (Wilson 1984:17). Cultural anthropology is concerned with the development of various cultures and the ways of life of contemporary men (Herskovitz 1963:3--4). Cultural anthropology of the Mediterranean has received much scholarly attention (Pitt-Rivers 1977; Davis 1977; Campbell 1964; Boissevain 1974, 1979; Gilmore 1982, 1990). These scholars examine various Mediterranean societies (Cypriot villages, Egyptian bedouins, Lebanese peasants), paying particular attention to their societal norms, noting aspects such as strong urban orientation, social, sexual and economic stratification, family solidarity and reliance on the kingship unit. It would be logical to assume that such common norms would give rise to consistent societal values. Indeed, on investigation scholars discovered that some of the most prominent value systems of the Mediterranean culture are honour and shame (Muenchow 1989:599; Schneider 1971:17; Gilmore 1982:179). Consequently, these concepts are used by `cultural anthropologists for understanding the Mediterranean personality in traditional society today' (Domeris 1993:283).


Honour in the Mediterranean society is the way a person sees himself and the way a society regards him. `It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride' (Pitt-Rivers 1977:1; see also Malina & Neyrey 1991a:25). Du Boulay (1976:405) states that honour is a sense which `has reality if the rest of the community grants it that reality'. `To honour a person is to acknowledge publicly that his or her actions conform with social oughts' (Malina 1981:28). It is thus a state of how we see ourselves and how others see us. The same applies to the concept of shame. It is our view of ourselves as well as the value with which the society labels us.

While certain virtues such as honesty, integrity, loyalty and other moral qualities are common to both sexes (Pitt-Rivers 1977:22), the concept of honour and shame has largely to do with a person's gender and consequently his or her position in society and the household (Malina & Neyrey 1991a:41). `The honour of a man and of a woman ... imply quite different modes of conduct' (Pitt-Rivers 1977:20).

`Male' honour and shame

In the Mediterranean culture a man's honour depends on his authority over his household, his position as a husband and a father, his strength in public dealings, his daringness and boldness. A man of honour should possess integrity, nobility of spirit, he must be competent with regard to various problems and dangers, and know how to solve them (Campbell 1964:213, 269--270). He is associated with esteem, refusal to submit to humiliation, dignity and personal virtue (Baroja 1965:82--84; Pitt-Rivers 1977:22, 40; Gilmore 1990:44--47). Since `[t]he male members ... stand collective guard over the honour of their women' (Wolf 1969:288), an honourable man should be able to defend the honour of his family's female members, `his wife and daughters should be chaste' (Davis 1977:92; cf Malina & Neyrey 1991a:42--43; Pitt-Rivers 1977:22; Peristiany 1976:2; Press 1979:117). Should the wife commit adultery, she demonstrates that the husband has failed in his duty to protect her honour. Finally, the man's honour is associated with virility (Press 1979:117). As a husband, he should not be impotent and is expected to satisfy his wife sexually (Davis 1977:98). Thus, a man's honour involves personal, economic and sexual honour. As Gilmore (1990:43) summarises, `Honour is about being good at being a man.' A man of honour is one who acts `as husband, father, lover, provider, warrior' (Gilmore 1990:17).

A man may lose his honour when he fails in some or all the factors on which his honour depends. Thus, if a man shows weakness of character, cowardice (for example running away from a battle), shyness and is unable to provide for his family because of his laziness (Gilmore 1990:43), his status of honour is questionable (cf Pitt-Rivers 1977:6, 21). Acceptance of humiliation, failure to defend his own reputation and those of others would also result in his loss of honour (1977:22). In this case his wife is expected to commit adultery, with wealthier, more honourable men, since it implies that she has to look elsewhere for what she cannot find at home. This causes a double dishonour to the husband. Not only can the husband not provide for his family, but the wife also disobeys him by committing adultery. She thus shows his failure in providing for and protecting her (Davis 1977:92--93).

Men who lose their honour are considered outside the moral pale, are addressed by their nicknames, and are treated with open disdain (Pitt-Rivers 1977:19). These are men of shame.

`Female' honour and shame

A woman's honour is judged by her sense of sexual shame. Although this is not so with men, the term `shame' is used in two different ways when applied to women. First, `shame' can refer to the woman's `sensitivity about what others think' about her (Malina & Neyrey 1991a:41), her `knowledge of proper moral behaviour' (Press 1979:117). So, while for men shame is equivalent to a loss of honour, or negative experience, for women it is a positive value. Second, it can refer to her dishonour, in which case the term equates to her being shameless. In this study we will confine ourselves to the former usage of the term.

A woman's honour, in the first place, has to do with sexual purity. If unmarried, her honour and that of her family depends on her virginity (Schneider 1971:21, see also Campbell 1964:199, 27). Thus `the virginity of a family's unmarried women is a highly valued attribute' (Giovannini 1981:411). It `constitutes an important personal attribute' (1981:412). To preserve her purity `restrictions are placed on the freedom of movement of women' (Rosenfeld 1976:122). In every way the behaviour of an unmarried girl must reflect upon her sexual honour. She must behave in a modest way, hiding facial expressions and thoughts which might reveal traces of her sexuality, thus endangering her honour (Campbell 1964:288).

When a woman reaches a marriageable age, her honour depends primarily on her being married (Campbell 1964:150), particularly at a young age. Early marriage will protect her sexual chastity by preventing her from succumbing to various sexual temptations (Pitt-Rivers 1977:165). If she does not marry young, she `will discover the strong (sexual) transactional strand in the relationships that men seek to establish with her' (Boissevain 1974:68). An unmarried woman is regarded as a threat to men. Her reputation may be doubtful if she does not have a male protector who would keep her within `honourable' bounds. In such cases her chances of marriage are poor (Pitt-Rivers 1977:26--27).

Being married, however, is not enough. Other attributes are important for a woman to be regarded as a woman of honour. First, the woman should be fertile. Motherhood is the `most important vocation in life' (Giovannini 1981:414), and bearing children, nurturing and protecting them are essential for the woman of honour. She needs to `bear sons who make the family economically and politically viable' (Schneider 1971:18). Second, she should sustain the private domain (Wolf 1969:288) and nurture her family (Giovannini 1981:414). `Her activities centre around the hut where she cooks, spins, weaves and cares for her children' (Campbell 1964:150--151). She should be `a competent houseworker, and a protective mother' (Press 1979:117). She should therefore be a `financial administrator with the key to the family chest' (Malina & Neyrey 1991a:43). Third, the woman's honour depends on her obediency and respect towards her husband (Press 1979:117; Pitt-Rivers 1977:43; cf Malina & Neyrey 1991a:43). Campbell (1964:180) summarises the position of the woman of honour in the household. `The activity of female roles is essentially confined to the house and they require passive co-operation, and self-disciplined attitudes.' Such obedience is expressed in various domestic matters, but most importantly in her sexuality (Campbell 1964:152).

The honourable woman's sexual behaviour is under the complete control of her husband (Campbell 1964:199), and involves restraint, timidity, passivity and chastity (Davis 1977:98; Campbell 1964:152; Schneider 1971:21). She exhibits `chaste and modest behaviour at all times' (Giovannini 1981:409), conforming `to a strict code of modest behaviour and movement' (Campbell 1964:311). She is `expected to stay at home ... shielded from contact with males of other households' (Pitt-Rivers 1977:118). Her behaviour should be one of `instinctive revulsion from sexual activity, an attempt in dress, movement, and attitudes' (Campbell 1964:270). Thus, while unmarried women must be virgins, the married ones must be virginal in thought and mentality (Campbell 1964:170).

A woman loses her honour and becomes shameless, a woman of light virtue, when she does not act in accordance with those deeds which sustain her honour. For example, if the woman does not sustain her family properly, is `lax in her housewifely duty' (Press 1979:130), fails in her duties as a mother, or neglects her household, she is at a risk of losing her honour. Furthermore, she becomes dishonourable if she disobeys her husband. Finally, a woman who is sexually aggressive is regarded as shameless and immoral. Such a woman loses her shame, because her actions are similar to those of a man. While man's sexual promiscuity does not hurt the family honour, this is not the case with female promiscuity (Pitt-Rivers 1977:79). She 'not only disgraces herself but also forfeits the honour or social reputation of her nuclear family' (Giovannini 1981:420). While the whole family can be dishonoured as a result of the behaviour of the promiscuous woman, the dishonour particularly falls on the `male members who, ideally, should protect the family patrimony' (Giovannini 1981:421). By adopting male behaviour, she ceases to be an honourable woman (Pitt-Rivers 1977:44--45). She becomes `a woman without restraint, whose behaviour is compounded by the reflexes of her animal instincts' (Campbell 1964:270).

The worst deed which a woman can do is to commit adultery. As already mentioned, a woman's dishonour signifies the failure of her husband to protect her honour, causing him also to lose his honour and to be shamed. By committing adultery, the woman strips her husband of his honour, `attacks the moral integrity and honour of the family and makes a laughing stock of its leader and head' (Campbell 1964:152). Furthermore, when a woman commits adultery, she dishonours her entire family, she becomes soiled and `she marks with her dishonour all those who are close to her' (Campbell 1964:271).

Our discussion has shown that the Mediterranean society has rules of conduct `rewarding those who conform and punishing those who disobey. Honour and shame are social evaluations and thus participate in the nature of social sanctions ... They are the reflection of the social personality in the mirror of social ideals' (Peristiany 1965b:9). Honour acts as `a sanction for all those elements that are relevant to the prestige of a family, or an individual' (Campbell 1967:310). Man's honour is characterised by his activities in the public domain, his ability to provide for and protect his family. Females who possess a sense of shame (have honour) are associated with their domestic virtues, sexual loyalty and restraint. A man's honour is judged by that of the woman, thus `[t]he woman must have shame if the manliness of the men is not to be dishonoured' (Campbell 1964:271; Press 1979:129).

We will now apply these modern Mediterranean codes of honour and shame to the ancient Mediterranean world, particularly that of the Old Testament. We hope to show that the Mediterranean values of honour and shame can help us to understand the behaviour of men and women in the Old Testament.


Muenchow (1989:602) argues that although each culture has its own individual attributes, there is `a basic transcultural uniformity with regard to honour and shame'. These uniformities result in the observation of `similar traits' of these values `across cultural boundaries'. This is the reason that the Mediterranean picture of honour and shame `holds real promise as a model against which to analyze aspects of Mediterranean society in antiquity as well'.

This discussion aims to demonstrate that the Mediterranean concepts of honour and shame can offer a viable explanation for the depiction of biblical personalities. While some scholars utilise the values of honour and shame in order to explain some New and Old Testament passages (see Muenchow 1989; Malina 1981), as far as it can be ascertained only a few have applied them to the behaviour of biblical men, and particularly women. Such an analysis may lead us to a tentative conclusion that modern Mediterranean cultural values can be traced to the ancient Mediterranean society.

Honour and shame in the Old Testament society

In his discussion on the Mediterranean values of honour and shame Muenchow (1989:603) states: `Several considerations lead one to suspect that a similar model would also contribute to our historical understanding of the Old Testament.' Indeed, `the Old Testament has a very rich tradition with regard to the concepts of honour and shame' (Domeris 1993:285). The Hebrew term for honour, qavod, carries the primary meaning of being heavy, weighty (Brown, Driver & Briggs, 1951:457), and the implied meaning of reputation (Domeris 1993:285). It is generally associated with greatness, dignity, splendour and esteem, as created by the actions of the individual, or his or her family (Interpreter's dictionary of the Bible, vol 2, 1962:639; cf Brown, Driver & Briggs 1951:458). Shame (in Hebrew busha) carries the primary meaning of falling into disgrace `as a result of some defeat, such as in battle or at the hands of one's enemies' as in Micah 1:11 (Domeris 1993:285). A secondary meaning is to be shamed as a result of immoral behaviour, as in 1 Samuel 20:30. Goodhue (1984:61) writes: `Throughout the Old Testament we are warned that the failure which we should most worry about is the failure to do justice (as examples Nah 5:9, Hab 2:6--19).' In this case shame `becomes a judgment on one's character'. To be shamed means to lose virtue, esteem, prestige, courage; to be subjected to humiliation. Genesis 49:6 associates shame with violence and brutality. Job 8:22 mentions it in connection with hatred. Hosea 2:7 and Jeremiah 2:26 talk about shame in connection with stealing. Proverbs 10:5 associates it with laziness, and 14:35 with folly.

Bechtel (1991:75--76) notes that honour and shame are attributes of an individual, but can also be reflected in the entire family (Dt 22:13). `In a shame/honour society, preserving the basic dignity of an individual was essential because the individual reflected the dignity and status of the group.'

Similarly to the Mediterranean culture, the Old Testament values of honour and shame have sexual significance in which there is a firm division between male and female elements.

`Male' honour and shame

According to Malina (1981:37--43), various biblical passages supply us with information about the attributes of an honourable man. As in modern Mediterranean culture, male honour in the Old Testament is associated with manliness, courage, authority over family, willingness to defend one's reputation and refusal to submit to humiliation. These qualities imply that a man has to have the ability to protect his family, defend its reputation and prevent any kind of humiliation or embarrassment (see 2 Sm 10:1--5). The honour of a man is directly related to the sexual purity of the female members of his family: his mother, wife, daughters and sisters (Malina 1981:43--44).

Such a man would be in the centre of the public domain, exhibiting authority and power. Thus, 2 Chronicles 32:21, Ezekiel 32:30, Psalms 69:19 and 2 Kings 19:26 associate shame with defeat and failure. People were often shamed by being forced to strip naked publically (Is 20:1--5, 47:23). Dishonour is also associated with `murder, adultery, kidnapping, total social degradation' (Malina 1981:40). Piper (1960:159) adds that the adulterer `was considered a kind of a murderer who robbed the husband of his manhood by usurping the place the husband alone has the right to occupy with his wife'.

`Female' honour and shame

The woman's code of honour, or lack of it, was primarily connected to the private domain, her family. The wife's honour depended on four main factors. First, a woman had to be married, since her honour was in danger if she had no male protector to defend it. Camp (1985:79) states that in biblical society an unmarried status was an exception. It is probably because of this that we read in Judges 11:37 about the daughter of Jephthah, who went to the mountains to bewail her virginity', to grieve because she was going to die unmarried and childless (Legrand 1977:179).

Second, the woman's honour depended on her role as a wife within her household (Ochshorn 1981:193). This role was one of nurturing and maintaining the family. The wife was responsible for the welfare of the household, performing various domestic duties, spinning, cooking, sewing and generally providing for her husband and family (Gn 24:11, 13--16, 19--20; 27:9; 29:6; Ex 2:16; 2 Sm 13:8; 2 Ki 4:8--10). Such activities gave women advantages which allowed them to exercise an informal influence and control over the private domain. She was thus the centre of the private domain. Third, her honour was associated with her ability to reproduce. Like the modern Mediterranean culture, biblical society placed great emphasis on the woman's function as a mother. Probably because children have, and always will play an important role in any society, motherhood was encouraged (Gn 30:23). Last, her honour was connected with sexual chastity (Gn 3:7; 2 Sm 13:2). The woman who possessed sexual shame exercised modesty and self-restraint. It was this sexual shame that her father or husband had to protect. Such sexual shame applied to married and unmarried women. In the case of an unmarried woman, the importance of sexual chastity in her code of honour and that of her family can be seen in the story of the rape of Dinah. In Genesis 34:2 we are told that Shechem, the son of Hamor, saw Dinah, `took her and lay with her and defiled her'. In the depiction of the rape, Dinah is described in terms of her family, `the daughter of ... the sister of ... his daughter' (34:3, 5, 7, 13, 19, 27, 31). This shows that Dinah is an unmarried girl who enjoyed the protection of her honour by her brothers and father. Such a description of Dinah `prepares the reader for the punishment of the crime' (Caspi 1985:30). Malina (1981:106) states that such violation shows that woman's shame is embedded in the honour of males. The story of the rape of Dinah acts as evidence that rape, and consequently the loss of female chastity, is a violation of her honour which requires some kind of revenge. The story of the rape of Dinah thus transmits the cultural values of the society from which the text was produced. Phrases such as `wrought folly' (34:7) and `vile' (34:12, 24, 26) indicate that rape was culturally unacceptable, because the honour of the whole society was involved. This can clearly be seen in the `contemptuous attitude towards the perpetrator of the rape and condones the act itself. Finally, vengeance is exacted against the perpetrator' (Caspi 1985:25).

Similarly, the story of Amnon and Tamar shows that damaging the sexual purity of a girl means that she is left unclean `Where could I carry may shame?' cries Tamar in 2 Samuel 12:13. It also means that another man would not want to marry her, `so Tamar remained a desolute woman' (2 Sm 12:20). Deuteronomy 24:1--4 also demonstrates that a woman becomes unclean as a result of improper sexual conduct (Zakarovitch 1981:31).

Sexual chastity was also important for married women. Since her primary position was within the family, a woman moved from one family to another with her marriage. `Not only in patriarchal times but throughout the Old Testament history, the father exercised primary responsibility for the female members of the family ... until that responsibility was transferred to the husband' (Pictorial encyclopedia of the Bible, vol 5, 1975:951). Bird (1983:260) states that when married, a woman's sexuality became the domain of her husband (Gn 2:24; Dt 24:5); her sexual nature merged with him (Piper 1960:122; cf Frymer-Kensky 1989:91--92). Indeed, women are often referred to by the name of their husbands, as `wife of', for example Lot's wife, the wife of Noah (Ben-Meir 1993:29; Camp 1985:79). Bird (1983:271) argues that the best example of a wife who conforms to these criteria can be seen in the depiction of Abigail, wife of Nabal and later of David. 1 Samuel 25:2--42 portrays her as `intelligent, beautiful, discreet, and loyal to her husband ... prudent, quick-witted, and resourceful ... always acting on her husband's behalf. The good wife does not attempt to rule her husband, nor does she openly oppose him. She defers to him in speech and action, obeys his wish at his command, and puts his welfare first.'

Thus, the biblical woman, like her modern Mediterranean counterpart maintains her honour by being a good wife and mother, and by preserving her sexuality for her husband only.

As in modern Mediterranean societies, the biblical woman loses her honour and becomes shameless when she enters into the public domain, especially with regard to her sexuality. By doing so she behaves in an immodest way. Such an instance is clearly illustrated in Deuteronomy 25:11--12, which talks about a woman grabbing a man's genitals in a fight. A woman's shameful behaviour is also associated with promiscuity and adultery. This is seen in a very bad light, whether the woman in question is married or single. Sexual intercourse with an unmarried woman was frowned upon (Ex 22:16--17), since it cast dishonour on the entire family. Phillips (1981:22) notes that in such a case the father of the woman is entitled to compensation, which is `paid to recompense him for the loss of the bride price which follows her seduction he would not now normally get'.

Sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man other than her husband was seen in an even worse light. Exodus 2:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18 show that it was forbidden, while Leviticus 18:20, 20:20 and Deuteronomy 22:22--14 demonstrate that it was punishable by death (cf Frymer-Kensky 1989). Epstein (1967:194) states that adultery was considered violation and an affront to the husband. According to Bird (1983:260), it was a violation of a husband's right over the sexuality of his wife, `an attack upon his authority in the family and consequently upon the solidarity and integrity of the family itself', threatening its authority, order and stability. It `robbed the husband of his essential honour, while the unfaithful wife defied his authority, offering to another man that which belonged only to him -- and that which constituted her primary responsibility towards him' (Bird 1983:261).

Thus, in Genesis 29:7--12 we read about Potiphar's wife, who attempted to seduce Joseph. Here, the dishonour of Potiphar's wife was associated with two main aspects. First, she attempts to commit adultery. As we have already mentioned, this act casts such dishonour on the husband that the wife could be divorced, and the husband could demand the death penalty for her crime (Dt 22:22; Phillips 1981). Second, the woman's adultery involves deceit. This is a further act of dishonour, as can be seen in the case of Delilah, who with the help of her sexual powers undermines Samson. Thus, Williams (1982:113) notes that the dishonour of the seductress is often associated with lying, `the medium of her seductive wiles is deceitful and distorted language'.

Similarly, prostitution (sexual intercourse between an unmarried woman and men) was not encouraged. A variety of passages associate prostitutes with dishonour and disgrace (Lv 19:29; Dt 22:21; Gn 34:31; 1 Ki 22:38; Is:21; Ezk 16:30). Bird (1983:272) concludes that a prostitute `was in every period a figure of disrepute and shame'.

Pederson (1940:231ff) summarises the qualities of the honourable and the shameless women in ancient Israel,

The honour of a woman is to bear a man's name through marriage (Is 4:1). And her honour as a wife she maintains by multiplying and continuing the name of her husband through posterity. As a mother the woman is honoured; childlessness is a shame which can hardly survive. Only when Rachel gives birth to a son, is she able to say: God has taken away my shame (Gen 30:23) ... To bear a man's name and to increase it is the honour of the woman. The dishonoured virgin is bowed down with shame, because she has been taken by the man without his giving her a name. And the faithless wife degrades herself and sins against her own soul, because she has given it to her husband and takes her name from him, while at the same time giving herself to another, whose name she does not bear (cf Hosea 2:27).


Our study has attempted to shed light on some aspects of the behaviour of biblical women. We have done this by looking at the cultural values of modern Mediterranean society and applying them to the society of the Old Testament. We have shown that the behaviour of both the modern Mediterranean and the ancient biblical women is dominated by the cultural values of honour and shame. These values have shown a persistent appearance in both societies.

These women's honour depends on their performing their wifely and motherly duties properly, and on their sexual loyalty to their husbands. Their shame is the result of failing in these duties. The biblical concepts of honour and shame were thus carried through without much change to modern societies.


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Renata Rabichev
Department of Old Testament
University of South Africa
PO Box 392
Pretoria 0001