Parent Category: Bible
Category: Biblical People
Women. [Heb. Ã•ishshah; Gr. guneÂµ, â€œwoman,â€ â€œwife.â€] Individual women are dealt with in articles under their various names. This discussion is concerned with women as a class in the successive periods of Bible history.
1.Â Â Â The Original Woman. When God â€œcreated man in his own image,â€ â€œmale and female he created themâ€ (Gen 1:27, RSV). To both sexes, without any distinction, God gave the blessing, the command to â€œbe fruitful, and multiply,â€ and the commission to subdue the earth and have dominion over all living creatures. Gen 2 gives further details: Adam was formed firstâ€”from dustâ€”and was given the opportunity, before Eve was formed, to observe the animals, to realize that he only was alone, to feel his need of a female counterpart, a â€œhelperâ€ (Heb. Ã”ezer) â€œfit for himâ€ (Heb. kenegdoÃ†.) The word for â€œhelper,â€ applied also to God (Ex 18:4 and elsewhere), does not imply an inferior; the word for â€œfitâ€ (as also the KJV's obsolete rendering â€œmeetâ€) means â€œcorresponding to him,â€ â€œlike his counterpart.â€ The fact that Eve was formed from Adam's rib, taken neither from his head nor his foot, but from his side, is a fit symbol of the equality and unity of the couple.
Eve's subordination to her husband was one of the consequences of the Fall, after which human nature became selfish and competitive. As some have pointed out, the Heb. word translated â€œruleâ€ is not grammatically a decree, as â€œshall ruleâ€ indicates, but simply states the fact that the husband will rule the wife. However, some take certain NT texts (see sec. 6) as stemming from a change of status designed to fit the fallen nature of humankind; and some cite other texts as indicating some degree of primacy for Adam from the beginning. In any case, since the Fall Adam's male descendants have in fact extended the husband's headship of the family to include the domination of men in general over women in general, which is not mentioned as such in the account of Gen 1 or 2.
Another view is that Eve's status was altered, not because of inferiority, but as a necessary adjustment to the loss of peace and harmony that had been possible for two equal partners before the Fall; but that NT Christianity is intended to counteract the effects of the Fall by restoring even here the original relationships. (See sec. 6.)
2.Â Â Â Women in the Patriarchal Period. Between Adam and Abraham we learn nothing of women except that a descendant of Cain introduced plurality of wives (Gen 4:19). But between Abraham and Moses we learn a great deal from the Bible portrayal of a patriarchal society. The father was head of the extended family, including his sons' and perhaps his grandsons' families. Hence, sons were valued above daughters, who would depart to become members of other families or clans. (Therefore, only sons are mentioned in genealogies except for women of special significance to the story.)
The woman functioned principally as wife and mother, working at household tasksâ€”cooking, carrying water, caring for and instructing the children (Gen 18:6; 24:13; 27:14). Sometimes women cared for the flocks, sometimes worked as nurses or midwives (Gen 29:9, 10; Ex 1:15, 16). However, the woman might play a part in religious, social, and economic activities, and at times could wield considerable influence over her husband and sons (for example, Sarah in the affair of Hagar and Ishmael; or Rebekah in securing primacy for Jacob [Gen 16:5, 6; 21:9-14; 27:6-17, 23]). The wife, though under the authority of her husband as her â€œmaster,â€ or â€œlordâ€ (ch 18:12), was not on the level of a slave. Abraham addressed Sarah with respect in the request â€œI pray â€¦â€ or â€œPlease â€¦â€ (ch 12:13).
Women in patriarchal times had considerable freedom of movement, working in the fields or with the flocks, mingling with the shepherds at the watering place (ch 24:15-28; 29:9-11). Rebekah apparently went unveiled to the well and traveled thus until she met her fiancÃ© (ch 24:15, 16, 65); Sarah also was seen by the Egyptians, who admired her beauty (ch 12:14). Apparently the bride was veiled during the wedding (ch 29:23, 25).
Marriages were arranged by parents or relatives, but the prospective bride's consent was asked (ch 24:58). Apparently it was customary for her to take along her personal maid to the new home. A wife could give her slave to the husband as a secondary wife (ch 16:2, 3) whose sons legally belonged to the mistress, hence could rank along with the free wife's children (for example, Jacob's four sons by Rachel's and Leah's maids). In Abraham's case, however, the sons of his secondary wives, Hagar and Keturah, were sent away (ch 16:3; 21:10; 25:1-6) with gifts but without inheritance.
In the case of a childless widow, it was the duty of the husband's eldest surviving brother to marry her, and the first son of that marriage was to carry on the line of the deceased (ch 38:8-11).
3.Â Â Â Women Under the Mosaic Law. In the Israelite theocracy, established after the Exodus, the code of laws carried on the major features of the patriarchal system, while mitigating some of the worst evils. Polygamy, for example, was not forbidden, but it was regulated. Divorce required a legal certificate that gave the divorced woman her freedom to marry again (Deut 24:1-4). Israelite women were dependent on the male head of the familyâ€”whether father or husbandâ€”and unless widowed or divorced could not make a vow without his consent (Num 30:3-15). Yet their status was higher than that of women in the neighboring nations.
At marriage the woman passed from the authority of her father to that of her husband. A man could never sell his wife, even if he had taken her as a captive in war (Deut 21:10-14). He could sell his daughter only for the purpose of becoming a secondary wife to her master or to the master's son. She could not be resold to a foreigner, nor did she go out at the end of six years (Ex 21:7-11), as did the ordinary Hebrew slave woman not sold for marriage (Deut 15:12-14). If a man seduced a single girl he had to pay the customary â€œmarriage presentâ€ and take her as his wife; he could never divorce her (Ex 22:16, 17; Deut 22:28-29). In adultery, the penalty for both parties was death (Lev 20:10).
A widow did not inherit her husband's estate; it went to the sons or, if there were no sons, to daughters so long as they did not marry outside the tribe (Num 27:1-9; 36:2-9). A childless widow was to marry a brother-in-law in order to continue the husband's line (Deut 25:5-10). Widows were allowed to *glean in the fields and could benefit from the third-year *tithe.
Hebrew law treated men and women alike in certain cases: Respect for both father and mother was required (Ex 21:15, 17; Lev 19:3; Lev 20:9); crimes of violence against either man or woman were punished alike (Ex 21:15-32). But in the case of special vows, the money valuation placed on women was less than that on men (Lev 27:1-7), and the period of purification after the birth of a girl was twice as long as for a boy (ch 12:1-7).
Women played a secondary role in religious life. Yet they taught their children at home and took part in Sabbath observance (Ex 20:10). Whole families celebrated the Passover together (Ex 12:3, 14, 15), and women and girls could accompany the men to the feasts of Weeks (Pentecost) and Tabernacles (Deut 16:10-16). Women of priestly families could eat of the priest's share or the peace offerings (Lev 10:14; Num 18:11). Among the laity, â€œa man or womanâ€ could present a trespass offering (Num 5:6-8). In another description of the same offering â€œa soulâ€ (Heb. nephesh), translated also â€œa person,â€ â€œanyone,â€ is apparently equivalent to â€œa man or womanâ€ (Lev 6:2-7). This indicates that women could bring several other kinds of offerings prescribed for â€œa soulâ€ (chs 4:2, 27, margin; 5:1, 4, 15, 17).
Women were not barred, on occasion, from achieving positions of leadership and authority. There were prophetesses (Miriam, Deborah, and later Huldah). Deborah was also a *judge and a sort of military leader; but there were no Israelite priestesses. (Today some find fault with this restriction as a slight to women of capability. Others invoke it as an argument against a woman's serving now in any ministerial capacity. However, a priest, who offered sacrifices on altars, had a totally different function from that of a minister.) The advantage of the absence of priestesses is obvious when the environment of Israel is considered. Among the surrounding nations a priestess often functioned as a *cult prostitute in the fertility cults, which involved grossly immoral rites in connection with the temples and high places.
4.Â Â Â Women in the OT Outside the Pentateuch. In post-Pentateuchal Israel the position of women was governed by the same code of religious and social laws. The wife's subordination did not preclude a genuine love relationship (1 Sa 1:5, 8; Ec 9:9) and genuine respect from her husband and children (Prov 18:22; Prov 31:28). Yet the prophets found it necessary to announce God's displeasure at neglect and cruelty toward women, especially mothers and widows (Mic 2:9; Amos 1:13; Is 10:1-2). There are many OT references to the menace of contentious, wicked, or immoral women (Prov 21:9, 19; Prov 6:24, 26; Prov 7). But there are also many references to women of good understanding, wise, gracious, and the like (1 Sa 25:3; 2 Sa 20:16; Prov 11:16). The epitome of feminine character is the good wifeâ€”industrious, resourceful, skilled, kind, wise, honored, pious (Prov 31:10-31).
The woman of Prov 31 could buy property. So could the wealthy and prominent woman of Shunem, and she could appeal in person to the king for her rights to it (2 Ki 4:8-36; 8:1-6). The latter could also mount a donkey and ride off to see the prophet without answering to her husband for her decision (ch 4:22, 23).
On the canvas of the OT narrative appear the figures of many womenâ€”a few of them full-length portraits, from poor but faithful Ruth gleaning in the fields to wicked Jezebel, who led Israel into wholesale idolatry of the worst kind; from the charms, described in Oriental vividness, of the country girl beloved of King Solomon to the courage of Esther risking her throne and her life to save her people.
Jesus and Women. Jesus never campaigned for women's rights, but His dealings with them, when viewed against the background of the ideas and customs of the day, were revolutionary. Modern readers miss the impact of Christ's quiet disregard of the proprieties as defined in 1st-cent. Palestine in His treatment of women as individuals of worth.
Although the Jewish woman of that day was able, according to her capacities and opportunities, to wield a considerable influence over her husband and sons, still her sphere was principally in the home as wife, mother, and homemaker. She had, in some ways, less freedom than in earlier days, unless she belonged to the laboring class and must needs work along with men on farm or in shop to help maintain the family. She was a member of the religious community, but in a limited way. She could attend the synagogue in the women's section, probably a gallery, and could participate in the great annual festivals with her family. But she was exempt from studying the Torah and from all positive religious duties connected with specific timesâ€”the principal exception to this last being the preparation for the Sabbath and, particularly, lighting the candles at the beginning of the Sabbath, and, of course, the observance of the Sabbath day.
In the Temple she could pass beyond the outer Court of the Gentiles into the Court of the Women, but not into the Court of Israel, adjoining the Court of the Priests, which was reserved for male Israelites. (This was apparently a late development; there is no mention of a separate court for women in the Solomonic or the postexilic Temples.) The Mishnah has been taken to imply that a woman could offer only two sacrifices (the meal offerings with the Nazirite vow, and those connected with the ordeal of the bitter water), and had to depend for the forgiveness of her sins on the sacrifices brought by her father or husband. If so, this was a change from OT days (see sec. 4).
Until we realize that it was considered scandalous for a man to speak to a woman on the street and that the rabbis often described women as being inferior and dangerous to a man's morality, we do not see how revolutionary was Jesus' attitude toward women. He violated the rabbinical proprieties when He received women as followers, and accepted both the ministrations and the money of a band of devoted women from Galilee who accompanied Him and the Twelve on their travels (Lk 8:1-3; Mt 27:55, 56), and who were the first to carry the news of Jesus' resurrection (Lk 23:55-24:10). He shocked His disciples by conversing with a woman at the well in Samaria (Jn 4:7, 27). He scandalized His Pharisee host Simon by showing gratitude and understanding for Mary's perfume (Mt 26:6-13; Lk 7:36-50). He accepted friendship, as well as hospitality, from Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11:1-5). And through it all His worst enemies could never accuse Him of impurity in word or act.
He taught a high concept of marriage and restricted divorce to the case of marital infidelity; He upheld the â€œsingle standardâ€ by demanding purity of men (Mt 5:27, 28, 31, 32). Yet, without condoning the sin, He forgave the adulteress cowering before Him (Jn 8:1-11). Many of His parables were based on experiences of women. He took notice of the poor widow whose two coppers He valued above the gifts of the rich (Mk 12:41-44). His first miracle was performed in deference to His mother's wish (Jn 2:1-11); and almost His last words on the cross committed His mother to the care of the disciple John (ch 19:25-27).
6.Â Â Â Paul and Women in the Early Church. Except for Dorcas and Sapphira, who were connected with the story of Peter, nearly all the women of the early church mentioned in the Bible were associated with Paul. The earliest contact of Paul with Christian women was with those whom he persecuted (Acts 8:3; 9:2), probably some of the â€œmultitudes both of men and womenâ€ who were â€œadded to the Lordâ€ soon after Pentecost (ch 5:14). But it was Paul who later put into words the great charter of the infant church: â€œThere is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promiseâ€ (Gal 3:28, 29).
In the book of Acts and the Epistles we find many names of women who were active in the church. At Lystra was Eunice, Timothy's mother (Acts 16:1; 2 Tim 1:5); at Philippi, Lydia, first convert in Europe (Acts 16:8-14); there also were Euodia and Syntyche, coworkers with Paul (Phil 4:2, 3); at Athens, Damaris (Acts 17:34); at Corinth, Priscilla, who, with her husband, Aquila, worked with Paul and accompanied him to Ephesus (ch 18:1-3, 18, 19).
Paul has acquired a reputation for prejudice against women. At Corinth he rebuked scandal, divisions, contentions, and disorderly meetings; his theme: curtail your Christian liberties if they weaken or offend othersâ€”for example, converts to whom eating meat offered to nonexistent gods was still idolatry (1 Cor 8; 1 Cor 10:27-32); or non-Christians to whom a wife in church with head uncoveredâ€”or with hair hanging loose instead of bound to her head (ch 11:5, 6, NIV) meant her repudiation of her marriage, of her husband's authority (vs 15, 10; cf. Num 5:18, RSV). But Paul's Adam-Eve explanation leaves women's status ambiguous (1 Co 11:8, 9; 1 Cor 11:8, 9; cf. 11, 12). In ch 14, does he tell wives to keep quiet in church and ask their husbands at home (vs 34, 35) because they are subordinate, or because they raise confusion in church by their questions? Certainly he showed no disapproval of women's speaking in prayer or in prophesying, only of their improper hairdo (ch 11:5, 13). Apparently there were details known to the Corinthians that Paul's letter does not reveal to the latter-day reader.
Later, he had to tell Timothy not to allow women to teach or usurp authority over the man (1 Tim 2:11-14). Does the Adam-Eve reference suggest a husband-wife situation or a general rule? The admonition to teach wives to be obedient to their husbands is accompanied by a reason: â€œthat the word of God be not blasphemedâ€ (Tit 2:5; note the same reason for Christian slaves to honor their mastersâ€”the good of the cause; 1 Tim 6:1).
Opinions still differ regarding Paul's attitude toward women, but he certainly accepted and warmly appreciated many of them as friends and fellow workers (Rom 16), and he set forth the great ideal that â€œthere is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesusâ€ (Gal 3:28).
Horn, Siegfried H., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association) 1979.