In the Bible men and women are treated as equal in worth, but not as interchangeable – they carry out different, complementary roles. Anyone who is looking for the modern-day version of gender ‘equality’ in the Bible will not find it there. But this does not mean that the Bible represses women.
According to the Bible, men and women share the same humanity, the same intellectual, moral and spiritual capacity (Genesis 1:26-28), the same fallibility, the same responsibility and the same opportunity to become God’s children (Galatians 3:28). Exactly the same fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) – is to be developed in all children of God, regardless of gender. So why are men and women treated differently at all in the Bible? And why are some roles restricted to men only?
THE TYPICAL PICTURE
Firstly, in the Bible gender roles are a type. Types teach important doctrines, and relationships can be typical. From the beginning God intended that the marriage relationship between a man and a woman would demonstrate and reflect the relationship between Jesus and the ecclesia (Ephesians 5:31-32). This is the only reason given as to why wives are to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-23). The relationship between Christ and the ecclesia is also demonstrated in public worship. When men are more prominent in public roles than women, this demonstrates the leading role of Christ relative to the ecclesia. When women refrain from public teaching and wear a head covering, this demonstrates the deference of the ecclesia to Christ and the fact that all believers are covered by his sacrifice (1 Timothy 2:11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
Consider some of the personal sacrifices required of people in the Bible for the sake of types. Sarah suffered the grief and shame of barrenness until she was 91 because she was a type of spiritual Israel (Galatians 4:27, Isaiah 51:2-3). Hagar was a slave who was cast out with her child because she was a type of natural Israel under the law (Galatians 4:22-26). Joseph was sold by his brothers and imprisoned because he was a type of Christ. Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because he was a type of the Law (Romans 10:4-5). The priesthood was not open to all – it was comprised only of males from one family, because it represented Jesus (Hebrews 4:14), and his fellow heirs (Revelation 5:10, Romans 8:17). These are just a few examples, but clearly types are important – often more important than personal rights and fulfilment in the here and now.
Secondly, there are practical reasons for gender-based roles. Successful societies have always used men and women differently, because men and women are different, and hence are useful in different ways (1)Baumeister, Roy F, 2010, Is There Anything Good About Men? How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 38-39.. Many tasks that a society needs to get done – for example, fighting battles and looking after babies – are fundamentally incompatible, both in the demands involved and the psychological and behavioural traits required. Therefore societies must figure out which group of people is better suited to which task, and assign them to it. Culture has recognised and built upon the naturally occurring differences in skills and inclination between men and women.
Today we find that the feminist ideal of ‘equality’ between men and women in the workplace and in the home is still proving surprisingly difficult to achieve. One reason for this is that most women desire not only to have children at some point, but to be the primary carers for their children. This desire seems to be stronger in women than in men, complicating attempts to divide child care equally between fathers and mothers. Some are now questioning whether the traditional division of labour is intrinsically oppressive. As one author says, “The idea that equality between men and women – or fairness between any two partners – can come about only through similar life courses and a parallel allocation of labour may constitute an abstraction by which few people actually want to live” (2)De Marneffe, Daphne, 2004, Maternal Desire, Little, Brown & Co, New York, p. 22..
THE BIBLE PERSPECTIVE
Throughout Scripture it is evident that God honours women and cares for them. The Bible is never once belittling or contemptuous of women. God is mindful of the perpetual problem of misogyny (Colossians 3:19), and is especially concerned for the welfare of women in a male-dominated society. Examples of the Bible’s respect for women are as follows:
- A man, not a woman, is blamed for sin and death entering the world (1 Corinthians 15:21-22, Romans 5:12-19). This is in contrast to the legends of other ancient cultures such as the Greek tale of Pandora’s Box.
- The wives of the patriarchs were included in the promises (Genesis 17:16).
- Abraham was told by God to listen to his wife (Genesis 21:11).
- The first appearance of the Yahweh angel to anyone in the Bible is to Hagar (Genesis 16:11-13). Hagar was given a personal promise similar to that of Abraham (Genesis 16:9).
- The first person in scripture to ‘inquire of the LORD’ was Rebekah (Genesis 25:22).
- Marriage required the consent of the woman (Genesis 24:8, 39, 58).
- When the men in her life were not doing the right thing, Tamar took matters into her own hands and was proclaimed ‘more righteous’ than Judah (Genesis 38:26). Tamar was revered in Israel (Ruth 4:12) and mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3).
- Miriam was a prophetess and was listed as a leader of Israel along with Moses and Aaron (Exodus 15:20, Micah 6:4).
- Under the Law of Moses, mothers were to be honoured equally with fathers (Deuteronomy 5:16). The penalty for cursing or striking one’s father or mother was death (Exodus 21:15, 17). The Code of Hammurabi only punished a son for striking his father.
- Under the Law women were able to make vows including the Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:2). They had opportunities for service in the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:8, 1 Samuel 2:22).
- The law of jealousy was designed to vindicate women against false accusations (Numbers 5:11-31). As the verdict was given by a sign from God, no innocent person need fear taking the test. Under the code of Hammurabi, a woman so accused had to jump into the river.
- Women had the same access to the sacrificial code and religious observances at the Tabernacle, and at festivals (Leviticus 11:14, Deuteronomy 12 and 16).
- Women had equal opportunity to donate and work on building the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:22, 25).
- Women could be witnesses in trials (Deuteronomy 21:18-20, 22:15).
- Women who sinned or enticed another to idolatry shared exactly the same punishment as men – they were assumed to have full control over their own choices (Deuteronomy 13:6-11, 32:19, Leviticus 20:10-12).
- Divorce and polygamy were regulated to protect women from some of the worse abuses (Deuteronomy 24:1-2, Exodus 21:10, Leviticus 18:18). Divorce was only allowed because of the hardness of men’s hearts (Matthew 19:3-9). God hated divorce and saw it as violence against women (Malachi 2:16),as it often left the woman destitute, similar to a widow.
- The severest punishment of the Law was reserved for those who oppressed widows and their children (Exodus 22:22-24). God describes himself, the very essence of his character, as “a father to the fatherless and an advocate for widows” (Psalm 68:5).
- Husbands were exempt from going to battle for one year after their marriage (Deuteronomy 24:5). The reason given is so that they might bring joy to their wives. Thus the happiness of women was placed above even the need for Israel to have all hands on deck in a battle.
- Laws were in place forbidding the rape or humiliation of female war captives (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). Rape was nearly always the fate of women conquered by other nations (Lamentations 5:11).
- Rapists were severely punished (Deuteronomy 22:25-29), and the victim held blameless.
- After the daughters of Zelophehad successfully appealed, the succession order for inheritance went sons, daughters, brothers, uncles and next of kin (Numbers 27:8). Under the Code of Hammurabi daughters did not normally inherit anything.
- Even where there were both sons and daughters, daughters sometimes shared in the inheritance (Job 42:15). Caleb’s daughter Achsah requested an inheritance from her father and was given property in her own right (Caleb had three sons as well).
- Women were to be present at the reading and exposition of the Law (Joshua 8:34-35).
- Deborah was a judge of Israel, performing a function similar to a judge today – hearing evidence and passing verdicts on criminal cases and civil disputes (Judges 4:5). This meant she would have been an expert in the law. The men of Israel did not seem to find this strange or have a problem coming to a woman for judgment.
- Women were involved in the temple worship under David (Psalm 68:25) and as singers post exile (Ezra 2:65). Women singers may have played a prophetic role (Psalm 68:11).
- Instruction and teaching of both father and mother ought to be heeded (Proverbs 1:8).
- Wisdom is personified as a woman (Proverbs 8, 9, 31).
- No importance is placed on female appearance, only on character (Proverbs 31:10).
- Proverbs 31 depicts the ‘valiant woman’ – a wife who is strong, industrious, wise, has her own business and property, is known in the gates and is praised by her husband.
- Women were prophetesses – another important position in Israel. The prophet was God’s mouthpiece to the people (Deuteronomy 18:18). Kings and priests consulted Huldah the prophetess (2 Kings 22:14), a contemporary of Jeremiah and Zephaniah.
- Queen mother was a powerful official position (1 Kings 15:13, Jeremiah 13:17-18).
- God says that he possesses the qualities of a mother (Isaiah 45:10-11, Isaiah 49:15, 66:13).
- Women worked alongside men to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:12).
- Among Jesus’ followers were a group of women who supported him out of their means (Luke 8:1-3).
- Jesus defended a woman who neglected traditional ‘women’s work’ in the kitchen in order to listen to him teaching (Luke 10:38-42).
- Jesus had deep theological discussions with women (e.g. John 4, John 11:17-27).
- The first person Jesus appeared to after his resurrection was Mary Magdalene (John 20:1-18). Women were chosen as the first witnesses of his resurrection.
- In the first century, women received the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:8-9).
- Women were active in the ecclesia, working alongside the men to spread the gospel. Paul names many women as co-workers (Philippians 4:3, Romans 16:3, 6, 12).
- Phoebe was a servant of the ecclesia at Cenchrea who had been a great help to many including Paul (Romans 16:1) and was the official carrier of his letter.
- Priscilla and Aquila were a husband and wife team who expounded the way of God to Apollos more perfectly (Acts 18:26) and risked their lives for Paul (Romans 16:4).
- Wives are to be honoured by their husbands as co-heirs of salvation (1 Peter 3:7).
- Husbands are to nurture and protect their wives, as they do their own bodies (Ephesians 5:28-29), showing the same self-sacrificial love that Christ showed for his bride.
- Exactly the same rules and standards regarding marriage and chastity are applied to both men and women (1 Corinthians 7).
- Early Christianity afforded many advantages to women:
“Women flocked the new faith right from the start (because) … aspects of Christianity’s moral code gave women an advantage unlike any found in the competition. For example, Christianity forbade infanticide (in ancient Greece and Rome female babies were left to die on rubbish dumps if unwanted) and abortion, whereas in both ancient Greek and Rome, the husband as the head of the household had the power to order a woman to have an abortion or abandon an infant. Evidence also shows that Christian women married later than their pagan contemporaries, so had better chances of surviving their first pregnancy. Christians were expected to marry for life, and infidelity was regarded as much of a sin for a man as for a woman. In this, Christianity levelled the moral playing field for women. Christian women were also less likely to be forced to marry … for the first time … women were being offered a choice whether to marry or not. Since marriage was a perilous state, quite a few exercised that choice and opted for celibacy” (3)Holland, J, 2006, A Brief History of Misogyny, Constable & Robinson, London,pp. 75-77..
- “Did early Christianity encourage men and women to see themselves as equals? Paul is frequently cited by those who argue that it did, and those who hold that it did not. What remains undeniable is that the moral teachings on adultery, the banning of abortion and infanticide, and the easing of pressure on women to marry would have directly raised the status of women by eradicating some of the practices that were prejudicial to them … Paul reiterates the Biblical tradition of … ‘man the head of woman’ and restates the creation story of the primacy of man and the woman created for the man. However he goes on to recognize our mutual interdependence … One could parse this … as a simple recognition that man depends on woman as much as woman depends on man. If one accepts this interpretation, Paul here rules out that hoary old misogynist fantasy … the myth of autonomous man” (4)Ibid, pp. 79-80..
|↑1||Baumeister, Roy F, 2010, Is There Anything Good About Men? How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 38-39.|
|↑2||De Marneffe, Daphne, 2004, Maternal Desire, Little, Brown & Co, New York, p. 22.|
|↑3||Holland, J, 2006, A Brief History of Misogyny, Constable & Robinson, London,pp. 75-77.|
|↑4||Ibid, pp. 79-80.|