The Role of Women in the Bible
God's Intention Versus Sinful Society
There are so many misinterpretations today about how the Bible views women. Critics of Scripture say that they are seen as little more than property and certainly aren't viewed as equal to men in any way. They attribute this to the Bible being written by men in a male-dominated society which, in some way feared the empowerment of women.
What they don't realize is the fact that God never intended women to be seen as inferior in any way. While they have been treated poorly in history, that is not a result of God's view of them as written in Scripture. The poor treatment of women has come about as a result of sin, just like all evils in the world. And, like slavery in the Old Testament, it was allowed as a concession to the sinful society of the time. To totally eliminate these things, there would have to be a complete restructuring of the society of that day; one which had been brought about by the sin of mankind in the first place.
With the advent of our Savior Jesus Christ, we have the complete revelation of God to mankind, and the way our Lord treated the women he encountered while he was on earth was nothing short of revolutionary. Further, His death, burial, and resurrection gave mankind the ability to overcome sin and to bring about a society that treats women with the dignity that they were originally intended to have. And though not all of society has become Christian by any means, still much of it has benefitted from the Christian message and the influence of Christ's followers in the world.
I. The Role of Women in the Beginning
We get our understanding of men and women from God's perspective in Genesis 1. Genesis teaches that mankind was created in the image of God. Genesis 1:26,27 tells us
"Then God said: 'Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."
The next verse tells the man and the woman that they are to be fruitful and multiply, and to subdue the earth, taking dominion over it. In other words, the man and woman, as God's representatives, created in His image, were to be co-regents, given the job to rule over and take care of the earth.
According to Genesis 2, we find out that Adam was created first. He was alone, which God says is not a good thing, because mankind was created for community. So God created the woman from the rib of Adam in order to be a helper for him. The word here is the Hebrew word 'ezer. This does not mean that she was in any way inferior. Rather 'ezer is a word used of God Himself later in Scripture and is used of someone who is, in some way stronger. In this case, her help was stronger than and aided Adam with his aloneness. (2:18-25).
II. Sin Entered Society
We see in Genesis 3:16-19 that because sin entered society, it changed it. The man and the woman sinned in the garden and God gave them both punishments and evicted them from paradise. Mankind had to work at the sweat of his brow the rest of his life and had to deal with the thorns and thistles that plagued his work to provide food for his family. The woman now had painful childbirth.
Also included in the curse is a strange phrase told to Eve:
"Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." (3:16b).
How is a woman's desire for her husband a bad thing? Looking at the original text, the Hebrew doesn't include a verb and so "will be" was added by translators to supposedly make it more clear. However, in this case, it didn't. The text literally reads: "Toward your husband your desire."
The most obvious interpretation of this verse is that there now is a battle for who would be the ruler. The war between the sexes is born. The woman now has the desire to dominate the man, and the man, rather than lovingly nurturing and caring for his wife, wants to control her. And throughout history, the man being physically stronger, is able to prevail much of the time making women little more than slaves.
So sin started the problems that we are still trying to overcome, including the way women came to be treated in the ancient world and the horrible conditions that some are still living under today where the Christian religion isn't the dominant influence.
III. Women in Old Testament Jewish World
In the world in which God's people the Jews were living, women were treated with more respect and dignity than the cultures around them. They enjoyed much liberty and esteem. As an example, many women became prophetesses and leaders and many played important roles in the history of the Jews. We have strong women such as Deborah who was both a prophetess and a judge during the era of the judges (Judges 4 and 5). We also have a whole book written about Esther who acted decisively and saved the Jewish people from destruction. And though we can't name them all here, there were women such as Hannah, Huldah, Jochebed, Miriam, Rachel, Rebekah, Ruth, Rahab, and Sarah who made great contributions to the world of their day.
We further have sections in Scripture that give the woman great dignity, such as the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 that tell us to honor both father and mother. And there are such passages as Proverbs 31:10-31, which talks about the virtuous woman. Far from being a slave, this woman literally ran the household, and bought and sold fields and had servants who answered to her.
IV. Women in the New Testament Jewish World
We sometimes forget how many years had passed between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. It was over 400 years and during that time the Jews went into captivity and were under the rule of other nations and things changed. Women lost much of their position that they enjoyed in the Old Testament Jewish world. They began being seen as more inferior and it was here that they were assigned to almost the same status as slaves. They weren't educated, not allowed to have leadership and they were confined to mostly domestic tasks.
The way the Jewish world viewed women at this time can be seen clearly in the morning prayer rituals of an orthodox Jewish man. He would pray:
"Blessed are you oh God of the universe who has not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman."
In Jewish law, a woman was not a person but a thing and she had no legal rights at all. The wife was the possession of her husband. She could not even be taught the Scriptures. One rabbi actually wrote this:
"Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman. Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her lasciviousness.”
It is against this backdrop that we can see the radical way in which Jesus viewed women in his ministry.
V. Jesus and the Early Church
V. Jesus and the Early Church
Under Jesus, women were treated with great dignity. He allowed women to travel with him and the twelve disciples, which was unheard of then (Luke 8:1-3). Even though a proper Jew would never speak to a Samaritan or a woman in that day, Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. This lead to her conversion to faith in Him (John 4:4-42).
Mary, the sister of Martha, sat at Jesus' feet like any disciple, as he taught, even though women at that time were not allowed to be educated. Jesus told her sister Martha that Mary had chosen wisely in doing this, and that Martha should do the same (Luke 10:38-42).
Our Lord had many devoted followers who were women. And women were said to be the first to witness His resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 24:1-11).
It is clear that Jesus had a very high view of women. This carried on into the early Church where females were given positions of responsibility. Just to name a few prominent women there were Dorcas, Lydia, Persis, Priscilla, Phoebe, along with Tryphena and Tryphosa (Acts 9:36; 16:14; 18:24-26; 21:7-9; Romans 16:1-16).
Some people say Paul didn't like women, but it was he who said that there is no difference between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28). This was revolutionary for this time in history, in the world in which Paul was living.
It was the Apostle Paul as well who instructed men to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. In other words, as Christ was willing to die for the church, so a husband should be willing to die for his wife if need be (Ephesians 5:25).
Also, as if this isn't radical enough, the great Apostle went on in this same passage to tell the Ephesian men to love their wives as they would their own bodies. They are to care for and nurture them (Ephesians 5:28-33). This doesn't sound much like a man who hated women. It was his teachings as much as any others in Scripture that helped to give to them a status unknown in the world of that time.
It is no wonder that wherever the Christian religion takes root, the status of women in society starts to raise. God's original intention for women was certainly to be a position of dignity and great worth. Though sin has marred that position, and women have not always been treated as they should, the advent of Jesus Christ has made it possible for them to be restored to the position that they once had before the fall. It is in Christ that womanhood is, once again, seen in all of its glory
It is my prayer that the Christian Church will live up to this wonderful message for women and treat them as they deserve. Women should in no way feel inferior or think that their roles are of little importance to Christ or to his kingdom. They are of utmost importance as heirs together of the grace of life, as the Apostle Peter has called the wife in I Peter 3:7.
It is up to Christian men in general and husbands, in particular, to make sure that the women in their lives know the value that they possess and to demonstrate that fact to their children so that the next generation will grow up respecting women as well.
May we, with Christ's help, stop the war between the sexes and begin to live a life of mutual love, admiration, and cooperation. It is only by this that we can empower, not only the women of the world, but the whole human race to live out the great purposes for which they were created.
© 2012 Jeff Shirley