For centuries, Biblical depictions of women have governed Western ideas and ideals of the female sex. As gender roles evolve, the wisdom of thousands-year-old gender prescriptions are brought into question, especially when Judeo-Christian tradition has been associated with relegating women to subservience.
Let’s explore some examples from the Old and New Testaments to see if the Bible gives the fairer sex a fair shake.
The Bible Lifts Women Up
Compared to the men of the Bible, the women are saints.
The Bible is not a book of heroes, but rather, a “how to” of what not to do. Nobody proves this principle more convincingly that the Bible’s men. Lot beds his own daughters. Jacob’s oldest sons slay an entire town (while the townsmen were recovering from circumcisions!) in their sleep and they sell their brother, Joseph, into slavery (and then lie about it). David sends one of his soldiers to certain death purely because he was interested in the soldier’s wife. Judas trades the son of God for thirty coins. Let’s compare these to women’s transgressions. Rachel steals idols from her father’s house, Moses’ sister Miriam is punished for gossiping about him, and some women have illicit affairs. At their worst, the sins of Biblical females are almost heartwarmingly mild. If the Bible is the grand catalogue of antisocial behaviors, it’s to women’s credit that they do not figure prominently in it.
Women play pivotal roles in the Old and New Testament.
Without Miriam, Moses would be up the creek (pun intended). Miriam cares for her infant brother’s fate, seeing to it that the child is nursed by their own mother, and later, she helps Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Beyond seven prophetesses, the Old Testament features stories of warriors like Yael and Judith, who delivered their people from peril. Several of Jesus’ apostles were women – Junia, Lydia, Phoebe (who was even a deacon) – were as integral in spreading the Gospel as their male counterparts. Arguably, the central miracle of the New Testament, Jesus’ conception, is rooted in Mary’s piety above all else – in Old Testament and New, women are the main vehicle of redemption.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity.
” Whoever said the Bible devalues women has not read Proverbs 31, the Biblical equivalent of a D’Angelo album. The “wife of noble character” extolled in it exhibits the Bible’s affirmation of women’s value. It hails her versatility – she is credited with industriousness, wisdom, physical strength, business acumen and generosity. She is a doer, a creator, and a fixture in her community, and yet, the comprehensive list of her undertakings aren’t out of the ordinary – they are the duties women have undertaken for centuries. The “wife of noble character” has no name, because she is every woman, and she is “worth far more than rubies.”
The Bible Tears Women Down.
In the Bible women are synonymous with mischief and sin.
The first chapter of the Bible identifies the first woman, Eve, as the catalyst of mortal sin, and things get worse from there. The women of the Bible are deceitful, cunning, and sometimes, just plain mean. Abraham’s wife Sarah bids him to have a child with her handmaid, only to turn mother and child out when Sarah has her own child. Rebecca tricks her blind husband into giving her favorite son, Jacob, a birthright he was not meant to have. Tamar tricks her father-in-law, Judah, into sleeping with her. Delilah goads her lover, Samson, into revealing his secret weakness, which she reports to his enemies, costing him his eyes and his life. These tales seem to decree women incapable of obedience, measured judgement or loyalty; it’s a wonder God commanded man to procreate with woman at all.
In Corinthians, Paul bids women to “keep silence in the churches…And if [women] will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” Why must women minimize their presence at church? Why should the be forbidden to speak, to ask questions, and ultimately, to interact with new (and presumably transformative) spiritual concepts? The Bible paints women as a gender best seen but not heard.
The Bible allows me to “rule” over women.
After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, God famously punishes Eve by making her subordinate to Adam: “He shall rule over thee.” This is reiterated in the New Testament: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22).” Man’s lordship over women even extends to their bodies. According to Deuteronomy, if a woman is the victim of sexual violence, it is not she who will receive restitution, but her father. Also, she must marry her attacker. How very cheering (and fair!).
Bottom lines: The Bible imposes some strict (and often strange) laws on women, and it does, in many instances, argue that women are men’s subordinates. On the other hand, the great capabilities of the women depicted in the Bible – their resourcefulness and the value their families and communities derive from them – challenges the idea of women as inferiors. Whether or not the reader accepts the Bible’s stories as facts of history, its ability to capture (and perhaps also perpetuate) the paradoxical attitudes society holds toward women, has and will likely continue to withstand the test of time.