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Women in the Old Testament

After concentrating on the New Testament for the past few years, this year I’ve decided to read through the Old Testament (OT). So far I’ve read Genesis—very slowly. I’ve noticed that there is a distinct difference in how women are perceived and described in Genesis, and other OT narratives, to how women are perceived and described in the New Testament.

For example: What do these OT women all have in common? The daughters of humans (Gen 6:2), Sarah (Gen 12:11,14), Rebekah (Gen 24:16), Rachel (Gen 29:17), Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2), Tamar (2 Sam 13:1; 14:27), Esther (Esth 2:7) and Job’s daughters (Job 42:15).

All these OT women, and others, were primarily, and often only, described as being beautiful.[1] The implication of this beauty—and this implication is far from subtle in various texts—is that the most important attribute of these women was their desirability to men, either as a wife or simply for sex. It seems that societies in OT times placed a premium on a woman’s sex appeal, and a woman’s talents, intelligence, and character were usually not worth commenting on.

The OT sends the message that the highest quality a young woman could possess was beauty. Beauty, with virginity, gave a woman a greater chance of making a good marriage. And a good marriage was her best chance for happiness.

Once married, a woman’s fertility became all important. The grief and disgrace of barrenness was profoundly felt by infertile women. So severe was the shame of infertility, that barrenness was considered a curse. Infertility was an affliction that many OT women faced. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah were all initially infertile.[2]

Beauty, virginity, and fertility were considered important qualities for women. The OT, however, is not without warnings about the potential dangers, deception, and superficiality of female beauty (Prov 6:25; 31:30). And, to be fair, Joseph, David and Absalom are also described as beautiful (or handsome) in the OT (Gen 39:6; 1 Sam 16:12; 17:42; 2 Sam 14:25).[3]

Women in the New Testament

So, how many New Testament (NT) women are described as being beautiful?

None. Not one.

Moreover, Paul and Peter dissuaded women from concentrating on their appearance. Instead they encouraged women to focus on their character and good works. Admittedly these instructions were given mainly to wealthy married women, and not to potential brides:

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.  1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV 2011) [More on this passage here.]

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 1 Peter 3:3-4 (NIV 2011) [More on this passage here.]

Women in the New Testament are mentioned primarily in reference to their Christian faith and ministry, and not at all in terms of their beauty or marriageability. We simply do not know whether any NT woman was particularly good looking, or not.

Moreover, many NT women are not mentioned in connection with a male relative. This is unlike OT women who were typically identified as either a wife, daughter, mother, or sister of a certain man. We don’t even know the marital status of several NT women. Were Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Martha, Lydia or Phoebe married? Possibly not. (This calls into question the specious doctrine that women need some sort of spiritual “covering” from a man.)[4] Philip the Evangelist had four daughters who were not married. While we are given their family connection to a male relative, their father, the four daughters are described in terms of their ministry: they prophesied (Acts 21:9).[5] Paul recommended singleness and celibacy so that people could minister with undivided devotion (1 Cor 7:32-35).

Some NT women were married, but we don’t know whether they were mothers. Was Priscilla a mother? Or Joanna? Some NT women were mothers, but motherhood is not emphasised.[6] For example, Paul mentions Lois and Eunice, the grandmother and mother of Timothy, in terms of their faith (2 Tim 1:5 cf. 3:15; Acts 16:1); and Mary, the mother of John Mark is mentioned in reference to her home where the Jerusalem church often met (Acts 12:12-14). Apart from Timothy and John Mark, however, we don’t know whether Eunice and Mary had any other children.

Many NT women displayed great faith and devotion, and many were involved in significant ministry.[7] The writers of the NT saw Christian women as more than wives and mothers;[8] they regarded them as sisters in the faith and colleagues in ministry.[9]

Women in the Contemporary Church

Some contemporary churches hold to a view of women that has more in common with the OT view of women than the NT view of women, and their ideology of the status, and possible roles, of women does not take into consideration the New Covenant ideal of equality. New Covenant women have the same potential as their brothers to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ and to be sharers in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:3-4).  Furthermore, both Christian men and women can represent Jesus Christ in ministry.

When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the first Christian believers and the Church was born, the Spirit equipped both men and women to be ministers (Acts 2:17-18). The Holy Spirit also brought unity by dispelling cultural prejudices and fostering a casteless Christianity. I suggest that Christians who divide the church along gender lines and place restrictions on what women can be and can do, simply because of their gender, may be working against the Holy Spirit.[10]

God tolerated patriarchy in the past, and he continues to tolerate it to some degree, but patriarchy is not God’s ideal. The rule of men over women came as a consequence of the Fall. Jesus came, however, to deal with the consequences of the Fall. We must look to the New Testament and the New Covenant to see how Jesus wants men and women to be regarded and treated. Jesus taught and entrusted certain women with the message of the gospel. And Paul valued and respected certain women as his fellow ministers. [See endnote 7.]

Does your church equally encourage both men and women in Christian service? Or does your church mostly encourage women to be wives and mothers? Does your church trust gifted and godly women, as well as men, with the message and ministry of the gospel? Or does your church prefer men to function in these ministries? Does your church have an Old Testament view of men and women, or a New Testament view?


Endnotes

[1] Abigail is an exception. While she is described as beautiful, she is also described as intelligent (1 Sam 25:3). The wise women of Abel Beth Maacah and Tekoa are identified as being wise. “Wise woman” may have been a title; these women were probably living repositories of oral lore.

[2] Elizabeth could be included in this list, because she was alive before Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant.

[3] The description of Rachel’s beauty and Joseph’s handsomeness use identical expressions in the Hebrew, but these same Hebrew words are translated into English using different words. Compare Genesis 29:17: “Rachel was beautiful of form and face:; with Genesis 39:6: “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.”

[4] The once popular idea, that a Christian woman needs the spiritual covering of a male, simply has no biblical basis. The two passages that were used to support this idea are 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, which is about a woman’s own authority of her own physical head (and not a metaphorical or spiritual head); and Ruth chapter 3 where Ruth follows the instructions of her mother-in-law and secretly goes to Boaz at night in order to ask Boaz to redeem her. This incident in the OT has no practical or cultural relevance to a 21st century, Christian woman. Moreover, the Bible tells of several occasions where God, or an angel, or a prophet spoke directly to a woman and bypassed husbands or male guardians. [My article on Bible Women with Spiritual Authority here.]

[5] Paul considered prophecy to be the most desirable of the spiritual ministry gifts (1 Cor 14:1 cf. Acts 2:17-18). He did not prohibit women from prophesying (or praying aloud) in congregational meetings (1 Cor 11:5).

[6] Parenthood is an important role that should not be minimised. Most people, however, do not restrict men to the role of a parent, similarly we should not restrict women to the role of being a parent. The New Testament writers did not view New Covenant women primarily as wives and mothers. [My article on Is motherhood the highest calling for a woman? here.]

[7] The following are all the women mentioned by Paul in his letters: Apphia (Phm 1:2), Claudia (2 Tim 4:21), Chloe (1 Cor 1:11), Euodia (Php 4:2), Julia (Rom 16:15), Junia (Rom 16:7), Lois and Eunice (2 Tim 1:5), Mary (Rom 16:6), Nereus’ sister (Rom 16:15), Nympha (Col 4:15), Persis (Rom 16:12), Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), Priscilla (Rom 6:3-5); 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), Rufus’ mother (Rom 16:13), Syntyche (Php 4:2), Tryphena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12). These women were actively involved in significant ministry, some as leaders. [My article on Paul’s Personal Greetings to Women Ministers here.]

[8] Paul’s very basic instructions regarding young women in Crete, who seem to have been poor wives and mothers, cannot be taken as a prohibition of women in ministry (Tit 2:4-5).  Similarly, Paul’s instruction to young widows in Ephesus, who were being idle and foolish, also cannot be taken as a prohibition of women in ministry (1 Tim 5:11). While Paul recommended marriage and domesticity for certain young women in certain churches, elsewhere Paul recommends singleness and Christian service (1 Cor 7:34).

[9] Paul referred to women, as well as men, as colleagues (co-workers): Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:3-5a); Urbanus (Rom 16:9); Timothy (Rom 16:21); Titus (2 Cor 8:23); Epaphroditus (Php 2:25) Euodia, Syntyche and Clement (Phil 4:3); Aristarchus, Mark and Justus (Col 4:10-11); Philemon (Phm 1); Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke (Phm 24).

[10] The Church needs to realise that the two verses which seem to prohibit women from speaking and teaching are in fact far from clear in the Greek, and do not form a biblical consensus on the matter of women in ministry.  There are numerous interpretations and applications regarding 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.  Articles on these verses here and here.


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