The Bible contains many principles and regulations concerning behaviour, and mostly these apply to everyone in the community of God’s people, to men and to women. Nevertheless, various passages assume that there are some roles or activities for men that differ to those of women. In this article, I look at gender roles and at gendered activities in ancient Israelite society, roles and activities that the Hebrew Bible sheds light on.
In upcoming posts, I’ll be looking briefly at what Jesus says about gender roles and then at what Paul’s letters say about gender roles. Because I’m covering ideas in Genesis all the way through to Paul’s letters, I won’t discuss particular verses in any depth—the information will be general rather than comprehensive and detailed—but I will provide links to more specific information. The purpose of these articles is to find out if the Bible teaches gender roles as complementarians understand them.
Gender Roles in Marriage
The Rule of Husbands in the Hebrew Bible
When complementarian Christians talk about gender roles, they are usually referring to the idea that husbands (and men in general) are to be leaders, and that wives (and women in general) are to be submissive followers. They believe that men have a greater authority and responsibility than women in the home and in society. They even believe that men have an authority over women.
After Genesis 3, the culture of the Ancient Near East, the setting of many of the stories in the Hebrew Bible, was mostly patriarchal. This patriarchy is sometimes reflected in narratives and regulations. However, there are only two verses in the Hebrew Bible that clearly state that husbands would be, or should be, leaders or rulers. The first is in Genesis 3:16. This is where God makes a statement about the consequences or punishments of the fall and says to Eve, “Your desire (or your devotion) will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.”
The other Old Testament verse that mentions the rule of husbands is in the book of Esther. When Queen Vashti refuses her husband’s request to parade her beauty before a party of drunken men, her husband Xerxes is offended. So he makes a decree that is sent to all the provinces in his vast realm. The decree states, “Each husband should rule over his own house” (Esth. 1:22 CEB).
Most people assume the Bible teaches that husbands are to be the rulers or leaders of their own homes or households, but Xerxes is the only person in the Bible to state this. Paul, for example, never says that husbands must be the rulers or leaders or heads of their homes. Furthermore, Paul never tells husbands to rule or lead their wives (Eph. 5:25ff; Col. 3:19). Rather he tells them to love their wives.
So do we, as New Covenant people, take our relationship cues from the pagan warlord Xerxes or from the consequences of the fall? I don’t think so.
Wifely Submission in the Hebrew Bible
It may surprise some to learn that the Hebrew Bible says nothing about wives or women being submissive, and yet women were seldom in positions of authority at that time. God’s words in Genesis 3:16b were realised and society was largely patriarchal after the fall. Perhaps male rule and male dominance were so entrenched in society that the biblical authors just didn’t bother mentioning wifely submission. Yet other, non-biblical, Jewish writers do mention it.
Ben Sirach, writing in around 180–175 BCE, is one example of an ancient Jewish author who plainly states that the only good woman is a silent woman. It is clear he has a dim view of the capabilities and proclivities of women, as he says some terrible things about them. The Hebrew Bible, however, doesn’t disparage women as a group. Furthermore, it contains regulations designed to curtail the excesses of patriarchy and to protect women in what was a fallen, and sometimes brutal, culture. But patriarchy was not part of God’s original creation.
Many complementarians read gender roles, or a gender hierarchy, into the Genesis creation accounts, and they argue that women are subordinate to men. But the actual language in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 is of equality, similarity, and unity. In Genesis 1, men and women have the same status, the same authority and the same purpose, and these are given to them by God (Gen. 1:26-28). In Genesis 2, the first woman is described as a helper equal or similar to the first man. I cannot find that the Old Testament ever speaks about gender roles in marriage related to authority and submission. But it does indicate that there were a few occupations and activities that differed between men and women.
Gendered Occupations and Activities
The three main occupations for men in ancient Israelite society, which was an agricultural society when they weren’t on the move, was (1) farming, (2) being an artisan (such as a potter, carpenter, blacksmith or textile worker), and (3) being a warrior. And, quite possibly, many of these warriors were farmers or artisans during periods of peace. Furthermore, some men from the tribe of Levi were involved in priestly duties.
Women and War
Israelite women were not soldiers, probably because most did not have the upper body strength needed for hand to hand combat. But we do see some women playing crucial roles during times of military conflict. And these times were frequent as war was a regular part of life for many generations of Israelites.
The Bible records that women risked their lives by acting as spies and by hiding spies (2 Sam. 17:17, 19-21; Josh. 2:1-6). A few even killed army generals with improvised weapons: a millstone, in the case of the woman of Thebez (Judg. 9:53), and a tent peg, in the case of Jael (Judg. 4:21; 5:26). Some women successfully negotiated for the safety of their towns or families from threatening armies. These women include the wise-woman of Abel Beth Maacah, Rahab and Abigail. Deborah even went to war with Barak (Judg. 4:8-9). Women were not typically part of the fighting force of the Israelite army but this doesn’t mean they were all cowering at home.
Still on the subject of war, one role of women was to publicly celebrate military victories—think of Miriam after the Egyptians were defeated (Exod. 15:20-21), Jephthah’s daughter when her father returned home victorious after defeating the Ammonites (Judg. 11:32-34), and the women who sang, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Sam. 18:6-7). Conversely, women composed dirges and led public expressions of mourning when the Israelites were defeated. This role of leading celebrations and lamentations was set apart for women. So while they were not soldiers, they were actively and publicly involved in their communities.
Women in Agriculture and as Artisans
Women were also involved in agriculture where perhaps a few roles were allocated according to sex. Carrying water, for the home and for livestock, seems to have been a job mainly of girls or young women (e.g., Exod. 2:16; 1 Sam. 9:11), both men and women could be shepherds. Rachel, for example, was a shepherd (Gen. 29:9). And both men and women could harvest grain crops (e.g., Ruth 2:8-9). The Bible mentions women as milling grains a few times (Exod. 11:5; Eccl. 12:3-4; Isa. 47:1-2; Matt. 24:41). But it also mentions that Samson milled grain when he was in prison (Judg. 16:21).
Furthermore, women could be involved in agriculture in a more “leadership” role. Aksah, Caleb’s daughter, obtained land for farming, and the fictitious woman in Proverbs 31 obtained land to plant a vineyard.
The Bible doesn’t say much about the division of labour in agriculture, but it shows us that women could do other jobs too, such as being perfumers, cooks, bakers and textile workers. And only women could be midwives. And then there’s Sheerah, a woman who built towns (1 Chron. 7:24).
Marriage and Motherhood (and Beauty)
The Old Testament doesn’t give us a lot of information about women as farmers or as artisans. It has more to say about marriage and motherhood, but much of this information is given by implication rather than by direct statements.
The primary role of women in Israelite society was to have children. It was a great disgrace for a woman to be childless. It was also important that men marry and procreate, but they were not usually blamed for childlessness, and procreation was not considered to be their primary role.
We see a few times in the Hebrew Bible, that the worth of a young unmarried woman was attached to her beauty and to her virginity, and this was tied to her future role as a wife and a mother. Beauty could be a sign of good health but it also made a girl more desirable to a man and this might help her to get a better match. And virginity was essential in prospective young brides. Once a woman was married, her beauty was still prized but so was her fertility.
In the Hebrew Bible, if an author, a male author, wanted to convey the idea that a woman was admirable, she was often described as beautiful. 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) are all described as beautiful in the male gaze, though Abigail is described as both beautiful and smart.
Many women are primarily described with the adjective “beautiful” in the Old Testament. Women are rarely described by their abilities other than their ability to bear children. This changes in the New Testament.
Priests and Prophets
The majority of leaders in Israel, though not all, were male, whether they were patriarchs, judges, or monarchs. Priests could only be male. The priesthood was not open to women; however, it was also not open to most men. The priesthood was limited to a small and exclusive group of men within the Israelite community.
Only men belonging to the tribe of Levi could serve as priestly assistants in the Tabernacle, or Temple, regardless of how pious and godly a person from another tribe may have been (Num. 8:5-26; 1 Chron. 23:28-32). Moreover, as a way of symbolically declaring the perfection and holiness of God, only perfectly healthy Levites in the prime of their life could be in active service (Num. 8:24-25).
A male Levite could be disqualified from being a minister for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons were: having a physical disability or deformity; being temporarily “unclean” (this could be due to several circumstances); being outside the ages of 25 to 50 (the prescribed age range of Levites in regular service); or showing symptoms of certain diseases. But to be a priest, however, it was not enough to just be male, and a Levite, and perfectly healthy; a priest must also have been a direct descendant of Aaron.
It would have been impractical to admit women on the regular roster of Temple ministry because women within the required age range of 25 to 50 were frequently “unclean” due to their monthly period or they were having babies. Even though women could not administer any of the rituals and sacrifices of the Tabernacle or Temple, some women played a significant role in the national, spiritual life of Israel. Women could be religious leaders. They could be prophets.
There was a recognised and respected place for prophetic women leaders in Israelite society. “The biblical evidence . . . makes clear that prophecy was a role open to women on an equal basis with men.” Moreover, Deborah Gill and Barbara Cavaness state, “The highest Old Testament religious office was not the priest, but the prophet.”
Prophets could be leaders with considerable influence. Miriam, a prophet, is described as being “sent before” Israel as a leader with her two brothers (Mic. 6:4). Deborah, a prophet, is described as “judging”, or leading, Israel (Judg. 4:4). Huldah, a prophet, was a royal advisor (2 Chron. 34: 23, 24, 26). And all three were spokespeople for God. There may well have been other female prophets too, perhaps at a more local level of leadership, not mentioned in the Bible.
Though patriarchy is the backdrop of the Bible, it is not the message of the Bible. Apart from Xerxes’ edict, there is no teaching or rule in the Hebrew Bible that says husbands must be the leaders of their wives. There is no teaching or rule that says wives must be submissive to their husbands. There is no teaching or rule that says men must do certain jobs and women must do other jobs, apart from the priesthood which was open to an exclusive group of men. Any indication of gendered activity, excepting the priesthood, appears to be the product of biology and culture rather than biblically mandated.
This three-part series on gender roles in the Bible is based on a talk I gave at a CBE Sydney event on the 19th of May, 2018.
 For example, Numbers 30 tells us that a husband or father could cancel a vow made by his wife or daughter if he acted quickly. I write about this here.
 A post on 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and church supervisors managing their own households well is here. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and 1 Timothy 3:12 are not about husbands as such, but contain qualifications for supervisors and deacons.
 Ben Sirach is writing later than the authors of the Hebrew Bible. His understanding seems to have been influenced by Greek views of women as inferior, rather than by the biblical view of women
 The ministries of Levites and priests evolved and changed, and the demand for these ministries depended on whether Israel was going through a more pious period or an apostate period, and whether they were in their own land or in exile.
 There’s also the fictional story of Judith who cut off the head of the general of the Assyrian army.
 Several prominent Old Testament women had difficulty conceiving: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah.
 Not one woman is described as beautiful in the New Testament. And we don’t know if many of the women mentioned in the New Testament letters were mothers or not. Values in ancient Israelite society and values in the New Covenant community of God’s people, the church, were not the same. (More about this in Part 3.)
 There seems to have been ways around the regulations of tabernacle/temple workers and priests. Women served at the entrance of the Tabernacle (Exod. 38:8). Samuel, of the tribe of Ephraim, worked in the Tabernacle and was even dressed in priestly clothes (1 Sam. 2:18; see also 1 Sam. Ch. 3). And David, of the tribe of Judah, appointed some of his sons as priests (Heb: cohanim) (2 Sam. 8:18). Or were they simply “ministers”?
 Claudia V. Camp, “Huldah,” in Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of the named and unnamed women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, Carol Meyer, et al (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 96.
 Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, Barbara, God’s Women—Then and Now (Springfield, MO: Grace and Truth, 2009) (Kindle Location 703).
The woman of Thebez is shown in “The Death of Abimelech”, illustrated by Charles Foster, from The Story of the Bible (Philadelphia: A.J. Homan Co., 1884) (Wikimedia)
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Articles on various Old Testament Women
Articles on Gender in Genesis 1-3
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry
Old Testament Priests and New Covenant Ministers
Women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration
Three Old Testament Women with Clout
25 Biblical Roles for Biblical Women
4 obscure OT passages sometimes used to diminish women