Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Introduction

It is not surprising that certain verses, such as 1 Timothy 2:11–12 and Ephesians 5:22–24, are frequently brought up in discussions about women in ministry and in marriage. What continues to surprise me are the obscure Bible passages that are brought up in discussions on gender.

Sometimes these obscure verses are brought up by Christians, both men and women, who believe it is God’s will that women be in a subordinate position, with less power and fewer rights than men—there are still Christians like that. But these verses are also brought up by women who see a sting in them, another reminder that perhaps, after all, women really aren’t equal to men in God’s eyes.

In this article, I look at four passages from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, that cause concern for some.[1] Perhaps there is something here that may be useful if these verses are brought up in your conversations.

Women Rulers in Isaiah 3:12

Isaiah 3:12 was first brought to my attention by an anonymous reader who asked “What do you have to say about Isaiah 3:12?” I think the intention was to stump me because this verse can be understood as saying that women leaders are a punishment, or a negative consequence, of disobedience to God. At the very least, it shows that women leaders are a bad thing. Or does it?

The first half of Isaiah 3:12 in many English translations reads: “Children oppress my people, and women rule over them …” It could be, however, that the Hebrew word for “women” (nashim) in this verse is really meant to be a word that means “creditors” (noshim). The difference between the two Hebrew words is a vowel pointing that was added many centuries after the text was first written. The consonants are identical in both words: נשים. There is more information available, however, to help us work out the original meaning of נשים.

Isaiah 3:12 in Targum Jonathan (an ancient Aramaic translation) has the word nosim which means “creditors.” Furthermore, the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) has a Greek word that means “extortioners,” and there is no mention of women. Plus, the idea of extortion and financial ruin fits the context of Isaiah 3. So, it is entirely probable that the word “women” was not originally part of Isaiah 3:12.

Accordingly, the New English Translation has: “Oppressors treat my people cruelly; creditors rule over them …” Isaiah 3:12 NET. The Common English Bible, the Good News Translation, and the New English Bible, likewise, do not have the word “women” in Isaiah 3:12.

A different understanding is that “children” and “women” in Isaiah 3:12 are metaphors for foolish and cowardly leaders. I discuss this verse here.

Isaiah 3:12 does not disparage or disallow women leaders. And elsewhere in the Bible we have several examples of women who did a good job of leadership causing their communities to prosper. Deborah and the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah spring to mind.

Women’s Virtue in Ecclesiastes 7:28

Another verse that comes up regularly is Ecclesiastes 7:28, a verse that is difficult to understand in the Hebrew text. The NIV translates the second half of 7:28 as, “I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all.”

In this verse, the author is decrying humanity, with women seemingly receiving a greater insult. These words are the personal observations of a disillusioned man who was dissatisfied with pretty much everything in life. His view of life and of humanity are not recorded in the Bible so that we can emulate them but that we can learn from them in some way.

Furthermore, the author’s words are hyperbole and were probably chosen to shock and provoke his original audience. His intention was not to accurately convey facts, let alone convey what God thinks of men and of women, or of humanity in general. We need to understand the author’s intention and listen to his tone.

Yet not everything he says about women is negative. In Ecclesiastes 9:9, he encourages husbands to love their wives and be loyal to them, and he writes (in typical pessimistic fashion): “Find joy in living with your wife whom you love every day of your pointless life …” Ecclesiastes 9:9 ISV.

Interestingly, some scholars suggest that the woman mentioned in Ecclesiastes 7:28 is not a person but Wisdom who is personified as a woman in Proverbs 1:20ff; 3:15ff; 4:5ff; 8:1-36; 9:1ff, etc. Proverbs is an example of wisdom literature, as is Ecclesiastes whose author was searching for wisdom.

“Wisdom,” rather than “righteousness,” may be the sense, or a sense, implicit in 7:28. (There is no actual word that means “upright,” “righteous” or “virtuous” in the Hebrew of verse 28, even though these words are included in many English translations. Nevertheless, the sense of “righteous” and “just” may carry over from 7:20 which contains the word tsaddiq.)

Furthermore, the Hebrew word often translated as “man” in 7:28 is adam and, in most other occurrences in Ecclesiastes, adam refers to humanity, not just to men. The Jewish Publication Society translates Ecclesiastes 7:28 this way: “As for what I sought further but did not find, I found only one human being in a thousand, and the one I found among so many was never a woman.”

If we take these words literally, they may simply be an indication of the author’s choice of female company. It is disturbing that Ecclesiastes 7:28 is understood by a few as biblical proof that women are less virtuous than men.[2]

Dr John Mark Hicks has written about the symbolism of wisdom and folly in Ecclesiastes 7:23–29 here. Dr Claude Marriotini has written about Ecclesiastes 7:28 here.

Women’s Vows in Numbers 30:1–16

Numbers 30, a chapter that outlines regulations about vows, is another text that causes concern.[3] In Numbers 30:2 it states, “When a man makes a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to put himself under an obligation, he must not break his word; he must do whatever he has promised.” In the following verses, however, it says that a father or husband could cancel a vow made by his daughter or wife. But there is a proviso; he could only cancel the vow if he acted quickly (e.g., Num. 30:5).

I see four different groups of women making vows in Numbers 30.

1. women who are young and unmarried—a father can veto the vow if he acts quickly (Num. 30:3–5)
2. women who are young and unmarried when they make a vow, but then marry—a husband can veto the vow if he acts quickly (Num. 30:6-8)
3. women who are widowed or divorced—there is no man to veto their vow (Num. 30:9).
4. women who are married—husbands can veto the vow if they act quickly (Num. 30:10–15).

This idea that a father or husband could overturn a woman’s vow has disturbed some people. However, since making vows to God might include cutting hair short or a period of celibacy, I can understand why some fathers and husbands might want to overturn vows made by their daughters and wives.[4] (More in a discussion with Sarah in the comments section below.) Furthermore, fathers and husbands would usually be the ones to bear any costs involved with making vows, a cost that sons could pay back more easily than daughters.

Numbers 30 does show that fathers and husbands had an authority that their daughters and wives lacked, and this passage has caused more than a few people to feel affirmed that God does indeed want men to have authority over the women in their homes and over women in general. Other verses in the Hebrew Bible also show that men, usually, but not always, had more authority and more clout than women. The culture of ancient Israel was mostly patriarchal, so this shouldn’t surprise us.

There isn’t much equality or mutuality between the Fall and Pentecost. The Bible shows that male rule is a consequence of the Fall―in Genesis 3:16, God told Eve that her husband would rule her―and many regulations in the Hebrew Bible were concessions to the fallen culture.[5]

Still, it seems women were usually free to make their own vows to God. Hannah, for example, vowed to dedicate her child to the Lord, a vow she apparently made without seeking her husband’s approval (1 Sam. 1:10–11). And women could take the Nazarite vow and become Nazarites (Num. 6:2). Furthermore, independent women, such as widowed and divorced women, could make vows without any man vetoing them.

Dr Shawna Dolansky has written about vows and Numbers 30 here.

Women’s Worth in Leviticus 27:1–8

The strangest passage that comes up in discussions on gender is also about vows. This passage is found in the last chapter of Leviticus, thought by many scholars to be an appendix added some time after the rest of Leviticus was written.

The first few verses of Leviticus 27 are about people, male and female of various ages, being dedicated to God, and values are attached to each age group and sex. I don’t understand exactly what is happening in these verses, but some suggest that the value of each individual is paid, as part of the vow, but in lieu of the people actually going to work in the temple. In effect, they are dedicating themselves, or a family member, by means of payment rather than by means of actual participation in the temple service. (This is unlike Samuel who was dedicated to the Lord and then went to live and work in the tabernacle, and perhaps Jephthah’s daughter too.)

Thankfully this passage has only come up a few times in discussions I’ve had, always by men wanting to prove that they are quantitatively more valuable than women. But the values given in this passage represent just one aspect of the worth of the various categories of people listed. It is thought these amounts represent the value of their physical strength, their ability to do manual labour. Their economic value perhaps.[6] Moreover, the value of a woman between the ages of 20–60 is thirty shekels of silver, which is more than that of males in all other age groups, except for men also aged between 20–60. [My husband is over 60 and I am under 60; according to the figures in Leviticus 27, I have more value.]

This table shows the payments for the different age groups and sexes of people as given in Leviticus 27:1–8.

Women had a value of strength or of economic labour. Plus, most women were able to have children which was vital for the survival of their communities and clans. Women (and men) contributed more, and were worth more, than just their strength of labour.

There are still more Old Testament verses that are brought up in discussions about gender. For instance, people have questions about Leviticus 12 which states that a new mother was “unclean” for 7 days after the birth of a son but “unclean” for 14 days, twice as long, after the birth of a daughter (Lev. 12:1–2, 5a). (I’ve written about this passage, here.)  And a few people have expressed concern over the way women are spoken of in Proverbs chapters 2 and 5, even though these are immoral women and not women in general (Prov. 2:16–19; 5:3–10, etc), and even though the author of Proverbs also warns against a certain kind of man (Prov. 1:10–19; 2:12–15).

The Portrayal of Women in Scripture

These few passages in Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Numbers, and Leviticus may seem to diminish women at first glance, but the overall portrayal of women in the Bible is remarkably positive, especially considering the patriarchal times in which the books of the Bible were written.

The whole Bible, including the Hebrew Bible, never says that women as a group are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, feeble, or inferior to men—some common stereotypes of women. In fact, the Bible says many good things about women.

In the Old Testament, many Bible women are described and portrayed as beautiful, intelligent, courageous, resourceful and enterprising. We see women making decisions, taking initiative, risking their lives, acting both virtuously and heroically. Some functioned as prophets, teachers, advisors, leaders, and even deliverers, with God’s blessing.

It is disturbing that people are using some verses from the Hebrew Bible, verses that are difficult to translate and poorly understood, with the aim of diminishing women and subordinating them to men. This is a dubious use of scripture and it ignores the many positive things the Bible says about women, including women leaders and teachers. It also overlooks the fact that God originally (pre-Fall) authorised both men and women to rule on earth as his image-bearers and regents (Gen. 1:26–28 cf. Psa. 8:4–8 NIV). And it overlooks Pentecost and the fact that both men and women are empowered to speak for God to his people (Acts 2:17–18).

My hope is that the scriptures will not be used to belittle, disparage, or discourage God’s sons or daughters, but used to build up one another (Col. 3:16). We need each other and the various gifts God gives to his children.


Footnotes

[1] This article is taken from a section of a talk I recently gave at a CBE conference in Melbourne.

[2] The author of Ecclesiastes, who identifies himself as Qoholeth (“teacher”) in Eccl. 1:1, may be alluding to a negative trope of women in 7:28.

From the ancient male perspective, the other gender not infrequently represented sin and social threat (see also Sir. 25:13–26). Qoheleth was no exception. Indeed, Eccl. 7:28b which esteems the male over and against the female, even if by a little, is misogynistic to the core. While a righteous man can be found among a cast of thousands, a woman of comparable moral mettle is nowhere to be seen. However, Qoheleth himself probably cannot take credit for this statement. The distinctive language and intrusive style of this half verse vis-à-vis its literary context (e.g., the use of ’ādām to denote male gender—contra its inclusive sense throughout the rest of the book—and the convoluted use of the word ‘found’) indicts its secondary nature . . . Qoholeth’s negative focus is not on female nature per se (cf. 9:9), but on the mytho-horrific figure of personified folly, a fatal attraction from the andro-centric purview.
William P. Brown. Ecclesiastes: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 84.

[3] Linda and Taylor, readers of my blog, have expressed concern over Numbers 30 in comments on my blogs here and here. The Pulpit Commentary cites Numbers 30 in reference to the “law” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:34, and it makes this odd statement, “Christianity emancipated women, but did not place them on an equality with men. As also saith the Law (Genesis 3:16; Numbers 30:3–12).”

[4] This is the NET note (note 7 here) on Numbers 30:2.

The Hebrew text has לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר (leʾsor ʾissar), meaning “to take a binding obligation.” This is usually interpreted to mean a negative vow, i.e., the person attempts to abstain from something that is otherwise permissible. It might involve fasting, or abstaining from marital sex, but it might also involve some goal to be achieved, and the abstaining from distractions until the vow is fulfilled (see Ps 132). The נֶדֶר (neder) may have been more for religious matters, and the אִסָּר more for social concerns, but this cannot be documented with certainty.”

[5] The society of the ancient Israelites was frequently threatened by violence and hardships. (More consequences of the fall). In that setting, personal vows sometimes had to be overturned and personal wishes denied. The greater good was paramount. Furthermore, at a time when brute physical strength was necessary for survival, men usually had more power and authority, and they might be more aware of events (good or bad) happening outside of the home than their wives whose primary role was to have children and care for the young and old. A man might be in a better position to understand that his daughter’s or wife’s vow might be detrimental, perhaps even dangerous, to the woman or to the family as a whole.

[6] In his 2011 book, Leviticus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Samuel E. Balentine writes, “The payments are set on the basis of a person’s age and gender—not the person’s intrinsic worth as a human being—presumably taking into account one’s physical ability to do the manual work that would be involved.” (Google Books)

© Margaret Mowczko 2019
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More articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.
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44 thoughts on “4 obscure passages sometimes used to diminish women

  1. On vows, I think this was an improvement over the case where a woman could not make a vow in general in the ANE. This law allowed an adult woman to make a vow, if she was independent she could always do so and if married she could unless her husband objected the first he found out. In Hannah’s case, her husband does not object when he first hears of her vow, so it stands. I see this as an example of God leading a very patriarchal culture in the direction of equality in a step by step fashion.

    The ability to make a vow is the ability to enter into a covenant, which is a way in general of trying to reduce the unpredictability of possible future actions of the parties in the covenant so that plans can be made with the overall expectation that people will act as they vowed/promised.

  2. Perhaps I’m weary of the complementary arguments using bible verses or even egalitarians postulating to “we’re all Christians and working for the kingdom, so we don’t confront the issue”; but I have less and less confidence in the bible being the exclusive word of God, and more faith of it being, at least partially, the word of men, compiled by men for men. If I’m feeling this way after a lifetime of being a Christian and working at a Christian non profit, how must young non Christian women be repelled by ideology that can’t agree over whether or not God esteems us all equal depending on who’s at fault in the fall. Just another argument to blame women, just as common as blaming your mother is in psychology and having become a joke for comedians. I’m tired of it all and discouraged. Tomorrow I’ll be glad that you’re still in the battle Marg and I’ll get up and keep hoping someday the church will stop limiting itself by half. Today, however, I am weary and worried about the ones who remain lost because of the sins of the church.

    1. Hi Shirley,
      The Bible is a product of its time. It was written by men and reflects aspects of their culture and their values. But I still think the Bible is an amazing book and see plenty of evidence of divine inspiration in it, especially in what it says, or more accurately, about what it doesn’t say, about women. I truly believe God had a hand in the Bible.

      Most of the damage has been caused by men interpreting certain Bible passages poorly, very poorly.

      You may want to read this short piece. https://margmowczko.com/portrayal-of-women-and-biblical-inspiration/

      I appreciate your weariness. The way women are continually treated in some Christian communities is no joke. If it’s any consolation to you, it looks as though my website, including this article, will receive a record number of views today, all because one prominent minister made some very bad comments. There is hope.

      1. I appreciate your reply and remain so thankful for your work!

  3. I have had comments on a women’s place is in the home, under submission to her husband as if it were a put down. I was blessed to read the updated translations and reading how similar the English words were, one for women and one for creditor. Thank you for your clarity.

    1. You’re welcome, Shelley.

      The Bible mentions many godly women who were involved in all kinds of enterprises and used their own initiative, and God blessed their efforts. https://margmowczko.com/25-biblical-roles-for-biblical-women/ But I’m repeating myself.

  4. One day when I was in school, my teacher made a comment that women political leaders were a means and a sign of God’s judgment and displeasure on a nation. I asked him for a Scriptural reference, which he said he would be glad to give me. He must have forgotten, however, because he never got back to me. He made the comment a few times after that, but I had mostly forgotten about it until I started studying through Isaiah. I came across Isaiah 3:12, and I assume this was the verse he meant. When I looked into it, all I could find were people who agreed that it meant women leaders were a means and sign of God’s judgement. I was glad when I found your post on it; it helped me a lot. I am wondering one thing, however. How common is it for the LXX to diverge from what is in the MT, and what we have in our Bibles today? Is it common, or is this verse an exception?

    1. The LXX is different in meaning in a few places compared to meanings in the Hebrew Bible, that is, it’s different to the Hebrew Bible as we have it today with added vowel pointings, and in a few other places too. Plus, the LXX has a whole bunch of other writings. It is entirely possible that the original Hebrew, without the vowel pointings, meant to have the word that means “creditors” in Isaiah 3:12.

      It bothers me that this verse comes up as often as it does to be used against the idea of women leaders. This use ignores the tone and immediate context of Isaiah 3:12 and it ignores the possibility that the word “women” doesn’t even occur.

  5. Great article, Marg. I hadn’t heard anyone use those particular verses, but to interpret them in such a way (as God degrading women) is a real stretch. Especially in light of all the women leaders God blessed in the OT. Thanks for this resource!

    1. It is a stretch! I was shocked the first time each of these verses was brought up in discussions. Yet a few women have contacted me today and told me how some of these verses have been used against them.

  6. Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the M.Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham in England.
    Read more at https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/bibleandculture/2009/10/why-arguments-against-women-in-ministry-arent-biblical.html#MiW9CuLqdRuolV3c.99

    1. Thanks, Ginger.

      I mention Ben Witherington several times in various articles on this website. https://margmowczko.com/tag/ben-witherington-iii/

  7. Women are of a higher species because they give life. Man was created from dirt ..clay and women were created from flesh .

    1. I believe that you don’t mean different “species,” but that you are trying to accentuate the differences between the source of male and female. I have a different take on it. I have heard the “dirt twice refined” idea several times, but I have never felt that it was of much help. It simply puts more division between us, and it once again values one sex over the other. I do not believe that this fits with what the Bible teaches.

      I believe that God made the Woman from the side of the Man to avoid this kind of confusion. If God had made woman from the dirt as well, there could easily be the argument that one was made from better soil from the other, or that since they were made of different dirt, they were very different. The “Mars and Venus” discussion that was so popular some years back was a perfect example of what would have happened if they were made of different stuff. It bothers me no end that the whole Mar and Venus concept became so popular among Christians.

      When the Man first saw the Woman, she would have been a shining new creation – and stark nekkid. When the Man looked at her, he didn’t say “Woohoo!!! Viva la difference!” He said in effect,” This is ME – bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” After the Fall, he called her “the woman that God gave to be with me.” There were countless effects of this horrible tragedy, but I think that the division between male and female, now looking at each other as something different, was the worst. God had said it was “very good” when He got the two together. Of course Satan would attack that. Sadly, the problem has only gotten worse. For the most part, men and women are considered “the same” in the world, but the church has dug in its heels and taken the stand created by Satan. Yes, men and women have their differences, but assigning assuming that all men or all women have certain traits or are best suited for different things just perpetuates the division.

      I believe that it is past time for the church to lead the way in the cause of redeeming the lost relationship between men and women. We need to think like the man before the fall, not after.

      1. Yes, the man remarked on the similarities between him and the woman, and he says nothing about any differences. Man and woman were created to be compatible and mutually dependent on each other.

        By the way, Cassandra, I removed our comments about the CSB because, after publishing the article, I decided to go with the NIV and The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Tanach as two contrasting translations of Eccl. 7:28. Our comments on the CSB might have confused readers.

        1. Thanks for letting me know. It’s fine with me.

  8. I’ve always considered Ecclesiastes 7:28 as indicative of the extreme iniquity of the time; i.e., that not even one righteous woman could be found, when it is normally expected to be abundantly so. So, something along the lines of Isaiah 49:15 – “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (NIV)

    1. I can’t see that the author of Ecclesiastes was especially concerned with sin, even though he uses the word “righteous” in 7:28. He refers to sin or evil only briefly (wickedness in Eccl. 3:16-17; oppression in 4:1-3; 5:8; 8:10ff), and his idea of evil in Eccl. 10:5ff is not what we’d consider sin. Rather, I see his saying in Eccl. 7:28, as with all the others in Ecclesiastes, as the musings of a disillusioned person who was searching for wisdom and especially for meaning (Eccl. 1:12-13), and it may well have been intended to provoke and prod.

      The author of Ecclesiastes, Qoholeth, states, “The sayings/words of the wise are like goads” (Eccl. 12:11). William Brown writes, that “Qoholeth’s saying are like ‘goads’ or prods that keep the process of learning unsettled and ongoing. The search for wisdom is a lifelong journey, fraught with bitter disappointments and unexpected delights, profound discovery matched by equally profound disillusionment. In essence, Ecclesiastes is a book about seeking, one that moves between cynicism and acceptance, worldliness and spirituality, anxiety and serenity.”
      William P Brown. Ecclesiastes: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 18.

  9. Hello Marg! Regarding Ecclesiastes 7:28: I don’t know any hebrew at all, but could it be: «I found one upright person among a thousand, but a woman to marry I did not find»?

    1. Hi Knut AK, No translation mentions marriage. You can compare some translations here.

      The CSB and KJV translate Eccl. 7:28 fairly literally showing that the author was searching for the same thing among all people, men and women: “… which my soul continually searches for but does not find: I found one person in a thousand, but none of those was a woman” (CSB).

      The sense of virtue is probably implied in 7:28, but there is no word that actually means virtuous, righteous, or upright in the Hebrew text.
      https://biblehub.com/text/ecclesiastes/7-28.htm
      The idea of uprightness probably carries on from Ecclesiastes 7:20 which contains the word צַדִּיק (tsad.diq) “righteous.”

    2. I’ve been doing some more digging in response to your comment. And I’ve added some extra information about Eccl. 7:28 in the article.

      Claude Marriotini briefly discusses the “marry” idea here: https://claudemariottini.com/2018/10/09/ecclesiastes-728-was-qoheleth-a-misogynist-part-2/

  10. Question- Does Paul say that singleness is a higher spiritual calling than marriage? It seems to me that this is what he is claiming in 1 Corinthians. He says that married are devoted to their spouses, which distracts them in their devotion to God. But I feel like being devoted to your spouse IS being devoted to God. I didn’t think only being a missionary/doing mission work was the only way to work for the Lord.

    1. Hi Megan, Paul’s comments on singleness and marriage need to be read in the context of the problem he is addressing in 1 Cor. 7. I discuss this problem here: https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-74-in-a-nutshell/

      I don’t think “a higher spiritual calling” is the best term to use. We all have different callings. And it’s unhelpful and misleading to rank them as high or low. You’re right, being a missionary like Paul is not the only way to work for the Lord.

      Also, now that women can control their fertility and can have less pregnancies than many ancient women, I think the difference between being single and married matters less in ministry. Though, generally speaking, a single person can still devote more time and energy to serving the Lord than a married person.

  11. Vows seem to imply some involvement with appearing at the tabernacle/temple to offer sacrifice (see Leviticus 7:16, for example). The Nazarite vow, at the conclusion, also demands appearing at the tabernacle/temple to give a sacrifice. As such, I would imagine that a woman would generally not want to make the journey alone. Thus, she would need her husband, son, or servant to escort her for protection–protection a man might be able to go without. This means she needs her husband’s agreement to provide her that protection to make a sacrifice, especially if the time of sacrifice is off-schedule from the major holidays that would require the husband’s presence at the tabernacle/temple. So perhaps the intent is that if the husband says there’s no way he can escort her, her vow is cancelled. But, if he fails to cancel the vow, then he has to provide her that protection now. Just a thought I had.

    1. Women didn’t have as much freedom of movement as men, but some women had their own servants and didn’t need their husbands to organise protection. The Shunamite woman in 2 Kings 4:8ff, however, asked her husband for a servant to come with her when she went to Mount Carmel to visit Elisha, and her husband gave permission (2 Kings 4:22-25).

      Several women make journeys without a husband to help them (e.g., Ruth and Naomi, Mary the mother of Jesus, Phoebe). In some (or all?) of these instances, servants probably went with them.

  12. I was thinking about the Numbers 30 passage, and I started thinking about the part that addresses fathers and young daughters in their house. Could this passage be used to show that fathers had a greater level of authority over their daughters than their sons (on the basis of gender) since only daughters are mentioned? I also started wondering why fathers are mentioned and not mothers, since children are supposed to obey father and mother? Would that show that fathers have more authority than mothers? I’ve been thinking about those questions, and I would appreciate any thoughts you have on them.

    1. Mothers did have authority, and there was an expectation that they be honoured and obeyed, and expectation that is plainly commanded in the Bible, but yes, fathers had more authority than mothers. Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society.

      Many in the Hebrew Bible laws reflect fallen society, and they make concessions for war, slavery, polygamy, patriarchy, etc. And yet there is no law or instruction in either the Hebrew Bible or New Testament that plainly says fathers or husbands are to be the leaders.

  13. I always take the “women”s vows” passage to be this: Men had economic control and responsibility for the family resources, and often a vow was a dedication of a gift to the Lord. And so the man had the veto over giving away family resources. “Honey, we can’t afford that this month.” Don’t you wish someone had had veto power over Jepthah’s vows?

    1. I really wish someone had vetoed Jephthah’s vow! His vow, and what may or may not have come of it, is one of the most perplexing and troubling stories in scripture.

      1. Thank you, Marg for your love for God and tirelessly doing His work He put on your heart concerning women. My comment is concerning Isaiah 3:12. I have also heard this verse used to illustrate how women should not be leaders. Before reading your article I had come across a similar translation possibility by Katherine Bushnell in her book God’s Word to Women Lesson 77 paragraph 621-622. Besides the change of one vowel letter to make the word for “women” to mean “exactors” the word used for “children” is very interesting. According to Bushnell, the word for “children” is used 21 times and never translated “children” elsewhere in the Bible. In fact it is translated “glean” in Lev. 19:10, Deut. 24:21, Judg. 20:45, and Jer. 6;9. Also, the word for “children” in Isaiah 3:4,5 is another word used for “children”, “child”. She also noted the Septuagint translation and it was nice to hear that more current translations take this course. I found this information very compelling that this verse has been incorrectly translated in a biased way against women!

        1. Hi Becky, I really must get a copy of Bushnell’s book for myself. I borrowed a copy a while back but never finished it.

          I’ll check some of these claims for myself when I have the time.

          I have an article on Isaiah 3:12 where I look at a couple of things you mention. https://margmowczko.com/isaiah-3_12-women-leaders/

  14. Perhaps the reason you have to take so much time and put forth so much effort to explain away the plain meaning of passages is because you don’t truly understand the extent of the fall of mankind. All of your efforts are rooted in defending the life you inherited from the wrong tree. It is fighting to feel good about your life, to defend it, to preserve it, and to hold on to it. The vast majority of mankind is still in deep darkness and they have never truly believed or even heard the true message of the Cross. God did not send Christ to forgive our life or bless it but rather to put an end to it. He took our evil life to the Cross and put it to death in order to give us a chance to abandon it and lay hold of His LIFE. In Christ there is neither male nor female. We conclude that if one died for all then all died.
    All of these scriptures concerning women mean exactly what they say. None of them are saying that men are actually righteous or good, though they are better suited for some positions and situations among fallen mankind. In ecclesiastes, he clearly says, in the same context, that there is not a single man who does good or who does not sin. Every human being must learn what their life truly is and what it produces and must hate it, deny it, and fully reject it. Both man and woman are evil. They are self-centered, self-focused, self-aware, and self-advancing creatures. The life we are all born with came from the wrong tree. If we don’t genuinely hate it, we can’t return to the tree of Life, to Jesus Christ. Jesus says we are blessed when we are poor, mourning, rejected and persecuted for the truth’s sake, etc. Mankind doesn’t believe this because they don’t understand why He said it. They don’t understand the difference between the two covenants of God. The first one was put in place to expose the iniquity of our life so that we would be ready to hate it when the eternal Life was manifested to us. We don’t understand this so we come to God to get him to bless our life. We all want our life to be respected and successful. The more that it is the more danger we are in. It is better to fail than to succeed. It is better to suffer than to escape it. It is when life does not work out well for us that God can give us ears to hear and eyes to see the truth. Generally, woe to the rich and the successful for they have already received their reward.
    The Bible is the Word of God, not the word of man. Even on this discussion board the things you say belittle the Word of God and leave room to discount what we don’t like. You either believe it is God speaking or you do not and from what you are saying here you believe sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. God is bigger than that and His Word is His Word, whether any of us like it or not.
    The woman was deceived, not the man. She is never to exercise authority over men. God will use child rearing to deliver her. I believe that’s a deep concept in which He uses the children to show the woman that independent life is evil. He uses the woman to show that to man. That’s another subject altogether though.
    I agree that many scriptures have been taken out of context and used in ways God never intended. The Word of God is clear that women can and will prophesy under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That’s certainly means they can proclaim God’s word under inspiration. What God forbids then to do is to exercise authority over men or to correct them. That is not her place in the order of creation. The only reason that makes people upset is because they want to hold on to the life of the first Adam. They want a good life here and they don’t want to be on the bottom. They do not believe the last shall be first. Once they see their life’s true colors, they will agree with everything the Word says. They will hate their life, gladly agree with God’s Word and reject it with Him in order to be partakers of the life of the last Adam. Women who understand the true message of the cross will gladly humble themselves and not correct men or try to exercise authority over them in any way. They will hate the life they inherited from the wrong tree and allow God to show them the truth without defending themselves and twisting what He says.

    1. You’re mistaken, J. I have not inherited a life from a tree. My life is in Christ. I am part of the New Creation and living under the New Covenant.

      Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17 CSB)
      Or
      Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV)

      I agree with you that in Christ there is neither male and female (Gal. 3:28).

      My article doesn’t belittle the Word of God. I love, honour, and respect the Bible and its authority. I take it seriously and have devoted my life to understanding it in its original languages, especially Greek. Because I love and trust it, I examine it closely and discuss it. The Bible can bear close scrutiny.

      I don’t dispute that the Bible means what it says, J, but I disagree with some of your ideas. I’ll mention just three of them.

      1. There’s nothing wrong with a wise and sensible woman correcting and influencing a man. As one example, Priscilla corrected Apollos (an up-and-coming apostle who was teaching in Ephesus) with her husband Aquila (Acts 18:26). Abigail intervened between two hot-headed men, persuaded David to change his course of action, and was praised for it (1 Samuel 25:32ff).

      2. Genuine Christian ministry is not about exercising authority over another capable brother or sister in Christ; it’s about humbly serving them.
      And no one should authentein andros (“to domineer a man”) (1 Timothy 2:11-12). Authentein is bad behaviour whether done by a man or a woman. Chrysostom used the verb authentein (exact form: authentei) in his sermon on Colossians 3 where he said that husbands should not do this to their wives. Authentei is translated as “act the despot” here:
      https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230310.htm

      My articles on authentein are here:
      https://margmowczko.com/tag/authentein/

      3. Paul does not say women are more prone to deception than men. (No verse in the Protestant Bible says this.) Nor does Paul say anything like Eve being deceived is a reason no woman can teach any man for all time. Paul does not explain why he provides Timothy with a summary of Genesis 2-3 in 1 Timothy 2:13-14.

      I’ve written about Eve being deceived here:
      https://margmowczko.com/women-eve-and-deception/

      And at the bottom of the article on Eve I provide this quotation.

      How people could argue that women are more prone to deception, from a letter where the false teachers are men (1 Tim. 1:19-20) and have been excommunicated, is beyond me. The male false teachers have been targeting the women (2 Tim 3:6). The false teachers were the ones who were deceived first!

    2. Interesting how you are trying to add to the scripture what it never says, even if you take bad English translations at face value. The plain meaning of the passage in Greek is that dominating people is forbidden. The word for authority isn’t even there. No English translation has any kind of instruction that a woman should never correct a man, and imagine a world where that was true. (You are driving the wrong way down a road endangering the lives of the whole family, and your mother, sister, wife, or friend can’t correct you and save your life.) Virtually every godly woman in the Bible instructs or corrects men, from Sarah, to Deborah, to Abigail, to Proverbs women, to Esther, to Priscilla. With much commendation and no reprimand at all. I remember vividly when my mom correctly insisted we not join a cult church. My dad always valued her discernment, and so did all her minister friends. Humans teach each other every day all the time. Adding restrictions and the traditions of men to scripture is what Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees for. The early church had female elders and deacons for several hundred years until the Catholics forbid them. Do you suppose that today’s English speakers understand Paul better than Paul’s own Greek speaking co-workers and their descendants? Or do you think that men are less deceived overall, when they start almost all the denominations, cults, and dictatorships? And join them as much as women do? Paul correctly points out that Eve was deceived *in that instance,* because there was a teaching at the time that woman was created first and she did the right thing to eat the fruit. Paul says nothing about all women being more easily deceived than all men, it’s just made up nonsense, which simply looking around the world and world history will tell you is completely not true, especially when women have the same access to education and information that men do. (Any uneducated person MIGHT be more easily deceived, but sometimes they have more common sense than others and smell a rat faster.)

      And by the way, this is Marg’s personal blog where she posts her excellent scholarship. It’s not a message board.

  15. I don’t know why you’re calling these verses “obscure”, since ALL scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching.

    But I admit i don’t see the point of not giving a wife the ability to cancel oaths since Paul says decision making should be mutual, and women, not just men, contributed to family resources in those days (Prov 31). Even if men had control over everything, why give them divine approval?

    This is hard passage but it looks like an attempt to explain away something you don’t like.

    1. Hello Samuel, “obscure” has nothing to do with Paul’s statement that “all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching.” This understanding of scripture is not in dispute.

      I’ve used the word “obscure” in the sense that the four passages are 1. not well known and 2. their meanings are not the easiest to fully understand.

      I’m surprised by your last statement. I’ve said nothing in the article, about whether I like these passages or not. For the record, I don’t dislike them. Your presumption is incorrect. I love the Bible.

      There are two Bible passages that trouble me: 1. David’s treachery towards Achish who was protecting him (1 Samuel 27), and 2. the words God says about David’s ten concubines in 2 Samuel 12:11. But I’m fine with the four passages discussed in the article. They don’t trouble me.

      I have no issue with the four Bible passages. They are interesting and my aim is to understand them better. I also take these passages seriously. In the case of Numbers 30, this includes taking Numbers 30:1 seriously.

      I am not an ancient Israelite. I don’t live in a bronze-age theocratic society. I am a follower of Jesus (living in Australia) and he gave us a new command: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another” (John 13:34).

      Everything we do as Christians needs to comply with this new command and the values of the new covenant. After all, we are new creation people (2 Cor. 5:17ff cf. John 1:17).

  16. Thanks so much for this article Marg. Since reading it a while ago, I have continued to reflect on this passage. What seems to stand out to me is:

    – God doesn’t give a reason for why a father/husband has the power of veto. It is just simply stated that they do. As you say – this can be seen as reflecting the patriarchal culture they lived in. If God had said “because Adam and Eve, such and such” or “because man is the authority of the woman from Eden”, etc, then it could be claimed that Num 30 was a passage mandating male authority. In Exo 20:11 – God uses reasons from Genesis for prescribing the law on keeping the sabbath – so if Genesis 2-3 was the reason behind Num 30 it is not unreasonable to expect that God would say so. He doesn’t.

    – The main point of this passage seems to me to be: to outline when vows to God are binding and when they are not. Its not a passage about man’s leadership of women… because; there isnt any discussion in this chapter about the man leading or being the head of the home. It isnt mandated that the men are to decide on the vows FOR the woman instead of just being able to veto them. And why is he only allowed to annul VOWS specifically and not have leadership priority over all the spiritual decisions of the marriage/home? This passage also doesn’t seem to be about protection or caring for women specifically, because who then is protecting the widows and divorced women whose vows would stand without a man there to annul them?

    – I have read this chapter in many translations and looked at the hebrew. I think it could mean:

    A) v3-5: A father can veto the vow of his daughter who is in her youth in his house.
    B) v 6-8: If this daughter has made a vow in her father’s house [which he allows] and then she gets married and her new husband becomes aware of her vow he can veto it.
    C) v10-12: A widowed or divorced woman’s vows are still binding UNLESS her husband vetoed it at the time that he heard of it. (I see verse 10 as being joined with verse 11 “AND IF she [the widow or divorced woman] vowed in her husbands house…”)
    D) v13-15: Expansion on the timeframe which a husband has to veto a vow; which is “on the day he hears it.”

    So God is providing guidance on the binding nature of vows for when there is a change in relationship status of a woman – ie: from her father’s house to being married and then to becoming a widow/divorced. So just because a woman becomes married, divorced or widowed, it doesnt mean she is free from her vow, UNLESS it was vetoed by her man “ON THE DAY that he heard it.” And so God is also placing a time limitation on when a man can annul a vow: only “on the day he hears of it.”

    It also makes sense for a father to have the assumed power of veto seeing as in their culture; the possessions she would be vowing (e.g. to give 5 bulls to God) were considered as belonging to the Father. And it makes sense that if her position changes and she’s gonna get married that her new husband can veto because the “possessions” she’s vowed are actually his (as she leaves her father’s house and joins his house.)

    There is also the use of the word in verse 13 to “humble herself” which could be speaking of fasting (Lev 23:32, Isa 58:3) which also goes together with prayer (Ezra 8:21-23, Dan 9:3, Neh 1:4, Acts 13:3, Acts 14:23, Matt 17:21).

    Luke 2:37 tells us of Anna a long-time widow who devotes herself to fasting and prayer daily at the temple. Perhaps she had undertaken a vow.

    It’s not explicitly stated: but the idea of temporarily abstaining from intercourse in marriage may have been part of a vow/fast. Intercourse made the couple unclean until evening (Lev 15:18) and was abstained from at times of dedication/devotion (Exo 19:15, 2 Sam 11:11, 1 Sam 21:4-5). This idea is seen in 1 Cor 7:5 where Paul makes temporary allowance for it when a couple is undergoing a time of prayer and devotion. Perhaps this was also one of the reasons why a father or husband could veto a vow. A father made the decisions on the daughter’s marriage (when and to whom – Gen 24:4, 50-51, Gen 34 v4-6, Exo 21v7, Deaut 22:19,29, Exo 22:16-17) and also the husband may have had extra knowledge of when he was going to go out to war/long journey, etc.

    I find it interesting that in Judges 11:30-40 has Jepthah making a vow which, unfortunately for him, is applied to his only daughter and there was “weeping for her virginity” and “she had no relations with a man…”

    As always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts on my musings. Thanks!

    1. Hi Sarah, Just letting you know that I’m thinking through your thoughts. It’s all very interesting.

      Vows may well have included a period of abstinence. This would make a husband’s right to veto very applicable. It would be less applicable to the father’s right to veto, unless the daughter was marrying soon. But a new husband could overturn such a vow (Num. 30:6-8). Still, as you say, fathers were involved in the marriage and marriageability of their daughters.

      I only see one change in relationship status of a woman who has made a vow: when a young woman becomes a wife. I take Numbers 30:9 to mean that a vow made by a widowed or divorced woman is binding because there is no man to veto it.

      In summary, I see a four different groups of women making vows in Numbers 30.

      1. women who are young and unmarried—a father can veto the vow if he acts quickly (Num. 30:3–5)
      2. women who are young and unmarried when they make a vow, but then marry—a husband can veto the vow if he acts quickly (Num. 30:6-8)
      3. women who are widowed or divorced—there is no man to veto their vow (Num. 30:9).
      4. women who are married—husbands can veto the vow if they act quickly (Num. 30:10–15).

      I wish it was clearer that the vows included or were all about sexual renunciation or abstinence. That would make Numbers 30 pretty much perfectly understandable.

      Permanent celibacy comes up a few times in the New Testament and in early church documents (see here), but not clearly in the Hebrew Bible as a far as I know. Though, as you say, temporary abstinence was a thing.

      “There are a few verses in the Hebrew Bible where Israelites abstained from sex: when fighting a holy war (Lev. 15:16, Deut. 23:9–10) or when about to encounter God in a profound way (Exod. 19:10–15 cf. 1 Sam. 21:4–5). They kept themselves ritually clean in preparation for special, sanctified service.” (Cf. the 144,000 make virgins in Revelations.) From here: https://margmowczko.com/144000-revelation/

      However, I suggest virginity (and maybe celibacy for older women) may have been a prerequisite for the women who served in the Tabernacle, and I briefly mention Jephthah’s daughter (though it was her father, not the daughter, who made the vow), here:
      https://margmowczko.com/women-entrance-tent-of-meeting-tabernacle/

      And I have a footnote about the marital status of prophetesses (most seem to have been single) here:
      https://margmowczko.com/prophetesses-bible/

      Connecting Jephthah’s daughter with Numbers 30 and vows of virginity/ celibacy is tantalising. Have you seen scholars who make this connection?

      BDB gives a possible meaning of anah as “afflict as a discipline” where God does the disciplining. What if anah, used in Numbers 30:13, could also refer to a person “afflicting themselves as a religious discipline”? What if the sense of לְעַנֹּ֣ת נָ֑פֶשׁ in Numbers 30:13 is “to deny herself” as a religous excercise? This could be done in a number of ways including abstaining from sex. (I don’t think “to humble herself” is a helpful translation here.)

      Here’s another thought. In the first century, when a Jewish person, male or female, had completed certain vows, they cut off their hair. Assuming this custom was operating when Numbers 30 was written, I can understand why some husbands would want to veto that vow. I have a few paragraphs on this custom under the heading “Jewish Vows and Hair Lengths” here: https://margmowczko.com/hairstyles-long-hair-men-bible/

      So interesting.

  17. Hi Marg,

    Thanks so much for your response! As always it is a pleasure to hear your thoughts on my musings.

    It is certainly interesting and I liked your addition of the idea of hair shaving. This was certainly a part of the nazirite vow which would have been relevant at the time of Numbers 5.

    To answer you question, I haven’t seen any scholarly sources which mention Jepthah’s vow in connection with Numbers 30, but there might be, I just haven’t come across it yet.

    And yes, I think the sense you put of “denying oneself” is a much better translation, especially as vows are a way of showing devotion to God (not “God disciplining” people). Which like you say – could include abstinence.

    I will have a read of the article about the women serving at the tabernacle being celibate. Very intriguing…

    I’m wondering if you could have a look at the LXX for Numbers 30, in particular v10-11?https://biblebento.com/index.html?lxx1i&40.30.1
    To me it seems there is an “and if while in the house of the husband” connecting to the widow or divorced woman? But perhaps I am totally misunderstanding.

    That conjunction in v11 of “and if” and the particle “while” is what makes me think it’s still talking in relation to the widow/divorced woman.

    Thanks!

    1. I had a look at the Septuagint, and the grammar of the conjunctions is reasonably straightforward. The post-postive conjunction δέ is used at the beginning of sentences, typically where there is a new idea or new development of thought. (Post-positive conjunctions are the second, or sometimes the third or fourth, word of a new sentence.)

      I’m using the Hebrew numbering (not the LXX numbering) in the following. I used the LXX at Blue Letter Bible. (I found the source you linked to too busy and too distracting to read.)

      Numbers 30:10, with δέ, starts a new thought and is directly connected to verse 11 with the conjuction καὶ. Because verse 11 mentions the husband of the woman making the vow, verses 10-11 cannot be speaking about widows.

      The conjunction καὶ connects ideas but is not typically used at the beginning of a new sentence. Numbers 30:9 about widows is connected to verse 8 with the conjunction καὶ. Numbers 30:8 conveys the main idea and verse 9 is added, seemingly, as an aside. Probably because the cancelling of vows didn’t apply to them. The NRSV and ESV even put the widow verse in parentheses which makes sense to me.

      The verse about widows is a bit difficult to deal with, perhap because it was given as an aside or an afterthought. However, I can’t see a difficulty, grammatically or logically, in working out the four different scenarios given in this passage.

      1. Hi Marg,

        Thank you for having a look!
        (I wish blue letter bible had an LXX interlinear, like it does for the hebrew, as it’s a fantastic resource, but I can’t read greek, haha).

        What you have said all makes sense. Perhaps why I’m still hesitant to say v11 is not talking about widows/divorced is because
        a) several translations do seem to connect it to v10, in particular the NET which has it under the title “vows made by widows” or the LSB “however if she vowed while in her husbands house.”
        b) The chapter makes no reference to a woman who has never married, eg a daughter who is not in her youth in her father’s house. Or perhaps someone like the daughters of Zelophehad: their father died before they were married but were old enough to appeal to Moses. If the section was just all about vows made by women then I would expect never married women to be mentioned. I would expect the vows they made were binding.
        c) similarly, a widow or divorced woman doesn’t have a husband, but at one point she must have had a husband. If it is meant to read as a parentheses I find it odd that never married women aren’t included in it as they too don’t have a man to veto their vow. Perhaps it was obvious [an married woman has no man] but then it’s also obvious that a widow has no man too. So it makes sense to me to refer to widows/divorced women BECAUSE they were once married and then further explaining in v11.
        d) to me it seems like alot of repetition in v10-15 if v11-12 is not about widows.

        So I do still hold open the possibility that v 10-12 is referring to vows a widow made while she was in the house of her husband but that her vows still stand even if she made them during her marriage (unless her husband vetoed in the day he heard it).

        I believe the point of the passage is to say that vows to God are always binding no matter the marital status of a woman except in the case if nulled by the husband/father [of a youth] and placing a limitation on this allowance (on the day he hears it).

        But I recognise that it could go either way and it doesn’t really matter that much as there’s do denying the husband still had the power to veto!

  18. I found the NET footnotes really interesting and thought you might too:

    “V2 The Hebrew text hasלֶאְסֹר אִסָּר (leʾsor ʾissar), meaning “to take a binding obligation.” This is usually interpreted to mean a negative vow, i.e., the person attempts to abstain from something that is otherwise permissible. It might involve fasting, or abstaining from marital sex, but it might also involve some goal to be achieved, and the abstaining from distractions until the vow is fulfilled (see Ps 132). The נֶדֶר (neder) may have been more for religious matters, and the אִסָּר more for social concerns, but this cannot be documented with certainty.”

    “V13 The sentence uses the infinitive construct לְעַנֹּת (leʿannot, “to afflict”), which is the same word used in the instructions for the day of atonement in which people are to afflict themselves (their souls). The case here may be that the woman would take a religious vow on such an occasion to humble herself, to mortify her flesh, to abstain from certain things, perhaps even sexual relations within marriage.”

    1. The NET note on verse 2 is very nice! 🙂

  19. […] 4 Obscure OT Verses Sometimes Used to Diminish Women […]

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