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It is not surprising that certain verses, such as 1 Timothy 2:12 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 less 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: “Youths 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.

This verse 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. (More about Isaiah 3:12 here.)

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, words included in many English translations. (However, 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 as, “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.”

It is disturbing that Ecclesiastes 7:28 is understood by a few as biblical proof that women are less virtuous than men.[2] (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).

This idea that a father or husband could overturn a woman’s vow has disturbed a few women. It has also 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.

Numbers 30 does show that fathers and husbands had an authority that women lacked. 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.[4]

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 discussion 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.[5] 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 that I am reminded of too frequently. In fact, the Bible says a lot of 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 initiatives, 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 often 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). It further 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 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] 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 had more power and authority, and they might be more aware of events (good or bad) happening outside of the home than his wife whose primary role was to have children and care for them. 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.

[5] 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)


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