Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration

positive Portrayal of women, Bible, Old Testament, New Testament

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The Positive Portrayal of Women in the Bible

One of the reasons I trust the unique inspiration of the Bible is because of what it says about women, or, more to the point, what it doesn’t say about women. The Bible never says that women as a group are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men. In fact, it says a lot of good things about women.[1]

In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, many women are described as beautiful, intelligent, courageous, resourceful and enterprising. And some Bible women functioned as prophets, teachers, advisers, leaders and deliverers.

In the New Testament, we read that the Saviour, the Son of God, came into the world through the body of a woman. Amazing! And the first person to see the resurrected Jesus, at the beginning of the New Covenant era, was a woman, Mary Magdalene.

There is no story in the Gospels of a woman opposing Jesus. Rather, they show that many women were faithful and devoted to Jesus. Many even travelled with him and supported his ministry with their own money. In the Pauline letters, several women are mentioned as being ministers and colleagues of the apostle Paul.

Women and Patriarchy

This positive portrayal of women in the scriptures is remarkable considering the patriarchal setting of the Bible and its androcentric writing.

Hanna Tervanotko comments on this androcentricity.

It has been recognized for a long time that ancient literature is not value neutral. It reflects the ideas of its own time and its voice belongs to the people of its time. The Hebrew Bible has been described as a “men’s book.” It was written by an “urban elite of male religious specialists.” [Phyllis Bird 1997: 53] Therefore, various texts of the Hebrew Bible reflect these selected men’s interests and manly language. Traditionally this was accepted without much criticism. It was accepted that women were given less importance in religious and historical texts and hence also in the Hebrew Bible.[2]

As well as a predominately male viewpoint in the Bible, we see that women, in general, did not have the same social freedoms as men because of the pervasive patriarchal culture. And there are some horror stories in the Hebrew Bible that involve the unjust and despicable treatment of certain women. The biblical narratives, however, are not part of teaching or Law, and the injustices and atrocities are not condoned. (Truths and principles can be drawn from Bible narratives but we must make a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive texts.)

The Negative Portrayal of Women by Non-Biblical Authors

In contrast to the Bible’s portrayal of women, as soon as you step outside of the canon of Protestant Scripture there are terrible generalisations written about women. Some of these terrible things are even taught by Jewish and Christian writers and philosophers.

Ben Sirach, a Jew writing in the second century BC, wrote in his apocryphal work Ecclesiasticus that a good wife is a silent wife and that all women have a disposition of sexual wantonness (Sirach 25:13-25; 26:13-16; 42:9-11, 12-14). “He maintained that women in general constitute a threat to the dignity and well-being of men and that the most dangerous threat comes from a man’s own daughter.” (“Women in Second Temple Judaism” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)

An unknown Jewish writer, also writing in the second century BC, claims that “Women are evil . . . treacherous . . . lustful . . .” (Testament of Reuben 2:13-16)

The Jewish philosopher Philo, writing in the first century AD, “accepted the Aristotelian judgment that the female is, in and of herself, inferior to the male. He used this to explain the biblical narratives allegorically. The women of the Bible [he thought] represent inferior aspects of a person’s psyche, namely the senses, while the male figures represent the superior mind. The creation of woman, for example, is explained as a corruption of the mind by the senses (Opificio Mundi 59).” (“Women in Second Temple Judaism” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)

Tertullian, an early Christian theologian writing in the late second to early third centuries AD, called women “the devil’s gateway.” He had the opinion that all women are guilty of the Fall, and that women are especially guilty of Jesus’ death. (On the Apparel of Women, chapter 1)

Sadly, there are still more examples of overt and destructive misogynistic teaching by Jewish and Christian writers in works not considered Holy Writ by Protestants.[3]

The Inspiration of the Holy Spirit

The biblical writings are androcentric because they were written by men in the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. Patriarchy is not God’s ideal, yet he used people within that culture and setting to tell his story. The Bible, however, was also inspired by the Holy Spirit and so there is none of the harsh and crushing misogynist generalisations that are present in extra-biblical or apocryphal writings.

Let me reiterate: The Bible never says that women are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men.

The main message of gender in the Bible is that women and men are equal and compatible, and both have been made in the image of God. Women are in no way inferior, less competent, or less valuable than men. This message reveals the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This message of genuine equality and mutuality between men and women is the message that the Church should be sharing and promoting among its people and in the world. This is the message that I am sharing.

Footnotes

[1] Some people read a few Old Testament texts as belittling women. I discuss Leviticus 27:1-8, Numbers 30:1-16, Ecclesiastes 7:28, Isaiah 3:12, in an article here. I discuss Leviticus 12:1-8 here.

[2] Hanna K. Tervanotko, Denying Her Voice: The Figure of Miriam in Ancient Jewish Literature (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2016), 21-22. (Google Books)

[3] If you have a misogynistic quotation from a Jewish or early Christian author, etc, please let me know. Here are some from early church fathers and reformers.

Postscript: May 6th, 2013

Wendy Alsup has done a good job of looking at the context of a few of the more unpleasant Old Testament passages concerning women here.

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19 thoughts on “The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration

  1. I think the narratives (and even some laws) can be used to give insight into certain cultural ASSUMPTIONS by the way things are worded, but I do not see that as God endorsing those ASSUMPTIONS, rather God is working inside the culture (or cultures in the case of the NT books) of the time those words were written moving the people of God step by step to be more in line with the principles of the Kingdom of God.

    The most obvious examples are that all the cultures of the time of the Bible assumed polytheism, slavery, and patriarchy and the Jewish and other Eastern cultures assumed polygamy if the husband could afford it.

  2. Yes they definitely give some insight into culture.

    God tolerated patriarchy in the past, and he continues to tolerate it, but it is not his ideal.

  3. I think you’re right. I can’t think of a single example where the Bible links certain types of sins to gender. The fact that the Bible does not support negative gender stereotypes is a truly beautiful thing. 😀

  4. I always find it interesting that when a woman is portrayed as doing something wrong in the eyes of God, such as Sapphira, it does not say that she did it because she was a woman, or for any gendered reason, but she sinned because she was a sinner, just like any sinful man or woman in any other part of history. She was a sinner and was trying to sidestep God, just like the many other sinners portrayed in the bible. I believe we can all learn the lessons from biblical stories regardless of our gender- David- how to be humble and faithful, Deborah- servant leadership without taking the glory for yourself, Sapphira and Annaias- God sees our sin, and the list goes on. And that is something truly beautiful about the bible!

  5. I was reading some excerpts from Chrysostom and Clement of Alexandria today and after a while a realized that the authors were clearly writing to men, and not to women, even though the topics were marriage and sex, etc. The writers use the words “us” and “we” in their address to men. When they speak about women, it is “they”.

    It struck me that the Bible authors do not use this “us” and “them” vernacular when writing about men and women.

    I’m thinking that this inclusivity in Bible writing could well be another indication of the unique inspiration of Scripture.

    Also, the New Testament passages about ministry gifts and church leadership are remarkably free from gender distinctions. This gender neutrality is absent in passages on leadership in the Didache and other Early Church literature.

  6. Hi Margaret,

    This is a question that may be too obscure but it relates to Gen 19.

    I’m just wondering if you or any if your readers can make sense of why Lot, who offers his two daughters up to a feral crowd, is spared, while his wife is turned to a pillar of salt for looking back upon Sodom. (BTW: I’ve just come back from this area in Jordan and there are a lot a salt pillars along the Dead Sea’s shoreline.

  7. I’m happy to be answered at another time if this is too off topic.

  8. Lot’s offer was despicable and reflected his cultural perspective rather than God’s perspective. In Lot’s culture, hospitality was considered an almost sacred duty, whereas women, especially one’s own daughters, were seen as property. I don’t deny that there are some horrible stories about women in the Old Testament.

    The angels, however, saved Lot’s daughters. They saved them from the feral crowd, and they saved them from Sodom’s destruction.

    Some scholars believe, however, that Lot was bluffing about offering his daughters, and that the text reveals that his daughters were already married (and not virgins) and were not in the house. (More about this here.)

  9. A woman at my church is ‘concerned’ about me since I am egalitarian now. She wants to sit with me and teach me of what the “whole bible” means to say on this issue. Mainly, that the bible enforced the truth that men are the spiritual leaders. I can’t speak of Deborah or Huldah because she will explain it away. I don’t want to talk to her, but I want to give her a chance to speak her mind, but I don’t think she will truly listen to me. She is an older woman who also went to seminary and says i can’t come to my conclusion because I don’t know the original language. I am incredibly frustrated and at the same time, I wish the bible could better support the idea of true equality with say, a woman author, or exonerated egalitarian relationships, or more stories of women leading or even just more stories of women. I’m wondering: A) how can I go about speaking to this woman B) how can I have peace about less of a focus on women in the Bible

    1. Hi Sally,

      A. I don’t think I could sit through a meeting with someone who is quick to dismiss my views and who is intent to prove their view that only men are spiritual leaders. It would be an irritating, futile exercise and a waste of time for both parties.

      B. Because of patriarchy, women do not feature nearly as much as men in many Bible stories. I understand your frustration, but the Bible was written in a different day and age. It reflects the fallen culture of a distant past. But I think it is amazing that women feature as much as they do and that they are spoken of in a positive way, especially post-resurrection and post-Pentecost.

      If the Bible didn’t have Deborah, the wise woman of Abel Beth Macaah, Huldah, Anna, Mary, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Euodia and Syntyche, the Chosen Lady, etc, it might be another story.

  10. Marg, I have a question. While I get that the bible isn’t blatantly misogynistic like most other ancient texts, something has been bugging me for a while. If God cares so much about women and, relatedly, slaves, then why didn’t he make it clear? I know that, similar to you, many other scholars and theologians have said that God simply worked within and tolerated unjust and fallen cultures. But something about it feels off to me about that. Why would God need to beat around the bush if he hated something? Especially in the context of the Jewish nation; they were set aside to be God’s chosen people so, if he didn’t want either women to be abused or treated as objects or humans to claim other humans as property, then why didn’t he just come out and say it? I don’t understand the explanation of “they weren’t ready for it yet” because god spoke rather bluntly about things like sexual ethics, not worshiping other Gods, not killing (and not killing while worshiping other Gods!) so I don’t really see why he’d dance around it when he’d tell them other things and have them turn around and do it anyway. The whole OT is literally a cycle of the people not listening to God, getting punished, turning to God for help, being saved, having a period of faithfulness and starting all over again. While I want to believe that God is just, I don’t understand why or how his silence can be justified on some of these things; I don’t get how God can tolerate injustice without saying something if he truly cares and I don’t get how the argument that God is sensitive to people not being ready for truth when he’s repeatedly said other things that were rejected by people anyway can hold water? why be selective about things when, in all honesty, it won’t matter and most people will ignore God on any issue in favor of they want to hear?. Especially if you’re choosing your followers to be set apart; why not tell them all these things and desire them of them if you really care? I’m sorry if this is coming off as defensive, but I honestly don’t understand why God let this stuff happen without saying anything, and it gives me worries and doubts about him and I’m just looking for some explanation that makes sense. Thank you!

    1. Hi Bre, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the New Testament shows that God loves all people: men, women, and children, whether slaves or free. But this is not always clear in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.

      Still, God frequently reprimands people in the OT for not showing justice and mercy to people such as widows and orphans. And God speaks strongly against the men in Malachi 2 who were dumping their wives and placing them in a precarious situation.

      Much of the Hebrew Bible is made up of stories, it’s not a systematic theology, and we don’t get to hear many stories of wives and slaves, but God clearly cared for Hagar the slave.

      Women were in some way regarded as property in Bible times. But this was also true of more recent laws in western society. Women can be “property” and still be loved and respected and have agency (e.g., Aksah in Judges 1). I appreciate that some may baulk at the idea of women being property, or as belonging to a man, but this is the way things were, whatever we think of it. Family life was very different in past generations, and very few people, men or women, had anything like individual rights that westerners take for granted today.

      So I’m not understanding why you think it’s not clear that God cares for women or slaves, especially in the NT. And there are plenty of men in the Bible who get what appears to be a rough deal.

    2. I am taking the liberty of interfering, and saying that, Bre: I can well understand that this bothers you. And I don’t think there is any quick and easy answer.

      The Bible has its dark sides. One can close one’s eyes to that, as many seem to do; or one can try to come to terms with them. The latter isn’t easy. It will affect one’s views both about the Bible and about God. I don’t know, Bre, what your current view of the Bible is. But wrestling with the dark sides of the Bible will do something to your view; and you will probably never be quite finished with that wrestling.

      If I dare say a few words about it, then I would say that God regularly seems to speak through people. And so the message becomes limited by what these people themselves are able to fathom, or have the guts to say. Also, there seems to be at any time many voices that claim to speak for God. And they don’t all say the same. It certainly is so today. So whose voices do we listen to, who become accepted as actually speaking for God? It seems to me that many are listening to the wrong people.

      I take the liberty, too, of mentioning one who has struggled some with the Bible’s dark sides: Pete Enns. He has a website at https://peteenns.com/.

      1. I second the recommendation of Peter Enns’ work.

      2. Honestly, Pete Enns’ work only made things even more confusing. I have no idea what to do with the bible anymore, what to take from it. This whole “exposition” of scripture as something that is ever-changing because it is so moored in its immediate culture and history makes it feel as if there is no real way to know God. Maybe I’m just too stupid to understand all the academic rigor behind what’s being spoken about by theologians like Enns but that’s my take away.

        1. I think I understand what you’re saying, Jade.

          Thankfully, knowing God and knowing about God from the Bible are not exactly the same thing, though there is some overlap. Someone can know God and have a relationship with him even if they have a low level of Bible knowledge. A child can know God. On the other hand, there are Bible scholars who know the biblical text very well but do not have a relationship with God.

          I’m comfortable with not being able to understand everything in the Bible. After all, it is an ancient book written in ancient languages about God’s dealing with ancient people. And I love exploring how it is relevant today. But I do appreciate many people prefer more certainty.

          1. I get what you’re saying Marg, but it just doesnt compute.

            How can we know God when the closest direct record of his movement in the world is a book theologians cant even trust or pin down to having a defined set of moral ethics? A book so tainted by human fingerprints that its resulted in over 30 000 denominations of the same “faith”? How we are then supposed to live our lives? How do we even define sin? How do we define salvation? How do we even know how to use it for living in today’s world? Do we concede to our natural cultural flow, do we make concessions (if so based on what standard), do we disregard it entirely on certain issues? There’s no way to verify what God has to say about any modern questions for moral living.

            These are all questions that I found myself unable to answer when this popped up in a discussion I had with a theologian friend who is on the same wavelength as Enns is when it comes to the “delusion” of protestantism.

            Apparently the idea of Christ as a substitution for sin (and the entire idea of sin and sinful behaviours) are nothing weak protestant theories, one drop in a huge pool of theories that even first century disciples would not understand. That was the very foundation I believed and apparently its incorrect. Or at the very least, uncertain.

            So what’s left? Nothing. If we rely on experiential evidence, that is entirely subjective. The only logical conclusion to me is not even agnosticism but atheism.

            Why believe in a god who cant even leave a decent record for his people to follow? Why leave scraps of ancient paper that has caused endless wars and oppression of women? As Enns says, all Christians are agnostic. And I think even that, once you realise all the exclusivity of actually “knowing” god, even that will probably lead to rejecting it altogether.

          2. It seems my experience with God and with the Bible are different from yours.

            I love what Dave Dean said on Facebook today: “God is not bound by or limited to the Bible. God is not to be equated with the Bible. God rises above the text — to Whom the text points albeit imperfectly.”

  11. Maybe. I just dont see any other solution given everything theologians have to say about the bible and basic doctrine. Pete Enns is halfway there. Bart Erhman is an example of someone who found the same natural conclusion.

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