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 Old Testament, many Bible 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 a woman. Amazing! And the first person to see the resurrected Jesus, at the beginning of the New Covenant era, was a woman.

Women are never mentioned in a bad light in the Gospels. 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 Christian 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. We see in the Bible that women, in general, did not have the same social freedoms as men because of this pervasive patriarchal culture, and there are some horror stories in the Old Testament 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. (I do understand that 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 Scripture there are the most 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 than these of overt and destructive misogynistic teaching by non-biblical Jewish and Christian writers.[2]

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 prevalent in non-biblical (or extra-biblical) 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. For example, Solomon (Prov. 1:1) and the Teacher (Eccl. 1:1) disparage and warn against a certain kind of woman (Prov. 2:16-19; 5:3-10; Eccl. 7:26, etc) but Solomon also disparages and warns against a certain kind of man (Prov. 1:10-19; 2:12-15).
In Ecclesiastes 7:28-29, the Teacher uses hyperbole and decries mankind in general, with women receiving a greater insult. Ecclesiastes 7:28, however, is not a universal statement about the status or morality of women. Rather, it is the personal observation of a man who was dissatisfied with pretty much everything in life. His view of life, in general, is not for us to emulate. His words were probably chosen to shock and provoke his original audience, rather than accurately convey fact. Still, the Teacher and Solomon encourage husbands to love, appreciate, and be loyal to their wives (Eccl. 9:9; Prov 5:15-19). And Solomon speaks well of both a father’s and a mother’s teaching (Prov 1:8-9; 6:20). Overall, neither Solomon or the Teacher has a low view of women.
Leviticus 27:1-8 is sometimes understood as saying that men have more value than women, but the values given in this passage represent just one aspect of the worth of the various people listed: their strength of labour or economic value. Nothing more. Moreover, the labour 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 between ages of 20-60.
Numbers 30:3-16 tells us that a father or husband could annul a vow made by his daughter or wife, but only if he acted quickly. These verses show that men had authority over the women in his household. Other passages of scripture in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) also show that men had more authority than women. The culture of ancient Israel was patriarchal. This shouldn’t surprise us. In Genesis 3:16, God told Eve that her husband would rule her. Male-rule is a consequence of the fall, and many regulations in the Hebrew Bible were concessions to the fallen culture.
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.
At a time when 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 see that his daughter’s or wife’s vow might be detrimental, perhaps even dangerous, to the woman or to the family as a whole. However, women were usually free to make their own vows (cf. Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:10-11) and even become Nazarites (Numb. 6:2). Widows and divorced women could make vows without any man vetoing it. (More on Numbers 30 here.)
Isaiah 3:12 is another verse that is sometimes understood as putting women down and saying they can’t be leaders. I write about this verse here.

[2] 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 6.5.13: 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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