In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

Women in the Bible

Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith, by Charles Templeton

What is the status of women in the Bible? Even a perfunctory reading makes it clear that, with rare exceptions, women were regarded and treated as inferior, subsidiary creatures, often as little more than chattels. When, as the Genesis account states, Yahweh decided to create humankind, he created a man who is described in the Eighth Psalm as "a little lower than the angels." The creation of the first woman was little more than a utilitarian afterthought. Yahweh said: "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him." He then proceeded to create not a woman, but the various animals, bringing them before Adam that he might name them. "But" as the text states, "for Adam there was not found an help meet for him." Yahweh then made woman, not creating her from dust, as he had Adam, but "took one of his ribs.., made he a woman and brought her unto the man. And the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman."

THE BIBLE IS A BOOK by and for men. The women in it are secondary creatures and usually inferior. The woman is portrayed as the temptress in Eden, the tool of the serpent (a.k.a. Satan). He gulled her into getting her husband to eat of the forbidden fruit - "the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." When, as a consequence of their disobedience, the first couple was banished from Eden, Yahweh laid a threefold curse on all women:

  1. That her suffering in childbearing would be "greatly multiplied.'
  2. That she would nevertheless be made to lust for her husband.
  3. That she would be subsidiary to the man: "He will rule over you."

This superior/inferior relationship continued throughout the history of Israel. Women had little status and few rights. The Old Testament is, with rare exceptions, the story of the exploits and achievements of men. In most cases, when the lives of men and their sons are chronicled, neither the man's wife nor the daughters that issued from the marriage are so much as named. It was, quite literally, a man's world.

{Quran states that the Bible has been corrupted, and the word of God had been altered. What we have today is the altered-corrupted- word of God with some truth every now and then. See 2:75, 5:13 and 4:46}

THE GOD OF THE Bible is not genderless; he is male. His attributes are masculine as are his actions and most of his attitudes. The Holy Trinity comprises three males, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Jesus was himself unquestionably male, and when it became needful that the Virgin Mary be impregnated so that he might be brought into the world as a man, the Holy Ghost "came upon her" and Jesus was conceived.

Adam and Eve had three children, all male: Cain, Abel, and Seth. They may have had daughters but the writer of the Genesis account does not find them worth mentioning. In the long list of Adam's descendants over the hundreds of years that intervened before the Great Flood, not one female is so much as named!

Noah was married but his wife's name is not given. He had three married sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, but their wives are not named. Only eight people went into the ark - Noah, his sons, and their wives - but we do not know the name of any of the women; they are merely the wives of the men. After the death of Noah the genealogy of his son's descendants is documented. Only sons are named. Every marriage is noted but never once is the bride named.

Male pre-eminence ruled also in the satisfactions of the flesh. Polygamy is permitted in the Old Testament and is covered by a number of statutes - but only for men! A man was free to have as many wives and concubines as he could support. The great Jewish patriarchs, Abram, Moses, Joshua, and David all had more than one wife - Solomon, no fewer than seven hundred, not to mention three hundred concubines! - but no woman in Israel was permitted to have more than one husband.

A man could "put away (divorce) his wife for any number of reasons but a woman could not separate from her husband except under the most extraordinary circumstances.

An unmarried woman was regarded as the property of her father or of a brother. A father could, at his option, give her away or, indeed, sell her to a prospective husband. He could also sell her as a slave and she had no say in the transaction. A prospective groom paid what was called a "bride price," in part because the bride had some value around the house and in the bedroom and because if she bore him children they would be the property of the husband. If a man seduced a virgin he was required to pay her father a bride price and do so even if the father refused to give her to the seducer in marriage.

Married, the woman remained a chattel. If her husband died before she bore him a son she was not permitted to marry anyone outside the family. Her husband's brother was required to take her as his wife and the first-born son of that marriage bore the name of the dead husband.

A man could offer his daughter as a prize. King Saul offered his eldest daughter to the man who would bring down Goliath, and his youngest daughter to the man who would bring him the foreskins of one hundred Philistines.

How's that for status!

Adultery was defined as "lying with another man's wife" and was viewed from the male perspective only. If a man committed adultery he was regarded as having transgressed, not against his wife, but against the husband of the woman with whom he had the illicit relationship.

The penalty for adultery was death for both the man and the woman. If a husband thought his wife had committed adultery and "if the spirit of jealousy came upon the husband," he could take her to a priest who would determine her guilt or innocence with a magic potion. She was required to drink the potion, and if she was guilty her thigh would swell up. If, however, she was found innocent, her husband was liable for any damages she suffered from the treatment.

THERE I S A PRIME example of the working of this double standard during Israel's many battles after coming out of the wilderness. Yahweh orders Moses to "execute his vengeance on Midian." Twelve thousand men are mustered. They attack the Midianites and kill every male. They then kill the five kings of Midian, and their children, seize as booty all their cattle, their flocks, their donkeys, and their possessions, burn all their cities and encampments to the ground, and take as bounty anything of value. But when the leaders of his army report to Moses on their victory he grows angry. "Why," he asks, "have you spared the lives of all the women? They were the ones," he reminds them, "who had perverted the sons of Israel." So he sends them back to finish the job, ordering that every male child and every woman who is not a virgin be killed. "Spare the lives of the young women, those who have not known a man by lying with him. Take them for yourselves."

The women of enemy nations were regarded as part of the spoils of war. The law of Israel specified: "When you go to war against your enemies and take prisoners: if you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and find her desirable, you may make her your wife and bring her to your home. Should she cease to please you, you will let her go where she wishes, not selling her for money. You are not to make any profit out of her since you have had the use of her. [Italics mine]"

If a man married a woman and later turned against her, publicly defaming her by saying he had not found evidence of her virginity, he was required to take her before the elders and so state. Then, if the woman's parents could not produce evidence that she was indeed a virgin at the time of her marriage, she was taken to the door of her father's house and stoned to death.

A woman had no status even in a quarrel between her husband and another man: "When two men are fighting," the Mosaic law said, "if the wife of one intervenes by putting out her hand and seizing the other by the private parts, you shall cut off her hand and show no pity."

NOT ALL THE WOMEN in the Old Testament are ciphers. Some are portrayed as wise, courageous, and gifted. Indeed, two books of the Old Testament bear the names of women: Ruth and Esther. Ruth is of particular interest because, although she was a foreigner - a Moabite - she married a man from Bethlehem and, when he died, did not remain in Moab but returned to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi. She eventually married one of Naomi's relatives and gave birth to a son who became King David's grandfather, and thus an ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth.

There were deceitful and wickedly seductive women in the Old Testament, women whose names still echo across the centuries. Among them, Potiphar's wife Delilah, who seduced Samson, and Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab and the bitter foe of Elijah, whose name remains synonymous with shamelessness and wickedness. Foreign women are usually suspect in the Old Testament, yet both of Moses' wives were gentiles and there are three foreign women in the line of David's ancestors.

It was a man's world. Yahweh almost exclusively conversed with, gave orders to, rewarded, punished, and often intervened personally on behalf of men.

ISRAEL'S ATTITUDE toward women is starkly and tragically revealed in the story, retold here in contemporary language, of Jephthah's daughter.

Jephthah, the son of Gilead, was a renowned warrior but he was a bastard child, his mother being a whore. Gilead's legitimate sons drove him from the family and from the town, and Jephthah, leading a group of misfits and malcontents, became a kind of soldier of fortune, living off the area by raiding and looting.

In the meantime, the Israelites were facing problems. They had been worshipping gods other than Yahweh and he had abandoned them. Under assault by a people called the Ammonites, and in desperate straits, the Israelites turned to Jephthah. "Come be our leader," they pleaded.

A deal is struck and Jephthah takes command. In a strategic move, he leads his troops to the rear of the Ammonite army. Just before the battle is joined, he makes a deal with God: "Deliver the Ammonites into my hands," he says to Yahweh, "and the first person who comes through the door of my house to greet me on my return shall belong to Yahweh. I will offer him up as a burnt offering."

Jephthah attacks and Yahweh delivers the Ammonites into his hands.

As he returns home, the first to greet him as he approaches his house is his daughter, who is celebrating his victory by dancing to the sound of a tambourine in her hands. When Jephthah sees her, he rips his clothes in his anguish and says to her, "Oh, my daughter, what sorrow you bring me! Must the cause of my ill fortune be you? I have made a vow to Yahweh and I cannot unsay what I have said."

She answers him, "My father, you have made a vow to Yahweh; treat me as you have vowed to do. But first, grant me one request: free me for two months to wander in the wilderness with some of my friends that I may bewail my virginity."

The two months pass and she returns to her father. Then, in the chilling words of the text: "He did with her what according to the vow he had pledged." In plain English: he offered her up to Yahweh as a human sacrifice. With his own hands he killed his daughter and burned her body on an altar, dedicating her to God.

And we are never so much as told her name!

Could there be a more tragic story, or one that more clearly reveals the male chauvinism and barbaric cruelty of the God of the Bible?

Even more shocking is the fact that Yahweh permits Jephthah to go through with it and then honours him for his commitment by making him a judge in Israel for the rest of his life!

The immolation of this young woman was not untypical of the way women were regarded in biblical times. Even their menstrual periods were seen as reprehensible.

She shall remain in her impurity for seven days. Everything she lies on or sits on shall be regarded as unclean. Whoever touches her clothes or her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe, but will remain unclean throughout the day. And if her period goes beyond seven days, she is to take two turtledoves and two young pigeons to the priest and the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for her unclean discharge.

SOLOMON WAS UNDOUBTEDLY one of Israel's most extraordinary kings. His wisdom was legendary. His devotion to Yahweh was, in most ways, exemplary. The temple he built for the worship of God was dazzling. Its furnishings were elaborate and expensive.

And Solomon's personal wealth was renowned. He sat on "a throne of ivory plated with refined gold. ~ A single statement makes evident the opulence of his palace: "All of King Solomon's drinking vessels were gold, and all the furnishings in the Hall of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold. Silver was little thought of in the time of Solomon. [Italics mine]"

Little wonder the Queen of Sheba travelled a great distance to meet him.

Equally extravagant was Solomon's love life. This servant of Yahweh, this king of Israel, this son of King David was a sex machine on a scale unequalled in recorded human history.

Let the text speak:

"He had seven hundred wives of royal rank and three hundred concubines. As well, King Solomon loved many foreign women; not only Pharaoh's daughter but Moabites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites." This, it should be noted, despite Yahweh's prohibition, "You are not to go to them or they to you."

And this led to trouble. His foreign wives pressured him into offering worship to other gods (Astarte was a favorite), and this, as might be expected, displeased Yahweh, by his own description of himself, a "jealous God." But he contained his displeasure and said to Solomon, "Since you do not keep my covenant or the laws I laid down for you, I will tear the kingdom from you and give it to one of your servants."

But then a temporizing note: "However, for your father David's sake, I will not do this during your lifetime.'

Whatever happened to Yahweh's insistence on obedience of the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" and "Thou shalt not commit adultery," to name but two?

BEYOND THIS, IT IS interesting to note how Yahweh trims his sails to the prevailing winds. Solomon's many marriages to foreign women were essentially political and were beneficial to Israel. The shrines to Solomon wives' gods were built not simply for worship but for the convenience of foreign traders in town to do business.

Contrast this with Yahweb's treatment of the outsider, Jephthah. Yahweh uses Jephthah to achieve his purpose - defeating the Ammonites - and that accomplished, callously requires Jephthah to keep his vow and sacrifice his only daughter.

In the Bible women are secondary creatures and relatively unimportant. Jephthah's daughter's life can be snuffed out because of what her father (not she) did, and it is of no moment to Yahweh. Solomon may acquire many wives and engage (presumably, although one gasps at the thought!) in some three hundred extramarital sexual relationships with concubines, but every Israelite woman must come to the marriage bed a virgin and remain faithful to her husband through life or face being stoned to death.

And God is no respecter of persons?

Women were associated with evil and weakness. Indeed, Israelite males sometimes thanked God in the synagogue that they had not been born women. Jesus, conversely, associated freely with women and evidently enjoyed their company, as they did his. The record says that Mary Magdalene and other women provided funds for Jesus and the apostles "out of their means." He demonstrated a concern for the plight of women in the male-dominated society, and this may well have been the reason for his flat-out refusal to sanction divorce on any grounds - under Mosaic law the woman was legally much more vulnerable than the man.

The New Testament frequently reveals Jesus' concern for women. Once when he was a guest in a Pharisee's home, a woman, described by Luke as a sinner (presumably a prostitute), wet Jesus' feet with her tears, dried them with the hair of her head, anointed them with an expensive oil, and repeatedly kissed them. Simon, the Pharisee, concluding that Jesus could not be a prophet or he would have recognized that the woman was a whore, voiced his disapproval. Jesus rebuked him for his judgmental attitude and then said to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace."

There were no women in Jesus' band of apostles, but there would have been compelling reasons for this. Jesus and the disciples traveled frequently, often daily, invariably on foot. Often they slept out in the open. In the circumstances it would have been impossible - and potentially scandalous - for a woman to be a part of that male group.

Despite occasional exceptions, the woman's subsidiary role enforced in the Old Testament was continued in the New.

To judge by his epistles, the apostle Paul was a confirmed misogynist. Writing as mentor to Timothy at Ephesus and giving him instructions to be passed on to the Christian assembly there, he laid down these injunctions:

I direct the women to wear suitable clothes and to dress quietly and modestly; not with braided hair, gold, jewellery, or expensive clothes. Their adornment is to be the doing of good deeds of the kind that are proper for women who profess religion. During instruction women are to remain silent and submissive. I permit no woman to teach or to tell a man what to do.

His reason? "Because Adam was formed first, then Eve. Bear in mind, it was not Adam who was led astray and fell into sin, but the woman." Paul does concede, however, that "a woman may be saved through bearing children; provided, that is, that she remains modest and is constant in faith, love, and holiness."

Paul again:

Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since, just as Christ is head of the church so the husband is head of his wife. And just as the church submits to Christ, so should wives submit to their husbands in everything. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul states unequivocally that men and women have a different status before God. A man, for instance, need not cover his head in the synagogue: "For man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man - for man was not made from woman but woman from man."

In the same epistle he goes on to say: "Women should keep silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak. As the Law says, 'They are to be subordinate.' If there is anything a woman wants to know, she should ask her husband after they get home. It is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

Most Protestant churches (even those that hold that the scriptures are the inerrant Word of God) deliberately ignore - as well they might! - these instructions. After many centuries, during which these edicts were more or less obeyed, most churches have bowed to the changing times. There is an increasing number of women clergy and a host of women teachers, although, compared to men, the number remains small. But even this baby step forward took the better part of two thousand years to achieve, and most of these changes were not widely accepted until this century.

The Roman church remains today a male preserve. Women may counsel and assist but, with few exceptions, they may not lead. They may be more numerous than men in the pews and more active in doing good works, but in the majority of the basic expressions of Christianity, women remain subject to and secondary to men.

However, there has been a significant change in the Roman Catholic church in recent years in its attitude to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is undoubtedly the most celebrated, the most venerated, and the most prayed to of all the saints, being recognized not only as the "Mother of God" but also as "Queen of the Universe." There has been a move among Catholics in recent years to upgrade Mary's eminence even further, possibly to elevate her to a status that could lead to her being regarded as a member of the Godhead. Much of this increased veneration of Mary has come at the instigation of the present Pope, John Paul II, who apparently believes that it was her personal intercession that saved his life during the assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square, Rome, in 1981.

All this despite the fact that Mary played only a minor role in Jesus' adult life and ministry. There are but three references to her after his childhood. The first is at the beginning of his ministry, during the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where he appears to speak to her rudely. The second is when she comes to a house in which he is teaching. Someone tells him, "Your mother and your brothers are here.' On the cross, his mother is mentioned as one of three women "standing afar off." And he is said to entrust her to the care of someone thought to be the apostle John.

The Christian church has often claimed to be the champion of women, the compassionate defender of widows and orphans. And sometimes it has been. But through most of history and into the twentieth century women have had to battle tenaciously even to begin to approach actual equality with men. More often than not, even these goals have been achieved despite rather than because of the leadership of the church.