Saturday, April 18, 2009

Women in the Old Testament

Bruce Waltke in his lectures on Judges is asked:

  • Please comment on the author's attitude to women in the book of judges.

This is his response.

In a word I would say: very, very favourably. In fact the whole Deuteronomist is very favourable to women.

Who do you know better, Deborah or Lappidoth? Deborah. You don't even know who Lappidoth is. That's her husband [Judges 4:4].

Who killed Sisera? Jael [Judges 4:21].

Who killed the wicked Abimelech? A woman of theives [Judges 9:38].

Whom did I say was smarter, Manoah or his wife? Who had the instruction to raise the boy, Manoah or his wife? His wife [Judges 13].

Who is greater Hannah or Elkanah, in the book of Samuel? Obviously Hannah.

Who is greater Abigail or Nabal? Abigail.

You see what I am driving at? This whole idea that the Old Testament puts women down is rubbish.

And that was just what he was able to rattle off from the top of his head. More could be added.


  1. Amen.

    The danger is some then make the erroneous leap, "Therefore, it's acceptable to have female church eldership and teachers."


  2. What about the bits of the Old Testament that effectively punish a woman for rape?

    Deuteronomy 22:23-24:

    If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out of the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbors wife.

    It is insane to think that there is nowhere in a city where people wouldn't hear a woman crying out to be rescued, also that the woman could never be silenced in some way, either by the man threatening to kill her or by the simple use of a gag. And if this does happen, the rapist knows the woman will keep it secret because she is likely to be stoned to death for confessing the assault.

    A few positive examples doesn't mean the Old Testament doesn't "put women down" - there are plenty of examples of men seizing women from foreign tribes, slave girls used as concubines (we'd call that "sexual abuse" today)

    In Leviticus 27:3-7, there is a price put on men and women, men are valued higher.

    I can think of 2 books in the Bible named after women... and a good number named after men.

    It's often mentioned that a man has more than one wife, but never a wife with more than one husband.

    The genealogies in Matthew and Luke mention fathers. Matthew occasionally points out the mothers when they were notable.

    I think the women you mentioned are notable, but they are the exception rather than a rule. I wouldn't complain but this sort of thinking is way too common and it's unsettling - providing postive examples doesn't make the negative ones any less negative. "Yes, women have to accept a lesser deal in everything but occasionally some women get a good deal and are considered notable! See, it's all fair really."

  3. Hi Arron,

    I am complementarian but I think pointing out these examples is important in explaining that position. I don't believe in male leadership because women are either (a) more inclined to be sinful or (b) less able to lead. Both of these arguments have been made in the past by Christians and this is something we should be ashamed of. Those (often eminent) Christians were reflecting their own culture rather than the bible, which is exactly what we would think we are trying to do today.

    If we are listening to the bible's testimony we have to admit that all humans are sinful and one sex is not more sinful than the other. In addition women are as able to teach and lead as men. These examples show that the bible writers thought that women are often are more righteous and more able to lead than men.

    Today many people are well aware that women are as capable of leadership as men because they see it in their daily lives. The bible agrees, but gives a different reason for male leadership in the church and that is reflecting the Trinity and Christ's relationship with the church.

    So in short, I think that understanding the bible's positive view of women strengthens the complementarian position because it does not allow those who have a different view to knock down arguments which we should not be making (for both moral and intelectual reasons).


    Great to hear from you. I still keep up to date with your blog/facebook, but assumed you must have not frequented this boring corner of the internet for a long time. How are things?

    You ask a lot of difficult questions. I'll have a go at answering them but please bare in mind I'm no expert in these matters. Arron was just saying today how often not all our questions are answered but we have to trust the God who we know is trustworthy and loving from what he has made clear in sending his own son for us. Often I have to do just that... I'm still unsure of a lot of things, although this is one of the topics I am more sure of!

    Anyway... here goes:

    Deuteronomy 22:23-24A commentator (McConville) says this on that passage: "the offence in view is consensual, because the terms imply no force (the man [lit.] 'finds' her and 'sleeps with' her), and because of the circumstance that no-one heard her cry out". I don't know Hebrew or enough about the situation in the Ancient Near East to comment too much. However, the next few verses describe a situation in which there is absolutely no way of knowing whether there was rape or consensual sex and in that example the women is not to be punished at all. Clearly if the writer in one verse says that women should not be punished for rape, then in the 2 verses before he cannot be saying that they should.

    there are plenty of examples of men seizing women from foreign tribes, slave girls used as concubines (we'd call that "sexual abuse" today)There are plenty of examples. That was tragically an all too common part of life in that society and so any history is bound to reflect that. I cannot think of any example of a bible writer portraying that in a favourable light though. All of the characters in the bible are shown as flawed, even evil, but that doesn't mean those flaws and evil acts are approved of.

    Leviticus 27:3-7I don't think this passage is putting a price on men and women. Another commentator (Chris Wright) on this passage says: "This chapter, recognizing that people committed to holiness and striving to live according to the preceding chapters may be tempted to make over-enthusiastic or unrealistic 'offers' to God, tempers such enthusiasm with cool realism. Vows must be entered into only in full awareness of their costliness. It was possible to redeem a vow, i.e. to literally buy yourself out of its consequences, but these regulations show that this was an expensive option". People are not being valued according to their worth as human beings, instead the law reflects God's kindness in recognising different people's ability to pay. A women in that society was likely to have less money than a man, and so a different deterrent to making rash vows was required. This parallels the many examples where poor people could offer smaller sacrifices in the OT law (e.g. Lev 14) than richer people. This was not because poor people were worth less (the OT is clear of God's special love for the poor) but because they had less ability to pay.

    I can think of 2 books in the Bible named after women... and a good number named after men.I don't think that means that women are less valuable but reflects that the OT books were written by men and the books are often named after the authors and not always their main characters.

    It's often mentioned that a man has more than one wife, but never a wife with more than one husband.That is again because that was the reality of the historical situation. This is not to say the bible writers approve. The bible is clear that marriage should be an equal partnership of one man and one woman.

    The genealogies in Matthew and Luke mention fathers. Matthew occasionally points out the mothers when they were notable.There are plenty of men in that list who were pretty awful and far from notable. Inclusion in those genealogies is not a measure of moral worth, or importance.

    I genuinely think that the bible has a higher view of women than the vast majority of books written prior to about 100 years ago. This is astonishing, unless explained by its having an origin outside of human culture.

    Good to think about these things. Please come back at me...

  4. Hi Dave,

    Yeah, sorry about reappearing just to criticise your post. I keep meaning to send you a proper email asking how you are. It's just the post interested me because the topic is a somewhat fascinating one.

    I do see what you mean about the verse, in that the woman is to be punished for adultery only if it's consensual; my issue is more with how it's phrased... the only proof accepted that it is consensual is that no one her heard cry out. It may not be saying that a woman should not be punished for rape, but offers the woman little by way of defence if she has been raped but no one heard.

    But I do appreciate your point, and I like your reply to Arron too :)

  5. Well feel free to comment again, I love the interaction. Even if I do often post on less fascinating things.

    And to be fair I think my response to Arron was maybe a bit overly defensive. I did that thing which I usually do in phone conversations... only tune in after the first sentence. Hence I missed his 'Amen'!

  6. Hi there,

    Dave has appealed to some commentators in his post, and I agree with their thoughts, so this is just a further note to say I have no further notes.