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Holman Bible Dictionary
Woman in Bible times lived in a patriarchal society. Both the Old and New Testament worlds normally restricted the role of woman primarily to the sphere of home and family, although a few strong women emerged as leaders. In religious life she was subordinate to man. Father and then husband or other male relatives gave protection and direction to woman. Jesus raised the window for women. He paid attention to them. His manner was inclusive and acknowledged their place in the kingdom He proclaimed. By what He did and what He said He elevated the status of woman. Paul also caught Jesus' vision. Although Paul faced the need to preserve order in the early church, he exclaimed in Galatians 3:28 : “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” The final barrier preventing woman from fully participating in the kingdom of God toppled under Jesus' influence.
What the Old Testament Teaches About Woman The Old Testament shows woman in at least two lights. The predominant view is one of woman in subjection to man. However, at times, woman is also the object of adoration and admiration. The creation narratives in Genesis foreshadow two different perspectives regarding woman. In the account in Genesis 1:26-30 , man and woman are created simultaneously (Genesis 1:27 ). Woman, like man, is made in the image of God. Together, man and woman reflect the image of God. Woman is not in an inferior place in creation. In Genesis 2:7-25 , man is created before woman. In this second account woman is viewed as being created for man as his helper. This account is often cited as supportive of the view that woman should remain subject to man since she has a subordinate position in creation, but the narrative describes woman as a “suitable partner” (Genesis 2:20 REB) for whom man leaves his family.
The subordination of woman appears more clearly in a close reading the Ten Commandments. The Commandments are addressed to men, a fact evidenced by the use of masculine pronouns. A major of evidence of women's subordination is the reference to man not coveting any of his neighbor's property. His wife is included in the list of possessions (Exodus 20:17 ). Marriage and divorce are areas in which woman's rights were subordinate to those of man. If a woman about to be married was suspected of not being a virgin, she was required to submit to a test. If her virginity was not established, she could be stoned to death at her father's door (Deuteronomy 22:13-21 ). No such requirement was made for a man. Adultery was seen as a crime against a husband's rights. Both male and female caught in the act of adultery were stoned, but it was the husband's rights which were being vindicated (Deuteronomy 22:22 ). A husband who was jealous of his wife and had some fears about her faithfulness could take her to the priest and have her submit to an intricate test to determine her innocence or guilt (Numbers 5:11-31 ). No such avenue was open for a woman who suspected her husband of being unfaithful.
Divorce was also slanted toward the husband. He could obtain a divorce from his wife “because he finds something objectionable about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1 NRSV). The phrase “something objectionable” was variously interpreted by the Jews and ran the gamut from adultery to burned toast!
Inequity between boy and girl babies existed from the very beginning of life. A mother who bore a girl baby was considered unclean for twice as long as a mother who bore a male child. During her “purifying” time after the birth of a baby, a mother was not to “touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed” (Leviticus 12:2-5 ).
Aside from specific inequities in the way men and women were treated, the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Proverbs, warned of tempting, “loose” (Leviticus 2:16 NRSV), “loud,” “ignorant” ( Leviticus 9:13 NRSV), and “contentious” ( Leviticus 21:9 NRSV) women. Women were also seen as fearful ( Isaiah 19:16 ). Proverbs 31:1 also pictured the hardworking, praiseworthy, “virtuous” woman.
Woman's most positive image was wife and mother. Against the predominant pattern of women in subordinate roles, several positive images of women emerged from the Old Testament. Undoubtedly, woman was venerated in her role as wife and mother. The Ten Commandments cite a son's duty to honor both his father and mother (Exodus 20:12 ). The ideal woman, eulogized in Proverbs 31:1 , is a wife and mother who fulfills well both roles in addition to engaging profitably in the business world.
The birth of children was a sign of God's favor bestowed upon a good woman. A particular sign of God's favor was the birth of male children (Genesis 29:31-30:24 ). The story of Ruth is a good example of a traditional woman who was admired for her role as a good daughter-in-law. Ruth and Naomi, whose husbands died, were women of worth whom God aided by sending Boaz as their protector (Ruth 1-4 ).
A thread which crosses the dominant pattern of the subjection of women is one which depicts women positively. Wisdom, which held high value for the Hebrew people, was personified as “she” (Proverbs 1:20; Proverbs 7:4 ). The prophet Isaiah used a mother's love for her child as a model for God's love for His people. (Isaiah 49:15 : Isaiah 66:13 ). Several women—including Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Esther—earned the respect and admiration of the Israelite nation by playing a significant role in times of national crisis. See Deborah; Esther; Huldah; Miriam .
What the New Testament Teaches About Woman Jesus was able to retain the best in the Hebrew tradition and yet cut away some of the rigid structure that restricted it. He was able to do the same for woman. Without radically changing her roles, Jesus enlarged and transformed women's possibilities for a full life. His manner and teachings elevated her status and gave her an identity and a cause. Jesus' manner in His interactions with women is at least as significant as His teachings about woman. At the risk of censure from a male-oriented society, Jesus talked to women, responded to their touch, healed them, received their emotional and financial support, and used them as main characters in His stories. Jesus saw women as persons. Martha wanted Jesus to make Mary help with the serving duties, but Jesus affirmed Mary's choice to learn as a disciple. Women of that day could not be disciples of rabbis, but Jesus recognized women's potential for intelligent thought and commitment (Luke 10:38-42 ).
On another occasion, Jesus welcomed a woman's anointing His head as indicative of her understanding of His real mission. Instead of rejecting her public display or chiding her for extravagance, He commended her for her act of love. He treated her as a person of insight and feeling (Mark 14:3-9 ). The woman at the well in Samaria is another example of Jesus seeing women as persons. Jesus would not have talked theology to her if He had related to her primarily as a woman or as a Samaritan. However, He saw her as a person, so He was not restricted in His interaction by her sex or race (John 4:1-42 ). The woman caught in adultery was treated as a person. Her action was not condoned by Jesus, but neither did He allow her to be subjected to a double standard by her male accusers. Jesus offered her new possibilities of living with His directive: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 7:53-8:11 NRSV).
Besides seeing women as persons, Jesus involved them in His earthly ministry. Luke mentioned a group of women who traveled with Jesus as He journeyed from town to town (Luke 8:1-3 ). Among them were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Susanna. These women provided financial support for Jesus and the twelve apostles. Women also proclaimed the gospel. In His encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus revealed Himself as the Messiah. She immediately left and began telling people, “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:39 NRSV). Many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman's testimony.
Women were the first at the tomb after the resurrection; and, as such, they were the first to broadcast His victory over death (Luke 23:55-24:11 ). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all called attention to the loyal women who participated in Jesus' Galilean ministry and followed Him all the way to the cross and the grave. They shared the greatest news: “He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5 NRSV).
As a master teacher, Jesus used parables to teach about the kingdom of God. He reached out to the women in His audience by telling stories about their life experiences. By capturing their attention and commitment through parables, He offered them a place in the kingdom.
God's seeking activity is the theme of two parables, the lost sheep begins, “What man of you” and the parable of the lost coin, “What woman.” The woman looking for the lost coin represented God's activity in seeking the lost, just as the man represented God's seeking activity. Jesus appealed to women through their housekeeping experiences. He elevated their experiences by likening them to God's activity.
The twin parables in Luke 13:18-20 point to the way the kingdom of God grows. Again Jesus used the life experience of woman to illuminate an eternal truth. Jesus meant for women to identify with His mission. He meant to involve them in spreading the gospel. His parables taught that both women and men would be involved in the kingdom work.
Jesus spoke directly to the matter of treating a woman as a sex object. In the Sermon on the Mount, He redefined adultery to include a lustful look (Matthew 5:28 ). While making religion a matter of the heart instead of the law, Jesus elevated women to the level of full personhood, from the level of sexual exploitation. Marriage and divorce were issues of great importance to women, since their lives were lived mainly in the roles of wife and mother. Their emotional, social, and financial security was dependent on their marriages. Jesus said that divorce is a testimony to the hardness of the human heart, not God's will (Matthew 19:1-9 ). To those who were casually divorcing their wives, Jesus stated plainly that they were committing adultery. Responsive to the plight of women, He offset the male bias toward divorce and strengthened marriage as a permanent union. (See Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18 .)
Jesus' parable of the ten maidens, five foolish and five wise, hints at the way Jesus saw and dealt with woman (Matthew 25:1-13 ). He saw women as neither inferior nor superior, but simply as persons. He saw their potential, their sinfulness, their strengths and weaknesses, and He dealt with them directly. As a group, He elevated their status and strengthened their participation and influence in their world. But as individuals, He treated them as friends and disciples.
Paul's theological vision (Galatians 3:28 ) was that there was no partiality among persons with God. Yet Paul felt the tension of maintaining order in the New Testament church. He often fell back on Jewish social customs of the day to ensure that the fledgling church would not be seen unfavorably by the rest of the world. A man of his time, he still had a vision toward which he strove.
Paul moved ahead of his Jewish background when he called for mutual submission between husbands and wives (Ephesians 5:21-33 ). The prevailing custom was for wives to be submissive. However, Paul reflected Jesus' concern that all relationships reflect the grace extended by God.—Responsibilities of both husbands and wives to love each other follow the initial exhortation to submit to each other in love. In other passages Paul implied a hierarchy of submission from God, to Christ, to man, to woman, to child as the sequence. However, the tone of this hierarchy was not military, but voluntary and self-sacrificing. Here again was a concession to order and not the ideal (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:33-40; 1 Timothy 2:8-15 ).
Paul wrote in response to problems in churches. Paul was concerned that the Christians should “give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32 NRSV). Therefore, he wrote responses to the way specific problems should be handled in different churches. Some of his remarks do not have direct relevance to our day. For example, he spoke of meat offered to idols ( Romans 14:1 ), and women wearing jewelry and braiding their hair (1 Timothy 2:8-12 ). In contrast to these specific problems, Paul espoused basic principles which have relevance to every age: (1) A Christian should take into account how his or her actions may influence others (1 Corinthians 8:13 ) and (2) A Christian should do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31 ).
Of equal weight with what Paul said regarding women is how he related to them. Paul welcomed women as colaborers in the churches and commended them for their gifts and faithfulness (Romans 16:1 ,Romans 16:1,16:3-5 ). Phoebe, Prisca, Lydia, and others were seen as partners in the gospel. To the Roman church Paul said, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1 NRSV). He called Phoebe a “benefactor of many and of myself as well” ( Romans 16:2 NRSV). Evidently Paul relied on women to exercise their gifts ( 1 Corinthians 12:1 ) as a part of the body of Christ. See Deacon; Offices; Phoebe; Prisca .
Summary Woman is the subject of many questions and controversies in the church today. Is she equal to man? Can she exercise the same spiritual gifts as man in the church? Should she be subject to her husband in all matters? As Christians turn to the Bible for guidance in responding to these questions, they must be careful not to focus on one verse or passage. The total impact and message of the Bible should become the guiding spirit in answering these and other questions.
The Old Testament clearly subjected woman to the will and protection of her husband. She was extolled for performing her important roles as wife and mother. On occasion she rose above those roles and led the Jewish nation in times of crisis.
The New Testament brings a different picture of woman into focus. Jesus, and later Paul, elevated the status of woman so that she could be a full participant in the kingdom of God. However, she is urged to use her responsibility as well as her freedom to find her place in the body of Christ. The spirit of freedom and love in Christ is woman's as well as man's. See Divorce; Family; Marriage; Sex, Teaching on.
Kay W. Shurden
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Woman'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​w/woman.html. 1991.