Women in the Bible
WOMEN IN THE BIBLE
The biblical understanding of woman is grounded in the traditions embodied in the narrative accounts of creation (Gn 1–2). In the first account the woman is depicted, with the man, as created in the image of God with both privilege and responsibility (Gn 1.26–28). In the second account she is said to be his 'ēzer, his "suitable partner" (Gn 2.18–20). Despite their fundamental goodness, the first couple sinned and were subsequently punished. Their relationship with God was altered and the harmony that they had originally enjoyed with each other and with the rest of the world was gravely disrupted. The subsequent biblical portraits of the woman and the man, as well as the social and religious roles that each plays in the narratives, must be understood against this basic anthropological/theological point of view. These portraits suggest that the prevailing situation is not what was intended at the beginning.
There is one principal Hebrew word, ’iššâ, that translates as "woman." The linguistic relationship between ’iššâ and 'îš (man or husband) is most likely based on the similarity of sound rather than on linguistic etymology. Because the word means woman in contrast to man, it is sometimes translated "wife." Unlike the word for female (n eqēbâ ), which merely denotes gender, this word connotes relationship between the woman and her man. However, the word itself does not indicate the nature of this relationship. The social groups do that.
Family Relationships. Because of the patriarchal nature and androcentric structure of ancient society, the roles the woman played in the family were secondary to corresponding roles played by the man. The wife was subservient to her husband (Gn 3.16). In one version of the decalogue she was even listed among his possessions (Ex 20.17). The mother was subordinate to the father; sisters were dependent on brothers (Gn 34); widows were among the most vulnerable members of the society because they had severed ties with their own family and were bereft of a male protector among the husband's kin (Dt 26.12).
Israelite women were expected to marry and thus pass from the control of their fathers or brothers to that of their husbands and fathers-in-law. Since only through them would their husband's bloodline be transmitted, it was imperative that the women be virgins at the time of marriage and faithful to their husbands ever after. Wives were valued primarily for their reproductive powers. (Exceptions to this can be found in Gn 29.18 and 1 Sm 1.8.) Since children, specifically sons, carried forward the family name and ensured possession of the family property, the fertility of the wife was of utmost importance not only to the husband but also to the entire family, clan, or tribe. The tensions between Sarah and Hagar (Gn 16.4–6), Rachel and Leah (Gn 30.1–2), and Hannah and Peninnah (1 Sm 1.2–8) were due to the barrenness of the former woman and the fruitfulness of the latter. The stories about the earliest ancestresses recount how often, to circumvent their own inability to provide their husbands with heirs, they offered them their maidservants as surrogates. Thus Hagar became Abram's concubine and bore him a son (Gn 16), and Bilhah, the maidservant of Rachel, and Zilpah, the maidservant of Leah, augmented the family of Jacob in the same way (Gn 30.3–14).
Despite the fact that in the patriarchal family the mother was subordinate to the father, the law dictated that respect and love be given to her as well as to the father (Ex 20.12; 21.15, 17; Lv 19.3; 20.9; Dt 5.16; 21.18–20; 27.16). The plight of the widow was a matter of public concern. If her husband died and left her without children, his family might provide her with a levirate marriage. In this situation, a brother or nearest male relative of the deceased was obliged to act as surrogate husband of the widow. The child born of this union was considered the legal heir of the deceased man, assuming his name and inheriting his property (Dt 25.5–10; see also Gn 38.6–11; Ru 4.1–12). Although the practice was concerned primarily with the perpetuation of the name and property rights of the deceased, it afforded the widow considerable security.
Social and Religious Status. Marriage itself was a social arrangement wherein women were exchanged, that is, given over for some monetary or property return by fathers (Gn 29.14b–30) or brothers (Gn 24.29–54). These men were responsible for devising arrangements that would enhance the economic status of the family. This was done through the exchange of property which constituted an integral element of the marriage. The women brought a dowry and the man paid a bride price or bride-wealth (mōhar, Gn 34.12). The dowry served as the woman's portion of the family inheritance. It was administered by her husband and might significantly alter his economic status, but it did not by right belong to him. It offered the woman some degree of protection against domestic abuse, since it had to be returned to her family in the event of divorce. The bridewealth, on the other hand, was a sample of the man's productive ability (Jacob worked seven years for each of his two wives [Gn 29.18; 27]). It compensated the woman's family for the loss of her reproductive capacity.
In patriarchal societies, rape was seldom regarded as a violation of the woman, but rather of her husband, father, or brother. Since it jeopardized the patriarchal bloodline, rape undercut the economic advantage that the woman's family might have realized through a substantial bridewealth.
It appears that Israelite society did not accept its king's wife as ruler in her own right. However, it did recognize her as a regent or temporary care-taker monarch (2 Kgs 11). Even when women appear to have exercised a certain amount of authority and responsibility, they did so as an exception to the patriarchal norm, in the absence of a man, or with the consent of the men of that social group. Daughters were valued in as much as they might augment the family resources by commanding substantial bridewealth. They could inherit only in the absence of a male heir, and even then, when they would marry, they were required to do so within the father's tribe in order to ensure the tribal possession of the father's property (Nm 27.1–11; 36.1–9). A notable exception to this inheritance custom is found in the epilogue of the Book of Job, where his three daughters receive a share of the estate along with their brothers (Jb 42.13–15).
The priesthood was closed to Israelite women, most likely because of the mysterious reproductive powers of the female body as well as the blood taboo. Despite this restriction, women still participated in the cultic life of the people. They served at the entrance of the meeting tent (Ex 38.8; 1 Sm 2.22) and as singers in the postexilic community (Ez 2.65; Neh 7.67). Furthermore, the people did endorse the prophetic activity of Deborah (Jgs 4.4), Miriam (Ex 15.20), Huldah (2 Kgs 22.14), Noadiah (Neh6.14) and the wife of Isaiah (Is 8.3). Finally, the David saga includes accounts of two different wise women who were able to influence the lives of their respective communities and, thereby, save them from disaster (2 Sm 14.1–20; 20.14–22). Unlike the roles of monarch and priest, which were fixed institutions, the roles of prophet and sage were more charismatic and, thus, open. This may explain why women were more easily accepted in some roles than in others.
In the New Testament women appear in the genealogy of Jesus, are healed and forgiven by him, become his disciples, and exercise a variety of ministries. Women are featured in sayings and parables of Jesus and in Pauline and Deuteropauline teachings. In the Book of Revelation female figures are used symbolically. The stories and sayings about women in the NT give only a partial picture of their life in the apostolic church. Moreover, while it is possible that some of the biblical traditions have come from circles of women, the Bible has been written, for the most part, by men and for men, and told from a male perspective. For a fuller retrieval of the place of women in early Christian communities and for interpreting the biblical traditions about women it is necessary to engage the tools of feminist hermeneutics.
The Greek word thēlus, “female," appears at Mt 19.4; Mk 10.6; Gal 3.28, texts that allude to Gn 1.27. In one other instance it is found in a vice list (Rom 1.26–27). Otherwise the term is gynē, which means both "woman" and "wife." Sometimes it is not possible to know which is intended, e.g., 1 Cor 9.5, where it is not clear whether Paul speaks of his right to take along on mission a Christian woman or a believing wife (adelphēn gynaika ). In several NT passages "woman" is a direct address on the lips of Jesus (Mt 15.28; Lk 22.57; Jn 2.4; 4.21; 19.26; 20.13, 15). This does not convey disrespect, but reflects his patriarchal world in which a woman's identity is embedded in that of her father, husband, and sons. Thus many biblical women are unnamed.
Women in the Genealogy of Jesus. In Matthew's version of the genealogy of Jesus (1.1–17 cf. Lk 3.23–38) the names of four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah's wife, disrupt the stylized pattern that features 39 male ancestors. Each is noted for acting in an unconventional manner that furthered God's purposes for Israel. This prepares for the unusual circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus to mary. The Gospel of Luke gives the most extended treatment to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her story is intertwined with that of Elizabeth, as their stories of annunciation, visitation, and birth of their sons replicate the births of other saving figures of Israel's past (Lk 1–2). Elizabeth is portrayed as upright and faithful (1.6), reliably naming God's grace despite opposition (1.57–66). Mary is grace-filled, favored one (1.28, 30), who assents to God's will (1.38) and continues to ponder God's ways (2.19, 51). The magnificat (1.46–55), an early Christian hymn, is placed on her lips, casting her like Hannah (1 Sm 2.1–10), and prefiguring the mission of Jesus (4.18–19). Upon presenting her newborn son in the Temple, she encounters the prophet Anna who never left the Temple, fasting and praying day and night and speaking about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel (Lk 2.36–38). Mary is mentioned briefly in two other episodes (Mk 3.31–33; Mt 12.46–50; Lk 8.19–21) and reappears at Acts 1.14 with the disciples awaiting the coming of the Spirit. In the Gospel of John she is the catalyst for the beginning of Jesus' public ministry (2.1–12) and is a witness to the crucifixion of her son (19.25–27). There she and the Beloved Disciple are entrusted to one another. Paul only once alludes to Mary, when he speaks of God's Son having been born of a woman (Gal 4.4).
Women Fed, Healed, and Forgiven. Each of the gospels relays accounts of women who have saving encounters with Jesus during his Galilean ministry. The mother-in-law of Simon is healed of a fever and immediately ministers (diēkonei ) to Jesus (Mk 1.29–31; Mt8.14–15; Lk 4.38–39). A woman with a hemorrhage is healed and the daughter of Jairus is resuscitated (Mk5.21–43; Mt 9.18–26; Lk 8.40–56). A persistent Gentile woman of exemplary faith pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter (Mt 15.21–28; Mk 7.24–30). A woman who had been bent over for eighteen years is freed from her infirmity (Lk 13.10–17). A widow from Nain who had lost her only son receives him back when Jesus restores him to life (Lk 7.11–17). A woman caught in adultery is freed from her accusers and her sin (Jn 8.1–11). In the Matthean versions of the feeding of the multitudes, women and children are explicitly mentioned as having been fed along with the men (Mt 14.21; 15.38; cf. Mk 6.30–44;8.9; Lk 9.10–17; Jn 6.1–14). In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate's wife has been affected by her encounter with Jesus, so that she dreams of him and urges her husband to have nothing more to do with him (27.19).
Women in Parables and Sayings. Four gospel parables center on women characters. In Mt 13.33 and Lk 13.20–21 a woman hiding yeast in a mass of dough is a metaphor for the reign of God. Luke depicts God's costly search for the lost as a woman who sweeps the house looking for a stray coin (15.8–10). He also tells of a widow who takes on a corrupt judge and achieves justice by her persistence (18.1–8). Matthew likens the need for preparedness for the second coming of Christ to that of ten virgins awaiting the arrival of a bridegroom (25.1–13). A saying about watchfulness for the end time concerns two women grinding, only one of whom will be taken (Mt 24.41; Lk 17.35). A request from the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Mk 10.35–45; Mt 20.20–23) prompts sayings from Jesus about his passion. As his passion approaches, Jesus tells his disciples that their pain at his death will be forgotten for the joy of new life, as a woman no longer remembers labor pains after she has given birth (Jn 16.20–22). Similarly, Paul compares the onset of the end time to the sudden labor pains of a pregnant woman (1 Thes 5.31). In one instance he likens his ministry to that of a nursing mother (1 Thes 2.7). Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar in an extended allegory to illustrate to the Galatians their movement from slavery to the Law toward freedom in Christ (Gal 4.21–5.1).
The New Family. A number of sayings of Jesus in the gospels concern the effect of discipleship on the patriarchal family structure. There will be conflicts between family members, including mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law (Mt 10.34–39; Mk 10.34–36; Lk 12.51–53). Disciples may leave their mothers, wives, and sisters (Mt 19.29; Mk 10.29; Lk 14.26–27; 18.29). Jesus declares that his mother, brothers and sisters are those who hear and do the will of God (Mk 3.31–35; Mt 12.46–50; Lk 8.19–21; 11.27–28). As for sexual relations, Jesus warns against adultery and lust (Mt 5.27–28) and takes a negative stance on divorce (Mt 5.31–32; 19.9; Mk 10.11; Lk 16.18), a position with which Paul concurs (1 Cor 7.10–14), though he allows separation when one member is a non-believer and does not wish to remain with the Christian (1 Cor 7.15–16). He prefers, in view of the impending parousia, that Christians remain unmarried (1 Cor 7.8). Paul uses an analogy from marriage (Rom 7.1–6) to illustrate how as a woman is not bound to her husband after his death and is free to marry another, so Christians are no longer bound to the Law and are freed by belonging to Christ. A growing appreciation of the value of celibacy is reflected in texts such as 1 Cor7.25–40 and Rv 14.4. In the resurrection there will not be the present order of patriarchal marriage (Mk 12.18; Mt 22.23–33; Lk 20.27–40).
Women Disciples and Ministers. The four gospels are unanimous in telling that there were a number of women disciples of Jesus from Galilee who followed him to Jerusalem, witnessed the crucifixion (Mt 27.55; Mk 15.40–41; Lk 23.49), saw where he was buried (Mt 27.6; Mk 15.47; Lk 23.55–56), and were the ones who found the tomb empty (Mt 28.1–10; Mk 16.1–8; Lk 24.1–12; Jn 20. 1–2; 11–18). In the Gospels of Matthew and John they are also the first to encounter the risen Christ. Each of the gospels gives a slightly different version. The names of the women vary and the accounts of what happened after they found the empty tomb differ. Mark tells that the women fled from the tomb in terror and amazement and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid (16.8). In the Gospel of Luke Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them tell what they have seen and heard to the apostles but they are not believed (24.10–11). Matthew says that the risen Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" while they were on their way to tell the others (28.9–10). He reiterates the instructions to tell the other disciples to go to Galilee, which they obey (28.16). In the Gospel of John Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone, is the first to encounter the risen Christ, and reports to the others what Jesus says to her (20.1–2, 11–18). She is portrayed as apostle to the apostles, much as the Samaritan woman is also cast by the Fourth Evangelist as apostle to her entire town (Jn 4.4–42).
While all four Gospels tell of the Galilean women who followed Jesus to Jerusalem, only Luke notes their discipleship during the Galilean ministry. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and other women who had been healed of illnesses, ministered (diēkonoun ) to Jesus and the twelve out of their monetary resources (Lk 8.1–3). Luke also tells of Mary who takes the attentive position of a disciple at Jesus' feet and her sister Martha who voices her ministerial concerns (pollēn diakonian ) to Jesus (10.38–42). John also preserves traditions about these two sisters. Martha proclaims her belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world (11.27). Mary anoints Jesus for burial (12.1–12). In the Gospels of Mark (14.3–9) and Matthew (26.6–13) the woman who performs this prophetic anointing is anonymous. A similar tradition is found in Luke 7.36–50. There the woman is also anonymous and performs this lavish demonstration of love after having experienced great forgiveness. A similarly extravagant gift to which Jesus calls the attention of his disciples is that of a widow who gives to the Temple treasury all she had to live on (Mk 12.41–44; Lk 21.1–4).
In the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit fills both women and men disciples (1.14; 2.18). Luke explicitly mentions both women and men who became believers (Acts 5.14; 8.12; 17.4, 12), one of whom was named Damaris (17.34), another being Timothy's mother (16.1). Her name, Eunice, is given at 2 Tm 1.5, where she and Timothy's grandmother, Lois, are extolled for passing on their sincere faith to him. Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, is a disciple who engaged in charitable ministries with other widows (9.36–43). Women are among those dragged off to prison by Paul (Acts 8.3; 9.2; 22.4). Negatively, women are among those who became incited against Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch (13.50). A tragic story of a disciple who is struck dead is that of Sapphira, who is complicit in her husband's lie to the community (Acts 5.1–11). Several minor female characters appear in Acts: the slave girl who prophesied in Philippi (16.16–18), the maid Rhoda (12.13), Philip's four unmarried daughters who were prophets (21.9), Bernice, sister of Agrippa II (25.13, 23; 26.30), and Drusilla, the wife of Felix, the Roman procurator (24.24).
In the Pauline letters, the apostle does not list the Galilean women among the witnesses to the resurrection (1 Cor 15.5–8) but he does name many women who ministered in the early church. Among them are Phoebe, deacon of the church at Cenchreae and patron of Paul and many others (Rom 16.1–2), Junia, "notable among the apostles" (Rom 16.7), prisca, who with her husband Aquila was a coworker, risked her neck for Paul, and was head of a house church (Rom 16.3–5; 1 Cor 16.19). She and Aquila explained the Way of God more accurately to Apollos, an eloquent preacher from Alexandria (Acts 18.26). Other women heads of house churches are Nympha (Col 4.15), Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12.12), Lydia (Acts 16.40), and perhaps Chloe who reported to Paul about divisions in Corinth (1 Cor 1.11), Martha who welcomed Jesus into her home (Lk 10.38), and the "elect lady" (a person or a community) to whom 2 John is addressed. Other women coworkers named by Paul are Euodia and Syntyche, who struggled at Paul's side in promoting the gospel (Phil 4.3), Mary (Rom 16.6), Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom 16.12). Three other women are greeted by Paul, about whom little more is known: Rufus' mother (Rom 16.13), Julia, and Nereus' sister (Rom 16.15). The letter to Philemon is addressed as well to Apphia, "our sister" (Phlm 2). The term adelphē ("sister"), used also of Phoebe (Rom 16.1) may have been a title with ministerial connotations beyond the usual address of Christians toward female members of the community. In the Pastoral letters are listed qualifications for women deacons (1 Tm 3.11) and for ministering widows (1 Tm 5.3–16). There are instructions to treat older women as mothers and younger ones as sisters (1 Tm 5.2) as well as directions regarding their comportment (Ti 2.3–5). There are warnings about the vulnerability of women to false teachers (2 Tm 3.6).
Apocalypse. In the Book of Revelation female figures are used symbolically. Most notable is the personification of virtue and vice as a good woman versus an evil woman, a device found in other ancient literature, urging the reader to choose the former. In 12.1–6 a woman clothed with the sun gives birth to a child, which a dragon stands ready to devour. She symbolizes either the persecuted church or Mary giving birth to Jesus. The antithesis is the great harlot, "Babylon" (17.1–6), which stands for Rome, cast as idolatrous in contrast to the people of God. Similarly, in the message to the church at Thyatira, Christians are warned against a false prophet, "Jezebel," recalling the wife of Ahab, who led Israel into idolatry (2 Kgs 9.22). In the concluding vision of the multitude in heaven, the church is symbolized as a bride adorned for her wedding to the victorious Lamb, Christ (9.7; see also Eph 5.21–32; 2 Cor 11.2).
The portrait of women in the NT is mixed. There are passages such as Galatians 3.28 where distinctions between male and female are said to be made irrelevant by baptism into Christ, but there are also passages (Col3.18–4.1; Eph 5.21–33; 1 Pt 3.1–7), where subordination of women in patriarchal households is upheld—a pattern that is replicated in the faith communities, who saw themselves as the "household of God" (Eph 2.19; 1 Tm 3.5). Some of the biblical authors appear to highlight and approve women's exercise of leadership in ministerial roles in the Christian communities (e.g., Jn 20.1–2, 11–18) and others advocate restriction of such. Passages such as 1 Cor 14.34–36 and 1 Tm 2.11–14 proscribe women from speaking in the gathered assembly or from teaching men. The author of 1 Timothy bases his reasoning on an interpretation of the creation story in Genesis that is quite opposite that of Paul, who alludes to this text in 1 Cor 11.8–12 when addressing a matter concerning Corinthian women prophets. The theological anthropology of the Genesis accounts is also invoked in the gospel sayings about not divorcing (Mt 19.3–9; Mk 10.2–12).
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[b. e. reid]