I wanted to write something special for my 20,000 hits and have really wanted to write an article about women and the Old Testament (OT). The OT has been very unfairly criticized for being misogynistic and I have heard people say things like how the OT treats women like objects. It does take some time to understand many of these verses. Simple things like realizing that there were no jails and that slavery was a way of enforcing justice like paying off your debts (i.e.Bernie Madoff), really helps elucidate the whole picture. We also should remember that the Torah (the first five books of the BIble) was written about 3,400 years ago and if we compare it to the other cultures at that time, there would be no doubt that the OT is what I call “pro-woman”!
Keep in mind the big picture of how the OT views women before becoming bogged down by the small aspects of civil and ceremonial laws. As Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law...” The Bible gives men and women full ontological equality (i.e. equal in their being) in Genesis 1:27, as man and woman, are both made in His image. When they have physical union, they are united as “one flesh”(Genesis 2:24), so that sex is not just a physical act for pleasure, but one that should be used only with his wife, because it makes you one flesh. I think that it is highly significant that God made sex not just some free physical activity because women are not able to be treated as mere sex objects, as sex metaphysical unites man and woman. This was Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 6:16 where he says, “Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, ‘the two shall become one flesh.’”
Monogamy is also held to an incredibly high standard. Not committing adultery is one of the 10 commandments (the seventh) and in the ninth commandment “thou shall not covet” it explicitly states not to covet your neighbor’s wife. Moses, it seems, to go out of his way to make sure Kings “shall not multiply wives for himself” in Deut. 17:17. The man with the most power, the king of Israel, receives a special prohibition. Before we move on, it is important to note here that if people were perfect there wouldn't need to be laws, but as Jesus says in Matthew 19:8 “... Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way,” thus there are laws to enforce sins such as divorce and polygamy.
Summary: Men and women are ontologically equal and both are created in God’s image. Monogamy is held to the highest standard with adultery making it into the 10 commandments.
With this view in mind let us tackle some of the some verses in the OT. Some of these cover very “pro-woman” verses and others tackle more controversial verses, in no particular order.
God gives protection for married women
God in His own words said, “Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel” (Micah 2:15-16). However if it were to happen Exodus 21:10 says “If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights.” Furthermore, the Bible has Levirate marriages, so that if a woman had no children then the husband’s brother would have to marry her. First, it is important to note that it does not say “his conjugal rights” rather "her." Second, it was important for women to have children so that they in return could help take care of their parents, as one got older, because of the poor economic opportunities for women, especially divorced women, who had a much more difficult time becoming remarried, as marriages were arranged.
So the conjugal rights were a protection for the women in this case. Do not think the men were excited to be able to continue intimate relations - this is a 21st century fallacy. In fact, men did not want to have have sexual relations with these women, so that they did not have to split their wealth. This is one of the reasons why Deut. 25 goes in depth of how the woman may publicly shame men who do not fulfill this role. Also, the story of Onan in Genesis 38 a tells us that he did not want to impregnate his sister-in-law and “wasted his seed on the ground. God saw that action and took his life! This is a system of alimony over 3,000 years ago designed to protect women.
There are even protections for even more vulnerable women, namely, foreign women captured during war. I believe this section is one of the most pro-woman verses in the Bible. Deut 21:10-14:
10 “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, 11 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her.
I’m sure in other ancient cultures they took women as slaves and concubines and gave them absolutely no rights, but this is not so in Israel. Remember, when we talked about the equality of women and the high standard of monogamy? When they conquered a nation, they could not just do with the women what they wanted. If they wanted to have intimate relations with them then they needed to marry them. The text says they needed to make the beautiful woman that captivated them his wife, not slave. Furthermore, to make sure you really wanted to marry the girl, she had to cut her hair and trim her nails, so that it wasn’t simply external. If you still wanted to make her your wife with how she looked after all that, then you needed to give her one month to mourn given all that has just taken place in her life. If you divorce her you cannot mistreat her and make her your slave or concubine. This is a far cry from objectification.
God gives women the ability to inherit land
Numbers 27:6 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 7 “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in their statements. You shall surely give them a hereditary possession among their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer the inheritance of their father to them.”
Women able to own property. Nuff said.
Some Controversial Verses
1. Lev 12:1-5
‘When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean. 3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 Then she shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed. 5 But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall remain in the blood of her purification for sixty-six days.
Critics of the Bible complain here that b/c males have a shorter uncleanliness period, they must be more valuable than females.What is actually happening is that b/c the male have to become circumcised there is a longer wait for the female babies. In the pre-anesthesia days, this was definitely not in favor of males.
2. Deut 22 28
“If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days."
This is a horrible situation emotionally, spiritually, and physically. When a woman is raped or is divorced,as previously mentioned, it was extremely difficult for them to be married. Without marriage, women were in a dire economic situation. So what to do here in the instance of rape? Remember, there is no welfare or social security. Furthermore, only in recent times has society really married for romantic love. Marriages were arranged. Who in that society would arrange for their child to be married to her? Probably none, so the best thing to do for this unfortunate woman, so that her future is not totally decimated was to make the man who did this horrible thing to her take care of her forever. Note, there is an extra-stipulation here that she cannot be divorced, further reinforcing that she is taken care of by him.
Anyone with a bias against the Bible can spin anything toward their own point-of-view. Some see OT as being hopelessly misogynistic, but I hope I have helped dispel that notion and show that much has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, or purposefully maligned. Part of the difficulty of understanding all this is having our 21st century mind has to be transported back over 3,000 years ago. As always, if we look a little deeper, we always see the justice, holiness, and love of our great God! May God give us the eyes to see the beauty of His Word.
Psalm 119:18 Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Your law.