More on Women in the Bible

Dear Reader,

I wanted to follow up a little on my recent posts on women in the Bible (see here and here). In those earlier posts, I discussed how women in our culture are often portrayed as either paragons of good or founts of evil. While these images can be found in the Bible as well, most notably in the book of Proverbs, I also looked at the other biblical evidence and concluded that the Bible’s understanding of women is really different in some fundamental and important ways from these idealized (for better or worse) images that our culture often presents (in a certain class of movies especially).

But, while the Bible, unlike Adam himself and many of his male descendents, does not lay the blame for all temptation at the foot of woman, it does present  a world in which women are in many ways lesser. This is not to say that the Bible itself preaches that women are or should be less, but it accepts the reality that they are less. This is openly acknowledged in the New Testament when Peter calls women the “weaker vessel” and urges men to honor them (I Pet. 3:7). But it is also assumed throughout the Bible. In addition to being physically weaker (which I think is undeniable if we are honest; I remember reading once that men have 5x the upper body strength of women, though of course individuals of both genders vary), women in Bible times were economically disadvantaged as well. There just were not many honorable jobs a woman could hold and so a woman left on her own tended to be either impoverished or engaged in sinful activities (if not both). Did you know that the Hebrew word for “orphan” is better translated “fatherless”? Because a child without a father might as well be an orphan; his mother cannot support him.

Women also lacked power in their society. This is not surprising since they could not hold jobs. They were neither part of the political structure nor the religious structure. They were not the heads of their families and, for the most part though an exception is dealt with even in the time of Moses, could not inherit from their fathers.

But, though this is the situation of women in Bible times, the Bible itself seems to be almost constantly turning this structure on its head. Just as God seemed almost always to choose younger sons (who were also at somewhat of a disadvantage, though not so much as their sisters were) to spite the older, so too He often used women to spite men.

There are many, many examples I could cite of how women, and often quite disrespectable women, played a key role in the history of God’s people, but I would like to look at just two stories. The first is the story of Moses’ birth in the early chapters of Exodus (Exod. 1:8-2:10 ). Who are the characters in this story? There is Pharaoh, of course, and the baby Moses. But there are also the midwives and Moses’ mother and sister (his father is only mentioned in passing as having begat him) and Pharaoh’s daughter. This is the biggest figure of the Old Testament, and yet when his origins are discussed, it is the women who play key roles. They are all unnamed here, but each of them displays remarkable courage, and each of them acts in a way that potentially endangers her own life. I find this stunning. They are not powerful people in the scheme of things, but they act within the sphere of influence they are given, show great moral character, and each one of them plays a pivotal role in the working out of God’s plan of salvation for His people. Who says the Bible does not esteem women? It operates in a world in which women are not esteemed, but it shows clearly that they and their contributions are incredibly valuable.

The second passage I would like to look at is another birth story (no, not that one!); it is the story of Samson’s birth in Judges 13. The whole story of Samson is a great one for seeing the power women exercise, but I’d like to look just at his parents. The story begins, as so many good biblical stories do, with a man whose wife is barren. We are told his name, Manoah, but never that of his wife. An angel appears to his wife and tells her she will bear a child and gives her specific instructions for his upbringing. Good wife that she is, she tells her husband. And what does Manoah do? He prays. Great, right? Praying is always great. Err. . .  not quite in this case because what Manoah prays for is instructions regarding the child. Wait? Didnt he already get those? Of course he did; the angel gave them to his wife. But Manoah doesn’t seem to think that’s sufficient. So Manoah prays. And God sends the angel again — to his wife. This time she runs to get her husband. He gets to see the angel too and so he asks his question: “What shall we do for the child?” And what does the angel say? “Um, dude, do like I told your wife earlier.” Okay, the angel doesn’t quite phrase it that way, but that’s the idea — “I already told your wife; do that.”

After all this, Manoah still doesn’t get that it is an angel they have been talking to. He wants to make their visitor a meal. The angel refuses and makes it obvious he is not a mere human. They sacrifice, the angel disappears in a flame of fire, and Manoah and his wife fall on their faces in wonder. But we are still not done with Manoah. After all this, he fears that they will be killed for having seen the angel of the Lord. It is his wife who has to talk him down and point  out the obvious — that as God as just promised them a child, He is unlikely to wipe them out immediately.

This is not a  flattering picture of the man Manoah. He is the only character named. Like so many biblical women, his wife is never named. And yet it is her that the angel chooses to deal with. It is she that acts logically, believes immediately, and recognizes the Lord (or His angel) when He appears. Manoah does not honor her, but God does.

And I think that in a nutshell is the story of women in the Bible. Rightly or wrongly, women are not powerful figures in the biblical stories, but God does not leave them there. He chooses them and uses them both to further His own plan and to shame those who should have known Him and followed Him and led the way. Their contributions are often small and don’t extend beyond their own normal spheres of influence, and yet they are essential to God’s overall plan of salvation, not because God needs them, of course but because He graciously choose to use them. That is what God is like after all, He tells us himself that He chooses the weak if the world to shame the strong (I Cor. 1:27). So, I say, as women let us not be ashamed of our weakness (for no doubt some weaknesses still exist in us though our place in society is much improved), but let us boast in our weakness for through it God is shown strong!




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