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Women in Israel - January 11

Women in Israel

The story of women in Israel confronts us with some interesting realities. On the one hand, women clearly lived within a patriarchical culture that would be uncomfortable even for most traditionalists in the modern world. Some would contend that women were the property of their fathers or husbands in the Hebrew Scriptures. On the other hand, there are flashes of “liberation” which not only exceeded the cultural standards of the Ancient Near East, but would make some modern people uncomfortable. Which story do we follow? Should we embody the “flashes” in our contemporary world or is the patriarchical culture normative for contemporary believers? Perhaps it is best to say that the former was a cultural accommodation and the latter revealed God’s intention which would slowly unveil itself in the fallen world.

I. Israel in Ancient Near Eastern Culture.

A. Concessions to Culture: the Old Testament does not liberate women from all the fallen structures that were part of ancient Near Eastern culture. It accommodates much of the culture as part of a process of redeeming it. Here are some examples that reflect the slow process of liberation.

1. A husband could overrule commitments made by his wife prior to her marriage but there is no indication that the reverse was true (Numbers 30:6-15).

2. The legal status of married women was analogous to that of a daughter. The wife had no greater degree of independence than a child (Number 30:16).

3. A husband could divorce his wife, but there is no indication that a wife could divorce her husband.

4. Polygamy was acceptable for males, but not for females.

5. Inheritance is passed through the male line without equal share for females in the line but where there are no male heirs, daughters inherit ahead of the brothers of the male who died (Numbers 27:1-11).

6. A widow did not inherit the property of her husband but she was cared for by the inheritor of the estate (sons, brothers, etc.).

B. Redemptive Elements: there are some dimensions of the Hebrew Scriptures which protect women. Some of these transcend the boundaries of the Ancient Near Eastern culture. They redeem some of the fallen structures of that ancient world and shape a community where women are more valued than in other societies of the time.

1. Adultery is not a prejorative of the male. It is prohibitive for both male and female. It is viewed as destructive to the home.

2. Wives are not generally regarded as property and there is an embedded ideal within the text of shared identity (image of God) and shared task (caring for the world).

3. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 protects women. The law forbids a man from remarrying a woman he had previously divorced. In ancient Near Eastern culture men could remarry women to secure new assets they had acquired through another marriage.

4. Females were not abandoned at birth as in many cultures.

C. Curious Situation: the Hebrew legal system had built-in protective measures for women but at the same time participated in the cultural patriarchy of its time. One significant example is Exodus 21:7-11.

1. On one hand, a father can sell his daughter into slavery. The buyer can keep her or let her be redeemed (bought by someone else or by her family). The buyer can give her in marriage to her son. And the husband can still marry another person as well.

2. On the other hand, the buyer cannot sell her to foreigners. She must stay within Israel as a family-nation. If she marries, she is protected from abuse. She has marital (sexual) rights, and the husband must feed and clothe her. If the husband fails to provide these things, she must go free without any payment or money.

3. Curiously, she is protected but not protected. Theologically, this legistlation both participates in culture and redeems it. It is part of the redemptive movement where Israel points its culture to better things, but it does not get out too far in front of its culture.

4. We have the situation where the treatment of women in the Old Testament has redemptive elements in its narrative, but it is not ideal God intended in creation. Another example is how you treat a captive woman--you may marry her, but she must be given time to mourn and if you are displeased with her you must free her rather than sell her as a slave (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

II. Women Serving God in Israel.

A. The Precious Woman (Proverbs 31). She is a woman who pleases God through worship (fear of the Lord) and service to her family. This involves her in multiple activities from caring for children, honoring her husband, working outside the home, giving to the poor, and conducting business (she buys and sells). The woman is respected and valued on her own merits, not those of her husband. The guiding principle is her spiritual devotion which entails serving her family.

B. Female Servant-Leaders in Israel.

1. Deborah (Judges 4:4). Deborah’s function is analogous to that of Samuel (there are literary overtones that connect the two: prophet, judging disputes [1 Samuel 3:20-4:1], and operating in the region of Ramah/Bethel [1 Samuel 7:15-17]). Deborah judged Israel (analogously to other judges; cf. Judges 10:2-3; 12:7-9, 11, 13-14; 15:20). Barak submits to the word Deborah speaks (she spoke for God when she commanded Barak to go into battle) and followed her instructions. The events demonstrate she was a true prophetess and sang a song with Barak that blessed the people (Judges 5).

a. Some argue that Deborah was gifted as prophetess and judge because men had failed to exercise male leadership. In the vaccum of male leadership, God raised up Deborah to fill the role. However, while Barak failed to exercise leadership appropriately when he conditioned his obedience to the word of God on Deborah's participation, there is no hint in the text that Deborah was raised up as a judge because of failed male leadership. Rather, Deborah served Israel at God's pleasure and through his gift, and all Israel--without shame--went to her for judgment.

b. Nevertheless, all the judges of Israel were male except Deborah. It is appropriate to ask why this exception? One explanation is there there were no male leaders avaiable or that God was judging the lack of male leadership by using Deborah. Another explanation is that God used Deborah in order to teach Israel that God permits this kind of leadership for woman among his people.

c. At the very least we can say that the ledership Deborah exercised did not violate Genesis 1-2 and was consistent with God's intent in creation. God would not have gifted Deborah in a way that violated his original intent.

2. Miriam (Exodus 15:20). Miriam sang “to them” (masculine plural) and the imperative “to sing” in Exodus 15:21 is masculine. It seems she led the singing, perhaps antiphonally, for the whole nation. On that occasion she was a “worship leader” for the whole nation, both male and female. She was a divinely commissioned leader along side of Moses and Aaron (cf. Micah 6:4) and the Lord spoke through her as well as Moses and Aaron (Numbers 12:2). However, when she sought to supplant the role of Moses, a role which she had not been given, God did punish her (Numbers 12:3-5). Yet, Aaron was her partner in that rebellion and was also punished. When Israel remembered the leadership that led them out of Egypt, they remembered a trio: “Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).

3. Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22). She speaks with the prophetic formula: “Thus says the Lord” and apparently Josiah and his men regularly sought guidance from God through her. She was the wife of a Levitical temple worker. Perhaps Josiah approached her because she was a well-known Levitical prophetesses who would have insight into the book they found in the temple. She was probably what would be called a “cult prophetesses,” that is, she was a prophetess who spoke in the context of the worship of Israel in the temple.

4. Female Levitical Singers in the Temple (Nehemiah 7:67; Ezra 2:65; 2 Chronicles 35:25). Women served in the Levitical choir and band (cf. 1 Chronicles 25:5-6).

5. Women also served at the entrance of the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:8) though it is uncertain what this service was.

6. Anna, a prophetess (Luke 2:36), spoke to all (masculine gender) in the temple courts.

III. A Further Question.

A. Excluded Roles.

1. Only males were ordained priests in Israel. Indeed, originally it was the firstborn males who were to be priests, but in the wake of Israel’s sin, God chose only the males from the tribe of Levi (Numbers 8:18). Primogeniture was the original vision of God.

2. Only males were crowned legitimate kings in the Davidic covenant. Here primogeniture also functioned, but was sometimes reversed by the electing grace of God (e.g., Solomon was neither the firstborn nor the eldest son alive at the time of his coronation).

B. Why Were Women Excluded from these Roles?

1. Egalitarians argue that women were excluded as an accommodation to culture.

a. In the same way that women were not lifted totally out of the oppressive context of ancient culture in which they lived, so women were excluded from certain roles because of culture. Or, perhaps, women were excluded from the priesthood because it would have too closely associated them with the prominent role of priestesses in Canaanite fertility cults. Indeed, the women who ministered at the Tabernacle apparently became some kind of cultic (ritual) prostitutes (see 1 Samuel 2:22).

b. Yet we have some significant leaders in the history of Israel. These are texts which contain the seed of the future liberation of women and anticipate the future divine empowerment of women. Deborah and Miriam were leaders in Israel and assumed functions that one would have thought only belonged exclusively to males in a patriarchical culture. The presence of prophetesses in Israel indicates that women did assume some authoritative speaking functions within the religious life of the nation.

2. Complementarians argue that women were excluded from certain roles because those roles involved “headship” functions.

a. Prophetesses like Deborah and Miriam served Israel by speaking the word of God to them and thus led Israel by their prophecy. However, Miriam served under the leadership of Moses and Deborah served in conjunction with Barak. Some would say that Huldah’s prophecy was a private rather than public word to Josiah.

b. Kings and priests functioned in the religious life of Israel as official mediators of the covenant and responsible for the direction of the nation as a whole. Deborah’s function was not judging Israel as a whole or making communal decisions for the nation, but rather judging situations on a case by case basis.

Questions for Discussion

1. Are you uncomfortable with the status of women in Israel as described in section I? Why, or why not?

2. What do you think is the significance of Deborah, Miriam and Huldah within the history of Israel? Are they unique situations relative to the circumstances of the nation or do they anticipate and lay a foundation for a larger role for women in the public life of the community of God?

3. What analogies, if any, would you draw between the actions of some of Israel’s women and women serving God in the contemporary church?

4. Are you more comfortable with an egalitarian or complementarian understanding of the exclusion of women from some public roles in Israel? Why? Whose explanation do you find more convincing—the egalitarian or the complementarian?


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