The status of women in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)
Passages treating women as inferior to men
How the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) generally viewed women:
Women's behavior was extremely limited in ancient times, much as the
women of Afghanistan during the recent Taliban oppression. They were:
||Unmarried women were not allowed to leave the home of their father without permission.|
||Married women were not allowed to leave the home of their husband, without permission.|
|They were normally restricted to roles of little or no authority.|
|They could not testify in court.|
|They could not appear in public venues.|
|They were not allowed to talk to strangers.|
|They had to be doubly veiled when they left their homes. 1|
Women were considered inferior to men:
|Genesis 1:27 to 3:24:
|In the first creation story (Genesis 1:27) God is described
as creating man, both male and female at the same time: "So God
created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them." 2 This might be interpreted as
implying equality between the two genders.|
|But in the second creation story, (Genesis 2:7)
God formed only a man: "...the LORD God formed man of the dust of the
ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man
became a living soul. Realizing that he needed a helper (Genesis 2:18), God marched all
of the animals past Adam (Genesis 2:19-20) looking for a suitable animal. Finding none
suitable, God created Eve out of one of Adam's ribs. The term "helper" has
historically been interpreted as implying an inferior role for Eve, although some modern
interpreters believe that the word can mean a companion of equal status. "...the
Hebrew word translated "helper" is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament:
twenty of these cases refer to help from a superior." (3) In
Genesis 2:27, Adam later asserts his authority over Eve by naming
her: "...she shall be called Woman, because she was taken
out of Man." In ancient times, one was believed to have
authority over a person or thing by naming it.
|Genesis 3:16: Adam's role is to be Eve's master. The King James Version
New International Version (NIV), and Revised Standard Version (RSV) use the term
"rule" to describe Adam's role over Eve: "...thy desire
shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." The Living Bible uses the term
"master". The Modern Language Bible uses "dominate". By implication,
all of their descendents are would have the same power imbalance between spouses.
|A man could marry (literally "become the master of the woman") as often as
he desired. In Genesis 4:19, Lamech became the first known polygamist when he took
two wives. Subsequent men who took multiple wives included: Esau with 3 wives; Jacob: 2;
Ashur: 2; Gideon: many; Elkanah: 2; David: many; Solomon: 700 wives of royal birth;
Rehaboam: 3; Abijah: 14. Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin and Belshazzar also had multiple
|Genesis 16:2 : Sarah gave permission to her husband Abraham to engage in sexual
intercourse with her maid, Hagar: "Sarai said unto Abram...I pray
thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her." Presumably this was done without the consent of Hagar,
who had such a low status in the society of the day that she was required to submit to
multiple rapes at her owner's command.
|Genesis 19:8: The men of Sodom gathered around Lot's house, and asked that he bring
his two guests out so that the men can "know" them. This is frequently
interpreted as a desire to gang rape the visitors, although other interpretations are
possible. Lot offers his two virgin daughters to be raped instead: He is
recorded as saying: "I have two daughters which have not known man;
let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is
good in your eyes." Yet, even after this
despicable act, Lot is still regarded as an honorable man, worth saving from the
destruction of the city. Allowing one's daughters to be sexually assaulted by multiple
rapists appears to be treated as a minor transgression, because of the low status of the
young women. More details on Genesis 19.
| Genesis 21:10: A man could simultaneously keep numerous concubines. These were sexual partners of an
even lower status than a wife was. As implied in this verse she could be
dismissed when no longer needed: Sarah is recorded as saying: "...Cast
out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not
be heir with my son, even with Isaac." Abraham had two concubines; Gideon: at least 1; David:
many; Nahor: 1; Jacob: 1; Eliphaz: 1; Gideon: 1; Caleb: 2; Manassah: 1; Saul: 1; David: at
least 10; Rehoboam: 60; Solomon: 300; an unidentified Levite: 1;
Belshazzar: more than 1.
|In Exodus 1:15-16, the Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill all Jewish boys at
birth, because of the threat that they might pose to the kingdom. "And
he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see
them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it
be a daughter, then she shall live." The girls, being
considered less important, were not seen as a threat; they were allowed to live.
|Exodus 20 & 21: This is perhaps the most misogynistic pair
of chapters in the Bible. A number of verses describe a woman as the property of her father.
At marriage, her ownership was transferred to her new husband:
|Exodus 20:17 lists the last of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt
not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor
his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that
is thy neighbour's." It is important to realize that a manservent and a
maidservant were male and female slaves. They were not a hired butler and maid.
The tenth commandment forbids coveting your
neighbor's house, wife, male slave female slave, animals or anything else that the neighbor owns. The wife
is clearly regarded as equivalent to a piece of property.|
||Exodus 21:2-4: "If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall
serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing....If his master have
given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her
children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself." A slaveowner was permitted to give a woman to his male slave as a
wife. There is no indication that women were consulted during this type of transaction.
After serving six years, he would leave, but his wife and children would remain
slaves of the slaveowner. Again, there is no indication that the woman was
consulted on this arrangement.
|Exodus 21:7: "And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant,
she shall not go out as the menservants do." A father could sell his daughter as a slave.
Even though a male slave is automatically given his freedom after 6 years, a female slave
remained a slave forever.
|Exodus 22:16-17: The first seventeen verses of Exodus 22 deal with restitution in case of stealing, or damage
to, a person's property. Verses 16 and 17 deal with the case of a man who seduces a virgin.
This was viewed as a property offense against the woman's father. The woman was
expected to marry the seducer. If her father refused to transfer ownership of
his daughter to the seducer, the latter was required to required
to pay money to her father. The money would be in
compensation for the damage to the father's property - his daughter. It would be
difficult for a non-virgin to marry.|
|Exodus 21:22-25 describes a situation in which two men are fighting and
one hits a
pregnant woman. If the woman has a miscarriage because of the blow, the man
is punished as the husband decides and must pay a
fine for their act - not to the woman, but to her husband, presumably because he has been
deprived of a child. The woman had no involvement. Exodus 21:22: "...he
shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon
him; and he shall pay as the judges determine." |
|Exodus 23:17 states that only men are required to take part
in the feasts of unleavened bread, of harvest and of ingathering: "Three
times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord GOD."|
|Leviticus: This book deals mainly with the duties of the priesthood, the Levites.
Women were not allowed to become priests.
|Leviticus 12:1-5 Quotes God as stating that a woman who has given birth to a boy is ritually
unclean for 7 days. If the baby is a girl, the mother is unclean for 14 days.
"If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall
be unclean seven days...But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be
unclean two weeks..." It would
appear that the act of having a baby is a highly polluting act. To give birth to a girl is
twice as polluting as is giving birth to a boy.
|In Leviticus 18:20 adultery was defined as a man having sexual
intercourse with his neighbor's wife. "Moreover thou shalt not lie
carnally with thy neighbour's wife, to defile thyself with her."
Leviticus 20:10 "And the man that committeth adultery with
another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his
neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put
to death." Deuteronomy 22:23 extends this prohibition to
a man sleeping with a woman who is engaged to be married. If a man has an affair with an
unmarried woman, the act is not considered adultery. Married men were free to visit
prostitutes. A man who committed adultery did not commit a wrongful act against his
but rather against his male neighbor.
|Leviticus 27:6 A child aged 1 month to five years of age was worth 5 shekels if a
boy and 3 shekels if a girl. "And if it be from a month old even unto
five years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of
silver, and for the female thy estimation shall be three shekels of
|Numbers 3:15 shows that a census counted only male infants over the age of one
month, boys and men. "Number the children of Levi after the house of
their fathers, by their families: every male from a month old and upward
shalt thou number them." Females were not considered worthy of being included.
|Numbers 5:11-31 describes a lengthy magical ritual that women were forced to perform if
their husbands suspected them of having had an affair. A priest prepared a potion composed
of holy water mixed with sweepings from the floor of the tabernacle. He proclaimed a curse
over the potion and required the woman to drink it. If she were guilty, she would suffer
greatly: her abdomen would swell and her thighs waste away. There is no similar magical
test for husbands suspecting of having an affair with another woman.
|In Numbers 27:8-11, Moses describes the rules of inheritance that God has stated.
If a man dies, his son inherits the estate; his daughter gets nothing.
Only if there is no son,
will his daughter inherit. If there are no children, then the estate is given to the
man's brothers; his sister(s) get nothing. If he had no brother, the
estate goes to his nearest male relative. "...If a man die, and have
no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.
And if he have no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his
brethren. And if he have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance
unto his father's brethren. And if his father have no brethren, then ye
shall give his inheritance unto his kinsman that is next to him of his
|Numbers 30 describes that a vow taken by a man is binding. But a vow taken by a
woman can be nullified by her father, if she is still living in her family of origin, or
by her husband, if she is married.
|Deuteronomy 21:10-13 describes how a soldier can force a woman captive
to marry him without
regard for her wishes. "When thou goest forth to war against thine
enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and
thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful
woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy
wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave
her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her
captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her
father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto
her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife." |
|Deuteronomy 22:13-21 requires that a woman be a virgin when she is married. If
she has had sexual relations while single in her father's house, then she would be stoned
to death. There were no similar virginity requirements for men. "If
any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, And give
occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and
say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a
maid....if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found
for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her
father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that
she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in
her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you." |
|Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires that a virgin woman who has been raped must marry
her attacker, no matter what her feelings are towards the rapist. "If
a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay
hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay
with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver,
and she shall be his wife...."|
|Deuteronomy 24:1 describes the procedure for obtaining a
divorce. This can only be initiated by the husband, not by the wife: "When
a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she
find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in
her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her
hand, and send her out of his house." |
|Deuteronomy 25:5-10: states that if a woman is widowed, she
would be required to marry her former brother-in-law. This was called a "levirate" marriage. Their
first-born son will later be considered to be the son of the deceased husband. The man could
refuse to marry her. Women were not given a choice in the matter. " If
brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the
wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's
brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform
the duty of an husband's brother unto her." |
|Deuteronomy 25:11: If two men are fighting, and the wife of
one of them grabs the other man's testicles, her hand is to be chopped
off. There is no penalty if a male relative were to grab the other man.
"When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one
draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that
smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets.
Then thou shalt cut off her hand..." |
|Judges 19:16-30 describes an event similar to Genesis 19. Some men in the city wanted to
"know" a visiting Levite. The owner of the house offered his virgin daughter and
the Levite's concubine so that the men could rape them. Verse 24 states:
"Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will
bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good
unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing." The man sent
his own concubine outside to the gang, who proceeded to serially
rape her. She died of the attacks. The man only learned of her death when he was
leaving the house in the morning and stumbled across her body. The woman was clearly
considered expendable and of little value.
|2 Chronicles 36:23 mentions the Second Temple which was constructed after some
Jews returned from exile in Babylon. It was rebuilt by Herod late in the 1st
century BCE. One of its features was women's court, considered the least sacred area. Next
was the court of the Israelites (reserved for males), then the court of the Priests, and
finally the Temple itself. The courts were laid out in this order to separate the women as
far as possible from the Temple.|
During the Second Temple period, women were not allowed to testify in court trials. They
could not go out in public, or talk to strangers. When outside of their homes, they were
to be doubly veiled. "They had become second-class Jews, excluded from the worship
and teaching of God, with status scarcely above that of slaves."
Related essay on this web site:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still valid today.
- "Women in the Bible," BibleUfo.com, at:
- Quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible. This is not the
easiest translation to use, because many words have changed meaning since
1611 CE when the translation was completed. However, it
is free of copyright restrictions and thus is legal for us to use.
- B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, "The Oxford Companion to the Bible",
Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1993), P. 806 to 818
Copyright © 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-SEP-07
Author: B.A. Robinson