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The status of women

Passages in the Hebrew Scriptures
(Old Testament) that treat women
as i nferior to men:

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How the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) generally viewed women:

Women's behavior was extremely limited in ancient times, much as women are restricted in Saudi Arabia in modern-day times. Restrictions in ancient Israel included:

bullet Unmarried women were not allowed to leave the home of their father without permission.

bullet Married women were not allowed to leave the home of their husband, without permission.

bullet They were normally restricted to roles of little or no authority.

bullet They could not testify in court.

bullet They could not appear in public venues.

bullet They were not allowed to talk to strangers.

bullet They had to be doubly veiled when they left their homes. 1

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Women were considered inferior to men:

bullet Genesis 1:27 to 3:24:
bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet Genesis 3:16: Adam's role is to be Eve's master. The King James Version (KJV), 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.

bullet 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; Rehaboam: 3; Abijah: 14. Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin and Belshazzar also had multiple wives. Solomon holds the record. He had 700 wives of royal birth, as well as 300 concubines!

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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:

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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."

bullet 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."

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bullet Leviticus: This book deals mainly with the duties of the priesthood, the Levites. Women were not allowed to become priests.

bullet 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.

bullet 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 own wife, but rather against his male neighbor.

bullet 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 silver."

bullet 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.

bullet 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. The passage says that 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. One interesting aspect to this passage is that if the woman happened to be pregnant, then swelling of her abdomen and wasting away of her thighs would probably induce an abortion as an unintended side effect of this procedure. No concern is expressed in the passage about the death of the embryo or fetus; the life of the unborn appears to be unimportant.

bullet 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 family...."

bullet 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.

bullet 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."

bullet 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."

bullet 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...."

bullet 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."

bullet 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."

bullet 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..."

bullet 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.

bullet 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." 3

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Related essay on this web site:

bullet Old Testament passages describing women:
bullet in negative terms;
bullet as equal to men; &
bullet as leaders

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References ised:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still valid today.

  1. "Women in the Bible,", at:
  2. 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.
  3. B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, "The Oxford Companion to the Bible", Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1993), P. 806 to 818

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Copyright 1997 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2016-JUL-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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