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THE STATUS OF WOMEN IN THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES

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

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Women viewed as sexual predators, deceitfully and worthy of special punishment:

bulletWomen as sexual predators:
bulletGenesis 19:30-36: This passage describes how Lot's two daughters made their father drunk with wine on two successive nights. Each daughter committed incest with her father, and became pregnant. Their two sons, Moab and Ben-Ammi became the patriarchs of the Moabite and Ammonite people, who were two of Israel's most serious foes.
bulletIn Judges 16, Delilah seduced Samson in order to find out the secret of his great strength. This ultimately led to Samson's death.
bullet1 Kings 11 describes how Solomon's many foreign wives and concubines convinced him to worship other Gods and build Pagan temples. This was believed to have led to his downfall.
bulletWomen as deceitful and untrustworthy:
bulletGenesis 39:7-20: Potiphar was an official in the court of the Pharaoh. His wife unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Joseph. She later falsely accused him of attempting to rape her, and had him arrested.
bulletWomen singled out for special punishment:
bulletDeuteronomy 22:13-21: A bride who had been presented as a virgin, and who could not be proven to be one, was to be stoned to death by the men of her village. Verse 21 says: "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." The woman would be allowed to live if her previous owner --her husband -- could produce evidence in the form of blood caused by her hymen breaking when her husband first engaged in sexual intercourse with her. Of course, this would not be much of a defense if she happened to have been born without a hymen or if it  broken broken because of heavy exercise. There appears to have been no similar penalty for men who had engaged in consensual pre-marital sexual activity.
bulletNumbers 5:17-31 "Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water....." This passage describes the action that a husband could take if he suspected that his wife had engaged in an adulterous relationship. He would take her to the tabernacle, where the priest would make a magical drink consisting of holy water and sweepings from the tabernacle floor. He would have the woman drink the water while he recited a curse on her. The curse would state that her abdomen would swell and her thigh waste away if she had committed adultery. In that era when medical treatment was almost unknown, the treatment would probably have resulted in her death. If she were pregnant at this time, the curse would certainly induce an abortion. There was no similar magical test that a woman could require her husband to take if she suspected him of adultery.

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Women viewed as equal to men:

A visitor to this web site pointed out that there is a group of passages in the Old Testament where men and women were treated absolutely equally:

bulletExodus 21:15-17: A person who murdered or cursed either their father or mother would be executed.
bulletExodus 21:20-21: A slave owner who beat either his male or female slave so severely that he lived a few days without dying would not be punished.
bulletExodus 21:26: A slave owner who damages a tooth either of a male or female slave during a beating was required to let the slave go free.
bulletExodus 21:28-31: The owner of an ox who had injured a person would receive the same penalty, whether the victim was male or female.
bulletExodus 21:32: A slave owner would receive equal compensation if an ox gored one of his slaves, whether the victim was male or female.

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Women described as leaders:

A few unusual women were viewed in a positive light, as intelligent individuals who played a significant part in Israel's history. Examples include:

bulletIn Exodus 1:17-21, Hebrew midwives were able to outsmart the Pharaoh and save the lives of Jewish newborn boys.
bulletIn Exodus 2, the birth mother of Moses was able to circumvent the Pharaoh's order to kill all of the baby boys, and to save her son.
bulletJoshua 2:1-16 describes how Rahab, a prostitute, hid two Israelite spies and saved their lives by misdirecting some soldiers.
bulletIn Judges 4 and 5, Deborah is described as both a Judge of Israel and as the leader of the army.
bulletIn 1 Samuel 19:11-13, David's first wife, Michal, tricked soldiers and engineered David's escape.
bulletIn 2 Kings 22:14-19 and 2 Chron 34:23-7, the prophetess Huldah was asked to validate the book found in the Temple -- presumably the book of Deuteronomy. She spoke "....as the voice of God; 'Thus says the LORD' ...Jeremiah and Zephaniah were in Judah also at the time but there is no record of their having been consulted." 1
bulletThe Hebrew Scriptures describe many other female Prophets, including Miriam, Noadiah, and Isaiah's wife.
bulletThroughout the Scriptures, Wisdom was personified as a type of female Goddess who was present at the creation of the world, and who has intervened in human affairs.

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Related essay on this web site:

bulletOld Testament passages treating women inferior to men -- often as property

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References:

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

  1. Frank Daniels, "The Role of Woman in the Church." part of the Religious Heresy Page at: http://www.scs.unr.edu/
  2. M.C. Callaway, "Women in the Old Testament", a chapter in M. Smith & R.J. Hoffmann, "What the Bible Really Says", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1999), P. 198 to 211.

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Copyright © 1997 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-SEP-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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