Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

women, a topic in the Bible that can be approached in several ways. We can look at the legal status of women and the roles and functions of women in society, and we can look at portrayals of human and divine women.

The Legal Status of Women in the Patriarchal Period: The biblical world was undoubtedly androcentric and dominant actions were undertaken by men. Two separate social systems are portrayed in the Bible. The first, most probably older system is the extended family of the patriarchal period, which was patrilineal and patrifocal. The male head of the family had absolute rights of disposition over his children. A woman left her father’s dominion to enter the dominion of the head of the family into which she was marrying. The most important social bond created by marriage was that between the father-in-law and the new daughter-in-law. In the event of the husband’s death, the woman stayed in the new family, either as the mother of children, or being passed to another son in the institution of levirate marriage (Gen. 38:7-11; Deut. 25:5-10). In such a system, women had no direct access to power or decision making.

As the stories of the matriarchs of Israel show, the women of this period made their mark either by directly influencing their husbands (Sarah, Gen. 16:5; 21:10) or by trickery (Rebekah, Gen. 27; Rachel, Gen. 31). Although most women may have thrived, the system of patriarchal disposition lent itself to such abuses as the offer of Lot’s daughters to the men of Sodom (Gen. 19:8) and of the women in Gibeah (Judg. 19:24), and the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah (Judg. 11).

Women in Classical Israel: Apart from the royal family, classical Israel consisted of nuclear rather than extended families. This change, heralded in Gen. 2:24, did not mean ‘emancipation’ for women, who were still considered under the dominion of their husbands (Gen. 3:16). It should be noted, however, that in the family hierarchy, the sons of the family were not considered higher than the mother, and a son who rebelled against father or mother would be stoned (Deut. 21:18-21). Yet according to the formal laws of Israel women were clearly subordinate, although there does seem to have been a considerable diminution in the rights of the head of household to dispose of family members as compared with their rights during the patriarchal period.

Women owed sexual exclusivity to their present or future husbands. A woman was expected to be a virgin when she married. If she was seduced into premarital sex, the seducer had to pay the bride-price to her father, who could then decide whether to grant her to him in marriage (Exod. 22:16-17); if she was raped, the attacker had to pay the bride-price, was given the girl in marriage, and could not divorce her (Deut. 22:28-29). A man could accuse his bride of not being a virgin: if the allegation was ‘proved’ by the lack of blood upon the bedclothes, the girl could be stoned for behaving wantonly while in her father’s house (Deut. 22:13-21). Adultery, defined as sex by a married woman with a man not her husband, was punishable by death (Lev. 20:10; cf. John 8:3-7). A man could accuse his wife of adultery and thus cause her to undergo a solemn oath procedure attesting her innocence (Num. 5:11-31).

Divorce was the prerogative of the husband. It was somewhat regulated by Deuteronomy, which provided for a bill of divorce so that women could remarry (24:1), and which did not allow men to divorce wives that they had had to marry after rape (Deut. 22:28-29), or wives that they had unsuccessfully accused of not having been virgins (22:13-21). Although one cannot imagine that it would be pleasant to be married in perpetuity to a man by whom one has been raped or falsely accused, the purpose of these laws was clearly to prevent men from freely divorcing unloved wives in a socioeconomic system in which single divorced women would be at a disadvantage.

Women did not normally hold property, and the male head of the household could annul the vows of his women if he did so on the day he heard of them (Num. 30:5-8). The inferior status of women is indicated in economic terms by the valuation for the purpose of vows of women at thirty shekels and of men at fifty (Lev. 27:3-4). Women were to be isolated during the ritual impurity of their menstrual period (Lev. 15:19-24) and after childbirth (Lev. 12:1-8), when the period of impurity was double if the child was female.

Biblical narratives indicate, however, that the position of women vis-a-vis their husbands was not as weak as the laws envision. The Shunnamite woman was able to entertain Elijah without the prior consent of her husband (2 Kings 4:8-17), and Abigail could commandeer large amounts of her husband’s supplies and bring them to David (1 Sam. 25). The biblical laws probably indicate the ideal male-female relations envisioned by their male formulators rather than reflect the social situation as it actually existed.

Nondomestic Roles: Certain women are shown in nondomestic roles, acting on the stage of history. There were two prominent royal women, Jezebel (1 Kings 18-19; 2 Kings 9:30-37) and Athaliah (2 Kings 11). Although these were considered villainesses since they were on the wrong side, they were strong and determined women; and Jezebel, in particular, was a woman of dignity and devotion. The ‘wise woman’ of Tekoa came and convinced David by a parable, much in the manner of Nathan (2 Sam. 14). The ‘wise woman’ of Abel (2 Sam. 20:16-22) negotiated for her town in warfare; the fact that Joab approached the city walls to speak to her and that she could convince the town to deliver Sheba may indicate that ‘wise woman’ was a title of some town official rather than a descriptive adjective. Deborah was a political leader who also coordinated a war and was recognized as a leader both before and after the war (Judg. 4-5). Miriam was acknowledged as the leader of the women, who led the women in the victory song (Exod. 15:20-21). Although her powers could not be compared to those of Moses (Num. 12), she was remembered as one of the triumvirate of Exodus leaders (Mic. 6:4).

Both Deborah and Miriam were remembered as prophetesses and this seems to have been an acceptable, if rare, occupation of women. There was no surprise expressed that the prophet whom Josiah consulted on the occasion of the finding of a scroll of the law was the woman Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20); the fact that she was a woman is passed in silence, probably an indication that women could be accepted and expected in this role. During the restoration period there is a mention of Nehemiah’s opponent Noadiah the prophetess; again, her sex is treated as irrelevant (Neh. 6:14). Women did not have to choose between marriage and prophecy, for Huldah was clearly married, and Deborah may have been. Women also played some role in worship, particularly as singers (2 Chron. 35:25; Neh. 7:67).

The Image of Women: The image of the ideal wife is conveyed in Proverbs 31: she is strong, competent, able to succeed economically, but family-centered, always acting for the provision of her household. She is not sensual, but the woman of Song of Songs (where there is no mention of marriage) is portrayed in a noncondemnatory way as frankly erotic. Jael is portrayed as fierce (Judg. 4:17-21), although normally the ferocity of women is discounted (Isa. 19:16; Jer. 51:30). Above all, women are depicted (and perhaps feared) for being articulate: Abigail convinces David of appropriate action (1 Sam. 25), as does the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam. 14:2-10); the wise woman of Abel convinces her city to follow her counsel (2 Sam. 20:16-20), Tamar attempts unsuccessfully to thwart a rape by logical arguments (2 Sam. 13), and both Samson’s wife and Delilah talk him into revealing his secrets by nagging and verbal manipulation (Judg. 14:15-17; 16:4-17).

The Nonhuman Female: There is considerable dispute as to whether a goddess was worshiped in ancient Israel. In the Bible itself, however, there is no indication of a goddess. The most important nonhuman female image is the personification of the land and of the collectivity of the nation as ‘Lady Israel,’ which is found throughout the Prophets. The relationship of God to Israel can be depicted as a close marital bond by this image, first expressed by Hosea, and the ‘holy family’ of Israel becomes God, ‘Lady Israel,’ and the people (see, e.g., Jer. 31). Furthermore, Israel’s lack of faithfulness toward God can be expressed as the waywardness and adultery of a faithless wife (e.g., in Hosea). Sexual imagery becomes a vehicle for the expression of the passionate relationship between God and Israel. At the same time, in the condemnation of the wayward Israel in Ezekiel 16 one might detect misogynistic attitudes that are not proper to express directly: the Bible contains no openly misogynistic statements about the nature of ordinary women.

Another important nonhuman female image is ‘wisdom’ in the book of Proverbs (e.g., 8-9). Wisdom is often found associated with goddesses in pagan cultures. There are several reasons for this. The intellectual’s passion for learning is comparable to sexual passion and may even partially supplant it, so that ‘Lady knowledge’ becomes pursued like a human woman. In addition, the woman caretaker seems all-knowing to the very young child, and this may have influenced the portrayal of knowledge as female. In the Bible, wisdom is seen as a creature rather than as a goddess, but as a companion to God.

Whether or not there were goddesses in the popular imagination, there is no doubt that they had no place in the prophetic mentality. Instead, the image of God undergoes a ‘feminization’ from the early ‘man of war’ of Exodus 15, and emphasis is placed on the nurturing, more motherly aspects of God (e.g., Hos. 11:1-4; Jer. 31:20; Isa. 46:3-4).

Women in the nt: While there are indications that patriarchal rules were continued among Christians (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:11-12; but cf. Eph. 5:22-24, where submission of wives is under the rubric that all are to be subject to one another in Christ, v. 21, including husbands, v. 25, who are to imitate Christ’s self-sacrificing love toward their wives), there are also indications that the role of women was influenced by the non-Jewish environment of early Christianity. Thus, in the discussion of divorce in Mark 10:2-12, it is assumed a wife can divorce her husband (v. 12) as was the case in Roman society. The frequent mention of women among the followers of Jesus (e.g., Luke 8:1-3; 23:55-56; 24:10), and the prominence of such women in the early church as Prisca (Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19), the deaconess Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), and Mary (Rom. 16:6), among others, indicates they played an important role in the early church. Paul’s refusal to let women speak in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 14:34-36) was thus not universal, despite his claim to the contrary (1 Cor. 14:33b), and his statement that in Christ the religious distinction between the sexes had been eliminated (Gal. 3:28) was observed in other churches (e.g., Phil. 4:3).

New Approaches: Part of the feminist approach to the Bible has been to deal with the stories of women in two particular ways: ‘depatriarchalizing’ and ‘remembering.’ ‘Depatriarchalizing’ is the attempt to read the Hebrew text without the prism of intervening interpretations; when this is done it is clear that the biblical text is not so ‘patriarchal’ or misogynistic as we would otherwise have believed. An example is the new reading of Eve. It is clear in the biblical text that at the creation, woman was not intended to be subordinate to man, for the Hebrew word ezer, normally translated ‘helper’ (Gen. 2:18), is frequently used of God (e.g.,Pss. 30:10; 54:4) and does not imply subordination. Eve is portrayed as the spokesperson for the couple, and during her talk with the serpent she presents theological arguments. She is never portrayed as wanton, or as tempting or tempted sexually, nor does the biblical author single her out for greater blame than her partner. This approach also concentrates on such passages as the Song of Songs, in which there is a clear lack of any patriarchal or condemnatory attitude toward women, thus indicating that the Hebrew Bible was not a monolithically patriarchal document. ‘Remembering,’ the retelling the stories of patriarchal abuse of women as a hagiography and martyrology, provides not only documentation of patriarchy, but a sacred history to be remembered and thus overcome. Such female ‘victims’ as Hagar, Jepthah’s daughter, the concubine from Gibeah, and Tamar the daughter of David are remembered in this way.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume

Kittel, Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, Editors (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add this book to your library. It is available at Border's Books at or Christian Book Distributors at

gyne [woman, wife]

In general gyne denotes a. “the female” (as distinct from the male), b. “wife” (Dt. 13:6; Mal. 2:14; Lk. 1:5; 1 Cor. 7:2, 27; Eph. 5:22-23; Col. 3:18-19, etc.). By Semitic law a fianceé is already called gyne (cf. Gen. 29:21; Dt. 22:24; Rev. 21:9; Mt. 1:20). gyne chera means “widow” in 1 Kgs. 17:9; Lk. 4:26.

A. Woman in the Contemporary NT World. The disparagement of women in antiquity finds expression in the common male saying, backed up by anecdotes, that it is a matter of thanksgiving not to be an unbeliever or barbarian, a slave, or a woman. The proverb undoubtedly originated in the Near East.

B. Woman in Christianity. Two important factors underlie Christian thinking in this area: (1) the establishment of monogamous marriage by creation, and (2) the removal of differentiation of sex by the divine lordship. Yet these principles are not worked out with revolutionary vigor. Christianity is often conservative in practice. Its main advantage is a new adaptability.

C. Sacral and Social Functions of Women.

Additional Resources

To explore many more webpages on the topic of women, browse:

Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page