Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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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.
Kittel, Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, Editors (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985)
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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.
1. The Greek World and Hellenism. Athenian women were of inferior status, often guarded by dogs, treated as fickle, contentious, and uncultured in comedy, liable to be oppressed if not under male protection. The Doric world gave them more freedom and influence. A high ideal of womanhood persisted even in the Attic world. Plato could demand equality for women, and capable individual women made a surprising impact in both private and public life. Marriage was the rule, but concubinage was common. No laws existed against bigamy but monogamy ruled in practice. Married couples were often affectionate but divorce was common either by consent, by declaration before a judge or third party, or by the unilateral action of the husband. Repeated divorces constituted a form of polygamy. No obstacle existed to remarriage after the death of a partner, though remaining single was sometimes praised, especially on the part of widows. Menander treated marriage cynically, and Neo-Platonism and the mysteries promoted asceticism in the form of total or temporary sexual abstinence, but the older Stoicism valued marriage highly.
2. Rome. In Rome housewives enjoyed a relatively high status. Women were not confined to the home, and Roman Stoicism advocated equal education for them. Many noble as well as reprobate women figured in Roman history. Sexual intercourse prior to marriage was frowned on, and Roman marriage was strictly monogamous, although this did not exclude intercourse with slaves or harlots. Various ceremonies of marriage were practiced. Divorce was relatively easy for all kinds of reasons and even by mutual repudiation. As in Greece, successive divorces and remarriages became common later, but widows who remained unmarried were highly respected.
3. Women in the OT. In spite of traces of an older matriarchate, women in the OT had few rights. They passed from the protection of one male to another. In Levirate marriage they had no legal choice as the males did (Dt. 25:5ff.). Wives could not claim the sabbath rest (Ex. 20:8ff., though cf. 2 Kgs. 4:22ff.). They depended heavily on their husbands’ decisions (cf. 1 Sam. 1:5). Polygamy was a heavy burden for them (1 Sam. 1:5ff.). Stricter fidelity was demanded from them. Yet women could appear in public life (Gen. 24:13ff.). Daughters could inherit property (Num. 27:8). Their wishes were to be consulted in marriage (Gen. 24:39, 58). They could have enormous influence for good or bad (cf. Sarah, Rebekah, Abigail, and Jezebel), and in a few instances played public roles as prophetesses or national leaders (Deborah). The creation stories accord them a high position as helpmeets and lay a firm basis for the close relationship of the one man and the one woman even if they do also show woman to be secondary and focus on her role in the fall.
4. Women in Judaism. The rabbinic writings gave an unflattering picture of women, portraying them as greedy, inquisitive, vain, and frivolous. Their rights and religious duties were restricted and they were assigned a special place in the synagogues. Hellenistic and Palestinian Judaism differed little in this regard. Yet notes of praise are heard too. Women are said to be an adornment to their husbands and to have equal promise with them before God. Some women could be extolled for their learning or piety. Marriage was a duty for loyal Jews. Polygamy was legal but for various reasons (usually financial) was not common. Divorce, however, was rampant, and successive divorces produced a successive form of polygamy. Ascetic ideas were largely alien to Judaism but extramarital intercourse was firmly opposed. Great stress was laid on the physical side of marriage (though not for reasons of carnal desire), yet the personal aspects of the marriage relationship were also valued (cf. Philo). As regards divorce, the initiative lay with the husband, but there was debate whether the main ground (“something scandalous”) covered only licentiousness or many other matters, some of them extremely trivial.
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.
1. Jesus. Jesus is no radical social reformer but he comes impartially to help all who are in need. He gives women a role in some of the parables (Mt. 13:33; Lk. 15:8ff.). If he observes Jewish proprieties (cf. Mk. 5:40), he can also break them to speak with a woman (Jn. 4:27), to teach one (Lk. 10:39), or to speak on behalf of women (Mk. 12:40ff.). He also acts decisively to heal sick women (Lk. 13:10ff.; Mk. 1:31). He accepts the ministrations of a band of women (Lk. 8:2-3) who stay with him in his passion (Mk. 15:40-41) and share in his exaltation (Mk. 16:1ff.). Even at a distance he evokes a response from women (cf. Lk. 11:27). He never speaks a derogatory word about women, and by offering them equal salvation he sets them at the side of men as no less the children of God.
2. The Community. Women belong fully to the first Christian community (Acts 1:14). The Christian mission wins them along with men (Acts 16:13-14). As the men are brothers in the family of faith, the women are sisters (Rom. 16:1). a. A certain tension may be discerned in Paul. By creation woman is a stage further from God (1 Cor. 11:3, 7), and Eve was seduced first (2 Cor. 11:3); on the other hand, differences are transcended in the new aeon (Gal. 3:28). Thus wives are still subject to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:21-22), but husbands are to exercise their leadership unselfishly in a loving service modeled on that of Christ. b. The same tension may be seen in later writings. The role of Eve in the fall is stressed in 1 Tim. 2:13-14, but 1 Pet. 3:7 demands full recognition of women as joint heirs of life. There is little trace of the ascetic ideals that would emerge strongly in the apocryphal Acts.
C. Sacral and Social Functions of Women.
1. In non-Christian antiquity women take part in worship and the mysteries. Some feasts are for them alone, but they are excluded from other rites. They function as priestesses and sibyls (cf. Delphi).
2. The OT. The OT knows no priestesses, but women are part of the religious community and take part in festivals, sacred dances (Judg. 21:21), sacrificial mea1s (1 Sam. 1:4), and temple service (Ex. 38:8) as well as having a prophetic ministry (Miriam, Huldah). With children and aliens, they belong, like men, to the covenant people.
3. Judaism. Women have only a restricted role here, being confined to the women’s court in the temple, having a special place in the synagogue, not being required to say the Shema or to observe the whole law, and being discouraged from saying grace publicly or publicly reading the law in the synagogue. Destruction of the temple made their earlier participation in festivals impossible, but they were still members of the covenant people with the duty, e.g., of daily prayer.
4. The NT.
a. Jesus has women followers but appoints no women among the twelve.
b. The NT churches include ministering women (Acts 9:36ff.), many of whom are commended for their zeal (Rom. 16:6, 12-13 and cf. Lydia). Phoebe is described as a diakonos (probably an office, Rom. 16:1). Women also help in evangelism (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3; Phil. 4:2-3). Prophetically gifted women may address the community (1 Cor. 11:3ff.) but only by way of exception (1 Cor. 14:34ff.).
c. As the charismatic element becomes less prominent, women’s work may sometimes have to be resisted as heretical (Rev. 2:20), but it can also be given a regular form as older women minister to younger ones (1 Tim. 3:11) as counterparts of the deacons. The relation of these to the widows of 1 Tim. 5:3ff. is complex; the latter are older women who are supported by the church and may have fulfilled some of the duties listed in Tit. 2:3ff. The qualification “wife of one husband” may refer to nonremarriage after the death of the spouse, but in view of the right to such remarriage in Rom. 7:1ff., the commendation of it for younger widows (1 Tim. 5:14), and the general approval of a married clergy (1 Tim. 3), it seems more likely that the reference is to remarriage after divorce (as in 1 Tim. 3:2, 12). The proto pistis of v. 12 is undoubtedly loyalty to Christ rather than fidelity to the first husband.
5. Further Developments in the Church. Women teachers are found mostly in sectarian circles, e.g., the Gnostics and Montanists. We sometimes read of women’s choirs in worship. Women engage in charitable service and visitation. Younger unmarried women come to be supported by the church and are reckoned as officebearers, although not ordained by laying on of hands. Deaconesses have a more distinct function, especially in the east, and assist at baptisms, in the visitation of women, and in the presentation of the elements at communion. The right of women to give emergency baptism is debated, and they are not ordained as presbyters. Later they find a new sphere of service in and through monasticism; the abbess is called a deaconess.
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