Friday, August 17, 2007

Gender Roles (5) – Old Testament Women

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3
Read Part 4

Having looked at the creation, the fall, and the Law, we now turn to a brief examination of some of the women who figure prominently into the Old Testament narrative. While the OT certainly presents a patriarchal societal structure within ancient Israel and its neighboring nations, this in no way indicates God’s approval or disapproval of that structure. The patriarchal structure could be understood as a result of God’s leading or of God’s curse. As previous posts will show, I currently favor the latter view. If patriarchalism was the result of God’s leading, then we would not see God using women in leadership roles. Furthermore, when they took leadership roles, we would expect to see evidence of his disapproval.

On the other hand, if the prevailing patriarchalism was the result of the fall, we would expect to see God using women as leaders, as well as approving of their acceptance of such roles. It would not be necessary that we see women leaders as frequently as we see men leaders because, while God certainly had the power to radically overturn culture, he also has the prerogative to work incrementally within culture.

I believe the Old Testament picture reflects the latter. God willingly used women in leadership roles over men and over groups. When they stepped into these roles, there is no indication of divine disapproval with a violation of God’s creative intent. Notice the following examples:

Miriam (Exodus 15:19-21; Micah 6:4) –We are not told a lot about Miriam, but we are told that she was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20), and was listed alongside Moses and Aaron as leaders in Israel (Micah 6:4). While she, like all Israelites, was subject to Moses’ leadership, she is presented as an equal to Aaron, the High Priest.

Deborah (Judges 4) – Deborah was a judge in Israel. She is spoken of as a “prophetess” who was “leading Israel” (Judges 4:4). She was both a military leader (the actual role of the biblical “Judge”) and a court judge (Judges 4:5). During her time, Barak was the general of Israel’s army, yet she held rank over him, being able to give him orders (vv. 6. 14) which he obeys. Although married, she seems to have been the highest ranking person in Israel.

Some have tried to claim that Deborah was put in this position by God simply because no men were willing to lead. There are several problems with this explanation:

  1. There is nothing in the text that would indicate God’s displeasure with his inability to find a male leader. Such an interpretation is classic eisegesis. In fact, the only displeasure shown by God is towards Barak, the MAN, for his failure to follow Deborah’s order!
  2. God has never let been deterred by man’s reluctance to lead. Gideon (Judges 6), Moses (Exodus 4), and Paul (Acts 9, 22) are a few examples of men who did not want to lead, but were used by God to do great things.
  3. There is reason to believe that God DID have a male judge at this same time! Judges 5:6 indicates that Shamgar ruled as judge “after Ehud,” which would make his “term” overlap with Deborahs. (Overlapping judgeships is not abnormal in Judges.) Therefore, God had a male leader available if He wanted to use one. But he chose to use the woman, Deborah.

But it is fair to ask why Deborah was the only female judge. All attempted answers to this are mere speculation, as the text doesn’t reveal the answer. We must simply accept that God used her in this leadership role and look at the broader picture of God to decide whether we think that, by doing so, He acted in a way contrary to his original intent in creation. I don’t believe that he did.

Hulda (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chron. 34:22) – Also a prophetess, Huldah is the unsung hero in the great reformation of Josiah. It was in response to her prophecy that Josiah led the nation in the last great reformation of Israel.

The Virtuous Woman (Prov. 31:10-31) – This familiar passage is a wonderful testimony AGAINST the idea of a woman’s ONLY proper role being relegated to quietly serving her husband and family at home. Notice the following:

vv. 11, 23, 28 – When her husband is mentioned, it is in the context of how his life is blessed socially and financially by his wife. This indicates that she is involved in the community and in business.

vv. 13-14, 16, 18, 24 – She is a career woman, who has business interests in the mercantile and agriculture industries. She is not a “stay at home mom.”

v. 26 – She is a teacher.

v. 15, 21-22, 27 – She is a homemaker.

This woman is an “excellent wife” (v. 10) whose children and husband praise her (v. 28) and who has held up by Bible believers since this chapter was penned. Yet, she is not the type of woman that is held up as the ideal by many modern evangelical leaders who hold patriarchal or complimentarian understandings of the scriptures. While few will absolutely condemn a woman for working out of the home, it is now viewed as a lesser path. When women become successful in business, they are often maligned as doing a man’s work. Yet the excellent wife was excellent precisely because of her work as a homemaker, entrepreneur, teacher, humanitarian, and public figure.

God’s use of women in the OT does not conform with the teaching of patriarchalists and complimentarians, who claim that His creative intent was for women to be in a subservient role in the home, the church, and society. The “ideal” scenario painted by these commentators of a godly woman being a homemaker who leaves all public and leadership roles to her husband would consider all of the above women as, at best, less than ideal in fulfilling their roles. The Bible paints an entirely different picture.

Objections – It is also noteworthy that only men were allowed to be priests and kings in Israel. These two must be dealt with separately:

Priests – I haven’t yet come across a bullet-proof explanation of this exclusion. However, it is helpful to recognize that many people of both genders were excluded from being priests, but in the Christian Age, ALL are priests of God. ALL Christians may now enter the Most Holy Place (1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 10:19-22). Therefore, while I don’t know WHY God chose to limit the priestly role to males, I do know that, in Jesus, there is NOW no exclusion from priestly duties.

Kings – In this discussion, we are seeking God’s ideal for gender. The role of King was something that God opposed from the beginning, although he accommodated them. He preferred the nation to be led by Judges (which included Deborah). The people wanted a king in order to be like the nations around them. The nations around them would have had kings who passed their reigns down to their first-born sons. It is, therefore, no surprise that the same structure was put in place for Israel.

Next week: Jesus’ ministry to women.


Lin said...

"Therefore, while I don’t know WHY God chose to limit the priestly role to males, I do know that, in Jesus, there is NOW no exclusion from priestly duties."

I am going to take a stab at this which I cannot prove with a verse. It could be that since sin entered into the world with Adam, only men would could be the priests paving the way for the second Adam and Greatest Sacrifice. Jesus Christ.

Which is also why I think God used circumcision as a sign.

Anonymous said...

Reading with interest...know it's old, but putting in a guess on the women/priesthood question. My understanding is that the men were assigned temple duty (so to speak) in turn/rotation. Given the rules over women when bleeding, maybe they were left out for that reason? (Couldn't tell when they would/wouldn't be unclean?) Also childbirth would be a hinderance to service I'm sure. Just a theory. :) Off to read some more.


Suji (from India) said...

Jeff wow!! Very nicely put and no guesses, ASSumptions, nothing extra-Biblical, just pure scripture, thank you.