Does Scripture Oppress or Liberate Women?
- Catherine Segars Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 25 May
Editors Note: This article was selected as a finalist in 2021's Selah Awards for “Best Online Article”!
Scripture gets a bad rap when it comes to women. I’ve always considered this fact a bit odd because when you compare the depiction of women in Scripture to other ancient literature and historical accounts, the Bible is revolutionary.
Homer portrayed women as objects, war prizes, pawns, and possessions, “the cause of all conflict and suffering” in the world.[i] Hammurabi discusses the legal rights of women “in terms of chattel, similar to slaves.” Hesiod, claimed that “woman was created as man’s eternal curse.”[ii]
And then there were the great Greek philosophers who established the definitive view on all things—more on them in a bit. Suffice to say, these highbrow, Hellenized thinkers had a rather low opinion of women. And because of them, every major western society has marginalized women since.
Scripture, on the other hand, has a very different portrayal of women than any other ancient book. We do see the mistreatment of women in the Bible, but it is never commended or condoned.
On the contrary, the God of Scripture creates woman from man’s rib and places her in the garden as his equal. She is called his “helper,” or “ezer” in Hebrew, the same word used to describe God Himself in Psalm 115:9-11 and 121:1-2. God blessed the man and the woman, telling them both to rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28).
Let’s compare Scripture with ancient culture to see how liberating God’s Word is for women.
The God of Scripture “Sees” Women
Jesus’ radically liberating treatment of women has been well documented, but we see God’s concern for women long before His Son arrived on the scene.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh identifies with the childless plight of Sarah, Rebekah, and Hanna. He hears their cries, identifies with their pain, and answers their prayers.
We see a very different concern for women when the angel of God follows Hagar, a young slave girl, into the wilderness. This woman was a nobody from nowhere, yet God expresses care for her plight. And God gives her the same promise He gave Sarah, her mistress—that she would have a son, and that her descendants would “be too numerous to count” (Genesis 16:10).
God sees women.
At a time when only men ruled, God:
- Made Miriam one-third of Israel’s first leadership team. (Micah 6:4)
- Promoted Deborah to the position of chief prophet and judge over Israel, and she served the nation in that capacity for four decades. (Judges 4-5)
- Redeemed a foreign widow named Ruth and birthed King David through her offspring. (Matthew 1:5)
- Took an orphan girl, Esther, and made her a queen just in time to save all of Israel.
- Used Huldah, the prophetess, to instruct the king. (2 Chronicles 34:21-33)
God’s treatment of women in Scripture—even in the Old Testament—is strikingly different than man’s treatment throughout history.
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Greek Ideas Dominated the Culture of the New Testament
The Greeks, however, had a very different view of women. At the time of Christ, Jewish culture had marinated in Greek philosophy for hundreds of years. These ideas permeated Old Testament life and were the backdrop of the New Testament world. They dominated Jewish thought and practice.
So, what did the Greeks believe about women?
The father of Greek philosophy, Socrates, argued that “being born a woman is a divine punishment, since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal”[iii] according to Biblical scholar, John T. Bristow.
Plato claimed that cowardly, corrupt men were “transformed, at their second incarnation, into women…. In this fashion, then, women and the whole female sex have come into existence.”[iv]
Aristotle believed that the female was a “monstrosity,”[v] a “deformed male,”[vi] and argued that “the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.”[vii] Of the sexes, he believed that “equality of the two or rule of the inferior is always hurtful.”[viii]
And let’s not forget… the Greek poet, Hesiod, professed that “woman was created as man’s eternal curse.”[ix]
Jewish Religious Tradition Was Heavily Influenced by the Greeks
Unfortunately, the Jewish male perspective of women didn’t stray far from the surrounding Hellenized culture.
Teaching a woman the Scriptures was considered “a waste of time—or even worse. Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘If any man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lechery.’”[x]
Similarly, the Jerusalem Talmud states, “Let the words of Torah be burned up, but let them not be delivered to women.”[xi]
The noted Jewish historian Josephus wrote that the Jewish law declared a wife to be “inferior to her husband in all things.” [xii]
The Berakhot, a Jewish instructional book on prayer, said that “every (Jewish) man is obligated to recite three blessings daily… thank God that I am not a gentile, a woman, or a slave (or in earlier formulations, a boor). This language echoes Greek prayers preserved first by Plato.”
The Greek philosophical view of women is seen in a holy book of Jewish prayers. It is seen in the laws and traditions of a very male-dominated Jewish culture. According to devout Jewish men, women were on par with pagans, slaves, and imbeciles. Teaching women the Scriptures was at best, pointless, at worst, sinful.
The Rabbis didn’t get their ideas about women from Yahweh. They got them from the Greeks.
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Jewish Culture Did Not Allow Women to Even Speak to Men
How bad was Jewish culture for women?
During New Testament times, relations between men and women were so restricted that the Mishnah, the first major written collection of Jewish legal theory and oral tradition, warns men to “talk not much with womankind. … He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit [hell].”[xiii]
This Jewish book of instruction goes on to completely forbid a man from speaking with a woman he is not married to:
“A man might divorce his wife and not have to return her dowry if she were guilty of speaking to another man; and even the act of speaking to a man in the street might be used as evidence of a bride’s unfaithfulness to her intended.”[xiv]
So, a woman might lose her husband and her home if she spoke to another man, and if she spoke to her husband too much, that might send him to hell.
Women weren’t just considered insignificant or irrelevant in Jewish culture—they were dangerous. According to Jewish written and oral tradition, women were, as Hesiod claimed, “man’s eternal curse.”
The New Testament Liberated Women and Gave Them a Voice
Into this world, Jesus came with a radically different treatment of the female sex. Christ continued God’s tradition of care and concern for women in the Old Testament.
When Jesus conversed with the woman at the well, his disciples “were surprised to find him talking with a woman” (John 4:27). Of course they were. They didn’t expect this revered Rabbi to engage in an activity that could send him to hell. But unlike the religious Jewish men of his day, Jesus spoke with women in public. He honored them. He said that their stories would be told wherever His story was told (Matthew 26:13).
After Christ’s death, for the first time women were brought into the services and their voices were heard.
How do we know this?
Pentecost Ushered Women into the Ministry of the Church
In Acts 2, the women were assembled with the men at one of the very first gatherings of the church. Suddenly, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (vs. 4)
The Holy Spirit cannot cause someone to do what God forbids them to do. Nor would the Holy Spirit fill women with a gift that He would not allow them to use.
Still, everyone was shocked. Loren Cunningham, author of Why Not Women? explains that “Peter had to get up and quickly explain. After all… many women were preaching, declaring the wonders of God! This just wasn’t done. So Peter reminded them the words of the prophet Joel: ‘And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days’”[xv] (Joel 2:28-29).
Peter reminded the people that God’s plan for women is different than man’s. For the first time, women were ushered into the ministry of the church, and their voices were heard. Pentecost changed the church’s official stance towards women:
If God Himself spoke through women in the church, who has the right to silence them?
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Scripture Liberates Women
The Holy Spirit broke the Greek curse implemented through Jewish tradition that kept women bound for centuries. But while man had been silencing women’s voices throughout history, God had been using their gifts all along.
God spoke to Sarah and through Hagar, reminding women that He is the God who sees us. God used Miriam to worship, Deborah to judge, Huldah to prophesy, Rahab to spy, and Esther to deliver. He made Anna the first evangelist, Priscilla a teacher, Chloe a house church leader, Phoebe a deacon, and Junia an apostle. And women were the first to testify of Christ’s resurrection.
Scripture is abundantly clear on this account. God sees women. He hears women. He gives women a voice. He uses our gifts for His glory. No other book in history honors and liberates women as the Bible does, because no other god sees women as our God does.
To read more about women in Scripture, see “Why We Should Reconsider What the Bible Really Says about Women in Ministry.”
[i] Cunningham, Loren, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership, YWAM Publishing, 2000, pg. 73.
[ii] L. Cunningham, pg. 74.
[iii] Bristow, John Temple, What Paul Really Said About Women: An Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love. Harper Collins, 1991, pg. 4.
[iv] Plato, Timaeus in Plato, Volume VII: Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles, trans. R.G. Bury (Cambridge: Loeb Classical; Library, Harvard University Press, 1941), 91a—d. Quoted in Cunningham, Why Not Women? pg. 77.
[v] Aristotle, Aristotle, Volume XIII: The Generation of Animals, trans. A. L. Peck (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1963), 4.3 (767b 4—8). Quoted in Loren Cunningham and David J. Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership, YWAM Publishing, 2000, pg. 77. Note that the first half of this book is written by Cunningham and the second half is written by Hamilton. Both are cited throughout this article with the particular author of that section referenced.
[vi] Ibid., 2.3 (737a 25-30). Quoted in Cunningham, Why Not Women? pg. 77.
[vii] Aristotle, Aristotle, Volume XXI: Politics, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1972), 1.2.12 (125b). Quoted in Cunningham, Why Not Women? pg. 77.
[viii] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Oxford University, The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKean, editor (New York: Random House, 1941), 1.1254B. Quoted in Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women, pg. 6.
[ix] L. Cunningham, pg. 74.
[x] M. Sotah 3.4—5. Quoted in Cunningham, Why Not Women? pg. 106.
[xi] J. Sotah 19a. Quoted by Richard N. Longnecker, “Authority, Hierarchy and Leadership Patterns in the Bible” in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Michkelsen (Downer’s Grover : InterVarsity Press, 1986), 70. Quoted in Cunningham, Why Not Women? pg. 106.
[xii] Josephus, Against Apion, 2.25. Trans. by William Whiston (Cincinnati: Morgan, 1849). Quoted by Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women, pg. 26.
[xiii] Spencer, Aida D, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Nashville: Thomas Newlson, 1985), 21. Quoted in Cunningham, Why Not Women? pg. 79. Quoted in Hamilton, Why Not Women? pg. 120.
[xiv] J.T. Bristow, pg. 53.
[xv] L. Cunningham, pgs. 58-59.
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Catherine Segars is an award-winning actress and playwright—turned stay-at-home-mom—turned author, speaker, podcaster, blogger, and motherhood apologist. This homeschooling mama of five is the host of CHRISTIAN PARENT/CRAZY WORLD, a Life Audio podcast about raising godly kids in an ungodly world, and she is matron of the Mere Mother website, which delves into critical cultural issues that affect families and marginalize mothers. Catherine helps parents navigate through dangerous secular landmines to establish a sound Biblical foundation for their kids. You can find Catherine’s blog, dramatic blogcast, and other writings at www.catherinesegars.com and connect with her on Facebook.