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Women of the Bible

Life and Times

Lesson audio

It is important to note that the modern conception of marriage is just that: modern. As a background to this series on Women of the Bible, we present this summary of how things were. This is done for two reasons:

  • As you go through the lessons, you will have an understanding of why women behaved the way they did.
  • Also, so that you will see that God made man and woman to be different – in order that he might teach us about His love for His church.

In the beginning

If you will go back to the creation story in Genesis, you will find some clear indications that God intended that the woman’s role be different than that of man. For example:

  • We find that woman is taken from man. This, we shall see, is a picture of Christ and His church. The church is not superior to the Christ; it’s the other way around. The church is made for Christ, as Eve was made for Adam. It implies a relationship in which the woman is subordinate to the man.
  • But just as man and woman are of the same flesh, there is also the indication of equality. If you trace it back to the dirt of the ground, man and woman are equal. At the least this should imply, generally, that women can often do the man’s job.
  • But in the basic marriage relationship, God commands that the man rule over the woman – which is today considered a terrible idea.
Before the law

Much of what we know about a woman’s role in ancient society is contained in the Mosaic Law. It’s important to note that this law actually improved a woman’s position compared to earlier customs. We can see this state in the conduct of Abraham’s wife, Sarah:

  • We are told that she called him “my lord.”[1]
  • Her husband passed her off as his sister.[2] He willingly parted company from her, giving her over to a local king. God had to intervene directly.
  • She lived a life where she was expected to accept whatever came from her world, and adjust to it. There is no evidence that she tried to control anyone, let alone Abraham. She took what came with humility. Her permission was never asked.
Under the Law

A good example of how women were treated is found here:

Num 30:3-16 NASB "Also if a woman makes a vow to the LORD, and binds herself by an obligation in her father's house in her youth, (4) and her father hears her vow and her obligation by which she has bound herself, and her father says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand and every obligation by which she has bound herself shall stand. (5) "But if her father should forbid her on the day he hears of it, none of her vows or her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her because her father had forbidden her. (6) "However, if she should marry while under her vows or the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself, (7) and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her on the day he hears it, then her vows shall stand and her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand. (8) "But if on the day her husband hears of it, he forbids her, then he shall annul her vow which she is under and the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself; and the LORD will forgive her. (9) "But the vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, everything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her. (10) "However, if she vowed in her husband's house, or bound herself by an obligation with an oath, (11) and her husband heard it, but said nothing to her and did not forbid her, then all her vows shall stand and every obligation by which she bound herself shall stand. (12) "But if her husband indeed annuls them on the day he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning the obligation of herself shall not stand; her husband has annulled them, and the LORD will forgive her. (13) "Every vow and every binding oath to humble herself, her husband may confirm it or her husband may annul it. (14) "But if her husband indeed says nothing to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all her obligations which are on her; he has confirmed them, because he said nothing to her on the day he heard them. (15) "But if he indeed annuls them after he has heard them, then he shall bear her guilt." (16) These are the statutes which the LORD commanded Moses, as between a man and his wife, and as between a father and his daughter, while she is in her youth in her father's house.

Note, please, that these are vows to the Lord. A woman’s approach to God went through whatever man had authority over her.

We see something similar in the matter of ceremonial cleansing.

  • She had to undergo a ritual cleansing for her menstrual period.
  • Similarly, she had to undergo such cleansing for childbirth.[3] However, the period she had to wait for after having a girl is twice as long as for a male birth.
Sex and marriage

Life wasn’t too pleasant with regard to sex, either. If a man were rich enough, he could have several wives. But it’s worse: if a woman who was not betrothed was raped, her rapist was obliged to marry her – or give her father an amount equal to the dowry she would have brought in at marriage.[4] Ouch!

Perhaps the status of women in this regard is best displayed in a Persian queen named Vashti.[5] The short of it is this: the king (drunk at the time) told his servants to fetch the queen – wearing nothing but her crown, evidently. He wanted to parade her in front of the boys. She told him no. He deposed her as queen (and who knows what else), and made this a public example – so that all the women in the empire would know their place.


Interestingly, it seems that women had a pretty fair position in the economy. This would be expected, as the wife’s labors were usually centered on the family business. The classic picture of this is the “Proverbs 31 woman.” This passage is often cited to show that women should stay home and behave themselves, but I would point out these items:

  • The woman, despite the family wealth, is expected to work hard. Thus it is only fair that she share in the results.
  • Indeed, this woman is running the family business.
  • She’s also doing real estate transactions.

So where is her husband all this time? He’s at the city gates, the place of judgment in those days. He is rendering justice. By the common consent of the times, his job is much more important.

Inheritance rights

Num 27:1-11 NASB Then the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph, came near; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah and Hoglah and Milcah and Tirzah. (2) They stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the leaders and all the congregation, at the doorway of the tent of meeting, saying, (3) "Our father died in the wilderness, yet he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but he died in his own sin, and he had no sons. (4) "Why should the name of our father be withdrawn from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father's brothers." (5) So Moses brought their case before the LORD. (6) Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, (7) "The daughters of Zelophehad are right in their statements. You shall surely give them a hereditary possession among their father's brothers, and you shall transfer the inheritance of their father to them. (8) "Further, you shall speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. (9) 'If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. (10) 'If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father's brothers. (11) 'If his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his nearest relative in his own family, and he shall possess it; and it shall be a statutory ordinance to the sons of Israel, just as the LORD commanded Moses.'"

You can easily derive the principle (again): a woman can inherit if she has no male in authority over her. This seems unfair – but kindly remember that in these days the law was meant to benefit the nation, then the tribe, then the clan, then the family and lastly the individual. We have turned this on its head, and we see the society crumbling for it.

Often enough, the woman is considered to be, in effect, attached to a particular piece of property.[6] If you were the kinsman-redeemer (a type of Christ) you could redeem the land of your dead relative – but it’s a package deal. Get the land, get the widow with it. This is actually a form of caring for the woman in this time; it is as if Christ comes to claim his universe, and we’re part of the deal.

What does a woman want?

In these days, it’s pretty clear:

  • First and foremost she wants a husband. The marriages are arranged, to be sure, but to have no husband was a disgrace.
  • Next, she wanted children – particularly sons. Why? Sons were to care for their parents in their old age.
  • And after that, it would be nice to be rich.

Things Spiritual

One thing we must remember: marriage is used as a picture of the relationship between God and mankind.

  • In the Old Testament, marriage was the picture of God’s love for the nation of Israel. The idolatry was viewed as the spiritual form of adultery.
  • In the New Testament, the picture is that of Christ and his church.
  • Either as marriage or the church, God tells us that he hates divorce.[7]
The New Testament view

A passage which is both instructive and infuriating to feminists:

1Co 11:3-15 NASB But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. (4) Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. (5) But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. (6) For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. (7) For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. (8) For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; (9) for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake. (10) Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (11) However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. (12) For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. (13) Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? (14) Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, (15) but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

May I emphasize three points:

  • It is clearly taught here that man is the “head” in the marriage.
  • This is clearly connected to the creation of man and woman; man is made in the image of God; woman is made in the image of man.
  • This head covering is a sign of authority over the woman.

So it sounds from this that the woman is distinctly inferior to man and is therefore second class.


Gal 3:28 NASB There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The same man who wrote that letter concerning a head covering also wrote this. Sounds inconsistent, doesn’t it? But it’s not.

  • Remember, marriage is the picture of Christ’s relationship with the church. Christ is the head of the church; therefore the man is the head of the marriage; therefore the woman is under his authority.[8]
  • Remember too, please, that this situation is temporary.[9] Marriage is of this world, the distinction ends at death.
  • While you’re feeling imprisoned by marriage, remember John 8:36

Much of what I have said here would seem to grant permission for a man to do as he pleases with his wife. But remember, as the Jews say, that God counts a woman’s tears. He is the God of the widow and the orphan; He is the helper of the alien and the oppressed. He sees; and long ago gave us His verdict:

Mal 2:13-16 NASB "This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. (14) "Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. (15) "But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. (16) "For I hate divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "and him who covers his garment with wrong," says the LORD of hosts. "So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously."

[1] 1 Peter 3:6

[2] Genesis 20:1-14

[3] Leviticus 12:1-8

[4] Deuteronomy 22:28-29

[5] Esther 1:9-22

[6] Ruth 4:3-9

[7] Matthew 19:1-12

[8] Which we now deny – with consequent effect on marriage and on our relationship to Christ.

[9] Matthew 22:30

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