From Bondage to Blessing

Chapter 5 - Affirmation of Women in the Old Testament

"Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate." (Proverbs 31:30-31, NIV)

As we have seen in earlier chapters, God created Adam and Eve with joint dominion and positional equality. But from the time of the fall onward, a gradual decline in the status of women ensued, as both men and women began to operate out of the shame, fear and self-centeredness that are so much a part of the carnal nature. Because of sin, the relationship deteriorated from the mutual honor and submission that existed before the fall, to an unhealthy relationship where woman began to serve man instead of God. The man in turn, began to see her as an object for his own pleasure and convenience, someone to be put up with rather than loved and cherished as his own body. In the codependent relationship, he began to use the authority she gave him over her to control and dominate.

We have biblical proof of Eve's turning from God to serve Adam. By 1100 B.C., record exists of women referring to themselves, whether literally or figuratively, as "slaves" of both their husbands and other male authority figures. We see this in the relationship of Hannah and Eli the Priest (1 Samuel 1:16,18), Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 3:9), Abigail and the soldier David (1 Samuel 25:24), and in the husband-wife relationship of Bathsheba and David (1 Kings 1:17). The Hebrew in each of these cases speaks of a servant, slave or maid - someone who is controlled by another and lives to do their bidding.

God, however, has taken great care to affirm the value of women. The Father has more than once intervened in order to save us from ourselves and our poor choices. God sought to liberate woman from the snare into which she had fallen, invoking a plan which culminated in the Cross and in restoration of joint dominion, positional authority and freedom from the curse of sin.

God's mind & heart expressed in the Old Testament

Many of us have been taught that God's dealings with women under the old covenant were repressive and set men into a place of superiority over women. Study shows us this is not true! As Lorry Lutz has concluded, "The Old Testament honors women, and nowhere does it teach their inferiority or culpability."1

Divine directives

The Scriptures mention God's directive for man to "cleave" to his wife four times: in Genesis 2, Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Ephesians 5. The Hebrew dabaq, "to cleave", implies more than sexual union. It denotes a relationship of intimacy, transparency, and nurture. Dabaq means "to cling to, stick to, join oneself to." The Lord intended for man to join himself to His wife, and to open himself to her as a part of himself.

The Lord's repeated injunction to the Israelites was that they were to honor, respect and obey both father and mother (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy 21:18-19; 27:16; Leviticus 19:3; Proverbs 15:20; 30:17). There was no time limit put on this charge, rather it was to continue throughout their lifetime. Adult men, therefore, were required to submit to at least one woman. But more importantly, the Father's heart to see women respected and honored is revealed through these passages.

Sarah and Abraham

In studying Genesis chapter 21, we see that God treated Sarah with respect and honor. He told Abraham (circa 2500 B.C.), "Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice" (Genesis 21:12). He explained that Sarah was correctly discerning His plan concerning Hagar and Ishmael and indicated that Abraham was to submit to her.

God not only changed Abraham's name (from Abram), but He also changed Sarah's (from Sarai). He treated them equally, adding an "h" sound to both names. Some have said this "h" sound represents God breathing upon and into Abram's life. If that is the case, He was careful to breathe into Sarai's life as well! The Lord prophesied to Sarah as well as Abraham, declaring in Genesis 17:16 (NIV) that Sarah would be "the mother of nations" and that "kings of peoples will come from her." We hear so much about the promises made to Abraham, but rarely about the similar promises made to Sarah! I never realized that the Lord had made the same promises to both of them until I recently studied this passage again in depth.

We find greater equality in Abraham and Sarah's relationship than is often taught. For one thing, when God appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18), He asked Sarah's whereabouts. And although she was present only from behind the tent door, as was the custom of the time, God knew she was there and brought her into the conversation at the end saying, "No, but you did laugh!" (Genesis 18:15). Sarah also seemed to have a great deal of input in the decision-making. Going into Hagar was her idea (maybe not such a good one either) and "Abram heeded the voice of Sarai" (Genesis 16:2).

Interestingly enough, both names Sarai and Sarah are from the same Hebrew root sar, which means "a prince, ruler, leader or chief". Katherine Bushnell quotes a Professor Robertson Smith who points out that the stem of the word "Israel" is from the same root sar as Sarai and Sarah. He points out that her name (not Abraham's) was handed down to the children as their family name in the word "Israel".2 It is important to note that it was the Lord who gave this name to Jacob (Genesis 32:28), making a public statement that He affirmed the value and dignity of women.

Protection and provision

We find that God included women, protected women and provided for women throughout the historical record of the Old Testament. We've heard the negative, but let's look at the positive:

  1. God made His covenant with all Israel, including women and children (Deuteronomy 5:1-3).
  2. God provided for the happiness of new wives, calling the husband to lay down his life and his own agendas to serve her and focus solely on their relationship for the first year of their marriage (Deuteronomy 24:5).
  3. God commanded Moses to make provision for daughters to inherit in certain cases (Numbers 27:1-8; 36:2-9; Joshua 17:3-6). Job, after he received a greater revelation of God's mind and heart through his suffering, provided for his daughters to inherit as well as his sons (Job 42:15).
  4. God took a special interest in making provision for widows, so they would not be abandoned or abused (Deuteronomy 25:5-9; Ex 22:22-24; Psalm 68:5-6; Malachi 3:5).
  5. God made sure that women captives (prisoners of war) were treated fairly, forbidding them to be sold as slaves and commanding that they must be set free if the Israelites did not care to keep them (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).
  6. Fathers were absolutely forbidden to prostitute their daughters (Leviticus 19:29).
  7. While impoverished Hebrew parents sold their daughters as slaves or servants, we find that girls were not singled out - they also sold their sons into servitude as well. While this was not an ideal situation, God made provision for both male and female Hebrew servants to be set free after six years (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Also, both male and female slaves were allowed to stay and become bondservants by choice at the end of the six years if they so desired (Deuteronomy 15:16-17). The exception involved a girl sold to be a bride. In this case the Lord made other provision for her (Exodus 21:7-11).

Hagar: an example of God's heart to lift up women

The account of Hagar is an example of the special interest that God takes in women. Hagar was carrying Abraham's child, and was contemptuous of Sarah because of her barrenness. Sarah responded to the hurt by hurting Hagar back and treating her so harshly that she ran away into the desert. There God met Hagar and let her know that He understood what she was going through. For this reason, she called Him "You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees" (Genesis 16:13). God convinced her to return and submit to Sarah, assuring Hagar that He had a plan. Many years later, after Isaac was born, Sarah once again got upset with the whole situation, this time because she saw Ishmael mocking them at the party to celebrate Isaac's weaning (Genesis 21:9). So Hagar and the boy were sent away into the wilderness. After all the food and water was gone and she resigned herself to perishing, God met her again. He comforted her, encouraged her and then supernaturally sustained her and the boy in the Wilderness of Paran. Whatever Hagar's mistakes, God had His eye on her and was there to uplift her, provide for her, sustain her, encourage her and even use supernatural means to ensure that she fulfilled her destiny!

Social conditions in ancient Israel

Prior to 500 B.C., we find that women had much more liberty than many suppose. Women in ancient Israel operated in more freedom than the Hebrew women of later generations before Christ. Will Varner, former Dean of the Institute for Biblical Studies, writes from a Messianic Jewish perspective. Regarding women in ancient Judaism, he says, "...there was more freedom for women than has been taught. In the centuries following the close of the Old Testament, however, the rabbis instituted practices that went beyond the biblical norms and resulted in much greater restrictions on women's privileges. These rabbinical strictures were not inspired by God."3 More will be said, however, about the changes that occurred during the Intertestamental period in Chapter 6.

Matthews and Benjamin, in the Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, looked at the Hebrew household and the role of women in the domestic sphere. They discuss at length the "mother of the household" in ancient Israel. They conclude that:

  1. The mother of the household "had significant power and authority over decision-making and problem solving for both land and children."
  2. "Although the power and authority of the mother of the household were distinct from the power and authority of the father of the household, they were not necessarily inferior to his."
  3. "Not every man became the father of a some cases, the status of the mother of the household was equal to or greater than the status of many men in the village."
  4. In the context of the household, her authority was absolute and "in the world of ancient Israel, a man's home was his wife's castle. She had the domestic authority which he did not."4

As some scholars have pointed out, a distinction seemed to be made between public and private spheres of life in ancient Israel. Generally, the man was dominant in one sphere (the visible, public one) and the woman dominant in the other (the hidden, private one).5

Women in the public sphere

Even though the authority of women was normally within the private sphere in ancient Israel, we see exceptions to this historically. Hebrew women were given authority in the public sphere as well. The Lord at times placed women in official, public positions of leadership.

Varner, in studying the role of women in ancient Judaism, concluded, "women were able to serve at the door of the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:8), take a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:2), hear the Word of God (Nehemiah 8:2-3), engage in music ministry (Exodus 15:20-21; 1 Chronicles 25:6), and sometimes even prophesy (Exodus 15.:21; Judges 4:6-7)."6 In an unpublished research paper which was designed to bring some preliminary observations to a further look at the role of women during the Second Temple Period, J. Julius Scott notes that "informal sources portray some specific women as occupying specific positions that many would consider impossible. For example, inscriptional evidence describes some individuals as archisynagogus, elder, and even mother of the synagogue, at times without reference to their husbands - they seem to have held these positions on their own!"7

Regarding the women who served? and had a place in the Tabernacle services, both Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 2:22 mention these women. The King James Version says they "assembled", but the Hebrew actually has a military connotation meaning to fight, to wage war or to serve as a soldier. The assembling is as army troops! In the Hebrew, Psalm 68:11 uses the same word and presents the same picture of women warriors. The NASB version is one of the few which directly brings out the gender in this verse. In the Spirit-Filled Life Bible, for example, one must turn to a Kingdom Dynamics note under Romans 16:1 to discover the Hebrew in Psalm 68:11is actually speaking of a company of women.

We must be reminded that in joining with Barak at his request, Deborah functioned as a military leader as well as a political and spiritual leader. I've heard it taught that God only allowed Deborah in these positions of leadership because there were no qualified men available. Baloney! God is perfectly capable of raising up whoever He wants to put in leadership. God says in His Word, "By me kings reign, and rulers decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, all the judges of the earth" (Proverbs 8:15-16, emphasis added) and "I commanded judges to be over my people Israel" (2 Samuel 7:11). Is God's declaration only true in circumstances where the person in authority is a man?

Here are a few specific examples of how the Lord sanctioned women in positions of leadership or authority in the Old Testament period, operating in the public sphere in a way which may be surprising:

  1. Miriam - She was a recognized prophetess (Exodus 15:20) who led the women in public praise after God's deliverance at the Red Sea (Exodus 15: 20-21). She was considered one of the leaders of Israel, along with her brothers Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4). Her name in Hebrew means "sent one", a parallel meaning to that of the apostle in the New Testament!
  2. Deborah - As mentioned previously, she was a prophetess as well as judge and military leader who joined with Barak in directing the defeat of the Canaanite army (Judges 4:4 - 5:31). Because of her courage and submission to God, the nation enjoyed peace for 40 years. Most translations render Judges 4:4 as Deborah "a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth". However, according to Kathryn Riss, a student of the Hebrew language, the word translated "wife" here equally means "woman". She goes on to note that Lapidoth is not a recognized man's name. "Rather, she says, it is the ordinary feminine plural for the word 'fire'."8 Deborah was well known as a woman full of fire.
  3. Huldah - She was a recognized prophetess whose advice was sought by the high priest and the head scribe of Judah in 2 Kings 22:12-20. Interestingly enough, her advice was sought rather than that of Jeremiah, who was prophesying in Jerusalem at the same time! The result of her involvement was that revival came to the nation.
  4. The "Host of Women" - Psalm 68:11 speaks of a host of women who proclaimed God's Word. Some translations simply use "company" or "host" without specifying gender, however, there is often a footnote explaining that the Hebrew refers to women. The New American Standard Bible reads, "The LORD gives the command; the women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host." The Hebrew word for "host" is the word tsaba'. It is a military word denoting an army or an assembly of army troops or warriors. As mentioned earlier, this is the same word used to describe the women who assembled and served at the door of the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22).
  5. The Wise Woman of 2 Samuel 20 - Sheba, son of Bicri, had incited people to desert King David and follow him instead. So David sent his emissary, Joab, and troops after Sheba. He ran from them and hid himself in a city called Abel Beth Macaah. As they were battering the city wall to bring it down and continue their search for Sheba, a "wise woman" put her head over the wall and asked to speak to Joab. She recognized that they would destroy the city to find him (verse 19). After ascertaining the details of the situation, the woman spoke for the entire city and said, "His head will be thrown to you over the wall" (verse 21). Then, the account tells us, she went to all the people and convinced them this was the best course of action. Not only did they listen to her, but they also followed her advice and obeyed her. Her wisdom and influence saved her city from destruction.
  6. Salome Alexander - Ruler of Judea from 76 - 67 B.C. She was supportive of the Pharisees, the cutting edge church leaders of her day. It is said they "blossomed" under her rule. Rabbinical tradition remembers the nine years of her reign as "a miniature golden age."9


Despite the curse of sin affecting man-woman relationships, God continually affirmed the value of women and made provision for them throughout the record of the Old Testament. The biblical record shows that God called the men of ancient Israel to treat women fairly, to mutually submit, and to listen to their wives. It also shows that God put women in positions of political and spiritual leadership. Contrary to popular belief, the Lord did not place women in these positions because there were no qualified men available. This is an argument often used by traditionalists to explain how Deborah came to be a judge of Israel. Proverbs 8:15-16 and 2 Samuel 7:11 refute this notion, however. God placed exactly who He desired in positions of leadership to fulfill His will and purposes.

In studying the culture of ancient Israel we find that women actually had more freedom and authority than what is generally assumed. In the domestic realm, the mother of the household wielded significant power and authority. Women were also given authority in the public sphere, as archeological and inscriptional evidence has shown. Even as late as the Second Temple period women functioned as elders, mothers of the synagogue, and even synagogue rulers. However, as we shall see in the next chapter, the freedom and authority held by women in ancient Israel was gradually withdrawn as Hebrew culture was increasingly affected by Greek thought and Hellenism.


Chapter 5 notes

  1. Lorry Lutz, Women As Risk-Takers for God (World Evangelical Fellowship in assoc. with Paternoster Publishing, Carlisle, Cumbria, 1997), p. 27.
  2. Katherine C. Bushnell, God's Word to Women (1923; reprinted by Ray Munson, N. Collins, NY), par. 278.
  3. Will Varner, "Jesus and the Role of Women", Israel My Glory(August/September 1996), p. 17,20.
  4. Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel 1250 - 587 BCE (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1993), p. 23-25.
  5. Richard N. Longenecker, "Authority, Hierarchy and Leadership Patterns in the Bible" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 67.
  6. Will Varner, "Jesus and the Role of Women", Israel My Glory (August/September 1996), p. 17.
  7. J. Julius Scott, unpublished paper Wheaton College Graduate School, "Women in Second Temple Judaism: Some Preliminary Observations"
  8. Kathryn Riss, "Women Prophets" in God's Word to Women web page, 1998.
  9. F.F. Bruce, Paul - Apostle of the Heart Set Free (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., originally published by Paternoster Press Ltd., Exeter, 1977), p. 48.