Is the Bible patriarchal and unfair to women?

Good day Alex. At seminary as a filler subject I took feminist theology. (I wanted to understand some of my colleagues better.) I know that ‘post structural feminism’ may be vastly different. (Never heard of that until today.) But after my ‘module’ I was left with the view that the Bible is patriarchal and unfair to women.
What do you think?
Thank you
Bill

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Hi Bill,

Thanks for the question. This is a good question to stay sharp on, given our current cultural moment. Maybe I can say two broad things first, finishing with some highlights from Jesus’ interaction with women.

  1. Describing the Bible Better

I think we need to be careful whenever we describe the Bible to those unsure of its content. For us, it’s one book. It’s also God’s Word to us. But, at the same time, it’s a collection of historical texts. Technically, it’s sixty-six texts by multiple authors with different recipients in an array of contexts in alternate languages…. And you get my point. Given this, we should expect to find stories where both women and mean are treated differently - whether better or worse - based on the historical context which the texts are describing. All this to say, we need to make a distinction between what the books in the Bible describe and what their overall witness prescribes . My shorthand for keeping this in mind is this:

Every book in the Bible was written by someone(s) for someone(s), inspired by God for his church.

If we miss the first half of the sentence, we end up treating it as just a divine text whose content and moral imperatives can be transplanted uncritically into our day. If we miss the second half of the sentence, we end up treating is just as a historical text whose content is as irrelevant as any other book from history (not that books from history are irrelevant - but, I’m just trying to articulate what the objection could be).

  1. Treatment of Women in the Culture

We shouldn’t be surprised to find that some women are treated poorly in the Bible. This doesn’t necessarily reflect God’s heart for them, and it certainly doesn’t prescribe the way women should be treated. It simply reflects the cultures with which God was working. It would be more accurate to say something like this, however: we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the Bible records some women being treated poorly in the Ancient Near East. Even though we shouldn’t be surprised, that doesn’t mean we should be happy about it. It’s something which God detests, and that comes through quite powerfully even in the Old Testament.

For example, in the Ancient Near East, the protection mechanism for people was the male of the household. Those outside the responsibility of a male were vulnerable. Typically, these were the orphans, foreigners, and widows. Throughout Deuteronomy, widows were given written permission to partake of the Israelites’ tithes collected every three years (14:28-29), as well as enjoy the grapes, sheafs, and olives leftover from harvest (24:19-21). This was no small feet, and something which was radical in that context.

  1. Treatment of Women in the Bible

What we see God doing in the Bible is progressively revealing himself and his nature to a brutal culture, ultimately climaxing in his revelation through Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1:1-3 says it like this:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

The key thing to do when asking about God’s treatment of women is to observe carefully what Jesus did.

i. Jesus Saw Women Differently:

Jesus truly valued women. In John 4:7-9, he makes the intentional move to embrace the outcast woman. In John 12:2-3, Jesus embraced social humiliation to champion a woman seen as worthless.

ii. Jesus had Female Disciples and Sponsors:

Besides Jesus 12, he had at least 120 disciples that travelled with him to different places. Luke (8:1-3) records some of those women by name, and even records a story when one woman chooses to be a student at Jesus’ feet (10:38) - something which other rabbis of the time would have considered radical.

iii. Women Occupied a Central Role in Jesus’ Ministry and God’s Salvation History:

Besides the male John, the people at Jesus’ crucifixion we’re women. The first to his tomb on the resurrection morning were women. Women were the key witnesses to the two climactic events which eclipsed the old humanity and bore the new!

I love this quote from Dorothy Sayers, she says:

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature

In all this, I think we can confidently say that the Bible, in its revelation of God and prescription for the Christian life, is not patriarchal or unfair to women, but is a witness to God’s impartial love for all humans and specific dignifying of those who society might consider an outcast.

One of the speakers on our team addresses this question brilliantly. A link to one of her talks is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhv82lwBOBw&t=75s

Thanks so much for your question Bill. May you continue to enjoy his Word!

Alex

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