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>The Subservience of Women from 'And Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament,by John H.Otwell

The Subservience of Women from 'And Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp. 67-87.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977


We turn in this chapter to the kinds of evidence that have often led students of the Old Testament to claim that women were wholly subordinate to men in ancient Israel. The data will be discussed under two major categories: ways in which the woman was subordinated to her father, and ways in which the woman was subordinated to her husband. As noted in a previous chapter, a brother might occupy the position of the father in a family when the father had died.

Women subject to the authority of the father fall into three classes: unmarried daughters, married daughters, and daughters-in-law. Evidence describing the third category is slight and comes from reports of the life of the so-called extended family. Since authority over daughters-in-law was essentially an extension of the father's authority over a married son, we shall eliminate it from pur discussion. We shall be concerned only with the ways in which fathers could exercise authority over unmarried and married daughters.


A daughter's identity was defined to a significant degree by the role of her father. An unmarried daughter of a priest could eat those parts of the sacrifice reserved for the priest:

But the breast that is waved and the thigh that is offered you shall eat in any clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you; for they are given as your due and your sons' due, from the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the people of Israel. (Lev. 10:14; see also Num. 18:8-14)

So also could a priest's childless daughter who was widowed or divorced (Lev. 22:13). The king's daughters were so important that they were listed separately in a tally of refugees fleeing to Egypt after the destruction of Jerusalem (Jer. 41:10; 43:5-7). This may be a reminder that the royal line might survive in exile through the daughters of the king.

If we assume that such commandments as "Honor your father and your mother" (Deut. 5:16) applied as much to daughters as to sons, we may conclude that daughters were ordered to obey their parents. We will find ample evidence in the next chapter to support the conclusion that sons were expected to obey their mothers. Relatively little, however, is said explicitly about daughters obeying their fathers. All the passages to be cited on this point are post-exilic.

The Chronicler reported that the seventeen sons and daughters of Haman served under him as Temple musicians (I Chron. 25:5f.). Shallum, son of Hallohesh, lived in Jerusalem after the exile, and he and his daughters helped rebuild the walls of the city (Neh. 3:12). Apparently the girls were sturdy!

The primary Old Testament example of an obedient daughter is Esther. This is all the more impressive since her parents were dead and Mordecai had taken their place. The theme of her obedience is introduced early in the book: "Now Esther had not made known her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him" (Esth. 2:20). After she had become queen, each of her increasingly important decisions was taken only after consultation with him.

A series of passages, several of them quite ancient, indicate that the father had the authority to dispose of his daughter in several different ways. We have already reviewed the father's giving his daughter in marriage.31 I Chronicles 2:34f. gives an additional example. Sheshan, who had daughters but no sons, gave one of his daughters to an Egyptian slave who may then have taken his father-in-law's name (see Ezra 2:61; Neh. 7:63) to ensure the preservation of the family line. The right of the father to refuse to give his unbetrothed daughter to her seducer even though the seducer had given "the marriage present for virgins" (Ex. 22:16f.) may reflect the father's right to withhold his family's participation in the building up of the family of a criminal. In both of these instances, the father seems to have been acting as the titular head of the family and on its behalf. So also, essentially, was the poor father who sold a daughter to become a slave wife, i.e., a concubine (Ex. 21:7-11).

Three passages report a father's disposition of a daughter in an especially repugnant manner. The first is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot, who was living in Sodom, had three strangers visit him:

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man,surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them." Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, "I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof." (Gen. 19:4-8)

Here, as often elsewhere, the verb "to know" means to have sexual relations with. A similar situation is reported in Judg. 19:22-24.

The third passage is the story of Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter. During a campaign in which Jephthah led the Gileadites against the Ammonites, he vowed to sacrifice "whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites" (Judg. 11:31). He was greeted by his daughter, his only child.

And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow." And she said to him, "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites." (Judg. 11:35-36)

She requested only that she be allowed three months to "wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions." When she returned, she was sacrificed (vs. 37-39). This narrative must be read in the light of the strong condemnation of child sacrifice in the Deutero-nomic law code and history (Deut. 12:30f.; 18: 9-12; II Kings 17:17).

The story of the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter in Judg. 11:34-40 may have been a legend explaining an annual rite in which young women mourned for those of their number who had died before they had "known a man," that is, before they had had the opportunity to fulfill their unique, sacred role in Israel. The sharp condemnation of child sacrifice by the Deuteronomists, and their identification of it as a cult act in the religions of Israel's neighbors, indicate that the ancient Israelite father did not have the right to sacrifice a daughter or son. This tends to be confirmed by the narrative in which Abraham is given a substitute, a ram, when attempting to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22:1-14). It also may suggest that the legend of Jephthah's daughter may have been non-Israelite in origin.

Many other reports of relationships between daughters and fathers reflect the primacy and structure of the Israelite family. As we will see when passages alluding to widows are discussed, it was a major misfortune for anyone not to be part of a family group. For this reason, a divorced wife returned to the family of her father (Lev. 22:13; Num. 18:19). Since the father was the titular head of the family, he could make vows which were binding upon the entire household, as Jeremiah found when he tested the faithfulness of the Rechabites to their vows by offering them wine. They rejected the wine, saying, "We have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he commanded us, to drink no wine all our days, ourselves, our wives, our sons, or our daughters" (Jer. 35:8).

Similarly, daughters shared in the punishment or blessing experienced by the family. The inclusiveness of the family circle is tersely described in an oracle of judgment pronounced by Jeremiah: "But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our fathers labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters."(32) Daughters and sons also were included in predictions of the restoration of the people, as in Isa. 60:4:

Lift up your eyes round about, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far,
and your daughters shall be carried in the arms.

See also Zech. 8:4f. and 9:16f.

Passages of this type have rarely been listed as examples of the father exercising authority over the family because the individualism that permeates our culture makes it difficult for us to appreciate the corporately oriented culture of ancient Israel. The Israelite family I lived far more as a unit than do we. The father, the titular head of the ancient Israelite family, was more a personifi- cation of the whole family than an individual who ruled it. The conduct of the family as a whole was described as his conduct, and the results of that conduct were experienced by the family as a whole. Thus the inclusion of daughters and sons in punishment for fathers' sins illuminates the true nature of the father's authority over the family. It also records a sociological reality with which we attempt to cope when we try to break self-perpetuating cycles of ignorance, malnutrition, and in-tergroup hostility. As is often the case, it is the sages who describe tersely and wryly something said more fully elsewhere in the Old Testament:

The leech has two daughters;
"Give, give," they cry. ;
(Prov. 30:15a)

We say, "Like father, like son."

What has just been said about individuals in the family also must be said about families in the clan, tribe, and the people of God. The ban on the sacrifice of daughters and sons just reported is imposed upon the father as the personification of the family because the family is part of the people of a deity who prohibits such conduct. The priest was the personification of the people of the Lord in certain cultic relationships with deity. Therefore, "the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire" (Lev. 21:9). Leviticus 19:29 extends to every family which is a part of the people covenanted with the Lord what was said of the daughter of a priest: "Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry and the land become full of wickedness." Here the parents are prohibited from doing something to a daughter that would make her, and through her her family, offensive to God.

Parents continued to exercise enough authority over married daughters to give them some protection against their husbands. This is most clear in two areas: in the parents' defense of their daughter's nuptial chastity, and in the father's power to make void a daughter's marriage.

The first of these parental roles is described in Deut. 22:13-21:

If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and then spurns her, and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings an evil name upon her, saying, "I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her the tokens of virginity," then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the tokens of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate; and the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, "I gave my daughter to this man to wife, and he spurns her; and lo, he has made shameful charges against her, saying, 'I did not find in your daughter the tokens of virginity,' and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity." And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him; and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver, and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought an evil name upon a virgin of Israel; and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. But if the thing is true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father's house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

The implications of Deut. 22:13-21 are many. We are concerned here with three. If the husband's charge against the bride were true, it would not only deny to her the opportunity to perform her basic role in society (bearing children), it also would cost her her life. Such an accusation, therefore, was very grave. Secondly, the charge was a charge against the bride's family and was dealt with as such. The parents assumed the responsibility for the bride's defense. Should she be proved guilty, her crime was against "her father's house." The implication is that she had made her father's house untruthful because its words did not agree with its deeds. Finally, a successful parental defense of the daughter's virginity strengthened both families at the same time that it penalized the husband for a malicious charge. The bride's family received an even greater recompense for the loss of the daughter, and the family being established by the unhappy couple is guaranteed the possibility of children. This law must be read in the light of other laws quoted here earlier in which the wife's conjugal rights included not only support but sexual access to the husband (see Gen. 30:14-16; Ex. 21:10).

The second way in which a father could protect a married daughter's rights was through his power to declare a marriage void. There are only two reports of this, neither of them in the form of a legal prescription. One of these is a minor motif in the Samson legend. When Samson sought to cohabit with his Philistine wife from whom he had absented himself for some time, her father prevented it, saying, "I really thought that you utterly hated her; so I gave her to your companion" (Judg. 15:2). The notation in David's marital history is equally brief and matter-of-fact: "Saul had given Michal his daughter, David's wife, to Palti the son of Laish, who was of Gallim" (I Sam. 25:43f.).

Much is said in the literature on Hebrew marriage about the unfettered right of the husband to secure a divorce, and Judg. 15:2 may reflect that situation. Samson's father-in-law seems simply to have concluded that Samson had divorced his daughter and to have acted on that assumption by giving her in marriage to another suitor. The report of Saul's action is a different matter. As the composite narrative in I Samuel now flows, David had become an outlaw after his marriage to Michal. Thereupon Saul voided his daughter's marriage and gave her in marriage to another. It would seem likely that Saul had acted to free his daughter from an unsuitable marriage.

Each of these incidents, but especially the second, will need to be borne in mind when divorce is discussed. Too much may have been made in the past of the husband's apparently exclusive right to secure a divorce. These passages indicate that securing a divorce may actually have been one of the functions of the head of a family. The husband, as head of a family, could divorce his wife. The evidence is clear on this. But the father, as head of a family, seems also to have been able to secure a divorce for a daughter. Her rights in marriage continued to be protected by her family. This is the intention of the warning Laban gave Jacob, the husband of his two daughters, when he and Jacob parted company: "If you ill-treat my daughters . . . although no man is with us, remember, God is witness between you and me" (Gen. 31:50).

We have already noted an instance in which the husband took the family name of his wife, presumably when his father-in-law had no son to preserve the family name (Ezra 2:61; Neh. 7:63). When such an arrangement existed in the extended family, the father of the married daughter seems to have exercised a father's authority over his son-in-law also. This appears to be the situation behind Lot's attempt to persuade the men betrothed to his daughters to leave Sodom with him, since Lot seems to have had no sons. When they refused to go, Lot, accompanied by his wife and daughters, left without them (Gen. 19:12-16). This, of course, ended the betrothals.


The relationship between husband and wife receives far more attention in the Old Testament than the one between daughter and father.

The wife is identified as a part of the household in stories about the patriarchs,(33) in law codes, and in both early and late narratives (I Sam. 30:1-25; Dan. 5:2, 23). Exodus 20:17 is one of the best-known examples of this: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's." The wife here is the first-named member of the household. She is not listed as property, as is so often thought. The wife is named before the household in the Deuteronomic parallel (Deut. 5:21), a change that indicates her standing even more clearly.

The Chronicler, writing in the late post-exilic period, continued the practice of identifying the wife as a part of the household by such notations as, "The priests were enrolled with all their little children, their wives, their sons, and their daughters, the whole multitude" (II Chron. 31:18). The identification of a woman in the royal harem with her husband meant that sexual access to her by someone else, either during the king's lifetime or after his death, established a claim to the throne. Adonijah, Solomon's older brother, asked for David's youngest concubine after Solomon's coronation. Solomon replied to his mother, who had transmitted Adonijah's request, "And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom also; for he is my elder brother, and on his side are Abiathar the priest and Joab the son of Zeruiah" (I Kings 2:22). The attempt to establish a claim to the throne by cohabiting with a member of a king's harem is probably the reason for Abner's going in to Rizpah, the dead Saul's concubine (II Sam. 3:6-11), and for Absalom's lying with members of David's harem during Absalom's revolt against David (II Sam. 16:20-22). The ancient Israelites felt that consorts of a king had become contagious. Sexual contact with them could convey royal power.

The closeness of the union of husband and wife was not necessarily true of slaves. The married Israelite who became a slave took his wife with him when he became free after his service, but a wife given him when he was a slave remained the property of his master. His only alternative under such circumstances was to bind himself to the master in perpetuity or to leave his slave wife behind (Ex. 21:2-6).

Another series of passages suggest that the husband owned his wife. The thematic statement of this, so to speak, has been quoted here before. It is the curse on the woman in the Garden of Eden:

To the woman he [God] said,
"I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you."
(Gen. 3:16)

The force of the final line of this passage should not be discounted because it seems to stand alone in the Old Testament. To it should be added all those passages in which the Hebrew root b'l is to be translated either "to marry" when it appears as a verb or as "husband" when it is a noun.(34) The same root also means, more frequently, "to rule over" as a verb and "lord" or "master" as a noun.

Genesis 3:16 and the primary meaning of the root b'l have been taken to be adequate proof that the Israelite husband owned, or ruled, his wife.(35) The force of the argument becomes much less convincing, however, when Gen. 3:16 is given the meaning assigned it here earlier (Chapter 2), and when we seek instances in which husbands acted toward their wives in ways that we would take to express their rule over the wives.

We are given four reports of a husband making his wife sexually available to others. This custom, if it did exist, would constitute in our eyes a display of authority as absolute as it is offensive. The four passages are Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18; 26:6-11; and Judg. 19:1-29. In the first three of these, a husband (Abraham twice, Isaac once) lets another marry his wife whom he has claimed to be a sister for his own safety's sake while living in a foreign land. The fourth tells of a Levite, a visitor in Gibeah, who thrust his concubine outside to entertain the men of Gibeah seeking homosexual relations with him. In each passage, the theme arises out of the dramatic necessity of the story being told. There are no references to such a male prerogative in any other narrative, or in laws confirming, limiting, or denying the right.

Genesis 12:10-20 contains one of the devices by means of which the author heightens the dramatic tension arising out of the Lord's promise of descendants to Abraham, the eponymous ancestor of Israel. No heir can be born if the marriage be broken (just as there can be no heir if the wife be barren). The story is given a second time in the E stratum (Gen. 20:1-18), with the explanation that Abraham and Sarah had the same father but not the same mother (v. 12). This mitigates the scandal of Abraham's conduct slightly. The tale serves the same purpose in both J and E. A similar incident is told of Isaac in Gen. 26:6-11, where the theme again is the faithfulness of the Lord in keeping promises to the patriarchs in spite of great obstacles. It seems quite probable that the thrice-told story is a theological statement about the faithfulness of God in covenantal promises rather than a description of a husband's rights over his wife, and that the faithfulness of the Lord is underscored by telling about it in a context in which the patriarchs themselves had acted reprehensibly.

Judges 19:1-29 is a grim story. The concubine of a Levite living in Ephraim fled to her father's home in Judah. The Levite, following her, retrieved her. Returning to his home in the north, he stopped for the night in Gibeah of Benjamin. As he and his host visited, the men of the village gathered outside and said to the host, "Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him" (v. 22). The host offered his daughter and the Levite's concubine in place of the Levite (vs. 23f.):

But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them; and they knew her, and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. And as morning appeared,the woman came and fell down at the door of the man's house where her master was, till it was light. And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, "Get up, let us be going." But there was no answer. Then he put her upon the ass; and the man rose up and went away to his home. (Vs. 25-28)

In the sequel, the Levite carved up his concubine's corpse and sent a piece to each of the tribes of Israel, asking vengeance on the men of Gibeah (vs. 29f.). All Israel responded except the tribe of Benjamin. It chose to defend a village within its borders (ch. 20:1-17). A civil war followed in which the tribe of Benjamin would have been exterminated had not their former enemies allowed them to capture wives for themselves from the maidens celebrating a vintage festival at Shiloh (chs. 20:18 to 21: 24).

Judges, chs. 19 to 21, is a confused narrative. Our concern is primarily with ch. 19:25-29, which seems to provide proof that the male head of the family could make a daughter or wife available sexually to strangers outside marriage.

A different view of the meaning of Judg. 19:25-29 emerges from a study of comparisons with the accounts of the sinfulness of the men of Sodom (Gen. 19:1-11) and of the rise of Saul to the throne (I Sam. 11:1-11).(36) The homosexual demands of the men of Gibeah parallel the demands of the men of Sodom (Judg. 19:22 = Gen. 19:5); the host is not a native of the community (Judg. 19:16 = Gen. 19:9); the host offers a daughter (or daughters) in place of the guest (or guests) (Judg. 19:24 = Gen. 19:8); the host calls the conduct of the men of the town depraved (Judg. 19:23 = Gen. 19:7); and action by the guest (or guests) resolves the crisis (Judg. 19:25 = Gen. 19:10). Gibeah of Benjamin is the locale of the crime reported in Judg. 19:25-28 and the home of Saul (I Sam. ll:4f.); the Levite and Saul respond to violence by sending a chunk of flesh to each tribe with a summons to assemble (Judg. 19:29 = I Sam. 11:7); and all Israel is said to have responded (Judg. 20:1 = I Sam. 11:8).

These comparisons suggest the following conclusions: The odium of the reputation of the men of Sodom is being extended to the men of Gibeah, the most prominent of whom was Saul, the first king of Israel; and the odium of the reputation of Lot (Gen. 19:30-38) is being extended to the sojourner in Gibeah and to the Levite. Thus we probably should conclude that all actions reported in Judg., ch. 19—except the offer of hospitality— were viewed by narrator and hearers as evil. The story gained its effectiveness from the immorality and illegality of the power exercised by father and husband. Judges, ch. 19, provided a bridge between the story of Sodom and the account of the rise of Saul to the throne, conveying the evil repute of the Sodomites to Saul. So understood, the chapter becomes another example of the polemic of the Davidic historians against the earlier dynasty established by Saul. Even the role of the Levite conforms to this interpretation. By the time of Solomon, David's son and heir, the levitical priesthood had largely been displaced in royal favor by the Zadokites, a hereditary Jerusalemite priesthood. It is probably no accident that the Levite is described as refusing to stay for the night in Jerusalem (vs. 10-12)! If these conclusions be valid, we cannot use Judg. 19:23-29 as a report of the rights of father over daughter and husband over wife.

Other instances of the authority of an Israelite husband over a wife are rare and easily described. The vows of Rechabites to follow a nomadic life bound every member of the family, including the wife (Jer. 35:8-10), and the husband could, within limits to be described later, countermand vows made by his wife (Num. 30:6-15). No reports of husbands voiding their wives' vows have survived, however. The relationship between Ahasuerus and Vashti and Esther, described in The Book of Esther, reflects the author's understanding of the authority of a royal Persian husband over his harem, whether that picture is historically accurate or not. It may be significant that Esther, the Jewish woman, is pictured as more obedient than Vashti, the Persian.

One notation at the end of the account of Absalom's revolt against David seems to be historical:

And David came to his house at Jerusalem; and the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to care for the house, and put them in a house under guard, and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood. (II Sam. 20:3)

These were the royal concubines with whom Absalom cohabited during his attempt to usurp David's throne. The narrative seems to reflect the strictures surrounding the royal family more than the authority of the average husband over a wife.

Thus the search for examples of an exercise of authority by the husband over a wife who was a freewoman really contributes only the information that a husband could make void a wife's vow (as also could a father void an unmarried daughter's vow). Beyond this, there is surprisingly little: the statement in Gen. 3:16 and the contrast between Queen Vashti and Esther. This is not enough evidence to sustain the picture of the husband as tyrant over the wife. In the end, therefore, the real basis for that picture is the use of the term ba'al both as husband and as lord. In a culture in which corporate identity took precedence over individual identity, it is likely that the individual whom we would identify as an authority figure was viewed as a personification of the group. This means that we almost certainly misunderstand the meaning of ba'al when we define it in terms of authority.

Other descriptions of the relationship between female and male in marriage picture them either as being treated alike or as sharing a common life, whether for good or ill.

Adultery and rape are dealt with under four categories in the laws of the Old Testament. The first is a prescription for the trial by ordeal for a wife accused of secret adultery (Num. 5:11-31). Should the wife be guilty of the charge, the potion she drinks under priestly supervision will "cause bitter pain, and her body shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become an execration among her people" (v. 27). If she be innocent, however, none of this will happen. Instead, "if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children" (v. 28). Evidence is slowly accumulating which attests to the effectiveness of such trials by ordeal in a culture in which they are accepted as valid.(37)

The second category is adultery in which the participants are caught in the act. Here, the Deuteronomic law dealt with both man and woman in the same way: "If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall purge the evil from Israel" (Deut. 22:22). The severity of the punishment becomes more understandable when we remember that the ancient Israelites regarded conception, pregnancy, and birth as the result of God acting in the woman after the cohabitation of female and male. Adultery is often described as a violation of another man's property rights,38 a position which simply does not account for the Israelite belief about the role of God in establishing and perpetuating families. This punishment is prescribed for all major offenses against God in the Old Testament.

The third and fourth categories deal with two forms of rape, each one the violation of a betrothed maiden. If the incident takes place in a town or village, it is treated as adultery and both are to be stoned, "the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor's wife" (Deut. 22:24b). If the rape happened in the open country, however, only the man was executed "because he came upon her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her" (Deut. 22:27). In each of these instances, a betrothed woman is viewed in law as married. Thus man and woman were treated alike in cases of known adultery, but with one exception. When the greater physical strength of the male may have been used without the female having the means to resist, only the male was punished..

Husbands and wives also were as one when the people were held to be suffering punishment for sin. The way this is expressed conveys the impression at times that the wives will suffer for the sins of their husbands, as in a woe against a priest at Bethel who tried to hinder Amos from prophesying:

Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.
You say, "Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac."
Therefore thus says the LORD:
"Your wife shall be a harlot in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land."
(Amos 7:16f.)

The priest, however, spoke for a cultic community of which he, his family, and the court were a part (see Amos 7-.10-13),39 and the punishment described by Amos was to fall upon the entire community. The corporateness of both offense and punishment is stated more clearly in Jer. 6:10-12:

To whom shall I speak and give warning,
that they may hear?
Behold, their ears are closed,
they cannot listen;
behold, the word of the LORD is to them an object of scorn,
they take no pleasure in it.
Therefore I am full of the wrath of the LORD;
I am weary of holding it in.
"Pour it out upon the children in the street,
and upon the gatherings of young men, also;
both husband and wife shall be taken,
the old folk and the very aged.
Their houses shall be turned over to others,
their fields and wives together;
for I will stretch out my hand
against the inhabitants of the land,"
says the LORD.

The ways in which marital solidarity under punishment is described list most of the categories of suffering known to a people in antiquity which had experienced both natural disaster and defeat in war. Wives would be enslaved with their husbands (II Chron. 29:9), and queens and princesses would be taken into captivity with the king (II Kings 24:12, 15; Jer. 38:21-23). Wives would be killed (Hos. 13:16; Amos 4:1-3), raped (Deut. 28:30; Lam. 5:11), visited with plague (II Chron. 21:12-15), and widowed (Ps. 109:9).

The fusion of husband and wife into a single entity is reflected in the Old Testament in happier ways also. The industrious, economically independent wife in Prov. 31: 10-29 adds luster to her husband's standing among his peers:

Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land
(V. 23; see also Prov. 12:4)

Conversely, the qualities of the husband extended to his family. When the Queen of Sheba praised Solomon, she said: "Happy are your wives! Happy are these your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!" (I Kings 10:8).

Thus it may be that the following description of judgment may have had a far greater impact than we might at first suspect. It describes divine punishment as the disintegration of the corporate fabric in which all persons found their identity:

Put no trust in a neighbor,

have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
from her who lies in your bosom;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
a man's enemies are the men of his own house.
(Micah 7:5f.)


It is clear by this time that the conclusions we reach after viewing evidence in the Old Testament bearing on the status of woman are strongly influenced by our point of departure. Those who have begun with the presumption that the ancient Israelites lived in an authoritarian patriarchal social order have documented their case heavily. The same Biblical evidence, as well as some data ignored or little used, is being employed here to document a different reconstruction of the status of woman in the Old Testament. The point of departure here has been the ancient Israelite's belief that God worked in conception, pregnancy, and giving birth to create and sustain a people. We have been forced by this point of departure to magnify the status of woman, to see the role of the male as essentially complementary and supportive, and to provide an explanation of the evidence describing the relationships between the sexes which is an alternative to a now untenable traditional paternalistic view.

There is a large body of material that has never been intelligible from a patriarchal orientation. Much of it has been ignored. Some of it has been explained away. All of it, however, fits into the position being described here. This evidence falls broadly into two categories: instances in which a woman exercises authority within the family (in some cases, over her husband), and the quite varied activities of women outside the home. In the next chapter, we will examine evidence reporting the woman exercising authority within the home.


32. Jer. 3:24. Explicit references to daughters and sons in references to punishment occur often. See Josh. 7:16-25; Jer. 11:22; 48:46; Lam. 1:18; 5:11; Ezek. 24: 21-25; Joel 3:8; Amos 7:16f.; 8:13f. Jer. 48:46 and Joel 3:8 are directed against Moab and Phoenicia respectively.

33. E.g.: Noah — Gen. 6:18; 7:13; 8:16, 18; Abram, Abraham — Gen. 12:5; 13:1; etc.; Lot — Gen. 14:16; Esau — Gen. 36:6.

34. As a verb: Gen. 20:3; Deut. 21:13; 22:22; 24:1; Isa. 54:1, 5; 62:4f.; Jer. 3:14; 31:32 (but note ASV margin, "I was lord over them"). As a noun: Gen. 20:3; Ex. 21:3, 22; Deut. 22:22; 24:4; II Sam. 11:26; Joel 1:8; Prov. 12:4; 31:11,23, 28; Esth. 1:17,20.

35. As Friedrich Notscher has put it: "The realm of the wife is the home. She is the mother of the husband's children, but more as servant than companion." (Biblische Altertumskunde [Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1940], p. 81. Italics are Notscher's.) He added, however, "The legal and actual place of the wife in respect to the man in biblical times is, after all, not easily described" (loc. cit.). De Vaux, op. cit., p. 39, adding that the wife also addressed the husband as 'adon in Gen. 18:12; Judg. 19:26; Amos4:1, held that "she addressed him, in fact, as a slave addressed his master, or a subject his king." Pedersen, Israel I-II, pp. 62f., described the baal-husband as the "ruling will" within the family

36. See C. F. Burney, The Book of Judges, with Introduction and Notes, 2d ed. (London: Rivington's, 1930), pp. 444f., where the similarities are given in detail.

37. See a report of a trial by ordeal for murder in Austin Kennett, Bedouin Justice: Laws and Customs Among the Egyptian Bedouin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925), pp. 107-114. The incident is reported more briefly by R. H. Kennett, Austin Kennett's father, in Ancient Hebrew Social Life and Custom as Indicated in Law, Narrative, and Metaphor (London: Humphrey Milford, 1933), pp. 95-97.

38. So, among others, Georg Beer, Die soziale und religiose Stellung der Frau im israelitischen Altertum (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1919), p. 16.

39. Raphael Loewe, The Position of Women in Judaism (London: S.P.C.K., 1966), p. 45, writes: "It is significant that the Hebrew expression for 'officiant' at a service means literally 'agent of a group.' Priesthood, as a matter of spiritual status as understood in the Christian West, is a category foreign to Judaism." This is difficult to reconcile with language used of Levitical and Aaronic priests in the Old Testament, but it does have the sense of corporate identification necessary for any individual or group in the Old Testament.

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