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Biblical Theological Reflection on the Role of Women

Junia Pokrifka serves as general director of an organization that she co-founded, Phos Ministries. After serving as Professor of Old Testament, she retired from Azusa Pacific University. She holds an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an S.T.M. from Yale Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in Old Testament from the University of St. Andrews.

Junia Pokrifka serves as general director of an organization that she co-founded, Phos Ministries. After serving as Professor of Old Testament, she retired from Azusa Pacific University. She holds an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an S.T.M. from Yale Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in Old Testament from the University of St. Andrews.

by Junia Pokrifka, September 01, 2016

See additional articles on the topic of Women Missionaries here.

The identity and purpose of women has been one of much discussed topics in recent biblical interpretation and theology. But the interpretative community is deeply divided on the identity and purpose of women. Some believe the Bible itself upholds the full equality of women in identity and purpose. Others question whether the Bible on its own terms upholds such equality but turn to theological reformulations of Trinitarian theology and the Imago Dei to promote the freedom and equality of women. Many others, on the other hand, would reduce women’s significance to certain roles, defined in complementarity to men’s roles. Others reject the Bible due to their conclusion that the God of the Bible embodies, legitimatizes, promotes, and perpetuates patriarchy, andro-centricism, and the related oppression of women.1 The diverse views on women in the Bible are understandable, given the wildly different presentations of women in the Bible, ranging from heroes and villains, leaders and victims, rescuers and oppressors, prophets and prostitutes, mistresses and exploited, and beloved and cheated, to name a few.

The crucial interpretative hermeneutical question is whether a given story of woman reflects the state of things in the fallen world or temporary divine accommodation or God’s ideal intentions for woman or some combination thereof. The task of biblical theology of women, then, involves careful discernment between these options, not to draw facile conclusions about the identity and purpose of woman or about the nature of the sacred writings about them. This discernment is best done in relation to the overarching biblical theological theme of women in creation, the Fall, progressive redemption, and consummation.

Women in creation would show the ideal woman as created by God; the Fall would show the corrupted woman; progressive redemption would show everything in the full spectrum of things, while pointing everything toward the culmination of God’s redemptive work. Having protology and eschatology as the two theological “ends” that tightly hold the Fall of humanity and the redemptive work of God in a clear redemptive trajectory steers the interpreter from any rash conclusions based on isolated texts. In addition, the consideration of the ideal woman in the image of God in creation and the glorified woman in the perfected image of Christ in consummation provides new interpretive insight for understanding woman in the Bible in terms of a type of Christ or an antitype of Christ or somewhere in between.

In our biblical theological reflection of the role of women in the Bible, we will focus on those women whose lives prefigure Christ. This approach can give us a redemptive hermeneutical lens with which to read the entire Bible (even the so-called “problem texts” in the Bible that are traditionally used to bar women from public or spiritual leadership) in ways that are freeing and empowering for women. The biblical theological study of women concerned with redemptive patterns places women place in God’s kingdom in a particular light that breaks the back of patriarchy. In that light, patriarchy and androcentrism are no longer seen as normative, but as regrettable conditions that God and God’s human agents are working to overcome.2 Accordingly, the remarkable women of the Bible are not simply exceptions to the rule, but rather redemptive prototypes for others to emulate, for woman’s life has a mission or objective (Wright 2006, 65, 425–27). These prototypical women fall into a number of important roles in the life of Israel and church.

Mothers

As society gradually deteriorated to an androcentric, patrilocal, and patriarchal society, woman and her reproductive capacities were largely treated as male property to ensure patrilineal descent. In the original creation, child-bearing is a God-given privilege, and fruitfulness is a divine blessing essential for having dominion. Accordingly, in redemptive history, women’s role in childbearing is of paramount importance for the fulfillment of not only God’s original mandate of fruitfulness (Gen. 1:28) but also God’s promises to Abraham of prosperity and blessings of all nations through Sarah’s child.

It is therefore no surprise that the “serpent” would be hostile to woman and her childbearing (Gen. 3:15-16). But the barrenness of the matriarchs of Israel (Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel) and other women (Samson’s mother and Hannah) became an occasion for divine self-revelation, intervention, blessing, and victory over the hostile “serpent” that resisted God and his people.3 Sarah’s supernatural childbearing is especially significant as it established for Israel that women and reproduction belong to God and that covenant promises pass down through patterns of matrilineal descent (Gen. 17:19-21).

Although some mothers in extreme circumstances resorted to cannibalism, possibly even eating even their own children in a paradigmatic act of evil (Lam. 2:20; 4:10; cf. Lev. 26:29; Deut. 28:53–57; Jer. 19:9; Ezek. 5:10), the Old Testament affirms the utmost importance of mothers’ unique role in God’s redemptive work. Some mothers stand out for their extraordinary faith, courage, and sacrifice in bringing forth children who played a key role in the deliverance of Israel, such as Jochebed, Moses’ mother (Exod. 2:1-10); Ruth, King David’s great grandmother (Ruth 4:13-17); and Hannah, Samuel’s mother (1 Sam. 1:24-28).

Mothers played a critical role in Israel’s covenant life. The commandment to honor both mother and father affirms both mother and father as primary teachers and interpreters of God’s covenant laws (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:7; 11:19; 32:36). The command to honor mother also implies mothers’ God-given authority to bless their children and determine the general direction of their descendants’ lives. The Book of Proverbs, although written from a male perspective to a male audience, also assumes that both fathers and mothers are teachers of Torah, and that both males and females learn from their mothers, with some mothers’ words being recorded (Prov. 31:1). Jewish tradition holds that Huldah was a prophet who taught publicly in a school. It also associates “the Gate of Huldah” in the Second Temple with Huldah’s schoolhouse. Ultimately, the mothers’ collective role as teachers of the law (Exod. 20:12; Deut. 6:7) would serve to guard the religion of Israel and determine the destiny of the nation.

The New Testament writers celebrate mothers as transmitters of faith and disciplers of effective ministers of the Gospel. Paul makes an honorable mention of Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice for their sincere faith (2 Tim. 1:5) and for raising up Timothy to be a worthy minister (despite his youth) through their example, instruction, encouragement, and prayers from his childhood (2 Tim. 3:14-15).

Mothers played a central role in the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven in the New Testament. In fulfillment of God’s word, Elizabeth miraculously gave birth to John the Baptist, the great forerunner who prepared the way for the Messiah. Most importantly, Mary whole-heartedly embraced God’s call to be the mother of Jesus Christ, conceiving of him by the Holy Spirit and demonstrating her supreme faith in God and courage to pay the price of utterly surrendering her life to God’s will. This woman’s “seed” indeed subdued the ancient serpent, as prophesied in Genesis 3:15 (see 1 John 3:8b). Her faithfulness and sacrifice were instrumental in ushering in a new era, in which women and men alike are set free from the powers of sin and death (Rom. 8:2), seated in heavenly places in and with Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:6), and recreated for good works, which God prepared for them to do (Eph. 2:10). Thus, all generations call her blessed (Luke 1:48).

Wives

The unfulfilled call to subdue and have dominion over creation appears to find its distorted outlet in human-to-human domination, epitomized in the typical post-fall patriarchal order predicted in the divine pronouncement “he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16b). However, there are cases in which mutual authority between wife and husband prevailed with wives sometimes taking the lead.4 Abraham obeyed (šĕma bĕqōlāh) Sarah (Gen. 16:2; 21:12). Jacob obeyed his wives by taking their maidservants to produce more children for them (Gen. 30:3-4, 9). Rachel and Leah negotiated their conjugal rights over Jacob, who submitted to their decision (Gen. 30:15-16).5 Jochebed successfully executed her rescue plan on her own (Exod. 2:2-3). Zipporah (not Moses) performed priestly rites to deter death (Exod. 4:24-26). Deborah judged Israel without her husband’s supervision (Judges 4-5). And Hannah made and fulfilled a vow to the Lord (1 Sam. 1:10ff.). Through her diplomatic gift of appeasement and prophetic endorsement of David’s kingship, Abigail deterred David from taking a personal vengeance upon her foolish husband Nabal and saved her own household (1 Sam. 25).6

The Israelites’ legal system provided some protection of wife from unrestrained androcentric legal procedures, although it still shows the wife’s subordinate status under male authority and power. In a state of anarchy, some men deteriorated into utterly brutal treatment of a wife (iššâ; Judg 19:1), possibly reflecting the general dehumanized status of a wife of that period.7

Other Old Testament texts recall the fundamental unity, love, and honor between the wife and the husband expressed in the original man’s exuberant praise of woman (“bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” in Gen. 2:23). Song of Songs portrays a paradigmatic love relationship in which the lover and her beloved enjoy mutual love as it was meant to be. Their relationship is completely free of male domination or concerns for gender roles and honors the edenic matrilocal marital norm from Genesis 2:24, in which the man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife (Song 3:4; 8:1). Proverbs 31 also celebrates the wife of strength who is like wisdom personified. She is kind, generous, wise, favored, industrious, prosperous, strong, independent, courageous, valued, and praised in the private and the public spheres. On account of her excellence, the husband devotes himself to civic causes. The wife and her husband respect, value, trust, and bless each other, showcasing an ideal covenantal marriage as intended by God.

The New Testament upholds the dignity of woman as created in the image of God, recreated in the image of Christ, and as co-heirs with Christ. 1 Corinthians 11, in particular, upholds the woman’s exalted status as the crown or “glory of man,” echoing the first man’s own praise of the first woman in the superlatives as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), recognizing the fact that she is essentially like him.

Ephesians 5:18 commands all disciples of Christ to be filled with the Holy Spirit, which will manifest itself, among other things, in mutual submission out of reverence of Christ (Eph. 5:21) who dwells in each of them. What this mutual submission would look like in marriage is explicated in the verses that follow. Husbands are called to love and sacrifice their own lives for their wives, just as Christ has done for the church (Eph. 5:25). The wives are called to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22), which is a way of showing sacrificial love. While many have erroneously reduced this text into rigid roles, with husband as the ruler and wife as the submitter, mutual submission or mutual sacrificial love is an expression of the “most excellent way,” namely, love, that 1 Corinthians 12:31 – 13:13 talks about. It is a way of life that emulates the person and ministry of Christ that transcends the ideal romantic love celebrated in Song of Songs.

Proprietors

A census taken on the 40th year of the exodus for the purpose of dividing the Promised Land among the tribes (and then by clans) indicates that the property was distributed to sons. Five unmarried young daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah) boldly and effectively challenged this pre-Israelite law as being inadequate. Out of their honorable desires to keep alive their father’s name among the Gileadites, they demanded a holding along with their five uncles and thus an implied amendment of the existing inheritance law. God granted their request and forever changed the Israelite property law. The new law allowed daughters to inherit the land in the absence of sons before the deceased’s brothers or uncles were considered (Num. 26). This law triggered another new law that prohibited an inheritance from being passed from one tribe to the other by limiting the inheritress’ marriage within her tribal clan (Num. 27:6-9). The daughters of Zelophehad then married their cousins on their father’s side. Once in the land, the five daughters inherited their own lot (Josh. 17:3-6) along with their father’s five brothers on the western side of Jordan River, while the Machirites received their lot on the eastern side (Josh. 17:1-6). As a result, the tribe of Manasseh inherited the largest allotment.

Another notable proprietor is the woman of power in Proverbs 31. Although set in the context of a patriarchal culture in which public decision-makers (i.e., the elders at the city gate, Prov. 31:23) were typically men, the woman of Proverbs 31 has significant domestic and social power and influence (Prov. 31:16–20). Furthermore, the poem calls for public praise of the woman (Prov. 31:31). The husband “in no way sees himself diminished,” but is about to appreciate his good fortune and praise his wife’s excellence and success in the city gates.8 The daughters of Zelophehad and the woman of strength portray a glowingly redemptive portrait of women.

Authors/Composers

There are two Old Testament books dedicated to heroic women, Ruth and Esther, composed after their time. There are other texts that were composed by extraordinary women. Proverbs 31, which includes an impressive acrostic poem, is attributed to the queen mother of king Lemuel (Prov. 31:1). Deborah’s song (Judg. 5:1-31), which celebrates a military victory gained with the help of two women, mentions Deborah as the composer (Judg. 5:7). Hannah celebrated her vindication and victory in her song (1 Sam. 2:1-10), which is echoed in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

Exodus 15:1-18 is a song that celebrates Yahweh’s supreme power over creation and sovereign rule over political super powers. Because this song is introduced with Moses and the Israelites as singers (v 1), many have assumed Moses as the composer of the song and designated the song as “The Song of Moses” as shown in the headings of many translations. However, the text does not name Moses as the composer, which contrasts with Moses’ song in Deuteronomy 31:19-22. There are compelling reasons for Miriam’s authorship of this hymn. (1) Victory songs that celebrate and memorialize significant events of salvation belong to a genre associated with female rather than male musicians or singers (e.g., Deborah’s song, Hannah’s song, the women’s song for David’s triumphs in 1 Samuel 18:7; see Judges 11:34 and Jeremiah 31:4). (2) While some suggest that Miriam sang only the first line as a chorus, the expression “Miriam sang to them” (masculine plural; Exod. 15:21) likely indicates that Miriam composed and sang the entire song to all the Israelites. Then Moses and the Israelites sang after her, committing the song to their memory (see Deborah’s victory song, which she undoubtedly composed and sang as stated in Judges 5:7, but which is introduced with Deborah and Barak as singers in Judges 5:1). The first line in Exodus 15:21 probably serves as the title of the song, and Exodus 15:1 asynchronously reports the fact that Moses and the Israelites sang the song they learned from Miriam.

Song of Songs was traditionally attributed to Solomon as its author, but this position has been challenged for good reasons. The language and content of the Song strongly point to the Song being “for” or dedicated “to” Solomon. The language also points to a woman poet. She is the primary lover in the song, with the young man as the beloved. The Song is written from the woman’s perspective. The “other” voice in the Song addresses her six times and both the lover and the beloved once (Song 5:1). She gives the most powerful description of love (Song 8:6-7). The Song opens (1:2-4) and closes (8:14) with her voice, and she is the dominant speaker.

In the New Testament, some scholars identify Priscilla as the author of the Book of Hebrews.
 (1) Noted for its literary sophistication and theological depth, Hebrews is the only anonymous writing in the New Testament. The omission of the author’s name likely was to conceal its female authorship and to protect its reception.
 (2) Priscilla and her husband Aquila were partners in marriage, business (tentmaking), and ministry of pastoring, teaching, and mission (Acts 18:1-4, 26; 1 Cor. 16:19). Traditionally considered part of the seventy disciples/apostles (Luke 10:1, 17), Paul recognized them as his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 16:3), honoring them as ministers of the Gospel equal to him. They were especially renowned for their wealth and depths of knowledge of the Scripture, being able to explicate “the way of God more perfectly” to Apollos, who was already thoroughly trained in the scriptures and effectively teaching others (Acts 19:24-25).
 (3) The author of the Hebrews sends greetings from Rome (Heb. 13:24), and the fact that Priscilla and Aquila had lived in Rome lends support to Priscilla’s authorship.
Although may not have been directly engaged in writing, the Gospel of Luke indicates that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a major source of the stories of the annunciation, conception, birth, childhood, and perhaps also the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The things she had “treasured up” (Luke 2:19) in her heart all throughout Jesus’ lifetime are passed down to us through Luke’s writing.

While biblical texts are largely written and compiled by men, those written by women are highly sophisticated in their composition, contribute indispensable theological ideas, and/or celebrate significant historical events. Their inspired words about God, war, history, birth, life, death, and resurrection, love, or marriage have been transmitted, received, studied, and applied as God’s timeless, authoritative, trustworthy, and transformative words to God’s people.

Rescuers

There were female rescuers mediating and foreshadowing God’s character and acts, especially the deliverance of the vulnerable from oppression and death. These redemptive women fulfilled their roles as “helpers”9 (Gen. 2:18) of the weak and oppressed and thwarters of the plans and powers of formidable enemies of God. Several stories from early in the book of Exodus stand out. The midwives who feared God more than the murderous Pharaoh, courageously upheld the sanctity of life and defied the powerful pagan king in their act of civil disobedience (Exod. 1:15-21). Jochebed, in keeping with her son’s special destiny, devised and successfully carried out a risky, but brilliant rescue plan for her son (Exod 2:2-6). The Egyptian princess, moved by deep compassion and maternal tenderness and exercising her privilege to act independently of her father Pharaoh, saved and adopted an apparently abandoned Hebrew baby (Exod 2:5-10). Young Miriam, extremely discerning and bold, approached the Egyptian princess to suggest a wet-nurse and then bring the baby’s own mother.

Esther was a Jewish queen of Persia. When her people were faced with the threat of annihilation, she was willing to sacrifice everything, even her own life, to intercede for and save her people. Whether in Exodus or Esther, the ruthless genocide campaigns against the people of God can be seen as an extension of the serpent’s hostility against the “seed” of the woman. By contrast, the Israelite women’s redemptive acts and God’s employment of God’s people in the judgment of their enemies can be seen as significant fulfillments of the “seed” of the woman “striking” the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).

There also was a non-Israelite woman with historical understanding, spiritual insight, practical wisdom, and moral courage (Josh 2:1-16) who saved herself and her immediate and extended family from destruction (6:22-26) by saving two Israelite spies and defecting to Israel. Once prostitute or innkeeper (Josh. 6:17, 25; cf. Heb. 11:31; James 2:25); Rahab apparently was given favor and honor to be married into one of the prestigious families in the tribe of Judah. This woman with indecorous and foreign origin in turn became the mother of Boaz, an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:5), adding to the scandalous nature of God’s grace.

Prophets

Women served God-given purposes not only in private sectors, but sometimes in public and religious domains. One of prominent gifts and positions for women was prophet, who received, proclaimed, and interpreted divine revelation. This function is consistent with the fact that she is made in the image of God to commune with God and make God known to the people.
The first woman named prophet (nĕbî’â) was Miriam (Exod. 15:20), who is famously known for singing the victory song and leading (at age ninety or older!) all the women in dancing on the banks of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:21). The words (proverbs and song; Prov. 31:2-31) of queen mother of king Lemuel are called an “oracle” or “prophecy,” indicating that she was a prophet (Prov. 31:1). The excellent woman of her acrostic wisdom song (Prov. 31:10-31) embodies the kind of wisdom the entire book promotes, thus forming a brilliant conclusion to the book. Deborah’s commanding prophetic leadership provided military impetus, strategy, and victory, ushering in a long period of shalom (šālôm) in Israel (Judg. 4–5). At least two texts speak of a prophetic role for a larger number of women: “The Lord gives the word; the women who announce the news are a great host” (Ps. 68:11); “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28bc). Abigail, though not called a prophet, uttered a profound prophecy regarding David’s integrity, kingship, divine protection and vengeance, and lasting dynasty (1 Sam. 25:26-31). Her message foreshadows the prophet Nathan’s prophecy (2 Sam. 7:8-16).

Huldah’s prophetic leadership should not be underestimated. It was instrumental in Josiah’s massive religious reforms (1 Kings 22 and 2 Chron. 34). Even as her living quarters and the gate dedicated to her would indicate, Huldah probably was highly esteemed not only as a prophet, but also as an interpreter and teacher of the law. This would explain why the king’s delegates sought her out with a document found in a temple, even above her prophetic contemporaries Jeremiah and Zephaniah, who also ministered during the reign of Josiah (Jer. 1:2; Zeph. 1:1). Huldah validated the authority of that document, making a major contribution to the process of the formation and canonization of the Bible.

Women did not always use the prophetic gift for good. Miriam used her claims to prophetic powers to falsely question Moses’ unique authority and wrongfully subject his wife to racial discrimination (Num. 12:1-9). Noadiah apparently abused her prophetic gift and influence to conspire against Nehemiah (Neh. 6:14). Their abuse of the prophetic gift does not negate the legitimacy of the gift or the calling. But it shows that gifts can be misused, whether by men or women, to oppose God and God’s people, or used to serve God and build up God’s people.

In the New Testament, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, stands out for her prophetic utterances to Mary concerning the identity of Mary’s child (Luke 1:43). Elizabeth also knew, apparently by a revelation, that her son’s name should be John (Luke 1:60). Anna is another prophet who recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah. Giving thanks to God, she proclaimed the coming of the Messiah to “all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). The four daughters of Philip the evangelists are explicitly mentioned as prophetess (Acts 21:8-9). There are various texts that point to the fact that men and women prophesying (whether preaching or giving words of encouragements, wisdom, or future directions) was not only not uncommon, but it was strongly encouraged. Acts 2 records the event of the coming of the Holy Spirit as prophesied in Joel 2, in which both women and men were filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaiming in different languages (tongues) the gospel message (Acts 2:8-11). First Corinthians 11:1-5 applauds women and men for praying and prophesying, while urging them to have the culturally appropriate hairstyle (long for women and short for men; see vv. 14-15).

Priestly Ministers

A few texts testify to female Levites’ participation in the ministry of the tabernacle. For example, Exodus 38:8 takes for granted that there were women Levites serving (ṣāvā’) at the tent of meeting. Accordingly, 1 Samuel 2:22 shows women serving at the tent of meeting during the time of the pre-Monarchical period (although the male priests’ sexual abuse at the tabernacle may have occasioned termination of women priestly service). Thus, the commandments concerning the consecration and service of the Levites given in Numbers 8:24-26 should be taken as applicable to both male and female Levites.

Levitical women who were priestly and prophetic ministers are also attested in other parts of Israel’s history. Heman’s three daughters during King David’s time were renowned temple musicians (either in vocal or instrumental music or both; see 1 Chron. 25:1, 5-6). Men and women temple singers are also noted during Josiah’s time in 2 Chronicles 35:25 (see 2 Chron. 23:13; 29:28) and until the return from exile (in 2 Chron. 35:25; Ezra 2:65, 70; 7:7; Neh. 7:67, 73). The roles women had in Tabernacle and temple worship offer parallels to the other better known Old Testament women who served in non-cultic leadership roles related to prophetic ministry, military exploits, and religious reform (e.g. Deborah and Huldah).

Through the installation of priests, God taught Israel about the distinction between the holy and the unholy. This was not so much to emphasize or to perpetuate the division between the sacred and profane, but to provoke all people to a life of holiness whereby they too might draw near to God and be consecrated unto God. Accordingly, a provision was made that non-Levitical women or men, if they so desired, could consecrate themselves entirely to the Lord as Nazirites (Num. 6:2-21). This provision foreshadows the expanded vision of priesthood in the new covenant in which women are included (1 Pet. 2:5-9).

The New Testament names a few outstanding women ministers. Phoebe is called a “minister/deacon (diakonos) of the church” in Cenchrea, implying that she held an office of leadership in the church (Rom. 16:1). Paul recognized her as a benefactor (prostatis) or “a patron of many and of [himself]” (Rom. 16:2). Lydia, a seller of purple, a lucrative business owner, is named as the first proselyte in Europe, who apparently led her entire household to conversion (Acts 16:14-15). The mention of the “brothers and sisters” in her household indicates an established house church (Acts 16:40). When Paul later addresses the “overseers/bishops (episkopoi)” and “minister/deacons (diakonoi)” in Philippi, it is highly likely that Lydia, being the head of her house church, is one of the overseers and ministers being addressed.

Paul recognized Junia, his relative (“kinsman”) and fellow prisoner, as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7), that is, distinguished as an apostle herself.10 Epiphanius (315 – 403 CE) noted that this apostle whom Paul mentioned became Bishop of Apameia of Syria.11

Rulers

Although many may remember Eve as the uneducated gullible woman, she was created as the “queen” to rule over God’s creation on earth. Yahweh formed the woman as “the helper” (an epithet often used of God as the deliverer, e.g. Exodus 18:4; Psalms 33:20; 70:5; 115:9, 10, 11; Hosea 13:9) equal to the man (Gen. 2:18). She was to share the responsibility of subduing and having dominion on earth (Gen. 1:26-28). While Eve failed to subdue the “serpent” who deceived her (Gen. 3:13; 1 Tim. 2:14) and the infamous Jezebel (1 Kings 18:13; 21:9-16) and the Judean queen Athaliah (2 Kings 11:1-16; 2 Chron. 23:12-15) used their royal power to do great evil, there are others in Israel’s history who exercised their political power and spiritual authority to bring deliverance to their people. Deborah was a prophet and a judge (or ruler), who governed Israel during the twenty years of the Canaanites’ cruel oppression and then for additional forty years after a decisive victory over them (Judg. 5:31). Her rule is presented as an extension of Yahweh’s reign over Israel, as Moses’ leadership had been. Women who walk in a redemptive calling, position, and responsibility are not deviating from God’s overall purpose for women; rather, they are fulfilling God’s purposes for redeemed women as rulers (cf. Eph. 2:4-6; Rev. 20:4, 6), consistent with God’s original intention for women before the Fall. As such, they are types of Christ.

In the New Testament, women are exhorted to exercise their authority given by God. When translated straightforwardly and without added words, Paul’s word to the women in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is that “the woman ought to have authority over her head,” which is “man” according to verse 3. The main biblical reason for the woman’s authority is given in verse 9, “neither was man created because (dia, preposition, indicating the reason) of woman, but woman because of man.” We recall that in Genesis 2, the woman is made because the man is incomplete without an equal “helper” or partner. That is, the man needs the woman to help him to “serve” and “guard” the Garden. The woman was given equal authority with the man to help him serve and guard the Garden, especially from the threats of the tempter who was seeking to overthrow them (Gen. 3). In a cultural context that otherwise suppressed the voice of women, Paul was appealing to the creation story to exhort the women of Corinth to reclaim their creational authority to pray and prophesy freely, not only over women, but also over men. In the Garden, the woman exercised her authority over the man negatively by aiding him in his rebellion. In redemption, the woman is called to exercise her authority positively as a redeemed member of the Spirit-empowered Body of Christ, to exercise her authority over God’s congregation (male and female) to build up the body of Christ.

If so, the clause “because of the angels (dia tou angelous) ” may be understood as referring to demonic beings that the women are once again called to rule over and overcome (together with men), which she failed to do in the Garden.12 Since such authority was controversial for women (especially for many Jews), Paul has to highlight it in verse 10.13 Yet, in an apparent effort to curtail any overestimation or misapplication of the authority of woman or a misunderstanding of male/female differences, Paul reinforces the interdependence, mutuality, and complementarity of men and women and their ultimate dependence on God in verses 11-12: “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.” The mutuality and equality of woman and man in creation and in redemption are clearly affirmed here. Women and men in the body of Christ are called to mutual submission and unity, which is a manifestation of the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18-15), so that they may stand effectively “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Mutual submission and unity that flows out of unity with God the Father and God the Son through the Holy Spirit also leads to the world knowing that the Father God loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ to the world to save it (John 3:16; 17:23).

Disciples

But since the fruitfulness of one’s life will be judged not so much by what role we played or what important position we held or how much power or authority we had, but by how well we loved, it seems appropriate to end this reflection on the role of women with the call to love well. There were women who passionately loved Jesus and faithfully followed and served him from the beginning of his ministry until the end. Taking the four gospels as emphasizing different individuals and highlighting different parts of the whole story (rather than as giving contradictory reports), we can name those women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, the mother of Zebedee’s sons, Salome, Joanna, the wife of Chuza, and Susanna who followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs out of their own means (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40; Luke 8:2-3). The same group of women remained faithful to him even to the cross. Women anointed and prepared him for his burial (Matt. 26:6-13; Luke 7:36-50). Women were present at and were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and burial; they went to the tomb and saw and heard the angel announce the good news of Jesus’ resurrection; they were commissioned to announce the good news to the other disciples; they were the first to be encountered by the resurrected Jesus (Matt. 27:55-56, 60-61; Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 15:40-41; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 23:49; Luke 24:4-10; John 19:25). Their love and unwavering devotion marked them as the most privileged of all disciples of Jesus.

Conclusion

The numerous examples of redeemed women who are in turn redemptive agents in the Bible far out weigh a handful of texts that temporarily restricted women’s role in the public or ecclesial contexts (such as in 1 Tim. 2:11-15 due to inadequate education). Patriarchy and its effects do not represent God’s ultimate purpose for women in the Bible. The lives of the extraordinary women of the Old Testament—mothers, wives, proprietors, composers, rescuers, prophets, ministers, and rulers—are evidence of the measure of shalom (šālôm) that God brought to women as members of his redeemed people (see Psalms 96:10; 97:2; 99:4; Isaiah 54:1; 60:18). They demonstrate the restored image of God, living out whom they are created and redeemed to be. They offer a foretaste of the future messianic age, in which all evil effects of the Fall will be completely vanquished and all aspects of life lavishly blessed (cf. Isaiah 11:6–9; 65:17; 66:22).

The Bible is marked and shaped by a thematic pattern that emphasizes redemption from sin and its evil effects. God purposefully acts to ensure that the consequences of sin found in Genesis 3 are overcome and the creational intentions found in Genesis 1–2 are restored through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This narrative framework of the Bible urges its readers to see patriarchy as a regrettable result of human sin and God as one who consistently, albeit gradually, resists patriarchy until it is ultimately overturned. God’s sovereign grace overcomes what human effort could not, and women and men of God become the carriers of that divine grace, as we wholly surrender ourselves to the way of love of Jesus Christ.

End Notes

1. The Post-Christian feminists’ conclusion that the Bible is thoroughly and irrevocably patriarchal is also shared by some conservative, anti-feminist evangelicals (see Haas 1995). The former however reject the Bible and its God (as oppressive), whereas the latter accept and seek to propagate patriarchy as God’s eternal arrangement for humanity.

2. For a more detailed defense of a grand narrative approach in respect to the issue of patriarchy in the Old Testament, see my article (Pokrifka 2011).

3. Phyllis Trible rightly asserts that the divine oracle of judgment in chapter 3 is descriptive in nature, rather than prescriptive; that is, God is describing how things will be in general, rather than how things ought to be at all times (Trible 1974, 41).

4. Carol Meyers believes she has social scientific and historical evidence that early, pre-Monarchical Israel was basically non-hierarchical and egalitarian, without patriarchy in any strong sense (Meyers 1988, 180-81, 187-88). See also Meyers’ comments on the challenge of defining words like “patriarchy” appropriately for use in reference to the social realities of ancient Israel, which are so different from those in the modern West (1988, 24-46).

5. See James Hamilton (2010, 82-83) for an account of “gender conflict” in Genesis. (See also his preceding treatment of inter-human “seed conflict” between “the seed of the serpent” and “the seed of the women” (Hamilton 2010, 80-81). Although I find much of Hamilton’s work helpful, I disagree with his complementarian or hierarchical view of what ideal gender relations should be like, based upon the alleged “created order” (Hamilton 2010, 72-74).

6. In Meyers’ view, the transition from early Israel to monarchical Israel marked a decline in the social power of women and an increase of a kind of patriarchy (Meyers 1988, 181-96). In her words, “The locus of power moved from the family household, with its gender parity, to a public world of male control” (Meyers 1988, 190).

7. Some helpful treatments of the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine or wife are found in pieces by Jacqueline Lapsley (2005, 35-68) and Trible (1984, 65-92).

8. “The husband appreciates his good fortune, in no way sees himself diminished” and is able to praise his wife’s excellence and success in the city gates (Le Cornu 2002, 339).

9. The term “helper” does not connote an inferior in the context of Genesis 2 or others. The term “helper” or “help” (‘ezer) is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament: twice for the woman in Genesis 2:18, 20; three times of a human (superior) “help” that is not forthcoming (Isa. 30:5; Ezek. 12:14; Dan. 11:34); and 16 times of God the “helper” or “help” (Exod. 18:4; Deut. 33:7, 26, 29; Ps. 20:2; 33:20; 70:5; 89:19; 115:9,10,11; 121:1, 2; 124:8; 146:5; Hosea 13:9). That the woman is created to be a helper does not mean that she is superior to the man. She is created to be a helper who is like the man, which means they are equal. As Trible puts it, “God is the helper superior to [humans]; woman is the helper equal to man” (“Trible 1974, 36).

10. In the Greek literature of the first three centuries, there are two occurrences (besides Romans 16:7) of the name Junia that refers to a woman and no occurrences of a masculine variant of this name. According to J. D. Crossan & J. Reed, all of the 250 occurrences of the name Junia in Latin literature in antiquity refers to woman (Crossan and Reed 2004, 115). Chrysostom (349 – 407 CE, Archbishop of Constantinople) recognized Junia as a woman apostle. Eldon Jay Epp’s research on the name Junia also shows that earlier, theologically unbiased Greek texts printed the name Junia as feminine, but dramatically changed to masculine from the 1927 Nestle edition (Epp 2005, 60-64).

11. However, he changed Junia to Junias (a male name), perhaps unable to conceive of a woman apostle and bishop, just as many modern translations have done (see Epp 2005, 65-68).

12. This point depends on a theological interpretation of Genesis 2–3 that understands the serpent as “possessed” by the devil, a demonic being. This fits not only with New Testament references to the devil as “that ancient Serpent” (Rev. 12:9; 20:2), but also with Paul’s point that believers “will judge angels” (1 Cor. 6:3), which implies authority over angels, whether fallen or unfallen.

13. However, two points from earlier in 1 Corinthians prepare for this apparently radical move on Paul’s part. First, Paul already asserts that wives have authority (exousia) over their husband’s bodies—just as their husband’s do over theirs (1 Cor. 7:3). These points also apply for those who believe that Paul is speaking for the women’s right or authority over her own literal head (and hair), which also would be controversial for many in Paul’s audience.

References

Crossan, J. D. and J. Reed. 2004. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. New York: Harper Collins.

Epp, Eldon Jay. 2005. Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Haas, Gunther. 1995. “Patriarchy as an Evil that God Tolerated: Analysis and Implications for Authority of Scripture.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38, no. 3: 321-36.

Hamilton, James. 2010. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway.

Lapsley, Jacqueline. 2005. Whispering the Word. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Le Cornu, Alison. 2002. Proverbs. In The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans, 319-40. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.

Meyers, Carol. 1988. Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pokrifka, H. Junia. 2011. Patriarchy, Biblical Authority, and the Grand Narrative of the Old Testament.” In Tamar’s Tears: Evangelical Engagements with Feminist Old Testament Hermeneutics, ed. Andrew Sloane, 274-314. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Trible, Phyllis. 1974. “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 41, no. 1: 41-47.

__________. 1984. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Wright, Christopher. 2006. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.