Many contemporary women who encounter what the Law of Moses says about women and the female experience, will be shocked, dismayed, and even offended. The idea that female babies are more defiling than male babies, the restrictions upon women due to perfectly normal menstrual cycles, and the bizarre ritual of cursing in the case of suspected adultery—all these things are difficult to bear for women seeking to be both honest and faithful to God and God’s Word.
Of course, we know that in Christ we are free from the Law. Paul assures us that it is for freedom we have been set free (Gal 5:1). But, how should we understand the Law’s perspective on women when it seems so contrary to what we know of God in Jesus? While a full evaluation of how one may rightly understand the Law’s perspective on women is beyond my ability at this point, what follows is my attempt to hit the “high points.” This post will be rather long, but I trust it will be well worth it.
Patriarchy in the Ancient Near East
As I stated in Part 2, it must be understood that patriarchy was the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East. Unfortunately, in our modern context, the term patriarchy suggests the absolute control of males over females and/or the subservience of women to men. Certainly, sometimes this has been the case, but as historians have sought to accurately describe the actual situation of the ANE, the ideological baggage associated with the term “patriarchy” is unhelpful.
Today, ANE scholars emphasize the patrilinear and patrilocal nature of Israelite society and ANE societies in general. A society is patrilinear when land, wealth, and inheritance is passed down through the father’s line. And, because the females are expected to join with the male’s family, the society is also patrilocal--focused around the male’s family. (For more information, see Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religion Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Oudtestamentische Studiën; Leiden: Brill, 2003]).
The Law of Moses is clearly a product of the patrilinear and patrilocal nature of ancient Israelite society. When God established a covenant with a people group in the ANE—namely, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and then formed a “holy nation” from the people he liberated from Egypt, God did so with a people characterized by a thoroughly patriarchal culture—in the patrilinear and patrilocal senses. As I stated in Part 2, however, it is wrongheaded to assume that patriarchy must be embraced simply because Israel exhibited a certain form of it, as depicted in Scripture.
Authority and Power in the Ancient Near East
Another term that ANE scholars use to describe ancient Israelite society is cultural asymmetry. This means that the relationship between male and female, as presented in the Hebrew narratives, exhibits “asymmetry”—with men accorded a set of advantages apparently unavailable to most women. It is not uncommon in contemporary discussions about gender to hear people explain this cultural asymmetry by creating “gendered spheres,” with women restricted to the “domestic sphere” and men to the “public sphere.” Usually, this is done with a presumed air of biblical authority and sealed with statements like, “A woman’s place is in the home.” In reality, however, this way of thinking is inaccurate from the perspective of ANE history.
Instead, in an agrarian peasant society (that is, a society organized around subsistence farming and herding), particularly an agrarian society that is kinship based, the home is the central focus of society. Rather than a “lesser” component of society, the home was the primary center of societal affairs. Unfortunately, the contemporary notions of “gendered spheres” have lead to the assumption that the power was in the “public sphere,” while subordination was found in the “domestic sphere.” Yet, today’s ANE scholars argue vigorously against this oversimplified reading of ancient Israelite culture.
One of the foremost scholars on gender in ancient Israel, Carol Meyers, draws a distinction between power and authority in patriarchal cultures like the ANE. Authority is defined as the culturally legitimated right to make decisions and command obedience. In ancient Israelite culture, males possessed authority as defined this way. But, power is defined as “the ability to control despite or independent of official authority.” While power may not have the same cultural sanctions as authority, it still has the capacity to shape social interactions and even social constructs.
Meyers and others have concluded that while ANE women did not participate in the structures that grant authority, women, nonetheless, did have power. An example of this female power is seen in the account of the daughters of Zelophehad, who were able to ensure a change in the Law that brought justice for their unique situation. (See further, Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context ([New York: Oxford, 1988].)
Dennis Tucker, in an unpublished paper from 2006, describes very well how this distinction between authority and power aids us in interpreting the scriptural narratives about women, many of which don’t “fit” the view of a male-dominated society in ancient Israel. He says,
“If one embraces a traditional notion of patriarchy in which men have all the authority and power, and further that women are subordinate to it, then women such as Deborah, Huldah, and even Miriam seem to challenge such a model. And if one embraces a strongly patriarchal model—one that afforded women no power in Ancient Israel—then one must offer an explanation for the appearance of such women in leadership roles, and moreover, one must explain why there is not some apologetic in the text itself for these anomalies. If, however, Israelite society was comprised of systems of authority, as well as systems of power, then the function of women within that society demands a far more nuanced analysis” (“Women in the Old Testament and the Old Testament on Women,” Truett Seminary, Nov 9, 2006).
All this is to say that the patriarchy evident in the Law of Moses and the Old Testament narratives is not as “black and white” as many complementarians and egalitarians make it out to be. It is clear that women did not possess authority—neither over their future, their property, or even their own bodies. But, women did possess some degree of power, the kind of power that could petition God’s lawgiver to change the Law to afford them justice.
Jesus and the Law of Moses
Let me close with what may at first appear to be a tertiary matter. The Gospels afford us a few instances in which we can observe Jesus interpreting and applying the Law of Moses as it relates to women. I believe that his take on the matter offers us tremendous insight into how we should understand the Law in light of the New Covenant.
In Matt 19 (also Mark 10), Jesus is approached by Pharisees and questioned regarding the right of the husband to divorce his wife. There was a debate among religious leaders in first century Palestine about the legitimate reasons for which a man may divorce his wife. Some leaders affirmed that a man could only divorce his wife for reasons of porneia (or, sexual perversion), while other leaders said that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all (even burning the breakfast). Presumably, the Pharisees want Jesus to pick a side.
In typical fashion, however, Jesus gets beyond their initial question and cuts to the heart of the matter. First, he relates for them the ultimate purpose of God that those who are joined in marriage are “one flesh” (vv. 4-6). The Pharisees object, of course, that Moses permitted men to give their wives a certificate of divorce (v. 7). They are saying, in effect, “Moses let us do it. What’s your problem?” Then, Jesus replies, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
In this statement, Jesus does two things. First, he reveals the sin in the Pharisees heart (and any man’s heart), for hunting for permission in the Law to divorce their wives. In a place and time where divorced women typically became destitute or prostitutes, Jesus is rebuking them for their selfishness and lack of love for their wives. Second, and more important for our purposes, Jesus reveals that there are things in the Law of Moses that are God’s “permission” or condescension because of hard hearts and not necessarily God’s “perfect will.”
Toward a Conclusion
With Jesus as the example, therefore, I argue that as we look to the Law of Moses, we must be sensitive to the fact that it is a product of the culture that produced it. That is to say, even though divinely inspired, the Law is spoken in the voice of an ancient near eastern, patriarchal society. Although women possessed power, they did not possess authority, and as a result, the Law reflects the authority of males over females.
My conclusion, therefore, is that we must not conclude that each individual law in the Law of Moses reflects God’s perfect will for all peoples, for all times. This is in accordance with what Jesus says about the laws governing divorce. Instead, the laws of the Pentateuch reflect the will of God as revealed to the Israelite people in the ANE patriarchal context.
Does this mean that the Law of Moses is useless for the people of God today? By no means! Instead, we must read it with Jesus as our interpreter. Jesus taught us that all the Law and prophets are summed up in the commands to love God and love our neighbor. A heart that does these two things will fulfill all the Law, even if he eats catfish, cuts his sideburns, and wears cotton-polyester blend slacks. Instead of focusing on the rule of law, as the Pharisees did, I think we must focus upon the heart of God in the law, as Jesus did.
What was the heart of God in the laws about rape? I think the heart of God was to protect women in a society in which they had no authority and their virginity was essential to their value. What was the heart of God in the laws about menstruation? I think the heart of God was to accommodate the pre-scientific views of bodily functions that did not understand why a woman’s body would emit blood for up to seven days every month. What was the heart of God in the laws about prisoners of war? I think the heart of God was to provide some protection for women within a common cultural practice of the ANE.
Although I acknowledge that this treatment of the Law and women is very limited, I hope that this is helpful to men and women alike, who desire to reverence the Law of Moses, but struggle with its clearly patriarchal context and implications. I do not believe the Law of Moses is antithetical to an egalitarian perspective. In fact, I think the way Jesus engages and interprets the Law makes a case for the possibility that God has been desirous of moving his people toward a Kingdom of equality and mutual submission since the very beginning.