In contemporary discussions of women and women’s roles in the kingdom of God, it is uncommon for egalitarians or complementarians to give attention to the treatment of women in the Law of the Hebrew Scripture. In fact, in my own experience, it was not until two years into my seminary program (a total of five years into my higher education) that I was exposed to the treatment of women in the Law of Moses. Yet, if the Law of Moses was the first code by which the people of God understood God and God’s will, then it is essential to consider its content as we consider God’s will for women today.
Therefore, in the next three posts, I will consider the Law as it relates to women. In Parts 1 and 2, I will overview the content of the Law of Moses as it relates to women and the female experience. For ease of understanding, I will organize this treatment according to subject matter first and then in sequential order as the laws appear in the code. Then, in Part 3, I will make suggestions as to what I believe is the best way to interpret the laws about women within the New Covenant. I hope this overview is beneficial to those who had not previously considered the way in which the Law of Moses applied to women and served to characterize the female experience in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Circumcision and Covenant
Gen 17:11 – Although it is difficult to admit, there is no doubt that the covenant of circumcision formed with Abraham inherently excludes women from bearing the physical sign of covenant relationship with God. Later, this covenant is understood to apply to all Hebrew men, all foreign men living within Israel, and all male slaves living in Israel. By default, therefore, women become a part of the covenant with God by being related to a circumcised Israelite male, whether as a daughter or wife.
Exod 19:1-15 – Prior to the ceremony at Mt. Sinai, in which God affirms his covenant with Israel, Moses is told by God to instruct “the people” regarding their consecration. Among the things they must do to prepare to meet with God, including washing their garments, Moses instructs “the people” not to defile themselves with women (v. 15). The implication of this verse seems to be that women, or sex-acts with women, are inherently defiling and that “the people” who stand before God at Sinai are the men of Israel.
Num 30:3-5 – The vow or pledge of a young woman still living in her father’s household may be upheld or nullified according to the will of her father. The Lord is said to release the young woman of her vows when the father has forbidden it. Perhaps this was intended to protect ignorant and/or gullible women from being duped by those who would prey on them. The same protections are not available to a young man, for v. 2 specifies that a man must keep his vow or pledge before the Lord without exceptions.
Lev 15:19-30 – In the context of a lengthy treatment of bodily discharges that cause ceremonial uncleanness, the woman’s “regular flow of blood” is addressed. According to the priestly laws, the menstruating woman will be unclean for the seven days of her period, as well as seven days following her period. Then, upon the eighth day, she must take two doves or young pigeons to the priest to make an offering before God that will atone for her uncleanness.
Moreover, during her menstruation, anything the woman sits upon or lies upon will be unclean, as well as anyone who touches the woman or anything she sits upon or lies upon. This means that the husband of a menstruating woman is instructed not to approach her for intercourse (Lev 18:19) and, even more severely, “If a man has sexual relations with a woman during her monthly period, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them are to be cut off from their people” (Lev 20:18).
Practically speaking, these laws mean that every menstruating woman is ceremonially unclean for 14 days out of every month—roughly half of every year. Also, the menstruating woman is defiling to her husband and everyone within close proximity to her during this period of time as well. For women who had physical problems that caused overabundance or constant menstruation, such as the woman with the flow of blood in the Gospels, she would be ceremonially unclean for her entire life and never able to make “atonement” for her uncleanness.
Exod 21:10-11 - In a discussion of treatment of servants, the matter arises as to what should happen if a man gives his female servant to his son. If a man marries a female servant and then marries another woman, he is not permitted to deprive the first wife of her food, clothing, and marital rights. If the woman is not provided with these things, she is to go free, without any payment of money for her freedom.
Num 5:11-31 - Honestly, this is a rather strange portion of scripture that details an involved ritual, called “the law of jealousy,” in a case where a husband suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, but possesses no proof.
In this case, the husband is to take his wife to the priest, along with an offering of barley flour on her behalf (as a “reminder-offering”). The priest will stand her before God, loosen her hair, and place in her hands the offering of barley flour, while the priest holds a clay cup of holy water mixed with dust from the tabernacle floor. Then the priest will put the woman under oath, make her drink the “bitter water that brings a curse,” and offer the barley flour to God.
According to vv. 27-28, if the woman has been unfaithful, the water will make “her abdomen swell and her womb will miscarry,” but if the woman has not been unfaithful, then she will be cleared of guilt and “will be able to have children.” Frankly, this appears to be a rather bizarre means of determining the faithfulness of a married woman, but I suppose in some sense it protects a woman against unfounded accusations. Of course, if she is naturally barren, then she would be out of luck.
Num 30:6-15 - Like the unmarried daughter in the home of her father, a married woman may have her pre- or post-marital pledges and vows, either affirmed or nullified according to the expressed will of her husband. If he does not nullify her pledges or vows with expediency, then he will bear the consequences of her wrongdoing (v. 15).
Deut 24:1-4 – In this law, if a man writes his wife a “certificate of divorce” and sends her away, he may not remarry her if she has been remarried and divorced again, because this would be “detestable in the eyes of the Lord.” It is important to realize that this law assumes the reality of divorce, but does not affirm it as desirable. In fact, Jesus was very critical of the men in his day who sought all sorts of various reasons for which they could dismiss their wives as “indecent” (v. 1). Interpreted rightly, it seems that this law can protect women from a husband’s flippant use of divorce certificates.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will detail the laws relating to childbirth, sex crimes, prisoners of war, and inheritance.