One can go through the Bible and collect a set of passages that make it look like the God of Hebrews, Jews and Christians has it in for women, wants women kept in their (lesser) place.
According to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament): God “closes the wombs” of women like Hannah, who long to have children (I Samuel 1:5). God creates competition and bitterness between sisters Leah and Rachel (not to mention Bilhah and Zilpah) by manipulating their ability to bear children (Genesis 29, 30). God delays fulfilling the covenant with Abram until Abram, Sarai and Hagar have displayed their worst traits. And all of these women experience the humiliation of being barren in a culture in which barrenness is seen as a sign of failure to please God — a lack of righteousness. For additional instances of women’s treatment in the Hebrew Bible see “Helpmates, Harlots and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible”, by Alice Ogden Bellis; or “The Status of Women in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).”
According to the Christian New Testament, wives should ‘submit’ to their husbands (Ephesians 5, I Peter 3:1); and women must be silent in church, (I Corinthians 14:34-35, I Timothy 2:11 – 15).
Surely these passages prove that God approves of keeping women in ‘their place’. I disagree. (With a tip of the hat to “Father” Elfert in his last column) I think that these passages cause problems if and when we bring an inappropriate set of assumptions to the text.
In order to explain this, it is necessary to know a bit about philosophy. We live in a ‘Modern’ perhaps even a ‘post-modern’ world. Even if we’ve moved into a post-modern world, our current discussion of these texts almost always involves a ‘modern’ world view.
The modern world view began to develop along with, or as part of, the Renaissance and the Reformation. An intrinsic part of Modernism is the development of the scientific world view. Hobbes is generally considered the real beginning of the Modern era in philosophy. Hobbes insisted that we cannot understand ourselves apart from understanding nature and physical laws. (This was a departure from the Medieval belief that we understand the world through understanding God.) This world view culminated in something called logical positivism — the view that statements about things like values (Eric is a good boy) and beauty (That sunset is stunning!) have no real meaning. Oversimplified, the idea is that only statements that are, in theory, provable have any meaning. Meaningful statements say things like, “That table is black.” or “2 + 2 = 4” (For those of you who studied philosophy, I really do understand how much I’ve oversimplified).
Ironically, most Christians who lament the evils of modernism are actually totally immersed in the modern world view. Although they reject the extremes of logical positivism, they are unable to think outside the parameters of a fact based universe. And the failure to understand this is what leads to misunderstanding and misuse of scripture. The pre-modern world did not divide statements into facts and non-facts. Pre-moderns did not expect statements or beliefs to be provable. They were not subjected to Modern notions of true or false.
The Bible, in its entirety, is a pre-modern document. It is totally inappropriate to read it as if it were a modern document. It is not appropriate to ask whether it is true or false in the modern sense of facts or lies. For example, the two creation stories in Genesis are not a problem for pre-moderns because they were never meant to be a factual description of how the universe came into being. They were meant to be an explanation of the divine nature. They are an attempt to answer the questions “Who is God, and what is our relationship to God?” rather than “How did the universe start?” So, the stories about barren women in Genesis and Samuel are not history in the modern understanding of history. They are faith-story. They reflect the attempt of the early Hebrew people to understand God.
When scripture says, “God closed Hannah’s womb” or “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” it is not making a historical statement. It is a statement that reflects the attempt of a pre-historic people to explain events that seem magical. And the tone of these statements reflects the cultural attitudes of the people, not the values of God. The people believed that God closed and opened women’s wombs because they had no understanding of fertility. So the texts in which women are seen as inferior, the texts in which women (and men) suffer from the whims of a quixotic God are not a reflection of God’s nature, they are a reflection of the attitudes of the culture.
Why does this matter? One reason it matters is because many passages that have been used to oppress and exclude women are being misused. Passages that reflect the prejudices and presuppositions of their culture are applied willy-nilly to our (radically different) culture. In short, God did not condemn women to inferior status, the culture did. The most telling evidence of this is Jesus’ attitude toward women found in the Gospels. Even the cultural filters are not able to eliminate the radical nature of Jesus’ attitudes. Two of his closest friends are Mary and Martha. He fails to condemn women who are soundly condemned by the culture: Matthew 9:20-22; John 8:1-11. Given the worldview of that culture, the existence of these examples (and more) in the text suggests that this was Jesus consistent practice, not an unusual event.
Unfortunately, the writers of Ephesians, Timothy and I Corinthians let their cultural blinders override the radically inclusive model that Jesus consistently lived. And many people today make that same mistake. God does not condemn women to lesser status. But most cultures have done so and continue to do so.