A Woman’s Place…
“Blessed Art Thou, O Lord Our God, Who Hast Not Made Me A Woman.”
One need not be a member of a radical feminist association to feel insulted by such a statement! Does this traditional Jewish prayer reflect an inherent attitude of disdain toward women in the Jewish religion? If so, is the Bible to blame for the subordination and discrimination that women have faced through the ages? There seems to be enough evidence to support an affirmative conclusion on both counts. Yet there is also much evidence that the Bible teaches a far higher view of the role of women than many religious leaders, both Jewish and Christian have acknowledged.
In the classical writings of Judaism, the identity of a woman is defined almost exclusively in terms of her relationship to the men in her life. She is a daughter, a wife, a mother. Little, if anything, is mentioned about her value outside of these roles. Even more disconcerting is the fact that the Torah teaches that a woman is barred from full involvement in public worship. It is probably for this reason that the religious Jewish man gives thanks that he was not created a woman. And perhaps this is why it became commonly believed in Judaism that women should not be permitted to learn the Torah. Participation in the ceremonies was equated with learning about the things of God. Is it any wonder that the rabbis saw fit to praise the God who had not permitted them to be born female? The gates of learning, flung wide for them to enter in joyful abandon, remained locked to their sisters. Isaac Bashevis Singer touchingly portrays the forbidden intimacy of the education given to the girl Yentl by her indulgent father: …together they poured over the Pentateuch, the Mishnah, the Gemara, and the Commentaries. She had proved so apt a pupil that her father used to say: “Yentl—you have the soul of a man.” “So why was I born a woman?” “Even heaven makes mistakes.”1
It is difficult to understand why most of the religious duties and privileges were given to the man. It is hard to know why the civil laws recorded in the Torah often seemed to favor the man and inconvenience the woman. Those who believe the Torah is inspired by the Almighty must also believe that he is neither capricious nor malicious. A careful study of Scripture will reveal that evidence which may seem to indicate a demeaning view of woman is outweighed by evidence to show that her value, if not her treatment, is equal to man’s. And as for the Torah’s teachings on whether or not a woman should be educated we are hard pressed to know how she is to train up a child (a mentioned many times in Proverbs) and have that child call her blessed, were she herself not the recipient of some training!
The richness of the Jewish heritage lies in God’s promises to our people. He promised Abraham that he would make him a great nation, and that through him the goyim (the other nations) would be blessed. He promised David a kingdom and a throne that would be eternal. The nations would be blessed and the kingdom would be eternal because God’s promises culminated in the very special person of the Messiah. The Messiah is God’s ultimate promise to the human race, through the Jewish people. The promise was made in very general terms before Abraham’s day, and more details of the promise were revealed through the patriarchs and the prophets.…
Throughout the Bible, women are joint participators and heirs of the promise along with men. And in a unique fashion, they are progenitors of the promise as well.
Back to the Beginning
A small girl once prayed with childlike directness:
“Dear God, are boys really better than girls ? I know you are one, but try to be fair.”2
Let us turn to the creation narratives in the book of Genesis and see if we can find any clue pointing to God’s answer to her question.
In the first of the two Genesis accounts relating how God created the human race, we read that he made two people in his own image and that he called them both “Adam.” One Adam was male and the other Adam was female (Genesis 1:27). Together they were created to reflect God’s own being; and together they were blessed and given the responsibility of representing God as stewards in the dominion of his world. Neither sex was inferior or superior to the other. Lest we should forget that message, it is repeated for us four chapters later:
When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female; at the time they were created, he blessed them and called them “man” (Gen. 5:1-2).
A more literal translation for “man” would be “Adam,” as footnoted in the text of the New International Version of the Bible for this passage.3
In contrast, the creation account in Genesis 2 is interpreted differently by many. They see this account as portraying woman being created after man and from man so that she may be solely for man. Some have argued that since the male was created first, he is destined to be the dominant sex by virtue of the creation order. Yet, as can be seen from Genesis 1, Adam is created last of all as the crowning glory of God’s creation. He, and not the animals created before him, was given dominion. Thus the argument of priority from the order of creation seems somewhat weak!
Similarly, the helper theory—that the woman was created as an afterthought—lacks much credibility. For the word “ezer” (help) from which “gezer” (helper) is taken does not connote subordination. Rather, it is most frequently used in the scriptures to describe God’s power as he is actively involved in helping his people. Indeed, Samuel even sets up a monument called “Eben-ezer,” so glad is he of God’s saving help! (1 Samuel 7:12) While a hierarchy of authority is implied by the fact that the man named the woman, the authority was not to be one of a tyrant ruler over a weak subordinate. It was to be the authority of a wise and good leader who would share his burden with the help of his strong assistant.
What went wrong? How did the powerful assistance of the woman deteriorate to a position of lowly subordination from which she is, in many cases, only just beginning to emerge today? The answer is found in the third chapter of Genesis. Ideal situations only work properly when they are carried out by ideal people. In Genesis 3 we see how sin entered the world. When Adam and Eve’s relationship with God went awry, so did their relationship to one another. Paradise was lost, and ever since then neither men nor women have managed to treat one another consistently with the love and respect God intended.
Many have placed the blame for “the fall,” or the initial sin of the human race, entirely on the woman, since she was the first to partake of the forbidden fruit. But God held each responsible individually. There is no indication in scripture whatsoever that Adam was helplessly involved, though he would have liked to have blamed his wife for the whole incident (Gen. 3:12). She, in turn, sought to blame the serpent, the evil one, who had tempted her (Gen. 3:13). But God was not moved by their excuses. (The serpent made none!) He foretold what would befall each of them because of their sin, describing difficult and painful consequences which would affect not only the man and the woman, but their relationship to one another and their environment as well. Still, not all was doom and gloom. For even as he uttered his curse upon the serpent, God made a promise of deliverance to the man and to the woman. Genesis 3:15 is generally recognized by Jewish and Christian scholars as being the first messianic prophecy:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.
First, God vows to put enmity between the serpent and the woman. Then he adds that this enmity will continue to the serpent’s descendants and the woman’s descendants. But finally, he returns to singular pronouns. The seed of the woman becomes “he.” “He” will crush the head of the serpent himself, while the serpent will only crush the heel of the woman’s seed.
It is unusual indeed for the Bible to speak of the seed of a woman; “seed” is normally used to describe descendants when addressing a male. For though seed does mean descendants, in its more literal sense it is descriptive of semen. Therefore, the strange use of “her seed” indicates that in some way, this promise of a special deliverer is uniquely related to the woman. This pivotal passage not only begins the unfolding of God’s promise, but it affirms the role of the woman as being important in God’s sight, despite the problems she was to face in her relationship to the man.
The relationship between men and women has been far from ideal since Eden, but the Bible records the stories of many women whose courage, wisdom and obedience to God were as great as that of their male counterparts. Thus we read of Deborah, a woman of political and military prowess, and Huldah the prophetess, and of course Esther, the lovely and courageous champion of her people. And let us not forget Abigail, a woman caught between a foolish husband and the hot tempered anointed king of Israel. David himself thankeed Abigail for her discernment and ability to act quickly, and admitted that without her aid, he surely would have committed a grievous sin (I Samuel 2:32-34).
So we see from Genesis that the woman is to be the progenitor of the promised Messiah, and we see throughout the scriptures that she is to be counted worthy among the people of the promise. According to the prophet Joel, she is also to be a fellow heir of the promise:
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions (Joel 2:28).
The promise is to apply to all people, regardless of age, sex or, as can be seen in verse 29, social status. Artificial distinctions and discriminations created by people and not by God will fade in the light of the Messiah.
The gospel of Genesis.
Finally, God spoke of his intended intervention into human history. He sent an angel to bring his message to a young woman…that woman’s name was Miriam. She is more commonly referred to as Mary, and she was the mother of Yeshua, who is more commonly referred to as Jesus. The angel told Miriam:
You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever: his kingdom will never end (Luke 1: 31-33).
At last the seed of woman, promised back in the book of Genesis, was to make his appearance! His unique birth, circumventing the normal biological cycle, was in keeping with the unusual phrasing, “her seed,” found in the Genesis prophecy.
A look at a first century liberator.
Yeshua’s actions spoke louder than any words. His first recorded utterances concerning his Messiahship were delivered to a Samaritan woman. She would have been avoided by most Jewish men on three counts: first, her gender; second, her mixed racial background; and third, her reputation as an adulteress (John 4:4-26). From the beginning, it was clear that Yeshua’s dealings with women would not conform to the conventions of his day and culture.
Another example of Yeshua’s attitude toward women was his treatment of one whose illness had caused her to be ritually impure, keeping her a despised outcast for 12 years. She approached Yeshua fearfully, knowing that her selfish longing to touch him would make him unclean according to the Law. But Yeshua healed her of her sickness and her self-disgust, praising her for her courage (Mark 5:25-34).
He also accepted the public attentions of a woman of doubtful reputation. She anointed him with her tears and her perfume, wiping his feet with her uncovered hair. Yeshua perceived that this was not the act of a servile woman humbling herself before the “stronger sex.” He saw her as a human being whose heartfelt response to God’s anointed One was entirely appropriate. She, too, was commended for her boldness in acting upon her recognition of him (Luke 7:37-50). These three women were among the least accepted members of their sex; yet their stories were immortalized as representative of Yeshua’s public ministry among women.
Yeshua counted certain women among his closest friends. When he visited the home of Mary and Martha, he not only consented to Mary’s taking the posture of a student learning at the rabbi’s feet, but he applauded her example. When Martha, who played the part of the baleboosteh (an excellent and praiseworthy homemaker), complained about needing more help in the kitchen, she was challenged to consider the alternative to her stereotypical role!
Even Yeshua’s own mother had to learn that the demands of the Kingdom of God were to be put above the normative demands of her gender. As one writer comments:
No woman has her religious role safely completed by being a good wife and mother; first she must be a disciple. And the evidence of the passion narrative and of Acts is that Mary discovered this and became a follower of her son, relinquishing her right to be honoured and obeyed by him, preferring to honour and obey God through him.4
And what of the women who appear in the background of the gospel narratives, sometimes as a mere list of names? What significance did they find in the life and teaching of Yeshua? Why was it that they, rather than his close male associates, waited with Yeshua in his dying hours and returned to be the first witnesses of his resurrection? It is evident that they heard a message and realized their own responsibility to obey.
The gospel writers tell us that the women did not always wait for their menfolk to bring them to Yeshua; rather, they arrived first and sometimes understood more than the men. On many occasions the great truths about the Messiah were revealed to and accepted by women. No wonder the disciples “marveled”!
Somehow, the women’s faith in Yeshua was not shattered at the time of his death; their love for him was not buried in disappointment when he was lowered into the grave. Maybe they’d had no dreams of wars, revolutions and triumphal armies to be crushed. For their revolution had already arrived; someone had shown them how to find access to God in their own right; someone had pointed them to a pursuit of their own spiritual quest for the One in whose image they had been created.
Yeshua kicked the legs out from under a few of the establishment’s tables as he taught, even though he didn’t deal directly with the question of women’s status or position. When he spoke of marriage, he appealed to the creation account of Adam as male and female, and concluded that a man (and not only a woman) should place the marriage bond over and above the parental bond (Mark 10:5-8). Moreover, he departed from the prevailing attitude of his day in recognizing that adultery could be committed against the wife and not only against the husband (Mark 10:11). He then equated adultery with “looking at a woman lustfully” (Matthew 5:27-28). Like Job, who declared, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1), Yeshua knew that God’s standards were not just for our external behavior. His standards were to guide the very intentions of our hearts.
Yeshua always looked beyond the surface to the heart, whether it was the heart of an individual or the heart of an issue. His behavior demonstrated that although women were restricted from participation in certain ceremonial aspects of worship, they were in no way to be restricted from the personal relationship that God desires to have with every human being. Obeying restrictions imposed by God in the Torah was part of being human. The men were not left unrestricted; they simply had a different set of restrictions than did the women. But Jesus took exception to restrictions that human beings imposed upon one another. In this he was not only a liberator of women, but of all the socially oppressed.
One step forward and two steps back?
The picture of the believing community preserved for us in Acts and in the epistles shows there were plenty of opportunities for women to play their part in initiating and in leading as well as in following. There were women who possessed the credentials of “apostleship” (witnessing the resurrection and being commanded by the Lord to go and tell about it), women who were recognized as prophets, and women who led the assemblies which met in their homes. So how is it that women eventually seemed to lose the ground they had gained through Yeshua’s teaching?
Several factors emerged which combined to stifle the freedom women had gained for “equal opportunity service” in the fledgling movement of believers in Yeshua. In the first place, the sometimes insensitive assertion of their new-found roles came to be perceived as a threat to the ecclesiastical and social order. And so the (male) believers resorted to some of the rabbinic exegeses and interpretations of scriptural texts—interpretations which were not particularly helpful in protecting women’s rights. In the second place, Gnostic heresies crept into the ferment of thought. The believers were disturbed by the Gnostic idea that women’s true redemption lay in the casting off of their roles as sexual beings and mothers. The Pauline countermandings to Gnostic thought as a whole were misconstrued with disastrous effects on the social and theological standing of the women, whose status became embroiled in the furor. And thirdly, Yeshua did not return within the expected time span. As in many periods of rapid social expansion and experimentation, the values of the “good old days,” never quite entirely abandoned, won in the end.
As the centuries passed, Miriam (the mother of Yeshua) came to represent the ideal of womanhood, setting her sisters the impossible task of following her model role as both virgin and mother! Thereafter, the only women whom the church honored for their holiness were invariably either nuns or queens or virgins who came to a nasty end!
The church became male-dominated in everything except membership. Even the service of those of the caliber of Florence Nightingale was rejected:
I would give her [the church] my head, my hand, my heart. She would not have them. She did not know what to do with them. She told me to go back and crochet in my mother’s drawing-room.5
Female longing to be incorporated in the formal processes of human history has been rebuffed with the reiterated cry, “But you can have babies!”
Has the religious establishment missed forever the opportunity to take the lead in celebrating women’s humaniity in this age when the militant message of secular feminism is pervading our society? Many feminists today have come to the position of rejecting both church and synagogue as outmoded, irrelevant bastions of male dominance. The hesitant experiments of recent years with regard to authorizing women to serve as ministers and rabbis have been fraught with problems. As a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School sadly discovered, her congregation’s reaction to her professional competence was summed up in the doubtful question, “Yes, but can she make chicken soup?”
Is “that prayer” of the male worshiper right after all? Would it have been better not to have been born a woman? No! God created woman to possess the same dignity, the same joy, the same communion with God which he intended for man.
In Galatians 3:28 we read of an equality of race, sex and class promised in Messiah Yeshua. It is not that our Jewishness, our gender or our social status are somehow magically changed or neutralized; rather, they are redeemed! Our identity as Jews or Gentiles, men or women does not vanish, it does not hinder; it becomes, through Yeshua (the second Adam), what God intended all along!
Footnotes 1Singer, Isaac Bashevis, Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy, p. 113 (English edition).
2Children’s Letters to God
3The Holy Bible, New Intentional Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, Mich., copyright 1978 by New York International Bible Society, p. 5.
4Williams, J. “Jesus the Jew and Women” (essay), p. 92.
5 Nightingale, Florence, Letters.