Women in the Bible

Some scholars believe that the Bible is the only book before the 20th century to treat women as equal to men — presented impartially with their good and bad characteristics. Others claim that the Bible portrays women very stereotypically as either saints or prostitutes; meanwhile John Calvin wrote in the 16th century that women remained hidden, and were barely mentioned in the book.

It is natural to start a more detailed look at some of the significant female characters in the Bible with the Mother of All — Eve, the first woman. She was made to be Adam's "helper" and having been created from one of his ribs, he was her master. Eve has been accused of Original Sin and causing the Fall of Man. She disobeyed God's command by picking an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and offering it to Adam, thus departing from the blessed state of innocence and entering the world of sin and knowledge. According to the scriptures they were both punished for what they did — but Eve more notably so. They were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was condemned to great pain during childbirth. In Genesis 3:16, God said that her husband shall "rule" over her. In most Christian tradition, it is said this curse was passed from generation to generation so that all Eve's daughters would bear the consequences of her sin.

In the Old Testament it was not unusual for men to have more than one wife and to be engaged in sexual relationships outside their marriage. For example Solomon had 700 wives, David and Gideon each had "many," and Esau had three. Abraham was granted permission from his wife, Sara, to sleep with her maid Hagar because Sara could not have children. It appears that this act happened without Hagar's consent, so she was raped in order to give birth to Abraham's son and heir, Ishmael. Soon after, Sarah gave birth to a boy herself, Isaac; she asked Abraham to send away Hagar and her son. This act can be viewed from two contrasting perspectives — one the one hand was the ongoing humiliation for Hagar as in ancient times a single mother was despised and ridiculed; and on the other, she was actually the first woman to be freed from oppression and to assert her autonomy.

Another example of women being treated ill-treated is the story of Lot's two daughters, whom he offered to the men of Sodom. In Genesis 19:8, he says: "I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes." Despite the fact that he voluntary submitted his girls to rape, he was believed to have saved the city from destruction. However, there are a few women in the Old Testament that are referred to as powerful leaders or positive characters. These include Deborah, a Judge of Israel and a leader of the army; the Hebrew midwives who saved newborn boys from the Pharaoh and a number of prophets — Miriam, Noadiah, and Isaiah's wife among others.

The New Testament had a different view on women because Jesus treated them as equal to men. The Son of God had women in His inner circle, taught women and it was to women He first appeared after his resurrection. The two most significant women to feature in the New Testament are the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. The former, the Mother of God, is presented as the epitome of virtue — so chaste was she that in fact she got pregnant through immaculate conception. She is presented as a model for all Christians with her humility and obedience to God.

Mary Magdalene is probably the most controversial female character in the Bible. She was a very close friend and follower of Jesus. They met when He cured her of her "seven demons." This may be an allusion to a physical healing from an illness or as forgiveness of sin. She became one of His closest disciples and followed Jesus to the end. Mary Magdalene was present at the crucifixion and was the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus. Because she spread the news that He had risen from the dead, she became the first apostle. Some of the gospels from early Christianity that never made their way into the official canon described Mary Magdalene and other women as holding leadership positions within the movement.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women Who Followed Jesus
Carla Ricci; Paul Burns.
Fortress Press, 1994
Assertive Biblical Women
William E. Phipps.
Greenwood Press, 1992
Reading Women's Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible
John Petersen.
Fortress Press, 2004
Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible
Gale A. Yee.
Fortress Press, 2003
The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar's Wife
Sharon Pace Jeansonne.
Fortress Press, 1990
Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women
Jill Hammer.
Jewish Publication Society, 2001
Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Re-Viewed
Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger.
Brill, 2000
Writing the Wrongs: Women of the Old Testament among Biblical Commentators from Philo through the Reformation
John L. Thompson.
Oxford University Press, 2001
Women in the World's Religions, Past and Present
Ursula King.
Paragon House, 1987
The Feminine Unconventional: Four Subversive Figures in Israel's Tradition
André Lacocque.
Fortress Press, 1990
Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context
Carol Meyers.
Oxford University Press, 1991
Genesis and Gender: Biblical Myths of Sexuality and Their Cultural Impact
William E. Phipps.
Praeger Publishers, 1989
Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on the Women of Genesis
Marion Ann Taylor; Heather E. Weir.
Baylor University Press, 2006
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