As a woman reading Scripture in the 21st century, I find myself torn over the Bible's portrayal of women. Certain passages tell stories of agency, valor and hope through the inclusion of brave women, while others are laments over the abuse and neglect of women within the community of the people of God. How can both portrayals of women exist alongside each other? And how are we to reconcile these differences, living as faithful members of the church?
Conflicting stories in the Old Testament
In the same book that tells of the prophet Deborah, the counselor, warrior and only female judge mentioned in the Bible (Judges 4-5), we have the story of the unnamed Levite woman's dismemberment (Judges 19). In 2 Samuel, we have an unnamed woman from Tekoa serving as a counselor to King David (2 Samuel 14) appearing right after the rape of Tamar. I cannot ignore these victims, some of whom are not even given the dignity of a name, and their lives are to be remembered and grieved in our reading of Scripture.
Yet Deborah and David's counselor are two of numerous examples of strong women leading and influencing the people of God. They exist right alongside Ruth, Hannah, Miriam, Huldah, Esther and others whose stories emerge despite their patriarchal context. Ruth and Esther have biblical books named after them. Both overcome great obstacles that lead to preserving the Jewish lineage that leads to Jesus's birth. Hannah and Miriam are known for their prophetic songs, and Huldah is a named prophetess.
Women in the New Testament
In the New Testament, nine of Paul's 28 greetings are to women, who serve as prophets, apostles, and deacons in the early church. Women lead house churches (Acts 12:12, Colossians 4:15) and women serve as the first evangelists after Jesus's resurrection:
"Then the women remembered his words, returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven disciples and all the rest. The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; they and the other women with them told these things to the apostles" (Luke 24:8-10).
But some of the Pauline teachings in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Ephesians 5 are difficult at first read, especially if you aren't familiar with the historical context. Early churches shared leadership between women and men, but they also encountered the problem of women converts teaching without the proper training, causing disruption in worship. All are instructed to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21), all are told they have a hymn, lesson, revelation, tongue, or interpretation to share in worship (1 Corinthians 14:26), and all are now one in Christ Jesus, with divisions such as male and female no longer separating the body of Christ (Galatians 3:28).
Reconciling the biblical portrayal of women today
The more I reflect on the portrayal of women in Scripture, the more I realize that this context is not as far from today's context as I might think. Women still fall victim to male violence and abuse. Women still struggle to find their place as leaders and influencers in a patriarchal society, although they do serve as teachers and preachers in churches today. Women do partner with men in leading worship. And as followers of Jesus, women and men are to think of themselves as God's children, baptized in Christ, and equal to one another (Gal 3:26-29). There is still much work to be done in women and men "honoring Christ and putting others first" (Eph 5:21), but this is our calling if we are to be a people faithful to Scripture.
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