I’m rushing back in to Cindy’s first question today.
1. Is the Bible fallible? In any way? How much have human beings had a hand in the Bible, and how much of it is “culture?” For example, women are told to keep their heads covered. Our answer is that it was a cultural thing in the day. How much of the Bible was culture and not directly applicable? How much is culture and, frankly, wrong?? (Ie. position of women, hatred of gays, racism against other cultures, etc)
Not surprisingly, both because Cindy is a woman, and because many share her concern, the first– and only recurring– evidence of fallibility in her question concerns women. To paraphrase (Fairly, I hope): How can the Bible be true when it condones second-class (and worse) treatment of women?
Now, as my first post on this subject hinted at, the real question is, “Why doesn’t the Bible demand treatment of women that comports with what my culture views as appropriate?”
I share Cindy’s culture, more or less, so I understand her concern. My point is, however, that our view (Cindy’s and mine) is culturally conditioned as well. And “we’re right, they’re wrong,” or “we’re better, they’re worse,” may not be the only options. Forgetting that we have cultural conditioning is a quick road to error.
The next thing to consider is this: When we speak of the Bible’s “treatment of women,” we’re talking about the status and treatment of women in many different cultures over a span of roughly 1600 years. I’m speaking of approximate times when the Bible was written–the time period covered is considerably longer. Exactly how long, I don’t think anyone knows.
It seems only realistic to recognize that women in a nomadic, herding culture might have a different status than in a static, urban culture. That women in Egypt in 1500 B.C. would be treated differently than women in Rome in 45 A.D. Women of Chemosh-worshiping Moab would have a different status than women of Dagon-worshiping Ninevah. And so on.
So when we speak of “the treatment of women in the Bible,” to be fair, we have to take into consideration the treatment of women in the culture to which the prophetic message was given. That may change things radically.
A pertinent, and sad, example of how culture affects such things can be found in the history of Christian missionaries in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. European and American missionaries took the gospel to Africa. As part of their teaching, they thought to change the treatment of women. Some taught that polygamy was wrong, and that a man should divorce all but his first wife.
What they failed to take into account was that the surrounding culture didn’t have any way to relate to a divorced wife. Typically, a divorced woman had done something terribly wrong, and often the only way for her to survive was prostitution. The culture simply had no category to understand or relate to a woman who was divorced because her husband didn’t any longer believe in polygamy. So many otherwise innocent and conscientious wives were put in a terrible position.
In hoping to improve the treatment of women generally, and somewhat in the abstract, these well-meaning missionaries drastically worsened their actual situation. They had overlooked the influence of culture, both theirs, and the culture of the people they intended to help.
In the missionaries’ culture, divorce was common, and not a disgrace. Single women, even single mothers, could hold jobs and make their way. But the African cultures they were dealing with had no such categories or support mechanisms. When non-Christian members of the community saw a divorced woman, they saw a disgraced and unwanted woman.
A better way, perhaps, would have been to leave the existing marriages alone, and teach husbands to treat their wives better, while encouraging younger men and women to monogamy. But that would have left the missionaries open to criticism from many in their home culture, who after all were financing the missions, that they were not teaching “proper treatment of women.”
So the counsel of the Bible concerning the status and treatment of women must be understood in the context of the culture to which that counsel was given. God recognizes that humans can only change so much at a time. And even if an individual, say, a polygamous husband, may change his views radically and be willing to divest himself of all but one wife, the wider culture simply will not adjust so rapidly. And that could lead, as we have seen and God would have known from the beginning, to more harm than good.
I’m willing to take up individual examples, Cindy (and anyone else), but I felt first we needed to understand the crucial role of culture– both ours and others.
Hope this is helpful.