The “Position of Women” in the Bible-I

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.


The “Position of Women” in the Bible-I — 3 Comments

  1. this is not directly relating to women only, but what about the harsh punishments of the old testament? god told them directly to stone anyone committing certain infractions, such as carrying sticks on the sabbath. is this related to their social/cultural environment?

    • The short answer is “yes.” And again, the designation of “harsh” arises from your/my cultural background. We see the punishment as totally disproportionate to the offense. Without going into a lengthy explanation in this comment (I’ll gladly take it up in a later post), let me give you an example of a seemingly disproportionate punishment.

      I knew someone who told me that during one period of his life, the penalty for smoking a cigarette at night outside was to have it shot out of your hand or moutn. Given the proximity of the bullet’s flight to vital organs, that seemed pretty harsh. But he thought it was reasonable, because he was serving on a Naval vessel at sea during WWII. A lighted cigarette is visible for many miles in the dark at sea, so smoking on deck endangered the lives of every one on board.

      Believe it or not, the sticks example was viewed in a similar way–at that time, in that culture. More on that later.

  2. Thanks for helping us again with culture, Ed, and the need to properly, lovingly contextualize ministry to any given culture.

    Some seem to think that Christians must avoid adapting to culture. But the truth is that everyone is contextulized to some kind of culture–even if it’s my default culture of our own personal or denominational religious prejudice. Just as “no man is an island,” nobody can live in a culture-free vacuum.

    So the question is not whether we will be contextualized to a culture but whether we will strategically adapt our methods to fit with the culture into whatever culture in which God has providentially placed us.

    Of course we cannot do this at the cost of compromising our message or our mission or our values–the greatest of which is love.

    So thanks, Ed. Keep talking to us about how to be stewards of our culture–how to light a candle in it and not just curse the darkness of it.


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