The Old Testament Law and Women
As I write these words, a common refrain permeates the news outlets, social media, and dinner tables across America. It’s a chorus so collective that we hardly seem to notice it, but scan the headlines on election news, healthcare concerns, or the border crisis and you’ll discover a single theme rumbling beneath the noise: our values.
In the interest of preventing clenched jaws or furrowed brows, rest assured that this is indeed a theological conversation, not a political critique.
But those political critiques are often surprisingly theological, often framed in categories of moral absolutes that should comprise a just and right society, that describe how the world should be. Even ardent atheists – those who would rend religion away from public consciousness, who shun the notion imposing on another’s personal moral choices – are compelled by an innate, driving sense of “should.”
A society’s laws signal its values. We instinctively measure a society’s moral character by what it protects, prohibits, and punishes. We exercise this instinct – this driving sense of “should” – whenever we read and interpret the laws of the Old Testament.
But what happens when our own culture skews how we read and interpret the Old Testament?
In their book, Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes, authors Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien describe how our own cultural perspectives influence – and in some cases, impede – our biblical interpretation. For Western (particularly American) readers, individualism is a primary value; the purpose of life is to fulfill one’s self-actualizing goals. To throw off family expectations and pursue one’s aspirations is considered admirable and brave. The culture in which the Bible was written, however, is a collectivist culture, which values one’s responsibility to and harmony within the community, especially the family. To fulfill one’s familial and social obligations, perhaps despite one’s preferences, is considered honorable and good.
Add to this another significant difference between the biblical and the 21st century cultures: the social structure that governed families and communities in the Bible was patriarchy, or “father-rule.” Here, a man represented the family in legal and religious matters and bore responsibility for those under his care.
For many readers, especially feminist theologians, the patriarchal culture in which the Old Testament law was written renders it culturally corrupt and delegitimizes its status as divine revelation. Thus, as this perspective contends, the Bible is a tool by which women have been excluded, oppressed, and depersonalized.
One feminist scholar claimed biblical law is “male,” since it “systematically favors men and oppresses women.” Another argues that the Bible institutionalized, authorized, and even caused sexual violence against women. Modern readers accuse the Old Testament of everything from punishing women for giving birth to a girl (Lev 12) to forcing a rape victim to marry her attacker (Deut 22:28-29).
We expect the Bible to harmonize with our deepest moral convictions. But when Western individualism encounters ancient collectivism, discord inevitably follows, particularly when some biblical passages appear to deny the value and equal personhood of women.
Thus, the perennial question: How should the Bible be good for women? In other words, is there anything redemptive in these ancient laws or are they simply the reflections of patriarchy by which men socially and sexually controlled disempowered women? Moreover, how could the New Testament Body of Christ claim women to be an equal subject of human dignity, if, in the Old Testament, the bodies of women were just an object of male power?
The answer depends upon how you interpret the cultural values.
Character of God
To the Western, individualist reader, the cultural differences within Old Testament law can read like an affront to one’s autonomy and sense of self. Consider the response of most college-aged women to the idea of an arranged marriage. To the Western individualist, the practice smacks of chattel trade, the depersonalizing sale of a daughter’s sexuality, the passing of control from father to husband. But, to the collectivist family, to embark on a life-decision of such magnitude as selecting a spouse – without the wisdom and supervision of one’s family – is absurd, and even cruel; how can a young person possibly know the importance of shared values and family backgrounds that often help a marriage endure? Within both individualism and collectivism, one’s approach to marriage reflects one’s cultural value. When we bring our own cultural biases to interpreting God’s laws, we risk not only misinterpreting those laws, but mischaracterizing the God that they reveal. Click To Tweet
Once we Western interpreters recognize the influence our individualistic bent has on how we read biblical law, we can discover the moral values it expresses. Unimpeded by our biases, we can recognize Old Testament law’s humanistic quality. Or, as one scholar described of Deuteronomy, its “progressive and protective attitude to the legal status of women.”
Perhaps this sounds like an overly sanguine, even naïve view of the Old Testament law. But consider how other ancient Near Eastern cultures treated women. Under Middle Assyrian Law, a woman could have been physically harmed or raped as retribution for her husband’s sexual crime; biblical law permits no such barbarism, instead confining punishment to the attacker (Deut 22:25-27). If a woman in Assyria committed adultery, her husband could beat her, cut off her nose, mutilate her ears, and pull out her hair with impunity; biblical law gives no provision for domestic abuse, instead calling for the woman to appear before a priest in a private trial and deferring all judgement to God (Num 5:11-31). In times of war, a captive, foreign woman could have been forced to live as a sexual slave with few legal rights; biblical law forbids sexual slavery, instead requiring Israelite men to marry the captive, foreign woman and confer upon her all the legal rights of an Israelite wife (Deut 21:10-15). Old Testament law restrained powerful men and defended vulnerable women.
God’s laws express His values. They define the moral character of a just and righteous society as well as how that society should regard injustice and unrighteousness. Its values should inform and guide our own sense of “should.” But when we bring our own cultural biases to interpreting God’s laws, we risk not only misinterpreting those laws, but mischaracterizing the God that they reveal.
Cheryl B. Anderson, Women, Ideology, and Violence: Critical Theory and the Construction of Gender in the Book of the Covenant and the Deuteronomic Law (London: T&T Clark International, 2004, 78-80.
Harold C. Washington, “‘Lest He Die in Battle and Another Man Take Her:’ Violence and the Construction of Gender in the Laws of Deuteronomy 20–22,” in Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. Victor H., Matthews, Bernard M. Levinson, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 262 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998).
E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand The Bible (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 96-97.
For a humorous look at the cultural differences on arranged marriage, see the 2014 documentary, Meet the Patels (Four in a Billion Pictures).
Eckart Otto, “False Weights in the Scales of Biblical Justice? Different Views of Women from Patriarchal Hierarchy to Religious Equality in the Book of Deuteronomy,” in Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. Victor H., Matthews, Bernard M. Levinson, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 262 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 140. Of course, this observation does not require us to return to a patriarchal culture, any more than it means we must establish a theocracy or an agrarian civilization.
Milestone Documents, “Middle Assyrian Laws,” A55, accessed April 23, 2016, https://www.milestonedocuments.com/documents/view/middle-assyrian-laws/text. See also James R. Baker, Women’s Rights in Old Testament Times (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1992), 47-48.
“Middle Assyrian Laws,” A16, A59.