The Role of Women As Revealed In the Old Testament

By Mike Willis

The influence of the feminist movement has caused many Christians to become confused about the respective roles of men and women in every relationship of a society: business, politics, family, church, etc. Constantly we are being bombarded with feminist role models that have little resemblance to what is revealed in the Bible or even to the society we knew as children. We face the temptation of being conformed to this world with respect to the role of women.

For the past 40 years, women have been subjected to a methodical assault that redefines their roles in society. They have been taught that one cannot find self-fulfillment in her role as wife and mother. To reach full human potential, a woman should enter the labor force. She should have no regrets for placing her children in state run day-care centers. Marriages need to be egalitarian, with husband and wife sharing 50-50 the decision-making responsibilities. Furthermore, women should be willing to leave repressive marriages that interfere with reaching their full potential in order to find self-fulfillment. As this feminist movement has gained momentum in our country, it has achieved significant social status and political clout. Feminists have advisory personnel who go over the textbooks that our children use in school to be sure that feminist role models are displayed. They influence the appointment of justices on the Supreme Court. In a word, the feminist movement has significant political clout that is influencing us in ways of which we may not be aware. Our wives and girls are affected by the feminist movement.

The Value of the Old Testament

There are several reasons for us to consult what the Old Testament tells us about the role of women. Consider these with me:

1. Creation shows us God’s original design for male and female. Even as Jesus went back to creation to teach about marriage, we should be able to learn from creation God’s original design for male and female roles.

2. The Old Testament is God’s revelation to man. God reveals to us in the Old and New Testaments the “way of life,” principles that have always been true.

3. It reflects history over many centuries and cultures. The Old Testament revelation covers the history of man from his creation to about 400 B.C. The records shows us glimpses of male and female role relations from various cultures of different nations over several millennia of history. This helps us to transcend our own brief cultural milieu to have a broader understanding of the subject.

4. The New Covenant did not change male and female roles. I find nothing that the gospel changed in the roles of male and female. Hence, the Old Testament’s teaching on this subject is just as important for us as it was for Old Testament saints.

Accepting that this is so, we now turn to learn what the Old Testament reveals about male and female roles.

The Creation Model

1. God created both male and female in his image (Gen.1:26). This is the basis for equality between the sexes. Because both are created in the image of God, we can become heirs together of life (1 Pet. 3:7). The statement of Genesis 1:27 is as follows:

So God created man in his own image, In the image of God created he him; Male and female created he them.

Three things are asserted about creation: (1) God created man  we came from God; (b) We bear a resemblance to God; (c) We are male and female  both male and female created by God and bearing his resemblance. The equality of male and female is also reflected in the statement in Genesis 1:26  “let them have dominion” over his creation.

2. Male and female roles were a result of creation. God did not create Adam and Eve simultaneously. The Genesis record reveals that God created man and placed him in the Garden. One of the responsibilities given to him was to name the animals of the field. As each animal passed before him, Adam gave it a name suitable to what it was. In naming the animals, Adam recognized that there was no companion suited to him. God used this manner to develop Adam’s recognition of his need for a mate. To meet the need, God created Eve, but not in the same manner as he created man from the dust of the earth. He caused a deep sleep to come on Adam. Then he took from his side a rib and from that he made woman. When God brought her to Adam, he saw for the first time that person fitted to be his companion and equal. As he saw his wife in her pristine beauty, he exclaimed, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23).

Paul argues that man is the “glory of God” and woman is the “glory of the man” (1 Cor. 11:7). This does not state that woman is not made in the “image of God.” Rather, what it is emphasizing is that woman’s glory is tied to her husband. If he is a king, she is a queen; if he is poor, so is she. She reflects the station of her husband in life.

“Male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27). From creation, certain roles were fixed. Only Eve could conceive and give birth to a child. Only Eve could nurse a child. Because of these God-created physical differences, Eve’s role as a mother to her children was fixed forever by God. Because of the physical differences related to her monthly cycle and physical make-up (smaller and less muscular form), differences in role responsibility were inevitable. They were God-created differences.

3. Male headship over the home was present at creation. This is seen by the following evidences: (a) order of creation. Paul argues from the order of creation for the headship of man on two occasions. He said,

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God…. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man (1 Cor. 11:3,8-9).

But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve (1 Tim. 2:12-13).

Any effort to re-interpret these verses to deny male headship leads to a denial of the inspiration of the Bible. This is inspired commentary on inspired verses. Clark Pinnock described efforts to re-interpret such passages to coincide with feminist theology as “hermeneutical ventriloquism” (“Biblical Authority & the Issues in Question,” Women, Authority & the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, editor, 57). Roland M. Frye analyzed the movement correctly when he wrote,

When we (whoever we may be) say of a biblical expression that “we have trouble with that language,” we may merely be expressing our human limitations, but if we then proceed to change it to a more agreeable sense, we are subjecting the authority of Scripture to the authority of our tastes and biases. Efforts to “alter the thoughts, intention, and language of the Bible are a covert but nonetheless destructive repudiation of the authority of the Bible over the church,” as Paul S. Minear says about recommendations to change scriptural metaphors for God into the feminine gender. The problem, as he defines it, is that “when we change what the Bible does say to what we think it should say, it becomes a dummy for our own thought  and no dummy exercises authority over the ventriloquist (“Language for God and Feminist Language,” Speaking the Christian God, Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., editor, 32-33).

(b) Referring to the human race as “mankind.” The word adam is used not only for the name of the first created man, but also for mankind. God did not name the race “womankind.”

(c) Adam held accountable when sin occurred in the garden. Genesis 3 records Adam and Eve’s sin. Eve was deceived by the Devil and ate of the forbidden fruit. She then persuaded her husband to eat with her, even though he was not deceived (see 1 Tim. 2:15). When God approached them in the Garden, he called to Adam and said, “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9) Why was he calling Adam to account when Eve was the first to sin? Because Adam, as head of his family, was held responsible for what was done.

(d) Adam charged with sin for following Eve’s leader-ship (Gen. 3:17). He was the one responsible for leading the family but he shirked his duty when he allowed Eve to step outside her submissive role as wife and lead the family.

4. Role responsibilities are reflected in the punishment given after the fall. Role relationships were not created at the fall, but were affected by the fall. To man God gave primary responsibility to earn a living. Although Adam worked before the fall (see Gen. 2:15), his labor in earning a living was made more difficult as a result of the fall.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:17-19).

Man’s role in the family is that of provider. In a similar way, we see the role of Eve from the curse that came to her: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” (Gen. 3:16). Again, Eve’s role as mother was not created after the fall but was made more difficult as a result of the fall.

5. Eve’s subjection to Adam was specifically mentioned as a result of the fall. God told Eve, “He shall rule over thee” (Gen. 3:16). Many commentators believe that this means that in ruling over women, men would become domineering and abusive in their treatment, not that this was the beginning of woman’s subordination to man. The statement may be God’s reaffirmation of woman’s need for leadership, a vital principle violated by her sin.

Creation reveals distinctive role models for man and woman, with male headship over the home.

Other Evidences of Gender Roles

1. The Law of Moses forbade things that obscured the gender relationships. “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 22:5). Kell and Delitzsch commented, “The immediate design of this prohibition was not to prevent licentiousness, or to oppose idolatrous practices. . .; but to maintain the sanctity of that distinction of the sexes which was established by the creation of man and woman, and in relation to which Israel was not to sin. Every violation or wiping out of this distinction  such even, for example, as the emancipation of a woman  was unnatural, and therefore an abomination in the sight of God” (409-410).

2. Various laws in the Mosaical code distinguish men and women. (a) There was a difference in the law of purification for male and female babies (Lev. 12:1-8). (b) Inheritance passed through males instead of females. A special law was provided for a man who had only daughters so that his inheritance could be passed to his daughters under the stipulation that they marry someone in their own tribe (Num. 27:1-11; 36:1-12). The law of levirate marriage was related to the passing of the inheritance through the males (Deut. 25:5-10). (c) A female was redeemed from a vow at a different price than a male (Lev. 27:3-4).

3. The role of the male in the family shows gender roles. The man of the house was to do the following: (a) Lead the family as its head; (b) Provide for the family. If a man chose to take a second wife, the provisions of food, raiment, and the (sexual) duty of marriage for the first wife were not to be diminished (Exod. 21:10). (c) Protect the family.

4. The description of the virtuous woman shows gender roles (Prov. 31:10-31).The woman prepares food for the family, sews, helps in the fields, sells the merchandise she has made, etc. Her husband is “known in the gates,” for apparently this was not the woman’s place; it was the male’s role to sit with the elders of the land to make decisions for the people.

Other Evidences of Male Headship

1. Sarah called Abraham “lord” (Gen.] 8:6;1 Pet.3:6). The husband was frequently called the baal (see Exod. 21:22; Deut. 22:22; etc.). The word baal means “to be lord or master over any thing, to have dominion over, to possess.” Because of the role of the husband as the “master” or “lord,” the word came to mean “to become the husband of any one, to marry a wife.” The husband is called the “master of the house” (Exod. 22:8).

2. The nakedness of the wife was described to the son as “thy father’s nakedness” because of the rights of cohabitation (Lev. 18:8, 16; 20:11, 20-21).

3. A woman’s vow to the Lord was not binding unless it was accepted by her husband as binding (Num. 30:6-8).

4. The instructions regarding divorce presuppose man’s headship over the home. The man “sends her out of the house” and the woman “departs” from the home (Deut. 24:1-2) because he, as the head over the home, has authority over it.

5. The book of Esther records the removal of Vashti as queen because she rebelled against her husband’s authority. While one cannot defend Ahasuerus’ conduct, the inspired record certainly demonstrates that man was the head of his home. When Vashti was removed as queen, an edict was sent throughout the 127 provinces of Persia that women should honor their husbands and “that every man should bear rule in his own house” (Esth. 1:20, 22). The king’s abuse of his role does not mitigate against the validity of the role itself.

Women Who Usurped Authority

1. Miriam’s sin (Num. 12:1-16). Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses’ leadership of Israel because he had married an Ethiopian. That Miriam took the lead in the rebellion is seen by the order of the names (Miriam and Aaron) and the punishment of leprosy being given to her alone. They said, “Hath he not spoken also by us?” Because she had received revelation from the Lord, Miriam usurped authority by rebelling against Moses’ leadership. God punished Miriam with leprosy.

2. Jezebel. Ahab, king of Israel, married the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Zidonians (1 Kings 16:31). The. domineering spirit of this woman was manifest in many ways. She stirred up Ahab to commit idolatry (1 Kings 21:25). She cut off the prophets of the Lord (1 Kings 18:4). She publicly swore that Elijah would be put to death because of his role in destroying the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 19:2). She plotted and commanded the execution of Naboth in order to give Ahab a vineyard he wanted (1 Kings 21). This wicked woman dominated and manipulated her husband.

3. Athaliah. Jehoram of Judah married Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (2 Kings 8:16-18). Athaliah’s son Ahaziah was killed after ruling only one year. When her son died, she slew all the others who had a claim to the throne and usurped the throne of Judah for herself (2 Kings 11). She had learned her dominating ways from her mother. She was slain when Jehoiada was able to re-instate the Davidic dynasty by putting Joash on the throne.

4. Maachah. The mother of Abijam of Judah was finally removed as “queen mother” because she introduced idolatry into the land (1 Kings 15:13).

Woman’s Role in Worship

During the Patriarchal Age, the father took the lead in offering worship (Gen. 8:20; 12:7; 13:4, 18; 22:9; 26:25; etc.). There is no evidence of a woman ever building an altar to Jehovah and offering a sacrifice on it. The only examples of women offering sacrifices are related to pagan worship (see below).

When the Levitical worship was instituted, strict requirements were given for those who could serve as priests from the family of Aaron of the tribe of Levi. The other male Levites were to assist at the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. However, women could not serve as high priest, priest, or Levite assistant in the worship. They were allowed to participate in the choirs in the Temple (Ps. 68:25; Ezra 2:65; Neh. 7:67).

There are six references to prophetesses in the Old Testament. Miriam is called a prophetess when she led other women in celebrating the deliverance at the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20). Deborah was called a prophetess (Judg. 4:4). She was chosen to lead Israel against the Canaanites. She recognized that hers was an unusual role and insisted that Barak lead the battle (Judg. 4). Huldah prophesied the word of the Lord when Josiah’s servants found the Law that had been lost in the Temple (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron. 34:22). Nehemiah referred to a prophetess named Noadiah (Neh. 6:14). The wife of Isaiah is called a prophetess (Isa. 8:3). W.F. Adeney comments, “It is manifest that the appearance of a prophetess in Israel was quite exceptional” (“Woman,” Dictionary of the Bible, James Hastings, editor). To use the exceptional cases to justify leadership roles for women, such as serving as elders, deacons, preachers, leading singing, making announcements, and such like things, would be misuse of the Old Testament references.

Women’s Role in Pagan Religions

Revealed and unrevealed religion can be distinguished in respect to the roles of women. In pagan religions, the deity worshiped was sometimes feminine (Ishtar of Babylon, Astareth who was the consort of the Canaanite god Baal). In some of the pagan religions, the women became sacred prostitutes. Consequently, there was a connection between idolatry and fornication (cf. Exod. 32:6, 19, 25). In pagan religions, women served as priestesses, witches, and sorceresses. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1939) summarizes as follows:

Often woman’s religious intensity found expression in idolatry and the gross cults of heathenism. That she everywhere participated freely in the religious rites and customs of her people is evident from the fact that women were often priestesses, and were often deified. The other Sem(itic) religions had female deities corresponding to the goddesses of Greece and Rome. In the cult of Ishtar of Babylon women were connected with the immoral rites of temple-worship (V:3101).

Jeremiah condemned the women who made cakes to the queen of heaven and poured out drink offerings to other gods (7:18). Ezekiel described the women who were “weeping for Tammuz” in the Lord’s temple (8:14). The Mosaic law demanded that witches be put to death (Exod. 22:18; cf. Saul’s going to the witch of Endor, I Sam. 28:7-14).

The modem feminist movement revived pagan concepts of God with its inclusive language for God. The inclusive-language movement steers away from masculine terms for God (Father, Son, etc.). God is sometimes referred to as her or she. Some of the feminist concepts state that God “has brought us forth from the womb of your being”  a feminist god giving birth to the created world. If the feminine god gave birth to the world, the world itself must share deity’s substance. This is pantheism. Some liturgies have been developed by biblical feminists to celebrate menustration, menopause, and other changes in women’s lives that manifest a true relationship with “the Great Goddess that sustains our life in nature.” This is a return to the pagan world view. The feminists have found god within and that they themselves are divine. They may choose to worship god under the feminine term “Sophia.” We must identify this as a reversion to pagan religion and not a higher evolutionary development of the Christian religion. Indeed, many feminists have abandoned Christianity altogether because it denigrates women. (A good discussion of the inclusive language movement is found in Speaking the Christian God, edited by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.)


Having surveyed the Old Testament about the role of women, these conclusions about the roles of women in our modern society seem to follow:

1. A woman can find fulfillment in her role as wife and mother. The feminist movement has deceived our mothers and daughters when it teaches them that they can never find true fulfillment unless they develop a career and place their children in the day care center.

2. A mother should not sacrifice the welfare of her children on the altar of her pursuit of self-fulfillment. The biblical depiction of a godly woman shows a mother devoted to her children, not a woman who views her child as someone who is getting in the way of her having fun or reaching self-fulfillment.

3. The home should have male headship. The modem egalitarian home with husband and wife having a 50-50 share in decision making is different from the biblical norm. In escaping abusive treatment by men who have no concept of biblical headship, some are turning to egalitarian patterns for the home. Many families of my generation have accepted the egalitarian home as the ideal. Some of us have not been the leaders that our families have needed because we have seen only two options  an abusive, tyrannical, domineering husband or egalitarian homes. As a result, many us have become less than the leader God wants us to be.

4. The home will not function well when role reversals occur. There are circumstances in which a woman must take primary responsibility as provider (such as in the case of illness and injury). However, the trend to make woman equally responsible to provide for the family or the primary provider is full of danger. The person who earns the income will generally control it. There is significant danger of the woman who is a provider making the decisions for the family. A “house husband” (a man who makes a choice to stay at home and keep up the house while his wife pursues a secular career) is not likely to be the head of his house.

Many women are trying to juggle two full-time jobs  their secular jobs and that of mother. They cannot long endure as “super moms.” What usually happens is that many of those tasks that mothers have historically provided are neglected. Mothers have little time to practice hospitality, volunteer to teach a Bible class, clean the building, prepare communion, visit the sick and shut-ins, and other spiritual works in which women have historically taken the lead because of the encroachment the job has on their time. Working moms have little time to study Bible lessons with their children, so many have children who come to Bible classes unprepared.

Many parents already are reconsidering whether the extra things that a second income can provide are worth what it costs the family. Perhaps more should do the same.

5. Women should not take a leadership role in the church. This is discussed in more detail in other verses, but the Old Testament certainly supports the concept of male leadership in spiritual matters. Even as the male served as priests and Levites assistants, so also should leadership positions in the church be filled by males.

In conclusion, I cannot improve upon Paul’s summation of what the Old Testament teaches about the role of women: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law”

(1 Cor. 14:34). The Old Testament teaches that women are to be “under obedience,” not taking leadership roles in the church.

Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 3 p. 2
February 2, 1995