Old Testament Society

Old Testament



Much of the Old Testament illustrates how God’s original intention for men and women was not fulfilled: the earth was troubled by violence; conflict was caused by evil people; the rich oppressed the poor; and women were treated as possessions of fathers, husbands, kings, or conquering armies. Abraham, for example, “the father of the faithful”, had Ishmael by his slave girl, Hagar, at the suggestion of his wife Sarah. After Sarah’s death he married again, and also had concubines.


Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. ... Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.                                               (Genesis 25:1-6)


When seen in the light of “the two shall become one flesh” or in the light of New Testament teaching that “each man shall have his own wife and each wife her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2), it is obvious that Old Testament society should not be held up as an example of the ideal. The quarrelling between different wives in itself demonstrates the problems of polygamy. But we should not, of course, judge Abraham or any other patriarch according to New Testament morality. Our comparison should be with the times in which they lived. In Abraham’s era, pagan worship, polygamy and even human sacrifice, were regarded as normal. Abraham is honoured as “father of the faithful” because he obeyed God’s calling. Through him God in His providence began the work of preparing a people whose standards and understanding (as revealed supremely in Jesus) are what God intended from the beginning.

How do we explain God’s working with Abraham in a covenant relationship on the one hand, and, on the other, the apparent disregard by Abraham for God’s intention in creation that “the two shall become one flesh”?

The same question arises when we see the position of women according to the Law.

Are we to consider that because these attitudes are included in the Law, that this represents God’s intention and attitude to women now? The answer is that God was working from the position into which society had sunk. God was setting about restoring it to His original divine pattern. But He began where society was, and worked from there.

Women’s Position in the Old Testament

Josephus said that according to the Law a woman was inferior to her husband in all things.[1] This may be an exaggeration, but it is not difficult to illustrate the truth of this as far as ancient society was concerned. Women were regarded as property. A man could divorce a wife, but not vice-versa. If, instead, he married another, she had to put up with the humiliation of her husband preferring a new woman instead of her. A man could sell his daughters into slavery. A woman could make a vow before God, but her father, or, if married, her husband could cancel this. These can easily be illustrated from the Law:


 (a) A woman is property

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s. (Exodus 20:17)


 (b) Damaged property

If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her; he may not put her away all his days.                                                                                    (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)


 (c) Easily divorced by husband

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house ....                                                                            (Deuteronomy 24:1)


 (d) A man could sell his daughter into slavery

When a man sells his daughter as a slave ...  (Exodus 21:7)


 (e) A man could overrule a woman’s religious vows

A father (before marriage) or a husband (after marriage) could exercise a veto. Here is the is the text concerning a father.

... when a woman vows a vow to the LORD, and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father expresses disapproval to her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself, shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her, because her father opposed her.                                                     (Numbers 30:3-6)


We can also see other ways in which women were viewed as inferior to men and under their control.


Caleb’s Daughter Given as a Prize

Caleb offered his daughter in marriage to whoever succeeded in capturing an enemy town.

And Caleb said, “Whoever smites Kiriathsepher, and takes it, to him I will give Achsah my daughter as wife. And Othniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, took it; and he gave him Achsah his daughter as wife.                                                                                            (Joshua 15:16-17)



Men could take several wives, plus concubines. Concubines, often maidservants with whom the husband slept, had some legal rights, but not the same as wives.

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives. And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he called his name Abimelech.                                                 (Judges 8:30-31)

And David took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron; and more sons and daughters were born to David.

                                                                                    (2 Samuel 5:13)

[Solomon] had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines....                                                                         (1 Kings 11:3)


There is a tragic account in Judges of how a concubine was multiple-raped and killed, but the account also illustrates how women were considered inferior to men:

As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, base fellows, beset the house round about, beating on the door; and they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brethren, do not act so wickedly; seeing that this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do with them what seems good to you; but against this man do not do so vile a thing.” But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them; and they knew her, and abused her all night until the morning.     

(Judges 19:22-25)

This whole incident is deplorable, and is regarded as such in the Bible, but it shows how women were considered less to be protected than men.

Christian Understanding

How, from a Christian point of view are we to understand this control of women by men? Is this what God wanted then? Is it what God wants now?

The apostle Paul said that love sums up the Law.

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”                                                                (Galatians 5:14)

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

                                                                                    (Romans 13:8-10)

This teaching helps to answer these questions. In the Law we have an existing patriarchal society which is in the process of being regulated by a God of love.

Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully ... understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers ... and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.

                                                                                    (1 Timothy 1:8-10)

The intention of showing love and humane behaviour is clear in many of the laws.

You shall not oppress your neighbour or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.

You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour.

You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand forth against the life of your neighbour: I am the LORD.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him.

You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.                                                                                           (Leviticus 19:13-18)


Jesus cites “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” as one of the two great commandments.

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”                 (Mark 12:28-33)


Love may not at first seem apparent in some of the laws. Consider a very well-known law, “an eye for an eye”:

When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.                            (Exodus 21:22-26)

The “eye for eye” sounds harsh, but the intention is that the punishment shall fit the crime, not go beyond it – such as by killing the guilty person or maiming him beyond the damage originally done.


So too, when we look at the laws given above, and examine them in their context, they also indicate an intention to apply a loving attitude in adverse circumstances.


Many laws are introduced by “If...” or “When...”, indicating that when bad behaviour happens, certain actions should be taken.


If, with this background understanding, we review some of the details given above, we can see that modification of people’s conduct in a humane manner is the intention.


Let us look again at these.


 (a) A woman is property

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s.             (Exodus 20:17)

Although this places a wife in the category of property, it also serves to protect her against adultery and exploitation.


 (b) Damaged property

If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her; he may not put her away all his days.                                                                                    (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)


This is a most inappropriate way to begin a marriage, but while the woman’s owner receives financial compensation, there is a limited provision to protect and safeguard the woman. Rape and subsequent marriage is not to be considered in any way a desirable arrangement, and such forced marriage would rightly be considered an unacceptably abusive law today, but in a society where a woman who was not a virgin at marriage was likely to be stoned (Deuteronomy 22:20-21) this provided a better solution. The law also ensured that the man would take permanent responsibility for the woman “all his days”.


(c) Easily divorced by husband

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house ....                                                                                        (Deuteronomy 24:1)


This is not advocating divorce, but regulating it and seeking protection for the woman. After he has rejected his wife, he may not take her back again into his possession, if she is later divorced again, or becomes a widow. A divorced woman or a widow is thereafter free of male control, which in circumstances such as this could be a blessing. It is nevertheless, by Jesus’ standards, undesirably male-orientated and sees things only from the male point of view: “if ... she finds no favour in his eyes”. It takes later teaching to correct this.


(d) A man could sell his daughter into slavery[2]

When a man sells his daughter as a slave ...    (Exodus 21:7)


The Law begins with “When...”. This still happens today in some part of the world. Men sell their daughters because of extreme poverty or, sometimes, from greed. The Law is regulating what happens and it seeks to give the daughter protection.

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt faithlessly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.      (Exodus 21:7-11)


She will get her freedom without any payment being required of her.



(e) A man could overrule a woman’s religious vows

A father (before marriage) or a husband (after marriage) could exercise a veto. Above we gave the text concerning a father. The text concerning the husband gives a little more information:

And if she is married to a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it, and says nothing to her on the day that he hears; then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he expresses disapproval, then he shall make void her vow which was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips, by which she bound herself; and the LORD will forgive her.                                               (Numbers 30:6-8)


This would enable a vow made before the woman was married to be annulled, possibly offering protection if she had not thought her vow through adequately. This may seem demeaning from a modern viewpoint, but when women were less educated in a spiritual way than the men, it could be regarded as protective. Or a married woman could make a vow when experiencing severe pains in childbirth, but later regret what she vowed. It would also be relevant if the vow included giving away property, or in Hannah’s case, giving her son Samuel to the temple (1 Samuel 1:11). Her action would involve others. It is one-sided, however, since men are not required to check if their vows are acceptable to the women. By contrast, in the New Testament, both husband and wife are asked to agree together on issues affecting them both (1 Corinthians 7:5).


On a more positive side, these religious vows were open to both men and women, which indicates a direct approach to God by both male and female.

Say to the people of Israel, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the LORD ....                                                                                                     (Numbers 6:2)


Forward to the Full Divine Intention

It is possible, therefore, to see that the Law moderates woman’s lot, but the prophets and Jesus give us greater understanding as we read further.

Malachi objects to divorce.

So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. “For I hate divorce, says the LORD the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.”                          (Malachi 2:15-16)

Jesus came to fulfil the Law, which meant following God’s real intention for men and women. Jesus said that divorce was contrary to God’s will; the Law permitted it only because of the hardness of men’s hearts (Matthew 19:8), as described above on page 136.

An “eye for an eye” could easily be seen as prescribing cruel treatment rather than modifying something worse:

When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured.     (Leviticus 24:19-20)

Jesus taught that the “Golden Rule” is the fulfilling of the Law:

So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.             (Matthew 7:12)

This is different from Leviticus 24 “as he has done it shall be done to him”. There is a great difference between treating other people as they treat you, and treating other people as you would like them to treat you. Jesus goes to the caring principle and elaborates it:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.                                                                                (Matthew 5:38-42)


We can observe, therefore, that the Law brings in some softening, some humaneness to a harsh and often cruel situation. But the teaching of Jesus is not limited by the Law, and he advocates a very positive goodness.

Old Testament society is one where men normally ruled over women, and in the case of slavery, men ruled over men too. This is not a desirable state of affairs, and easily led to abuse. The Law gave limited protection to women who were controlled by men. It is only when we see how Jesus treated women (Chapter 4, pages 18-29) that we see God’s intention properly realised.

The same applies to slavery. Slavery existed, but its harshness was modified. Slaves had to be freed every 7 years, and married slaves had to be permitted to remain together (Exodus 21:1-6). Slavery existed in the New Testament world too, and Roman laws did not provide the humane treatment seen in the Jewish Law. New Testament teaching could only modify slavery within the fellowship of brothers and sisters. That does not mean that slavery was how God wished society to be organised, nor that in itself He wished it to be a permanent part of ecclesial life.

We should not, therefore, quote restrictive attitudes to slaves or to women in the Old Testament, and suppose that this gives us the appropriate understanding for believers today.

God’s desire is expressed in Genesis 1 & 2, not in the post-fall situation in Genesis 3. We can understand, therefore, why Biblical approval is given when women express good, guiding, leading influence over men.

Male and Female Roles in Old Testament Society

For reasons of biology it is natural that women bore, nursed and brought up the children. For a woman to be childless was felt, according to the understanding of the times, to be a cause of shame. Most women were therefore occupied in the home for at least part of their lifetimes. There is evidence, however, that women worked in fields (Ruth 2:21-23), fetched water (Rebekah, Genesis 24:11), tended flocks (Rachel, Genesis 29:9), were midwives (Genesis 35:17) and nurses (Ruth 4:16, 1 Kings 1:2), perfumers, bakers and cooks (1 Samuel 8:13) and singers (2 Samuel 19:35, Nehemiah 7:67).[3] The daughters of Shallum helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem after the Exile (Nehemiah 3:12). Women served at the door of the tabernacle (Exodus 38:8), but there is no information as to what this involved. Eli’s wicked sons abused them (1 Samuel 2:22) at the temple in Shiloh. Hannah and her husband attended the temple at Shiloh annually, and her vow there is recorded (1 Samuel 1:11). With her husband’s approval, Hannah acted with a fair degree of independence (1 Samuel 1:21-28). Both men and women were to teach and discipline their children (Deuteronomy 21:18).

In an age when armed conflict was frequent, the men’s muscular strength naturally led them to military activities. But it was not just in military areas in which men were the leaders. Men led in most spheres of life: as leaders of tribes; as heads of families (with all the female members under their control) and in religious activities such as the offering of sacrifices and worship in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. At feasts, only men were obliged to appear (Exodus 23:17, 34:23), perhaps because men were mainly involved in the heavy work of harvesting while the women nursed the children. Only men could be priests. Yet we find that certain roles of leadership normally associated with men are on occasions undertaken by women, such as Miriam, Deborah and Huldah.

We need to consider, therefore, whether male leadership was an outcome of society in Old Testament times and therefore employed by God in appropriate circumstances, or whether it was specifically instituted by God. Where women exercised some leadership, was this with or contrary to divine approval? And since it appears from the New Testament that sisters can be involved in similar religious activities to brothers, why was the Old Testament priesthood exclusively male?



[1] The law ... commands us also, when we marry, not to have regard to portion, nor to take a woman by violence, nor to persuade her deceitfully and knavishly; but demand her in marriage of him who hath power to dispose of her, and is fit to give her away by the nearness of his kindred; for, saith the Scripture, “a woman is inferior to her husband in all things.”  Let her, therefore, be obedient to him; not so that he should abuse her, but that she may acknowledge her duty to her husband; for God hath given the authority to the husband. A husband, therefore, is to lie only with his wife whom he hath married....  (Josephus, Against Apion 2:25)


[2] 2007 saw the 200th anniversary of Parliament’s decision to outlaw the slave trade. But lest we feel too superior to people of the past, consider the Home Office estimate that 4,000 women were trafficked into Britain into enforced prostitution in 2003 (The Guardian, 13 January 2007, page 12). Women are still treated as property to be bought and sold.

[3] Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, page 809.

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