Some Things You Should Know About Women and the Old Testament

The Old Testament gets a bad rap among progressive Christians at times. Some refer to its texts revealing harsh treatment of women as “texts of terror.” They focus on things that had great relevance for OT culture at the time, such as sleeping in a separate tent during a woman’s period, from the perspective of our modern culture with all its medical and sanitary advances. Then, without carefully connecting the lines, broad conclusions are made about misogyny in the Bible. Some say that since nobody agrees exactly on what the Bible commands to women and nobody is able to keep it all anyway, the Bible must be bad, or misogynist, or irrelevant. In that view, the Bible is no longer God’s revelation of Himself to His people through the Spirit’s inspiration of the authors (2 Peter 1:20-21). And any conclusion drawn from it by people who believe the Spirit did inspire it are suspect.

I want to deal with a few of the issues that get a particularly negative reaction and respond with how I’ve reconciled these in my own heart. Note – this is how I’ve reconciled these with the Spirit in my own heart. Many conservatives seem in practice to not have a strong confidence in the Spirit’s ability to convict anyone but themselves. As a core belief of mine, I don’t believe God gives ME the responsibility of convicting you. But I’m glad to share how He’s moving in my heart, and I trust the Holy Spirit to guide you if you decide to engage Him and His Word and wrestle with these on your own.

So here goes.

1) Judges 19’s account of a Levite cutting up his concubine after she is raped and abused by strangers in the city. Wow, this one is a horrible, horrible story. Which is the entire point. This chapter opens with the words, “In those days, Israel had no king.” That’s the point of the entire book of Judges. They had no king, and the very last words of the book of Judges is that this lack of a king resulted in everyone doing what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Judges describes over and over again the weaknesses of both the system of judges and the law previously given to Moses. It points again and again to Israel’s need for a king, but later we see that the earthly kings were no better, and with few exceptions, everyone, including those kings, continued to do what was right in their own eyes. They all needed a perfect King who would give the perfect standard of righteousness. They needed King Jesus.

The terror of the story of Judges 19 is rooted in a people deciding, apart from God’s standard of righteousness, what was right in their own eyes. There is no justification for using Judges 19 as something to make us fear the Bible! God certainly never commanded this type of abuse. This is a description, along with the story in Judges 11 of the daughter of Jephthah who seemed to be sacrificed in a misguided vow to God, of how bad things got as Israel moved away from God. It serves too as a warning to us in modern day Christianity. When we make ourselves the final say in what is and is not right apart from the Word, we are open to monumental blindspots. The history of Christianity from the Crusades to slavery has shown our own blindspots again and again.

2) Leviticus 15’s instructions for women who are on their menstrual cycle. The interesting thing which I never hear mentioned in this discussion is that the first half of the chapter discusses similar requirements for men with a discharge of some type of bodily fluid. The implication I keep hearing is that somehow the Law was biased against women on this issue, declaring them unclean simply because they are having their period. However, if you approach Scripture without a predisposition to be suspicious of it on how it speaks toward women, a different image emerges. This is a passage simply about sanitation. Frankly, I’m very thankful for the sanitary advances we’ve made for both men and women discharging bodily fluid (which is a weird way to say it, but that’s how this chapter refers to it). They didn’t have latex gloves or those little protective pads that retirement homes sometimes use to cover beds or chairs. And they certainly didn’t have Always, Tampax, or anything even remotely equivalent. Plus, they didn’t live in homes with secure doorways to protect them from animals following the scent of blood. It was in everyone’s best interest, male and female, to have clear guidelines on what could and could not be done during the time of a woman’s cycle so that the remainder of the month was not full of the types of diseases and consequences that would come in that harsh environment if blood or other types of discharges were not wisely handled. And remember, this chapter includes SIMILAR INSTRUCTIONS FOR MEN.

This speaks to a function of the law that we often forget. Remember that the Law came at the dawn of civilization, and at that point, civilization was not very civilized. These men and women had no police, no courts, no OSHA, no medical establishment, and so forth, and I respect the rigid safeguards and weird limitations on a people struggling to figure out the basics of life in a broken world on their own. Which leads to the 3rd example.

3) Deuteronomy 22’s instructions for a rapist to marry the woman he raped. Again, remember that civilization was not very civilized at this point. The common practice outside of the law for a woman who was raped was that she was killed by her family because of the shame (a practice still used in some cultures). If she was not killed, she had to live in shame with no options for a future life with a family that was accepted in her culture. She likely could only support herself through future prostitution. Exodus 22:16 – 17 gives similar instructions for the case of a man seducing a woman.

Again, presuppositions against Scripture as a misogynist text have caused some to read these instructions in the worst possible light. But I look at cultures throughout the world, including our own, in which many men still see sexual conquest as a game with no consequences for themselves, hearts hardened to the harm put upon the one they seduced. This law in Deuteronomy gave the woman in this situation a path to a respectable life in her culture. And this law held the man to the consequences he created in his sin against this woman. He had to pay her father a dowry worthy of the woman he violated, and he could not divorce her all the days of his life. He was required to remove the shame from her and restore her to a position of respectability in her culture. When you look at it from that perspective, there is much beauty in this law for a woman so violated in a culture that had NO safeguards for her otherwise.

Some of that may or may not be helpful to you as you wrestle through Scripture on your own. Frankly, after struggling through, in particular, the law that commanded the rapist to marry the woman that he raped, I was blessed and moved deeply as the Spirit revealed His heart to me in this instruction. These laws presented a path to free the woman from the shame cast upon her in her culture. The guy was forced to value what he took indiscriminately. I am thankful to live in a culture today that doesn’t cast upon a woman (at least not as much) the same shame and condemnation that was the norm in Old Testament times and is STILL the norm in certain parts of the world. And I am thankful that God pressed upon His people a path for a woman so abused that did not just give her in marriage but required a sizable dowery for the privilege of marrying her. 

If you do have texts that cause you deep concern, I strongly encourage you to wrestle with the texts in prayer with the Holy Spirit. Don’t listen to a campaign against the Spirit and the Word that labels the Old Testament as misogyny to be discarded. Jesus says very clearly in Matthew 5:17 that He didn’t come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. The Law pointed us ultimately to our need for Christ. And when the fullness of time was come, God sent Jesus in the flesh to us, to live the Law perfectly, fulfill it, and free us from its instructions to a group of fallen men and women that needed the most basic level of instructions to survive and build a civilization. Jesus loved this Law. You never see Him disparaging it or demeaning it. And NO ONE accuses Him of misogyny. God in the flesh who loved women and interacted with them in compassionate ways respecting their dignity also loved the law and fulfilled it perfectly. We can not write off the Law as misogynist without also tainting Jesus. I encourage anyone struggling with these topics to stay engaged with the Spirit and the Word, believing in faith that God is good, and He is good to us through His Word.

*The Gospel-Centered Woman: Understanding Biblical Womanhood through the Lens of the Gospeldeals with more principles for understanding the Law and wisdom literature, particularly as they speak toward women.

21 Responses to Some Things You Should Know About Women and the Old Testament

  1. Anonymous May 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    “I encourage anyone struggling with these topics to stay engaged with the Spirit and the Word”.

    thank you and bless you.
    May the Lord be granting us,each and together, His wisdom by His word,Spirit,petition,body gifts; desiring a spirit of truth and kept and corrected from error together;

    May we love the Lord and His own whole body, by His Mighty Power

    Christ in us, the hope of glory;we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within us, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever we do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. Col 1:27-28;3:16-17

  2. Jim Adam (Migdalin) May 5, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    My response got to be too long, so I turned into a blog post. FYI.

  3. Ruth in NZ May 5, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    Wendy, Thank you for this. I read it and thought..good thoughts. And then I read the post your commenter above mentioned and realised in a deeper way why posts like this are so important. If we don't understand the contexts these passages and so many others like the Proverbs, Ecclesiates etc are written into, it is so easy to write off the OT as irrelevant or, worse wrong and wicked. It is only as we study the OT and see the whole picture that we will grow in our understanding of who God is and of His purposes and plans throughout history. Keep it up!

  4. Marg May 5, 2013 at 10:55 pm #

    Hi Wendy, Considering the culture of the time, I think the Bible is far from being misogynistic. I love the word of God and its message to men and women.

    I think the explanations you've given with those “terror” texts are very sound. (I'm linking your post on my Every Old Testament Woman facebook page.)

    Perhaps you and your readers may be interested in this article I wrote last September.

  5. Felicia Strange May 6, 2013 at 4:13 am #

    Yes, I agree with what you said here. The points you made certainly encourage me to “…stay engaged with the Spirit and the Word” as I journey and study through the Old Testament (Genesis right now). It is beautiful to see (with the perspective of context in such cases) how God uses the law to show us His way, which is completely honoring to men and women.

  6. goodtreasures May 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    The book of Judges begins with a woman's story – Caleb's daughter Achsah. She has been portrayed sometimes as a victim, a 'war prize.' I see her in a different way. In the context: Caleb has secured her future by entrusting her to a victorious warrior and a future judge of Israel; she trusts her father's affection by asking for a portion of the inheritance; then, when she needs additional resources to make the inheritance fruitful, she asks and receives those also. This is certainly a picture of our life in the redemption plan of God.

  7. leslie g. May 6, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    Thank you for this. I've struggled lately with the role of women in the Bible and this is helpful. (I also just started Gospel Centered Woman and it's wonderful! Unlike everything I've ever read before.)

    It's helpful to me to remember that God works within the framework of different cultures, even though they're all sinful and broken in their different ways… polygamy, etc. while commonly referenced in the Bible is definitely not part of his design, and it's clear throughout the stories the trouble that was caused by following practices like that.

  8. jmn May 7, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

    (part 1 of 2)
    Wendy –

    I've read a few of your articles on this blog as they've been sent to me by my fiancee. Most of the time I'm generally ok with what you write here, but on this article you have made some errors.

    In point #2 – you write “This is a passage simply about sanitation.”. That is wholly incorrect. Does it refer to sanitation and regulations around that? Yes. But that is not what it is about. Look at vs 31 of Leviticus 15:
    31 “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”

    This was a matter of showing the Israelites that they must have reverence for holy things (in this case the Tabernacle). It is a reference to God's holiness and the cleanliness is a picture of that. It does of course have the added benefit regarding sanitation, but that is not the primary purpose of the law.

    Here's a section from the Expositor's Bible Commentary on this topic:

    31 This provides a summary to the entire uncleanness section in chs. 12–15. The reference to the tabernacle or “dwelling place” (miškān, GK 5438) occurs here for the second time in Leviticus (cf. 8:10, where Moses began the process of anointing the priests by anointing the tabernacle). This reference connects the beginning of the process of purifying the priests with the conclusion of the discussion of purification laws. God’s holiness requires the separation of what is unclean from what is acceptable to God; it reflects wholeness in the physical world, whether animals or people. The physical wholeness of people in this world symbolizes the holiness of God. Israel in its life, its diet, its reproduction, and the bodies of its people are called to manifest this holiness.
    32–33 These verses summarize Leviticus 15. They parallel the other summaries in this section of uncleanness in Leviticus: 11:46–47 for animals, 12:8b for childbirth, 13:59 for mildew in clothing, 14:32 for skin diseases, 14:54–57 for skin diseases and various forms of mildew, 15:32–33 for discharges of men and women.

    Your summary at the end of #2 is concerning as well:
    “This speaks to a function of the law that we often forget. Remember that the Law came at the dawn of civilization, and at that point, civilization was not very civilized. These men and women had no police, no courts, no OSHA, no medical establishment, and so forth, and I respect the rigid safeguards and weird limitations on a people struggling to figure out the basics of life in a broken world on their own.”

    This is not what the law was ever about – it was about calling a people to be set apart as His people, illustrating the holiness of God as set apart.. and to point to Christ ultimately as He who would fulfill the law perfectly. To say that this was a function of the law and not even reference the holiness of God here is a substantial error. The Law was not meant to be a pre-OSHA institution or function.

  9. jmn May 7, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

    (part 2 of 2)
    Your concluding paragraph:
    The Law pointed us ultimately to our need for Christ. (agreed) And when the fullness of time was come, God sent Jesus in the flesh to us, to live the Law perfectly, fulfill it, and free us from its instructions to a group of fallen men and women that needed the most basic level of instructions to survive and build a civilization. hmmmm…

    That second sentence has major issues. To “free us from its instructions to a group of fallen men and women that needed the most basic level of instructions to survive and build a civilization”? really? How about to set apart a people unto Himself to make them distinct from other nations? How about to point to the holiness of God?

    Unless I'm missing something here, you do not mention the holiness of God as being the ultimate reason for why He chose to put these restrictions on the Israelites.

    Perhaps you simply didn't communicate that here in this article but you do think that. I hope so.

    I do appreciate that you are addressing the views of the OT as misogynistic and you are upholding the OT still as the Word of God, and very much appreciate you saying what Christ's view of the OT/Law was. I also agree that it is of course the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to the truth but also grows us in the understanding of the Scripture. I think that view can be (and is in many charismatic circles) taken to a wrong place (where what the Holy Spirit says to me trumps what the Scripture actually says), but I'm not getting that sense from you.

    I would ask you to reexamine your views on the purpose of the law, and amend this article with a view towards God's holiness.

    Your brother in Christ –


  10. jmn May 7, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

    by “addressing the views of the OT as misogynistic ” I meant that you are confronting those views…

  11. Wendy May 7, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

    Jonathan, I certainly did not write an article addressing the whole function of the Law. It would take many blog posts to do that.

    You are setting up a false dichotomy between sanitation and holiness. God's temple could be defiled on many levels, and sanitation is certainly one of them.

    Consider Deut. 22:8 for a clear example of an OSHA type law — putting a banister around your rooftop to protect others from falling off it. It falls under the greatest commands, on which all the Law and Prophets hangs — loving God and loving your neighbor.

  12. jmn May 7, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    Wendy –

    Thanks for responding.

    I'm not setting up a false dichotomy between sanitation and holiness. I am saying that when a passage points to the holiness of God (indicative) as the reason for why the commands are given (imperative), that should be mentioned. But nowhere in your article do you mention holiness. In point 2 – you say “This is a passage simply about sanitation.”. “simply” does not indicate that there is a greater purpose than just giving sanitation rules. As mentioned in vs 31 – the point of the passage is to separate Israel from their uncleanness so they won't die as a result of the defiling of the holy place that God set apart. It is therefore ultimately because of His holiness that they were to observe these rules, not ultimately (or “simply”) because of sanitation.

    It is not wrong to call out the practicality of the public sanitation impact of these and other laws. But you leave out the most crucial piece of why that section is there.

    In Him –


  13. Wendy May 7, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    Point taken. Thanks, Jonathan.

  14. Anonymous May 8, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    The hard fact is that women were treated as property. It made no difference whether the men were benevolent or cruel. Women could be traded, sold, married off, and killed. In the passage in Judges 19, the Levite just simply hands his concubine over to be gang raped. We are never told if he was concerned at all about what was happening to her. We are not told if she is dead when she is found on the door step the next morning. As a matter of fact, it seems that the Levite went to bed. As verse 27 says, he arose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way. I think he was just going to leave without her. After all, who wants a gang raped concubine (sorry). He tells her to get up and she doesn't awnser. So, he throws her on a donkey and takes her back home. It is there that he proceeds to cut her up into 12 pieces with his Bowie Knife. What I perceive, is that the wicked deed was not the gang rape. It was not the woman's death and dismemberment ( I hope she was dead before he started to cut!) But, the wickedness done in Gibeah was the probablity of a Levite male being raped. The master of the house offered his daughter and the concubine…….do what you want to them. But just don't do such a wicked thing to the Levite. I consider these passages 'texts of terror' what else could we call them? The unamed concubine was terrifed! Any woman would be in a situation as cruel as that. I've wondered, do people feel any sympathy for the concubine? I don't really think so. Maybe, if you are a woman reading the passage you might wince a little, but after that the rape and murder of the concubine just fades into the background to be forgotten as we move on to the next chapter. terri tippins (sorry it would not post my comment through AOL.)

  15. Anonymous May 9, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    I have to agree with Terri on this one. I'm one of those who have had to walk away from Christianity because it just feels so demeaning to me as a woman. And though I appreciate your efforts to explain these passages, I must say I still find them discomforting.

    Yes, I suppose marrying your rapist would be a better fate than dying alone in the desert, but is that really the best solution an omnipotent being can come up with? Couldn't God have decreed that raped women be cared for by the community? Perhaps added an eleventh commandment stating that women not be treated like livestock? I can think of a number of ways to care for raped women that don't include marrying the rapist and I'm just a fallible human.

    Also, I suppose requiring the rapist to pay the sticker price for the goods he damaged is more honoring to the woman than selling her off at a discount, but it's really hard to get away from the fact that THE WOMAN IS BEING SOLD. And that is inherently misogynist.

    Again, I truly appreciate your efforts here but it still feels like a whitewashing of incredibly repugnant behavior.

  16. Wendy May 9, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    Anonymous, I can't imagine there is a way for me to explain any of it if one does not believe at some level in the God who claims to have written those Words and claims to be good for both men and women. There is, in all of it, an inherent act of faith.

  17. Anonymous May 10, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    terri tippins

    I have been a Christian for over 20 years and to this day find many disturbing things in the Bible (trying to be as honest as I can). Not only does this happen in Judges 19, but a similar thing happens in Genesis 19. This time passages deal with angels. The men of Sodom seen the two come into the city and enter into Lots house. The men of Sodom called out to Lot to bring them (the two men) out, that they might know them. Behold, (Lot says) I have two daughters which have not known man; let me I pray you bring them out to you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof (Genesis 19:8).

    Now, it sounds alot like Judges 19 except, they (the women) did not get gang raped, murdered or dismembered. But, the offer was the same. Take the girls please! I thought, could (I) have done something like that? And the answer is, no. As a woman, wife and mother I could never think of such a thing. But, these MEN (the stranger and Levite from Judges 19 and Lot from Genesis 19:8) don't really seem to be to torn about who should be sacrificed.

    We don't really like to talk about these sort of things in the Bible. Bible teacher don't teach on Judges 19. Just like they don't teach on Abraham and Issacs lie. Abraham lies to Pharoah and King A-bimelech and tells Sarah to do the same. Say you are my sister. Then a few chapters later Isaac does the same thing. King A-bim-e-lech asks Isaac why he lied and he said, lest I die for her (on account of her). For all the talk about men being protectors we don't see it in these passages. Actually, Abraham and Isaac were more than willing to let thier wives go to a harem and become a sex slaves in order to save thier own necks.

    I am just saying that these passages disturb me. I would think they would anyone…….christian or not.

  18. Wendy May 10, 2013 at 1:12 am #

    “We don't really like to talk about these sort of things in the Bible. Bible teachers don't teach on Judges 19. Just like they don't teach on Abraham and Issacs lie.”

    Actually, Anonymous, I've heard a number of sermons on each of those passages. In fact, those three passages you mention were each instrumental in me coming to a reformed view of total/pervasive depravity. They all clearly illustrate that we are not children of God based on our good works. Later in 2 Peter, Lot is referred to as a righteous man. Last we hear of him in the OT, he was anything but righteous. There is much to explore in that description of unmerited favor and salvation by grace, not works. But I'll save that for another post.

  19. TammyIsBlessed May 10, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    Many people seem to have the misguided notion that because the Bible describes an event happening, that God approves or condones it. God never condones the rape of any person, male or female. God does not condone Lot offering his daughters to the evil men outside. God does not approve of the men who gang raped the woman. None of those point to something missing in God. All of them point to the wickedness of men. All of them point to our need for God.

    Those passage don't really disturb me that much because they are pointing to a truth about humanity and our depravity. Which of course contrasts sharply with the holiness of God.

    The passages that I wrestle with are different ones – God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and God punishing entire families for one person's sin. I do know, however, that when my idea of right and wrong conflicts with God's – I'm the one that's wrong.

    I do agree with Jonathan that #2 would be more complete with an addition about the holiness of God. But I appreciate your point that it is not a female only issue, and often we tend to get tunnel vision and miss that fact.

  20. Anonymous May 10, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    Hey – thanks for posting this. The last one, about the rapist, really rung true and was helpful to me. I am living in Southeast Asia and I am learning a bit more about how women are downtrodden here, and how image/shame are huge barriers. Someone told me that for a girl to have a child out of wedlock is impossible in this culture – so, so, so many have abortions to save face. Anyway, the Bible is so steeped in a time and culture that we don't know, we really have to investigate that to understand!

    Julie @

  21. Renee May 12, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Great article! I see too many posts being passed around that are written by women who claim to be believers but somehow do not accept God's Word—the whole of it—as holy and inspired. Why they fail to study the passages in context, find out what the words mean in the original, read commentaries, etc., is a mystery to me. (Except maybe if they changed their views, they wouldn't sell as many books or receive as many hits on their websites!)