Women in the Ancient Near East: Multiple roles in varied contexts

Many descriptions of the Ancient Near East appear to see all cultures as functioning in the exact same way and all peoples within those cultures experiencing the same circumstances. That’s not an accurate picture of how things were.

First off, while the peoples of the Ancient Near East shared many traits, there were cultural differences between nations and even between clans. Remember that God’s people were frequently told that they were not to be like the peoples around them, that the practices of others was an abomination to the Lord, that false beliefs and false religion had distorted God’s intent for mankind. That should be a powerful clue to the fact that we will see diversity as we examine the different nations.

Plus, the Bible points out unique practices of different peoples, including people within the nation of Israel (like the Rechabites in the book of Jeremiah).

In addition, ancient societies had multiple strata. Royalty lived in a sphere apart, with almost unlimited power. Rich and powerful families carried out their lives in a way that the poor could never dream of. Religious practitioners were often afforded privileges that others didn’t receive.

What does all this have to do with a discussion of gender in the Bible? Just this: I think we make far too many blanket statements about the situation of women in the ancient world.

For example, I hear some affirm that no one would accept a female leader, which flies in the face of numerous biblical examples, not to mention the writings of history. Power was often associated with certain bloodlines; the daughter or granddaughter of a king could easily sit on the throne. In some cases (like Athaliah), the queen mother could even take over upon the death of her son. While certainly less common, female rulers existed in Old Testament times.

Note too that no apology is given for the description of Deborah’s leadership. The only one who seems to make an issue of gender is Deborah herself, when she warns Barak that the credit for the victory will be given to a woman. (Interestingly enough, the biblical record doesn’t bear that out; it’s Barak who is credited in later writings — 1 Samuel 12:11; Hebrews 11:32)

Priestesses and prophetesses were also common occurrences in the ancient world. This was more common in religions that worshiped goddesses, but existed in multiple places in various cultures. Again, even the Bible mentions prophetesses without fanfare; their existence was neither unexpected nor unwelcome.

Please note that the New Testament context shows much of the same, from the prominent women of Greece to the priestesses of Asia Minor (and numerous examples in between). While women as a whole were in a severely disadvantaged position in society, there were numerous women who rose above that.

All of this to say that the idea that the idea that male leadership was imposed on the Bible (specifically the Law of Moses) by the culture of the time doesn’t fit the evidence. Were the Israelites especially hard-headed as regards women in leadership positions? Possibly. Is that why the Law and general practice favored men taking the lead? Maybe. Though I would say that at some point, we either have to completely disregard the writings of Scripture because they are a mere human invention, or we have to allow for the possibility that God shaped His people through the laws that He gave them.

I see male leadership being established before the fall and being confirmed by later practice and legislation. Despite what some would argue, this didn’t happen because of a lack of cultural alternatives. It’s my belief that it was God’s design from the beginning.

Links To Go (October 15, 2019)

The #EqualityTownHall Was Loud and Clear: The LGBTQ+ Community, Beto, the Equality Act, and Evangelicals

The message is loud and clear last night. And the result is clearer: this kind of thinking will drive a substantial number of evangelicals, some of whom would otherwise be uncomfortable voting for President Trump, to voting for him in 2020. Why? Because they see it as the only alternative.


Democrats Are Going to Regret Beto’s Stance on Conservative Churches

When the next tornado hits the Midwest or the next hurricane hits Puerto Rico, I will gladly welcome the atheists and the National Guard to help in the relief efforts. But I’ll want the religious people there, too, through organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board, the Salvation Army, and World Relief. Our nation’s politicians can choose to make that possibility more or less likely with their rhetoric and policies in the years to come. Threatening the loss of tax exemption to hundreds of thousands of religious organizations, including many that serve the most vulnerable in our society, is not the way to go.


A better tone

How do we fulfill our roles as church members without letting our gatherings degenerate into nothing more than meetings of a political precinct? How do we bring specialized spiritual equipment to our next discussion of Donald Trump—so we don’t beat up on each other in the “fellowship hall”? How do we resist our culture’s propensity (enhanced by too many government leaders) to fill every conversation with ugliness and insults?


Welcoming and Affirming the Same Thing? Confusion in our Culture

When it comes to our churches, we genuinely desire for all people to know that they are divinely-designed image-bearers. We are eager for them to sit under the preaching of the Word, to hear the gospel, and to trust in Jesus. In that sense, we welcome all people, even the worst of sinners, in our midst. Yet, we do not affirm everyone’s lifestyle decisions.


Bride ordered peacock-themed wedding cake but got a ‘lopsided turkey with leprosy’

Rena Davis, 52, paid $300 for the design featuring two peacocks and a trail of chocolate cupcakes, but was instead left to get hitched alongside a wedding cake that looked more like a “lopsided turkey with leprosy,” The Sun reported.


Emphasizing minor characters: a flaw in many studies of gender

One principle that I learned about Bible study and theology is the idea of letting the Bible itself define which themes are most important. Tom Olbricht was one who especially tuned me into this idea. When I am choosing which topics to emphasize in my teaching ministry, I look to see which things are repeated in the Bible.

That’s one of the flaws I see in much teaching about gender roles, especially when it comes to the Old Testament. Much is made of Deborah and Huldah. Miriam gets some mention, and Esther is referenced at times. These minor characters in the Old Testament story are elevated to principal roles.

These women deserve to be studied alongside characters like Ehud and Nathan, Aaron and Mordecai. Their stories should be known, just as we know Barak and Obadiah. But let’s not exaggerate their importance. Only Miriam is referenced outside of her own story! These women play a definite role in the story of God’s people, but it’s not a leading role.

Reading the Old Testament does not lead us to say, “Wow! God wanted women leading His people right alongside men.” We may bring in ideas from the New Testament that lead us to that idea, but I don’t think the Old Testament itself takes us there.

Edited: 8:50 a.m. to take out some pejorative language. HT to Nick Gill

A Prayer for Friday (October 11, 2019)

Father, Maker, Lord, Sustainer…

Replace my distrust with love,
my worry with joy,
my anxiety with peace,
my criticalness with forbearance,
my selfishness with kindness,
my weakness with goodness,
my sin with faithfulness,
my harshness with gentleness,
my self-indulgence with self-control.

Guide me by Your Spirit, Lord, and remake me in the image of Your Son.

In His Name,

Amen.

Some things Genesis 3 tells us about men and women

From the language of Genesis 3, I see that Adam was tasked with fulfilling a command. God held him personally responsible for that command being followed (3:11). Because of Adam’s disobedience, the earth was cursed (3:17); death came in for a time.

Adam accused Eve of giving him the forbidden fruit; God questions Eve about this act. She then confesses that she has eaten of the fruit as well.

Interestingly, God doesn’t tell Eve that her actions are a consequence of her behavior, as He does with the serpent and with Adam. He pronounces that there will now be suffering in childbirth and rivalry between women and men.

Even though I know it’s unpopular, I also see in Genesis 3 an image of the spheres in which God envisioned men and women carrying out their work. The fact that women are the ones to give birth places them at the heart of the family in a way that men will never be able to imitate. In the same way, men have a responsibility for provision which lies more heavily on their shoulders. I’m not criticizing women who work outside the home nor condemning men who stay home while their wives earn a living; I’m merely observing the way things were in the beginning.

All of this suggests a framework that existed before the fall, that was ruptured by Adam’s sin. What once was a harmonious relationship between men and women becomes a power struggle. That’s exactly what we see in the rest of the book of Genesis and much of the Bible.

Reversing the curse means taking away those contentious interactions. It’s a return to loving leadership on the part of men, recognizing that their wives are the ideal partners in their service to God.