What does the Old Testament after Genesis tell us about relationships?
After Adam and Eve leave the garden, scripture focuses on genealogy. But from the start we see the practice of patriarchy. Is this proof of an implicit approval by God? Not at all. In those same scriptures we see murder, betrayal, theft, rape, disfigurement, and many other evils, yet no one claims that their mere appearance in scripture constitutes divine approval. And there are some instances where the evil was simply reported and not explicitly condemned, which undermines any attempt to argue that if God does not condemn something He must therefore approve it. Such would be an example of the fallacy of argument from silence.
We also see, in general, a practice known as primogeniture. This is a social tradition that gives the firstborn son a double portion of the inheritance. Yet we have more than the lack of explicit approval by God to label this practice as, at best, not His intention: whenever God did step in to human history, He tended to choose the young over the old, the least over the greatest, and the weak over the strong, as mentioned in the chapter on Genesis. It was Abel and not his older brother Cain who had God's blessing; it was Isaac and not his older brother Ishmael who was the child of promise; it was Jacob and not his older brother Esau who inherited Isaac's estate and the blessing of the firstborn; it was Joseph and not his older brothers who was chosen to rule over his family and save his people from starvation (as well as his life being an amazing type of Christ); it was David who was chosen over all his seven older brothers to be king of Israel and through whose line the Messiah would come. And of course it was the insignificant town of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. Even the choice of Israel over much larger and nobler nations was deliberate.1
And what was God's purpose in doing this? To glorify Himself and make it plain that people could not take any of the credit belonging to God. As He told the prophet Samuel when he went to the house of Jesse to anoint the next king of Israel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."2 Outward appearance necessarily includes sex, skin color, height, strength, birth order, tradition, social standing, and anything else that is external and visible. So God has said both explicitly and by example that none of those things are the criteria by which He judges people or chooses them for His service.
At this point we should also note that even though God had promised the Savior back in the garden of Eden, He did not plan to either end human history immediately nor dump out His entire plan all at once. As stated in Heb. 1:1, God revealed His will progressively, a little at a time. He did not choose to keep us all from making mistakes or doing harm to ourselves along the way. This can be illustrated by an old story about people pulling a heavy cart up a hill (ref. unknown). After pulling for some distance they would need to stop and rest, so they would put a block behind one of the wheels. The purpose of the block was not to pull the cart but stop it from going backwards down the hill. In the same way, God has not constantly micromanaged the human race but would allow us to go for a while and then intervene with a "block" of sorts to keep us from losing ground. Such "blocks" took the form of things we will study such as the institution of government, establishing Israel, giving the Law, sending the Messiah, and setting up the ekklesia.
So when God intervenes with a stop-gap measure, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that such a thing was His ideal from the beginning. He shows throughout the OT His tolerance for imperfection and willingness to make concessions for a greater ultimate goal. A good example is when the Pharisees asked Jesus why Moses had permitted divorce, and Jesus' response was that it was a concession to people's hard hearts.3 It would have been far more cruel to force people to stay married if one or both had already divorced them mentally or spiritually. Obviously God would have preferred that people be kind and loving to each other, and treat each other as the "one flesh" He had intended. Another example is that of slavery laws for Israel. God did not do away with slavery but instead gave laws on how slaves were to be treated. Unless one wishes to defend the institution of slavery on this basis, it is easy for us to see that such laws by God are in no way a divine sanction but merely an act of tolerance or concession. Yet as we will see in our study of the NT, this principle will be ignored when the topic changes from slavery to women.
There are some notable examples of God's circumvention of human plans, ones which what we could call "the control spirit" tries to twist and cover up in an effort to oppress women. Note that these are all OT references:
- Miriam, older sister of Moses, prophesied as any male in the OT and was recognized as such by God4
- Deborah was a prophet, a judge, and a military commander of Israel;5 there is no fine print or disclaimer saying God only chose her as a last resort or punishment
- Huldah said "This is what the LORD says" as any male prophet,6 and during a time when a more famous male prophet (Jeremiah) was active
And of course it follows that if God allowed this in the OT, and if He is less legalistic in the NT, then to silence such women in the ekklesia would be a giant step backwards. This becomes a problem for those who want to bar Christian women from leadership over men while still acknowledging that they are better off now than ever before.
Aside from women who led and prophesied in the OT, we also have examples of wives that were hardly the model of blind subservience to their husbands, and both married and single women who showed every bit of the courage allegedly only possessed by men. Abraham was told by God to listen to his wife Sarah regarding the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael;7 Abigail, described as not only beautiful but also intelligent and wise, acted without her husband's knowledge or approval to appease King David and avert the disaster her "foolish" husband Nabal was about to bring upon them;8 Ruth, a Moabite, boldly approached Boaz and told him of his obligation as a kinsman-redeemer;9 Esther took her life in her hands to approach King Xerxes to save her people, and she gave instructions to her uncle as well.10 And who can forget the ideal woman as portrayed in Proverbs 31? She is a business owner, a land assessor, a manager, a craftsperson, known for her wisdom and hard work, and all while being a wife and mother. All these women are commended for their fortitude and wisdom, their boldness and character. None of them are in any way reprimanded for their actions. Can Christian women be less free, less wise, less independent, less capable? Many today would have us believe that lie.
As for the institution of government being sanctioned by God, that did not formally occur until after Noah stepped off the Ark after the Flood.11 Of course people gradually formed more complicated methods of governance, but God drew the line at the Tower of Babel.12 While little detail is given as to what was wrong with this plan to keep people from scattering over the earth, we do know that it displeased God. Other possible factors such as corruption, slave labor, and false religion would have to be proposed from extra-Biblical sources. But the purpose of government is to restrain evil, a stop-gap measure meant to keep people at a minimal level of civilization. It is not meant by God as a system of slavery for all people regardless of character. As explained later by Paul in 1 Tim. 1:9, "the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful…".
It is only when God establishes the nation of Israel after the exodus from Egypt that He gives any degree of detail on how government should run. And these instructions were only given to His chosen people Israel. Of course there would be overlap with existing governments, but again this is not so much a divine stamp of approval on them as it is a concession to human frailty and sin. It amounts to a way of containing sin to keep it from impinging on the lives of the righteous, per 1 Tim. 1:9 above. And many have written about the fact that these particular laws were ahead of their time in terms of health and safety.
God's original plan was that Israel would be a theocracy, with God as King. But again we see His concession, with warnings, to their demand for a king in 1 Sam. 8:7. Already in ancient Israel there was the mindset of control, of craving the way of the world. They were the nation that saw God rain down plagues upon Egypt; they saw God part the Red Sea; they were miraculously able to defeat much larger and stronger nations on their way to the Promised Land. But, like us, they preferred to be enslaved by humans just like them. Truly this control spirit is a powerful one. We must not underestimate it or become lax in opposing it.
But I must take a moment here to expose a very bad translation in the OT which has been used to infer that if a woman leads a nation, it is a sign of God's anger. Most Bibles render Isaiah 3:12 as follows:
Youths oppress my people, women rule over them. My people, your guides lead you astray; they turn you from the path.
The intentional error of this rendering was exposed long ago by scholar Dr. Katharine Bushnell, but her work has largely been ignored. Here is her examination of the issue:
621. I think we find another case of prejudiced translation in Isaiah 3:12. The word translated "children" in this verse in Isaiah, is a plural masculine participle of the verb "to glean," "abuse," "practice." It is translated "glean" in Leviticus 19:10, Deuteronomy 24:21, Judges 20:45, and Jeremiah 6:9. The word has no translation such as "children" anywhere else in the Bible, and it occurs 21 times. Another word altogether is used for "children," and "child," in verses 4 and 5 of this same chapter; the sense seems to have been fixed by the supposed context, to correspond with "women."
As to the word translated "women": Two words, without the rabbinical vowel "points," are exactly alike. One is pronounced nosh-im and the other na-shim. In appearance the only difference is a slight mark under the first letter of the Hebrew word na-shim. The first word means "exactors;" the one with a vowel mark under the initial letter means "women." The entire decision, therefore, as to whether the word means one or the other depends upon OPTION. Those who pointed the word, evidently thought the nation could sink no lower than to pass under women rulers, and then translated the word "children" to match it. Commentators frequently call attention to the alternate reading. See Adam Clarke on the passage. The Septuagint translates: "As for my people, tax-gatherers (praktores) glean them, and exactors (apaitountes) rule over them."
622. There seems little in the context to support the translation "children" and "women." But study the context as regards the other reading. After complaining of the "gleaners," (that is, "tax-gatherers") and "extortioners," they are threatened in the following language: "The Lord standeth up to plead and standeth up to judge the people. The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders of His people, and the princes ('rulers,' masculine, not feminine gender), thereof for ye have eaten up the vineyard (the conduct of extortionate tax-gatherers), and the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What mean ye that ye crush (R. V.) my people, and grind the faces of the poor?" Because of this context, we believe that OPTION took the wrong turn when it decided to translate this verse as it stands in our English version; and that this translation would have had a strong showing up of its sophistries, had educated women been on the last Revision Committee.13 (emphasis mine)
Gone in a few paragraphs is the sole proof-text for the alleged divine wrath expressed in having women in national government's top positions.
The most important principle I hope to have established in this chapter is that God is not interested in micromanagement or enslavement, but guidance and compassion. In spite of the efforts of human society and sin to thwart this principle, God works through and around them in order to make ultimate good come from our weaknesses. He does not throw lightening bolts at even the most brazen rebels, nor trample the most weak and vulnerable. He intervenes just enough and at just the right times to keep the cart from rolling back down the hill, so to speak.
The control spirit, in stark contrast, always tries to control and restrict for the sake of sheer power and greed. It sees everything in terms of hierarchy and cannot fathom equality or mutual kindness. It knows nothing of compassion or patience, of justice or mercy. It has an insatiable appetite to command and conquer and cannot just let people be. But while God will tolerate some things for a time, He will not let this spirit run rampant forever. It still serves some purpose and so will continue until God says to it as He did to the builders of the Tower of Babel, "Enough!" But as we've seen in the examples above, this is no reason not to oppose the control spirit at every possible turn. It may well be that we, like Esther, have come to where we are for the very purpose of throwing off this evil spirit and proclaiming the freedom we have in Christ.