Gender Equality in the Old Testament

Derek Ouellette —  March 11, 2013

It is easy to see the Old Testament as “a man’s book” if you will. Whether one comes at the text from one side, emphasizing the obvious masculine nature of the text, or the other side, clinging to a few explicit stories involving women. Or some have gone further by undervaluing or even writing off the Old Testament as an outdated and sexist script best left in the archives. But beneath the surface may be strong traces of a thematically female orientated text, overlooked perhaps, by all sides.

In Women and Men: Gender in the Church, Wilma Ann Bailey contributes a chapter titled “Gender in the Old Testament.” It’s a highly resourceful and rather dense piece useful for someone who wants to dive deep into this subject.

There are several observations she makes about the Old Testament I’d like to highlight.


Some will find this claim stunning and hard to swallow. Yes, we all know that the text as we have it is patriarchal. It was written mostly by men and mostly to a male audience. But Bailey suggests that there are residual clues pointing to the possibility that the ancient Near East may have been originally matriarchal and matrilineal (the family line was originally traced through women). As evidence for this she cites the following examples:

  • In Genesis 2:24 man is instructed to leave his family and cleave to his wife. But throughout the narrative the patter shifts so that it is women leaving their families and cleaving to their husbands.
  • Rebekah runs to inform her “mother’s house” Genesis 24.28, not her “father’s house”.
  • Ruth does the same thing in Ruth 1:8
  • Leah and Rachel name their children – whereas later that is a job for men.

Bailey cites a scholar named Andre LeCocque whose more exhaustive study suggestions that

“The ancient Near East was matriarchal prior to an Indo-European invasion of about 2500 B.C., bringing patriarchal structures to social organizations.” (p.15)


She goes on to make a case for the general equality of the sexes right in the text. First, yes the text was written by men and assumed a male audience. But this is suggested to be because – especially in the Torah, the Law – men were more likely to hold to public activities. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we read “you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” in Exodus 20:17. But the assumption in the text would have been that women too should not covet their neighbours husband either.

But there are times when the text is gender inclusive such as Exodus 21:28 “when an ox gores a man or a woman…”

The law gets somewhat confusing in defining what’s right or wrong among the genders. She points out that often a crime and a punishment are equal, but a definition of the crime may not be. If a man and a woman commit adultery, they both equally committed a crime and both equally face death. But for different reasons. A woman was expected to be with only one man – her husband. But the man could be with many women, unless one of them was already married (which brings up the interesting case of why polygamy was permissible among God’s people in the Torah).

Related to the above – which leans in favour of the man – is the case of two couples who have sex when the woman is engaged. If it happens in a town or city, they are both guilty and killed, but for different reasons. The man violated his neighbour’s wife and the woman did not cry out for help. The assumption is that if the woman was raped she would have screamed and someone would have witnessed the act. Because she did not scream it is assumed that she ceded to the act and is therefore just as guilty as the man. The man, no matter what, is guilty.

But then take this same scenario and change its geographic location. Place the two out in the wilderness. If the women claims she was raped, the law sides with her, takes her at her word and the man gets stoned without a trial.

“The man is to be executed solely on the word of the woman! The assumption is that if a woman says she was raped, she most likely was, and she is to be believed.” (p.17)

Here is a case where the law sides with the woman.


Bailey goes on to point out that in the Old Testament women appear as: wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. Midwives, prophets, worship leaders, civic leaders, warriors, businesswomen, and possible co-regents. Nobody is denying the horrendous acts said to have happened to some women in the Old Testament. But there are also tales of women using their sexuality to entrap and manipulate (or worse) men.

One theme of interest that she points out is that women are often depicted as protectors of men.

“The woman as the protector of men is a biblical theme that has been little explored.” (p.18)

She cites numerous examples including Rahab, Rebekah, Sarah, Jael, Michal, the women of Abel-Beth-Maacah and so on.


There’s much more to the chapter than what I just pointed to. Some of it is interesting and worth exploring, some make me uncomfortable like when she explores the gender-neutrality of God, and some are text-book egalitarian arguments that I think presume too much. The example I have in mind is when she talks about the intrinsic equality of the sexes at creation, points to Genesis 3 to show that male dominance is a result of the fall, and then quips

“It is ironic that the Christian community has chosen to use as its model the perverted relationship between the sexes found in Genesis 3 rather than the ideal relationship based on equality.” (p.15)

That sounds really good, but it’s not quite accurate. The Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics and a good deal of Protestants cite Paul in places where Paul reaches for Genesis 1 – not Genesis 3 – as the ideal. They would argue that Paul sees God as setting “intrinsic” equality among the sexes in creation, but that Paul sees man as God’s first human creation as a pattern for relational-government.

In other words, egalitarians and complementarians (to use two words I don’t have much appreciation for) both stake their claim in pre-fall creation, at which point it becomes a matter of interpretation. The first group either sees no significance in the order of creation or makes a great deal of significance out of it by suggesting that woman is the final – and thus the ultimate or climax – of God’s creation, above man. The second group takes their cue from Paul who sees the order as significant in that man was created first, and is therefore first among equals. The former group sees Genesis 3 as man taking control, the latter group sees Genesis 3 as the starting of a power-struggle of the sexes.

Who’s right and who’s wrong? Well that’s what everybody has been fighting over for decades. My only point here is that the familiar way that Bailey colours the people she disagrees with is misleading.


That said, overall the chapter is very interesting and worthy of a good read and perhaps a re-read. It’s a good foundation chapter that may help people get some clarity on the subject of gender related discussions in the church.

“To summarize, females and males both share the divine image and are created fully equal. Moreover, the role of women in the Old Testament is more nuanced than one would expect from what most of us heard in the teaching and preaching of the church in times past. Women did occupy leadership positions, though to a lesser extent than men and perhaps to a greater extent than a quick perusal of the text might indicate.” (p.20)

I agree with that paragraph 100%.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • global

    That is an interesting one.

    Equality will always have many angles to it, but in the final analysis I don’t see that equality anywhere either among humans or even among animals exists. Not a single unit was created for equality, as if headship can inter change any time. And if this is so, we better talk of relatives of equality. Humans are only exercising their right to think and explore and re-create things – a very good thing. But real equality?, forget.

    I am also beginning to see that the bible is disproportionately the work of man compared to the work of God, except if we say that God changes, which creates huge challenges.

    In my view we should concentrate on Love. Where we love, covenantly, something close to equality, is approached, but even then, the leader is the leader. Economic and other social categorizations will only tend to suggest that change is possible, but it will be for only a minority that are favored by those one-off events.

    So, when we read for anything, including equality in OT or any where , we find it; but just because we read for it, and nothing else, which is not the way to read and interpret scripture. Scripture, correctly read, must say the same thing to all, ALWAYS!