WOMEN'S ROLE IN THE CHURCH #2
by the late
Ministry of Women in the Old Testament
What role should women fill in the church today? To provide
a Biblical answer to this question it is necessary to examine
first of all the religious roles of women in the Bible. Such an
examination is more complex than it might first appear. First,
the Bible covers a broad canvas of time: almost two millennia
separate the nomadic culture of Abraham's time from the urban
culture of Paul's time. Second, both the civil and religious
roles of women seem to be paradoxical: at times women filled
important public civil and religious positions such as judges or
prophetesses, while at other times they functioned primarily
within the home.
This chapter aims to give the reader a brief overview of the
religious roles women have filled during the Old Testament times.
Since women's roles in religious life cannot be divorced from
their roles in social life, some consideration will also be given
to the latter.
MAN AND WOMAN AT CREATION
To appreciate the social and religious roles of women in Old
Testament times, it is important to understand the different
functional roles between men and women. The foundational
information on this subject is found in the opening chapters of
Genesis, which will be examined at length in chapter 3. As it
will be shown, the relationship between man and woman in the
creation story is presented as being one of both equality and
Equality in Being
The account of the creation of man and woman is first given
in Genesis 1:27-28 and then expanded in Genesis 2:18-24. Genesis
1 speaks of the creation of mankind in these words: "So God
created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them" (v. 27). The concern of this
text is not just with the creation of the first human being but
of the whole human race.
The English word "man" is a translation of the Hebrew 'adam
which can be translated equally well as "human being" or
"mankind." In other words Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created
mankind in two sexes, as male and female, and both of them
equally reflect His image. This means that there is an essential
equality in being between men and women. It also means that
sexual differentiations are good because they are part of God's
original purpose for the human race.
Genesis 2 complements the account of chapter 1 by explaining
how God created Eve out of Adam's rib to be "a helper fit for
him" (v. 18). The fact that God created Eve out of Adam's body
("rib") suggests both equality and subordination. The woman is
equal to man because she is made of the same substance of Adam's
body and is taken from his side to be his equal. Yet the woman is
subordinate to man because she is created second and from and for
man. The priority of Adam's formation and the derivation of woman
from man, as we shall see in chapter 6, are seen in Scripture (1
Tim 2:13; 1 Cor 11:8-9) as typifying the headship role God called
man to fulfill in the home and in the church. Woman's
subordination, however, does not imply inferiority but
complementarity. Contrary to the patriarchal system, the woman is
seen in Genesis 2 as the helpmate of man and not as his property.
As Susan T. Foh perceptively points out:
The man and the woman knew each other as equals, both in the
image of God, and thus each with a personal relationship to
God. Neither doubted the worth of the other nor of
him/herself. Each performed his/her task in a different way;
the man as the head and the woman as his helper. They
operated as truly one flesh, one person. In one body does
the rib rebel against or envy the head? 1
The happy relationship of equality in being and
subordination in function which existed in Eden was largely
disrupted as a result of the Fall. The rule of love was replaced
by domination, tyranny, manipu lation and struggle. Some of the
Old Testament legislations, such as the one regulating divorce
(Deut 24:1-4), must be seen as temporary accommodation to the
sinful realities of the time. Yet, in spite of cultural
accommodations, it is still possible to see the outworking of the
original principle of equality and submission in the social and
religious roles of women in Old Testament times. The following
examples will illustrate this point.
WOMEN AND PRIVATE WORSHIP
Members of the Covenant
There is no question that women played a less conspicuous
role than men in the worship of the covenant community of Israel.
Not only could women not receive the sign of the covenant,
circumcision, but also they could not function as leaders of the
household in most cultic acts. This fact has led some like L.
Koehler to conclude that the old covenant discriminated against
women: "It is a covenant with those who are competent to enter
into such a thing; that is to say with men; they represent the
people ... woman has no place in this revelation, therefore she
is a constant danger to the worship of Yahweh." 2
This conclusion is obviously wrong because, as Walther
Eichrodt points out, "The congregation of Yahweh includes the
family ... neither age or sex bestow any special privileges." 3
Women not only shared with men in the blessings and
responsibilities of the covenant, but they were also vital to the
fulfillment of its blessings, which included long life,
prosperity, children and land (Deut 5:29-33). Women shared
equally with men in the blessings of worship by resting on the
Sabbath (Ex 20:10), listening to the reading of the law (Deut
31:9-13) and rejoicing before the Lord.
Headship of Man
Women's lack of circumcision is not seen as excluding them
from the covenant, because they are never despised as
"uncircumcised." In fact, the introduction of circumcision as a
covenant sign in Genesis 17:10-14 is followed immediately by the
special blessing upon Sarah as "a mother of nations" (vv. 15-21).
The reason for women's exclusion from circumcision, aside from
physical differences, could be that the rite was seen as the sign
of the functional headship role which marked out the men as the
ones who would represent their families before God. 4 As Calvin
says, "Although God promised alike to males and females what he
afterwards sanctioned by circumcision, he nevertheless
consecrated, in one sex, the whole people to himself." 5
The same reason may explain why a mother was ceremonially
unclean for seven days after the birth of a son and fourteen days
after the birth of a daughter. "The difference in time," as Susan
T. Foh explains, "may be to mark the difference between the sexes
from birth. In connection with the headship of man, the boy is
received into the covenant community before the girl (as Adam was
created first), and this time difference affects the mother's
ceremonial cleanness." 6 Examples such as these suggest that the
socio-religious role of women in ancient Israel was governed by
the creation principle of equality and subordination discussed
Learning and Keeping the Law
The Israelite woman was equally responsible with the man for
learning and keeping God's law. Moses commanded all the
Israelites to attend the public worship gatherings in which God's
law was taught: "Assemble the people, men, women, and little
ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and
learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the
words of this law" (Deut 31:12).
At the time of Nehemiah when the people gathered to hear the
law, women too were in attendance: "And Ezra the priest brought
the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could
hear with understanding" (Neh 8:2). Women had a natural place in
the worship assembly of God's people which heard His word and was
expected to obey it (Deut 13:6-11; 17:2, 5; 29:18; 2 Chron
The participation of women in the religious life of Israel
extended beyond the hearing and obeying of the law. They were
free to approach God in prayer in just the same way as the men.
Several women such as Hannah, Rebekah, and Sarah, are mentioned
as praying (1 Sam 1:10; Gen 25:22; 30:6, 22; 21:6-7). A
Shunammite woman told her husband to set up a guest room for
Elisha and later on to arrange for a servant to escort her to the
house of the prophet (2 Kings 4:9-10, 20-23). Women such as
Rebekah (Gen 25:22), Hagar (Gen 21:17), Jeroboam's wife (1 Kings
14:1-4), and Hannah (1 Sam 1:9-11) inquired of God independently
of their husbands.
The greatest religious influence of the Hebrew mother was
undoubtedly in the home. Proverbs admonishes children to heed the
instruction of both father and mother: "Hear, my son, your
father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching"
(Prov 1:8). "The home," writes a Jewish scholar, "is the real
temple of woman, the education of her children is her divine
service, and her family is her congregation." 7
It is noteworthy that in the history of the kings of Israel
and Judah the name of each king's mother is mentioned, presumably
to the shame of those mothers who reared evil men and to the
praise of those who instilled principles of righteousness in
their sons who became great kings. It is equally significant that
Scripture gives us the mother's name of such great spiritual
leaders as Moses, Samuel, Jesus, John the Baptist, Timothy,
undoubtedly because these godly women made a significant
contribution to the success of their sons ministry.
A widow could make her vows without any interference (Num
30:9). A married woman, however, came under the authority of her
husband and a betrothed woman of her father. Their vows could be
revoked by their husbands or fathers within 24 hours. Otherwise
the vows would stand. As Susan T. Foh rightly explains,
The authority to nullify vows is an expression of the headship of
the husband and makes sense if we consider how the wife's vows
might affect her husband. He might have to pay for his wife's
extravagance in money or goods or have to suffer from deprivation
of his conjugal rights for a time. It is not women per se who
cannot make their own vows. It is only if their position is under
the God-established authority of husband or father. 8
Noteworthy is the fact that women like men, could take the
Nazirite vows which involved a high degree of devotedness (Num
6:221). Clarence J. Vos points out that because of the cleansing
regulations, "the Nazirite vow ... brought one in some respect to
the level of consecration of a high priest." 9 It is very
significant therefore that both men and women were equally
eligible to take this vow.
WOMEN AND PUBLIC WORSHIP
Festivals and sacrifices. Women participated not only in
individual and family worship but also in several forms of public
worship. The Mosaic law expected women to be present at the great
festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Deut 12:7;
16:1114; 1 Sam 1 :lf.). Their attendance, however, was not
obligatory, presumably because of their responsibilities at home.
The majority of sacrifices were brought by men as
representative of their household, but there are indications that
women also in certain instances were expected to act
independently in bringing their own sacrifices (Lev 12:6; 15:29).
Manoah and his wife are described as participating together in
offering a sacrifice to the angel of the Lord (Judges 13:15-20).
Hannah, in spite of the presence of her husband, Elkanah, plays a
major role in bringing a sacrifice to the house of the Lord at
Shiloh, in presenting the child to Eli, and in praying a psalm of
praise (1 Sam 1:24-27; 2:1-10).
In his book Woman in Old Testament Worship, Clarence J. Vos
offers this insightful comment regarding the story of Hannah:
It is evident that Hannah was at the sanctuary and near
enough to the priest to have her seemingly unusual conduct
be observed by him. There is therefore, no hint that women
were supposed to be kept at a distance from the sanctuary.
Finally we should note that after Eli has rebuked her it
does not seem improper that she, a woman, defend herself;
and her defence is immediately accepted. In all this we
receive the impression that Hannah, the woman, moved as one
who enjoys a large margin of cultic freedom and respect. 11
Ministry at the Sanctuary
Women contributed to the sanctuary in two ways: through
their gifts and their services. They brought their gifts for the
building of the tabernacle, not through their fathers or
husbands, but individually and personally (Ex 35:22). Special
mention is made of the things women made with their hands (Ex
35:25-26) and of the laver of bronze which was made "from the
mirrors of the ministering women who ministered at the door of
the tent of meeting" (Ex 38:8).
Reference to "the women who served at the entrance to the
tent of meeting" is also found in 1 Samuel 2:22. There is
scholarly debate regarding the nature of the service rendered by
these women at the entrance of the tabernacle. 12 Whatever the
nature of their service these women did have a recognized
function at the tabernacle.
We have also several examples of women participating in the
worship of the temple by singing. Ezra speaks of "two hundred
male and female singers" (Ezra 2:65; 1 Chron 25:5-6; 2 Chron
35:25). The Psalmist suggests that women played a vital role in
the choir of the tabernacle: "Thy solemn processions are seen, O
God, the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary--the
singers in front, the minstrels last, between them maidens
playing timbrels" (Ps 68:24-25).
Women also rendered a significant service in national
religious songs and dances. Exodus reports that "Miriam, the
prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and
all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing" (Ex
Women in Office
The fact that the Old Testament assigns to women a
subordinate role in the religious and social life--in accordance
with the functional subordination established by God at
creation,--did not prevent some women from serving as prophetess
(2 Kings 22:14; Neh 6:14), judge (Judges 4:4), and even queen
(though a wicked usurper, 2 Kings 11:3).
The case of Deborah stands out because, though a woman, she
functioned as both a judge and prophet in Israel. The book of
Judges introduces her in an impressive way:
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was
judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm
of Deborah ... and the people of Israel came up to her for
judgement. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam
... and said to him, "The Lord, the God of Israel, commands
you, 'Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor...." (Judges
There is no indication in this story that the people of
Israel or the commander of the army, Barak, resented the
spiritual and civil leadership of Deborah because she was a
woman. The Old Testament does not exclude women from leadership
positions in general but only from the role of priests. The
reason for this exclusion, as it will be shown later, was not
cultural but theological.
A Woman Prophet
The story of Huldah, the prophetess, exemplifies even more
explicitly the important ministry that women fulfilled within the
religious life of ancient Israel. Desiring to know the fate of
his nation, King Josiah sent the high priest and several of his
notables to the prophetess Huldah to "inquire of the Lord for me,
and for the people and for all Judah" concerning the newly found
book of the law (2 Kings 22:13-14). The fact that King Josiah
sent these men, not to Jeremiah or Zephaniah who were
contemporary prophets, but to the prophetess Huldah, strongly
indicates that in Old Testament times there was little if any
prejudice against the spiritual leadership and ministry of women.
The very existence of female prophets points to the considerable
religious influence women could legitimately exercise. This is
also corroborated by the fact that Joel predicted a future
widespread manifestation of the gift of prophecy among both men
and women (Joel 2:28-29).
In view of the important religious leadership roles women
like Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, exercised in the Israelite society,
it is important to ask: "Why women were excluded from the
priesthood?" Two major reasons are generally given and both of
them are incorrect.
The first reason is the alleged frequent ritual impurity of
women. Elisabeth M. Tetlow clearly states: "A major reason why
women were excluded from the priesthood and from full
participation in the temple cult was their frequent ritual
This reason lacks both Biblical and practical support.
Biblically there is absolutely no suggestion that women were
excluded from the priesthood because of their monthly menstrual
flow which rendered them ceremonially unclean for seven days (Lev
15:19-24). The truth of the matter is that men were also
frequently ritually unclean. In fact every time a man had a
discharge of semen during sexual intercourse, he was unclean
until the evening (Lev 15:1-12). This would obviously happen not
just once a month, as in the case of the woman's menstrual cycle.
Margaret Howe, a leading feminist and a British scholar,
acknowledges the validity of this observation:
The emission of semen by the male was also a defilement and
disqualified him from officiating in the holy place. As a
result, it became customary for priests to abstain from
sexual intercourse for the duration of their priestly
service. However, it was recognized that an emission of
semen could take places at times other than copulation, and
this was equally a defilement (Lev 15:16-18). Indeed, the
male emission of semen can occur with more frequency and
less predictability than the menstrual flow in a woman. As
priestly service was, in any case, intermittent, it is not
clear why menstruation in itself would disqualify a woman
from priesthood. 14
It is noteworthy that "an unnatural discharge from male
organs made the man unclean for seven days after the discharge
had ceased (Lev 15:1-15)." 15 A man was unclean for seven days
also when he had sexual intercourse with a woman during her
menstrual period (Lev 15:24). If all these frequent ritual
uncleanness did not disqualify men from serving as priests why
should it disqualify women? Could not women serve at the temple
like men on a rotating basis (1 Chron 24; Luke 1:5, 9), according
to their ritual status?
Practically, the argument is discredited by the fact that
women did serve in a limited role at the tabernacle. If ritual
impurity were the factor for the exclusion of women from the
priesthood, why then were they not excluded also from ministering
at the entrance of the tabernacle (Ex 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22)?
Considerations such as these indicate that the argument about
ritual impurity is a fabrication of those who are bent on
believing that the Old Testament is sexist and biased against
Danger of Sacred Prostitution
The second major reason given for the exclusion of women
from the Old Testament priesthood, is the need that existed "to
avoid the dangers of the fertility cults and sacred
prostitution." 16 It is argued that "the sacred prostitution of
old Canaanite cults was still too vivid a memory for the
intervention of a woman in the celebration of sacred rites not to
appear immediately ambiguous and suspect." 17 This argument
falls short on at least two counts.
First, the fact that some of the pagan priestesses served as
prostitutes cannot be a valid reason for God to exclude Israelite
women to function as exemplary priestesses at the sanctuary. A
legitimate practice cannot be prohibited because of its
perversion. The sons of Eli "lay with the women who served at the
entrance to the tent of meeting" (1 Sam 2:22). There is no
indication, however, that these prostitutional acts resulted in
the abolition of the priesthood in general or of the ministry of
women at the entrance of the sanctuary in particular. If the
argument were valid, then not even men should have functioned as
priests because of the danger of male prostitution which the
Bible views as more abominable than female prostitution, by
calling the male cult prostitutes "dogs" (Deut 23:18; Rev 22:15).
Second, there are indications that many, if not most, of the
pagan priestesses in the ancient world, lived celibate and
devoted lives. Some of the Babylonian priestesses lived in
cloisters. 18 The women priest who officiated, for example at
the temples of Vesta, Apollo, Athena, Polias, Dionysius, as well
as in the various mystery religions, were in most cases either
celibate or very continent in their lifestyles. 19
In the light of the foregoing considerations we conclude
that the reason for the exclusion of women from the priesthood
was not because of their frequent ritual impurity or the danger
of sacred prostitution. Rather, the true reason is to be found in
the unique Biblical view of the role the priest fulfilled as
representative of the people to God.
The Representative Role of the Priest
The priesthood developed through several stages in the Old
Testament. During patriarchal times the head of the household or
of the tribe fulfilled the priestly function of representing his
household to God. Thus Noah (Gen 8:20), Abraham (Gen 22:13),
Jacob (Gen 35:3), and Job (Job 1:5) each served as representative
priest of his family.
With the establishment of the theocracy at Sinai and the
erection of the tabernacle, God appointed the tribe of Levi to
serve as priests in place of the first-born or head of each
family (Num 3:6-13). While God called all the people of Israel,
male and female, to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"
(Ex 19:5-6; cf. Is 61:6), as a result of the Sinai's apostasy the
Levites were chosen to serve as representative for the whole
nation, because of their allegiance to God (Ex 32:26-29). When
the priests ministered they acted as the representatives of the
It was because of this representative role which the priest
fulfilled as the head of the household of Israel, that women were
excluded from the priesthood. A woman could minister as prophet
because a prophet was primarily a communicator of God's will, but
she could not function as a priest because a priest was appointed
to act as the representative of the people to God and of God to
the people. As James B. Hurley rightly observes, "The Mosaic
provision [for an exclusively male priesthood] stands in a
historical continuum and continues the practice of having
representative males serve to officiate in public worship
"The fact that most pagan religions of the time did have
priestesses, as well as priests," notes John Meyendorff, "shows
that a male priesthood was the sign of a specifically biblical,
i.e. Jewish and Christian identity." 21 This unique,
counter-cultural Jewish and Christian identity stems not from the
religious genius of Judaism or Christianity but from divine
revelation which established a functional headship role which man
is to fulfill in the home and in the household of faith.
Our survey of the religious roles of women in the Old
Testament shows that women played a most vital role both in the
private and public religious life of ancient Israel. As full
members of the covenant community, women participated in the
study and teaching of the law to their children, in offering
prayers and vows to God, in ministering at the entrance of the
sanctuary, in singing and in the prophetic ministry of
exhortation and guidance.
The religious roles of women, however, were different from
those of men, in accordance with the principle of equality of
being and subordination in function which is implicit in the
creation story. The principle of appointive male leadership in
the home and in public worship was threatened then as it is
today, and would have been easily lost had it not been for many
of the Old Testament laws which were designed to distinguish
between the roles that God has called men and women to fulfill in
the socio-religious life. Clarence J. Vos, though himself an
Evangelical feminist, reaches essentially the same conclusion:
Although it is clear from the Old Testament that woman takes a
different role in Israel's worship than man, there is no evidence
to consider her an inferior creature. As a member of the
religious community we can view her as taking an equal place
among the people of God. It was not her task to lead the family
or tribe in worship; normally this was done by the patriarch or
the eldest male member. That a male was appointed to this
function no doubt rested on the idea that the male was considered
the "first-born" of the human family--a motif discernable in the
creation story of Genesis 2. 22
The implications of our conclusion regarding the ministry of
women in the Old Testament for the ministry of women today will
be discussed after our examination of the witness of the New
Testament. At this point it suffices to note that the religious
roles of women in the Old Testament were different and yet
complementary to that of men, in accordance with the Biblical
principle of equality in being and subordination in function.
NOTES ON CHAPTER I
1. Susan T. Foh, Women and the Word of God (Phillipsburg, New
Jersey, 1979), p.62.
2. L. Koehler, Old Testament Theology (Lutterworth, London,
3. Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (SCM, London,
4. For a discussion of circumcision as a sign of the functional
role of men, see Clarence J. Vos, Woman in Old Testament Worship
(Delft, England, 1968), pp.51-59.
5. John Calvin, Corpus Reformatorum LI, p.453.
6. Susan T. Foh (n.1), p.81.
7. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 1948 ed., s.v. "Woman," by
Hirschel Revel, vol. 10, p.565.
8. Susan T. Foh (n. 1), p.73.
9. Clarence J. Vos (n. 4), p.201.
10. See J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand
Rapids, Michigan, 1962), p.229.
11. Clarence J. Vos (n. 4), pp.153-154.
12. See Ismar J. Peritz, "Women in the Ancient Hebrew Cult,"
Journal of Biblical Literature 17 (1898):145.
13. Elisabeth Meier Tetlow, Women and Ministry in the New
Testament: Called to Serve (Lanham, Maryland, 1980), p.22. In a
similar vein Roger Gryson writes: "Since she was subject to
multiple legal impurities, it was inconceivable that she would
have access to a the priesthood or that she would be part of the
personnel attached to the sanctuary" (The Ministry of Women in
the Early Church [Collegeville, Minnesota, 1976], p. 1); also
Clarence J. Vos (n. 4), p.193.
14. E. Margaret Howe, Women and Church Leadership (Grand Rapids,
Michigan, 1982), p.100.
15. L.E.Toombs, "Clean and Unclean," The Interpreter's Dictionary
of the Bible (Nashville, 1962), vol. 1, p.644.
16. Mary J. Evans, Women in the Bible (Downers Grove, Illinois,
17. Roger Gryson (n. 13), p.1.
18. G.R.Driver and J. C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws (Oxford,
19. For documentation and discussion, see Elisabeth Meier Tetlow
(n. 13), pp.7-20.
20. James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand
Rapids, Michigan, 1981), p.52.
21. John Meyendorff, "The Orthodox Churches," in The Ordination
of Women: Pro and Con, ed. Michael P. Hamilton and Nancy S.
Montgomery (New York, 1975), p.130.
22. Clarence J. Vos (n. 4), p. 207.
To be continued