Women in the Bible

In the Bible, women are sometimes portrayed as men's equals and other times, as men's subordinates--or property.

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Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

The Hebrew Bible is a composite document containing a variety of types of literature, reflecting the attitudes and concerns of numerous authors writing in very different times and places. 

An Early Example of Divergent Viewsgender quiz

An example of such significant diversity as it applies to women is evident in the two creation stories placed at the beginning of Genesis. While the first account of the origin of human beings (Genesis 1:1‑2:3) recounts that both male and female were created simultaneously, in the divine image, and equally charged to multiply and to dominate the earth and their fellow creatures, the second narrative (Genesis 2:4ff.) preserves a tradition of male priority. Here, woman is a subsequent and secondary creation, formed from man's body to fulfill male needs for companionship and progeny.

Such divergent understandings of female status and capacities, and the contradictions they engender, appear throughout the biblical literature.

Controlling Women's Sexuality

Recent scholars have utilized a number of strategies to contextualize the diverse portrayals of women in biblical texts.

Studying women's status in biblical law, Tikva Frymer‑Kensky writes that biblical legislation, like ancient Near Eastern social policy in general, assumes a woman's subordination to the dominant male in her life, whether father or husband. This man controls her sexuality, including the right to challenge with impunity both her virginity and her marital faithfulness (Deuteronomy 11:28‑29; Numbers 5:11‑31).

Indeed, legislative concerns about women's sexual activity primarily have to do with relations between men. A man is executed for having intercourse with another's wife (Leviticus 20:10), because he has committed a crime of theft against a man; but a man who seduces or rapes a virgin pays a brideprice to her father and marries her (Deuteronomy 22:28). This is not a crime in the same sense at all, not because of a dissimilarity in what the man did but because of the difference in who "owned" the right to the women's sexuality.

Property Rights and Purity

Not surprisingly, in a patriarchal culture in which women function primarily as daughters, wives, and mothers of particular men, women have virtually no property rights. Unmarried women inherit from their fathers only if they have no brothers; and, in such cases, they must subsequently marry within their father's clan to prevent the dispersal of tribal property among outsiders (Numbers 36:2‑12). [This was the case with the daughters of Zelophehad, who successfully petitioned Moses and God for their father's inheritance.]  

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Judith Baskin

Judith Baskin is the Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.

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