From The Skeptical Review, 1995:
by Farrell Till
by Farrell Till
When I was an active Christian minister and missionary, I noticed that women were generally more zealous church workers than men. As I learned more and more about the Bible, I began to wonder why. In my younger days, I had often heard preachers cite the elevated status of women as one of the wonderful achievements of the Judeo-Christian religions, but this was not what I was seeing in my own private Bible studies. I was finding instead a shockingly disdainful attitude toward women in a book that had been presumably written by divinely inspired men.
Time would fail me if I tried to cite every biblical example of contemptuous attitudes toward women, so I will have to limit myself to just a few. King David's affair with Bathsheba while her husband Uriah was away on military duty produced an embarrassing pregnancy. David first tried to conceal his indiscretion by bringing Uriah home on furlough apparently so that he would sleep with Bathsheba and later think that the child was his. When Uriah's loyalty to his unit proved so strong that he refused to indulge in the pleasures of a conjugal visit, David sent him back to the front with a letter ordering the commander of his unit to put Uriah in "the forefront of the hottest battle" and then withdraw so that he would be killed. The order was executed, and when word of Uriah's death reached David, he took Bathsheba and added her to his harem ( 2 Samuel 11).
If there is such a thing as contemptuous conduct, then David's actions in this matter certainly qualify. One would think that if this deed called for divine wrath, David would have been the rightful target of it. But the Bible tells us that God chose to punish David only by inflicting pain and death on the members of his family, beginning with his wives. Nathan the prophet, sent to reprimand David for his sin, delivered this message from God: "I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbor, and he will lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun" (2 Samuel 12:11). One could imagine that this would not have been a pleasant thing for David to witness and would have in that sense constituted "punishment," but we must look past that to the fact of what God was threatening to do. David had sinned grievously, but God was going to punish him by having some unnamed "neighbor" rape his wives "before all Israel and before the sun" (v 12). According to the story, David repented and so his wives were spared the indignity of public rape, but that is beside the point. The fact that David's god would even threaten such a thing raises serious doubts about the Bible's claim to be the verbally inspired word of an omnibeneficent deity. Certainly, this story in no way reflects the "elevated status" that preachers say the Bible has brought to women. If it does, I have to admit that I can't see it.
Women today often complain that our society has relegated them to second-class citizenship. I agree and would even say that perhaps third-class citizenship would more accurately describe the condition of women in modern America. Why then do they, as a group, have such high respect for the Bible? Modern news coverage has made us aware of the shocking treatment accorded women in the Mideastern Islamic societies that now occupy what was once the ancient biblical lands, but this attitude toward women was frequently reflected in the Bible and is merely a social custom that has survived biblical times. Women in western societies fare somewhat better, but they do so despite the influence of the Bible on our culture, not because of it, for if our laws were based on strict adherence to biblical precepts to the degree that Moslem nations base their laws on Koranic precepts, women in our society would fare no better than their Islamic sisters.
Just consider these examples of biblical attitudes toward women. A woman was considered impure for seven days during her menstrual period, and anything she touched was also considered unclean (Lev. 15:19-24). After a woman had given birth, she was considered impure for 40 days if her child was male, and 80 days if her child was female (Lev. 12:1-5). The fact that her period of uncleanness was twice as long for giving birth to a female hardly suggests an "elevated" opinion of women in the biblical society of "God's chosen people." If a woman was taken captive in battle, any Israelite male who found her appealing was entitled to take her to be his "wife" (Dt. 21:10-14), but nothing was said in this passage about securing the woman's consent. If a jealous husband suspected his wife of adultery, he had the right to make her submit to a trial by ordeal to prove her innocence. The ceremony was too elaborate to summarize here, but part of it required her to drink a concoction called the "water of bitterness" that was derived by mixing holy water with dirt swept up from the tabernacle (temple) floor. If her body did not swell and her thighs rot after the water of bitterness had entered the woman's bowels, she was declared innocent. In this event, however, the accusing husband was declared "free from iniquity." This trial by ordeal is described in Numbers 5:11-31 and should be read by all who believe that the Bible has accorded women an elevated status. One wonders how many wrongly accused wives among "God's chosen people" suffered great pain and even death from having had to submit to this trial by ordeal. I must also note before leaving this point that the Bible required no comparable trial for husbands suspected of adultery.
The attitude toward women reflected in this trial by ordeal pervaded Israelite culture. The prophet Zechariah, looking for a symbol of wickedness in one of his prophecies, selected a woman to be that symbol (Zech. 5:5-8). In the book of Ecclesiastes, the celebrated wisdom of Solomon expressed this exalted opinion of women: "This is what I have found, reasoning things out one by one, after searching long without success: I have found one man in a thousand worthy to be called upright, but I have not found one woman among them all" (7:27-28). We could hardly expect a better opinion than this from a man who had no more respect for women than to take 1,000 of them to be his wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:3), but one would expect an omniscient, omnibeneficent God to have this man indicate a slightly better attitude toward women at least while he was being divinely inspired to record God's eternal truth. Since he didn't, are we to assume that God's eternal truth is that women are to be considered evil?
The New Testament era brought no improvement in "divine" opinion of women. Needing a symbol of apostate evil, the Holy Spirit presumably inspired the writer of Revelation to make that symbol a "whore" (17:1-5). The Apostle Paul, perhaps the most chauvinistic of all New Testament writers, ordered women to "keep silence in the churches" and to "ask their own husbands at home" if they wanted to know anything, "for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church" (1 Cor. 14:34-35). He said to the young preacher Timothy, "I permit not a woman to teach... but to be in quietness" (1 Tim 2:12). He ordered wives to be in strict subjection to their husbands ( Eph 5:22 ; Col 3:18 ; Titus 2:5), as did also the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:1). One must assume that this injunction would apply even to a woman of high intelligence who may have made the mistake of marrying a fool. After all, who are we to dispute God's eternal truth?
A friend and associate of mine at the college from which I recently retired once told me that she had quit attending church. When I asked why, she said that she had been upset by some things the minister of her church had said in a recent sermon. After she had explained what the minister had said about the woman's place in the family and church, I obtained a Bible and showed her that the man had said nothing except what the Bible teaches. Her reaction was first surprise and then a frank assertion that she didn't care what the Bible said; she still didn't like it. I have to wonder how many women there are like her who attend church faithfully and work zealously on its behalf without ever realizing that their faith is based on a book that is very uncomplimentary to women.