This year my goal is to read the Bible from beginning to end for the very first time. As I’ve plodded through Leviticus and Numbers I found myself confused (and I must confess, a little offended) by some of the embarrassing laws women were subjected to–being “unclean” during their monthly periods, a public trial if they were accused of adultery, and not even being allowed to make a vow to the Lord if their father or husband didn’t approve. It sounds like the kind of women’s oppression that I’ve heard others accuse the Bible of being.
How do I read the Old Testament laws for women and still believe that God values me as much as He values men? How can I believe that He loves us equally when even His own laws sound so discriminating? Since all of the Bible is inspired by God, what do laws like these tell us about who He is to women today? Thank you for your help.
You are on the right journey to answer your own question with the goal of reading through the Bible! With all of the divinely mandated instructions—admonitions and warnings—there is always purpose. That ultimate purpose for God’s people is to make them holy or set apart unto Him. Saturating yourself with God’s Word will move you toward this goal. Believers in this generation can understand that better by saying that they want to be more like Jesus! I would never suggest that life is easy, much less perfect, for a woman today or in ancient times. However, I think that built into God’s plan there are some amazing protections that show His special care for women. Any injustice or oppressiveness toward women comes from living in a sin-bent world and from the sinful nature of its inhabitants, and yet we are blessed by seeing the goodness of God in the least likely places.
Let me try to answer several specific questions you raise:
- Concerning the “unclean” status of a woman during her menstruation period (see Lev 15:19-30), remember that life is in the blood (Lev 17:11). The loss of blood during menstruation required purification to acknowledge the sanctity of life, but there is no suggestion that the issue involved in the woman’s isolation here is her sinfulness. Whatever she touched and whoever touched what she touched was unclean until evening (Lev 15:20-23). What many miss is that this isolation provided the woman a needed break from housework, caring for children, and even marital duties. Sexual intercourse was considered unclean during this time. Any woman who has experienced severe cramping and even mood swings during this monthly time would understand that this interruption could be meant for her good. The rabbis suggest that these laws actually can strengthen marriage by adding a rhythm and sense of spiritual responsibility to sexual intimacy so that a period of separation adds to the mystery, romance, and magic of the marital relationship. Laws like these made Israel distinct from the surrounding pagan nations and even worked as a deterrent to intermarriage with other nations who would not want to honor these mandates. These laws have no function for New Testament believers in the sense that distinguishing the Israelites from their pagan neighbors is no longer part of God’s program. Jesus did not consider Himself defiled when he encountered the woman with an issue of blood (Mt 9:20-22).
- Concerning the “trial by ordeal” passage (Num 5:11-31), the wife is suspected by her husband of committing adultery, and she can be brought before judges by her husband. Many interpreters have misconstrued the passage to make both the Israelites and God appear unfair and chauvinistic. However, again you must see that the event involves the holiness or set-apartness and purity expected of God’s people. Though no reciprocal provision is suggested for a wife to bring charges against her husband, an unjustly accused innocent woman had God’s protection. Once a wife had been proven innocent, no further suspicion could rest upon her so that a wife whose husband might be emotionally unstable then had legal recourse for her public vindication. The potion itself was never intended to determine guilt. Rather the ritual’s efficacy rested upon psychological suggestion and memory as the wife stood before God. The rabbis point out that through this ritual, the name of God was dissolved in the waters. No Jew dared erase God’s name, which is one reason many Jews never write out the name of God. This situation, however, is one exception in which God literally allowed His name to be dissolved in order to rebuild the trust between husband and wife.
- In the matter of a woman and personal vows, Numbers 30 covers four categories of women: unmarried and living with their fathers (vv. 3-5), unmarried when they made a vow but married before the vow was fulfilled (vv. 6-8), widows or divorced women (v. 9), married women (vv. 10-15). For the husband to veto his wife’s vow or a father his daughter’s vow, the respective veto had to be spoken when the husband or father first heard the vow made. The reason for this veto option was not the right to rule but the responsibility for protection of the woman assigned to her respective husband or father. Furthermore, if the vow were vetoed, the woman incurred neither punishment nor guilt, but the liability rested upon the one responsible for her protection.
Now, for a personal word from my own experience. Read the whole of Scripture and not just parts.
Accept the fact that Scripture cannot contradict itself, and interpret what is difficult in light of what is crystal clear. God’s plan of redemption stretches from Genesis in which both the man and woman are created “in His image” (Gen 1:26-27), to Revelation where we share the glories of heaven (Rev 21:22-27). The story of God’s unconditional love and overwhelming sacrifice in our behalf underscores indeed “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16). Don’t be concerned about how something sounds; read what the words say! Since the Scripture is clear:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the Lord’s declaration. “For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts (Is 55:8-9).
You and I must rest in the path of obedience.
Let us work hard to understand all we can through reading God’s Word and digging out its meaning. However, what is beyond our understanding, we accept through faith, knowing that our loving heavenly Father will make the journey with us through every challenge and difficulty. He has been faithful to me!
I remain yours in the journey,
*For more in-depth study on Old Testament legal codes for women, Dottie recommends Women’s Evangelical Commentary: Old Testament, Dorothy Kelley Patterson and Rhonda H. Kelley, eds. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2011.