The Status of Women in the Bible
Revised: 2018 Jan 27
The Torah allows a man to sell his daughter as a slave/wife to a polygamist. (See Exod. 21:7, 10, NRSV throughout.) The purchaser is allowed to beat her with a weapon as long as he doesn’t kill her. However, if she does expire only one day later, the man is deemed guiltless because “the slave is the owner’s property” (Exod. 21:20-21). Jews and Christians believe the Creator of the universe was the author of this despicable teaching. Upon minimal investigation, however, it becomes clear the true source of this offensive passage was the sexist male mindset of ancient Mesopotamia.
The Torah claims God told Israel’s venerable patriarch, Abraham, to leave the city of Ur in Mesopotamia. (See Gen. 12:1; 15:7.) Mesopotamian men considered women little more than nonhuman property. Jacobsen describes a society where a “woman’s honor was an unknown concept. Violation of an unmarried woman was an offense against her guardian; violation of a married woman was an offense against her husband; and both were offenses against society and its laws. In no case, however, were they offenses against the woman. She and her feelings simply did not count.”
As the saying goes, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” Apparently, Abraham carried the Mesopotamian mentality with him. Since his wife, Sarah, was barren, he raped her slave, Hagar, to fulfill his desire for male offspring. There’s no indication he sought Hagar’s permission. (Of course, he didn’t.) As Jacobsen writes, “her feelings simply did not count.” The same wanton disregard for women’s basic human rights got handed down from generation to generation. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, was a polygamist. (See Gen. 29:23, 30). However, two wives not being enough for him, he raped their slaves. If these slaves were willing partners, it simply indicates how misogynist the society was that women would accept such a situation as normal. Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah, were so accustomed to the lowly status of women they even took part in arranging all this wife-swapping so Jacob could have more baby machines. (See Gen. 30:4; 30:9-10.) Of course, this version of wife-swapping did not include any husband-swapping. The four women had to share one man.
It might be argued the Torah is simply presenting Abraham and Jacob as products of their culture without necessarily condoning their polygamy. However, the Torah’s 613 “mitzvahs” are supposedly instructions from God himself. Let us examine this belief.
Exod. 21:7 begins with this: “When a man sells his daughter as a slave.” This simply assumes men will be selling their daughters as slaves, and nowhere in the surrounding text is there any attempt to condemn the practice. Innocent young girls might hope this is where the loving Creator would say, “I want you men to stop this immediately!” Instead, it just gets worse.
Verse 10: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.”
Referring to the slave girl as his “first wife” indicates the master/slave relationship could also be a marriage. In Exodus 21, it’s not easy to distinguish marriage from slavery. The allowance for “another wife” means the husband is a polygamist. There is no law against polygamy in the Torah, nor is there any limit to the number of wives a man may own. (Muslim men are limited to four.)
Verses 20-21: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.”
It’s unclear whether this applies to a wife, but it would, presumably, apply to the daughter sold as a slave/wife. So, it probably would apply to any of the polygamist’s wives. Some commentaries suggest that if the injured girl survives more than one day, it is assumed her master intended only to punish her, not to commit murder. In such a case, he is not held responsible for her death because, after all, he does have the right to administer corporal punishment because she is his “property.” Even when the slave-owner is deemed punishable, no indication of what the penalty should be is provided. A few shekels for the priest? A slap on the wrist? Something to be decided by a male judge? The Torah is not so vague when it comes to punishing a woman for an infraction far less serious than murder. Deut. 25:11-12 requires a woman’s hand to be cut off. No such punishment is ever specified for men.
These teachings are simply an extension of the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20. The Decalogue mentions various sins men might commit against God or other men, but sins against women are totally absent. It does not refer to women sinning against anyone. This is abundantly clear in the tenth commandment which prohibits a man from coveting another man’s wife. (See Exod. 20:17.) There is no corresponding prohibition against a woman desiring another woman’s husband. Some will argue this is implied, i.e., it’s safe to assume the commandment was intended to cover both cases. However, this suggestion is exposed as unlikely as the commandment lists a wife along with a man’s possessions including his house, ox and donkey. Clearly, a woman is considered little better than subhuman property, and the possibility of her sinning or being sinned against is not worthy of consideration. Sinning, after all, relates exclusively to humans. So, why include women? Their status rises only to the level of oxen and donkeys. Who cares if a donkey sins? Does all this sound familiar? This is exactly the Mesopotamian mindset Abraham handed down to Israel. Thorkild’s comment bears repeating: “[a] woman’s honor was an unknown concept. Violation of an unmarried woman was an offense against her guardian; violation of a married woman was an offense against her husband; and both were offenses against society and its laws. In no case, however, were they offenses against the woman. She and her feelings simply did not count.” So, the Torah’s misogynistic teachings, which supposedly proceeded from the Creator, can actually be traced to the culture of Mesopotamia.
If you insist the Bible is the “inspired Word of God,” you are stuck with defending all the aforementioned repugnant teachings. Most commentaries make pathetic attempts to put a positive spin on Exodus 21 suggesting its laws were actually a big improvement for women of the ancient world. The complete text does include some minimal rights for women. However, they probably wouldn’t have meant much to a defenseless girl being brutally beaten with a “rod.” Frankly, portraying the passage as a leap forward for women’s rights is absurd. Moreover, it doesn’t take a law degree to imagine how these regulations might lead to more serious abuse. Evidently, the author didn’t foresee the unintended consequences of such loosely worded decrees. Some commentaries openly concede daughters were sold to pay off debts. Are we to believe the omniscient Creator of the universe composed the ambiguous phrase “if the slave survives a day or two?” This appears to be the work of an amateur lawmaker. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sickening.
Christians might dismiss all this as Old Covenant material that doesn’t apply today. However, the Bible says, “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6). The God of today would have to be the same God who existed in ancient times. It’s unbelievable he would have exhibited a radically different nature during another era. Moreover, who would want to worship a God who ever authored such detestable laws, regardless of whether he may have later changed his mind? In reality, the New Testament is not much better than the Old. God is portrayed as a man (the Father), and Jesus, the supposed Savior of humankind, is a man as well. Not one member of Jesus’ inner circle, “the twelve,” was a woman, nor did Jesus invite a solitary woman to the “Last Supper” or to witness his ascension. The misogyny continues with the New Testament’s most prolific author, the apostle, Paul, who essentially tells women to shut up and have babies: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing…” (1 Tim. 2:12-15). It would seem to any reasonable person that Adam should have borne the greater responsibility since he “was not deceived.” He knew what he was doing. However, Paul’s ingrained bias against women blinds him to the obvious — he blames the woman. No wonder — Paul describes the “Law” — including all the despicable laws in Exodus — as “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12).
Sadly, many devoutly religious women — Jews and Christians — are so accustomed to institutionalized misogyny and brainwashed with the unverifiable assumption God inspired the Bible that none of the evidence presented above will have any effect on them. Nevertheless, numerous authors have proved beyond all doubt that large portions of the so-called “Holy” Bible cannot possibly be the inspired “Word of God.” Personally, your author doubts the Creator had anything to do with inspiring any of the Bible’s outrageous teachings on the status of women, not to mention numerous other disgusting biblical commands for atrocities such as infant genital mutilation, genocide, plunder and rape. (See Gen. 17:10-14; Num. 31:17, 31-35.)
 Thorkild Jacobsen, “Mesopotamia” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, Kindle Edition.