Women in the Bible, Overview

Women in Sacred Scripture

The biblical concept of women is anchored in the creation narratives (Genesis 1-2). From the first creation account (Genesis. 1:26-28) we learn that both man and woman are created in God’s image and likeness which is a gift and a task. In the second account woman is called a ‘suitable partner’ for man (Genesis. 2:18-20).

All ensuing scriptural depictions of women have to be mirrored in this anthropological and theological ideal.


OLD TESTAMENT

Family Relationships

Due to a culture dominated by masculine interests and a masculine point of view the role women played were patterned on the leadership of men. The wife was subservient to her husband (Genesis 3:16) and to some extent even considered his possession (Exodus 20:17). Likewise, sisters were dependent on their brothers (Genesis 34) and widows were among the most unfortunate members of society.

Social and Religious Status

Even when women appear to have exorcised some kind of authority and responsibility it was in exception to the patriarchal norm, and either with the consent of the male or in his absence. Women were valued to the extent that they could augment their parents social status thanks to the ‘bride wealth’ their fathers would receive.

The ministerial priesthood was not an option for women; yet they could participate in the cultic life of their tribes.

They served at the entrance of the meeting tent (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22) offering their looking glasses made of brass or fine metal, for the use of the tabernacle and as cantors after the exile (Ez. 2:65; Neh 7:67).

Some women had prophetic charisms, for example Deborah (Jgs 4:4), Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Neh 6:14) and the wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3).

Women in the Genealogy of Jesus

In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17. cf. Luke 3:23-38) four women are mentioned: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth1 and Uriah’s wife2 next to thirty-nine male characters.


NEW TESTAMENT

The Gospel of St. Luke gives us the most extended description of Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. We learn also of Elizabeth, her relative through the narratives of the Annunciation, Visitation and the birth of their sons (Luke 1-2).

At the presentation in the temple we are introduced to Hannah, the prophetess who had never left the temple and who was praising the child Jesus as the one who will bring redemption to Israel (Luke 2:36-38).

The synoptic Gospels mention Mary again in two other episodes (Mark 3:31-33; Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21) and in Acts 1:14 at the descent of the Holy Spirit.

John shows Mary at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-12) and at the culmination of redemption on Golgotha (John 19:25-29).

In each of the gospel accounts we read about women who had salvific, i.e. healing and redeeming encounters with Jesus Christ.

Peter’s mother in law is healed of a fever and immediately ministers to him (Mark 1:29ff; Matthew. 8:14f; Luke 4:38f).

A hemorrhaging woman is healed and the daughter of Jairus is resuscitated (Mark 5:21-43. Matthew 9:18-26; Mark 7:24-30).

The widow from Nain whose only son had died witnessed Jesus' power even over death (Luke 7:11-17). A woman caught in adultery is freed from her accusers and of her sin (John 8:1-11).

In the Gospel of St. Matthew Pilate’s wife dreams of Jesus and urges her husband not to condemn him (Matthew 27:19).

Four of Jesus’ parables center on women:

- the woman hiding yeast in the dough is a metaphor for the reign of God (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20f).

- the woman searching for the lost coin (Luke 15:8ff)

- the widow who deals with the corrupt judge and achieves justice by her persistence (Luke 18:1ff)

- The ten prudent virgins awaiting the arrival of their bridegroom (Matthew 25:1ff) symbolize our need for being prepared for the second coming of Christ.

Other incidents women were mentioned in the New Testament are:

- The two women grinding, one of whom will be taken (Matthew 24:41; Luke 17:35). It is a signal to be watchful for the end of times.

- The request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Mark 10:35ff; Matthew 20:20ff), which prompts Jesus to speak about his imminent passion.

- St. Paul compares the outset of the end times to the sudden labor pains of a pregnant woman (1 Thessalonians 5:31) and likens his own ministry to that of a nursing mother (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Paul also illustrates the Galatians’ move from slavery into the freedom of God’s children by referring to Sara and Hagar (Galatians 4:21-5:1).


(1) Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth were Gentile women, and are named for this reason, and for their remarkable history. There were stains upon the character of Tamar (Genesis. 38:11-30) and of Rahab (Joshua. 2:1), but Ruth is one of the Mary - like women of the Bible.

(2) The mother of Solomon is referred to, not by name, but as the wife of Uriah. Uriah was a Hittite, a Genesis tile, and his wife may have been also. She was certainly a partner of David in the greatest guilt of his life.

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