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The Authority of Women in the Old Testament: Part I

October 18, 2010

In my opening thoughts about women in the Bible I suggested that there were three categories of information in the Bible: what women could possibly do, what women could normally do (both historical categories), and what the Bible thinks is desirable for women to do. In this essay I wish to tackle the question about the upper limits of possibility in regards to command authority. I fully intend to tackle the question of the nature of authority at some point, but it suffices here to say that informational authority, being an expert, is different than command authority, the ability to compel by coercion. Command authority is, unlike informational authority, almost inevitably tied into a command hierarchy which makes it a useful metric for understanding the limits imposed upon disenfranchised groups.

I will restrict this essay to the Old Testament for three reasons. First, there’s a lot of good information already available for the New Testament. Second, there’s a general presupposition among a lot of the Christians with whom I interact with that we know what the role of women in the Old Testament was but, in fact, these people show no evidence of actually knowing this. Indeed, the vast majority of people appear to take 1950s sitcoms (or, more likely, what they’ve been told about 1950s sitcoms) and remove the vacuum cleaner and other electronic appliances to arrive at their conclusions about the roles of Iron Age women in the Ancient Near East. Thirdly, the Old Testament comes first. The New Testament sometimes removes and replaces Old Testament ideas but it more often modifies them. Think, for a moment, about the famous, “Women should keep silent in the churches,” line. It matters whether that’s, “Keep silent instead of the screaming you usually do,” or, “Keep silent because only men know enough to talk.” And, of course, the end of that line says, “As the Law [Torah] also says.” It would be nice to know what, exactly, the Torah does say.

The role of women in the Bible cannot be divorced from the role of women in general in the Ancient Near East. The Bible contains little direct prescription with regards to gender roles but does contain plenty of characters who clearly hold firm ideas about these roles anyway. These ideas are almost certainly drawn from the society at large. Because of this it is worth reviewing, very briefly, known female rulers from the Near East and Egypt from (for our larger purpose) before the beginning of the New Testament. The uncontested female rulers (there are a number of Egyptian rulers whose existence and/or sex is contested) are:

(1) Sobekneferu, a Middle Kingdom Egyptian ruler. Other details are sketchy but she probably never claimed the title of Pharaoh and inherited her status by virtue of being the only living child of the previous Pharaoh.
(2) Hatshepsut, a New Kingdom Egyptian ruler. She rose to power when her royal husband died leaving a minor heir. She ruled first as regent, then as Pharaoh, and ended as co-Pharaoh with her son. She insisted on being treated and addressed as if she were a man.
(3) Cleopatra VII, a Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. She gained the throne as the co-regent with her brother (who was also her husband), attempted to displace him entirely, started a civil war, and finally became uncontested ruler of Egypt when she formed sexual and political liaisons with two (successive) powerful Roman generals.
(4) Arsinoe, a Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. Sister of Cleopatra VII. Ruled briefly in the multi-pronged conflict between Cleopatra, her brother, and Rome.
(5) Cleopatra Thea, a Seleucid ruler. The successive wife of multiple rulers who finally shut the gates of the capital city against her returning husband, had him killed, and ruled under the legal fiction of ruling for (and later with) her son. Eventually her son became uncontrollable and she attempted to kill him. This attempt backfired and she ended up dead.

There are notable trends in this list. Egypt seems most tolerant of female rulers, even after Alexander the Great’s invasion and the subsequent foreign rule of Egypt. This is perhaps because Egypt had a strong belief in the special status (divinity, really) of the royal family which made any royal woman more fit to rule than any non-royal man. Importantly, though, both Cleopatras managed to wrest power away from men. Cleopatra Thea did so on the basis of her husband’s unpopularity while Cleopatra VII appears to have managed to do so in part because she was an excellent politician. Despite this, even the most successful women rulers found their sex to be a problem. The only ruler who did not rule with male support or (theoretically) as a regent for a man on this list is Hatshepsut, who developed an intricate and politically-useful claim to be a man.

Clearly, then, the Near East and Egypt were willing to tolerate female rulers under the right circumstances. Israel and Judah, though, are not just another part of some larger monolithic Near East. We need to return to our initial question: what is the ceiling for women in the Old Testament in regards to command authority? The obvious place to start would be the only female monarch in Judah’s history, Athaliah. Her reign requires more investigation.

We should start with a short biography, most of which is drawn from 2 Kings 11. Athaliah was born into the monarchy of Israel and married off to the Judean king Jehoram. Her son Ahaziah became king upon Jehoram’s death. Ahaziah went to see Joram, king of Israel, and was assassinated as collateral damage when Jehu killed Joram in a coup. Athaliah, seeing a political vacuum, pulled a coup of her own and killed the rest of the royal family and then reigned as sole monarch for six years. Her reign ended when Ahaziah’s son Joash, who was smuggled into the Temple and hidden from Athaliah’s purge, was crowned king in the middle of the Temple. Athaliah ran out to see what was happening and was killed by Joash’s military supporters.

Athaliah’s eventual demise is not particularly surprising. She was never in the line of succession and she was a foreign (if not very foreign) queen. She probably brought about a resurgence of Ba’al worship in Israel (given the religious leanings of the Israelite court) which would have lost her the support of the more monotheistic Judeans. She also came to power through a coup. Coups were common in Israel. The throne changed hands through unorthodox means nine times, with five dynasties (counting any family that reigned for more than one generation as a dynasty). As this might suggest many coups occurred during times of political instability. Often this political instability was brought on by a prior coup, but there is also some evidence suggesting that the threat from Assyria destabilized the late monarchy. Judah, in contrast, had only a single reigning dynasty. This dynasty survived two coups, one by Athaliah (who was counter-couped) and one against Amon. Amon is an interesting case because Amon’s servants kill him but are in turn killed by the people who place Amon’s son on the throne. Judah, apparently, had a great deal of loyalty to the Davidic dynasty which almost certainly caused significant resistance to Athaliah’s takeover. Having three reasons for Athaliah’s downfall (her foreignness, her religion, and her method of ascenscion) does not preclude a fourth, her sex. It remains possible that Athaliah, as a woman, never reigned securely.

Despite the few lines allotted to her we know that Athaliah did reign for six years. What’s more, she had the power to kill the royal family when the news reached her that her son Ahaziah was dead. This indicates either a truly freak occurrence or, much more likely, some prior accumulation of power. It is very hard to believe that a virtual nobody arose to take control in the chaos when we know there had to be some powerful people alive at court. If we believe that Athaliah’s position as Queen Mother gave her significant political clout, the story already makes much more sense – Athaliah would have had the power base to win the factional infighting and gain the throne. In fact, there is one other story that suggests that the Queen Mother was a powerful figure in the Israelite (pre-split) monarchy.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Bathsheba and David. In 2 Samuel 11 and 12 we run across Bathsheba for the first time. While this story is usually referred to as David’s adultery it is probably more like rape. When the king sends messengers to you there is no choice involved. Bathsheba spends the entirety of this story as a pawn, a pretty trophy for powerful men to fight over. The characters of the story are David, Uriah, and God (acting through Nathan). Bathsheba may receive a favorable depiction (she cleanses herself as the Law requires and mourns her husband), but it’s hard to tell since she is barely depicted. However, towards the end of the story Bathsheba gives birth to Solomon.

Twelve chapters later (1 Kings 1) Bathsheba appears again. This time David is an old, frail man. He has another young female plaything, Abishag the Shunammite, but he doesn’t sleep with her (and I tend to think the text is suggesting that this is a matter of David’s age, not his choice). His house is in shambles – his firstborn Amnon has raped his daughter Tamar only to die by his second son Absalom’s hand. Absalom himself is dead, having attempted to overthrow his father. His third son, Adonijah, expects to claim the throne when his father dies but David has promised the throne to Bathsheba’s son. Importantly, David has promised that the throne will be Solomon’s but he has made the promise not to Solomon but to Bathsheba.

Unfortunately, Adonijah acts first. It was not unknown for an ailing or aging king to appoint a son as co-regent and for power to gradually shift from one set of shoulders to the other as the father declined. Perhaps Adonijah decides that this is what needs to happen, but he sets himself up as king before David dies. It is at this point that Bathsheba returns. She is now not a plaything but a woman who can demand that David keep his promise. Backed by Nathan the prophet she secures the kingship for Solomon, but this is hardly the event that shows her power best.

As David’s wife, Bathsheba is both his social and legal inferior. As Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba is legally below Solomon but socially above or equal to him (the exact dynamics of mother and son once the father is dead and the son has reached his majority are perhaps unknowable at this distance). By Chapter 2 of 1 Kings Bathsheba is exercising her power. Adonijah comes to Bathsheba to request a favor of her. Interestingly, we are told that she asks him if he comes in peace, that he replies in the affirmative, states that he has something to say, and is granted permission to speak. Now, this might simply be a standard greeting. However, these greetings are normally left out in the books of Kings. For instance, in Chapter 3 two prostitutes rather famously come before Solomon to have their maternity claims judged. The social gulf between a prostitute and a king is vast, but the story simply says that they came before the king and moves right to the speech in which the first woman makes her case. The fact that Adonijah is recorded as greeting Bathsheba with these words suggests that it is important that he does so. If we are to examine the phrase we will find that Bathsheba apparently has reason to believe Adonijah does not come in peace, and that she is enough of a power that she, not he, gets to determine if he speaks. These are probably the same thing. Bathsheba is a powerful figure in the Solomonic monarchy, and because she is Adonijah might not like her. (Adonijah almost certainly has no opinion of, for instance, Solomon’s concubines, his palace cleaning staff, or his water-fetcher.)

Of course, Adonijah’s request is equally important. He apparently believes that Bathsheba has the power to fulfill his desire. Adonijah has requested to marry a woman (Abishag) who was David’s woman. Bathsheba’s ultimate failure to make this happen is not because Bathsheba lacks power (Solomon initially agrees to grant the request before he hears its content) but because the request is a blatant power-play. Previously Absalom publicly slept with several of David’s concubines to secure his claim to the throne, and so there’s strong reason to believe that Adonijah’s move similarly connotes that he is the real king.

However, the importance of the story is that it shows us a clear route into power for Athaliah. Bathsheba in her late teens or twenties was powerless. Bathsheba, Queen Mother, trades the young Abishag as she herself was traded. While Bathsheba’s power has familial roots, it is still power and we can easily imagine Athaliah using similar tactics during her son Ahaziah’s reign to give her the power base from which she launched her coup.

While Athaliah defines a very high ceiling for the command authority of women in the Old Testament, she only defines a possible ceiling. Nothing about her reign is normal or desirable. In the next part of this article I will address another woman whose great power was backed by God Himself.


1: Coups in Israel: Bassha kills King Nadab (1 Kings 15), Zimri kills King Elah, takes the throne, and is then attacked by Omri and commits suicide (1 Kings 16), Jehu kills King Joram (2 Kings 9), Shallum kills King Zechariah (2 Kings 15), Menahem kills King Shallum (2 Kings 15), Pekah kills King Pekiah (2 Kings 15), Hoshea (the last king of Israel) kills King Pekah (2 Kings 15).

2: Coups in Judah: Athaliah and her counter-coup (2 Kings 11), Amon (2 Kings 21).

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2010 9:54 am

    Great post! This has been a subject of debate before amongst a few friends of mine, and several women adopt the “stereotypical 1950s sitcom” as a Biblical view of a woman’s role. Also, I love that you mention “what people have been told about 1950s” TV. I love old movies, and while some ideas are antiquated, women portrayed in that time period are not so “unequal” as people in this generation seem to think they were. For just one example, I watched a movie circa late 50s (title is escaping me) where a woman was a doctor. Getting back to OT women, one of my favorites is Deborah.

  2. Eric permalink
    October 18, 2010 11:01 am

    The 1950s are, themselves, anomalous within American history which only makes this stranger. We’ll hit a number of places where the “traditional” divides completely break down including several in which women appear to have a sphere (often related to the household) in which they are in charge and men are not.

    Deborah is, of course, the subject of part II.

  3. October 18, 2010 1:20 pm

    We are blog-synced! I’m glad you’re writing about the OT, because I’m basically not going to cover it. My talk for my church was already 13 pages long, and that was just focusing on the Gospels and Epistles…and I figured my fellow members might like to get their kids to bed rather than listen to me until 10 pm.

    • Eric permalink
      October 18, 2010 2:35 pm

      Yeah – tell me about it. There’s a ton of info. I intend to get to the NT but it’ll take a while, especially since I’ll run this series amidst other things, both of my own authorship and, of course, the submissions from my co-authors.

  4. February 3, 2011 11:05 pm

    I’m definitely looking forward to your discussion of NT stuff. When I read 1 Corinthians 14:26-35, rather than just verse 34, it doesn’t look like it has any potential for ambiguity.

  5. Eric permalink
    February 4, 2011 9:42 am

    Since 1 Corinthians 11 gives rules for how women should dress when they pray and prophesy any interpretation which claims that 1 Corinthians 14 means that women cannot speak in the process of orderly worship would require Paul to be extremely forgetful and contradictory.

    There are several options for saying “speak” in Greek. One is specific to saying words. The one used here also means “make noise”. The congregation in Corinth was probably multi-lingual, the preaching probably occurred in the common trade language (presumably Koine Greek), and the men whose work would always be outside the house probably tended to be a bit more fluent. The anecdotes of modern preachers in such situations suggest that when people don’t understand you they often start asking their neighbors what you said or chatting with each other because they can’t follow you at all. Asking people to cut out this kind of behavior would make perfect sense in a section on orderly worship. It would also not contradict the previous discussion which indicated that women would speak as part of orderly worship.

    It’s worth pointing out that for both historical and marketing reasons many English translations take sides in these sorts of disputes. For instance, in Romans 16 Phoebe is a diakonos. In the gospels this word is used in its original meaning, servant. In Paul’s writings this word always seems to bear its new Christian meaning, deacon. Calling Phoebe a deacon would cause some more conservative churches to blow a gasket and not purchase the translation and so the preferred translation in many Bibles is “servant” with the linguistically-more-likely “deacon” footnoted.

  6. February 5, 2011 5:57 pm

    … any interpretation which claims that 1 Corinthians 14 means that women cannot speak in the process of orderly worship would require Paul to be extremely forgetful and contradictory.

    I don’t rule that out a priori as a possibility. ;) Paul gives opposite advice to Jesus in a number of places. Why should I expect he would never contradict himself?

    I’m curious, if so much of your interpretation of scripture depends on the nuances of the original language, what your thoughts are on translation in general. Do you think people should read the Bible in their native language without supplementing that with extensive study in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and comparative textual analysis? A lot of people use these verses to justify “complementarian” attitudes about gender roles, etc. and it has a really negative influence on society. Maybe we shouldn’t trust the majority of people with these books that seem to say one thing with clear authority, but that any fully educated person would see means the complete opposite.

    At any rate, I look forward to seeing your NT post/s, where I assume you’ll get into this in more detail.

  7. Eric permalink
    February 6, 2011 4:11 pm

    I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think Paul contradicts Jesus.

    I actually prefer not to rely on nuances of language. I’m always happy when a complementarian pulls out 1 Corinthians 14 for that reason – reference to 1 Corinthians 11 is sufficient without noting Greek technicalities. However, the specific debate over the place of women in the Church has been very poorly served by translation. All the worst c0mmon translations I can think of off the top of my head are in this area. In general I don’t think translations are problematic.

    This is especially true when one compares the issues introduced by translation to the issues introduced by reading the Bible as if it were a 21st century textbook. That’s a far worse problem. In fact, I suspect that if people really got over that issue they would get suspicious around translation errors a lot more often.

    I do intend to go into some of this in more detail when I get to the NT. That may be a ways off yet. These posts require a lot of research.


  1. Women in Ancient Israel « The Jawbone Of an Ass
  2. Authority « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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