The major role of women in the formation of the Hebrew Bible
Note: The main inspiration for this post comes from an article titled: The important role of women in the Old Testament (FBR:1984) written in 1984 by my later father, Prof. Ernest L. Martin. My father was teaching egalitarianism since before I was born in the mid 1960’s.
Of late, I have been blessed to develop many contacts with women writers, bloggers, mothers and women scholars and I’ve personally become very interested in gender equality. I’ve put some posts on this blog talking about some of my ideas and I really feel lead to continue pursuing this area.
I am working on a major study on gender equality which may take many years to finish, but it has already reached 40,000 words so it is becoming a really large book.
I am also working on a really specific post dealing with a redemptive movement hermeneutic building on a specific teaching that my father taught me which he termed “The Doctrine of Accommodation.” This features the idea that God wishes us to “accommodate” Scripture to our modern changing, world. It seeks to show how we can interpret Scripture in a way that allows to address issues not specifically covered in Scripture, but to know we are doing so using the Spirit of God. This keeps our trajectory focused towards redemption as Prof. William Webb would term it. My father saw the movement towards redemption throughout Scripture reaching back even into the book of Genesis. In fact, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, one can find in fact quite a Gospel of grace even just in the book of Genesis alone! More on that later.
Hope to get that out fairly soon as I think philosophically it presents the idea of egalitarianism in a more comprehensive Scriptural way using an approach which I have so far not yet seen presented elsewhere. The approach to interpreting Scripture that my father used was very simple, but very comprehensive. It addresses all of the outstanding questions and hard texts in a very elegant but very simple, convincing way which I think is very hard to argue with. Praying to get that out very soon.
The major role of women in the formation of the Hebrew Bible
In the last few years, I have noted a great interest among women (mainly mothers) concerning my writings, in particular my book (now a free ebook – - get it here- http://whynottrainachild.com/2013/06/22/download-martins-book/) dealing with what the Bible teaches about corporal punishment (spanking/smacking). This was the first major book that I wrote and I have been so blessed by the feedback that I have received mostly from hundreds of women.
After publishing my first book, I began to look for other areas of interest where I felt I could make a contribution and to learn some things myself. I connected with so many writers and bloggers, almost all of them women. I could name a score or more who have influenced me profoundly and want to thank all of those who have blessed me deeply.
Many of these connections have come about through my own book (dealing with corporal punishment and the Bible), but I’ve tried to engage a little bit in the whole egalitarianism/ complementarianism debate.
But, now I want to take this discussion to a new level. This is because it is time for the true role that God has had, now has and will have in the future for women to be told.
Unfortunately, if we were to continue listening to some of the mostly male voices out there, we would learn nothing new. Some people just seem to be trapped in the nonsense that women have a secondary role in God’s Kingdom. This is because according to some, the Gospel has a “masculine feel” to it. With views like this, many women feel “complementary”; they feel like second class citizens in the kingdom of God. Nothing could, however, be farther from the truth.
Let us be clear. The views expressed by many men holding complementarian views have a number of results associated with them. One is that women are subject to men and basically are left to do as they are told and to be welcome in church just as long as they come in, sit down and shut up! This is basically how it is for so many women. I know about this because I grew up in a church where this is how it was. The men were in charge. Period! I believe that many women feel inferior, unimportant, secondary, lesser, and a whole host of other adjectives and these well intentioned (but, in my view, misguided) Biblical literalists are not ready to lift one finger to change an iota or give way on any point that moves to a Biblical position of equality.
These male dominated structures are quite happy to keep the status quo as it is now with them in their positions of authority and women in the place where the believe God has placed them, in a complementary position.
Well, in this paper, we’re going to look at things just a bit different. In fact, we’re not even going to be focusing on the New Testament concerning this issue. No! We are going to focus squarely on the Biblical revelation given through the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament).
To begin, let me put the tone of this paper right out front by saying the following:
“Many people make the assumption that women were in a very inferior position in Old Testament times. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is, women were ordained by God to play the most important role in the establishment of, and the sustaining of, a proper godly society within human civilization. Women are the key factor in the whole issue and their role should be restored in modern society.” (Martin, The Important Role of Women in the Old Testament: FBR: 1984)
This is something well known in Judaism. Women are the cornerstone of a healthy society. Note the following:
“A wife meant a home; hence the saying, ‘a man’s home is his wife’ (Yoma 1.1), and Rabbi Jose said, ‘Never have I called my wife by that word (e.g. – He never spoke of his wife as “his wife”), but always ‘my home.’ (Shab.118b).” (ibid.)
This is a lovely and deserved tribute to the wife of Rabbi Jose. It is a bit poetic and Middle Eastern culture is prone to such speech. Even today, I am always happy to hear my brother in law talking to his wife calling her “Ruhi,” (my spirit), or “Elbi, (my heart) or “Umri,” (my life). These types of terms are used quite commonly used even today and we can see from the Rabbi’s statement, he chose to call his wife “Beti” (my home). To him, having a wife was synonymous with having a home. The two were inseparable.
Emphasis on a proper family life in the Old Testament
is unmistakeable and wholly overlooked today
Now, let’s look at how we can see a very foundationally oriented emphasis on the importance of women and their role in God’s economy and in family life is demonstrated so clearly in the Old Testament. This issue has not been understood by many, but Scripture clearly shows that godly women and their influence on proper Biblical society was one of the main guiding factors that contributed even to the formation of the Hebrew Bible that we have in our midst today known among Christians as the Old Testament.
The Old Testament that we have today was compiled and placed into the hands of the recognized Hebrew authorities by Ezra the Priest. Ezra was known as the “Second Moses” due to the power and influence he had and the final Bible we have today in the Hebrew canonical scriptures has its origin with Ezra. Ezra compiled and put the books together and since he completed this, we now have the Hebrew Bible in our midst.
A fundamental point about the Hebrew Bible
Now, it must be understood as a fundamental idea that the Hebrew Bible, which are the Holy Scriptures to those who adhere to Judaism, are the same books which are found in most English Bibles today. For example, the books of the Old Testament are the exact same books as those found in the Hebrew Bible.
However, there are some important differences between the Hebrew Bible and most English Bibles. The main difference concerns the order of the books. This may seem a minor point on the surface, but unless one appreciates the importance of this point, this study on the role of women in the formation of the Hebrew Bible may not be appreciated in the way that it should be.
Now, before we get into this order, let me reiterate. We not in any way, shape or form talking about different books. No! Not at all! We are talking only about a reorganization of the books to reflect a more Hebraic orientation found in the Hebrew Bible as we have it today.
Let us also be clear that it is this Hebraic orientation which focuses on Jerusalem, Israel, the Bible lands and Bible culture is what we are reaching out to learn more about. One will not be able to learn this information if you just stick with the good old King James Version. There is nothing wrong with the King James Version, but that Bible reflects a world view wholly focused on England in the early part of the 17th century. For us to reach back into a first century perspective, we are going to have look at the Hebrew Bible for inspiration.
The Hebrew Bible,
the order of the books
and how women influenced the formation of the Bible
I think most of us are fairly familiar with the general order of the books of most English Bibles. What is less clear though is the order of the books preserved in Hebrew Bible versions. Please refer to the following blog post I did to help understand this issue more clearly.
Now that we can see that there are some differences, let us now consider the role women played in the selection of these books and how the order in the Hebrew Bible reflects a decided influence of women in the formation of the Hebrew Bible.
What we are going to find is that family life in the Old Testament is considered very important and women have a primary role in contributing to a godly family and a godly society.
“There is a remarkable emphasis in the Old Testament about having a proper family life that is almost totally overlooked by people who study the Bible today. In fact, it can be shown that this emphasis was one of the main reasons for the formation of the Old Testament itself. When Ezra the priest decided to select certain hooks to make up the Old Testament for the Temple and synagogues, it was his stress on the godly role of women in human society that prompted the placement of the books in their official order. This especially applied to the eleven books of the Third Division which Christ called “the Psalms" Division.” (Luke 24:44, 45) (ibid, Martin)
To understand this role, we have to look back at what was taking place when the Hebrew Bible was first formed under the guidance of Ezra the priest in the 5th century BC.
“This role [of women] is selectively revealed in the books of Ezra/Nehemiah, Malachi and the Book of Chronicles. So many biblical teachers avoid any serious reference to the historical accounts in these books that it is little wonder that this emphasis has not been realized. But the biblical books have been arranged to teach the principal elements which constitute a proper society for God's people, and the dominant factor in attaining that stable society was women.” (ibid.)
There are every interesting and clear teachings that one can glean from those books about the state of Hebraic society in that period. It was in decline and facing serious challenges due to a breakdown in family life taking place in the society at that time. Note the following:
“When Ezra (and his aide Nehemiah) saw the breakdown of family life starting to take place among the Judaeans at Jerusalem then both of them stepped in to correct the problem before it corrupted the whole of Judaean society. The main offenders were the princes and rulers among the people, and it was especially bad among the ordained ministry (the priests, including the family of the High Priest) (Ezra 9:1-2; 10:18). Read chapters nine and ten of Ezra to see the extent of the problem which was confronting Ezra. Those chapters show that many of the leading men of the nation bad married foreign women and that children were being born as a result of these marriages. There would have been little problem with intermarriages in themselves had the women been converted to the observance of Old Testament laws, (after all, even Moses was married to a Midianitess as well as a Cushite woman) but this was not the case with these women. The children of these unions were growing up in non-Judaean ways and in some cases they were not even able to speak the Hebrew language (Neh. 13:23,24). Marrying foreign women was not necessarily a bad thing (since Rahab in the genealogy of Christ was a Canaanitess and Ruth a Moabitess), but it was a great evil if any woman was not converted to proper Mosaic teaching. The truth is, children reared by foreign women (even if their fathers were Judaean) would normally grow up to follow the beliefs and customs of their mothers. It was this fact that alarmed Ezra and Nehemiah.” (ibid.)
It was obvious to Ezra and Nehemiah that there was a serious issue facing the culture at that time and it had serious ramifications on the future of the stability of that society. Action was urgently needed to rectify this situation. The stakes were high!
“Had these intermarriages persisted there would have remained no proper Judaic society within Jerusalem in two or three generations. It was particularly upsetting because the principal peoples involved in marriages with the foreigners were the princes, rulers and the priests themselves. If the leaders were providing the example of intermarriage, the common people would automatically follow in their footsteps. It was a serious situation which had developed in Judaism about 450 years before Christ and the Bible emphasizes it.’ (ibid.)
Not only were the leaders marrying women who did not hold their religious or cultural beliefs, they had done so in many cases while breaking up their own original nuclear families!
“Worse yet, not only were the leaders marrying with non-converted women, they were divorcing their Judaean wives (the wives of their youth) to take up with foreign women. The prophet Malachi (which was a title probably for Ezra himself) rebuked both the priests and secular leaders for this practice (Mal. 2:11-12). Indeed, the Judaean wives who had been abandoned in preference to the foreign women were having to shed tears at the altar of God for their destitute condition (Mal. 2:13-16) and Malachi (that is, Ezra) characterized this abandonment as a treachery against the Judaean wives. And so it was. The men had forsaken their wives causing the proper Judaean wives not to fulfill their roles to bring up godly children. A harmonious society was at stake!” (ibid.)
This situation was not acceptable to Ezra and Nehemiah. Drastic action was needed to change course for the whole of the society at that time. To change the direction, Ezra and Nehemiah demanded some specific actions regarding the relationships that the men found themselves in. These actions were very serious indeed.
“Both Ezra and Nehemiah demanded of these Judaean leaders that they give up their foreign women they had encountered and return to the wives of their youth (Mal. 2:14). These two men of God actually forced the majority of Judaean men to enter a new covenant with God to rectify their rebellious ways and to reinstitute a proper Judaean family life with their proper Judaean wives (Ezra 9 and 10). And, for the most part, their demands were heeded.” (ibid.)
While the majority of the men under the religious guidance of Ezra did listen to him, not all of them did and look at what happened because of this point.
“There were a few leaders, however, who refused to accede to Ezra and Nehemiah. The grandson of the High Priest had married a daughter of the king of the Samaritans. He refused to give her up (Neh. 13:27,28). This man went with his new wife to his father-in-law in Samaria and became the High Priest of the Samaritans with a new Temple built near Shechem about 35 miles north of Jerusalem. These Samaritans then began to claim that they were the sons of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) and were the true heirs to the religion of Moses while they said that Ezra and Nehemiah were establishing a 'false" Judaic religion with a "false" Temple at Jerusalem. Thus, a major controversy arose between the Judaeans and the Samaritans over who were the true representatives of the LORD (Hebrew: יהוה - the God of Moses and Israel). (ibid.)
This division caused the necessity for major adjustments of a religious nature among the people of ancient Judaea. One of these changes was the development of the Hebrew Bible at this time. The Hebrew Bible was brought in at that time to address two major issues affecting the community at that time:
“It was because of this Samaritan controversy and to correct the improper society that was developing among the Judaeans at the time that the Old Testament was brought into existence by Ezra. He collected twenty-two books and assembled them into the divine canon.” (ibid.)
Ezra, who as I mentioned before, was known as the “second Moses” due to his importance in canonizing the Bible and authorizing the books to be selected and included in the sacred volume. He had a number of basic goals in mind in doing this.
“Ezra also wrote the Book of Chronicles as a history (a specialized account) which proved that Jerusalem was the true headquarters of God's divine government on earth, and that the House of David at Jerusalem, the priesthood at Jerusalem, and the Temple at Jerusalem had the approbation of God, not any so-called Temple, priesthood or leadership at Samaria. And Christ told the Samaritan woman (John 4:22) that Ezra was correct in his account. (ibid.)
Ezra also had other reasons for including his books and for writing them in the way he did and one of these concerns the importance of women in God’s economy. Martin continues:
“The main difficulty that Ezra had with the Judaeans at Jerusalem was false religious beliefs and customs entering Judaic society because of the intermarriages of Judaean men with heathen women. It was a very upsetting situation as' Ezra viewed it because the intermarriages involved the civil and religious leaders among the Judaeans. It was especially bad because the priests (even the high priests) had been polluting their "holy seed" (Ezra 9 & 10, Neh. 13:23-31; Mal. 1 & 2). This was a major deviation from proper religious practice in the view of Ezra and he was so horrified at it and the prospects of what it could lead to that he thought it prudent to write the Book of Chronicles as a history of what had happened in the past when such things had occurred. A stable and consistent Judaean family life was at stake and Ezra used every device he could muster to get the Judaean leaders to realize the consequences of such "unholy alliances." This is the main reason he canonized the 22 Old Testament hooks and wrote the Book of Chronicles. The latter book was to provide future leaders a special history of what had occurred in the past when unconverted women entered into the mainstream of Judaic society. It resulted in an apostasy from God and it brought on severe and catastrophic judgments from heaven.” (ibid.)
When you begin to review some of these books looking for this gender/women entry point, it is amazing at what teachings we begin to discover.
“Note that the first nine chapters of Chronicles emphasize Israelite genealogy to show how important a proper pedigree was. While David and Solomon are both honored for their work on the Temple and for establishing true worship at Jerusalem, Nehemiah was quick to point out the well-known escapades of Solomon as a detriment to him (Neh. 13:26) though Solomon had enough divine wisdom to put Pharaoh's daughter away from the holy places at Jerusalem (11 Chron. 8:11). But Solomon's rebellious son Rehoboam was a product of "the Ammonitess" (II Chron. 12:13). He went into early deviations and the fact that he had "many wives" is emphasized (II Chron. 11:21-23). From that time onward, Ezra records in Chronicles (for his Judaean leaders) an account of the "good" and "bad" kings of Judah, and in almost every case the "good" kings had proper Judaean mothers and the "bad" kings either had heathen or reprobate mothers. And it was this very thing that Ezra was scolding the Judaean leaders of his time for doing. Ezra wanted to put a stop to it, and he did!” (ibid.)
We don’t only find this emphasis in the books of Chronicles, Ezra/Nehemiah and Malachi. Note the following:
Now look at the Third (or Writings') Division of the Old Testament once more. It was Ezra who put the books together and he had a reason for doing it in the manner he did. These books were selected to show leaders, among other things, that godly women were proper to marry and evil women were to be shunned. In one way or another, the eleven books of the Third Division are designed to show this.
· For example, the Book of Psalms introduces the Division and the psalm that highlights David's life is Psalm 51 showing his sin with Bathsheha who may have been a Hittite woman (recall that Bathsheha was formerly the wife of Uriah the Hittite II Sam. 11:3; 12:9). Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon (who was no paragon of righteousness) and Solomon was under her influence (I Kings 1:11 to 2:21).
· The next book is Proverbs. Note how the first nine chapters stress "Wisdom" (personified as a woman) with a contrary emphasis on the evil woman who leads the godly man astray. The last chapter, though, shows the type of woman a man ought to have and Ezra described her with a beautiful acrostic of twenty-two verses. Ezra thought this was a proper wife for a man!
· The next book is Job. His story is one of faithfulness in trial in spite of a very faithless wife (Job 2:9). Job's tenacity, however, brought him double possessions and his three beautiful daughters became equal in prestige and honor as sons (Job 42:13-15). The reference is to show the value of having properly trained women and the benefit that can be derived from them for their husbands, families and the overall society.
The next five books were called (in Hebrew) the Megilloth (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther) and they emphasize in one way or another, the influence of women in society.
· “The first book was the Song of Songs. It is a book from a woman about Solomon. Though Solomon had 1,000 wives and concubines, this woman is the one he should have had (who totally loved Solomon), but he shunned her because "Solomon must have a thousand" (Song 8:12) rather than the one who truly loved him. Only at the end of his life did Solomon turn his attention to this one woman (8:10), but he still never wanted to give up the other thousand. The title "Megilloth" is itself feminine and the theme of each book stresses the feminine aspect for godliness. The Song of Songs shows a beautiful woman who loved Solomon but he wanted his other women and died a miserable death given to drink (Prov.31:1-9; Eccl.12:1-7). He did not have a proper woman in his life. Ezra placed the Song of Songs in first order among the Megilloth books in order to teach the Judaean men of his time the need to have devoted wives who loved the true God of Israel.
· The next book was Ruth. The Book of Ruth shows an example of the ideal woman and how a man can be blessed with such a truly converted woman. Ruth herself was a Gentile woman (so there was nothing wrong in marrying a Gentile woman) but Ruth was totally converted to the God of Abraham (Ruth 1:16,17) and this made her very different from the unconverted women the Judaean leaders of Ezra's time were marrying. But a woman of the LORD was precious indeed!
· The next book is Lamentations. It is about Jerusalem personified as a royal princess gone wrong and because of her evils she was living as an adulteress widow (Lam. 1:1). This book shows "holy Jerusalem" as a "fallen woman. She had deserted God to please the heathen.
· In the Book of Ecclesiastes Solomon is reported to have said that the real joy for men is to have a good job and a fine wife (Eccl. 9:9), but that the 1,000 women Solomon had were more bitter than death to him (Eccl. 7:26-29). Again Ezra is pointing out the folly of Solomon's desire for improper women and he wants the Judaean men of his time (and for all time to come) to realize the consequences of what evil women can do to society. Ezra was admonishing the men to reestablish the role of their proper wives and let them rear up (with the help of the men) godly and devoted children. This experience of Solomon was placed in the Bible primarily to show what not to do. Solomon went wrong in his ways no matter how rich and powerful he had become. Ezra ordered that the experience of Solomon (as shown in Ecclesiastes) be read every year at the Feast of Tabernacles so that Judaeans in the future would understand the value and the responsibility of having a proper family life. Even the title of the book in Hebrew is KOHELET (a feminine word which represents "the Wisdom" of Proverbs 1:20,21 and 8:1-4 which is also in the feminine gender in Hebrew). This "Wisdom" is the proper type of "Woman" that all men ought to have: The righteous 'Woman" that God will give to the godly man.
· The Book of Esther is the final book of the Megilloth and it shows the power of a devoted woman to save the whole nation of Judah. Esther put the LORD, her people and even the welfare of her Gentile husband before that of herself. She was a proper woman indeed!
· After the five Megilloth (feminine) books of the Third Division comes Daniel. He was the wisest man of the age, of royal stock (who put Jerusalem first) and one who had an excellent and righteous upbringing (Dan.l: 3,4).
· And finally, the books of Ezra/Nehemiah and Chronicles (which end the Third Division) have as central themes the need for the leaders at Jerusalem to have nothing to do with foreign or unconverted women (who produce "heathen and impure" children), but to cherish and hold the proper Judaean women who would rear to adulthood holy offspring to God.” (ibid.)
Here you can see how the Hebrew Bible came together, particularly the Third Division and what the goal of the whole Third Division in particular was.
“In effect, the Third Division was devised by Ezra, among other things, to establish and to secure a society which had leaders and laity devoted to the LORD (Hebrew: יהוה). This would then insure that all the people would have the right examples to follow in their own endeavors to be holy in the sight of God. Indeed, the establishment of the Old Testament canon itself (as well as the arrangement of the Third Division) was prompted because of this pressing need which Ezra and Nehemiah reckoned as so essential for proper devotion to God.” (ibid.)
Women clearly had a major role in inspiring all of this.
An Important Point
It is important to note at this stage in the discussion how important this Jerusalem-centered perspective really is. What we in the Western world have to realize is that the Bible that we have today in our midst is not a Jerusalem-oriented production. What has happened is that the Bible has followed a design which is Greco-Roman in orientation rather than Hebraic. This has had devastating consequences in understanding the true messages of that book.
This article just points out one aspect that is missed if we have the Bible in the current Greco-Roman style. With this reconstruction a whole different orientation presents itself to us if we are just willing to look at the information that God is providing us at the time He provides it.
“When one realizes the historical factors which caused Ezra to devise the Old Testament canon, then it is possible to understand some definite reasons for the design of the Tripartite Divisions which Christ called "the Scriptures," (Luke 24:44,45) the books were arranged in the various divisions to teach all facets of Old Testament life in a proper and harmonious fashion. The positioning of the books by Ezra made little sense to later Greeks or Romans who failed to understand what a true Judaean society was supposed to be. They failed to grasp such things. This is one of the main reasons that later Gentile Christians in Egypt could not begin to appreciate the Jerusalem centered arrangement of the Old Testament books. It simply did not make sense to them! This is certainly the case because the codexing of the Greek Old Testament in the third or fourth century by Egyptian Christians rearranged the books into a subjective or encyclopedic fashion so as to "improve" the Jerusalem oriented Judaean design which made no rhyme or reason to them.” (ibid.)
And what is one of the major teachings that has been missed due to having the Bible in the wrong order? We are discussing it in this article: The role of women in God’s economy and in the design and development of His Holy Bible.
“It will mean that the essential teachings about having a proper and loving family life between a man and woman (with secure and stable children) was the central historical reason for the canonization of the Old Testament. It is because mankind has so disturbed the biblical books that we moderns fail to see this exalted position which women have been given by God to promote a harmonious society in this world. When both men and women understand the respective roles that each sex has been given by God (and the biblical principles are put into action) then a congenial relationship would have the best chance for existence. A oneness of superiority for each sex could be the result.” (ibid.)
This is desperately needed because God’s message to all of His children is that He loves and cares about all of them equally and that no one complements anyone else and there are no second born children in His family nor are there any second class citizens in God’s Kingdom. Seeing the Bible in its original inspired order helps to bring out these facts in a much clearer way.
To conclude, in the last years of his life, my father devoted himself to seeing this Bible see light for the first time in our modern age. Out of his work, a project was developed titled: The Original Bible Project. To find out more about this high quality, academically oriented project to restore the Holy Bible to its original inspired order and design, please see: www.originalbible.com.