The Dignified Role of Women Among God’s Early Servants
“Jehovah God went on to say: ‘It is not good for the man to continue by himself. I am going to make a helper for him, as a complement of him.’”—GENESIS 2:18.
1. How does a Bible dictionary describe the lot of women in ancient times?
“NOWHERE in the ancient Mediterranean or Near East were women accorded the freedom that they enjoy in modern Western society. The general pattern was one of subordination of women to men, just as slaves were subordinate to the free, and young to old. . . . Male children were more highly esteemed than female, and baby girls were sometimes left to die by exposure.” That is how one Bible dictionary describes the lot of women in ancient times.
2, 3. (a) According to one report, what is the situation for many women today? (b) What questions are raised?
2 The situation is not much better in many parts of the world today. In 1994, for the first time, the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report focused on the treatment of women. “Data on 193 Countries Show Day-to-Day Discrimination Is a Fact of Existence,” stated a New York Times heading regarding the report.
3 Since large numbers of women with diverse cultural backgrounds are associated with the congregations of Jehovah’s people earth wide, some questions arise: Is the treatment just described the kind that God originally intended for women? How were women treated among worshipers of Jehovah in Bible times? And how should women be treated today?
“A Helper” and “a Complement”
4. What observation did Jehovah make after the first man had been in the garden of Eden alone for some time, and what did God then do?
4 After Adam had been in the garden of Eden alone for some time, Jehovah observed: “It is not good for the man to continue by himself. I am going to make a helper for him, as a complement of him.” (Genesis 2:18) Even though Adam was a perfect man, something else was needed in order to carry out the Creator’s purpose. To fill the need, Jehovah created the woman and performed the first marriage.—Genesis 2:21-24.
5. (a) How is the Hebrew noun rendered “helper” often used by the Bible writers? (b) What is indicated by the fact that Jehovah referred to the first woman as “a complement”?
5 Do the words “helper” and “complement” indicate that the woman’s God-assigned role was demeaning? On the contrary. Bible writers often apply to God the Hebrew noun (ʽeʹzer) rendered “helper.” For instance, Jehovah proves to be “our helper and our shield.” (Psalm 33:20; Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7) At Hosea 13:9, Jehovah even refers to himself as Israel’s “helper.” As for the Hebrew word (neʹghedh) rendered “complement,” one Bible scholar explains: “The help looked for is not just assistance in his daily work or in the procreation of children . . . but the mutual support companionship provides.”
6. What was said after the creation of the woman, and why?
6 There is thus nothing demeaning in Jehovah’s describing the woman as “a helper” and “a complement.” The woman had her own unique mental, emotional, and physical makeup. She was a suitable counterpart, a satisfying complement for the man. Each was different, yet each was needed to “fill the earth” in accord with the Creator’s purpose. It was evidently after the creation of both the man and the woman that “God saw everything he had made and, look! it was very good.”—Genesis 1:28, 31.
7, 8. (a) With the introduction of sin in Eden, how would the role of the woman be affected? (b) What questions are raised regarding the fulfillment of Genesis 3:16 among worshipers of Jehovah?
7 With the introduction of sin, things changed for the man and the woman. Jehovah pronounced sentence on both of them as sinners. “I shall greatly increase the pain of your pregnancy,” Jehovah told Eve, speaking of the eventuality he permits as though it were done by him. He added: “In birth pangs you will bring forth children, and your craving will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” (Genesis 3:16) Since that time, many wives have been dominated, oftentimes harshly, by their husbands. Instead of being valued as helpers and complements, they have frequently been treated more like servants or slaves.
8 What, though, did the fulfillment of Genesis 3:16 mean for female worshipers of Jehovah? Were they relegated to a place of subservience and humiliation? Far from it! But what about Bible accounts that tell of customs and practices affecting women that might seem unacceptable in certain societies today?
Understanding Biblical Customs
9. When we consider customs involving women in Bible times, what three things should we keep in mind?
9 Women were well treated among God’s servants in Bible times. Of course, in considering customs involving women in those days, it is helpful to keep several things in mind. First, when the Bible tells of unpleasant situations that developed because of selfish domination by wicked men, that does not mean that God approved of such treatment of women. Second, although Jehovah tolerated certain customs among his servants for a time, he regulated these in order to protect women. Third, we must be careful not to judge ancient customs by modern standards. Certain customs that might appear unpleasant to people living today were not necessarily viewed as demeaning by women back then. Let us consider some examples.
10. How did Jehovah view the practice of polygamy, and what indicates that he never abandoned his original standard of monogamy?
10 Polygamy:* According to Jehovah’s original purpose, a wife would not share her husband with another woman. God created only one wife for Adam. (Genesis 2:21, 22) After the rebellion in Eden, the practice of polygamy first appeared in the line of Cain. Eventually it became a custom and was adopted by some worshipers of Jehovah. (Genesis 4:19; 16:1-3; 29:21-28) Although Jehovah allowed polygamy and it served to increase Israel’s population, he showed consideration for women by regulating the practice so that wives and their children would be protected. (Exodus 21:10, 11; Deuteronomy 21:15-17) Moreover, Jehovah never abandoned his original standard of monogamy. Noah and his sons, to whom the command to ‘be fruitful and fill the earth’ was repeated, were all monogamous. (Genesis 7:7; 9:1; 2 Peter 2:5) God portrayed himself as a monogamous husband when symbolizing his relationship with Israel. (Isaiah 54:1, 5) Then, too, God’s original standard of monogamy was reestablished by Jesus Christ and was practiced in the early Christian congregation.—Matthew 19:4-8; 1 Timothy 3:2, 12.
11. Why was a bride-price paid in Bible times, and was this demeaning to women?
11 Paying a bride-price: The book Ancient Israel—Its Life and Institutions states: “This obligation to pay a sum of money, or its equivalent, to the girl’s family obviously gives the Israelite marriage the outward appearance of a purchase. But the [bride-price] seems to be not so much the price paid for the woman as a compensation given to the family.” (Italics ours.) So the payment of a bride-price served to compensate the woman’s family for the loss of her services and for the effort and expense required of her family in caring for her. Instead of demeaning the woman, then, it affirmed her value to her family.—Genesis 34:11, 12; Exodus 22:16; see The Watchtower, January 15, 1989, pages 21-4.
12. (a) How were married men and women at times referred to in the Scriptures, and were these terms offensive to women? (b) What is noteworthy about the terms Jehovah used in Eden? (See footnote.)
12 Husbands as “owners”: An incident in the life of Abraham and Sarah about 1918 B.C.E. indicates that by their time it had evidently become customary to view a married man as the “owner” (Hebrew, baʹʽal) and a married woman as the ‘owned one’ (Hebrew, beʽu·lahʹ). (Genesis 20:3) These expressions are thereafter at times used in the Scriptures, and there is no indication that pre-Christian women found them offensive.* (Deuteronomy 22:22) Wives were not to be treated as pieces of property, though. Property or wealth could be bought, sold, and even inherited, but this was not so of a wife. “The inheritance from fathers is a house and wealth,” says a Bible proverb, “but a discreet wife is from Jehovah.”—Proverbs 19:14; Deuteronomy 21:14.
A Dignified Role
13. When God-fearing men followed Jehovah’s example and obeyed his Law, what resulted to women?
13 What, then, was the role of women among God’s servants in pre-Christian times? How were they viewed and treated? Put simply, when God-fearing men followed Jehovah’s own example and obeyed his Law, women retained their dignity and enjoyed many rights and privileges.
14, 15. What indications are there that women were respected in Israel, and why could Jehovah rightly expect his male worshipers to respect them?
14 Women were to be respected. God’s Law to Israel commanded that both fathers and mothers be respected. (Exodus 20:12; 21:15, 17) “You should fear each one his mother and his father,” says Leviticus 19:3. When Bath-sheba approached her son Solomon on one occasion, “at once the king rose to meet her and bowed down to her” in a gesture of respect. (1 Kings 2:19) Observes the Encyclopaedia Judaica: “The prophetic comparisons of the love of God for Israel to the love of a husband for his wife can only have been made in a society in which women were respected.”
15 Jehovah expects his male worshipers to respect women, for he respects them. Indications of this are found in scriptures in which Jehovah uses the experiences of women illustratively and likens his own feelings to those of women. (Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13) This helps readers to understand how Jehovah feels. Interestingly, the Hebrew term for “mercy,” or “pity,” which Jehovah applies to himself, is closely related to the word for “womb” and can be described as “motherly feeling.”—Exodus 33:19; Isaiah 54:7.
16. What examples show that the advice of godly women was valued?
16 The advice of godly women was valued. When God-fearing Abraham hesitated to heed the advice of his godly wife, Sarah, on one occasion, Jehovah told him: “Listen to her voice.” (Genesis 21:10-12) The Hittite wives of Esau “were a source of bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah.” In time, Rebekah expressed the distress she would experience if their son Jacob was to marry a Hittite. What was Isaac’s reaction? “Consequently,” says the account, “Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and commanded him and said to him: ‘You must not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.’” Yes, even though Rebekah had not offered formal advice, her husband made a decision that took her feelings into account. (Genesis 26:34, 35; 27:46; 28:1) King David later avoided bloodguilt because he listened to the plea of Abigail.—1 Samuel 25:32-35.
17. What shows that women had a measure of authority in the family?
17 Women had a measure of authority in the family. Children were urged: “Listen, my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother.” (Proverbs 1:8) The description of the “capable wife” in Proverbs chapter 31 reveals that an industrious married woman not only managed a household but might also handle real-estate transactions, establish a productive field, operate a small business, and be known for her words of wisdom. Most important of all was the praiseworthy woman’s reverential fear of Jehovah. No wonder the value of such a wife was “far more than that of corals”! Precious red coral was highly prized for jewelry and decorative purposes.—Proverbs 31:10-31.
Women Who Received God’s Special Favor
18. In what ways was special favor bestowed upon certain women in Bible times?
18 Jehovah’s regard for women was reflected in the special favor he bestowed upon some of them in Bible times. Hagar, Sarah, and the wife of Manoah were visited by angels who communicated divine direction to them. (Genesis 16:7-12; 18:9-15; Judges 13:2-5) There were “women servants” at the tabernacle and female singers in Solomon’s court.—Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22; Ecclesiastes 2:8.
19. At times, Jehovah used women to represent him in what way?
19 Several times in Israel’s history, Jehovah used a woman to represent him or to speak for him. Regarding the prophetess Deborah, we read: “The sons of Israel would go up to her for judgment.” (Judges 4:5) Following Israel’s defeat of Canaanite king Jabin, Deborah had a truly special privilege. She was evidently the composer, at least in part, of the victory song that eventually became part of Jehovah’s inspired record.* (Judges, chapter 5) Centuries later, to inquire of Jehovah, King Josiah sent to the prophetess Huldah a delegation that included the high priest. Huldah could authoritatively reply: “This is what Jehovah the God of Israel has said.” (2 Kings 22:11-15) On that occasion the king commanded the delegation to go to a prophetess, but this was done to receive direction from Jehovah.—Compare Malachi 2:7.
20. What examples indicate Jehovah’s concern for the feelings and welfare of women?
20 Jehovah’s concern for the welfare of women is evident from the instances in which he acted in behalf of some of his female worshipers. Twice he intervened to protect Abraham’s beautiful wife, Sarah, from being violated. (Genesis 12:14-20; 20:1-7) God showed favor to Jacob’s less-loved wife, Leah, by ‘opening her womb’ so that she bore a son. (Genesis 29:31, 32) When two God-fearing Israelite midwives risked their lives to preserve Hebrew male children from infanticide in Egypt, Jehovah appreciatively “presented them with families.” (Exodus 1:17, 20, 21) He also answered Hannah’s fervent prayer. (1 Samuel 1:10, 20) And when the widow of a prophet faced a creditor who was prepared to take her children to pay off her debt, Jehovah did not leave her in the lurch. Lovingly, God enabled the prophet Elisha to multiply her supply of oil so that she could pay the debt. Thus she preserved her family and her dignity.—Exodus 22:22, 23; 2 Kings 4:1-7.
21. The Hebrew Scriptures present what balanced picture of the lot of women?
21 Far from encouraging a disparaging view of women, therefore, the Hebrew Scriptures present a balanced picture of their lot among God’s servants. Although Jehovah did not shield his female worshipers from the fulfillment of Genesis 3:16, women were treated with dignity and respect by godly men who followed Jehovah’s example and heeded his Law.
22. By the time Jesus was on earth, how had the role of women changed, and what questions are asked?
22 In the centuries following the completion of the Hebrew Scriptures, the role of women changed among the Jews. By the time Jesus appeared on earth, rabbinic traditions had greatly restricted women in their religious privileges and their social life. Did such traditions influence the way Jesus dealt with women? How should Christian women be treated today? These questions will be discussed in the next article.
According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, “polygamy” refers to a “marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time.” The more specific term “polygyny” is defined as “the state or practice of having more than one wife or female mate at one time.”
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, married men and women are referred to far more often as “husband” (Hebrew, ʼish) and “wife” (Hebrew, ʼish·shahʹ). In Eden, for example, the terms Jehovah used were, not “owner” and ‘owned one,’ but “husband” and “wife.” (Genesis 2:24; 3:16, 17) Hosea’s prophecy foretold that after returning from exile, Israel would repentantly call Jehovah “My husband,” and no longer “My owner.” This may suggest that the term “husband” had a more tender connotation than “owner.”—Hosea 2:16.
Noteworthy is the use of the first person with reference to Deborah at Judges 5:7.
How Would You Answer?
□ What do the words “helper” and “complement” indicate about the woman’s God-assigned role?
□ When considering customs affecting women in Bible times, what should we keep in mind?
□ What shows that women had a dignified role among God’s servants of early times?
□ In what ways did Jehovah bestow special favor on women in pre-Christian times?