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Topic 5: Women ‘in authority’: What does this mean?


We list here a few selected passages from the Old Testament which speak to the manner in which God desires women to embrace the gifts he has given them in the service of ministry to his people.  This occurs even when women’s roles put them in a position of “authority” over men which may even contradict the cultural understandings of the times.

Genesis 21:12: But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named.”  God orders Abraham to listen to Sarah and do what she says in the matter of the divine plan.

Genesis 25:23: And God said to her [Rebekah], “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”  Genesis 27:6-10: Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food, that I may eat it, and bless you before I die …'”  Rebekah carries out the will of the Lord which her husband threatens to undermine.

Exodus 1:20: So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and grew very strong.  The insubordination of the midwives to Pharoah was pleasing to God.

Exodus 15:20: Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand … and Miriam sang to them … Miriam leads the Old Testament community of faith in the worship of God.

Exodus 38:8: … the ministering women who ministered at the door of the tent of meeting.  Women had cultic functions in the Tent of Meeting.

Numbers 12:1-2: Miriam and Aaron … said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?” Miriam was also one through whom God spoke, not just Moses and Aaron.

Judges 4:4-6: Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging [NIV: leading]Israel at that time.  She used to sit under the palm of Deborah … and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.  She sent and summoned Barak … and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you …”  Deborah outlines the will of God to Barak and Israel; she “has authority” over all the people of Israel; there is no indication Yahweh has any reservations about her role.

Judges 4:9, 17-22, 5:24-27: … for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman … Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite …  God uses a woman to deliver his people.

Judges 5:7…Village life in Israel ceased, ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel…

Judges 13:23-24: And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” But his wife said to him, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering … or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.”  Manoah’s wife instructs her husband in the will of the Lord.

Ruth:  Ruth initiates the marriage overtures rather than Boaz.

1 Samuel 2:1-10: Hannah prays aloud in the public worship of the ancient people of God and publicly proclaims God’s salvation.

2 Samuel 20:14-22: … a wise woman called from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab to come here so I can speak to him.”  He went toward her…she said, “Listen to what your servant has to say.” “I’m listening”…the woman went to all the people with her wise advice… God uses an unnamed woman to deliver her city from siege.

2 Kings 22:8-20, 2 Chronicles 34:14-13: Josiah turns to Hulda rather than to Zephaniah or Jeremiah: “Go inquire of the Lord for me and for the people…what is written in this book that has been found…”…went to speak to the prophetess Huldah…” and she confirms that the book is the word of the Lord.   (Consider also the notes on Huldah following this section.)

Psalm 68:11: … great is the host of the maidens who bring glad tidings.  Women are messengers of God’s good news.

Nehemiah 6:14: Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets … A woman is the only prophet whose name is given.

Esther  8:5-8, 9:29-32: Esther instructs the king as to what should be done with regard to the Jews, and acts in the name of the king.

Isaiah 8:3: And I [Isaiah] went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son.  Isaiah’s wife is termed a prophetess.

Joel 2:28: … your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … Joel does not hesitate to use the technical verb “prophesy” in referring to women.

Micah 6:4: For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  Miriam is listed equally with two men as leaders of the people.

Matthew 1:20: Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus … Joseph is instructed by the angel to agree with instructions already given to his wife.

Luke 1:59-60: And they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so! He shall be called John.” Elizabeth assumed authority over men and tradition by naming John.

◆ “2. In private and public worship in the Old Testament the participation of women went beyond the hearing and obeying of the law.  They were free to approach God in prayer just as the men (Hannah, 1 Sam.1:10; Rebekah, Gen. 25:22; Rachel, Gen. 30:6, 22).  God responded to their prayers (Gen. 25:23; 30:6, 22) and appeared to them (Gen. 16:7-14; Judges 13:3).  They were also expected to take an independent part in bringing sacrifices and gifts before God (Lev. 12:6; 15:29).  Women appear to have had certain circumscribed roles in the public worship, too.  For instance, Hannah approached the sanctuary (1 Samuel 1).  Women ministered at the door to the tent of meeting (Ex.38:8), and while it is not clear what form this service took, it did play some part in the worship.  Women also participated in the great choirs and processionals of the temple (Ps. 65:25; 1 Chron. 25:5-7; Neh. 7:67).  Although they were not permitted to serve as priests, this is never interpreted to mean that they were less than full members of the worshiping community” (From the September 1985 document, “Women in the Church,” by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, pg. 6).

In the Scriptures we find examples of God’s approval and utilization of woman who made use of “authority” to instruct and lead men and the worshiping community; their office and work is no less prophetic and/or authoritative than if they had been male.

Further examination of the account of Hulda, the prophetess:

2 Kings 22:14- 20 (cf. 2 Chronicles 34:22-28): So Hilkiah the priest … went to Huldah the prophetess .. . and they talked with her.  And she said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord …'”  And they brought back word to the King.

◆ “… but technically a prophet is one through whom God speaks … They sought out Huldah who was well-known for her commitment to God and for her ability to speak for God.  She told Josiah very clearly and specifically God’s message” (CTCR-WIC, pages 5-6).

Hulda is an example of God employing women as fully as men to be bearers of his authoritative Word.

(A) Huldah is appointed by God.

(B) Huldah is submissive to her Lord, to whom she listens, and for whom she speaks.

(C) Huldah teaches: clarifies, imparts knowledge, points the direction.

(D) Huldah publicly instructs and teaches the men even when male prophets such as Isaiah were available.

(E) The text does not indicate that God forbids or frowns on males listening to a woman interpret the Word of God.

(F) The text does not indicate that seeking divine revelation from and through a woman was forbidden or unusual or strange.

(G) Huldah is not “silent” and in a submissive posture to men.

(H)  Huldah is the first person in biblical history to authenticate and declare a written portion of Scripture holy.

(I) The text does not censor or condemn Huldah for not submitting to an order of creation hierarchy or exercising spiritual authority over men.

(J) This verse clearly speaks to the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12: it is much “clearer” than the 1 Timothy passage, which uses a hapax legomena (authentein), about which there are diverse interpretations.  The Huldah passage is an unambiguous example which helps understand the “dim” passage of 1 Timothy.

◆ “They sought out Huldah who was well-known for her commitment to God and for her ability to speak for God.  She told Josiah very clearly and specifically God’s message” (CTCR-WIC, page 6).

The sacred record includes these glimpses of God choosing women and directing them to act in ways contrary to any role of “keeping silent” or “acting in a subordinate manner” to a prior divine mandate.

(A) The cultural milieu of God’s ancient people was patriarchal, which meant that men ruled, dominated, treated women as objects (Genesis 29:18-20, Ruth 4:5, 10), employed a double standard (Numbers 5:11-31), permitted women to degrade themselves and their own sex (Genesis 16:1-6), and eventually institutionalized this in temple (the court of the women was many steps lower than the court of the men) and synagogue (a woman was not counted as a member of the synagogue congregation).  The Old Testament history and life style bears out the sinfulness of humanity.

(B) Out of this there emerged in Judaism an open scorn of women (“Happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females”) and restrictive rules about public appearances and family life.

(C) The grace is that though this was the cultural prison in which women found themselves, God was not bound by this prison; he called women forth into faithful service; though women were “bound” in terms of culture, God did not “bind” them in terms of religious devotion and participation (Deuteronomy 21:10-14; 22:13; 22:28).

(D) There is no inference that these women are just exceptions to a general rule, used where men are unavailable or irresponsible.

(E) These examples provide important data which form a basis for and help clarify the “dimmer passages” of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:33-36, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, regarding God’s intended purpose for the use of individuals regardless of gender.

(F) The CTCR does not draw out clear conclusions from its own statements, such as the statement about Hulda.

◆ “To be sure, this spiritual equality does not preclude a distinction in identities between man and woman … Men and women are equal in having the same relationship to God and to nature” (CTCR-WIC, pg. 20).

(G) Is it “spiritual equality” or is it “equal in having the same relationship to God and to nature [emphasis added]”?  Or is it both?  The Old Testament does not limit parity to “spiritual equality,” parity only before God; but in the examples of Miriam and Deborah and others there is parity also in the created and civic arenas.

(H) It seems strangely inconsistent that God would establish an “order of creation” in which women are to be submissive and subordinate and yet he himself calls forth women into leadership roles.

(I) God is not bound by human understanding of “orders” or gender roles.

(J) God is free to choose through whom he will address his people.

The fact that there are no female priests in the Old Testament is an example of God condescending to the human condition.

(A) Women in the Old Testament were judges (Judges 4:4), queens (2 Kings 11:3), wise women who had influence over males (Judges 5:28-30, 2 Samuel 14:2ff, and 20:16ff) and were in charge of businesses and households (Proverbs 31).

(B) The one function disallowed women was the performance of sacrificial acts.  Why?

(C) The Old Testament never specifically forbids women’s participation in the performance of sacrificial rituals.

(D) The surrounding cults emphasized goddess worship which included fertility and prostitution rituals.  In order to keep Israel distinct and set apart (“holy”), the sexual motif was removed deliberately from the ritual worship of the people of Yahweh.

(E) Also, according to Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17:10-17, life “was in the blood.”  A woman menstruating was considered unclean; she could therefore not represent the people to God (cf. IDB, 4, page 866).