Buried Talents: Women in the Old Testament, Part 1 (the Law and Miriam)

Any doctrine of women that we consider must pass several stern tests. First, it must measure up against the passages dealing with the relationship of men and women, and not just the ambiguous ones.

Second, whatever position we take on the role of women must be consistently adhered to in all passages, and we can’t change interpretations depending on the course title. When we study the Fall of Man while studying Romans, we must treat the curse of Eve the same as when we teach Marriage, and the same as when we teach The Role of Women in the Church. Read the literature in your Sunday school classes on these topics over the last few years, and you will find that we often change interpretations with the course title.

But third — and this may the hardest one — we must be able to measure the interpretation against God’s own application of the rule. If we insist that a rule is eternal, then we have all of history to see if God agrees. How has God dealt with women throughout time?

We must remember that God’s curse on Eve (Genesis 3:16) was squarely in effect throughout the Old Testament, and even today the domination of wives by husbands continues even in some Christian homes. Thus, when we look at history, we don’t expect to see men and women treated equally. Rather we expect that men will dominate women, as God said in Genesis 3. But if Genesis 3 is a curse rather than a command, we also expect there will be notable exceptions from the general rule, proving the curse to be a curse and not a law and pointing us to God’s Edenic ideal.

We start with the Old Testament. During the age of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, there were no woman rulers. But after the Law of Moses was given, things changed.

The Law of Moses normally treats men and women exactly the same. There are some places, however, where men are preferred over women. And in a few instances, the Law shows a preference for women. But these have been erased by Jesus.

In the temple, there was a Holy of Holies that could be entered by the high priest (always a man) and only on the Day of Atonement. But the writer of Hebrews tells us that these rules have been eliminated. All Christians may now enter the Holy of Holies itself (“Most Holy Place,” in the NIV):

(Heb 10:19-22) Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

All Christians are able to enter the Most Holy Place, regardless of what position they would have had under the Law of Moses. Moreover, Peter teaches us that we are now all priests. The Church is a “holy priesthood.” (1 Peter 2:5). And so we see that even the most “sexist” rules of the Mosaic Dispensation have been reversed and eliminated in Jesus!

Many of us were taught as children that the temple had a court for Gentiles, which was further from the altar than the court for women, which was further away from the altar than the court for Jewish men. Many of us had Bibles with maps in the back, with a separate page showing the layout of the temple’s courts. What the maps didn’t tell us is that this arrangement didn’t come from the Law. Rather, this separation came later as a matter of rabbinic tradition. This is not God’s plan.

Miriam. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was subject to Moses, as was all Israel, and yet she was a prophetess.

(Exo. 15:20) Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.

See how a “prophet” is defined in the Law:

(Num 12:6) he said, “Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.”

In fact, the Bible also calls her a “leader” of all Israel.

(Micah 6:4) I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.

Miriam was certainly lower ranking than Moses, but no distinction is made between her and Aaron. Aaron was the high priest, and while Micah subordinates the prophetess and the priest to Moses, he subordinates neither to the other.

________

A note on translation — Micah doesn’t say “leader.” Rather, he says that God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam “before you.” But it’s manifestly a metaphor for leadership, the image being much like that of a shepherd leading sheep by walking ahead of them.

Indeed, in context, this is one of several events recounted by Micah as part of God’s salvation of Israel. He is saying that his placing Miriam before the people, that is, in a leadership position, is part of how God saved Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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