The Old Testament gets a bad rap among progressive Christians at times. Some refer to its texts revealing harsh treatment of women as “texts of terror.” They focus on things that had great relevance for OT culture at the time, such as sleeping in a separate tent during a woman's period, from the perspective of our modern culture with all its medical and sanitary advances. Then, without carefully connecting the lines, broad conclusions are made about misogyny in the Bible. Some say that since nobody agrees exactly on what the Bible commands to women and nobody is able to keep it all anyway, the Bible must be bad, or misogynist, or irrelevant. In that view, the Bible is no longer God's revelation of Himself to His people through the Spirit's inspiration of the authors (2 Peter 1:20-21). And any conclusion drawn from it by people who believe the Spirit did inspire it are suspect.
I want to deal with a few of the issues that get a particularly negative reaction and respond with how I've reconciled these in my own heart. Note – this is how I've reconciled these with the Spirit in my own heart. Many conservatives seem in practice to not have a strong confidence in the Spirit's ability to convict anyone but themselves. As a core belief of mine, I don't believe God gives ME the responsibility of convicting you. But I'm glad to share how He's moving in my heart, and I trust the Holy Spirit to guide you if you decide to engage Him and His Word and wrestle with these on your own.
So here goes.
1) Judges 19's account of a Levite cutting up his concubine after she is raped and abused by strangers in the city. Wow, this one is a horrible, horrible story. Which is the entire point. This chapter opens with the words, “In those days, Israel had no king.” That's the point of the entire book of Judges. They had no king, and the very last words of the book of Judges is that this lack of a king resulted in everyone doing what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Judges describes over and over again the weaknesses of both the system of judges and the law previously given to Moses. It points again and again to Israel's need for a king, but later we see that the earthly kings were no better, and with few exceptions, everyone, including those kings, continued to do what was right in their own eyes. They all needed a perfect King who would give the perfect standard of righteousness. They needed King Jesus.
The terror of the story of Judges 19 is rooted in a people deciding, apart from God's standard of righteousness, what was right in their own eyes. There is no justification for using Judges 19 as something to make us fear the Bible! God certainly never commanded this type of abuse. This is a description, along with the story in Judges 11 of the daughter of Jephthah who seemed to be sacrificed in a misguided vow to God, of how bad things got as Israel moved away from God. It serves too as a warning to us in modern day Christianity. When we make ourselves the final say in what is and is not right apart from the Word, we are open to monumental blindspots. The history of Christianity from the Crusades to slavery has shown our own blindspots again and again.
2) Leviticus 15's instructions for women who are on their menstrual cycle. The interesting thing which I never hear mentioned in this discussion is that the first half of the chapter discusses similar requirements for men with a discharge of some type of bodily fluid. The implication I keep hearing is that somehow the Law was biased against women on this issue, declaring them unclean simply because they are having their period. However, if you approach Scripture without a predisposition to be suspicious of it on how it speaks toward women, a different image emerges. This is a passage simply about sanitation. Frankly, I'm very thankful for the sanitary advances we've made for both men and women discharging bodily fluid (which is a weird way to say it, but that's how this chapter refers to it). They didn't have latex gloves or those little protective pads that retirement homes sometimes use to cover beds or chairs. And they certainly didn't have Always, Tampax, or anything even remotely equivalent. Plus, they didn't live in homes with secure doorways to protect them from animals following the scent of blood. It was in everyone's best interest, male and female, to have clear guidelines on what could and could not be done during the time of a woman's cycle so that the remainder of the month was not full of the types of diseases and consequences that would come in that harsh environment if blood or other types of discharges were not wisely handled. And remember, this chapter includes SIMILAR INSTRUCTIONS FOR MEN.
This speaks to a function of the law that we often forget. Remember that the Law came at the dawn of civilization, and at that point, civilization was not very civilized. These men and women had no police, no courts, no OSHA, no medical establishment, and so forth, and I respect the rigid safeguards and weird limitations on a people struggling to figure out the basics of life in a broken world on their own. Which leads to the 3rd example.
3) Deuteronomy 22's instructions for a rapist to marry the woman he raped. Again, remember that civilization was not very civilized at this point. The common practice outside of the law for a woman who was raped was that she was killed by her family because of the shame (a practice still used in some cultures). If she was not killed, she had to live in shame with no options for a future life with a family that was accepted in her culture. She likely could only support herself through future prostitution. Exodus 22:16 – 17 gives similar instructions for the case of a man seducing a woman.
Again, presuppositions against Scripture as a misogynist text have caused some to read these instructions in the worst possible light. But I look at cultures throughout the world, including our own, in which many men still see sexual conquest as a game with no consequences for themselves, hearts hardened to the harm put upon the one they seduced. This law in Deuteronomy gave the woman in this situation a path to a respectable life in her culture. And this law held the man to the consequences he created in his sin against this woman. He had to pay her father a dowry worthy of the woman he violated, and he could not divorce her all the days of his life. He was required to remove the shame from her and restore her to a position of respectability in her culture. When you look at it from that perspective, there is much beauty in this law for a woman so violated in a culture that had NO safeguards for her otherwise.
Some of that may or may not be helpful to you as you wrestle through Scripture on your own. Frankly, after struggling through, in particular, the law that commanded the rapist to marry the woman that he raped, I was blessed and moved deeply as the Spirit revealed His heart to me in this instruction. These laws presented a path to free the woman from the shame cast upon her in her culture. The guy was forced to value what he took indiscriminately. I am thankful to live in a culture today that doesn't cast upon a woman (at least not as much) the same shame and condemnation that was the norm in Old Testament times and is STILL the norm in certain parts of the world. And I am thankful that God pressed upon His people a path for a woman so abused that did not just give her in marriage but required a sizable dowery for the privilege of marrying her.
If you do have texts that cause you deep concern, I strongly encourage you to wrestle with the texts in prayer with the Holy Spirit. Don't listen to a campaign against the Spirit and the Word that labels the Old Testament as misogyny to be discarded. Jesus says very clearly in Matthew 5:17 that He didn't come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. The Law pointed us ultimately to our need for Christ. And when the fullness of time was come, God sent Jesus in the flesh to us, to live the Law perfectly, fulfill it, and free us from its instructions to a group of fallen men and women that needed the most basic level of instructions to survive and build a civilization. Jesus loved this Law. You never see Him disparaging it or demeaning it. And NO ONE accuses Him of misogyny. God in the flesh who loved women and interacted with them in compassionate ways respecting their dignity also loved the law and fulfilled it perfectly. We can not write off the Law as misogynist without also tainting Jesus. I encourage anyone struggling with these topics to stay engaged with the Spirit and the Word, believing in faith that God is good, and He is good to us through His Word.
*The Gospel-Centered Woman: Understanding Biblical Womanhood through the Lens of the Gospeldeals with more principles for understanding the Law and wisdom literature, particularly as they speak toward women.