*** w95 7/15 pp. 10-15 The Dignified Role of Women Among God?s Early Servants ***
"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.
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.
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"
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.
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 (`e´zer) 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 (ne´ghedh) 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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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, ba´`al) and a married woman as the ?owned one? (Hebrew, be`u·lah´). (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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.