When the angels heralded the birth of Mashiach, they proclaimed, “Peace on earth; good will towards men” (Luke 2:14 KJV). They certainly did not intend to exclude women! And yet, women have held a dubious position in society throughout most of history. In ancient times, women were regarded almost as possessions—first of their fathers, then of their husbands, and when divorced or widowed, they were cared for by their sons. It was rare for a woman to be independent.
Over time, the status of women improved somewhat. But only in the past 100 years or so did women have the right to vote, to engage in occupations traditionally performed by men, or even to smoke cigarettes. Our generation has seen much progress, though there are still problems. As one advertisement for women’s cigarettes used to chant, “You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you got to today.”
So when we talk about the Bible’s treatment of women, we must not forget that Biblical times are not modern times. Society was different. Biblical laws about women might seem harsh or insensitive today, but the Torah was progressive and respectful and protecting of women compared to other societies of those times.
In the Gospels, Yeshua treated women with respect and compassion. In this article I will survey examples of how Yeshua related to women, compared to the conventional behavior of the time.
Yeshua Interacts with Women
Perhaps the most basic form of social interaction is talking. In ancient times, women only went out in public to market, or to visit a neighbor, for instance. They dressed and behaved modestly, and it was customary to minimize talking with the men. In the first century BCE, the Rabbis said:
Pirkei Avot 1:5 Yose ben Yochanan, man of Jerusalem, says, “… and do not increase conversation with the woman.” … From this, the sages said, “Any time that a man increases conversation with the woman, he causes evil to himself and neglects the words of Torah; and, in his end, he inherits Gehinom.”
Now this was not a law; it was sage advice, overstated, as the Rabbis often do, for emphasis. One notable exception was Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, in the early second century CE. Beruriah was renowned for her wisdom, her ability to engage in debate with the Sages. So it was not uncommon for her to take on a Rabbi in conversation, as in this incident:
Eruvin 53b Rabbi Yose the Galilean was walking on a road when he met Beruriah. He asked, “Which road should I take to go to the city of Lydda?” She replied, “Foolish Galilean, did not the sages say, ‘Do not multiply talk with women’? You should have said, ‘Which way to Lydda?’”
I imagine she said it with a smile, overstating the point that he could have asked the same question with one third as many words!
Amidst this culture of modesty and limited public discourse with women, Yeshua tended to be more free to relate to them, and therefore they felt more free to approach him. Here is an extreme example of a woman of bad reputation coming to him during a meal in the home of a respectable citizen. Seemingly as an act of penitence, she washed and kissed and anointed his feet.
NRS Lk. 7:37 … a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him–that she is a sinner.”
Normally such behavior would be taken as an embarrassment to Yeshua and to his host, and the woman would have been sent away. But Yeshua did not do that.
Lk. 7:44 … He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
There is a saying in the Talmud, “It is unbecoming for a scholar to go around scented” (Berakhot 43b). It could give the impression that he had been to a brothel. But Yeshua accepted it as a gift from her heart.
Yeshua Heals Women
Yeshua not only talked with women, he healed them. I have the impression that, when the Prophets in the Tenakh healed someone, it was usually a man or boy. So it seems worthy of note to me that so many of the stories of Yeshua involve healing women.
Matt. 9:20 … a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe (tzitzit) of his cloak (tallit), 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” 22 Yeshua turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.”
I dealt with legal aspects of these stories in an earlier article. Here I stress the boldness of the woman who not only approached Yeshua in a crowd, but touched his tallit, believing that would cure her. Yeshua turned and spoke to her in front of everyone.
We know from Mark 15:41 that there were women in Yeshua’s company who followed him along with his disciples, and some of them provided food for him. His manner made women feel safe and welcome.
Here is another story of Yeshua going out of his way to heal a sick girl who actually died while he was on his way, and he raised her up.
Matt. 9:18 … suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”
When he arrived at the house, the mourners were already gathering to prepare for the funeral.
Matt. 9:25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.
The Torah does not forbid Israelites from touching a dead body, but there was an expensive cleansing procedure that took seven days, so people would avoid it. Yeshua, however, took the hand of the dead girl, and her life was restored.
In another case, Yeshua was in synagogue one Shabbat when he was confronted with a crippled woman.
Lk. 13:11 … there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was unable to stand up straight. 12 When Yeshua saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
He spoke to her and healed her on Shabbat in front of the shocked congregation. He valued these women and girls enough to disregard social norms for them, though he did not violate the Torah.
Laws and Parables about Women
Adultery and Lust
In his halakhic teaching, Yeshua required greater protection of women than the Jewish laws of his time. For example, he added a fence around the laws of adultery by forbidding a man to even look at a woman lustfully. Adultery and other sexual offences could be cut off at the root if men would refrain from taking that first step of looking and fantasizing.
Matt. 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
In this way, coveting a neighbor’s wife could also be prevented. It could also prevent sexual harassment and abuse. Given the alarming number of rapes, and cases of sexual abuse and harassment in our day, we would do well to consider Yeshua’s halakhah as a way to protect women against sexual abuses. The unrelenting flood of sex in the movies, television, the internet, and all forms of media, is no doubt among the main causes of sexual crimes. Sex pervades the advertising and fashion industries, all in the name of freedom, when in reality it leads us into bondage. Yeshua addresses the root of the problem, and not only the symptoms of it.
On the issue of divorce, he lays down this general rule: Lk. 16:18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
I have argued in another article that the word “and” should be understood to mean “in order to”. Yeshua thus takes away the possibility to use divorce to whitewash the sin of adultery. Here, my point is that Yeshua goes farther than the Jewish law to protect the wives, restraining husbands from dumping their wives if they found someone they liked better.
A Public Accusation of Sexual Crime
As I write this, the public fury rages on about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. Days before his confirmation, a woman was brought out who accused him of sexually abusing her 35 years earlier at a high school party. The public hype is so out of control that it is impossible to get to the facts of the case. The opposition distorts everything, to the point of inventing charges and producing phony “witnesses”. The supporters of Kavanaugh overstate his defense and stonewall investigations into the allegation. The media blows everything out of proportion. Kavanaugh is backed into a corner, his family threatened, to the point that he cannot deal rationally with the allegations and the facts. The public is encouraged to lynch him and his family and his supporters, even by members of the Congress and popular celebrities. The “issue” is ostensibly the protection of the honor of women. But it is clear that this is a smokescreen to cover the real issue that many people do not want a conservative, religious judge to be added to the Court.
Yeshua had a similar situation develop when a woman was dragged into the spotlight by his opponents and accused of being “caught in the act of adultery”.
Jn. 8:3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the Torah Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?”
They were eager to stone this woman. But they created a messy hype for another reason—they wanted to trap Yeshua in his own words and discredit him in the eyes of the public. Did they really care about the woman? About the sanctity of marriage? About the Torah and “rule of law”? If so, then where was the accused man, if they were caught in the act? Where were the witnesses? Where was any kind of due process?
Yeshua had a dilemma. He had to uphold the Torah, but he didn’t want this woman lynched. He bent down and wrote something in the dust. Maybe it’s not important what he wrote. Maybe it’s enough that he is reminding the Scribes and Pharisees of the law of a wife suspected of adultery by her husband (Num. 5:12ff). She was to be brought to the Tent of Meeting, not to the public square, and the priest administered a rite that involved mixing dust from the floor with holy water, to reveal whether or not this accusation was true. Without establishing the facts with witnesses and evidence, there was no case. Stoning the woman in these circumstances would be a lynching, not a legal trial and sentence.
7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
This was enough to cause the crowd of accusers to disperse, leaving the woman alone with Yeshua. No accusers … no case. He did not ask her whether she was guilty. He said only that he would not convict her, and she should go on her way and not sin anymore. The woman might have indeed been guilty. Yeshua saved her from being lynched and publicly stoned to death without a trial.
Parables and Sayings
Yeshua also speaks of women in his parables and sayings. When describing the kingdom of heaven, he finds several examples involving women.
Matt. 13:33 … “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Maybe there were also male bakers in Israel, or maybe not. But the next example suggests a deliberate choice of a woman as the subject of the parable.
Lk. 15:8 “What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search until she finds it?”
Are women more prone to lose things than men? Or did he mean to suggest that in Israel women, and not only men, had money to spend on household expenses? In any case, he again uses a woman as the subject of the parable.
Jn. 16:21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.
Comparing a woman giving birth to the redemption is one way to honor and respect the role of women in procreation and in life.
Matt. 24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
The verse before speaks of two men, or two people, working in the field, while this verse uses the feminine form of the verb to indicate that two women are meant. It is a form of inclusive speech that Yeshua used centuries before it became popular in our modern culture.
Yeshua and Non-Israelite Women
The Gospels include examples of Yeshua speaking even to non-Israelite women. Once, Yeshua was sitting by Jacob’s well in Samaria. Jn. 4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Yeshua said to her, “Give me a drink.” 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
A long conversation followed, as a result of which the woman recognized Yeshua as the Mashiach, ran to town to tell people about him, and many people came to meet him. The reaction of the disciples when they returned from their shopping in the city shows how unusual it was that he should speak to this woman.
Jn. 4:27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman …
On another occasion Yeshua was in the region of Tyre, and he was approached by a local woman. Matthew tells us the disciples wanted to send her away (15:23). Here is what happened.
Mk. 7:25 A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.”
Yeshua was kind to this Gentile woman, even though she was loud and annoying and demanding when she first approached. He had to remind her that his first mission was to the children of Israel. But when she more humbly persisted, believing that he could help her daughter, he honored her faith by answering her request.
Women as Witnesses of His Resurrection
The last subject I will address is the role that women played as witnesses to Yeshua’s resurrection. Jewish law did not generally permit women to serve as witnesses in court. There were exceptions, but this was the rule. The Talmud bases this on the Torah.
Shevuot 30a How do we know (that women cannot be witnesses)? — Because the Rabbis taught: (Deuteronomy 19:17) “And the two men shall stand”. The verse refers to witnesses. — You say it refers to witnesses; but perhaps it refers to the litigants? When it says: “between whom the controversy is”, the litigants are already mentioned; hence, how do I explain “and the two men shall stand”? Therefore, that phrase refers to witnesses. And if you wish, I can give you another proof: Here (Deut. 19:17) it is said, ‘two’ (men), and there (Deut. 19:15) it is said, ‘two’; just as there it refers to witnesses, so here (where it is written ‘men’), it refers to (male) witnesses.
It is therefore worth noticing that when Yeshua rose from the dead, his primary witnesses were women. John 20 tells how the women who had prepared spices to anoint Yeshua’s body came to the tomb and found it empty, the stone having been rolled away. They ran home to tell the disciples, who came and saw the empty tomb. When they returned home, Mary Magdalene remained by the tomb, weeping. Looking inside, she saw two angels, then turned around and saw Yeshua himself. She did not recognize him at first, until he spoke her name, and then she knew it was him. Only after this did Yeshua begin appearing to the disciples during the time until he ascended.
The disciples’ mission was to serve as witnesses to Yeshua’s resurrection, to testify before kings and courts throughout the known world. Perhaps it had to be that way, because the women’s testimony would not have been admissible in the courts of law and government. But Yeshua, even in his death, did not exclude women, granting a few of them this role of bearing the first witness that he was alive.
Yeshua stepped beyond the social boundaries of his generation, publicly speaking with women, teaching them, and healing them and their families. When he spoke in parables, he included women as examples. His halakhic rulings gave more protection to women than the customs and laws of his time. His compassion extended even to non-Jewish women. And he gave some women the task of being the first witnesses of his resurrection. We would do well to follow his example by extending courtesy, honor, compassion and inclusion to the women in our lives, even above and beyond our usual social norms.