The Bible makes it easy to see how little its writers valued women. It says women are nothing but trouble, and good ones are very rare. It even has a list showing exactly how much God supposedly thinks various kinds of people are worth. So how much is a woman worth? It varies with age, but generally a woman is worth about half as much as a man according to the Bible. Two-thirds as much, at best.
Maybe that has something to do with why having sons was considered more desirable than having daughters. And why it says giving birth to a girl makes a woman “unclean” for twice as long as when she gives birth to a boy. Speaking of reproductive uncleanness, the Bible says everyone has to shun women and treat them as “unclean” about half the time (during and after their periods). Menstruation apparently makes God angry. (So why did he design women that way?)
Judah thought his daughter-in-law should be executed when he heard that she had engaged in prostitution, even though he had just had sex with a prostitute1 himself, and he didn’t seem to think he had done anything wrong.2 In the Gospel of John, a woman is caught in the act of adultery and brought out to be stoned to death, as the law commanded. But for some reason they didn’t bring out her partner in crime to be stoned too, even though the law also said the man had to be stoned to death.
Biblical gender roles
The Bible claims that women were made for the purpose of serving men. It also says they were then cursed so that men would always rule over them. And it uses the Eve origin story to justify subjugating women. It says women aren’t allowed to speak at church, or to teach, or to be in any position of authority. It suggests that women don’t make good leaders, any more than children do. The kingdom of Israel never had a female ruler, and only one queen ever reigned over the kingdom of Judah. And she’s portrayed as a bad one.
The Bible says men and women always have to wear different kinds of clothing. It’s disgraceful for a woman not to dress or wear her hair in the same way that would be disgraceful for a man. But women shouldn’t dress too fancy, either.
God says daughters can inherit their parents’ property, but only if there are no sons.3 Some people who hear this then object to having even that much equality. They argue that if those women marry men from other tribes, that could lead to one tribe losing its wealth to another tribe (due to the male-focused nature of how their society worked). But when “God” responds, he doesn’t have a problem with that last part. Instead, he says they’ve got it right, that’s exactly how it works. And he solves their little tribe problem by telling them to be more discriminatory, not less.
A lot of the time, the Bible just ignores women, because the activities that were considered important were also considered to be for men only. Approved female occupations were mostly limited to things like sewing, cooking, fetching water, having children,4 taking care of people, crying, and other things women could do at home.
Whenever they take a census in the Bible, they only count the males, because women weren’t considered to be capable of fighting. Even when a woman did conquer the enemy, they tried to erase her achievement and attribute it to a man. The genealogies are patrilineal, and only mention the occasional woman as an afterthought. Saying “Let my people go” was considered to be the same as saying “Let just the men go.” When the Bible writers were talking about both men and women, they felt the need to clarify it by mentioning the people “and their women“.
A lot of rules in the Bible, particularly the ones about sex, are for some reason written with only male readers in mind, as if women are never going to be reading the Bible or deciding who to have sex with.5 This leads to some strange implications if you take what’s written literally. Some rules, like the ones against having sex with certain people if they’re engaged to somebody else, don’t appear to apply if you’re a woman. And what about that rule that says nobody can have sex with a man?? Most women aren’t going to like that rule. For that matter, most men aren’t going to like nobody ever being able to have sex with them, either. They did not think this through.
Women as property
In the past, women were usually considered to be the property of men. And rather than providing the visionary moral insights you’d expect from the word of a perfect God, the Bible only encouraged the status quo.
The Bible condones taking virgin girls along with the other plunder from enemy nations and using them as sex slaves. Or wives, as it sometimes calls them.7 Not that the Bible really makes any distinction between servant girls and wives. Marriage in the past was basically a form of slavery.
The Bible describes marriage as men giving or selling their daughters to other men. Laban sold his two daughters to Jacob in exchange for 14 years of labor. Boaz bought a piece of land in order to get the woman who came with the land. Saul sold his daughter to David in exchange for 200 foreskins. And after Hosea’s wife left him, God had him buy her back from her other lover. God punishes men by giving their property to other men, including their wives. Wives belonged to their husbands. The commandment against coveting lists wives along with cows and donkeys and other things your neighbor might own.
That explains why in ancient times, the only kind of adultery people cared about8 was when a man had sex with another man’s wife.9 That was a crime because the man would be using somebody else’s property without permission. Solomon wrote at length to discourage his son from doing that. But Solomon had 700 wives and 300 girlfriends, so he clearly didn’t think there was anything wrong with a woman having sex with another woman’s husband. Women didn’t own men, after all. The law generally allowed a man to own as many wives as he could provide for. But a woman could only belong to one husband at a time.
At one point in the Bible, the tribe of Benjamin is in need of wives, because the other Israelites have just killed all the Benjamite women, and have sworn not to “give a wife” to any Benjamite. The only way they can think to solve this problem is to have the Benjamite men kidnap a bunch of women. It never occurs to them that they could just let the women decide to marry Benjamites on their own if they want to, without their fathers having to do anything.
The Bible says if someone hits a pregnant woman, they have to compensate her owner (her husband) for the damaged property, rather than having to compensate her. It says if a man falsely accuses a woman he married of not having been a virgin, he has to compensate her manufacturer (her father) for slandering his product, rather than having to compensate her.
It says if a man rapes a virgin, he has to compensate her owner (her father) for the damaged property, rather than having to compensate her.10 And if you’re a single woman who isn’t a virgin (in which case you’d probably be considered already damaged and unsellable), “God” doesn’t seem to care if you get raped. The Bible has no laws against that, since there’s no obvious way to interpret it as a crime against a man.
Control over women
Right after he tells slaves to always submit to their masters even if they’re violently abusive, Peter says wives need to submit to their husbands in the same way. Paul agrees that wives need to submit to their husbands, treating them like they’re God. He thinks this requirement of extreme submission is fitting and will prevent people from slandering the Bible.11
When a king’s wife disobeyed him, he banished her, so all the other women wouldn’t think they could get away with disobeying their husbands, the rulers of their households. The Bible portrays women as thinking that what kind of behavior is proper is entirely determined by what their husbands think. When women try to make their own decisions, they’re often ignored and overruled by men. The Bible’s laws say a man is always fully responsible for keeping any vows he makes, but a woman’s vow can be nullified by the man who’s in charge of her (her father or husband).
It says a man whose brother dies without a son has to marry his brother’s widow and pretend that the dead man is the one having children with her. A man who chooses not to go along with that custom is to be publicly shamed. But the writers of the Bible don’t even consider the possibility that the woman might not want to marry that man. Only the man’s desires matter.
When Abraham sent a servant to get a wife for his son, her father said to go ahead and take her, without waiting to see if she was willing to marry a man she’d never met. All they needed was the consent of her owner. They didn’t bother consulting her at all until after it was already decided, and they were just sorting out the details of getting her to her new owner. The Bible says a man is allowed to divorce his wife any time he wants, but it never says a woman can divorce her husband if she wants to. Only the owner has the authority to make that decision.
The Bible has the supposedly righteous man Lot decide to send his daughters outside to appease the mob of rapists surrounding his house. The only reason he doesn’t actually do it is that the rapists don’t happen to be interested in them. And God still thinks Lot is worth saving from the doomed city after that. It says sending a man out in a situation like that would have been wicked and vile and outrageous. But his daughters are his own property, so it must be okay for him to do whatever he wants with them, right?
Most of the time, the Bible is sexist against women. Is it ever sexist against men? They wouldn’t leave the men out, would they? Let’s see…
Pharaoh tried to get all the new baby Hebrew boys killed, while the girls would merely be enslaved. Of course, the Bible doesn’t say God approved of that. But it does say God not only approved, but required his people to do similar things to other nations. God also decided to kill every male slave or family member of the king of Israel, twice. So the men are definitely worse off here. On the other hand, it’s likely that the reason behind wanting to kill only the males was actually sexist against women: They didn’t bother killing the females because they were considered too insignificant to matter.
The Bible sort of says it’s unacceptable for a woman to lose her virginity before marriage.12 But it also sort of says it’s unacceptable for a man to lose his virginity ever. It’s not clear exactly what this passage in Revelation means, but at best, it says men who never have sex will be judged as “blameless” and will get special treatment in the afterlife. Some people even think it’s saying that those are the only people who can ever be saved! That would mean all women go to hell, though, so women still have it worse if that’s the case.
As I already mentioned, there’s also that one law in the Bible that technically implies that men are never allowed to have sex because no one’s allowed to have sex with them. Though that’s probably not what they meant to say. And that’s about it for biblical sexism against men.
The Bible does specify that some of its dumb rules apply equally to men and women. (Though of course, it sometimes contradicts itself and also says they don’t.) Paul once wrote that a husband has authority over his wife’s body, but a wife also has authority over her husband’s body. He thought if only one spouse wanted to have sex, the other shouldn’t be allowed to refuse. That’s a terrible idea, but it’s not sexist.
Haman wanted to kill all the Jews, young and old, men and women alike. When Saul’s servant Doeg destroyed the town of the priests because one of them accidentally helped Saul’s enemy, he actually did murder everyone there, young and old, men and women alike. The Bible doesn’t say God approved of those people, but it does say he approved of others when they did the same thing.
When the Israelites attacked Jericho and the Amalekites, they murdered everyone, young and old, men and women alike, as God commanded. So did David (who always did just what God wanted) when he was living outside of Israel and massacring everyone around him. So did the supposedly good king Asa when he exterminated everyone in Judah who didn’t share his religious views. And so did Nebuchadnezzar when God sent him to kill everyone in the sanctuary and put an end to the kingdom of Judah. Equality!
Job believed that God wanted him to treat his servants justly, whether they were male or female. Paul once wrote that men depend on women, because men come from women.13 But he only said that because he thought it would somehow justify his weird sexist dress code ideas. Paul also once denied that his religion saw any distinction between men and women. That must have been a great comfort to all the women who were being subjugated, silenced, and held down as a result of his instructions.
Peter, the same guy who said women should submit to their husbands the same way he thinks slaves should submit to their violent masters, said husbands should treat their wives with “respect”. But only because they’re so weak, and because he thinks God might not give the men what they want otherwise.
The Bible occasionally mentions women who have more powerful or respectable occupations than usual. The ideal woman described in Proverbs doesn’t just do housework, she’s a merchant, too. There were female prophets and wise women people went to for advice.14 Deborah was both a prophet and a leader of Israel. There were women who built towns (and women who just helped).