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Chapter 4, Part 5

Headship, Submission, and Equality in Scripture

Samuele Bacchiocchi

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Part IV - Headship, Submission, and Equality in the Old Testament

1. Husband-Wife Relationships

The author's fundamental thesis is that the principle of male headship and female submission originated at the Fall (Gen 3:16) and was designed to govern only the husband-wife relationship and not male-female roles in the religious life of God's people. To prove the validity of this thesis he endeavors to show in the second half of his chapter that in both the Old and New Testaments the principle of headship and submission applies to the home but not to the religious community of faith. Since elsewhere I have dealt at length with the ministry of women in the Old and New Testaments, here I will limit my comments to a few basic observations.41

The author finds in the Old Testament ample "evidence for the husband headship principle in marriage," but he emphasizes that "such headship does not override the basic equality between marriage partners, nor does it imply the husband's ownership, oppression, domination, or authoritative control over the wife."42 On this point we are in perfect agreement. God never intended that husband headship should be a means of domination or oppression but a responsibility of service. A survey of the evidence in this area is unnecessary because there is no disagreement.

The area of disagreement centers on the role of women in the religious life of ancient Israel and of the New Testament church. Our author maintains that "while the headship principle of Genesis 3:16 clearly functions to regulate the Old Testament husband-wife relationship, this principle is not widened into the covenant community in such a way as to cause the rejection of women leaders on the basis of gender--even women leaders exercising headship over men."43

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2. Does a Prophetess Exercise a Headship Role?

Deborah is the author's major example to support his contention that women served in headship roles over men in the Old Testament covenant community. He writes, "I note particularly the leadership role of Deborah the prophetess and judge (Judges 4-5). Deborah clearly exercised headship functions over men as the recognized political leader of the nation, the military leader of Israel on an equal footing with the male general Barak, and a judge to whom men and women turned for legal counsel and divine instruction. There is no indication in the text that such female leadership over men in the covenant community was looked upon as unusual or was opposed to the divine will for women."44

In examining Deborah's role in ancient Israel, we first note that she is introduced to us in Scripture as a "prophetess" who judged the people under a palm tree and not as a military leader. "Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment" (Jud 4:4-5).

Did Deborah as a prophetess exercise a headship role over men in ancient Israel? The answer is No! Why? Because the role of a prophet or prophetess is that of a messenger, not a leader. A prophet exercises no authority of his own but communicates the messages and decisions of the One who has sent him.

The careers of the Old Testament prophets make it clear that they did not exercise headship. They often rebuked the leaders who did have the headship, trying to persuade them to change their evil course and turn to God. All too often their efforts were rejected. Some of them, such as Micaiah (1 Kings 22) and Jeremiah (Jer 38), were imprisoned because their messages displeased the rulers. Isaiah is said to have been sawn in two at the order of the king. Jesus recognized and lamented how the prophets had been treated: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!" (Matt 23:37). Clearly the prophets did not exercise headship in Israel. Their messages had great power and moral authority, because they came from God; but the prophetic role entailed no headship. Even when the country's leaders obeyed God's word conveyed through the prophets, the prophetic role was never that of head. The relationship between prophets and leaders (heads) in the best of times is illustrated in Ezra 5:1, 2: "Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and with them were the prophets of God, helping them" (emphasis mine).

What is true of the male prophet is no less true of the female prophetess. Her role was not that of head but of messenger. The Bible sees the prophetess in a supportive and complementary role which does not negate male headship. Paul clarifies this point in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, where he defends the right of women to pray and prophesy in the church because the gifts of the Spirit are given to the church without regard to sexual differences (Joel 2:28; 1 Cor 12:7-11). Note, however, that Paul opposes the behavior of those women who disregarded their subordinate position by praying and giving prophetic exhortations to the congregation with their heads uncovered like the men.

Paul opposes this practice because "any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head--it is the same as if her head were shaven" (1 Cor 11:5). The "head" being dishonored is her husband, for Paul states in verse 3 that "the head of a woman is her husband." Why would it dishonor her husband for a woman to pray and prophesy in public with her head uncovered? Simply because the head covering, whatever its nature, was seen in that culture as the sign of her being under the "head" or authority of a man (cf. 1 Cor 11:10). Thus, the removal of such a sign constituted a repudiation of her husband's authority or headship, which a woman was called to respect, not only in the home but also in the church.

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3. Did Deborah Exercise a Headship Role?

The implications for our study are clear. Since the prophetic role did not involve headship, prophesying by a woman, such as Deborah, did not violate the principle of male headship, as long as she did it in a proper manner and demeanor that did not negate male headship. There are several indications that Deborah respected the principle of male headship explained by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

First, Deborah's role as a judge was unique, for, contrary to our author's assertion, she is the only judge in Judges who did not serve as a military leader. Instead of leading an army into battle like other judges, as the Lord's messenger she received instruction from Him to summon Barak to lead an army of ten thousand men into battle against Sisera, the general of Jabin, king of Canaan, who was oppressing Israel (Jud 4:6-7). It is significant that Deborah did not assume the headship role of an army general; she conveyed God's call to Barak to serve in that capacity.

Second, in a discreet way Deborah rebuked Barak for his unwillingness to go to battle without her (Jud 4:8). Because of his reluctance, Deborah warned Barak that "the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman" (Jud 4:9). But the woman who earned the glory by killing Sisera while he slept in her tent was not Deborah but Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite (Jud 4:17-22).

Third, perhaps to avoid any possible misunderstanding about their role within their culture, the prophetic ministries of Deborah and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20) differ significantly from those of male prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Male prophets exercised their prophetic ministry in a public manner, being commissioned to proclaim the word of the Lord before the people and the king himself (Is 6:9; 7:3; 58:1; Jer 1:10; 2:2; 7:2; Ezek 2:3; 6:2). For example, the Lord said to Isaiah, "Cry aloud and spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins" (Is 58:1). Similarly, to Jeremiah the Lord said, "Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all of you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord" (Jer 7:2).

The prophetic ministry of Deborah was substantially different from this. She did not go out and publicly proclaim the word of the Lord. Instead, individuals came to consult her privately under the palm tree where she sat: "She used to sit under the palm of Deborah . . . and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment" (Jud 4:5). Presumably she came to be known as a godly woman through whom God communicated His will. People came to trust her judgment in resolving their disputes. Though it would not have been out of place for Deborah as a prophetess to proclaim God's word publicly, she did not exercise her prophetic ministry in a public forum like the Old Testament male prophets. Even when she spoke to Barak she talked to him privately (Jud 4:6, 14). And the song of praise was sung by Deborah and Barak together (Jud 5:1), which suggests equality rather than headship. More telling still is the fact that she is praised as a "mother in Israel" (Jud 5:7). It is evident that she was perceived to be primarily a spiritual mother, not as filling the traditional role of an elder or judge or prophet.

Similarly, Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20) did not proclaim God's word publicly, though it would not be wrong for a prophetess to do so since the prophetic role does not entail headship. Huldah, however, explained the word of the Lord privately to the messengers sent to her by King Josiah (2 Kings 22:15), giving no occasion to anyone to misinterpret her adherence to the womanly role. Miriam's prophetic ministry also avoided misinterpretation, for she ministered only to women. "Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them" (Ex 15:20-21, emphasis mine).

The preceding considerations suggest that the ministry of Deborah as a judge was unusual, even unique. It is possible that the Lord used her at a critical time of apostasy, when the spiritual leadership of men was lacking. We are told that "the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord . . . and the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan" (Jud 4:1-2). The exceptional calling of a woman like Deborah at a time of crisis can hardly be used to establish the general principle of women serving in a headship role over men in the covenant community. As if anticipating the current debate, Calvin makes a pertinent comment regarding Deborah: "If any one brings forward, by way of objection, Deborah (Jud 4:4) and others of the same class, of whom we read they were at one time appointed by the command of God to govern the people, the answer is easy. Extraordinary acts done by God do not overturn the ordinary rules of government, by which He intended that we should be bound."45

To sum up, women who fulfilled a prophetic ministry in the Old Testament did not exercise a headship role, nor did their male counterparts. In the New Testament, women prophesied publicly before the congregation, but their demeanor (head covering) had to show respect for male headship.

Note that prophetic speaking in the Corinthian congregations was understood in the broad sense of communicating a message of exhortation from God. We may conclude that this ministry did not involve assuming the leadership role of the church for at least two reasons. First, Paul suggests that the prophetic ministry of "upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (1 Cor 14:3) was open to all: "For you can all prophesy one by one" (1 Cor 14:31). This by itself indicates that the prophetic role did not convey leadership or headship on the one who exercised it. Second, as we have seen, the prophetic role was that of a messenger, not of a leader or head. The prophets often had to convey the messages of God to the leaders, but they did not have headship power to implement the instructions in those messages.

In light of the above considerations, we conclude that the prophetic ministry of women in both the Old and New Testaments was not seen as exercising headship over men but as respecting the leadership role of men in the community of faith, even when the prophetic ministry involved bringing messages of rebuke or correction from God.

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4. No Women Priestesses in the Old Testament

Regrettably, in his discussion of the role of women in the covenant community of ancient Israel, our author does not address the crucial question as to why women served as prophetesses but not as priestesses. An examination of this question could have provided a much-needed corrective to his claim that women exercised headship positions over men in the religious life of ancient Israel. The absence of priestesses shows otherwise. The reason women were precluded from ministering as priestesses is that priests served as representatives of God to the people. Their headship role could not legitimately be fulfilled by a woman. This fact alone constitutes a serious challenge to the author's thesis.

Another author addressed the question, "Why not a woman priest in Israel?" in chapter 2 of the same symposium, Women in Ministry. Since our first author frequently refers to this scholar, we will briefly consider the two basic reasons our second author gives for the exclusion of women from the priesthood. The first is historical and the second is theological. His historical reason is that priestesses in the ancient Near East "were often associated with sacred prostitution." Thus for him, the absence of priestesses in ancient Israel "is to be understood as a reaction to pagan syncretism and sexual perversion."46

This popular argument falls short on at least two counts. First, the fact that some of the pagan priestesses served as prostitutes cannot be a valid reason for God to exclude Israelite women from serving as exemplary priestesses at the sanctuary. A legitimate practice cannot be prohibited because of its perversion. The sons of Eli "lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (1 Sam 2:22), but there is no indication that these prostitutions resulted in the abolition of male priesthood or of the ministry of women at the entrance of the sanctuary. If the argument were valid, then not even men should have functioned as priests because of the danger of male prostitution, which the Bible views as more abominable than female prostitution, calling male cult prostitutes "dogs" (Deut 23:18; Rev 22:15).

Second, there are indications that many, if not most, of the pagan priestesses in the ancient world lived chaste and devoted lives. Some of the Babylonian priestesses lived in cloisters.47 The women priests who officiated, for example, at the temples of Vesta, Apollo, Athena, Polias, and Dionysius, as well as in the various mystery religions, were in most cases either celibate or very continent in their life-styles. This shows that the argument regarding the danger of "sacred prostitution" does not hold water.48

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5. Why Couldn't Women Offer Sacrifices?

The theological reason the second author gives for the exclusion of women from the priesthood is "because of the sacrificial function, the only priestly act denied to women."49 Women could not offer priestly sacrifices, he writes, because of "the incompatibility of the sacrifice, normally associated with death and sin, and the physiological nature of the woman traditionally associated in the Bible with life and messianic pregnancy."50

The notion that women were precluded from the sacrificial function of the priesthood because physiologically their nature is "associated in the Bible with life and messianic pregnancy," sounds more like an ingenious rabbinical speculation than a biblical reason. Nowhere does the Bible suggest such a reason.

Our second author seeks support for his view in the command, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (Ex 23:19), but it doesn't fit. First, the primary reason for this injunction is generally recognized to be God's concern to prevent the Israelites from adopting a common Canaanite ritual practice. Second, boiling a kid in its mother's milk was not the same as a woman's offering an animal sacrifice. The former was prohibited, he speculates, "because it would be incongruous to associate the milk of the mother, carrier of life to the kid, with the death of the very kid."51 But this hardly applies to a woman sacrificing an animal, because she would not be sacrificing her own offspring. In fact, sacrificing an animal would not have contradicted a woman's capacity to give life, because God promised to restore life through the death of the offspring of the woman (Gen 3:15). Typologically speaking, a woman could have offered sacrifices more fittingly than a man, because the animal she would sacrifice could represent her Messianic offspring, who would be sacrificed for the salvation of His people.

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6. The Representative Role of a Priest

The true reason for the exclusion of women from the priesthood is to be found in the unique biblical view of the priest as representative of God to the people. This second author himself acknowledges this to be the "essential concept underlying the priesthood," namely, that "the priest was considered as God's representative."52 He also correctly points out that in both the Old and New Testaments "the Messiah is consistently identified as a priest."53 It was because of this headship role of a priest as representative of God and of the Messiah to come that women were excluded from the priesthood.

The priesthood developed through several stages in the Old Testament. During patriarchal times the head of the household or of the tribe fulfilled the priestly function of representing his household to God. Thus Noah (Gen 8:20), Abraham (Gen 22:13), Jacob (Gen 35:3), and Job (Job 1:5) each served as the representative priest of his family. With the establishment of the theocracy at Sinai and the erection of the tabernacle, God appointed the tribe of Levi to serve as priests in place of the firstborn or head of each family. "Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn that opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine" (Num 3:12-13). We noted earlier that the notion of the firstborn derives from Adam, the first created, and is even applied to Christ, "the firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15). The firstborn was the head of the family, and the priests served as the spiritual heads of Israel.

While God called all the people of Israel, male and female, to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19:5-6; cf. Is 61:6), after the Sinai apostasy the Levites were chosen to serve as the representative heads of the whole nation because of their allegiance to God (Ex 32:26-29). When the priests ministered they acted as the representatives of God to the people.

Because of this representative role which the priests fulfilled as heads of the household of Israel, women were excluded from the priesthood. A woman could minister as a prophet, because a prophet was primarily a communicator of God's will and God communicates His will through men and women, irrespective of gender. But a woman could not function as a priest, because a priest was appointed to act as the representative of the people to God and of God to the people. As James B. Hurley correctly observes, "The Mosaic provision [for an exclusively male priesthood] stands in a historical continuum and continues the practice of having representative males serve to officiate in public worship functions."54

"The fact that most pagan religions of the time did have priestesses, as well as priests," notes John Meyendorff, "shows that a male priesthood was the sign of a specifically biblical, i.e. Jewish and Christian, identity."55 This unique, counter-cultural Jewish and Christian practice stems not from the religious genius of either Judaism or Christianity but from divine revelation which at creation established a functional headship role for man to fulfill in the home and in the household of faith.

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7. Did God Dress Eve as a Priestess?

The second author's most imaginative attempt to find "biblical" support for a priestly role for women in the Old Testament is his interpretation of the garment of skins God made for Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21). "God chose animal skin. This specification not only implies the killing of an animal, the first sacrifice in history, but by the same token, confirms the identification of Adam and Eve as priests, for the skin of the atonement sacrifice was specifically set apart for the officiating priests (Lev 7:8). By bestowing on Adam and Eve the skin of the sin offering, a gift reserved for priests, the Genesis story implicitly recognizes Eve as priest alongside Adam."56

This claim that "Adam and Eve were, indeed, dressed as priests" cannot be supported biblically. The Bible gives no indication that priests wore garments made from the skins of the animals they sacrificed. The priests wore fine linen garments (Ex 28:29), which were often called garments of "salvation" (2 Chron 6:41; Ps 132:16) because they typified the purity and salvation that God offered through the ministry of the priests. No such typological significance is attached to any skin garment in the Bible. We are on much firmer ground if we interpret the text at its face value as meaning, to use the words of Ellen G. White, that "the Lord mercifully provided them with a garment of skins as a protection from the extremes of heat and cold."57 While the slaying of animals for man's needs may suggest the idea of sacrifice, the text per se, as Leupold points out, "does not teach that, nor is it an allegory conveying a lesson to that effect. The meaning is what the letter of the statement says--no more."58

Had God dressed Eve as a priest at the time of the Fall, it would be surprising that we do not find a single clear example of a "female priest" in the Bible. The reason is not cultural but theological, namely, the biblical teaching that only men could serve in the headship roles of priest in the Old Testament and of apostles, elders, and pastors in the New Testament.

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8 Conclusion

Women played a most vital role both in the private and public religious life of ancient Israel. As full members of the covenant community, women participated in studying the law and teaching it to their children (Prov 1:8; Deut 31:12; Neh 8:2), in offering prayers and vows to God (1 Sam 1:10; Gen 25:22; 30:6, 22; 21:6-7), in ministering at the entrance of the sanctuary (1 Sam 2:22), in singing, and in the prophetic ministry of exhortation and guidance (Ezra 2:65; 1 Chron 25:5-6; Jud 4:4-6; 2 Kings 22:13-14).

But, in spite of the first author's attempts to prove the contrary, the religious roles of women in ancient Israel were different from those of men. Women served in accordance with the principles of equality of being and submission of function that are implicit in the creation story. The principle of male headship in the home and in public worship is recognized even by Clarence J. Vos, an Evangelical feminist, who writes: "It was not her [the woman's] task to lead the family or tribe in worship; normally this was done by the patriarch or the eldest male member. That a male was appointed to this function no doubt rested on the idea that the male was considered the `firstborn' of the human family--a motif discernible in the creation story of Genesis 2."59



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Chapter 4, Part 4

Chapter 4, Part 6

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is Professor of Religion, Andrews University.

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