Sexism in the scriptures



Are the scriptures misogynistic or sexist?

Some have criticized the scriptures for being misogynistic or sexist.

The scriptures are, for the most part, positive, supportive, and enlightened about women compared to their contemporaries. There are some differences, though, in how we understand the status of women.

A brief overview of the scriptures' view of women may be useful.

Scriptural analysis

At creation, God created man and woman in his own image and gave them both, equally, dominion over the earth (Gen 1꞉27; Moses 2꞉27; 6꞉9; Abraham 4꞉27). Latter-day Saints understand this to be that mankind is literally created in the image of God and that God and man are the same species.[1] Man and woman were pronounced "one flesh" (Gen 2꞉24-25). This was the original ideal: that man and woman were one flesh, one status, equals. There are a number of other scriptures that affirm this equality. A few of the more popular ones include:

  • 1 Corinthians 11꞉11 "Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord."

There are many other texts that speak positively of women. It is obvious that the Lord has a high view of women and their role in the Plan of Salvation.

The Challenging Texts

There are a few texts that do challenge the casual reader. Upon closer examination, the more challenging texts can be viewed in a much better light.

General lack of female writers in the scriptures

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #391: Why Are So Few Women Mentioned in the Book of Mormon? (Video)

Some have questioned why it is that only male writers were allowed to write scripture for most of the texts we have.

It's indisputably true that men make up most of the voices of scripture. Named women make up anywhere between 5 -8.8 % (depending on adjusting for duplicate names, different ways of translating certain names, and names that might be used for either a man or woman) named characters in the Bible (many more unnamed women exist.[2]

The Book of Mormon only mentions 6 women by name (Abish, Eve, Isabel, Sarah, Sariah, and Mary). The Doctrine and Covenants only mentions two women by name (Emma Smith and Vienna Jaques). The Pearl of Great Price mentions 12 by name—7 of which appear elsewhere in scripture (Adah, Egyptus, Emma Smith, Eve, Katharine Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, Lucy Smith, Milcah, Naamah, Sophronia Smith, Sarai, and Zillah).

Why is this the case? A few potential reasons:

  1. In the case of the Book of Mormon, New Testament, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants, they "do not contain the kinds of texts, like law books or social histories, that discuss women more often, like the Old Testament does."
  2. In the case of all books of scripture, "[l]iteracy is another factor we must take into account. Unlike many modern Western societies, where both men and women are literate, in the ancient Near East and pre-Columbian America, it was primarily men who were literate."
  3. In the case of the Book of Mormon especially (but perhaps applying to other scriptural editors, authors, and compilers), one element "that may help explain the lack of women. ... is Mormon’s occupation. As a military commander, Mormon devoted much of the Book of Mormon to depictions of war. Yet, like most women in much of the rest of the ancient world, pre-Columbian American women rarely participated in warfare. Thus, much of the book discusses an activity that women would not be directly involved with: war."
  4. After the Fall, the scriptures indicate that the Patriarchal order was confirmed to be passed down from father to son (D&C 107꞉40)—this charged men with the duty of acting as prophets to the people as a whole.

Becoming a "help meet" for Adam

Some are dismayed by Eve being designated as a "helpmeet" (Genesis 2꞉18; Moses 3꞉18; Abraham 5꞉14, 21) for Adam and not being simply his equal. Some interpret "help" as something subordinate to Adam. The Hebrew word translated as "help" is עֵזֶר (ʿezer). According to NET Bible:

Traditionally "helper." The English word "helper," because it can connote so many different ideas, does not accurately convey the connotation of the Hebrew word עֵזֶר (ʿezer). Usage of the Hebrew term does not suggest a subordinate role, a connotation which English "helper" can have. In the Bible God is frequently described as the "helper," the one who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, the one who meets our needs. In this context the word seems to express the idea of an "indispensable companion." The woman would supply what the man was lacking in the design of creation and logically it would follow that the man would supply what she was lacking, although that is not stated here.[3]

The word translated as "meet" is k'negdo. Again from NET Bible:

The Hebrew expression כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (k'negdo) literally means "according to the opposite of him." Translations such as "suitable [for]" (NASB, NIV), "matching," "corresponding to" all capture the idea. (Translations that render the phrase simply "partner" [cf. NEB, NRSV], while not totally inaccurate, do not reflect the nuance of correspondence and/or suitability.) The man’s form and nature are matched by the woman’s as she reflects him and complements him. Together they correspond. In short, this prepositional phrase indicates that she has everything that God had invested in him.

"and he shall rule over you" (Genesis 3꞉16)

This is indeed a patriarchal scripture. It represents the Fall's tragic disintegration of the equality and oneness that God envisions for Adam and Eve at Creation—being "one flesh." This is why we get some fallen social structures in the Old Testament. God still maintains dignity and demands respect for the woman in the Law of Moses—presented a little later on—in ways that move beyond contemporary treatment of women. This is discussed in more detail below.

Ultimately, the restored gospel aims to restore the equality of the genders and bring them into dominion over the entire universe as they enter into the covenant of marriage and share in God's life and activities together as an indissoluble unit (Doctrine and Covenants 132꞉19-20).

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife" (Exodus 20꞉17)

Some have pointed to the ten commandments as an example of misogyny. A woman is listed among a house, servants, an ox, an ass, and other things that belongs to a man. It is true that women were sometimes treated as a man's property. For instance, a father could sell his daughter into marriage in times of economic duress (see next section). However, he could not sell his wife.[4] Women could not be sold like animals or houses.

It is important to make a distinction between the legal status of women in Israel and their moral or religious status. While there are examples like these that may indicate a lower legal status, women (and more particularly married women) were morally and religiously considered equals with men. The woman was considered an equal partner in dominion over the earth with their husband (Genesis 1꞉27-28) and the man's complement (Genesis 2꞉18). Israelites were commanded to honor and respect (תיראו "stand in fearful awe of") both their father and mother (Exodus 20꞉12; Deuteronomy 5꞉16; Leviticus 19꞉3).

Exodus 21꞉7-11

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.

This passage establishes the rights of an indentured female who becomes a wife in the household where she serves.[5] This paragraph is troubling to modern readers, but given the way that marriages were contracted and the way people lived in the ancient world, it was a good provision for people who might want to find a better life for their daughter.[6]

It is a case of casuistic law.[7] Casuistic law is a law given for particular circumstances—generally not ideal situations—characterized by "if…then" statements.[8]

Thus, we are dealing here with something that was given for an non-ideal situation, not a necessarily common one. It evisages a time when the family was in economic stress and the father wanted to provide the daughter a better life—as stated before.[9] Here, the father is arranging for a man with means to marry her—not to sell her into "sex slavery," but to have all the rights of a spouse in their culture.

The word אָמָה (ʾamah) refers to a female servant who would eventually become a concubine or wife; the sale price included the amount for the service as well as the bride price. The arrangement recognized her honor as an Israelite woman, one who could be a wife, even though she entered the household in service. The marriage was not automatic, as the conditions show, but her good treatment was safeguarded, come what may. The law was a way, then, for a poor man to provide a better life for a daughter and give him the safety net the rest of the family needs.

Verse 8 is either suggesting something in a contradictory way or two different things.[10] It states that if the man is not pleased by the woman that he must let her be redeemed. But the second part of the verse suggests that the man is the one at fault since he has dealt with her deceitfully. This is universally understood to mean that the man promised to make the woman his wife but then balked.

"To be redeemed" has a couple of alternative interpretations:

The verb is a Hiphil perfect with vav (ו) consecutive from פָּדָה (padah, "to redeem"). Here in the apodosis the form is equivalent to an imperfect: "let someone redeem her"—perhaps her father if he can, or another. U. Cassuto says it can also mean she can redeem herself and dissolve the relationship (Exodus, 268).[11]

Verse 9 then states that if the man betroths the girl to his son, that he must provide all rights and privileges afforded to daughters in the family—to treat her as any normal daughter.

Verse 10 then states that if he takes another wife, that he is not to diminish the rights of the daughter to the food of the family, clothing, nor her marital rights (that her status as a woman cannot be diminished with the marriage of another besides her):

The translation of "food" does not quite do justice to the Hebrew word. It is "flesh." The issue here is that the family she was to marry into is wealthy, they ate meat. She was not just to be given the basic food the ordinary people ate, but the fine foods that this family ate.[12]

Verse 11 then states that if neither verse 8 nor 9 happen, then she is to go free without having any redeeming fee ("without having to pay money," NET Bible).

What about verse 7—she’s not allowed to go out like the menservants are? The meaning here is obscure.

The NRSV renders verse 2 "a male Hebrew servant", though the NET keeps the reading from the KJV as just "Hebrew servant". NET Bible notes that:

The interpretation of "Hebrew" in this verse is uncertain: (1) a gentilic ending, (2) a fellow Israelite, (3) or a class of mercenaries of the population (see W. C. Kaiser, Jr., "Exodus," EBC 2:431). It seems likely that the term describes someone born a Hebrew, as opposed to a foreigner (S. R. Driver, Exodus, 210). The literature on this includes: M. P. Gray, "The Habiru-Hebrew Problem," HUCA 29 (1958): 135–202.[13]

In any case, Deuteronomy 15꞉12 makes it explicitly clear that both males and female Hebrew slaves received this treatment. So, it either a) affirmed the law or b) updated the law soon after being given. This shows a quick redemptive move towards fairer treatment.

Numbers 5: the trial of jealousy

A few critics have pointed to Numbers 5 as an example of promoting inferiority of women. The text concerns itself with a trial given to a woman for adultery:

Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord: And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband:

Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.

And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter. Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the offering before the Lord, and offer it upon the altar: And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water.

And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.

It is true that this legislation only concerned women. But as we have noted, the law of Moses had a planned obsolescence. It was a lesser law that afforded certain improvements on the then-current moral code, taught strict obedience to God, and set the Israelites apart as a chosen people.

There are several points to make about this case that show some of these purposes in action:

  1. Adultery was universally condemned for all Israelites (Exodus 20꞉14; Matthew 5꞉27-28). Both men and women could suffer capital punishment for adultery in the Old Testament (Leviticus 20꞉10-21). This is in distinction with many other ancient cultures (e.g., Rome) in which women were expected to be chaste, but men could act as they pleased.
  2. The trial afforded women the opportunity to be tested for adultery. Other ancient near eastern law codes such as the Laws of Hammurabi allowed for men to accuse their women with or without witnesses. The trialin such cases was to throw the woman into a river and see if they floated. Other cultures threw people into a tar pit and only if they were able to escape would be considered innocent.
  3. Here a woman swears and oath and gives testimony about her innocence.
  4. The trial here required a miracle from God to prove a woman’s guilt and not a miracle to prove their innocence (such as floating in a river). This also stands in stark contrast to other contemporary law.
  5. There is no risk to the woman's life or safety from the trial process itself.

Thus, this law does rise above standard practice of the day. John 8 contains an update to this law and that of Leviticus by Jesus where he tells the adulterous woman simply to go and sin no more.

Impurity at Birth (Leviticus 12꞉1-8)

Leviticus 2 offers some legislation on the impurity of women after childbirth. The text stipulates that a woman will leave the Israelite camp and remain ritually unclean. The period of uncleanness differs between the birth of a boy or girl. The woman is ceremonially impure for forty days after the birth of a boy but eighty days after the birth of a girl. Why is this? A few explanations have been proposed

  1. Leviticus 5 explains more clearly that women were separated for their issue of blood. The resulting blood that comes from a female child may have simply separated the two for longer.
  2. Some scholars indicate that this was a kind of protection of females rather than a sign of inferiority.
  3. Some scholars suggest the motive may be to preserve Israel’s religious distinctiveness over against Canaanite religion, in which females engaged in religious sexual rites in their temples.

Either with a son or a daughter, the mother is to bring the identical offering; this is to be a purification offering (12:6)—not technically a sin offering—and its purpose is to take away the ritual (not moral) impurity.[14]

Women as war booty? (Deuteronomy 20꞉13-14)

See section above.

Deuteronomy 25꞉11-12—Female mutilation?

When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets: Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.

A few notes on translation:

  1. The phrase "strive together" is better translated "fighting"
  2. "Secrets" is better translated as "private parts".
  3. The word commonly used for hand in Hebrew, yad (as is used in verse 11) is not used in verse 12 and instead the word for palm, kaph is used. Kaph usually refers to the palm but can also refer to the sole of a foot, the hip socket, the concave area of the female genitalia, or other bent or bendy objects.[15]
  4. The word translated to "cut off" is used in the Qal form, which is a softer use than the Piel or Pual forms, which are emphatic. The Qal form of the verb can refer to clipping or shaving hair as is seen in Jer 9꞉26; 25꞉23; and 49꞉32.[16]

The interpretation of the passage that has the most explanatory power is the literal one: that the woman was punished by having her hand cut off. The majority of scholars who have taken this view usually see the differing words for hand as just being specific, since the palm of the hand of the woman (Kaph captures the instrumentality of the hand) is that which seized the genitals of the man. There is a parallel Assyrian law that required that a finger of the woman to be severed for such a situation. The passage is referring to altercations and focuses on the importance of the person's ability to reproduce in the future.[17]

An equivalent law applicable to men is presented in Exodus 21꞉22-25 and focuses on reproduction. In that passage, if a woman is given a miscarriage because of a fight, the woman's husband is able to ask for whatever fine he demands and a judge approves. If further damage is done to her (such as her ability to reproduce), then lex talionis is invoked.[18]

This is the only time that explicit mention of mutilation is laid out in the Bible.[19] Compare this to other contemporary law codes, such as that of the laws of Hammurabi, that allowed for "cutting off of the tongue, breast, hand, or ear—or the accused being dragged around a field by cattle."[20]

There is further disagreement on whether injury to the man is assumed, since there is no explicit mention of it. This differs from the parallel Assyrian law which is fairly explicit that injury is assumed—though the context is different since it is explaining punishments for women when there is a fight primarily between her and her husband. The bible law is instead primarily between two men, and the woman intervenes. It does seem to have more explanatory power to assume that injury or perhaps milder harm did occur, however. Otherwise, how is a woman to disarm the man without injuring him or causing some sort of pain?

There are at least two alternate interpretations of this passage:

  1. Since "kaph" can refer to either the hip socket (Gen 32꞉26,32 or the woman's vulva (of Solomon/5?lang=eng&id=p5#p5 Song of Solomon 5꞉5), it may be argued that the passage can be read as a literal lex talionis retributive punishment: eye for eye and genital for genital. This assumes that injury to the man actually occurred and not that it was merely attempted. If his genitals are damaged, so should the woman's—according to this interpretation of the passage.
  1. Assuming the interpretation of "kaph" used previously and given that the Qal form of "cut" is used, and noting the fact that the act of shaving for humiliation is practiced in Babylon and Sumer (also described in 2 Sam 10꞉4-5; Isa. 7꞉20), at least three scholars have argued that the passage is better interpreted as the woman being required to shave her pubic region—exchanging humiliation for humiliation. This assumes that no harm to the man was done.[21] It should be mentioned that this isn't the majority view—virtually all translations render these verses in the same way, presuming a literal reading.

The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children; they were their meat in the destruction of the of the daughter of my people (Lamentations 4꞉10)

This text describes a siege that Israel underwent when Jerusalem was invaded. The NRSV changes "pitiful" to "compassionate" in its translation. The rest of the verse is a common trope to simply describe cannibalism that came with the siege in an ironic way—reversing the natural order i.e., children feeding their mothers driven to cannibalism instead women feeding their children. Cannibalism was often resorted to because of famine during a siege (2 Kings 6꞉28) and seen as a punishment for violating the covenant (Deut 28꞉53-57).

Head of a woman is the man (1 Cor 11꞉3)

Paul begins an argument fRom 1꞉10 affirming a kind of hierarchy that has woman at the bottom, then man, then Christ, then God. But the argument breaks at verse 10 when he states "Nevertheless".[22] From verse 13-16 Paul emphasizes that in the Lord there is mutuality and reciprocity.[23]

Craig Keener explains these verses in context:

Because most Christians gathered in the wealthier homes, Christians of different social strata and backgrounds met together; "naked" hair held different social connotations for different women. To wealthier women, it signified at most ostentation; to most women from the east, it symbolized immodesty and, at worse, seduction. As in the case of some other issues (e.g., 11꞉21), Paul must here address a clash of social values: just as to many idol food connoted idolatry hence should be avoided for others’ sake, so uncovered hair to many connoted seduction and immodesty, hence should be avoided for others’ sake. A modern Western equivalent might be someone walking into a religious service in a bathing suit; although this might not disturb some California beach churches during the Jesus movement, newcomers with such informal attire might disrupt traditional churches in, say, New England. [. . .] Paul alludes to angels he mentioned earlier: Just as the Corinthians’ future judgment of angels should encourage them to judge rightly now (6꞉3), so the women’s future authority over angels should motivate them to use properly their authority over their heads now. (The future authority may reflect a restoration of authority in Gen 1꞉27-28, fitting the context in 11꞉7.) She has a "right" to do with her head as she wills, but like Paul, she must give up her "rights" (the sense of exousia in 12, 18#4-6, 12, 18 9꞉4-6, 12, 18, cf. 8꞉9) for the common good.[24]

Paul is then, affirming the authority of women and not their inferiority, but urging them to use that authority in a charitable way with due concern for others.

Latter-day Saint scholar Lynne Wilson has given a Latter-day Saint look at these verses:

Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, "Unveiling Women’s Veils of Authority"

Lynne Hilton Wilson,  Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, (February, 23, 2018)
The Apostle Paul’s theological explanation for female veil wearing (1 Corinthians 11꞉2-13) highlights the woman’s head covering as an expression of female empowerment or "authority/exousia." It appears that the Corinthian saints struggled with this tradition, as Paul preceded the discussion with, "but I would have you know/thelõ de" (1 Corinthians 11꞉3). Rather than merely restating the dress code for certain prayers, Paul laid out the doctrinal background underlying the imagery. He began with the order of creation from the Garden of Eden. God was the "kephale," meaning source or origin of Christ, who was the source of man, who was the source of woman. Paul taught that God’s glory (referring to man) should pray unveiled, and by the same token, humanity’s glory (referring to woman) should address God with her head covered (1 Corinthians 11꞉7). The early church interpreted the relationship between Adam and Eve typologically. The Edenic couple typified Christ and his Church — the Bridegroom and Bride. In this typological scenario, Eve (or the Church) worked through the mediator Adam (or Christ). In either a symbolic or literal interpretation, Paul described this empowering veil as a sign of unique female authority to pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11꞉5). By covering her head, female saints received "power on her head" and could interact with angels (1 Corinthians 11꞉10). Paul concluded by emphasizing that men and women are completely interdependent — woman was created from man, while man is born of woman (1 Corinthians 11꞉11-12). In this regard we see an equal status between men and women in their relationship with the Lord. Their relationship focuses on their union with each other and God.

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"Let your women keep silence in the churches" (1 Cor 14꞉34-35 ; 1 Timothy 2꞉11-15)

1 Cor 14꞉34-35 states:

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.[25]

These are explicitly patriarchal and implicitly sexist injunctions. The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible sought to harmonize these verses by changing "speak" in verse 34 and 35 to "rule"—suggesting that Joseph meant to bring this in harmony with the doctrines of priesthood organization and not suggest that women could not preach, expound upon the scriptures, pray, and so forth (D&C 25꞉7).

Approached differently, scholars have convincingly argued that this passage was a later addition to the text. Reasons given for this are:

  1. It disrupts the flow of the argument from v 33 to v 37
  2. It contradicts the assumption of Paul in 1 Cor 11꞉5 that women would prophesy in the Church.
  3. It reflects non-Pauline sentiments e.g., in verse 34 "as also saith the law". Paul repudiates "the law" several times in his letters as it had been fulfilled.
  4. The verses sometimes appear after v 40 in a few manuscripts, suggesting that it was uncertain how to place the argument in the canon.[26]

The same argument applies for the near identical passage in 1 Timothy 2꞉11-15. Thus, the wisdom of Joseph Smith's cauion is evident:

I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers.[27]

There are many things in the Bible which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelations of the Holy Ghost to me.[28]

"To deliver thee from the strange woman" (Proverbs 2꞉16; 24)

These two passages in Proverbs advise the audience stay away from strange women and an evil woman. Both of these are obviously connected to themes of chastity. "Strange" just means foreign. Evil just refers to evil. Women can be foreign and evil without being inherently of less moral worth.

Both men and women were not to marry outside the covenant. They were also, of course, to stay away from evil.

Better to dwell in the wilderness than with an angry and contentious woman (Proverbs 21꞉19)

This passage is male perspective trying to contrast between a prudent woman with a contentious woman (Cf. 19꞉13-14; 21꞉4). Contention is not of the Lord (3 Nephi 11꞉29).

More bitter than the woman…whose heart is in snares (Ecclesiastes 7꞉26)

Says Ecclesiastes:

And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseath God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.[29]

The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible comments:

The woman who is a trap, this verse is not a polemic against women in general but echoes in allegorical fashion the warnings of other wisdom writings against Folly, personified as a seductive woman (Prov 2, Prov 16-19; Prov 5꞉20; Prov 6꞉24-35; Prov 7꞉5-27; Prov 23꞉27-28). Wisdom is elusive, but Folly is on a hunt to catch people unawares.[30]

"The Weaker Vessell" 1 Peter 3꞉7

1 Peter 3꞉7 reads:

Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

Some have taken issue with describing women as "the weaker vessell." The verse is teaching respect toward women, i.e., "giving honour unto the wife". A premodern society where all work was done by human or animal muscle power would have no trouble understanding what modern research affirms: "untrained men have greater upper and lower body strength than trained women athletes in terms of both absolute and relative strength."[31] and "[m]en are physically stronger than women, who have, on average, less total muscle mass, both in absolute terms and relative to total body mass. The greater muscle mass of men is the result of testosterone-induced muscular hypertrophy. Men also have denser, stronger bones, tendons, and ligaments."[32] It would have been indisputable and unsurprising to Peter's audience that women were seen as physically weaker than men.

Peter seeks to affirm the equal worth of women during the times of the Roman empire when the male head of the family was expected to be submitted to and his gods worshipped by all of his household, including his wife and slaves. Roman heads of family had absolute power over family members, even being able to order their deaths at some periods of Roman history:

Pater Familialis [The Roman male head of household] exercised his power for life and had many powers. They were primarily the right to life and death (ius vitae necisque), the right to abandon newborns (ius exponendi), the right to sell children (ius vendendi).

He had unlimited power over all persons and things within the family. He was even entitled to life and death (ius vitae necisque) over free family members. The law of life and death was an extremely extreme example of regulating family relations. At the beginning of the Roman state, the pater familias had the right to kill his children, for which he could face minimal sacred or censorship sanctions. During the principality, this right was limited. The law of life and death was abolished in the 4th century CE.[33]

Peter in this letter is trying to affirm the equality of women with their Christian husbands. The context provided by this video is helpful:

Wives "subject to" husbands?

Summary: Paul counsels women to be "subject to" their husbands. Is this an invitation to dominion of men over women?
Learn more about sexism in the scriptures

Did God endorse rape in the Old Testament?

Many critics of the Bible frequently claim that God endorses rape in the Bible. This issue has been dealt with by several Christian scholars and apologists. There is no such endorsement of rape in the Old Testament by God.

There are instances in which women are raped, such as Dinah (Genesis 4) Tamar (2 Samuel 3), and the concubine in Judges 9.

These passages all portray rape negatively. We must be careful to keep in mind the difference between speaking predictively, prescriptively, and descriptively.

The verses that critics claim endorse rape) are: Exodus 22꞉16-17, Leviticus, Numbers 31꞉7-18, Deuteronomy 22꞉23-29, and Zechariah 14꞉1-2.[34]

We will consider each in turn.

Exodus 22꞉16-17 reads:

And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.

Deuteronomy 22꞉23-29 reads:

If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.

But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.

If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

The misconception regarding rape generally stems from misreading the phrase "lay hold on her". The New English Translation (NET) bible comments:

The verb תָּפַשׂ (taphas) means "to seize, grab." In all other examples this action is done against another person’s will, as in being captured, arrested, attacked, or grabbed with insistence (e.g. 1 Sam 23꞉26; 1 Kings 13꞉4; 18꞉40; 2 Kings 14꞉13; 25꞉6; Isa 3꞉6; Jer 26꞉8; 34꞉3; 37꞉13; 52꞉9; Ps 71꞉11; 2 Chronciles 25꞉23.)

So it may be that the man is forcing himself on her, which is what leads the NIV to translate the next verb as "rape," although it is a neutral euphemism for sexual relations. However, this is the only case where the object of תָּפַשׂ is a woman and the verb also also refers to holding or handling objects such as musical instruments, weapons, or scrolls. So it possible that it has a specialized, but otherwise unattested nuance regarding sexual or romantic relations, as is true of other expressions.

Several contextual clues point away from rape and toward a consensual relationship.

(1) The verb which seems to express force is different from the verb of force in the rape case in v. 25.

(2) The context distinguishes consequences based on whether the girl cried out, an expression of protest and a basis for distinguishing consent or force. But this case law does not mention her outcry which would have clarified a forcible act. While part of what is unique in this case is that the girl is not engaged, it is reasonable to expect the issue of consent to continue to apply.

(3) The penalty is less than that of a man who slanders his new wife and certainly less than the sentence for rape.

(4) The expression "and they are discovered" at the end of v. 28 uses the same wording as the expression in v. 22 which involves a consensual act.

(5) Although from a separate context, the account of the rape of Dinah seems to express the Pentateuch’s negative attitude toward forcible rape, not in advocating for Simeon and Levi’s actions, but in the condemnation included in the line Gen 34꞉7 "because he has done a disgraceful thing in Israel." This is very like the indictment in Deut 28꞉21 against the consenting woman, "because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel."

(6) The penalty of not being allowed to divorce her sounds like v. 19, where the man is punished for disgracing his wife unfairly. His attempted divorce fails and he must provide for her thereafter (the probable point of not being allowed to divorce her.) Here too, if his holding her is not forced, but instead he has seduced her, he is not allowed to claim that his new wife is not pure (since he is the culprit) and so he must take responsibility for her, cannot divorce her, and must provide for her as a husband thereafter.[35]

The meaning of "humbled" here seems difficult to ascertain. It is translated as "humiliated" in the NET and "violated" in the NRSV. Depending on how we look at the preceding text will determine how this is translated.

At first glance the passages do seem to be repugnant and treat women like property. A contextual reading yields a more redeeming view. Copan writes:

Upon closer inspection, the context emphasizes the protection of women, not the insignificance of women. We should first distinguish among three scenarios in the Deuteronomy 2 passage:

  1. Adultery between two consenting adults—a man and an engaged woman (v. 23), which is a violation of marriage ("he has violated his neighbor’s wife")
  2. The forcible rape of an engaged woman (v. 25), whose innocence is assumed.
  3. The seduction of an unengaged woman (v. 28), an expansion on the seduction passage of Exodus 22꞉16-17

In each case, the man is guilty. However, the critics’ argument focuses on verses 28-29: the rape victim is being treated like she is her father’s property. She’s been violated, and he rapist gets off by paying a bridal fee. No concern is shown for the girl at all. In fact, she’s apparently forced to marry the man who raped her! Are these charges warranted?

Regarding verses 22꞉28-29, various scholars see Exodus 22꞉16-17 as the backdrop to this scenario. Both passages are variations on the same theme Even if there is some pressure from the man, the young woman is complicit; though initially pressured (seduced), she doesn’t act against her will. The text says "they are discovered" (v. 22꞉28), not "he is discovered." [36] Both are culpable. Technically, this pressure/seduction could not be called forcible rape, falling under our contemporary category of statutory rape. Though the woman gave in, the man here would bear the brunt of the responsibility.

As it would have been more difficult for a woman to find a husband had she been sexually involved with another before marriage, her bride-price—a kind of economic security for her future—would have been in jeopardy. The man guilty of statutory rape seduced the unengaged woman; he wasn’t a dark-alley rapist whom the young woman tried to fight off or from whom she tried to run away. This passage is far from being demeaning to women.

Both passages suggest two courses of action:

  1. If the father and daughter agree to it, the seducer must marry the woman and provide for her all her life, without the possibility of divorce. The father (in conjunction with the daughter) has the final say-so in the arrangement. The girl isn’t required to marry the seducer.
  2. The girl’s father (the legal point person) has the right to refuse any such permanent arrangement as well as the right to demand the payment at would be given for a bride, even though the seducer doesn’t marry his daughter (since she has been sexually compromised, marriage to another man would be difficult if not impossible). The girl has to agree with this arrangement, and she isn’t required to marry the seducer. In this arrangement, she is still treated as a virgin[37]

In a similar vein, one article notes:

God’s punishment on the rapist of a virgin—a monetary fine and lifelong responsibility—was designed to deter rape by holding the rapist responsible for his actions. He ruined her life; it was his responsibility to support her for the rest of her life. This may not sound fair to modern ears, but we don’t live in the same culture they did. In 2 Samuel 3, Prince Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar. The horror and shame of being violated yet unmarried made Tamar beg him to marry her (her half-brother!), even after he had rejected her. And her full-brother, Absalom, was so disgusted with the situation that he murdered Amnon. That’s how highly virginity in women was prized back then.

Female war captives

Regarding Numbers 1, the same article notes:

Critics of the Bible also point to Numbers 1 (and similar passages) in which the Israelites were allowed to take female captives from nations they conquered. Critics say this is an example of the Bible’s condoning or even promoting rape. However, the passage says nothing about raping the captive women. It is wrong to assume that the captive women were to be raped. The soldiers were commanded to purify themselves and their captives (verse 19). Rape would have violated this command (see Leviticus 15꞉16-18). The women who were taken captive are never referred to as sexual objects. Did the captive women likely eventually marry amongst the Israelites? Yes. Is there any indication that rape or sex slavery was forced upon the women? Absolutely not.

We might also note Deuteronomy 21꞉11-14 which provided protocols for a situation such as the one depicted in Numbers 1.[38] The NRSV renders these verses as follows:

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible notes about these verses:

This procedure most likely originally applied to the Canaanite population (20꞉15-18). Female war captives routinely became concubines. This law accords such women dignity and protection against enslavement. 20꞉12-13: The rituals provide both captive and captor means to effect a transition from one status to another. 13: Full month, full period of mourning, as for Aaron and Moses (Num 20꞉29; Deut 34꞉8). Mourning, it is unclear whether the parents actually died in the war or are lost to her because of her captivity. The time to grieve implies legal respect for the female captive as a person. Go in to her, approach her sexually; consummation provides the legal means to become husband, and . . . wife. 14: Cf. Ex 21꞉7-8. Money, see 2.6n. Dishonored, "violated" sexually (22꞉24,29; Gen 34꞉2; Judg 19꞉24; 2 Sam 13꞉12).

Readers may wonder what the New Testament has to say about rape:

Rape is not directly addressed in the New Testament, but within the Jewish culture of the day, rape would have been considered sexual immorality. The Matthean account of the Gospel records that Jesus and the apostles spoke against sexual immorality, even offering it as justifiable grounds for divorce (Matthew 5꞉32). Further, the New Testament is clear that Christians are to obey the laws of their governing authorities (Romans 3). Not only is rape morally wrong; it is also wrong according to the laws of the land. As such, anyone who would commit this crime should expect to pay the consequences, including arrest and imprisonment.[39]

Zechariah 14꞉1-2

Another passage that has been seen as endorsing rape is Zechariah 14꞉1-2

Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city.

The phrase "and the women ravished" does refer to rape. The passage is unclear whether the Lord will command the people of other nations to rape women or if the rape of women will simply be what the people of other nations will do when the Lord gathers these nations against Israel. In other words, it's unclear whether the Lord will prescribe the course of action of the nations or if he's merely predicting it. It's clear that he'll stir up the nations against Israel, but exactly what they do may not be by his command. The same can be said of the similar-sounding verse in Isaiah 13꞉16.

This is one criticism that should help us remember that scripture should be read contextually and holistically to understand all that it has to say on any particular topic.

Related article:Violence in the scriptures


  1. The Family Proclamation, 2nd Paragraph}. Latter-day Saints are unique in proclaiming the divinity and reality of a heavenly consort of God to make this passage very literal.
  2. See this list done by Wikipedia for an exhaustive listing of all women in the Bible).
  3. See further M. L. Rosenzweig, "A Helper Equal to Him," Jud 139 (1986): 277-80.
  4. Ze'ev W. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2001), 110.
  5. Carol Meyers Commentary on Exodus in The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (ed.) Michael Coogan, Mark Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 2010), 112
  6. NET Bible, Commentary on Exodus 21꞉7, see footnote 15
  7. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 114.
  8. Biblical Nuggets, "Casuistic Law," (accessed 6 January 2019).
  9. Copan, Is God a Moral Monster, 114.
  10. NET Bible, "Exodus 21꞉7-11" footnote 16
  11. NET Bible, footnote 19
  12. NET Bible, footnote 24
  13. NET Bible, footnote 4
  14. Copan, Is God a Moral Monster, Ebook, 191 of 492. Copan cites Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, 327.
  15. See NET Bible [ttps:// Hebrew Note] for Deuteronomy 25꞉12, (accessed 21January 2019)
  16. See NET Bible [ttps:// Hebrew Note] for Deuteronomy 25꞉12, (accessed 21January 2019) Paul Copan makes the argument for shaving and clipping and the translation of "kaph. in Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 2011), 224.
  17. Bernard M. Levinson commentary on Deuteronomy in ""The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible" 4th edition (ed.) Michael Coogan, Mark Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England 2010) 291
  18. Lex talionis as invoked there i.e. "eye for eye" and other places is a law more of fair treatment of each other rather than a literal blow for blow situation. See for example Carol Meyers' commentary on Exodus in "The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible," eds. Michael Coogan, Mark Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, 4th ed. (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England 2010), 113. The possibility for this blow for blow retribution remains open, however.
  19. Levinson, Commentary on Deuteronomy.
  20. Copan, Is God a Moral Monster, 223.
  21. Copan, Is God a Moral Monster, 225-6. Copan cites Jerome T. Walsh, "You Shall Cut Off Her . . . Palm? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25꞉11-12," Journal of Semitic Studies 49 (2004): 47-48. Walsh makes similar arguments in "The Law on Violent Intervention: Deuteronomy 25꞉11-12 Revisited," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30/3 (2006): 431-37; Also, Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, 476-80.
  22. The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible states that "11-12 Nevertheless indicates that Paul breaks off the preceding argument and moves on to emphasize what is important: in the Lord there is mutuality and reciprocity between woman and man.
  23. The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, 2015.
  24. Craig S. Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 92-94.
  25. Corinthians ꞉-
  26. See Laurence L. Welborn’s commentary on 1 Corinthians in "The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible" (ed.) Michael Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England 2010) 2018-19.
  27. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, chapter 17. See also D&C 88꞉77-79; Articles of Faith 1꞉8.
  28. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957). Volume 5 link. See also Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 310. off-site
  29. Ecclesiastes 7꞉26
  30. Choon-Leong Seow, "Commentary on Ecclesiastes (or the Preacher)," in The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (ed.) Michael Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 2010), 944.
  31. James R. Morrow and W. W. Hosler. "Strength Comparisons in Untrained Men and Trained Women Athletes," Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 13/3 (1981).
  32. Neel Burton M.D. "The Battle of the Sexes: No Clear Winner," Psychology Today (29 May 2019).
  33. "Pater familias," (accessed 25 May 2024).
  34. Genesis 4, Deuteronomy 21꞉10-14, 22:20-21, Judges 19꞉22-26, Judges 21꞉10-24, Lamentations 5꞉11, and 2 Samuel 13꞉1-14 also have been said by scholars to be referring to and depicting rape. We advise the reader to examine those passages with a study bible. None contain something close to endorsements for rape. However, they may be used by critics to argue for the Bible's endorsement of rape.
  35. Commentary on Deuteronomy 22꞉28, footnote 51 (accessed 30 December 2018)
  36. The Greek Old Testament translation gets this wrong. It mistranslates this passage, "he is discovered," as though the man alone is guilty. The Hebrew indicates that both are culpable.
  37. See Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), Ebook loc 222–24; citing Davidson, "Flame of Yahweh", 359, 519.
  38. The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible provides reference to this in connection to Deuteronomy: "12-18: In contrast to ch 21, the women and children (and animals) are not killed but taken captive and (with other booty) brought before Moses, Eleazar, and the congregation. This may reflect the practice of holy war outlined in Deut 20꞉13-18, where a distinction is made between Canaanites and others more distant (e.g., Midianites)."
  39. "What does the Bible say about rape?" GotQuestions, accessed January 25, 2023, .