Deborah was a judge. Huldah was a prophetess. In fact many women in the Old Testament seem to exercise (spiritual) leadership of some sort. Biblical evidence for Egalitarianism? Not quite. The issue of gender roles isn’t solved that easily. What we need is a whole-bible theology. Narrative Old Testament texts which describe women in leadership are just that: narrative accounts of the history of Israel. As with any narrative we need careful reflection in light of the rest of the canon before drawing theological conclusions.
So what should we think about women in leadership positions in the Old Testament? Is this a tacit endorsement of Egalitarianism? John Piper and Wayne Grudem address this issue in Fifty Crucial Questions. In this Q & A, authors provide careful reflection on hermeneutics and the OT context of these passages.
Question 27: How do you explain God’s apparent endorsement of women in the Old Testament who had prophetic or leadership roles?
First, we keep in mind that God has no antipathy toward revealing His will to women. Nor does He pronounce them unreliable messengers. The differentiation of roles for men and women in ministry is rooted not in women’s incompetence to receive or transmit truth, but in the primary responsibility of men in God’s order to lead and teach. The instances of women who prophesied and led do not call this order into question. Rather, there are pointers in each case that the women followed their unusual paths in a way that endorsed and honored the usual leadership of men, or indicted their failures to lead.
For example, Miriam, the prophetess, focused her ministry, as far as we can tell, on the women of Israel (Exodus 15:20). Deborah, a prophetess, judge, and mother in Israel (Judges 4:4; 5:7), along with Jael (Judges 5:24-27), was a living indictment of the weakness of Barak and other men in Israel who should have been more courageous leaders (Judges 4:9). (The period of the judges is an especially precarious foundation for building a vision of God’s ideal for leadership. In those days God was not averse to bringing about states of affairs that did not conform to His revealed will in order to achieve some wise purpose [cf. Judges 14:4].) Huldah evidently exercised her prophetic gift not in a public preaching ministry but by means of private consultation (2 Kings 22:14-20). And Anna the prophetess filled her days with fasting and prayer in the temple (Luke 2:36-37).
We must also keep in mind that God’s granting power or revelation to a person is no sure sign that this person is an ideal model for us to follow in every respect. This is evident, for example, from the fact that some of those God blessed in the Old Testament were polygamists (e.g. Abraham and David). Not even the gift of prophecy is proof of a person’s obedience and endorsement by God. As strange as this sounds, Matthew 7:22, 1 Corinthians 13:2, and 1 Samuel 19:23-24 show that this is so. Moreover, in the case of each woman referred to above we have an instance of a charismatic emergence on the scene, not an installation to the ordinary Old Testament office of priest, which was the responsibility of men.
Other posts from Fifty Crucial Questions include:
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