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Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry

Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood, and Ministry

Women in the Old Testament

After concentrating on the New Testament for the past few years, this year I’ve decided to read through the Old Testament (OT). So far I’ve read Genesis—very slowly. I’ve noticed that there is a distinct difference in how women are perceived and described in Genesis, and other OT narratives, to how women are perceived and described in the New Testament.

For example: What do these OT women all have in common? The daughters of humans (Gen 6:2), Sarah (Gen 12:11,14), Rebekah (Gen 24:16), Rachel (Gen 29:17), Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2), Tamar (2 Sam 13:1; 14:27), Esther (Esth 2:7) and Job’s daughters (Job 42:15).

All these OT women, and others, were primarily, and often only, described as being beautiful.[1] The implication of this beauty—and this implication is far from subtle in various texts—is that the most important attribute of these women was their desirability to men, either as a wife or simply for sex. It seems that societies in OT times placed a premium on a woman’s sex appeal, and a woman’s talents, intelligence, and character were usually not worth commenting on.

The OT sends the message that the highest quality a young woman could possess was beauty. Beauty, with virginity, gave a woman a greater chance of making a good marriage. And a good marriage was her best chance for happiness.

Once married, a woman’s fertility became all important. The grief and disgrace of barrenness was profoundly felt by infertile women. So severe was the shame of infertility, that barrenness was considered a curse. Infertility was an affliction that many OT women faced. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah were all initially infertile.[2]

Beauty, virginity, and fertility were considered important qualities for women. The OT, however, is not without warnings about the potential dangers, deception, and superficiality of female beauty (Prov 6:25; 31:30). And, to be fair, Joseph, David and Absalom are also described as beautiful (or handsome) in the OT (Gen 39:6; 1 Sam 16:12; 17:42; 2 Sam 14:25).[3]

Women in the New Testament

So, how many New Testament (NT) women are described as being beautiful?

None. Not one.

Moreover, Paul and Peter dissuaded women from concentrating on their appearance. Instead they encouraged women to focus on their character and good works. Admittedly these instructions were given mainly to wealthy married women, and not to potential brides:

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.  1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV 2011) [More on this passage here.]

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 1 Peter 3:3-4 (NIV 2011) [More on this passage here.]

Women in the New Testament are mentioned primarily in reference to their Christian faith and ministry, and not at all in terms of their beauty or marriageability. We simply do not know whether any NT woman was particularly good looking, or not.

Moreover, many NT women are not mentioned in connection with a male relative. This is unlike OT women who were typically identified as either a wife, daughter, mother, or sister of a certain man. We don’t even know the marital status of several NT women. Were Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Martha, Lydia or Phoebe married? Possibly not. (This calls into question the specious doctrine that women need some sort of spiritual “covering” from a man.)[4] Philip the Evangelist had four daughters who were not married. While we are given their family connection to a male relative, their father, the four daughters are described in terms of their ministry: they prophesied (Acts 21:9).[5] Paul recommended singleness and celibacy so that people could minister with undivided devotion (1 Cor 7:32-35).

Some NT women were married, but we don’t know whether they were mothers. Was Priscilla a mother? Or Joanna? Some NT women were mothers, but motherhood is not emphasised.[6] For example, Paul mentions Lois and Eunice, the grandmother and mother of Timothy, in terms of their faith (2 Tim 1:5 cf. 3:15; Acts 16:1); and Mary, the mother of John Mark is mentioned in reference to her home where the Jerusalem church often met (Acts 12:12-14). Apart from Timothy and John Mark, however, we don’t know whether Eunice and Mary had any other children.

Many NT women displayed great faith and devotion, and many were involved in significant ministry.[7] The writers of the NT saw Christian women as more than wives and mothers;[8] they regarded them as sisters in the faith and colleagues in ministry.[9]

Women in the Contemporary Church

Some contemporary churches hold to a view of women that has more in common with the OT view of women than the NT view of women, and their ideology of the status, and possible roles, of women does not take into consideration the New Covenant ideal of equality. New Covenant women have the same potential as their brothers to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ and to be sharers in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:3-4).  Furthermore, both Christian men and women can represent Jesus Christ in ministry.

When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the first Christian believers and the Church was born, the Spirit equipped both men and women to be ministers (Acts 2:17-18). The Holy Spirit also brought unity by dispelling cultural prejudices and fostering a casteless Christianity. I suggest that Christians who divide the church along gender lines and place restrictions on what women can be and can do, simply because of their gender, may be working against the Holy Spirit.[10]

God tolerated patriarchy in the past, and he continues to tolerate it to some degree, but patriarchy is not God’s ideal. The rule of men over women came as a consequence of the Fall. Jesus came, however, to deal with the consequences of the Fall. We must look to the New Testament and the New Covenant to see how Jesus wants men and women to be regarded and treated. Jesus taught and entrusted certain women with the message of the gospel. And Paul valued and respected certain women as his fellow ministers. [See endnote 7.]

Does your church equally encourage both men and women in Christian service? Or does your church mostly encourage women to be wives and mothers? Does your church trust gifted and godly women, as well as men, with the message and ministry of the gospel? Or does your church prefer men to function in these ministries? Does your church have an Old Testament view of men and women, or a New Testament view?


Endnotes

[1] Abigail is an exception. While she is described as beautiful, she is also described as intelligent (1 Sam 25:3). The wise women of Abel Beth Maacah and Tekoa are identified as being wise. “Wise woman” may have been a title; these women were probably living repositories of oral lore.

[2] Elizabeth could be included in this list, because she was alive before Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant.

[3] The description of Rachel’s beauty and Joseph’s handsomeness use identical expressions in the Hebrew, but these same Hebrew words are translated into English using different words. Compare Genesis 29:17: “Rachel was beautiful of form and face:; with Genesis 39:6: “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.”

[4] The once popular idea, that a Christian woman needs the spiritual covering of a male, simply has no biblical basis. The two passages that were used to support this idea are 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, which is about a woman’s own authority of her own physical head (and not a metaphorical or spiritual head); and Ruth chapter 3 where Ruth follows the instructions of her mother-in-law and secretly goes to Boaz at night in order to ask Boaz to redeem her. This incident in the OT has no practical or cultural relevance to a 21st century, Christian woman. Moreover, the Bible tells of several occasions where God, or an angel, or a prophet spoke directly to a woman and bypassed husbands or male guardians. [My article on Bible Women with Spiritual Authority here.]

[5] Paul considered prophecy to be the most desirable of the spiritual ministry gifts (1 Cor 14:1 cf. Acts 2:17-18). He did not prohibit women from prophesying (or praying aloud) in congregational meetings (1 Cor 11:5).

[6] Parenthood is an important role that should not be minimised. Most people, however, do not restrict men to the role of a parent, similarly we should not restrict women to the role of being a parent. The New Testament writers did not view New Covenant women primarily as wives and mothers. [My article on Is motherhood the highest calling for a woman? here.]

[7] The following are all the women mentioned by Paul in his letters: Apphia (Phm 1:2), Claudia (2 Tim 4:21), Chloe (1 Cor 1:11), Euodia (Php 4:2), Julia (Rom 16:15), Junia (Rom 16:7), Lois and Eunice (2 Tim 1:5), Mary (Rom 16:6), Nereus’ sister (Rom 16:15), Nympha (Col 4:15), Persis (Rom 16:12), Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), Priscilla (Rom 6:3-5); 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), Rufus’ mother (Rom 16:13), Syntyche (Php 4:2), Tryphena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12). These women were actively involved in significant ministry, some as leaders. [My article on Paul’s Personal Greetings to Women Ministers here.]

[8] Paul’s very basic instructions regarding young women in Crete, who seem to have been poor wives and mothers, cannot be taken as a prohibition of women in ministry (Tit 2:4-5).  Similarly, Paul’s instruction to young widows in Ephesus, who were being idle and foolish, also cannot be taken as a prohibition of women in ministry (1 Tim 5:11). While Paul recommended marriage and domesticity for certain young women in certain churches, elsewhere Paul recommends singleness and Christian service (1 Cor 7:34).

[9] Paul referred to women, as well as men, as colleagues (co-workers): Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:3-5a); Urbanus (Rom 16:9); Timothy (Rom 16:21); Titus (2 Cor 8:23); Epaphroditus (Php 2:25) Euodia, Syntyche and Clement (Phil 4:3); Aristarchus, Mark and Justus (Col 4:10-11); Philemon (Phm 1); Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke (Phm 24).

[10] The Church needs to realise that the two verses which seem to prohibit women from speaking and teaching are in fact far from clear in the Greek, and do not form a biblical consensus on the matter of women in ministry.  There are numerous interpretations and applications regarding 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.  Articles on these verses here and here.

Image credit: Red Rose © Florea Marius Catalin (iStock 6225664)


Related Articles

Working Women in the New Testament
Is motherhood the highest calling for women?
“Busy at Home”: How does Titus 2:4-5 apply today?
Paul’s Instructions for Modest Dress
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
New Testament Women Church Leaders
Women, Teaching and Deception
Many women leaders in the Bible had this one thing in common

Posted April 1st, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, Equality in Ministry, , , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

30 comments on “Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry

  1. TL says:

    It is my opinion that the lack of mentioning of a woman’s children in the NT was because the intention of women’s lives changed from being primarily child bearers to being Holy women of God useful in the Kingdom.

  2. Marg says:

    Thanks TL. If people don’t want to read my whole article, they can just read your comment. It amounts to about the same.

  3. Don Johnson says:

    I agree with the implications of your discussion as a general statement.

    I see the Genesis, etc. stories of the OT as speaking inside the culture that existed at that time, so I do not see the “beauty” statements there as negatives.

    Today we have fertility treatments, OB/GYN specialists, and a lot of potential help for getting pregnant and birthing a healthy baby; but this was much less so in ancient times, pregnacy was a way to die (and still is, but very much reduced today) so that many older women got to live that long because they stopped having kids or avoided it altogether and the Roman empire therefore created laws to encourage procreation.

    We also live in the times of the “green revolution” where there has been a massive increase in food production due to science. In ancient times, the expectation was that one grain was planted to produce 4, the famers ate 3 and saved one to plant the next year. But every year had the potential for famine and such shows up in books in the Bible, both OT and NT. In other words, fertility of both the crops and domesticated animals and people was a very real life or death concern to ancient peoples.

  4. Marg says:

    I don’t see the beauty statements as negative, just very limited. In Abigail’s case she was described as beautiful and wise. Nice! But for most of the other women the description stops at beautiful. And I believe there are more important qualities than beauty. I am wondering, though, whether in a few cases the adjective “beautiful” could also be translated as “fine” – an overall goodness.

    I’m not sure why the women were initially fertile, except perhaps to show to show God’s later providence, but the being barren was more than heartbreaking in those days.

    “The barren women in the Bible seems to signify a promise delayed: The promise of a better, fruitful future that is worth the wait and the present frustrations, dissapointments and sufferings.”

  5. Don Johnson says:

    Both women and men are called beautiful in the Bible. I see it as a part of God’s artistry, to be celebrated, but also not be be over-emphasized.

  6. Marg says:

    True, both men and women are called beautiful in the OT (not in the NT), but none of the patriarchs in Genesis are called beautiful. And the women are rarely described as anything but being beautiful.

    I think “beautiful” has the implicit meaning of “sex appeal” in most occurances. (There are a few notable exceptions: David and Moses, etc.) Even Joseph’s beauty is described in the same passage where Potiphar’s wife tries to get him to sleep with her.

  7. C. Dunamis says:

    VERY interesting insights! Thanks for posting them!

  8. Geraldine says:

    “Does your church recommend, and speak positively, about singleness for Christian men and women?”

    Our church is VERY family focussed to the point that it has “family worship” in its name. Last Sunday Fathers were emphasized, and told to hold hands with their wife and children. They were also reminded that they are the priests of their home.

    As this was going on, my husband was outside breaking his heart over stresses of life (new business, providing for family…). One woman whose son is very poorly with mental health issues wandered around looking for someone to join hands with. Widows stood alone, as did mothers whose husbands were absent that day. They were the majority compared to complete family units. It broke my heart to witness it so I went and held hands with a couple of lonely women.

    I came across a quote the other day which I really want to blog about. It’s regarding how families, as important as they are, (I myself am a wife and mother), are raised above the greatest commandment and commission in life.

    Great blog and post Marg!!!!

  9. Marg says:

    Hi Geraldine, That sounds awful!

    My last church had a mission statement that went something like: “To reach families in the local area.” I expressed my concerns about this a few times. One of my friends even used their mission statement in a Bible college assignment about how many local churches do not consider the situations and needs of older singles in the communities. In real life, however, my church was very good at accepting and caring for everyone.

    My present church does not seem to promote marriage or family over singleness. But I think all churches could be speaking more positively about being single.

    Have you had a look at this: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/is-motherhood-the-highest-calling-for-women/

  10. […] Sarah was outwardly very beautiful.  Many women in the Old Testament are described primarily as being beautiful.  Conversely, no woman in the New Testament is described as being beautiful. […]

  11. […] Several passages in the Old Testament show that virginity and beauty where the most desirable qualities in an unmarried woman, and sexual exclusivity and fertility were the most desirable qualities in a married women. Instead of public honour, a virtuous woman had a sense of private shame. Shame was considered a positive virtue for women. A woman without shame was shameless.[…]

  12. […] Abigail is an interesting woman who we meet in 1 Samuel chapter 25. Like several women in the Old Testament, Abigail is described as beautiful. Unlike other women in the Old Testament, Abigail is also described as “intelligent” (NAB, NIV, TEV), or “clever” (NRSV), or “of good understanding” (KJV, ASV), etc. […]

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  19. Erica Tate says:

    There is one section in the OT which gives advice on what a good wife is: a woman whose main attributes are her character, not her looks. I’m thinking of Proverbs 31… which specifically mentions that “charm is deceitful, beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised”, and which, significantly, is advice given by a MOTHER to her son. The fact that such sound advice did not come through a father should be a reality check to those who think fathers always have the last word on Godly wisdom.

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  23. Bev Murrill says:

    This is a strong delineation, Marg. I have observed the ‘beautiful’ thing before, but not in this context. Clearly, NT sees women differently.

    And in response to a previous comment about ‘beauty’ being art and men were seen as beautiful too… that wasn’t the defining point about them. their whole stories were told…

  24. Josiah says:

    [From a facebook comment, which I thought might be better here. The examples here are off the top of my head and could include misteaks].

    This is an interesting survey, but I disagree that the overarching point of women in the OT is sexuality and that the portrayal of women is fundamentally different from the NT. The point of the stories of the Patriarchs is ultimately to demonstrate the lineage of the Jewish nation and the kings, leading to Messiah. Obviously, fertility and beauty are important to that. But Proverbs 31 and Song of Solomon, two of the most female-centric passages of the OT both celebrate the intelligence and virtues of women in addition to (possibly even over) their sexual desirability, and the women had at least some role in writing them. Among the Patriarchs, the stories of Jacob and Esau’s inheritance, Abraham and Sarah, and especially Moses and Gomer clearly show women heavily involved in familial decision making, for better and worse. The prophets chide women for focusing on sexual desirability to the detriment of virtue.

    The commands against intermarriage are not based on sexual ability or even tainting the “holy line” – it’s all about virtue and spiritual influence. Foreign women who are virtuous (or become so) who intermarry are commended (Ruth, Rahab). And Esther is beautiful, yes, but do we really think it’s her sexual desirability that makes her stand out to a king who can have any number of sex slaves? Rather, from the infrequency of their being alone together, it seems that she was prized for something else.

    Finally, Jacob wanted to be buried with Leah…not the beautiful Rachel. The thread of women being created to be “helpers” and not merely possessions is definitely subtle and often implicit in the Old Testament, and the Jews certainly were too paternalistic. But I think the message is intensified and clarified in the New Testament, rather than a totally different take on women.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Josiah,

      The word or concept of “sexuality” covers a lot of things, including being able to provide an heir. It does not necessarily mean or imply being saucy or “sexy”. The Old Testament presents women overall in a positive light. Many OT women were courageous and smart, some were leaders and prophetesses, but there is still a highlighting of a woman’s beauty, virginity and/or fertility when it comes to marriage which is absent after Pentecost.

      As for Esther: I think it is precisely that there was something about Esther’s sexuality, including her looks, figure, and youth (Esth. 2:7), as well as her character, which made her become queen. She was groomed for her night with the king for a whole year. This grooming probably involved more than just beauty treatments. The whole process of young women being virtually abducted by the king’s officers (Esth. 2:3), confined to his harem and cared for by the king’s eunuch, groomed for 12 months, and then having one night with the king is distasteful, even repulsive, to me; but that’s what happened. Nevertheless, God’s hand was in the choosing of Esther as queen, whatever Xerxes’ motivation.

      The New Testament definitely has a whole new take on women

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