When we come to the last and greatest stage in salvation history, we meet again one more great woman, who cooperated single-handedly with God in conceiving and giving birth to the author of our salvation, namely, Mary, the mother of Jesus and of the church, Mary who is both virgin and mother. In all these examples, God manifests a profound respect for the women by treating them as individuals in their own right. God deals directly with them rather than first passing through their husbands.
Mary’s case is mainly striking. We recall that in Jewish society the consent of the woman in marriage was not usually required, except as a matter of formality. Thus far at the annunciation, God reverently asks a maiden from Nazareth for her consent to be the mother of God’s Son and waits for her reply. The next person to know of this event is Elizabeth, whereas Joseph is kept in the dark for a long time. Jesus’ profound respect for women is in addition well known.
We may, for example, recall his compassion for widows, the most wretched group of women in Jewish society, his respect for sinful Jewish women and, particularly, for the Samaritan woman. In this last case not merely does Jesus dialogue publicly with a woman whom any decent Jew would have shunned like the plague, however he as well turns this infamous sinner into his effective missionary to the Samaritans. These few instances will suffice to exemplify how God worked with women as co-partners in giving, fostering, preserving, and saving life.
There is no paternalism whatever in God’s or Jesus’ treatment of women. For in Jesus’ teaching, women and men comprise probable objects of God’s judgment. In Judaism, too, even though the wife was subjected to the husband in most matters, even regarding the vows she had made to God, her individual rights were recognized insofar as she could not be barred from contributing in feasts on account of the sinfulness of the husband. Seen aright, that is, from the divine standpoint, the Bible exemplifies nothing but liberative elements regarding women.
The oppressive elements in the Bible stem from the sinful human viewpoint. At this point we can cite merely two key areas where this oppression is most operative, that is, the institution of marriage and the concern for ritual purity. Certainly, if the books of the Bible can be said to agree on any one issue regarding women, it is that the woman undergoes her greatest humiliations and subjection to the man in the institution of marriage.
This is true not merely of the foundational statement in Genesis 3:16, but of subsequent biblical traditions right up to the New Testament, where subjection to the husband is inculcated as a virtue to be performed “in the Lord”. In marriage, the husband claimed absolute rights not merely over the wife as a person, however over her very sexuality. We may, for example, think of the humiliations to which the woman was subjected before marriage to make sure that she was a virgin or the most pitiable treatment of the suspected adulteress prescribed in the Mishnah.
The wife had no corresponding rights or sanctions over the husband. (Conrad Hyers, 1984). This universal fact of the plight of the woman in marriage deserves special study, for the present breakdown in the marriage system all over the world may not be unconnected with the refusal by wives to permit themselves to carry on to be treated as the property and slaves of their husbands. Often this lawful reaction is incorrectly interpreted as the woman’s rejection of her maternal role. Thus far no sane woman would see anything belittling or disparaging in motherhood per se.