Can the Mosaic Law Be Reconciled With Gender Equality?

by Cheri Williams | August 01, 2014

Often times examples from the Bible, especially the Law of Moses, are adduced to support the view that the Bible depicts God as a misogynist, and therefore it cannot be trusted. In other words, the apparent inequitable laws relating to women in the Mosaic Law are used to discredit the Bible as a whole. But are the Bible and gender equality so antithetical that one’s only hope to reconcile them is by stripping divine inspiration from the Bible, arguing that it is a book written by humans concerning their perspective of God over time? I believe affirming the divinity of the Bible will prove far more fruitful in incorporating the Mosaic Law within a Christian worldview that embraces equality between men and women. To illustrate this, consider the Mosaic Law in a historic rather than a mythic or purely literary context.

Initially God gave only one command, one law, in the Garden, where the existence of a law enabled choice to be exercised. Free will afforded the possibility of choosing between one’s own will and God’s will. When Adam sinned, a profound question was raised before an intelligent creation, “Is [the human] way of governing better than God’s way of governing? Can [humans] rule [themselves] successfully independent of God?”[1] Outside of the Garden, God gave no other explicitly stated rules, except for instructions for animal sacrifice, inferred from God making garments of skin, which of course would require the death of an animal. Since God would later codify into law the action of offering an animal for an atonement of sin, it is not absurd to suggest that God offered a sacrifice for the sin done in the Garden to illustrate the cost of sin, and that thereafter a practice of animal sacrifice arose before the Mosaic Law, as illustrated through Noah (Gen. 8:20).

So apart from instructions of how to relate to God through religious ceremony for atonement, God appeared to give no instructions for how humans should relate to each other, thus giving the opportunity for humans to demonstrate whether their way of governing themselves would indeed be better than God’s way. And what was the result? Humans’ way of governing was absolute freedom. Everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes. So much violence was on the earth that God had to destroy it with a flood. God let humans see that they did need God's intervention, but human arrogance would not allow God to let one instance suffice in establishing the case of his superior ability to govern humans. Yet to let more evidence accrue without humans totally annihilating themselves, God would have to intervene in human affairs in a way that would still give them the chance to govern themselves. This approach of God toward humans is evidenced by the fact that not all the rules given at Mt. Sinai reflect God's morality. Rather, many of the laws in the Torah were rules God set around the people’s beliefs and practices to curb and contain abuse.[2] For instance, there are rules related to polygamy, which does not reflect God's moral stance, but rules are still given as to the rights of the second wife so that she is not abused (Exod. 21:9–11). In other words, the Mosaic Law was applied to sinful conditions, such as polygamy, not to condone or endorse such evils, but to limit the damaging effects of those evils[3]–all in an attempt to see that if God gave guidelines to help humans carry out their understanding of how to treat and govern each other, could they then govern themselves in a way that would be successful and bring themselves happiness. And of course the answer has been no.

So humans decided they should have a king rule over them. It seems as though they thought, “That’s it. That’s the solution— if we put one human to rule over us, rather than God, then we will finally be able to govern ourselves successfully.” But that did not work either. Having a king did not prevent other people from treating each other badly, and some times the king was the most evil one of all, and he was supposed to be the leader. The Law, along with the attempts to have kings, has illustrated indisputably humanity’s need for God’s sovereignty. So part of the purpose of the Mosaic Law has been to serve as a tutor to show humans that they need God in order to live in right relation to himself and others.

Christ’s work on the cross ended God’s allotted time for humans to demonstrate that they could attain autonomy successfully. Before Christ, God was trying to keep from giving humans only His own rules, which would return absolute rule to Himself, and tried to provide various ‘helps’ or modifications to their own system to increase its efficacy. Yet this does not mean that none of the Mosaic Law reflected God’s morality. We must remember that humans were created with a law written on their hearts that reflected God’s understanding of basic right and wrongs (Rom. 2:15), some of which are reflected in the 10 commandments. The moral laws are continuous for Christians today because they represent the timeless will of God and are repeated in the New Covenant. Mosaic laws that were applied to humans’ own moral standards, such as polygamy, divorce for any reason, slavery, patriarchy, etc., had the purpose of curbing abuse while humans engrossed themselves in the enterprise of establishing a viable self-government; therefore, they are discontinuous for Christians today, because these laws were not reflective of God’s morality. They were time-bound, serving as a means to establish the insufficiency of humans’ perverted morality to produce a sustainable and beneficial government for all people.

Thus, by trusting the Bible as God’s word that communicates God’s perspective of human affairs, a viable explanation can be attained to account for the parts of the Mosaic Law that seem in direct conflict with gender equality; whereas, viewing the Bible as humans’ own interpretation of themselves and God would conceal the historic context needed to establish their reconciliation.

[1] Author Unknown, Life: How Did It Get Here? By Creation or Evolution? (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, NY: 1985), 193.

[2] Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1985) p. 61, 67.

[3] Ibid, p. 63.