The Old Testament Marriage That Showed Me Equality Is God’s Design

by Carrye Burr | July 14, 2021

When I planned my wedding at age twenty-one, I was dreaming of flower girls and DIY invitations, not the fine print of biblical submission. I grew up as a pastor’s daughter in a church where female submission was vague but hovering. Bible passages about male authority troubled me at times, but much like taxes or stretch marks, their reality loomed in a hazy future. But once I was married and faced my first big disagreement with my husband, the limited lines of my understanding of submission felt like a two-dimensional cage.

I assumed I must cheerfully defer to my husband’s decision, and I did...except for the cheerfully part. I let my husband know I was miserable, and he called me out on it. He wasn’t raised in the church, which is a strange kind of grace to me; he seemed much more interested in my honesty than in me burying my feelings to cater to his (how truly biblical!). Though we came to a place of mutual compromise, our struggle to fit into unspoken gender roles didn’t end with decision making disagreements. 

For so many years I’ve asked myself, “What on earth is wrong with me? Is there room for me to live freely within the space of my personality and gifts, without rebelling against the One who made me this way? Where are the role models, the faithful women who pattern godly leadership for me without diminishing their husbands or defying God?”

Struggling to Fit the Mold

By personality and upbringing, I often find myself to be an initiator and leader of spiritual development in our family. My husband leads in practical and balancing ways but generously supports my ideas and dreams. I’ve pursued leadership within the church and love the opportunity to preach. My husband, meanwhile, is satisfied to serve from behind a tech booth, out of the public eye or leadership position. 

The roles in our marriage also seemed to defy the legacy of my parents; both my mother and father served in the church, but my father held the position of pastor and the primary leadership role in the family. Though God spoke to both my parents, it seemed that God communicated to my father first about big issues, like moving across the country or pastoring another church. My mother was part of the process, but I saw my dad initiating most change. 

I desperately needed rounded stories of women that animated God’s true design and answered my gnawing fear that I needed to flatten myself to fit his mold. After over a decade of marriage, I’ve begun to see that the faithful female examples have long existed in the very pages of the Scriptures that I feared would condemn me. 

Meeting the Wife of Manoah

One of my unlikely favorites is the story of a woman who isn’t given a name, but who defies the patriarchal notion that God always speaks to men who then lead their wives. We only know this woman as the “wife of Manoah,” or Samson’s mother. She is nameless and barren—of little consequence it would seem, unable to provide even the value expected of her gender. But almost as a foreshadowing to Mary, the story pivots when this woman is visited by an angel of the Lord, receiving a word which she then passes on to her husband. 

The angel of the LORD appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines (Judg. 13:3-5).

The Lord knew her name—and through his angel not only gave her a promise for herself and her son but also told her specific details of her part in the process. Clearly God did not require her husband to be a middleman; he spoke directly to the woman.

Discovering Equality between Manoah and His Wife

But as much as this challenges clear-cut gender roles, what further fascinates me is her husband’s reaction. Despite the cultural patriarchal norms, he shows neither incredulity nor intimidation at her claim that she received a holy word. On the contrary, upon hearing her news, he prays, “I beg you to let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born” (13:8). His inclusion of his wife in his prayer models God’s heart for co-leading in marriage.

Then, as if to laughably shatter any possible remaining gender role expectations, the angel of the Lord does indeed return, but again he appears to this woman, not to her husband. 

“God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her” (13:9).

The woman must run to retrieve her husband. I find this almost comical, but then again, God seems to delight in subverting our human tradition and ideas of hierarchy. One visit to the woman would have been enough to debunk patriarchal mindsets, but two visits to the woman seems like a clear message for those who missed it the first time.  

A New Mold for Equality in Marriage 

What I see here points to God’s three-dimensional theology for both men and women. Had Manoah silenced his wife or refused to follow her revelation, how might the story have ended? And how would Manoah’s wife have missed out if her husband hadn’t added his gift of faith and prayed for more revelation?

For Manoah and his wife, much like Mary and Joseph, the flourishing of God’s story depended on each person surrendering not only to God, but also to the leading of the other. Both Manoah and his wife took initiative in this story, and both deferred to the other. This is a grace-filled picture of the give and take submission we see in Ephesians 5.

This nameless woman joins the robust lineup of women including Deborah, Abigail, Elizabeth, Mary, and Priscilla, among others, who paint color and depth onto two-dimensional passages and portray true equality in marriage and kingdom mission.

Instead of feeling trapped and silenced in my marriage, their stories give me full confidence that co-leadership is possible, and God can equally speak a word to me as to my husband. God will use me to lead my husband where his personality and strengths differ, and likewise God will lead me through my husband’s gifts.

Unlike the hierarchical “follow the leader” model I grew up with, where the woman follows the man who follows God, these women show how we are both leaders and followers. In this liberating space, neither my husband nor I need to change our personalities or swap our giftings to live fully under God’s heart and design. Revelation from God, spiritual initiation, and decision making do not belong solely to the man, but to both man and woman.

So I find God’s kingdom is animated and spacious enough for even me.