Are women human? Dorothy Sayers asked the question in a series of essays published in the early 20th century. For many today, it seems absurd—of course women are human! Yet sub-human treatment of women has endured throughout history, from wife-selling practices in the 18th and 19th centuries to customs today in some parts of Nepal that banish menstruating women to outdoor sheds and expose them to elements that seem harsh for even animals. Any student of history knows that Sayers’s question was relevant for multiple cultures throughout history and remains so for many cultures today.
“So God created mankind in his own image . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
The opening pages of the Bible teach that woman was created in God’s image (the crucial dividing line between mankind and beast). But after the fall of man, the history of God’s people gives us much to scrutinize on this question. The exploitation of Hagar in Genesis 16 and the rapes of Dinah in Genesis 34 and an unnamed concubine in Judges 19 offer snapshots of a fallen humanity that regularly views women as expendable sexual objects.
God caused such sexual violence to be recorded in Scripture, not to glorify the acts but to show the stark condition of mankind apart from God. Judges in particular tells us that its stories reflect people doing “what was right in their own eyes,” in contrast to what was right according to God’s Law (21:25, NRSV). God did not allow his people to ignore their sinfulness, and he never downplayed its harmful consequences for the most vulnerable in society.
The Bible is also clear: God hates inhumane treatment of women. Survivors of sexual violence can know that God sees their suffering as he did Hagar’s (Gen. 16:13) and cares deeply for their healing, even though we wait for complete renewal upon Jesus’ coming return. Scripture shows that God spoke into his Law protections for women that, while countercultural at the time, have become the basis of Western society’s views of women’s rights.
If we follow the trail of abused women in Scripture, we see both sin against women as well as the ways God speaks to condemn and restrain it. I started down this trail searching for answers to questions I’d long wrestled with about, of all things, head coverings and short haircuts. The search led me to some surprising connections.
A Trail of Image bearers
God forbade the strong to kill the weak, the rich to steal from the poor, and the citizen to oppress the immigrant. The dignity of being an image bearer is found in treating other image bearers with dignity and loving your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39). Humanity consistently failed in this responsibility, codified in the Law. But Christ ultimately fulfilled the Law, granting believers his own righteousness through adoption as children of God.
Because Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), Paul encourages believers in Ephesians to “be imitators of God as beloved children” (5:1, NRSV). In 1 Corinthians, he urges Christians to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). This exhortation to the church at Corinth starts a flow of thought about women’s head coverings that has confounded many, including me:
But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. (1 Cor. 11:5-6)