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)
What could shaved hair and head coverings possibly have to do with reflecting the image of God in our churches and homes (1 Cor. 11:1, 3)? I had struggled with this on and off for at least a decade. Then a friend showed me a 2015 piece in The New Yorker on the hairstyles of various presidential candidates. In it, self-labeled hairdressing archeologist Janet Stephens pointed out that Republican candidate Carly Fiorina’s short hairstyle would indicate that she was a conquered slave in ancient cultures. It was a glancing observation by Stephens, but it reminded me of Paul’s references to shaved hair and sent me down a rabbit hole of study.
A Trail of Shaved Heads
Though there are very few mentions of women’s hair in Scripture, there is one salient instruction concerning a woman’s hairstyle in the Old Testament that unlocks this reference to shaved heads in 1 Corinthians 11. Deuteronomy 21 instructs female captives to shave their head as part of the painful transition from their culture of birth to their one of captivity (Deut. 21:12). What at first seems an obscure law tucked away in the recesses of Deuteronomy is actually very helpful to understanding both Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 11 and El Roi, the God who sees the oppressed in their affliction (Gen. 16:13).
When God gave the laws to Moses, civilization was not very civilized. In this survival-of-the-fittest culture, God restricted Israelite men from using captive women as sexual slaves. If a man desired a female captive sexually, he must marry her. This restriction seems to be the first in history limiting the sexual exploitation of captives. Earlier Egyptian laws and later Roman laws prohibited rape, but only against a citizen in good standing. Female captives and slaves, well into Paul’s day and even into early American history, were viewed not as citizens but as property without rights over their own bodies.
In Roman law, the rape of a captive by the owner wasn’t considered a crime at all, and rape of someone else’s slave was seen only as a property crime against the slave’s owner. But God set up a different ethic—if a child of God wanted a female captive sexually, he had to make vows to her in the covenant relationship of marriage, which obligated him to protect and care for her. At the very least this included “food, clothing, and marital rights,” and if a man failed to provide, she could leave him with no penalty (Ex. 21:10–11). While this is a far cry from the mutuality we expect in modern marriages, especially considering these women were captives or slaves, it ensured even a captive woman’s right to a livelihood, property, a sense of dignity, and a future, something not found in other ancient cultures.
Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright notes in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God that this restriction in Deuteronomy 21, along with other laws, “privilege the needs of the vulnerable (a woman, a foreigner, a captive) over the customary rights of the powerful (a man, a soldier, a victor, a husband).” The Law’s ethic for a vulnerable captive woman was distinct from the rest of the culture of Moses’ day, Paul’s day, and even Thomas Jefferson’s day.
When we link Deuteronomy 21 and 1 Corinthians 11, the only two passages in Scripture with references to a woman’s shaved head, we see the context for Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians. Head coverings indicated whether a woman was protected from abuse and exploitation. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, David Prior notes that in first century Corinth the regular practice was to shave the heads of slaves and convicted adulteresses. He additionally suggests that sacred prostitutes at the local temple of Aphrodite did not wear the customary head coverings of regular female citizens of Corinth either. By refusing to cover their heads, some wives in the church at Corinth were dishonoring God, their husbands, and their community in a sexually depraved culture that would see the lack of a symbol of their protected status as license to take advantage of them.
A Trail of Shamed Captives
Deuteronomy 21 and 1 Corinthians 11 refer not just to a woman’s shaved head but also to the shame or disgrace that accompanied that practice in ancient cultures. There is a trail of women bearing sexual shame and humiliation in the Bible. The Bible uses the same Hebrew word, anah, in reference to Hamor’s rape of Dinah, the shame of captive women in Deuteronomy 21, and the rape of a woman in Deuteronomy 22. It can mean to humiliate, force, or do violence to. In each of these Old Testament references, the context is humiliation of women through sexual violence.
The instructions of both Deuteronomy 21 and 1 Corinthians 11 also refer to restoring and protecting a woman’s dignity in her community through the obedient practices of the people of God. In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible instructs God’s people, particularly men, to treat those over whom they have power differently than how pagan cultures treat them. Women who were viewed as property in pagan cultures were prime targets for sexual exploitation. In Corinth, women were vulnerable to being preyed upon in a pagan city that, unlike today, had no official law enforcement and few legal protections for women.
In contrast, God’s children were to protect vulnerable women from exploitation by others in their culture and to refrain from using such women for their own sexual gains. Again and again, the Bible emphasizes a theme of restraint of authorities over those they protect—fathers with children, masters with bondservants, bishops or elders with parishioners, and husbands with wives—crucial protections in cultures that devalued the vulnerable. The Bible particularly emphasized sexual restraint, sex being allowed only between a man and his wife bound by covenant commitment.
Our modern understanding of sexual ethics (what is abuse, what constitutes rape) flows from this Judeo-Christian ethic. Much of the cries of modern society against sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation find their origins in God’s laws. Believers who are in Christ, imitators of God, will advocate particularly for victims of sexual exploitation perpetrated by those with overt power over them. In Paul’s day, that took the form of head coverings; in our own communities and churches, it might involve domestic violence prevention or combating human trafficking or protecting women on college campuses.
Humanity continues to show its brokenness in the sexual exploitation of women, at times even within God’s own people. Our internal cries against such abuse find their basis in our creation by God in his image. Though the Old Testament Law at best only restrained sin, never changing the hearts of sinful mankind, God sent One to us who kept the Law perfectly, both bearing its condemnation and equipping us to live in its summary anew, loving our neighbor as ourselves. By modern standards, women’s rights in biblical times were severely limited, nonetheless Jesus consistently turned toward women that his culture despised and spoke to them in light of their dignity as image bearers of the Most High. Paul then tells us to imitate him as he imitated Christ. In this light, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11, which may at first seem degrading to women, actually call for God’s children to imitate Jesus in this beautiful, countercultural way.
Wendy Alsup is a math teacher and author of Is the Bible Good for Women? (Multnomah). Read more of her writing at theologyforwomen.org.
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