Feminist Interpretations of Certain Bible Passages

Creation Story Submission Gospel of Mark Links

When asked about what he saw as the possible outcome of feminist study and interpretation of the Bible, the theologian David Tracy replied, "The next intellectual revolution." (UsNews Online 8/10/98) The role of women in the Bible is undoubtedly an important one, but whether they are painted as heroines or as deceivers depends on the source. Feminist biblical scholars have pointed to various aspects of biblical language that some consider problematic when trying to foster equality between genders. I will be addressing certain specific Biblical passages that have traditionally been sighted as examples of women being held back by biblical authors. There are many different schools of thought on these passages. I will be explaining popular feminist interpretations and giving the rationale behind it. There is also a discussion of feminism and the Bible in God Language and Feminist Christology.

One of the best known stories in the Bible is that of Adam and Eve. It has been stated that since Adam was created first and it was Eve who first ate the apple, men are some how more spiritual than women. These people consider women more prone to fall into temptation and less able to grasp or experience more complex spirituality. Feminists have interpreted this story quite differently.

"So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and bird of the air. . .but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man.' Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh."

Genesis 2:19-24

Instead of finding significance in Eve being created second, Elaine Storkey believes the significance is in the way that both male and female were made from the same material. In the second Genesis account the animals are all created out of clay, or out of earthly matter. This interpretation states that God could not have created woman out of clay because it was too different from Adam. She was intended to be the companion of man and therefore needed to be made of the same material as him. Creating Eve out of Adam's rib is seen as a way of saying that they are so similar and so connected men and women should be considered equals. Also, it is not until Genesis 3, after sin has entered the world through Adam and Eve's disobedience, that a hierarchical structure is predicted. Before sin there was a state of equality implying to the feminist that equality is an ideal that God is asking us to strive for. This can is alluded to by Adam's statement "This at last is bone of my bones." It implies that Adam has been waiting for a companion that is fit for him and only Eve, or woman, who can fill that need in him.

A traditionally troubling passage for women has been Ephesians 5:21-33. "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her . . . husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband."

Elaine Storkey points out that the Greek word kephale` is often translated as head in this passage. This word is commonly used in metaphors. It used to describe Christ's relationship to the church. He is viewed as the head of the church, but this is different than saying Christ is the authority of the church. He is the one who began the church, bringing it into existence. If the original authors had intended to imply authority by calling Christ the head of the church they would have used the word arche. Feminist interpret the Ephesians passage and being a metaphor for the fundamental union of man and wife. Part of the man's role, as defined by this interpretation, is to release in his wife parts of her that are only accessible through a marital relationship. In this sense the husband is bringing about new areas of growth in his wife so the word kephale` was chosen to describe this aspect of a marital relationship. As far as the woman being subject to her husband verse 21, which is directly prior to that claim, imparts the responsibility of all believers to subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. This means that men and women alike are being called to serve each other.

The passage goes on to describe how men are called to love their wife as Christ loved the church. Christians believe that Christ suffered and died for the church. This exemplifies the kind of sacrifice Paul is asking husbands to be willing to make for the well being of their wives. Just as importantly, Christ lived a life dedicated to the service of all people. He became head of the church by living a life of self-sacrifice and service and it is by His example that men become head of their wife. Feminists believe that this passage does not require submission to a husband that is not living a life of sacrifice and service for his wife. Without these qualities a man has not come into the role of headship because he has not met the criteria put forth by Paul in light of Christ's example. If he is not considered the head, then she is only called to be subject to him in as much as all believers as asked to be subject to one another.

It is commonly pointed out that it is only the wife who is specifically asked to submit to her husband, the reverse is never explicitly stated. However, it is never explicitly stated that the wife should love her husband. Both the husband submitting to the wife and the wife loving the husband are implicit parts of the relationship that are understood to exist. As it is explicitly stated in the passage more is actually asked of the man than of the woman. She is only asked to be subject to her husband, but the whole church should be treating everyone in that way. The man is asked to live a life of service for his wife to point of being willing to give up his life for her. Verse 28 states, "husbands should love their wives as their own bodies." This is grounded in the idea that man and wife become one flesh through the act of being married and having sex. If the man does not take care of his physical body it will eventually die. In the same way if he does not take care of his wife and his marriage the marriage will die. This passage is included in a letter to the people in Ephesis. The people at the time were have problems because men were not loving their wives and instead were seeking women. The women in turn were not respecting their husbands and marriages were falling apart. This is the specific issue that Paul is addressing. The Christian feminists have taken this insight and applied it to marriages today.

Marie Sabin presents a very interesting interpretation of the Gospel of Mark and the significance his depiction of Jesus has for women's religious life. Mark refers to three healings that Jesus performs at the beginning of His ministry. The first was a man with an "unclean spirit," the second was a mother-in-law, and the third was a leper. Mark places things he considers important in the center of various triads as he has done here with the healing of the mother-in-law. The key word in Mark's account of this miracle is, in Greek, diekone or to serve. The word diekone is used by Jesus to describe the essence of discipleship, the most significant way to model Christ's lifestyle. It comes as no surprise that the first ministers of the Gospel came to be referred to in Greek as diakonos. However, the only person in the gospel to be described as "diakonos" is a woman. According to Mark, after she is healed, she is the first to model Jesus' lifestyle.

Mark 5:21-43 tells of how Jesus healed a woman who had been menstruating for 12 years. The woman depicted here expresses awe towards Christ and seeks Him out for her own healing. Jesus tells her that her faith has saved her. At the end of chapter 4 the disciples had just been reprimanded for their lack of faith. Soon after we see this woman who has been ritually unclean for 12 years be commended for her faith. This healing is couched in the middle of another triad with the healing of a pagan in a foreign territory and a synagogue leader seeking Jesus to save his daughter. Highlighted here is that Jesus' touch can heal the uncleanness that others will not go near.

There are other passages that show various ways in which Jesus interacted with women, but the event that shows most powerfully how important women were in the early church is the events surrounding Jesus' death and resurrection. Through the passion story the disciples are shown to fail Christ in many ways. They consistently fail to understand him, they lack faith in him, Judas betrays him, the other disciples fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane instead of keeping watch with him, they leave him to his accusers, and Peter denies him. In contrast to the actions of the male disciples, the women discussed in the text consistently act in faith. Three women are named as being present at Jesus' crucifixion; Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome, who, when in Galilee, followed him and served him.(Mark 14: 40-41) Marie Sabin interprets this role call as particularly significant. "There are three women named here, so they serve as a balance and counterpoint to the three male disciples whom Jesus chose to be his special witnesses in the garden, and who fell asleep instead. The naming of the three itself is worth noticing; instead of the anonymous women we have encountered before in the narrative, these women have achieved a new status." (Women Transformed) These same three women are the first to arrive at Jesus' tomb. They went intending to anoint Jesus' body with the traditional oils, but found the stone rolled away from the entrance. An angelic figure sitting inside the tomb sent the women out as apostles to tell the rest of the disciples what they had found. This news is one of the most frequently discussed pieces of information in the history of the world and it is women who first told it . Jesus also chose to first reveal himself after the resurrection to women. Where the male disciples fell short the female followers of Christ stood firm by having faith, being servants, and following Christ. For more information on women's role in the Gospel of Mark check out the link to Marie Sabin's article.


Feminists can believe in the sacrality of the biblical texts without compromising their belief in the equality of all people. The bible can be viewed as sacred writings containing valuable truths. These truths, however, have historically, and in some circles today, have been viewed through the tainted glass of a patriarchal society. Because most cultures in which Christianity developed predominantly have men in power, the texts have been viewed in this light. If power had been more evenly distributed between the genders the same Biblical texts that are now interpreted as promoting male dominance could be viewed as promoting equality. However, if societies had given equal power to women then some of the Biblical passages would be unnecessary because the problems that the text addresses would not exist. The influence of men controlling power can be seen in the fact that no women have written a book in the New Testament. With Jesus teaching such strong messages about equality it seems rather hypocritical for the disciples to have kept women from more prominent positions. However, this does not have to hinder a woman's spiritual and religious life. The center of Christianity is the life and teachings of Christ and here we find equality for women and men, Jews and Gentile, slaves and freemen.


Link to Marie Sabin's full article

Christian +Feminist: This page is dedicated to the proposition that faith and feminism are not mutually exclusive.


Women Transformed: The ending of Mark is the Beginning of Wisdom by Marie Sabin

The Bible According to Eve by Cullen Murphy

Storkey, Elaine. The Search for Intimacy. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996

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