As a broad generalisation I’d say yes it is, and no of course we shouldn’t.
And I’d then qualify the first by saying, it depends what you mean by the question.
Obviously we can’t just make a blanket statement about the whole Bible. Even the Old Testament is far too diverse and multi-vocal a set of texts for us to just say that the whole thing is completely sexist. And a lot of it comes down to whether you approach the Bible as a divine answer-book and manual for living, or rather as a record of God’s dealings with his world – not all of which are meant to be taken as normative.
So I’d say that the overall picture presented in the Bible is broadly sexist (certainly by our society’s standards). But I’d also say that there are alternative voices in the mix, and that the sexism present in Scripture is not necessarily put forward as an example to copy, but simply as a statement of historical reality.
The Old Testament
In the OT women were seen as literally worth less than men. Leviticus 27: 2-5 ‘If anyone makes a special vow to dedicate a person to the Lord by giving the equivalent value, set the value of a male between the ages of 20 and 60 at 50 shekels of silver… for a female, set her value at 30 shekels; for a person between the ages of 5 and 20, set the value of a male at 20 shekels and of a female at 10 shekels…’
So the ‘value’ of a woman is between half and two-thirds that of a man, depending on age (the OT could also be argued to be ageist on the basis of this passage). Of course, there may be all sorts of complex reasons why women were assigned lower financial ‘value’, which may need unpacking for a fuller understanding.
In the OT, women were also seen as the property of men. When a woman married a man, she and all that was hers belonged entirely to him, and became his ‘chattels’, his goods. Women had very few rights in Israelite society. Deuteronomy 24:3-4 allows a man to divorce a woman if she displeases him; there’s no equivalent right for a woman to divorce a man. In most cases, if a woman did leave her husband she would be outcast and destitute, with no means of support. The rules for fornication and rape were somewhat skewed against women too, and if a man raped an unbetrothed girl she would have to marry him. And of course the OT permitted a man to marry several wives, but not a woman to have several husbands.
Most of the OT is also addressed exclusively to men. For example, in the Ten Commandments, the rule is not to covet your neighbour’s wife, and nothing is mentioned about not coveting neighbours’ husbands – clearly the primary audience for these words was male.
Most of the major players in the OT – prophets and priests, leaders and monarchs – are also men. From Noah and Abraham through to David and Solomon and then the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it’s pretty much men-only all the way.
Old Testament context and exceptions
However, there are of course a few exceptions to the male-dominated OT picture. Right at the outset there’s the strong and very ambiguous character of Eve, who we’ll come back to later. Later we have Miriam, Moses’ sister whose courage and quick thinking was instrumental in saving his life as a baby, and who later ‘led the people in singing’ (though she was also struck with a skin disease for criticising Moses’ marriage to a Cushite). Then there’s Rahab the Jericho prostitute who is again courageous and quick-witted, and who is counted among the ancestors of Jesus.
In the unruly and embattled time of the Judges we have Deborah, Israel’s only ever female leader, a mould-breaking warrior who leads her people to military victories rather in the style of an Israelite Boudicca. And off the battlefield but equally violent we have Jael who impales Israel’s enemy Sisera through the skull with a tent peg. Sweet and gentle this ain’t.
In rather different times we have Ruth whose courage, faithfulness and kindness win her a place in the ancestry of King David and Jesus. We have Abigail, wife of the foolish Nabal, whose wisdom and diplomacy impress David and turn him from needless bloodshed. And of course there’s Esther whose courage (and, yes, beauty) save the Jewish people from wholesale genocide.
Of course these women are very much exceptions, and apart from Eve and Deborah their characters and actions are all very much circumscribed by the patriarchal, male-dominated society they inhabit. But we need to remember that the subjugation of women was endemic throughout pretty much the whole Ancient World. In this overall context, it’s even arguable that the OT is socially progressive for its time.
Could God have called the Israelites far more quickly into a fairer, more equal kind of society if he’d wanted, enshrining more equality for women in the rules and laws he gave them? It’s hard to say. Nonetheless, the laws and ways God was slowly and painstakingly training into his people were arguably paving the way for greater fairness and equality in the future.
By working with the culture and ways of the people at the time, God was not necessarily endorsing everything that was culturally embedded in that society, nor was he setting it up as a societal norm for all subsequent ages to copy. (The same can be said for OT violence and bloodshed.) Rather, he was working with them as they were, preparing them to receive Christ, and gradually moving them towards better and more loving ways.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with approaching the Bible critically, questioning why many of its rules and norms seem so unenlightened to us when we’re told it’s meant to show us the right way to live. But at the same time I think we need to approach it with a degree of humility, recognising that we don’t know what it was like to live in that time and what reasons there may have been why society was structured in that way. We also need to be aware that ultimately history may judge our own society to have been deeply flawed in very many ways.
The New Testament
Moving on to the NT, sexism is still very much the cultural norm. However, Jesus models a whole new way of treating and relating to women. I looked at this last time, so I’m just going to re-iterate that Jesus treated women largely as equals (intellectually, socially, spiritually), counted them among his closest friends, and entrusted them with some of the most crucial tasks in his life. There are many strong female characters in the gospels, many of whom play vital roles.
Of course, when we come on to Paul’s writings the picture notoriously becomes more mixed. Paul has gained a reputation for misogyny, based on various texts which have been used to ‘keep women in their place’: Women must remain silent in church… I do not permit a woman to have authority over a man… Wives, submit to your husbands…
I don’t have space to go into all these texts here, but let’s just say for now that they can all be read in different and less chauvinist ways when we know the societal situations they were written in and to. In pretty much all cases, they probably don’t mean what we’ve read them to mean, and don’t constitute a blanket ban on female leadership, nor a universal mandate for male dominance. (For example, the rule of keeping quiet in church is probably in the context of women disrupting worship to ask questions, and the call to submit to husbands comes in the context of a call for mutual submission.)
Paul apparently recognised women as prophets, apostles (Junia), deacons (Phoebe), even church leaders (Priscilla). And of course famously he proclaims that in Christ there is no male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus. And again, we can’t judge 2000-year-ago Paul by today’s standards – but nor can we necessarily read all of his sanctions and church rules as everlasting dictats.
All about Eve
It seems to me then that the whole trajectory of the Bible is towards greater equality, authority and freedom for women. This can be seen as progressive revelation; a gradual unfolding of God’s good plan. But it can also be seen as a move back to how things were at the very beginning – restoring the gender equality that existed before the ‘Fall’.
For crucially, at the very outset the Bible has God creating man and woman as equals: ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27). At this point there is no hierarchy of gender status.
Then we have the somewhat ambiguous alternative creation story in Genesis 2, in which woman is apparently made from and for man (Adam’s rib, to be his ‘helper’ and companion). This might appear to put woman in subordinate second place, but the text contains some clues that undermine this. The word helper (neser) used for the woman is also the same as that used for God several times in the OT (Israel’s helper). Also, as woman is the final being to be created, it could be argued that she, not man, is the pinnacle of creation.
(There’s even an argument that until Eve was created, there was no gender – that Adam was originally a unisex or asexual being. It rather depends how literally you want to read the story.)
It’s only after the woman (as yet nameless) has led Adam into sin that God places the curse upon her that ‘your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’ (Gen 3:16). Of course it’s a moot point whether we accept this as literal history, inspired myth (truth-bearing allegory), or just an ancient explanation for how the world came to be as it is (I’d probably go mostly for the middle option). Either way though, the Bible seems to be saying that the ruling of husband over wife was a curse and a result of the Fall, rather than how things were originally meant to be.
This also implies that in the Kingdom, in Christ’s new order of things, equality will be restored and husbands will no longer rule over wives. This is the order we are working to bring into being and which we can now model and embody in our relationships.
So is the Bible sexist?
So I don’t think it’s fair simply to accuse the Bible of being sexist. We rather have to say that it contains some elements and texts which depict or arise from a sexist culture, but that it does not necessarily mandate or teach sexism.
But what if, after all, we do decide that the Bible really is sexist? For me, this doesn’t present the problem that it would to a straight-down-the-line evangelical. I don’t feel any need to uphold sola scriptura (at least not in any simplistic sense), so even if the Bible is sexist I don’t take that to mean that we as Christians have to be. I wish to treat the Bible with great respect, engage properly with what it says and take it very seriously. But I can’t any longer sign up to a simple model of the Bible as an inerrant divine textbook whose every command is eternally binding on us or whose every example is normative for us.
Of course, this also has implications for how we respond to other troubling aspects of the Bible – for example racism, homophobia, approval of violence and genocide, and even perhaps some of the more disturbing doctrines about (say) hell. I’m not saying we can just expunge the parts of the Bible that are culturally uncomfortable for us, but rather that we need to engage with these issues in a more complex way than merely ‘The Bible says…’ And above all, we need to look at the Bible through the prism of Jesus.