Whenever the word has left our lips, it’s been met with a myriad of reactions: disgust, a rallying cry, hesitation, or a passionate monologue. “Feminism” is a polarizing word—or at least, that’s what the reactions of many would have you believe.
When did feminism become such a loaded word?
Some Jewish people proudly self-label with the term, but struggle to reconcile their feminist ideology with religion or with those they know who are religious (let’s be real, in some religious or conservative circles, saying “feminism” elicits the same reaction as the other “f-bomb”). Simultaneously, others are wary of using the term for fear of being misunderstood, knowing it can carry with it a slew of issues they don’t want to get into or might not mean.
So when did feminism become such a loaded word? Why is it polarizing? Is the Tanakh to blame? Is God anti-feminist? To begin to find out some of the answers to these and similar questions, we have to gain some context.
Getting Some Context (Because Context Is Everything)
The word “feminism” didn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until the end of the nineteenth century, where it’s defined as “the belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men; the struggle to achieve this aim.”1
Throughout much of human existence, women have been viewed as second-class humans.
But the inequality referenced in this definition predates its foray into the dictionary. The evolution of the perception, status, and treatment of women hasn’t been linear—it’s varied from era to era and culture to culture. However, by looking back throughout much of human existence, we see that women have been viewed as second-class humans, bartered as commodities, objectified, exploited, and rendered powerless. Brave men and women throughout history have stood up and challenged the inequality and atrocities of their time, but these actions didn’t coalesce into a movement called feminism until the late nineteenth century. Since then, it’s been divided into four defined “waves,” each of which championed a different cause to advocate for the equality of women.
But the vision for equality has an even longer history. It existed before it was attached to the word “feminism” or to any specific political ideology or labeled wave. It started with God and His intention for a perfect creation. If we strip away our preconceptions and the baggage it’s picked up along the way, we can see that, at its heart, feminism is biblical.
God’s Creation of Woman Filled a Felt Void
After God created man in the book of Genesis, He looked in satisfaction and approval at all of His creation. Then He noticed that something was missing: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God had deemed everything in His creation to be “good” and the absence of a woman was the first time He said something wasn’t good. He determined that it wasn’t the full picture—man needed a partner.
After God had this realization, He gave Adam a massive task: naming all of the animals of the earth. He brought them before Adam, two by two. In this way, God effectively showed Adam his need for a partner to help with the workload, and simultaneously demonstrated that all other creatures had their match. It’s only after this demonstration that God set out to create woman, referring to her as ezer, or a helper. In nearly every other use of the word ezer throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, it is ascribed to God Himself. The use of this language foreshadows the honor God would bestow on His creation of woman.
God Bestowed Equal Value on Women
God created man and woman as different beings without inherent superiority. Seventeenth-century minister and author Matthew Henry said, “The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”2 Both man and woman are made in God’s image—woman was not made in man’s image, and man was not made in woman’s image.
If feminism means recognizing the equal value of women, then God was the first feminist.
We each bear the image of God and are a testimony to His character. Together, we form a reflection of the person of God, so to esteem one gender over another would be akin to valuing a part of God over another part of Him. In fact, Scripture utilizes both male and female imagery in describing God. Before sin entered the world, that equality and shared value was an assumed truth. The battle between the sexes is a curse,3 and it’s because of that curse that we even have to have a term like “feminism” to remind us of the Eden truth.
If feminism means recognizing the equal value of women and establishing the treatment of them as such, then God was the first feminist. And if the Bible reveals God’s heart and character, then the Bible is the most feminist historical book ever written.
Ever since we left Eden, we’ve seen the effects of the corruption of God’s dynamic. Rather than representing the beauty of diversity, the designed differences between men and women have contributed to culture-ascribed value judgments, unhelpful stereotypes, and exploitation of power. Author Wendy Alsup put it this way:
God created women in his image and bestowed on her equal dignity with man. By a woman’s mere existence, God has bestowed on her dignity and privileges that transcend race, economic status, and physical ability. But sin entered the world, and the inherent dignity of men and women has often gotten lost as corrupt people with power oppress others without it.4
Everything that came after Eden—the laws, the stories, the cultural norms—were no longer the ideal God had created. Every law was meant to navigate that broken world. Every story told was that of broken people. It’s not how God initially intended His creation, but God—and the Scripture by extension—is practical. It gives us helpful tools for navigating our broken world, illustrates what happens when we live outside of God’s ideal, and provides an opportunity to see His unchanged heart within it.
How the Bible Teaches Us to Navigate the Broken World
The stories recounted in Scripture aren’t included because the characters or actions therein are perfect—rather, they reveal God’s provision amidst the imperfection. There are a multitude of stories of women who overcame societal limitations, navigated unfair situations and traumatic events, courageously lived in faith, and simultaneously cared for families, friends, foes, and themselves along the way.
The daughters of Zelophehad advocated that they should receive their father’s possessions after his death, and in doing so, they set a new precedent for inheritance laws in Israel (Numbers 27:1–11). Deborah wore many hats—she was a judge, warrior, wife, mother, poet, and prophet—a range of highly valued abilities and responsibilities (Judges 4–5). When Ruth’s husband died, she went against the cultural norm and safety of immediately remarrying, and instead pledged herself to caring for her widowed mother-in-law. She boldly approached Boaz with her intentions, effectively “making the first move” (book of Ruth). Esther advocated for and saved the Jewish people in exile, acting with courage, grace, and wisdom beyond her years and despite her experiences (book of Esther).
There are countless others, and their ancient stories reflect modern truth: the struggle is real. And though they’re packaged in different times with different cultural norms, many of the struggles recounted are familiar to women today. There’s power in the relatability of their stories, and there’s hope as we see the way God worked through them. Scripture also gives us insight into the heart of God by the way Jesus himself treated women.
Jesus’ Treatment of Women Is Telling
Artistic depictions of Jesus would insinuate he just surrounded himself with 12 male disciples—but it wasn’t a bro fest akin to a frat party. Jesus was also surrounded by close female friends, patrons, and a mother with whom he had a great relationship (what a good Jewish boy). In every interaction he had with them, Jesus demonstrated a counter-cultural, wildly respectful treatment of women—he trusted them, confided in them, shared meals with them, taught them alongside men, cared for them, healed them, and wept with them.
Jesus demonstrated a counter-cultural, wildly respectful treatment of women.
One woman had struggled with perpetual menstruating for 12 years and hadn’t been able to find any relief. She’d spent all her money on doctors who didn’t help and was ostracized and labeled “unclean” because of her condition. When she heard about Jesus, she risked everything to go through the crowds to find him, saying, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). She reaches for him and touches the edge of his tzitzit. An unclean woman touched the holy garment of a man. But Jesus wasn’t disgusted by menstruation or angry with her for confronting him in front of others—in fact, he counteracted her public shame by publicly healing her, treating her with respect, and applauding her faith.
Jesus stopped at a well and asked a Samaritan woman there for a drink. This wasn’t only out of the norm because she was a woman out alone at midday, talking with a male stranger. It was radical because Jews and Samaritans never spoke to one another. But Jesus talks to her like a person, demonstrates his care for her, and ultimately changes her life. In fact, it’s to this woman that he arguably made the most explicit revelation recorded in Scripture of his identity as the foretold Messiah. She was so impacted by this that she ran back to her city to tell everyone she knew. This non-Jewish woman was chosen by Jesus as an ambassador to represent him as one of the first witnesses of the Jewish Messiah to the Gentile nations.
This isn’t the only example of Jesus choosing, equipping, and trusting a woman to be an integral partner in his ministry work. After Jesus’ crucifixion, two women close to him (both named Miriam) went to see his tomb. Instead, they found an empty grave and were suddenly confronted by Jesus, standing there and greeting them by name. They were entrusted with the unbelievable task of telling his disciples of his resurrection. Not only would this news be a shock to the community, but the delivery of it by two women would have added an extra layer of disbelief. Still, Jesus bestowed the honor of delivering the most astonishing news of all time to two women, giving them a unique role and opportunity to be credible witnesses of both his death and his resurrection.
As the Messiah, Yeshua is representative of God’s heart for women. He gave us a living example of how to treat women in a way that is in accordance with that heart, even if it isn’t in accordance with culture. He gave a glimpse of the restoration of the truth of the inherent and equal value of men and women, even in a broken world, and the ability to treat one another as such.
God’s Ideal Still Hasn’t Been Reclaimed
We’re still living in the broken in-between—we’re not in Eden anymore, and we’re not yet living in the fully redeemed future God promised us. When we look at the world around us today, we see the evidence of that fact in big and small ways.
Today, one in three women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.5 Thirty-nine thousand child brides are married off every day.6 Women and girls make up 80% of human trafficking victims.7 More than two-thirds of the illiterate people in the world are female.8 And sometimes injustice is quieter, experienced in little ways by women in our world everyday: managing the unbalanced costs of routine female healthcare and supplies, living up to unrealistic beauty standards, experiencing sexual harassment just by walking down the street, or getting overlooked for a job for which we’re qualified—most women have plenty of stories to tell of their personal experiences of frustration, mistreatment, or trauma.
Though these examples represent a wide range of grotesque or unfair realities, they all stem from a single root truth: men and women aren’t living in reflection of their God-given equal value and mutual dependence. How do we live and behave in this reality, knowing God’s heart for women, and knowing things are not as they should be? It’s hard. It stirs up anger. And it should: God wants injustice to upset us, whether it’s big or small. It certainly upsets Him: “The Lord looked and was displeased to find there was no justice. He was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed. So he himself stepped in to save them with his strong arm, and his justice sustained him” (Isaiah 59:15–16).
Ever since His creation was corrupted, God has been at work restoring it—that includes restoring harmony between the sexes. In fact, Yeshua purposed his life, death, and resurrection to restore that kind of harmonious existence, and we can get a taste of that even here and now.
We can participate in the job of ‘working our way back to Eden.’
No matter our differences or political ideology, we can remain unified around God’s heart for justice and equality. We can participate in the job of “working our way back to Eden” by being careful with our own words and actions, promoting the proper treatment of women without denigrating the value of men, and sharing the message of God’s love for both men and women.
Alsup eloquently said, “In [Messiah], whether we hold power in our culture or not, God equips us once again to live as image bearers, living in light of our inherent dignity in him while treating others in the hope of their own.”9 As Jewish people, let’s rise to our calling as ambassadors of God’s heart, advocates for justice, and agents of restoration.
- Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, s.v. “feminism,” accessed June 24, 2021.
- “Genesis 2:21–25,” Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Biblegateway, accessed June 24, 2021.
- Genesis 3:16b.
- Wendy Alsip, “God’s Feminist Ideals,” Christianity Today, March 20, 2017.
- “Violence against women,” Fact sheets, World Health Organization, March 9, 2021.
- JR Thorpe, “5 Sad Stats About Women’s Rights Worldwide,” Bustle, May 27, 2016.
- Neha A. Deshpande and Nawal M. Nour, “Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls,” PubMed Central, National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2013, PMC3651545.
- “Facts and Figures,” Commission on the Status of Women, UN Women, accessed June 24, 2021.
- Alsip, “God’s Feminist Ideals”.