A Christian friend asked for my opinion of "God's View of a Woman," by Frank Viola. Here is my response:
I agree with Viola that God's esteem of Woman is very high. But in the process of trying to show us that, he makes some pretty erroneous remarks--some of which I consider demonstrative of how many Christians today, and sadly most of those with publicity, continue to misuse the biblical texts and misrepresent not only the nation of Israel but also God himself.
"Let’s take a trip back to ancient Israel and look at how women were viewed before Jesus came. The Jews had a very dim view of women. Jewish women were not allowed to receive an education. Hence, they were largely uneducated. Their only training was in how to raise children and keep house."
Viola is severely oversimplifying. For one thing, "ancient Israel" could span 2000 years, i.e. up to 500 CE, so he's being very vague. Regarding the central topic of Viola's sermon, here is an explicit example of when in Jewish (=Israelite) history women received an education alongside men: after Israel returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem (around 516 BCE)--the same one in which Jesus (or "Yeshua" in Hebrew, which was his actual name) was dedicated, spoke, turned over tables, etc--"Ezra the priest brought the Tora before the congregation both of men and women, and all those who could hear with understanding [....] And he read therein [...] from morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those who could understand" (Nehemiah 7). You see, the teachings God spoke to my ancestors (i.e. the Tora) addressed both men and women. Both were treated as relevant, in the desert as well as during the time of the second temple.
Has Viola never read Proverbs 31? Or perhaps he forgot that that was written by an Israelite man with Israelite women in mind. There we read of a woman who conducts business: "she seeks wool, and flax, and works willingly with her hands" (cf. Paul's exhortation: Ephes 4:28), "She considers a field and buys it," "She makes garments and sells them, and delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing," "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is a Tora of steadfast love." "Her children rise up and call her blessed, her husband also and he praises her." And this chapter is framed with longing for such women: "Who can find a woman of worth, for her price is far above rubies." By the way, religious Jewish men all around the world sing this proverb every Friday night to their wives sitting around the table with family and friends, imparting this ideal to the subsequent generations. Jews in the ancient world had a "dim" view of women? "He who finds a wife finds good, and obtains favor from YHVH" (Proverb 18). Seems to me that ancient Israelites did in fact hold a high esteem for women, and they clearly weren't expected to just keep house.
Viola goes on to talk about women's access in the temple compounds. Yes, Gentiles were limited access and Israelite women were, too, to a lesser extent. But I want to note that Israelite men were also limited (less than Israelite women and even less than non-Jews); the priests had access to an area closer to the ark and God's presence. They were also limited, however, as only the high priest could enter the most inner precinct once a year. These limitations, though, had more to do with ritual function and celebration, not with value of the individual. God chooses different people for different things. He chose Israel to establish his government--not the Koreans, not the Romans, not the Chileans. He chose the tribe of Levi as the priests, not Judah, not Mannaseh, not Benjamin. God doesn't give every human being the same role and responsibilities as every other human being. By the way, according to wikipedia, it was in the women's precinct where there was both music and dancing; Israelite men could also be there. Perhaps that's where Khana, a prophetess, was doing her work (Luke 2).
Viola also makes the sadly common mistake of imposing later Pharisaic traditions on not only the Pharisees of the first century but on all Israelites of that time. You must understand that during the second temple period the Pharisees were a sect. They claimed that their interpretation of God's Tora and that their oral traditions were authoritative. But they constituted one of several voices in Jewish society. The average Jew didn't necessarily follow them. So as an example, Viola cites a few blessings found in the Siddur--the Jewish prayer book where, yes, one of the morning prayers is, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has not made me a woman." But the Siddur didn't exist in the first century. In the early Medieval period it apparently was coming together and it wasn't distributed widely among Jewish communities until later in the Middle Ages. Yet Viola anachronistically reads the benedictions of this much later rabbinic (inheritors of the Pharisaic) text as commonly prayed by not only Pharisees but apparently the general Jewish populace of the first century. "This was man’s view of a woman in first-century Israel," he claims. That's a huge assumption with no evidence backing it.
Note: I own a Siddur though I use it selectively. My edition is edited by England's late chief rabbi. He mentions that that blessing has "nothing to do with hierarchies of dignity, for we believe that every human being is equally formed in the image of God. Rather, they are expressions of acknowledgement of the special duties of Jewish life. […] women are exempt from certain commands which apply to Jewish men." There you have a modern, orthodox (i.e. late-Pharisaic) view of the matter.
"It was not much better in other cultures. In fact, ever since the Fall of humanity, women have been regarded as second-class citizens—inferior to men."
He's right about that but in my opinion the revelation preserved by Israel, which has long framed the culture, tells me that in Israelite society, there existed at least a fundamental awe of Woman. Allow me to portray the contrast between one relevant nation and Israel. An ancient Greek poet, Hesiod, tells the story of how men were living just fine until they discovered fire. The gods in response created Woman explicitly as a curse. In my estimation, the advent of Woman related in Genesis is the diametric opposite. After God had founded the earth, the unfathomable depths of the sea, the gigantic burning stars, sunsets, gentle breezes, puppies, tigers, trees and their fruits, man with his creative faculty, wonder, yearning, capacity to care and feel, and every other good thing in the physical world and said it was very good, then God created as his finale: Woman. In the Israelite mind, she is the crowning achievement of all of God's creative work in the first six days.
Viola also pretty much misunderstands several of the examples he quotes in his effort to show just how extra-ordinarily Yeshua related to women:
1. John 8. A woman is brought by Pharisees and scribes and accused of adultery. It says very clearly that they brought her to Yeshua in order to trip him up and have reason to accuse him (probably of breaking God's laws). According to God's commands, a woman who commits adultery is to be killed if there are at least two witnesses. None of the accusers said they witnessed her. Yeshua did not either, and so he could not legally condemn her. A (male) adulterer, by the way, is to receive the same punishment. I just don't think this incident illustrates Yeshua's revolutionary respect for women as he just keeps the Tora and doesn't give into to the pressures of the Pharisees and scribes. The situation with John 4 is similar. Yeshua didn't personally witness with another person the Samaritan woman's adultery. It certainly was shocking to see him hanging out with people like this but that's because people expected a prophet, especially if this was the awaited messiah (i.e. the king-redeemer), to not condescend to such people's level. Indeed that is one of the beautiful things about Yeshua: he came to heal sinners as a doctor heals the sick. As for the surprise his disciples show for his speaking with a Samaritan (and a woman, no less), it very well may have been an issue of modesty. Once upon a time men and women kept a bit of distance in public. Women also covered up, and it's not necessarily out of assigning inferiority to them but rather deep cultural respect and value for a woman's body and reputation.
2. Luke 7. I just don't think the issue was one of sex. The reaction of the Pharisees is shock that he would let such a "sort of woman," i.e. a "sinner," touch him. They show similar surprise toward him dining with male tax collectors.
3. Matthew 15. Viola says that the Canaanite woman was considered a "dog" in Jewish society. I want to point out, first, that Yeshua, not a Pharisee or someone else, is the one who says, "it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." Second, the issue here is that she's Canaanite, not that she's a woman. We were supposed to entirely destroy the Canaanite nations but failed to do so, which is at issue here in Yeshua's treatment of her, I think. Once she acknowledges Israel's legitimacy and his authority over Israel (cf. "son of David" = messiah = king and redeemer of Israel) he heals her daughter.
4. Bride imagery. Again, has Viola not read Hosea? The prophet's marriage to a prostitute is meant to depict God's situation with adulterous Israel. And in anticipation of Israel's restoration, chapter 2 assures us, "I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion, And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness." How about Isaiah 62: to Jerusalem he says, "as a bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." Or Jeremiah 2: God said, "I remember in your favor, the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness. " Ezekiel 16 features a very thorough depiction of God having taken the nation of Israel as his wife. This imagery preceded Yeshua's arrival by up to hundreds of years. It wouldn't have surprised nor shamed Yeshua's disciples, neither men nor women, to have heard such imagery.
It just irks me that a man that claims to represent God and enjoy a wide readership, no doubt, teaches so fallaciously. I'm tired of these simplistic caricatures of not just the Pharisees, of whose tradition I'm not at all a fan, but also of Israel and even of, specifically, Yeshua. This kind of inaccurate and simplisic teaching is what historically has led to antisemitism and the further de-Judaising of Yeshua, who is first of all the king of Israel (cf. the plaque on his death stake). Aside from making chauvinistic Chileans uncomfortable, Viola may have also fed the old Christian doctrine of "the church of God vs. the synagogue of Satan." And if that wasn't bad enough, I don't imagine that his original Chilean audience (and now all of us who read his post) come away with very good feelings about the Jewish nation.
Having said a lot, I would love to know what any of you have to say in response to my points.