A Question about Women and Suffering in the Old Testament
I regularly answer questions about the faith from believers here, on social media, in person, and by email. The questions tend to repeat and deal with common issues. So I thought I would post some of them here and provide simple answers for those who don’t have a pastor or person to ask directly.
This one deals with an issue that comes up often in relations to women. Culture argues that God is unfair to women in the Bible particularly in the Old Testament. You may have heard God called misogynist or unfair to women in general. The Bible is called hateful because it describes women and men as differently than one another in it. The question dealt with two specific women – Jacob’s first wife, Leah and Hagar, mother of Ismael. Leah ends up miserable and in a loveless marriage to Jacob. Hagar is treated terribly by the ones who are supposed to care for her.
So why did God put these women in such terrible situations?
Does it reflect on God’s view towards women?
A Story of Man’s Sin and God’s Faithfulness
As a general framework, the Old Testament is not the story of people being good and following God. It is an account of God’s grace, mercy, and faithfulness to people who were unfaithful. Israel was like God herding cats. They were constantly messing up despite God’s clear directions and despite God’s repeated forgiveness of them.
People look to the Patriarchs and Old Testament figures and can get confused that they are are not perfect people, by and large. Some are like Daniel who lives a spotless life, but more are like David. He is great in some ways but he is also a humongous sinner – a murderer, an adulterer, and a pretty bad father, all in all. He is little different in some ways that Saul who is held up as an example of bad.
The point through all of the Old Testament figures is that people are flawed and will always ultimately fail. This why we need Jesus to save us. Men and women sin. They put themselves and those around them in painful circumstances as a result. It is only Jesus who can rescue us from the mess we create on our own.
I feel for Leah. She is in an unenviable situation. But if you look at the situation, who is actually innocent in that whole mess of a family? Jacob is the deceiver who is hot off tricking his brother and father and stealing the birthright. He lives by deception. His father in law, Leah’s father, Laban then deceives him. Laban is a scoundrel and a cheater who steals from his son in law. Yes, Leah seems the most innocent of the three. But the big question is do you really think she had no idea what was happening on their wedding night?
Jacob is known to love Rachel and believes he is marrying Rachel. Leah is slipped into the bedchamber in Rachel’s place. Assuming that Leah is not unconscious, it is likely she had a hand in the plot to deceive the deceiver. Was she hoping that he would learn to love her? Who knows, but it seems she joins in the plot to deceive Jacob, the deceiver. Each of these sinners could have trusted in the Lord. Jacob could have trusted God to deliver the birthright, Laban could have trusted God with his family and money. Leah could have trusted God with her future. Instead, they all did what we tend to do – they cut corners to try to work it out themselves. Bad things happen when we do that and we do it so often. This is exactly the reason why we need a Savior.
But even after her marriage, the question we all get asked in this life is what is more important, God’s will or our choice on how we seek to be happy? Leah wanted Jacob to love her. He did not love her and seems to have made that clear before the marriage. This made Leah unhappy. But God was still there and could have been the source of joy and contentment despite herself if Leah chose to.
Using another example, Jeremiah was a righteous man of God. He was a prophet of God who did what God told him to. Yet, Jeremiah’s life circumstances were terrible. He was a failed prophet by worldly terms and was often punished for speaking. Was God unfair to him and the other prophets who were killed, sawn in half, forced to flee for their lives? Were they failures or were they working on a completely different set of rules?
Like Leah, no they could not leave to find someone who loved them but they lived for a city whose builder and maker is God.
God Sees Me
Hagar’s is similarly a story. It is another of the many in the Bible of man failing miserably but God being merciful. Hagar is not in God’s plan for Abraham and Sarah. They were supposed to wait for Sarah to get pregnant but lost faith. Their unbelief led to an ugly circumstance – Sarah treats Hagar badly out of resentment. This exact outcome is unique but not unexpected. Painful consequences are what happens even now when we try to work out our own plans and don’t trust God. Abraham and Sarah did not trust God and people paid for it.
Hagar is fleeing from Abraham and Sarah when an angel shows up and tells her to go back here for a time. Why?
9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”
13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her:
“You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
The people sinned and it caused a painful result. That is life and will continue to be life. It is worse in this circumstance because it was powerful people who are supposed to know better – Abraham and Sarah. But Hagar is satisfied with God’s answer because God, who is infinitely better than any human circumstance, sees her and tells her that He will take care of her. She eventually is put away and God takes care of her there too.
Do the circumstances stink? Of course, but this life is a vapor compared to the eternity ahead. That is also the point of men and women – we create circumstances that stink and can do nothing to fix it really. We need Jesus.
Hannah is another example. She is treated terribly by her husband’s second wife, Penninah who taunts her for not having any children. She is miserable. Who created the situation? Penninah did by being nasty to Hannah. Elkinah did by marrying twice. Yet, Hannah suffers. She responds by going to God and taking her pain to Him. His answer is enough – her son the prophet Samuel – and Hannah rejoices in the Lord.
Jesus Loves You
All these pictures, both bad and good, come to fulfillment in the One who gets the worst deal in history – Jesus. He is entitled to respect, good treatment, and in His case, the worship of the world by right. Yet, the sin of the world goes against God’s actual framework. The King is victimized, beaten, mocked, tortured and killed. This was all due to the consequences of evil man’s sin. Yet, for the joy that was set before Him, Jesus went to the Cross enduring the shame. He knew the Father’s plan was worth way more than what man stunk up.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Isaiah, Elijah and more modern examples like William Tyndale all were put in awful circumstances they did not deserve, could do nothing about and where they were victimized. This is the evil of this world. Yet, if God ended all this injustice now, how many people would go straight to hell. For the joy that was set before them, they continued to follow God like the Lord and were rewarded in eternity.
Life is unfair. People are sinful. Sin brings serious painful consequences. The vulnerable are often abused by the evil and relentless. This applies to both men and women. We all fail and fall short of the glory of God. This all points to our desperate need for a Savior who loves us all – man or woman, Jew or Gentile, slave for free.
It is worth noting that some of the best moments of Jesus’ ministry with us involved women. It is Mary who is the only one who understands Jesus mission and anoints Him for burial. It is Mary and Martha who hear Jesus proclaim He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The women are the only ones who make it to the foot of the Cross, other than John. It is the women who come to the Tomb in the early morning and are the first witnesses of the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene certainly felt the intense pain of life since she was inhabited by 7 demons before Jesus. Yet, she is also the one first blessed with the message of Jesus’ Resurrection. God loves and blesses us all – in His way, time and mercy.