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Four Hard Questions: Standards for Women in the Bible (Part 3)

A friend of PT described four difficult questions that others have presented to her in discussions. Today I present Part 3 (of 3), answering the third and fourth of the four questions.

Questions 3 & 4:

Why does it seem like women were dealt with more harshly in the Bible, especially under the Law? My third question is this: when Mariam and Aaron were complaining against Moses in Numbers 12, why did only Mariam get leprosy and Aaron did not? And here’s my fourth question: When Jesus intervened in the stoning of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1–11, why wasn’t the man present for judgment? They obviously weren’t going to stone the man. It takes two to commit adultery. It makes no sense to me.


As described in Part 1 and then continued in Part 2, there are two problems which can cloud our perspective in reading these examples. The first is not really reading the full context. The second is bringing modern assumptions into an ancient text. Neither is a right way to handle the Scripture and will increase a person’s confusion. I will continue referring to these as “point (1)” and “point (2)” in this conclusion to our series. Also as mentioned in the introduction to Part 1, please read any referenced Scriptures for yourself! You won’t know if I’m using them correctly otherwise.

Miriam’s leprosy

This account is found in Numbers 12, where we read the following:

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married…and they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it” (Num. 12:1–2).

Moses was the second of three siblings, including Aaron and Miriam. Their genealogy is listed in 1 Chronicles 6:3 (also see Ex. 4:14 and 15:20). Sometimes all three are listed together: here in Numbers 12:1–4, in 1 Chronicles as mentioned above, and in Micah 6:4. Birth order was very important in Israelite society. In their genealogy, and in most other passages, they are listed in that order: Aaron, Moses, and Miriam; or when Moses is not listed with them, Aaron and Miriam. But there are two exceptions in the passages listed above, and when a “normal” order is broken unexpectedly, we should see if there is a reason.

Here in Numbers 12:1, Miriam is called out first to emphasize her prominence or responsibility in the event. That means Miriam probably initiated the complaining. In Part 1, I noted that while headship conflict started in marriage, the same rebellion emerged in other authority structures such as government, once God introduced those structures. Humans do not want to submit. Moses had a position of authority; Miriam resented it. Aaron chose to join in the complaining.

Their complaints were partly factual. Miriam was a prophetess (Ex. 15:20). Aaron had performed signs and wonders in Egypt. He was assigned the role of High Priest, where he would regularly seek divine direction for legal disputes, and he would also read the Law to the people. Their statement was accurate, but their motives were wrong. Instead of promoting the Word of God, they wanted to promote Miriam and Aaron.

In Part 2 we examined Numbers 5 and found a surprising reference to the law of leprosy. While the command was literal and dealt with disease, the underlying spiritual significance – the outbreak of sin – should also be plain to us. Here it is again. Miriam initiated the sin, and God gave her a literal sign of what that meant to Him.

How often do each of us complain in a day? Do we ever complain about each other, about spiritual leaders, or a perceived lack of personal recognition? God hates complaining. What we’re really saying is that God, the provider of all things, is inadequate for a situation. Even when serious matters such as false teaching or evil behavior must be addressed, these should be done soberly and with a careful reliance on relevant, provable facts. The Spirit of God will never lead a believer to complain.

Finally, there is a merciful reason why Aaron was not struck with leprosy: he would have been disqualified from the priesthood, and unable to help Miriam. Instead, Moses interceded, God healed her, and then it was Aaron’s duty to restore her to the camp of Israel. We don’t read about that duty here, but Leviticus 13 talks at length about the priestly role in evaluating leprosy. (Also compare Luke 17:11–19, v.14 in particular.)

The woman caught in adultery

This account appears in John 8:1–11. First, let’s review the general context. In Part 2 I stated that God intended for Israel to be separate from the nations. He gave them the Law, suitable to the time and place. If Israel had walked in that path, their behavior would have been a testimony of God against the nations and great blessings would have resulted. Instead, we read how they repeatedly abandoned God and followed the ways of the nations.

When the Lord walked on earth, Israel was a functional state but not independent. Rome was in power and tolerated some local civil and religious structures, but the Jews were subject to Roman governors who administered criminal law. The Jewish leaders could not impose the death penalty, which was why they had to go before Pontius Pilate to have the Lord Jesus crucified. This foreign bondage proved Israel’s spiritual condition was not good. In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God gave the blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience, that would fall on His people. The curses for disobedience included dominion by their enemies (Lev. 26:17; Det. 28:25), a condition the Jews had been under for around 600 years at this point.1 

So, if we see the Jewish leaders acting unjustly, should this surprise us? Your question noted that if they “caught the woman in the act” they should have brought the man for judgment, too. I agree, but justice wasn’t their motivation. What they meant to do was trap the Lord with an impossible choice. If He affirmed their right to use the death penalty, He would authorize rebellion against Rome. If He agreed to her death but only through a Roman court, He might start a riot. If He refused to have her stoned, He would contradict the Law.  But instead the Lord tested their unbelief with His careful response, and none of their consciences could tolerate it.

If we read this passage in context, it is clear that God was not approving their behavior. We must always read Scripture carefully to see what is presented as factual events, versus what is being approved and taught.

Finally, a plot twist: The earliest known manuscripts of John’s gospel do not contain John 7:53 through 8:11, and many Bible translations include a margin note. This account may not have been inspired as part of John’s gospel. If not, it was probably added by an early copyist, possibly because the story was being shared among early Christians and a well-meaning scribe thought it should be written somewhere.2  Regardless, this account does not appear to contradict Scripture regarding the Lord Jesus and His activities. So, it was probably a real account even if John did not originally record it. That’s still an unresolved debate, so let’s just say this: we can read it and learn from it either way.


I hope this series has been helpful! Also, the PT team extends thanks to the friend who collected these questions from her own difficult discussions, so that we could study them and provide responses. Since three of the four were related to the Law, I should emphasize that the Law is a “long arc” study in Scripture. Picking and choosing bits of it will tend to produce more confusion than clarity because different portions comment on each other.

In any case, it is always good to know why you believe, in addition to what you believe. If you have not spent much time studying the Old Testament or the Law, I hope you are now inspired to do both. Even before gaining a deep understanding of the Law, we can be thankful that in Christ, we are no longer subject to these kinds of rules! The Law is something we study to see God’s purposes in bringing us all to the full knowledge of sin, and to recognize our desperate need for the Redeemer that God has provided. In Christ, we can be pleasing to God because of our new relationship.

Return to part 1 or return to part 2


1.  Israel and Judah went into captivity in separate events at the close of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, and remained there until a remnant returned to the land in Ezra and Nehemiah—but functioning more as a province than a nation. Eventually Rome took over Judaea, and was firmly in control at the time of Christ.

2.  Early Chtistians still had recent knowledge of the Lord’s time on earth and were doubtless sharing many stories like this one in conversations, ministry, and letters. Compare John 21:25.

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