The Book of Job and the Case for Women’s Rights in the Bible

Job, a patriarch par excellence in The Book of Job, gave his daughters an inheritance. This challenges modern views that religion always promotes gender inequality.

Jun 9, 2024By Valentina Dordevic, MA Philology: General Literature and Literary Theory

women rights bible book of job


The Book of Job in the Old Testament ends with more than Job’s recovery and restoration. He also gets a new family with seven sons and three daughters. The story highlights the daughters. We learn about their names and their beauty, and we learn that Job gave them an inheritance, just like their brothers. This part, shown in Job 42:15, is critical. It shows Job, a good man in the Bible, treating daughters and sons equally. This is surprising for an Old Testament story and offers us a fresh perspective.


Surprising Facts About the Biblical Patriarchy 

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Christ and the Adulteress, by Valentin de Boulogne, 1620, Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum


Our perception of ancient history is often flawed. However, ancient texts challenge our impaired perspective and often surprise us. Who would expect an Old Testament document to treat women better than some newer and much-praised systems, such as Athenian democracy?


It is still true that many religious traditions, even nowadays, oppress women. But this oppression is not necessarily based on Biblical commandments. We may find verses that say, for example, that wives must submit to their husbands. But Bible verses don’t exist in a vacuum. When we read the whole section in which this line appears, we can find that God commands men to be kind and loving toward their wives and to serve them and provide for them. Furthermore, it says that husbands must love their wives in order to love themselves. Finally, in 1 Peter 3:7, we read that the prayers of men might be hindered if they don’t treat their wives with respect as their partners in life.


The Bible has always been revolutionary. It ordered people to treat others with dignity. It questioned meaningless celebrations and other futile religious practices. It outlawed child sacrifice and demanded that the vulnerable be protected from harm and poverty. It practically invented human rights while the world was plagued with horror. Ultimately, it said that men and women are equal before God (Galatians 3:28).

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guercino adultress
The Woman Taken in Adultery, by Guercino, 1621, Source: Dulwich Picture Gallery


In the New Testament, Jesus shows by example what kind of attitude men should have toward women. When a group of self-righteous men wants to kill an adulteress by stoning, he stops them by saying the famous line: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 NIV).


Now, many argue that the New Testament is all about love and compassion, while the Old Testament is about rules and punishment. For that reason, we’ll focus solely on the Old Testament and particularly on The Book of Job.


Why is The Book of Job so Important?

book of job i have heard thee
I Have Heard Thee (The Book of Job), by William Blake, 1821, Source: Harvard Art Museums


The Book of Job is one of the oldest books of the Old Testament. It is also one of the most influential ones. It is often cited in apologetic works. A good debate about the topic of why bad things happen to good people is unthinkable without mentioning Job’s case. The most important aspect of this text is that it challenges the simplistic notion of retributive justice, where good is always rewarded, and evil is punished. Its cultural influence is also remarkable. This ancient book has served as inspiration for literary classics, such as Goethe’s Faust.


In a nutshell, Job is an exceptionally good and faithful man. Satan challenges God, claiming Job is only good because he is blessed. To test this, God allows Satan to take away Job’s wealth, health, and family. Job is devastated but doesn’t turn against God. His friends say he must have done something wrong, but Job knows he is innocent. In the end, God appears in person, and Job realizes some things are beyond our understanding. God then restores his fortunes and gives him even more.


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Job and His Friends, by Ilya Repin, 1869, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Job is described as blameless — a label that is not frequently seen in the Bible (Job 1:1). Verse six brings us to another dimension in which God tells Satan about Job, describing him like this: “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Satan then questions Job’s motives and, eventually, gets God’s permission to ruin Job’s life in order to question his loyalty to the Lord.


An analysis of the entire Book of Job is beyond the scope of this article. However, for our purposes, we need to emphasize, first, that Job was portrayed as a spotless person. Second, most of the book is an explicit criticism of the hypocrisy of religious morality. Job’s friends, who came to comfort him, end up being his persecutors, claiming that there’s no such thing as undeserved punishment. If Job’s life has become miserable, it must have been his fault. In the end, God appears in person and criticizes these so-called friends and their views. God’s justice is not that simple.


The way in which The Book of Job criticizes traditional morality is revolutionary. It has been so since the time when the book was written, and it still is today. But that’s not the only revolutionary aspect of this biblical text.


The Patriarch and His Daughters

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Job and His Family, by William Blake, 1828, Source: The Tate Gallery


There is a consensus among Biblical scholars that Job lived after the flood but before Moses’ time. The exact period is unknown, but it is likely around the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Lot. This is known as the patriarchal period.


Job was a patriarch in the most precise sense. He was incredibly rich and had a large, happy, and healthy family. At the beginning of The Book of Job, his children are grown-ups. They live separately in their own homes, but they maintain strong bonds and traditionally gather to celebrate each other’s birthdays.


In verses 4-5, Job acts as a priest for his children:


“His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular custom” (Job 1:4-5 NIV).


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There Was a Man in the Land of Uz (Book of Job), by William Blake, 1821, Source: Harvard Art Museums


As the head of the family, Job clearly believes that the well-being of his children is his responsibility — even though they are grown-ups. He has already amassed a fortune for them, and he regularly makes sacrificial offerings for each of them. Completely devoted to the family and loyal to God, Job only does what is right in God’s eyes — and he does so til the end of the text, regardless of the harsh treatment he receives. The last thing he does after God has restored everything is shown in the epilogue:


“The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters. The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers(Job 42:12-15).


Granting an inheritance to female offspring was not common in ancient times, and the author did not mention this without reason. Job is not just a regular person. He is a strong believer in God. The portrait of Job is to serve as a role model for anyone who wants to do things right.


Mosaic law was still not in place, so stories like this helped individuals maintain a sense of right and wrong. And for some reason, the author wanted the readers to see that giving an inheritance to daughters is the right thing to do. As we will see, this is not the only instance in the Old Testament that talks favorably about women’s rights.


The Treatment of Women in the Old Testament

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The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, by Benjamin West, 1791, Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Even though some religious individuals have negative views on equal rights, the Bible as a whole does not support such views. One of the early texts that illustrates this is the advice to a son given in Proverbs 1:8-9. It explicitly says to a young person not to forget the lessons received from both father and mother.


In Genesis, we read that God created the woman to be the man’s partner (Gen 2:18). However, after the fall, the first thing Adam did was blame Eve for his own wrong decision (Gen 3:12). After that, every time someone did injustice to a woman, the main cause was the sin that entered the world.


But, according to the Bible, God was not happy with the mistreatment and oppression of women, children, or anyone else. As a result, he gave people a set of laws and regulations, as well as entire court case notes. So, in the books of Moses, we can find passages such as this one:


So Moses brought their case before the LORD, and the LORD said to him, What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them (Num 27:5-7).


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The Daughters of Zelophehad, After Frederick Richard Pickersgill, 1865–81, Source: The Met Museum


Likewise, there were marital laws in place to defend women. A man who married a girl, and then “hated” her and falsely accused her in order to get a divorce was to be whipped (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). The punishment for rape was also death:


“But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death” (Deuteronomy 22:25-26).


In this case, it was important to make a clear distinction between an offender and the victim to prevent further injustice. But sometimes, men and women were in the same kind of trouble. The previous lines of Deuteronomy say that a couple caught in adultery should be put to death (Deuteronomy 22:22-23).


In practice, men often got away with violating women’s rights. But it was not God’s law that instructed them so.


Violence Against Women and Divine Retribution in the Old Testament 

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Bathsheba at Her Bath, by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, ca. 1700, Source: The Met Museum


The historical books of the Old Testament are detailed and honest in depicting the people and events they mention. Thanks to these texts, we know that people often violated God’s laws. But they always had to face the consequences. One of the surprising facts is that even the individuals or tribes that seem to enjoy special protection from God were not spared when they did something wrong.


King David was, without doubt, one of God’s favorites. However, he did atrocious acts that were punished severely, and the record is kept as a warning for any future wrongdoers. In 2 Samuel 11, we see David falling in love with a married woman, whom he soon makes pregnant. Next, he arranges for her husband to be killed. It should be mentioned that the husband was one of the most loyal generals in the army. The king’s plan worked, and his people never found out about it. However, his actions “displeased the Lord” (2 Sam 11:27), and David was punished quite harshly.


The name of the woman mentioned above was Bathsheeba, and we could say that, as the wife of a general, her social position was relatively high. But the Bible teaches that even poor and socially insignificant women must not be hurt. There’s a famous example from The Book of Judges, chapters 19 and 20, where the entire tribe of Beniamites was nearly wiped out from the face of the earth after a group of men raped an unnamed woman. The entire chapter 19 was written to depict the details of these monstrous events. In the next chapter, we see God personally coordinating the armies of the remaining eleven tribes as they attack the Beniamites.


Job and Women

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Job and His Daughters, by William Blake, 1825, Source: The Tate Gallery


The Old Testament passages that describe cruelty and poor treatment of women serve as a depiction of corrupt human nature, not desirable behavior. God’s commandments are different. Orders that men should treat women well are given in Mosaic Law and are clearly shown in other biblical texts, including The Book of Job.


Even though women are not the main characters in The Book of Job, they do appear, and they are treated with love and respect. Job’s wife only speaks once in the text, but we see that she has the right to express her opinion. Job dismisses her opinion as wrong — just like the opinions of his male friends — but it has nothing to do with her status as a woman.


As for his daughters, they are loved by both their father and their brothers. Job takes care of all of his children alike. His sons from his original family — all adult men — see their sisters as equals, invite them to their homes, and eat and drink together. The sons from the new family are barely mentioned. We only know there were seven of them. But the daughters are shown as precious. Unlike the sons, they are mentioned by their names.


The tone in which Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-Happuch were described as beautiful speaks volumes. Their father loved them and in his righteousness, he treated them the same as his sons. However, the ending makes us think that he may have treated the girls even better. Even though we don’t know much about the life of these special women, their brief mention in The Book of Job is an invaluable testimony of divine justice.

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By Valentina DordevicMA Philology: General Literature and Literary TheoryValentina is a philologist and close reading specialist with a graduate degree in general literature and literary theory from the University of Belgrade. She is a freelance non-fiction writer specializing in comparative literature, literary analysis, history, theology, philosophy, and linguistics. Besides writing and editing, she also works as a data linguist, teaching large language models to read and write in English and Serbian.