by Richard W. Coffen  |  2 June 2021  |

“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Professor Leona Running, grande dame of the seminary, used to wear a shirt bearing that bon mot to classes she taught.

Not all assertions about women have been as lighthearted:

  • “Let women stay at home and hold their peace” (Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes; 467 B.C.)
  • “The respectable woman should have a broken leg and keep at home” (Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote; 1615).
  • “A woman’s place is her own house, taking care of the children” (J. Slick, High Life; 1844).
  • “Woman’s place is in the kitchen” (Hetty A. Morrison, My Summer in the Kitchen, 1878).

A Brief History

  • 1701—The first sexually integrated jury heard cases in Albany, New York.
  • 1839—Mississippi was the first state to grant a woman the right to hold property in her own name—with her husband’s consent.
  • 1848—The first women’s rights convention convened in Seneca Falls, New York. Attendees voted: “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.”
  • 1893—Colorado was the first state to grant women the right to vote.
  • 1920—The 19th Amendment went into effect: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
  • 1938—The Fair Labor Standards Act established minimum wage regardless of gender.
  • 1964—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act passed, including a prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.
  • 1971—The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the practice of private employers refusing to hire women with preschoolers.
  • 1974—Congress outlawed housing discrimination on the basis of sex.
  • 1984—The Supreme Court ruled that gender discrimination in membership policies of organizations is illegal.
  • 1997—The Supreme Court ruled that college athletics programs must actively involve roughly equal numbers of men and women to qualify for federal support.

American women must be doing quite well, right? You might think so, but here are the facts:

Women in Contemporary America

  1. $850,000 is the average a full-time female worker loses in wages over a 40-year period as a direct result of the gender pay gap.[1]
  2. Mothers earn on average 69 cents less than fathers.[2]
  3. Of some 12,000 non-farm kinds of jobs in America, in only 15 do women earn more than men.[3]

Exegeting Mary and Martha

It came to pass . . . that . . . [Jesus] entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:38-42).

Luke’s point encourages clinging to Jesus’ words—by extension, being students of the Word. However, another important point is embedded.

Martha—Scripture says Martha “received . . . [Jesus] into her house.” The word translated “received” connotes welcoming and entertaining. Apparently, Martha owned the house. Jewish women could own property if they were not beholden to a man.[4] Lazarus is absent in this account.

“Martha was cumbered about much serving” (verse 40). The word rendered “cumbered about” meant “pulled in all directions.” The imperfect tense means Martha felt at her wits’ end from the onset and continued to feel swamped.

Martha was doing “much serving.” The Greek uses a form of “deacon” or “servant.” The connotation focuses on the work itself not on relationship of slave to slaveowner. She was cooking a meal for Jesus. Food preparation was time-consuming. Little wonder she was frenetically racing around, preparing a toothsome repast.

Mary—Martha’s sister “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word” (verse 39).

Notice that Mary sat next to Jesus’ feet. The verb is a simple (aorist) past tense. She had plopped down prior to this time. Second, Mary listened to Jesus. The tense here is imperfect. She’d begun listening and kept on hearing Jesus, hanging onto his every word.

Later while dining, Jesus would recline on his left side, using his right hand to feed himself. But at this point, the feast wasn’t ready. Consequently, he may have been squatting on a mat on the floor.

Martha Again—Her frantic pace in the kitchen exasperated her. She confronted not her sister but Jesus: “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?” (verse 40). Martha accused Jesus of insensitivity. She made it clear that she cared about Jesus’ needs—hence her bustling about. But did Jesus care . . . about her?

Martha’s words reveal how flummoxed she’d become. She wanted Jesus to notice that it was shenot Mary—who was laboring like a slave. She blurted out: “My sister hath left me to serve alone.” The simple past tense verb implied that Mary had forsaken or deserted her in the past, leaving her stranded.

Martha wasn’t through. She proceeded to tell Jesus what to do. She commanded: “Bid . . . [Mary] therefore that she help me” (verse 40). Martha had reversed roles, brazenly barking orders to her Lord! She wanted Jesus to command Mary to “help” her. The Greek word meant “to lend a hand” or “to join with me.”

Jesus—Would the Master comply with the orders given him by this servant/slave?

A core value among ancient Near Eastern males was honor. Ascribed honor was “inherited” from family. If father had been honorable, then the son would also be perceived as praiseworthy. Acquired honor was earned because of personal respectable behavior. Men were expected to defend both kinds of honor if challenged. Sociologists have borrowed fencing terms to describe such verbal duals. The person on the offensive presents a “challenge,” and the person on the defensive counters with a “riposte.”

Being an ancient Near Eastern male, Jesus felt constrained to defend his honor, especially in the face of this challenge by a female. “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (verses 41, 42).

Jesus called her by name—twice: “Martha, Martha”—a Semitic way of showing emotion. However, he did the opposite of what Martha had demanded! “Thou art careful and troubled about many things.” The word translated “troubled” refers to being disproportionately concerned about something. Martha was giving herself an anxiety attack!

Many things

It’s interesting that Jesus designated her work as “many things.” And there were.

Houses had no running water. Early each morning a woman had to walk to the local well, let down a weighted goatskin bucket, hoist back up the overflowing container, pour the water into a huge clay jar, heave the jar of sloshing water onto her shoulder, and carry it home. Repeat.

Most food had to be made from scratch. Flour had to be ground from wheat kernels and sifted. Dough had to be kneaded and baked. Milk had to be kept in a skin bottle so it could turn sour, becoming curds. Vegetables had to be dug up, pared, diced, and prepared. Fruit had to be peeled, chopped, or sliced.

Preparing a meal truly involved “many things.” However, Jesus did not use the word “things.” Instead, he said “many,” perhaps referring to the many recipes Martha was preparing. The narrative is ambiguous.

The needful thing

Jesus finished his riposte: “One thing is needful” (verse 42). He did not say “thing” but simply asserted: “One is necessary.” He may have been telling Martha that one food dish would suffice, not many. Next, Jesus defended Mary, who by now had possibly burst into tears. “Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (verse 42).

There are almost always options we can or must choose between or among. Martha decided to spend her time in the kitchen, working herself into a lather while cooking a toothsome meal for Jesus. Mary chose to stay near Jesus, devouring his words. Both were decent options. On the one hand, Martha concerned herself with physical food. On the other hand, Mary concentrated on spiritual food.

Couldn’t Martha have overheard Jesus’ words? Hardly. She would have been cooking in the courtyard; Jesus and Mary would have been inside. The gospel underscores the primacy of paying attention to the Word. However, more lies beneath the surface. We need to understand ancient Near Eastern Jewish culture if we wish to catch this second point.

Conventionalism

Martha was fulfilling the usual female role. Although Jewish women enjoyed more freedoms than did many of their peers,[5] they still lived in a patriarchal society.

  1. Every day Jewish men prayed: “Thank you, God, for not making me a Gentile, a woman, or a slave.”[6]
  2. Some rabbis described females as slothful, covetous, self-important, and gluttonous![7]
  3. When a woman attended synagogue services, her presence did not count toward the 10 people who had to legitimize the service.[8]
  4. The tenth commandment included her as a man’s personal property along with a man’s slave, ox, donkey, and house.
  5. Leviticus 27:1-6 pronounced that females had less monetary value than males.
  6. Talmud, Sanhedrin 55b teaches that it is OK for a man to marry 3-year-old-and-a-day girl. In Talmud, Kethuboth 11b, Raba bar Rav Huna stated: “When a grown-up man has intercourse with a little girl it is nothing.”
  7. A rape victim had to marry her rapist (Exodus 22:16; Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
  8. According to the Talmud, women tend to fall for witchcraft.[9]
  9. Tractate Sotah 20a affirms that Rabbi Eliezer believed that teaching one’s daughter the Torah—the Bible—is the same as schooling her into tiflut, whorishness.
  10. A husband could readily obtain a “writ of divorce” (get), but a wife had no such recourse (Deuteronomy 24:1).[10]

Martha, Mary and Jesus

Martha, on the one hand, was behaving like a “good” Jewish woman. She knew her place—one increment above a slave. She maintained proper distance between herself and a man. Mary, on the other hand, discarded conventional behavior. She sat at Jesus’ feet, doing behavior expected of a male, not a female. Mary was encroaching on the typical male prerogative—gaining an education in, of all things, spiritual matters. By instructing her, was Jesus turning her into a whore? Maybe, according to Rabbi Eliezer’s later opinion.

Whom did Jesus admonish? Whom did he praise? On the one hand, he chided Martha, who was fulfilling the traditional female role, doing what the “little woman” was expected to do. On the other hand, he lauded Mary, who, breaking with convention, was doing what a man was expected to do. She was studying spiritual matters with a rabbi. She “should” have remained in the kitchen area (normally outside in the courtyard) with Martha—where women cooked and remained while men ate inside.

Mary was an early Gloria Steinem! Jesus extolled this female nonconformist because she’d chosen what was good or right.

So where, exactly, according to this story, is a woman’s place?


  1. Racial and Gender Pay Gap Statistics for 2021 (payscale.com).
  2. Wage gap widens between working moms and dads, reports NWLC (usatoday.com).
  3. The 15 Jobs Where Women Earn More Than Men (forbes.com); List of over 12,000 Careers (careerplanner.com).
  4. The Bible Says What? Women only inherit when there’s no men | Jewish News (timesofisrael.com).
  5. A Woman’s Place in the First Century (truthmagazine.com).
  6. Babylonian Talmud, Kodashim, Menahoth 43b-44a.
  7. The Role of Women in Traditional Judaism – Polish Jews Reviving; Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, chapter 6, page 33.
  8. The Place of Women in First-century Synagogues | CBE (cbeinternational.org); Priscilla Papers vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 2002) (cbeinternational.org).
  9. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 67a.
  10. Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 63b asserts that it is a commandment to divorce a bad wife.


    Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association. He writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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