Understanding the Culture of Honor and Shame and How it Affected Women

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

What is honor and shame in the biblical era, and how did it affect daily life? Was honor earned differently by men and women? How does understanding honor and shame culture help us see what Jesus accomplished on the cross? Read on to find out!

“Dishonor on you! Dishonor on your cow!” This quote from the Disney movie Mulan was a joke among my sisters and me for many years when we were kids. We loved the movie, but the whole premise that the only way a woman could bring honor was through a good marriage was incredibly foreign to our Canadian upbringing. Is this what honor looked like for women in Jesus' day?

This is the eighth post in a series on How to Live as a Woman in First-century Israel, where we are walking in the shoes of a New Testament era woman as she marries (or divorces), cares for her home and children, protects her reproductive health, worships, works in her family's trade, keeps clean and fashionable, and manages the finances and shopping. Throughout our journey we've seen that woman's experiences can't be put into a neat little box, no matter the century.

Even if you're not planning to go back in time any day soon, this post is still for you! Learning the history and culture of the first-century world can help you better understand the Bible.

So what is honor and shame in the Bible era, really?

As you begin your first-century life, you will find that moral teachers teach what is honorable or dishonorable rather than what is right or wrong. So what do honor and shame mean to you? Honor is about how you perceive yourself and it is validated by your standing in a social group. If you are in line with what your society considers noble, you have honor. Shame comes when you don't do something you know you should. (1)

Honor in this era is a value system. Bruce J Malina compares it to a modern credit rating. Without good credit nowadays, you cannot buy the things that give you status in our society such as a house or car. In the first century you will quickly find that without honor, doors are shut to you in society and in business. (2)

Honor is both something you are born into and something you can earn. You have no choice about where or to whom you are born, but nevertheless, your family's honor becomes your own, as does the reputation of your hometown. That is why genealogies are so important. You can earn honor by doing something worthy or noble. You can also be granted honor by someone who has great authority proclaiming it publically. (3)

While today it is the rich who rule the world, in the first-century world, wealth was considered only useful for accruing honor. Any other use of money was regarded as foolish. If you are wealthy, you might build public buildings, host banquets or games, become a patron, or give money to help the needy to gain more honor for yourself and your family. (4)

In this system, you consider everything you say and do through the lens of what society sees as noble and there is a polite and subtle testing of each other. Much like the concept of limited good, where there is a finite amount of things to go around, there was no idea that everyone could have high honor. Every social interaction outside of your family becomes a sort of challenge where each internally asks, “How does our honor compare? What challenge to my honor are you presenting with your words or actions?” You might feel like everyone is walking about with a chip on their shoulder, and in a sense, that is true. (5)

Honoring those in your social circles

In the honor system, you care most about acceptance from those you consider to be in your circle. At the heart of honor, you have your family. Family is everything to you, and you want to be included for both your physical needs and your emotional desire to belong. You are careful about who you include in your family circle, for their reputation is now embedded in the family name. You care about how you are perceived and about keeping and increasing the family honor in the eyes of a larger society with your actions and words. (6)

Beyond your family, you care about the good opinion of those in your village or town, the surrounding area, and your synagogue. You need to do business with these people, and perhaps intermarry your family with theirs. (7)