Men are from Mars; women are from Venus. Men are like waffles; women are like spaghetti. Scientists, comedians, poets, musicians, philosophers, doctors, therapists, psychologists, and the religious have spent a lot of time and money trying to tell us what we already instinctively know: men and women are very different from one another. Before the Fall, the differences created wholeness- a blessed duality- that was mutually beneficial to both the Man and the Woman. The Fall changed all of that. As C. S. Lewis observed, “There is a sword, hidden or flaunted, between the sexes until an entire marriage reconciles them.” Of course Lewis was well aware that marriages could destabilize and produce plenty of fighting in their own right.
Lewis also emphasized an additional truth about gender relations: equality is important, but it is not the ideal. One of the most powerful concepts he argues for in his philosophical science fiction novel That Hideous Strength is that no relationship can be founded entirely on equality. There is no focus on equality in a loving, strong relationship, only a focus on pleasing and serving the spouse. The moment any couple begins focusing on their own personal rights, a fight cannot be far behind. This is true in many ways in the broader society. Now, Lewis was not a misogynist. If anything, he had a much higher view of masculinity and femininity than most folks today, but he recognized that both sexes must be seen as inherently valuable in order for relationships and society as a whole to function properly. The moment personal rights and liberties become the whole focus of any group of people, trouble is on the horizon. Lewis reminded us repeatedly: “Equality is medicine, not food.” Food is an inherently good thing; it is the stuff we need to grow and remain strong. Medicine, on the other hand, is not inherently good or necessary. The only time medicine is needful is if there is a problem. Equality, Lewis would say, is like that. The moment rights become an end in themselves, an ideal and the ultimate good, the game is all but lost.
So why do I bring this up now? I’ve discussed the marital ideal in Genesis 1-2 and the sexual distortions of adultery, polygamy, and homosexuality so far this week. I have two reasons for bringing up gender equality at this point. First of all, there are those who believe that Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices are inherently sexist, coming from a strictly patriarchal society in which women are merely property. They use this- propaganda, really, is all it is- to justify atheism, liberal values, and a host of other silliness with this one seemingly foolproof attack. This leads me to my second point, and that is that Christians think this attack is foolproof because half of them have been led to believe the liberals and the feminists are right. They read the Old Testament (and parts of the New) and take it at face value, not realizing that there’s a host of background and context that sets up this framework. From power-hungry pastors demanding that women be doormats to stay-at-home moms who believe that their opinions don’t matter in the end because they aren’t “the head of the household”, Christians across this nation believe the lie that the biblical perspective somehow favors men. That, dear reader, is the result of bad theology and hundreds of years of warped culture. We will see that a biblical view of human sexuality yields a high value of respect and honor for members of both the sexes.
Wives after the Fall
Genesis 3:16 records God’s proclamation to the woman: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This verse has been used by some to claim that women’s desires are now subjugated to their husband’s. I believe that this translation in the ESV clarifies the situation for us: the woman’s desire will be for her husband. She will desire him, but she will not always have him. God has just told the woman that carrying and birthing a child will now be painful, but I do not believe this clause (“your desire shall be for your husband”) is prescribing a judgment. I believe it is instead describing a new situation that has arisen because of the Fall. Rather than a perfect relationship of harmony and romance, there will be discord. Eve will desire her a good relationship with her husband, but all will not necessarily be well. There will be bumps along the way: circumstances, communication issues, and unfulfilled wants and wishes. God is warning Eve that, just as Adam will now have to work much harder to provide, Eve will have to work much harder to make her relationships work. (And, no, I’m not saying that being a stoic, distant husband and father is therefore biblical. Again, this is a description of what happens, not approval of what happens.)
Some also preach strongly in favor of the husband’s rulership because of this verse, or they reject the nuclear family because of what they see as an authoritarian perspective on marriage. I would point out that being a “lord” in this context does not have anything to do with domination or superiority. If anything, the husband is to be a servant-leader of the marriage, the first among equals. At the absolute most, the husband is designated the functional leader of the family. This would make perfect sense in the ancient world, where the family- not the individual- was the basic unit of society. Fathers/husbands assumed legal responsibility for the entire family. In Israel, for instance, the father was responsible for managing property, marriage contracts for children, and voicing his family’s interest in the broader community. However, this does not in any way demean women or remove them from the spheres of business, government, and other areas of leadership. The same is true for the home. As we will find, if the husband is to be the “lord” of his house, then his wife is to be the “lady.” Both positions are well-respected and vital to family and community life. A patriarchal society, after all, is about the governance of father over children, not the husband’s superiority to the wife. That’s what “patriarch” means.
Women in the Old Testament
Behind every great man there’s a great woman. Or, at least, that’s how the saying goes. It turns out that for the Jewish patriarchs, that is absolutely true. The role of matriarch was vital if the family was to be successful. This isn’t Assyria or Athens, folks. This is Israel- or at least its origins. Things work differently here when it comes to family operations. Other nations (such as those I just mentioned) had patriarchies that were “limiting, harsh, enslaving” (Meyers, Discovering Eve), the servant-leadership (while not by any means perfect) of the Jewish Fathers offered the Jewish Mothers unprecedented freedom, even in our day. A close reading of Scripture reveals that 21st-century America denigrates women more than a Jewish Patriarch would ever consider doing.
Chew on this for a second: if Israeli women felt so oppressed by their culture, where is any indication of a cry for freedom? People don’t change much through the ages in how they handle oppression, yet no woman ever appears to concern herself with liberation, even when she has the upper hand in society. (I’m looking at you, Deborah.) In her book Discovering Eve, Carol Meyers concludes that “there was a functional lack of hierarchy in Israelite gender relations” up until the monarchy was established. Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes in her essay titled “Gender and Its Image”: “In their strengths and weaknesses, in their goals and strategies, the women of the Bible do not differ substantially from that of men.” Though different by design, men and women in Scripture are very much equals.
So let’s look at some case studies, beginning with Sarah. While she did address her husband as “lord” (a term of polite respect, not necessarily indicating a hierarchy), consider the following observation by Janice Nunnally-Cox concerning Sarah:
“She appears to say what she wants, when she wants, and Abraham at times responds in almost meek obedience. He does not command her; she commands him, yet there seems to be an affectionate bond between them. Abraham does not abandon Sarah during her barrenness, nor does he gain other wives while she lives….The two have grown up together and grown old together, and when Sarah dies, Abraham can do nothing but weep. Sarah is a matriarch of the first order: respected by rulers and husbands alike, a spirited woman and a bold companion.”
While Sarah’s death and burial are given much attention in Genesis, the narrative of Abraham effectively ends when she is no more. It is as if to say that Abraham’s story is really Sarah’s story. Hagar- the slave girl- is of no less significance, by the way. In Genesis 16, she is called by the narrator and God Himself by name seven times. God appears for the first time in history as the “angel of the Lord” to this rejected, enslaved woman. God does not abandon her, but instead provides for her and her son. She and her son are blessed in much the same way as Sarah and Isaac are blessed, and this covenant-type promise is the only time such a promise is made exclusively to a woman in Scripture. The prophecies concerning Ishmael and his given name is a standard annunciation formula in Scripture, the first of its kind. Hagar is the only woman- no, the only person- in Scripture to give God a name: “You are El-roi,” the God Who Sees. (Genesis 16:13) While most preaching and teaching considers Hagar a throwaway character (if not a villain), God clearly does not. He sees value where few others can.
The next matriarch in line is Rebekah. She is clearly a beautiful woman, but she also displays independence and hospitality comparable to Abraham. Like Abraham, she leaves her family for a new land, and she has a servant’s heart as well. She is listed in Genesis 22:23 as the only child of Bethuel, even though she had a brother who should have been listed first in a patriarchal society. While some have claimed that arranged marriages meant that the wife-to-be, at least, had no choice, Abraham says in Genesis 24:8, “If the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine.” Rebekah’s marriage to Isaac may have been somewhat arranged, but it was her decision ultimately. She was not mere property, and her father is actually silent, deciding nothing in the narrative. Later, while experiencing labor pains, Rebekah “inquires of the Lord” just as great men in the Bible have, and she does this directly rather than through a husband or male spiritual leader. Genesis 25:24 says: “And her days were fulfilled that she should give birth”, a linguistic formula only used of Elizabeth and Mary in the New Testament. If a sexist, strictly patriarchal society is all that the Bible has to offer, why do we know so much about Rebekah and virtually nothing about Isaac her husband?
The time would fail me to emphasize the strength and authority of Rachel and Leah, the resourcefulness, purity, and faith of Tamar, the boldness of the midwives in Exodus, the compassion of the Egyptian princess who rescued Moses, the wisdom of Jochebed, leadership and musical prowess of the prophetess Miriam, and quick-thinking Zipporah. A quote from Exum’s essay titled “You Shall Let Every Daughter Live” sums up Exodus quite well:
“Exodus begins with a focus on women. Their actions determine the outcome. From its highly positive portrayals of women to its testimony that the courage of women is the beginning of liberation, Exodus 1:8-2:10 presents the interpreter with powerful themes to draw on: women as defiers of oppression, women as givers of life, women as wise and resourceful in situations where a discerning mind and keen practical judgment are essential for a propitious outcome….Without Moses there would be no story, but without the initiative of these women, there would be no Moses!”
In Joshua, Rahab is the means of salvation for the spies, and she is in the great “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews because of her courage. In Judges, a change occurs in the treatment of women. At the beginning, Achsah, the daughter of Caleb is married to a warrior. She reveals herself to be a resourceful woman with an eye for financial success. Later, Deborah arises as the only judge who is the perfect leader in religious, military, and judicial matters. Together with Jael, she routs Sisera and his army, yet we also find in her song that she has a beautiful heart and mind as well- she is an accomplished poet. Ruth and Esther provide materially for themselves and others and are presented as loyal and honorable, and Esther’s wisdom and boldness rescues her people from sure destruction.
Women in the Law
At this point, a skeptical reader may be saying, “Well, all good and well for the women in positions of power, but what about the common woman? There’s a lot in the Old Testament that was sexist!” And so, at first blush, it might appear. Many have characterized women in Israel as “legal nonpersons” or outside the covenant community in some way. Yet this cannot be true, because women did participate in the covenant ceremony in Deuteronomy 29:9-12 and therefore were under equal obligation to the Law. (Deuteronomy 31:12) In the Law, both genders were included when the masculine gender was in use, according to Frank Crusemann’s The Torah: Theology and Social History.
But what about the Numbers 5 passage in which a woman suspected of adultery is put through a trial by ordeal? If her husband suspects she has been unfaithful but can’t prove it, she has to drink water that will cause her to become barren if she has indeed committed adultery. Not only does trial by ordeal sound like some sort of kangaroo court scheme from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there doesn’t seem to be a similar trial for husbands. What is going on here? First of all, it needs to be said that this the water the woman drank wasn’t magical. It was just water and a few ingredients like paper scrapings and dust- things that don’t cause curses. So how did it happen that a guilty woman’s reproductive organs came flying out in the end? Simple: a miracle. That’s right- this trial by ordeal was presided over by the Almighty Himself. Think about that compared to other cultures in which a suspect woman would be tossed in a lake with some weights on her. In every other culture’s trial by ordeal, no matter what it was, it was a miracle if you survived. In Israel’s trial by ordeal, it was a miracle if you became tragically infertile. Strange as this may sound, this is part of ANE culture, and God has guaranteed that He will protect and defend the innocent. A paranoid husband had no recourse to divorce her when she drank the water and- surprise, surprise- nothing happened. Is it not gracious and just- rather than sexist- that the only people who ever had the privilege of going before a Divine Judge were woman? God protected the innocent and potentially vulnerable from an overly jealous husband or the prejudice of a mob.
We move now to the touchy, touchy issue of Leviticus 12:1-8. This passage says that the time it would take for a mother who has just given birth to be made ritually clean is twice as long for a girl as for a boy. I’ll warn you, guys, this part may make you squeamish. What about childbirth makes a woman unclean? The vaginal bleeding does, not necessarily the child being born. So, what’s the deal with girls? During and after childbirth, it is very common for newborn girls to experience vaginal bleeding. WebMD says so. Rather than require that a newborn girl tough it out for her own purification ritual, the mother vicariously takes the purification upon herself. So, let’s do the math, everyone. Twice the vaginal bleeding = twice the number of days for ritual purification. (On an unrelated note, boys are to be circumcised the 8th day, the only day their prothombin levels are above 100%, allowing them to heal faster. God knows an awful lot about the medical world, it seems.)
This last selected example may make members of both genders a little squeamish. In Deuteronomy 25:11-12, if two men are fighting and one of their wives grabs the other man by the testicles to give her husband the advantage in the fight, her hand is- according to the English translation, anyway- to be cut off. If the translation is accurate, then this is the only example in the entire Law of mandatory mutilation (as opposed to other ancient and modern Middle Eastern cultures, in which the removal of a body part is a common penalty for, say, theft). Given the fact that lex talionis (an eye for an eye) is the standard by which ancient laws were adopted, it seems just a little strange that grabbing testicles results in the removal of a hand. How are they at all the same thing? NOW I’ve got you thinking! They aren’t the same thing. Would it help to go back to the Hebrew? I think so. What if I told you that the word translated “cut” can also mean “shave”, and what if I also told you that the word for “hand” is a very generic term for a “palm of the hand”? There’s a different Hebrew word that refers to the whole hand, by the way, and it isn’t used here. In fact this word for “palm” just refers to any curved surface, such as the business end of a spoon, the cupped hand, or a woman’s pubic region. I- and far more intelligent people- would suggest that lex talionis is adhered to perfectly in this example. The man’s testicles have been touched- a public embarrassment given the fact that this is just a neighborly spat that got out of hand- so the woman is to have a just retribution visited upon her. Both parties are made to feel ashamed in this way. I realize that this is very difficult to comprehend, since we’re modern-day Americans here, but this is how ANE law works. The punishment must always fit the crime. Hand mutilations doesn’t fit the crime, but shaving the genitals does, and neither are permanently damaging….mercifully.
Summary and Practical Application
To be sure, there are examples of men who exploit and denigrate women in Scripture, but they did not do so because they were righteous. They did so because they were evil. By the end of Judges, we find that women have become nameless victims of violence rather than powerful leaders like Achsah and Deborah. This is because Israel as a culture slipped into immorality and idolatry, not because a patriarchal society is inherently demeaning to women. For instance, Samson is an example of a man who is so sexually driven that women are no longer his helper but mere traitors, harlots, and tempters. Israeli monarchs fall quickly into polygamy and other sins of immorality, meaning that women were made more vulnerable than in the patriarchy. The government, not the husband, had the rights and the power. Yet the human authors of the Bible maintained the Edenic ideal; they still wrote of the inherent value of women. Even after Israel was conquered completely by invaders, the Elephantine papyri reveal that women were able to buy and sell, inherit property, and rise from slavery to a role in the temple, becoming scribes and musicians in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day. Myers’ Discovering Eve reveals that the position of women in Israel did not truly degrade until Israel was under the control of the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The Persians completely objectified women, and the Greco-Roman culture foisted a duality onto everything– body and soul, good and evil, and male and female. Women became associated with the body and evil, while men became associated with good and soul.
Jesus and His followers worked greatly to fix what human religion, philosophy, and pride had created. Christ treated women as valuable, praising them for their hard work and their faith. He healed broken hearts and bodies, and His apostles did the same for many years after His Ascension. It remains for the Church today to teach the world around us the equal value God has placed on men and women both, to continue the work of restoration Christ began 2000 years ago, a work that will be completed one day when He makes all things new, and the sword between sexes can be beaten into ploughshares at last.