Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Bible and the Nature of Woman

[Note:  this is another reposting of a piece I wrote for the Take Heart Project.]

The message of most forms of Christianity is that women are in some way or other subordinate to men.  Women cannot be ministers or elders.  Women are to be "helpmeets" to their husbands and to be under male authority.  This is the traditional way of reading the passages in the Bible that mention women, and many Christians who think they are just reading the "plain sense" of the Bible are unaware of how much the way a passage reads to them, is informed by tradition.

I'd like to re-examine God’s plan and purpose for women.  The best place to start is at the beginning– Genesis 1. What is the first thing the Bible says about women?

“And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and . . . over all the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth.” Gen. 1:26-28.

Is there any distinction made here between the male and the female? No, what we see is identical treatment of the man and the woman, and identical status of the man and the woman before God. He formed them both to be in His image and to have dominion, and then he told them to be fruitful and multiply and rule the other creatures.

Of course we must be careful not to take these commands in an unqualified state. The life and writings of the Apostle Paul make it clear that not every individual must “be fruitful” by having offspring. Indeed, in the New Testament, being “fruitful” in terms of having children is not mentioned; what is important is “bearing fruit,“ which means good character and good deeds that help grow the Kingdom of God. Nor does “subdue the earth” give us the right to mistreat our fellow creatures; we are to be good stewards over the creation. But what I want to note here is that Genesis Chapter 2 must be read in light of Genesis Chapter 1. The woman, no less than the man, is given rulership. There is no hint in Genesis 1 that the man is to rule over the woman.

It is in the next chapter that we see the words “help meet” (please note that these are two words, not one):

“And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him an help meet for him.” Genesis 2:18.

It is important here to note that the name “Adam” is simply the Hebrew word for “human.” Genesis 5:2 says, “Male and female He created them, and blessed them, and called their name “adam” (human) in the day when they were created.” Woman is not an afterthought that God happened to have. When God made the “adam,” the male and female human were in God’s mind from the beginning. But he created one “adam” alone at first, for a reason. Genesis 2:19-20 says that God deliberately brought the animals to the adam to name them, “but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.”

God then causes the adam to fall asleep, and he takes “one of his ribs” (the original Hebrew says “from his side”), and makes a woman. She is made of the exact same substance as Adam, so that he cannot claim her nature as different from his in any way. Adam recognizes what God intended him to recognize– that no other creature is of Adam’s own nature, but this woman is. And this is where the word “man” as in “male” is first used by Adam in regard to himself, ”This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” v. 23.

But what does “help meet for him” really mean?

The word “help” is the Hebrew word “ezer.” It means “help,” but not in the modern English sense of “assistant.” The word actually refers to someone who renders strong aid to someone who needs it. Most of the other times that the word “ezer” is used in the Old Testament, it refers to God. In Psalm 33:20, for instance: ”Our soul waiteth for the Lord; He is our help (“ezer”) and our shield.” An “ezer” is not someone who is subordinate to the one helped. God as “ezer” is above the humans who cry for Him to be their “help.”

But the woman is not a “help” from a superior position, as God is, so the text in Genesis 2 adds a modification. The woman is a “help meet for him.” ”Meet” in the KJV is an old word meaning “suitable to” or “corresponding to.” The Hebrew word is “kenedgo,” which literally means “facing him,” or “as in front of him.” The idea is that here is a help (strong aid) that is not above Adam, as God is, but is face-to-face with him. Equal partnership is strongly implied by this phrase.

God makes the woman because one “adam” alone is not good. The “adam” needs a strong aid that stands face-to face with him. God wants the “adam” to recognize this strong, face-to-face aid for what she is, so God makes sure the “adam” knows that this being is not like one of the animals, but is of his own substance and nature. Genesis 2 then concludes with a parenthetical– that it is because of this manner of creation that man and woman are to join in marriage and be “one flesh.” There is still no hint of subordination of Eve to Adam. In fact, the later subordination of the woman to the man is clearly shown in Genesis 3:16 to be the result of sin.

Some Bible teachers will tell you that because Adam was made first, and because he named the animals, this means he was in a position of authority over Eve. But the Bible clearly shows that the reason God had Adam name the animals was not because of authority, but because God wanted to show Adam that there was no “facing-him-strong-aid” to be found among the animals. And even if naming something implied authority over it, Adam did not name Eve till after the Fall– in Genesis 3:20. When Adam said, “She shall be called Woman, for she was taken out of Man,” he was not naming the woman. He was simply distinguishing both himself and her from one another as male and female. The Hebrew word for “called” in that verse is a different word from the word used when he “named” the animals and (after the Fall) “named” Eve. If the idea of “naming” has any meaning of “authority” at all, then it is interesting to note that Adam did not name Eve until after sin had entered the world and after God told Eve, “he shall rule over you.” (Notice, too, that God did not give a command to the man, “See that you rule over her,“ but merely made a statement to the woman, “He shall rule over you.“ Male rule, like thorns and thistles and pain in childbirth, was a consequence of the Fall, not a command of God.)

Nor is there any indication that being made first put Adam in authority over Eve. If being made first implied authority, then the fish and the birds would rule the land animals, and the land animals would rule the humans! No, God made the human alone at first so that God could show the human how much he needed an “ezer kenedgo.”

Many Christians would reply here that 1 Timothy 2:12-15 says that a woman can’t teach or have authority over a man because Adam was made first and Eve was deceived.  They use this passage to interpret Genesis 2 and 3 and conclude that a woman was made to be subordinate.  Some read this passage to indicate that women are more easily deceived than men are.  But since the early chapters of Genesis do not actually say this, reading a particular interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 back into them is against the principles of Bible interpretation I outlined in my last post.

The 1 Timothy 2 passage actually starts in verse 11, where Paul says, “Let the woman learn.” Women were not allowed to learn theology in either ancient Judaism or ancient Greek cultures, and even Roman women did not usually receive more than a very basic education. Paul’s letter to Timothy was written in Ephesus, where there would most likely be women of all three backgrounds in the church. Paul qualifies the word “learn” with “in silence and all subjection.“ The word “silence” there is the Greek word “heschusia,“ which doesn’t mean absolute “silence” but simply “quietness.” (It is the same word Paul uses a few verses earlier in 1 Tim. 2:2, when he says “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.“) The word for “subjection” is the noun form of the word used in Ephesians 5:21, “submitting yourselves to one another.“ It conveys the idea of voluntary yielding or cooperation, and though it is often used in the sense of yielding to authority, it does not always convey that meaning. The two words used together convey the kind of attitude any student should have, of quiet receptiveness and yielding to teaching.

The word “usurp authority” that Paul uses in verse 12 is not the Greek word for normal authority, which is “exousia.” This word is “authentein,” and its meaning had to do with taking dominion over or dominating another. If Paul had meant that women could never have any legitimate authority, he would have used some form of “exousia,” not “authentein.” The two words are not synonymous.

Verses 13-14 then go on with “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” Paul may be using the creation order to make the point that because Adam was made first, it is especially inappropriate for a woman to take illegitimate authority over a man– but as we have seen, there really is nothing in the story of the creation that makes the woman subordinate to the man either. They were created with equal authority to rule the creation, with her as his “face-to-face strong aid.” But another point, and one that fits especially well with Paul’s statement that a woman should be allowed to learn, is that Adam’s being formed first apparently goes hand-in-hand with Adam’s not being deceived. What does being formed first have to do with not being deceived? It makes sense in this context that Paul may have meant that being formed first meant Adam had more learning and experience than Eve, and that this prevented Adam from being deceived. Adam had, after all, named the animals. He would therefore have seen and named the serpent. He, much more than Eve, was in a position to recognize the serpent’s words for what they were. (If anything, this makes Adam more culpable, which may be why Paul places the responsibility for the Fall on Adam, in Romans 5:12.)

Be that as it may, this passage in 1 Timothy 2 does not say that woman is to be subordinate to man because man was made first. It does not say that all women are easily deceived. It simply says that Eve was formed later and was deceived. This Epistle is Paul’s advice to Timothy on principles of correct conduct and order, in a church threatened by false teaching (1 Tim. 1:3 & 3:15). In that context, Paul counsels that women be allowed to learn the doctrines of the faith and that they should not seize dominion over men. Should we go further than this and say Paul was making a blanket prohibition against any woman ever having an authoritative teaching position in any church? Paul himself said in 1 Corinthians 4:6 to “not think above what was written.” To say that forbidding women to take illegitimate authority, also means that they can have no legitimate authority, or that this is because they are more easily deceived, is to go way above and beyond what is actually written.

[Note:  I have done a five-part analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that begins here and is a more in-depth analysis of those verses.]

I must also address here 1 Corinthians 11:7-8, which many Christian read as saying the woman was made for the man and is therefore secondary to him, and that while the man is the image and glory of God, the woman is only the glory of man.

First of all, that word “for” does not mean “for the use of” as in “I made a cake for you.” The word in the ancient Greek means “for the sake of” or “because of.” This is exactly what Genesis 2 says– the man needed to not be alone, and the woman was made because he had this need. She is not “for” the man’s use, she is “because of” his need. This does not imply any subordination of the woman. On the contrary, the one who needs help is the one in the weaker position, not the one who comes to give help! This does not mean Paul is saying men are subordinate to women either– but it does say a lot about the interdependence God intends men and women to have to one another.

Secondly, as far as “glory” is concerned– we are accustomed to think of this word in terms of the splendor and divine beauty of God. But 2 Corinthians 3:18 says that all believers shine with this kind of glory: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (Emphasis added.)

This passage is not about that kind of glory, for it would be in direct contradiction to 2 Cor. 3:18 to say men have God’s glory but women have man’s glory. No, there is another meaning of the word “glory” in the ancient Greek, and that has to do with reputation, or the good opinion of others.

This passage has to be read in the light of the rest of 1 Corinthians 11. The Corinthian church was a large, cosmopolitan center in the Roman Empire, in which a large number of cultures mingled and which had a reputation as the “Sin City” of those times. The young church was comprised of peoples from a variety of backgrounds, and at the time Paul wrote the letter this church was struggling with a variety of matters, one of which was its reputation in the eyes of the community. It helps to understand that the cultures of Israel, Greece and Rome were honor-shame cultures. They tended to think of behavior more in terms of honor and dishonor, in contrast to our way of thinking in more terms of right and wrong. It wasn’t enough, for instance, for a woman to be faithful to her husband; she had to avoid even the slightest appearance of loose morals. This means that women did not go out in public alone; they did not talk to men who were not their husbands, and so on. A woman’s behavior was a direct reflection on her husband’s reputation, and when we see the word “glory” in a text that contains words having to do with honor and shame, we know that the meaning of “glory“ in that text is within that honor-shame context. From the context of 1 Cor. 11, it seems extremely likely that “reputation” is what Paul is talking about when he says “glory.”

Paul starts this section of his letter by praising the Corinthians for keeping the “ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” (verse 1.) This word “ordinances” is translated as “traditions” everywhere else in the New Testament, and it means the ways in which human cultures work out the Scriptures in practical applications. Paul uses this word sometimes negatively (Colossians 2:8), and sometimes positively, as in this passage; but “traditions” are clearly not on the same par as God’s commandments and are to be repudiated whenever they clash with the revealed will of God.

1 Cor 11 is mainly about whether women should cover their heads when they pray or prophesy in public, and Paul speaks of this matter in terms of tradition and not commandment. The passage is full of the kinds of words that communicate the honor-shame culture: ”disgrace,” “proper,” “dishonor,” and so on. It is in light of this that Paul speaks of man being “the image and glory of God.” Paul does NOT deny the truth of Genesis 1:26-27 that male and female are both the image of God; he does not say the woman is the image of the man– but Paul has to deal with the very real fact that in that culture, a woman’s behavior was viewed almost entirely in terms of how it affected her husband (or if she was unmarried, her father). The woman’s deeds, in the eyes of the culture, reflected not on God, but on the man in her life. In that culture, the only women who did not cover their heads in public were prostitutes. This is why Paul says women should wear head coverings, in order not to be seen as prostitutes in that culture, and thus to bring shame on their husbands or fathers.

The point is that “glory” as Paul uses it here is not about the nature of man or woman at all– it’s about cultural reputations. The principle that applies today is that we should not act in ways that reflect poorly on our loved ones. But we do not live in an honor-shame culture. Since God looks not on the outward appearance but on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), we need not follow the practices of those Middle-Eastern cultures that focused so much on outward appearance that even innocent actions (such as simply talking to a man who is not your husband) were deeply frowned upon. In any event, the wearing of head coverings was part of that culture, not part of ours. The view of woman as being only important in relation to her husband and father was also a cultural, not a divinely sanctioned, thing. Jesus always treated women as valuable individuals in their own right, regardless of how talking to a woman in public was viewed by his disciples or anyone else! (See the story of the woman at the well in John 4.) Paul gave weight to matters of reputation when necessary for the growth of the church, but he, too, treated women as valuable individuals in their own right (notice, for instance, all the women he honors by name in Romans 16).

Today a woman may give glory to God by her deeds in ways that were not possible then. Her nature as the image of God is no longer obscured by ancient cultural ways of thinking about women. Christian women can be assured that they were not created to be subordinate to men, but to be their equal partners from the day God made them.

[More analysis of 1 Corinthians 11, including the "man is the head of woman" text, will be covered in my upcoming reposting of my "The Bible and Male Headship" series from the Take Heart Project.]


Anonymous said...

"(If anything, this makes Adam more culpable, which may be why Paul places the responsibility for the Fall on Adam, in Romans 5:12.)"

Kristen, I love your blog and find it very helpful as I try to navigate my brain back to the potential to hold to some kind of faith. However, I've just been over on Rachel Held Evan's blog insisting, under her 4 Myths About Egalitarianism post and using the screen name 'Maddie Faddenoid', that man is not more responsible for sins committed by people in their household than women are. I find it a very offensive perspective to hold as it diminishes women as rational beings and of course reinforces certain bad ideas about men and women. And I also don't get why people believe it because I don't see it in the text. However, when I discuss this stuff I find it difficult not to get frustrated with people, and it takes me long time to formulate arguments if I've never really considered the points that are being raised before. If you've got any free time maybe you could go over and finish off what I've started, because I know I won't manage it (especially as I'm meant to be studying right now).

I'm sure you've heard it before: People say that becausde Paul blamed Adam for the Fall, and because Eve was deceived and Adam didn't stop her from eating the apple or inform her that she really wasn't meant to, that means God puts greater responsibility for all sins committed in their household. My understanding of Paul's use of the First Adam is that he is creatively making a point, in his typical fashion, of using the Creation narrative to explain an idea to his readership, and so in that context it makes sense to put the responsibility on Adam. Plus the Fall wasn't complete until both humans had sinned, and Adam sinned second.

Kristen said...


Even if Adam, not being deceived, was more responsible for his sin than Eve, who was deceived, there is no reason to extrapolate from that that all men are more responsible for the sin in their households, any more than than all women are more easily deceived. The Bible simply doesn't say either of these things. Anyway, as I explained in my posts on "Gender Roles and Responsibility," I believe that the whole idea that men are more responsible comes from a mistaken view that males have more authority than females. Pushing this back to Adam is only a way of finding scriptural justification for counting men as more responsible; it is not because the Bible says any such thing.

In any event, whether Paul was holding Adam more responsible because he wasn't deceived, or because he was using the First Adam in a typological way that had nothing to do with greater responsibility, there is simply no reason to blanket-apply this to all men. I will try to reply on Rachel's blog when I have time-- or you may copy this and quote me if you like. Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you like my blog!

Anonymous said...

"Even if Adam, not being deceived, was more responsible for his sin than Eve, who was deceived, there is no reason to extrapolate from that that all men are more responsible for the sin in their households, any more than than all women are more easily deceived."

Yes, that's what I think, too, but I'm sure I didn't articulate it that well.

I'm going to have to go back and read Gender Roles and Responsibility again.

Thanks for replying!