Thursday, August 8, 2013
She Must Be Silent: Is the Bible Sexist?
When read and interpreted properly, that is applying the normative rules of scriptural hermeneutics and exegesis, we see that the Bible affirms the equal value, dignity, and humanity of women and men before their Creator.
In her time a recognized expert in the Classics (an expert in the culture of the ancient Mediterranean), Edith Hamilton (1867-1963) had this to say about the status of women in the Bible:
The Bible is the only literature in the world up to our century which looks at women as human beings, no better and no worse than men. The Old Testament writers considered them just as impartially as they did men, free from prejudice and even from condescension.
I believe this to be a succinct and viable framework for how we may understand the biblical idea of "woman".
This framework is not a politically correct, 21st century, liberal feminist view of women, where any and all differences between the sexes are obliterated in favor of a blind--er--blanket "equality".
The Bible recognizes that men and women are created different and so in some cases will assume different roles in the created order, but without forfeiting their equal worth.
In Genesis one, men and women are said to be made in the "image" and "likeness" of God (vs26), given joint dominion over the plant and animal kingdoms (vs.26, 27-30), and created "very good" (vs31).
And in the latter part of Genesis two, we read of God creating the first woman (Eve) as man's "suitable helper" (Genesis 2:18), created from his own body ("helper" being the same word used of God with reference to Israel in Psalm 115:11).
Eve is made from Adam's rib, not his feet or head, but his side, showing equality.
And to his new bride Adam gives a ringing tribute, one still heard at many weddings today:
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. -- Genesis 2:23-24
Woman is so important that a man may lay aside even the relationship of his parents for her.
This is why the idea of a man divorcing his wife (which was the only way it could be done in Bible times) is seen as repugnant to God in Scripture, for it is as if he were ripping apart his own flesh.(Matthew 19:3-6; Malachi 2:14-16).
It is also why Paul can exhort men in Ephesians 5:28-30, "in this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body."
He even says in verse 25 that the husband is to love his wife "just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (i.e., to the very death).
While some insist the Bible's view of women is sexist, if that were true, would any of this make sense?
Would a man be commanded to love and care for his wife as he does his own body if her body was less than his?
Can we imagine an admonishment to love one's wife to the death if her life was less than one's own?
I think not.
Furthermore, Scripture tells us women are not the property of men, but that men and women exist interdependently.
Consider the following passage:
Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. -- 1 Corinthians 11:11-12
And this one emphasizing the egalitarian nature of sexual intimacy:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. -- 1 Corinthians 7:3-5
Eva Cantarella, another Classicist, says about this verse, "Another principle preached by the Christians disturbed the Romans. According to Jesus and his followers, men and women had equal dignity in marriage." (Pandora's Daughters, 157)
Again, if the biblical writers thought it okay to subjugate and control women, would we see these kinds of statements stressing the interdependence of men and women and not absolute male control?
Moreover, children are commanded to honor their fathers and mothers without respect to gender (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:2), and three times the writer of Proverbs tells us to listen to our mothers as well as fathers, again without respect to gender (1:8, 6:20, 23:22).
Obviously the word of a woman is to be respected.
In Proverbs we're told "he who finds a wife finds a good thing" and that "a prudent wife is from the Lord" (18:22; 19:14).
Furthermore, Paul giving his uninspired, yet nonetheless weighty opinion suggests in 1 Corinthian 7:34 that the single woman is in an excellent position to devote herself wholly to the Lord and His causes.
And lest one think this is all lip-service, the Bible is replete with examples of noteworthy women.
Deborah, the fourth Judge of pre-monarchial Israel, was a prophetess and warrior who orchestrated a successful attack against the Canaanites, assisted by homemaker Jael who killed the commander of the Canaanite army who had taken refuge in her tent (Judges 4-5).
In the New Testament, Jewish convert Priscilla with her husband Aquila was a noted missionary, evangelist, and co-worker with Paul in the first century church (Acts 18:24-28; Romans 16:3-4).
In addition, many women acted at prophetesses of God or otherwise had a gift of prophecy, such as Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), Isaiah's wife (Isaiah 8:3), Anna (Luke 2:36-39), and the daughters of Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8-9).
Queen Esther saved her people from extinction and the Moabitess Ruth, heralded for her love and commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi, is the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ (both Esther and Ruth have books of the Bible after their namesakes).
And surely the most famous woman in the Bible is Jesus' own mother Mary, a woman "highly favored" of God and truly "blessed among women" (Luke 1:28, 42)
However, some will seek to undercut this teaching by pointing to (and surely misinterpreting) 1 Timothy 2:9-15:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
While at first blush these Scriptures may seem harsh, there is no explicit contradiction between the evidence we've examined showing that women in the Bible are not second-class and these verses, as I hope to show.
Firstly, the "quietness" of verse nine is the same Greek word rendered "be silent" in the NIV (hesuchia) and it does not refer to complete silence or no talking, but to a quiet and humble demeanor, "which is precious in the sight of God" (1 Peter 3:3-4).
This is in fact commanded of all Christians (Ephesians 4:2) and specifically for women with respect to being taught by men in the context of the church (1 Timothy 3:15) for the reasons Paul outlines.
This does not make woman less, but different, which is not inconsistent with the biblical testimony of the inherent equality of men and women.
However, this is not the end of the story.
Paul says in verse fifteen, "But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety."
This is not spiritual salvation (which is by grace not law: Eph. 2:8-9; Gal. 2:16), but a salvaging of woman's reputation which was hurt by Eve in the Fall.
While men are blessed with leadership ( "for as woman came from man"), women have the blessing of birthing and mothering godly offspring (“so also man is born of women”).
Like Adam's sin (which is explained more in Romans and 1 Corinthians 15), Eve's sin will not have the last laugh, so even in the verses most often used to show the Bible's supposed sexism, the scales are evened out.
I cannot end a discussion of the Bible's view of women without looking at the Lord Jesus, a true maverick when it came to his treatment of women.
At the Well of Sychar (aka "Jacob's well") we see Jesus completely ignoring social and "religious" taboos by associating himself with a known adulterer, showing a willingness to drink from a bucket made ritually "unclean" by a Samaritan's usage, and, of course, daring to discuss the things of God with a woman. (John 1:1-42)
None of these things mattered to Jesus; what mattered to him was her.
Finally, Jesus interaction with the woman of Luke 7 speaks for itself:
A Pharisee invited him to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”