Categories
Commentary Theology

Jesus and Women (Part 2)

In this second post on Jesus and women, I’ll focus on three specific interactions Jesus had with women: the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, and the women at the empty tomb. 

I’ll provide a brief commentary on each of these passages. My goal is to help us see the cultural implications these stories reveal.[1] Then, I’ll offer summary statements to help us consider how these interactions should influence gender roles today. 

Here’s what we’ll see:

Jesus violated the cultural expectation of how women were to be treated to pave the way for their full inclusion in the life and leadership of the church.

We’re going to cover a lot of ground. To keep this post at a reasonable length, my commentary will be selective. I assume you are familiar with these stories (at least at a basic level). If you aren’t, I encourage you to first read the passages in their entirety.

The Samaritan Woman

The story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4 is one of the most well-known and beloved in Scripture. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well after a long journey. He initiates conversation by asking her for a drink. By the end of the story, the woman is the one who’s had a soul-quenching drink of living water. 

Jesus shatters all the norms in this passage. First, he talks to a woman. Recall from my last post that self-respecting rabbis did not talk to women in public. Not even to their wives! We see the disciples’ surprise in after they return from getting food. “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ Or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (4:27, NIV, my emphasis).

The disciples don’t have the guts to say what they were thinking. But John, the author, was there and is likely recalling the group’s disposition.

The first question has the connotation of, “Would you like us to get rid of her for you?”[2] Disciples were like Secret Service detail for their rabbis. They’d defend him at any cost.

The second question exposes the disciples prejudice. Like us, they were products of their culture. Jesus conversing with a woman was not only a waste of time. It was wrong and scandalous.

That Jesus uses a woman, not a man, to bring the truth about Messiah to this Gentile village was unthinkable. 

Second, Jesus asks a Samaritan for a drink. Jews did not interact with Samaritans because of “smoldering tensions” that began 500 years before due partly to race, religion, and politics.[3] To uphold the expected norm, both Jesus and the woman should not have acknowledged each other’s existence. The woman expresses her shock that Jesus asks her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink (v 9). 

John helps his readers understand the context with a parenthetical note, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (v 9b). The Greek word translated “do not associate” in NIV (or “no dealings,” ESV) is sygchraomai. It can also mean “to share a vessel in common”–like a cup or dish.

Late in the conversation, the woman recognizes Jesus is a prophet. She asks him a question about the true place of worship (vv 19-20). Jesus doesn’t debate. Instead, he completely rejects the notion of location-centric worship. True worship about who is worshiped and the manner of worship. (vv 23-24). He reveals himself to be the Messiah (v 26), placing himself at the center of true worship. 

As the disciples return to find them speaking, the woman abruptly leaves. Jesus’ word about his messianic identity struck a nerve in her. She runs to tell her whole village about Jesus. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (v 30).

This Samaritan women is the first female Christian preacher in history.

Her testimony resonates with the villagers. The people begin to make their way to Jesus. This would have startled the original readers. That Jesus uses a woman, not a man, to bring the truth about Messiah to this Gentile village was unthinkable. A woman’s testimony was not allowed in a first-century Jewish court.[4] Yet Jesus believes she is a trustworthy witness. 

We find out that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (v 39). They urge Jesus to stay with them for two more days and, in that time, more Samaritans come to believe in Messiah. 

This Samaritan women–we don’t even know her name–is the first female Christian preacher in history.[5]

The Syrophoenician Woman

The second snapshot is Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. On the surface, the story seems to disprove everything I’m arguing for. Jesus comes across as misogynistic and ethnocentric. But when we understand the cultural context, we discover the complete opposite.

This time it’s a Gentile woman—a Syrophoenician, according to Mark—who violates social custom by initiating with Jesus. She calls him “Son of David” (v 22), showing she has familiarity with Jewish messianic expectations.[6] Her daughter is sick and she knows Jesus can help. Mark tells us she asks Jesus to drive out a demon (Mk 7:26). Matthew notes that she asks Jesus to have mercy on her (Matt 15:22). 

Jesus is ready to administer a rabbinic exam to test the woman’s faith. And he will expose the deeply rooted misogyny and ethnocentrism of the disciples.

Our western eyes focus on the woman as an individual with a need. But we must remember that Middle Eastern rabbinic contexts are communal. Jesus will deal with the woman. But he also interacts with his disciples, who are present (v 23).[7] He’s ready to administer a rabbinic exam to test the woman’s faith. And he will expose the deeply rooted misogyny and ethnocentrism of the disciples.[8] 

As a rabbi, Jesus knows he’s not supposed to respond to this woman’s plea in public. So he “did not answer a word” (v 23a). The disciples encourage Jesus to send her away (v 23b). This is reminiscent of their unspoken question in John 4 (see above). 

Jesus finally speaks, but only because the disciples are the ones who demand, “Send her away! She won’t leave us alone.” Jesus plays their game and pretends to send her away, pointing out he has only come for Israel (v 24). It doesn’t drive her out; it draws her in. She begs, “Lord, help me!” (v 25). 

Jesus could have given in to her request and helped. But remember the cultural context. He’s still dealing with his disciples. They believe this woman isn’t worth the time of day because of her ethnicity and gender. Jesus says what they are thinking: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v 26). 

That’s a horrific statement. Why did Jesus say this? Listen to Kenneth Bailey:

Jesus here gives concrete expression to the theology of his narrow-minded disciples who want the Canaanite woman dismissed. The verbalization is authentic to their attitudes and feelings, but shocking when put into words and thrown in the face of a desperate, kneeling woman pleading for the sanity of her daughters. It is acutely embarrassing to hear and see one’s deepest prejudices verbalized and demonstrated.[9]

Jesus simultaneously tests the woman’s faith with an insult and exposes his disciples’ sin. She acknowledges the insult but has the courage to respond despite the mounting shame. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v 27). 

What an answer! She passes the test. She knows Jesus is the Savior of the Jews, but she also trusts his compassion is endless. He has come for all people. There is enough left over for her—a “little dog” in the eyes of Jews, even Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus acknowledged her great faith and granted her request. She goes on her way transformed. The disciples were rebuked and corrected. But their story is not over. “An enormous amount of sophisticated spiritual formation is taking place” in their hearts, too.[10] The story of the early church after Jesus’ ascension proves this.

The Women at the Empty Tomb

The final snapshot is from the first Easter morning. At the end of every Gospel, we see women, not men, who meet Jesus at the empty tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18). The men, afraid because their leader was just executed publicly by Rome, are hiding. The women face the risk and go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. 

They don’t find Jesus’ corpse. They find the stone rolled away and an angel who’s as bright as lightning. After the initial shock and fear that followed, they meet the resurrected Jesus.[11] It changes everything. 

A woman becomes the first apostle of the resurrection.

Jesus says to the women, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there” (Matt 28:10). John’s account spotlights Jesus’ interaction with Mary Magdalene. Jesus tells her, “Go…to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary obeys and has the privilege of being the first person to say, “I have seen the [risen] Lord!” (20:18).

But the men don’t believe the women (Lk 24:11). This isn’t surprising given their context. Remember that a woman’s testimony was not considered legitimate at that time. Knowing this, we would expect Jesus to appear to men so that they would be the first witnesses of the resurrection.

Not so. Jesus flips the world’s values upside down again. A woman becomes the first apostle of the resurrection.

What Does All This Mean?

I’ve done my best to give you a brief synopsis of the cultural significance of these three interactions Jesus had with women. But what does it all mean for us today?

Three themes stand out to me. I alluded to them in my commentary, but here I’ll provide a summary statement with an explanation for each. 

1. Jesus breaks down the social barriers of gender and ethnicity. 

That Jesus crossed both gender and ethnic barriers at the same time is significant. It reveals how closely they are related in Jesus’ mind.

Jesus confronts the disciples’ prejudices in the first two interactions above. He isn’t harsh with them. He understands the water they swim in is dark. But he confronts them nonetheless. 

Why didn’t Jesus simply say, “Let’s end our patriarchy today” or “Women are equal footing in ministry with men”? That would have been more clear to us. Giving formal, propositional statements to make a point, however, is a very modern and westernized expectation. If we demand this of Jesus, we’d be asking him to be someone he wasn’t when he lived in this world. 

Jesus lays the foundation for the early church to embrace the truth that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Instead, Jesus confronts them as a Jewish rabbi would–through modeling, interactive teaching, and communal learning. He overcomes the social barriers not by ameliorating institutional norms or statutes (which he did not have the opportunity to do anyway). Instead, he embodies a new kingdom norm in how he treats and talks to women and Gentiles.

Jesus also goes further than just breaking norms. He’s forming his disciples in a new, better way. A Kingdom of God way. He lays the foundation for the early church to embrace the truth that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (see Gal 3:28; cf. Col 3:11).

Objection: Of course we should overcome misogyny and ethnocentrism to respect women and people who are different than us. But that doesn’t mean women should be leaders/pastors, etc. in the church.

My response: There are many complementarians who respect women, of course. But Jesus didn’t elevate women so they’d be “respected,” important as that is. To me, it seems he goes much further (as I argue in my last post). His is goal was to redeem and restore women to their original purpose: serving God as his representatives equally alongside men. The next theme reveals why I think this.

2. Jesus empowered women to be his authoritative witnesses.

No matter how we slice it, the Samaritan woman and the women at the empty tomb were preachers and missionaries. In fact, Mary Magdalene holds the prestigious status of being “apostle to the apostles,” as she’s known in some traditions.[12] 

In the world’s eyes, Jesus should have first appeared to men to give credibility to his fledgling movement. But reason he appeared to women was to bolster the reliability of the message. It’s astonishing that women would be given this honor in the context. The account is even more credible–no man would have written this unless it actually happened.

But there’s more. I also think it was a profound display of the reversal of the curse. Women are now on equal standing with men in the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not buy in the argument that women were unreliable witnesses. He rejected it in full. To Jesus, what qualified someone to speak and minister on his behalf was not gender, but their connection to him. The testimonies of the Samaritan woman and Mary prove this.

Objection: This has nothing to do with women being pastors in local churches

My response: That is true…to an extent. But Jesus did not come to start an organization with a hierarchical structure. (In his kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. Jesus’ elevation of women is one example of that value.) Instead, he came to inaugurate his Kingdom—a people-movement empowered by his Spirit to continue his work until he returns. If Jesus can launch his movement by sending a woman to preach to his male disciples, why can’t he send a woman to preach to men and women in churches today? I’m going to make the case in the coming posts that we cannot use 1 Timothy 2:12 as a reason.

3. Jesus ushers men and women into the presence of God.

This point may be one of the most important. It’s most obvious in the John 4 passage, but resurrection implies it, too.

On the surface, I assume most Christians would agree to this statement no matter their position on gender roles. But I want to go much deeper. So let me rephrase it: Jesus is God’s sacred space and, when people are connected to him, they become God’s sacred space. 

Deep breath. Hang with me. 

Think back to my posts on Genesis 1 and 2. I made the case that in the Garden, God set up his sacred space. In the ancient world, sacred space is the place where the divine dwells with his people who, as image bearers, represent him to the world.  

Sacred space is temple space. In the Garden, Adam and Even functioned as priests. In whatever they did, they mediated God’s presence to the world. 

Sin and the curse destroyed this. The rest of the Old Testament–from Abraham to tabernacle to temple–is the story of God pursuing a people for his own possession so that he might dwell with them. 

Then Jesus comes as God in the flesh. Quite literally, he is God’s sacred space, the place where God’s very presence and glory dwells (see John 1:1-14). He represents God, speaks for God, and acts on God’s behalf. He is the true image of God (cf. Col 1:15; Heb 1:1-3). Those who saw Jesus saw the Father (John 14:9). 

In the story of the women at the well, a fascinating development takes place. Jesus reveals to the woman that geography is irrelevant when it comes to worship. Worship isn’t based on a place but in the Person of Messiah. True worship happens when we are connected to Messiah.

Believers in Jesus do not live or worship in sacred space. We are sacred space because his Spirit lives in us.

When Mary meets Jesus after his resurrection, he has inaugurated the new creation in himself. He is the first of a new creation (see Col 1:18). Now, he’s about to continue his new creation project of radically restoring men and women to their original function as representatives in his world. Whoever is in Christ participates in the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Mary encounters the risen Messiah; she is face-to-face with the new creation sacred space.

The New Testament will make it clear that God’s people are now the temple of God because God dwells in them by his Spirit (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). God’s people represent him on earth. Paul will use the word “ambassador” to communicate this (see 2 Cor 5:20, NIV). Believers in Jesus do not live or worship in sacred space. We are sacred space because his Spirit lives in us.

When we see Jesus’ words in John 4 to the Samaritan woman in light of this larger work he accomplished, the pieces fall into place. His interactions with women are a part of a bigger reclamation project. He undoes the effects of the curse and raises women up to their original status, function, and authority as God’s representatives.

Objection: This seems like quite the stretch. 

My response: You may not be wrong. Please read my next post when I unpack this by talking about how Pentecost changes everything for women (and men) in the church. 

After that, we’ll get to Paul (finally!). I know that’s what you’ve been waiting for. 


Notes

Feature photo: “Christ and the Samaritan Woman” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1890).

[1] As I mentioned last time, Kenneth E. Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for 40 years has been extremely helpful to me as I’ve learned about Jesus’ cultural context. I highly recommend reading his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

[2] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 208-209. 

[3] Gary M. Burge, “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,” John, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), on BibleGateway.com.

[4] The Old Testament says nothing about the qualifications of a witness. See “Witness” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (2008). However, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian born a few years after Jesus’ death, summarized the common belief of the day: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4:219.

[5] Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 212-213.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Ibid., 219.

[8] Ibid., 220-221.

[9] Ibid., 223.

[10] Ibid., 225.

[11] Before Mark’s “extended ending” in 16:9-10 (which is probably not original to the text), the story leaves us hanging with the women’s unresolved fear. This doesn’t need to be in contradiction to other Gospel accounts. Bailey notes that Mark begins his Gospel by telling his readers he’s writing “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah” and Mark closes with “the end of the beginning.” The insightful reader knows that the women are not paralyzed by the initial shock. They overcome their fears. Matthew, Luke, and John reveal, tell the men about the resurrection at some point that day. See Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 197. I should also note that Mark’s Gospel was likely the earliest written and it leaves out details that the others, especially Matthew, include. I had a college professor who once quipped that Mark is the “Reader’s Digest” version of Matthew.

[12] It’s ironic that this title for Mary is most often used by the Roman Catholic Church since it does not allow the ordination of women as priests. 

Categories
Commentary Theology

Jesus and Women (Part 1)

There is no one in the ancient world who did more to raise the status of woman than Jesus. He esteemed women. He gave them back their dignity. He talked to them. He touched them. He treated them as equals in a period when no one else did.

The next two posts will focus on how Jesus viewed, interacted with, and empowered women. In this first post, I’m going to look at the common views of women in Jesus’ day and then consider the significance of Jesus having female disciples. 

Anyone who has read the Gospels knows that Jesus related to woman with respect and tenderness. My goal isn’t merely to show that this is true. I want to help us see the cultural and theological significance of what Jesus was doing and why it matters for us today.

How Women Were Viewed in Jesus’ Day

Reading about Jesus’ interactions with women may not be all that shocking to you and me. But to Jesus’ contemporaries, what he did was absolutely revolutionary. 

In fact, it was downright offensive. Especially to religious leaders.

To realize this, we need to know how Israelites thought about women during this era.

Kenneth E. Bailey, a biblical scholar who lived in the Middle East for much of his adult life, notes that Old Testament Israelite women were held in high regard.[1] But Bailey points out that during the period between the Old and New Testaments, an unfortunate shift took place. It was because of a different Jesus—Jesus Ben Sirach.

Jesus Ben Sirach (Ben Sira for short) was a Jewish sage who lived and wrote in Jerusalem around 200-170 BC (about 150-200 years before Jesus was born). 

We don’t know much about Ben Sirach. But we do know what he thought about women because of his book, Wisdom of Ben Sirach (also called “Ecclesiasticus” or “Sirach”). 

Here’s a sampling:

  • “Worst of all wounds is that of the heart, worst of all evils is that of a woman. Any wound, but not a wound of the heart! Any wickedness, but not the wickedness of a woman! No poison worse than that of a serpent, no venom greater than that of a woman.” (25:12-14)
  • “In woman was sin’s beginning, and because of her we all die.” (25:23)
  • “Keep a strict watch over an unruly wife, lest, finding an opportunity, she make use of it.” (26:10)
  • “My son, keep a close watch on your daughter, lest she make you a laughingstock for your enemies.” (42:11)
  • “Better a man’s harshness than a woman’s kindness.” (42:14)

Not exactly a glowing endorsement of women.[2]

In public, rabbis did not talk to women, including their wives.

By the time Jesus of Nazareth came onto the scene, Jesus Ben Sirach’s “wisdom” pervaded Jewish culture. 

In general, Jews had come to believe that women were inferior to men in every way.[3] This was despite the fact that they inherited a rich theology of gender equality from the creation account.

In public, rabbis (Jewish teachers of Torah) did not talk to women, including their wives.[4] This meant that rabbis could not have women disciples. In fact, to teach Torah to women was to desecrate it. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the most well-known Jewish sages in the first and second centuries wrote, “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women.”[5]

Now, against this backdrop, let’s see what Jesus does.

Jesus, Discipleship, and the Radical New Departure

As I mentioned, Jewish rabbis did not have female disciples. Even though Jesus’ closest twelve disciples were men, the Gospels are clear that Jesus did have women disciples. 

In doing this, Kenneth Bailey writes that Jesus inaugurated a “radical new departure” from the Jewish rabbinic norm. Jesus obliterated cultural expectations and restored the mutuality of men and women in ministry. 

Let’s look at the texts that make this explicit.

Jesus’ Real Family

Jesus introduced them to a completely new paradigm for gender roles. It challenged everything they knew.

First, Matthew 12:46-50. While Jesus teaches, some people arrive to tell him that his family is outside and wants to speak to him. The text says, “Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (vv 48-49).

Bailey points out that a Middle Eastern man can look at a group of men and say, “Here are my brothers, uncles, cousins, etc.” But he cannot say “Here are my mothers, sisters, and brothers!”[6] 

The shows that there are men and women in the group listening to Jesus’ teaching. 

Jesus, unlike his rabbinic colleagues, welcomed and encouraged women to learn Torah. This was unprecedented. Can you imagine how valued, respected, encouraged, and empowered these women felt? And can you imagine how confused, shocked, and even angry, the men around Jesus felt? 

Jesus introduced them to a completely new paradigm for gender roles. It challenged everything they knew.

The Women Who Followed and Funded the Movement

Next, Luke 8:1-3. We’re told that Jesus traveled from town to town with his twelve disciples and women. Luke mentions three women by name: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. These were women he had healed in some way. Their healing led them to devote their lives to Jesus as his followers. It wasn’t only these three women. Luke also notes that “many others” traveled with Jesus and the twelve. 

The text implies that Jesus and his male and female disciples stayed with each other in these villages overnight. In the first century, women could travel with men but couldn’t lodge with them. They would have to stay with family. Mixed gendered lodging with non-family is still taboo among conservative Middle Easterners today.[7] 

The women traveling with Jesus would not have had have family members in these towns. Perhaps the men and women stayed separate. Perhaps they were together. Whatever the case, even the implication is offensive. It suggests the equality of men and women is being restored in Jesus’ new movement.

But that’s not the most amazing part of this text. That comes in verse 3, when it says “these women were helping to support [Jesus and the twelve] out of their own means.” Some male disciples may have provided support to Jesus.[8] But we’re never explicitly told this in the Gospels. That Luke, a man, finds it important enough to admit women were funding the fledgling Jesus movement proves how valued they were. It also elevates their status in a world in which it was shameful for a husband to be supported by his wife.[9] How much more, the logic goes, by women who were not your wife!

The Better Meal

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is Luke 10:38-42. This is the famous “Mary and Martha” passage. Martha opens up her home to Jesus and plans to put on a feast for him. Her sister Mary, instead of helping with meal preparation, “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (v 39). 

“Sitting at the feet” is a Hebrew idiom that means someone is a disciple of a rabbi. That’s how Paul describes his relationship to Gamaliel (see Acts 22:3 in the ESV). Again, this was a privilege only for men.

Martha expresses worry about Mary’s behavior. Mary isn’t fulfilling the domestic responsibilities. She tramples the cultural expectations as she acts out of step with gender norms.[10] 

Martha presumes to tell Jesus to tell Mary to start helping. Jesus recognizes Martha’s stress about all the things that go into serving a meal. He points out that “only one thing is necessary” (cooking the roast isn’t it) and that “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (v 42).

Notice two things. First, in accepting Mary’s learning posture as a disciple, Jesus also violates cultural norms. Second, Jesus affirms Mary’s choice as superior to the role the culture expected her to fulfill as a woman.

It’s interesting that the word “portion” can also mean part of a meal.[11] It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Martha, I know you’re really worried about the meal. But Mary understands that she needs the meal that I’m serving right now. And no one—not even you, Martha—can take that away from her.” Jesus affirms Mary’s status as his disciple and her desire to continue her study of God.[12] 

As Luke closes the scene, we’re left wondering what Martha will do next. Will she join Mary at Jesus’ feet? Or will she continue to follow the cultural belief that women were not theological and ministerial equals with men? 

Why Is All This Significant? 

Will we let the women in our midst chose the good portion?

At the beginning, I said that I want to help us see the cultural and theological significance of what Jesus was doing and why it matters for us today.

In many ways, the same question that faced Martha faces us. Will we let the women in our midst chose the good portion? Or will we try to take it away from them? 

As I noted, for centuries, women were oppressed and not considered worthy to study the Torah. But here comes Jesus. Judaism said to women, “We’d rather burn the Torah than let you study it!” Jesus said, “Come to me and I will show you the ways of God.” 

It may be easy to dismiss all this and say, “Of course we want women to be disciples! We don’t want to take that way from them! They just can’t be leaders/pastors/elders, etc.”

If that’s you, consider this. Jesus elevated and empowered women to serve in the same ministerial status and capacity as men: disciples of the rabbi.

A rabbi’s goal was to impart his life and teaching to his disciples. The rabbi’s disciples would then do exactly what their rabbi did with them to another generation of disciples.

There were no greater levels of leadership. Jesus’ method for expanding his influence and seeing his kingdom come on earth was people–men and women.

By calling women his disciples, Jesus boldly declares, “Women and men will serve equally, side-by-side, as my representatives in my kingdom work.”

That women were included was astonishing. I’d argue that Jesus including women as disciples was much more culturally offensive than any complementarian church today inviting a woman to preach on a Sunday morning. 

It’s not even close.

By calling women his disciples, Jesus boldly declares, “Women and men will serve equally, side-by-side, as my representatives in my kingdom work.”

If Jesus wanted his future followers to maintain strict gender roles in ministry, he would not have included women in his band of disciples. 

But he did include them. As we seek to apply these texts, moving from Jesus’ culture to ours, his inclusion of women should greatly inform our theology and practice of gender roles.

Summing it Up

Jesus lived in a time when Israel did not think highly of women. They were not trusted or valued or seen as equals. Rabbis did not talk to women in public and did not have women disciples. But Jesus, of course, radically departed from these conventional views. As a rabbi, he encouraged women in their pursuit of God and theological studies. He called them “disciples,” giving them the dignity of holding the same status as their male counterparts. 

This is significant. It means that in ushering in his Kingdom, Jesus reversed the patriarchy that plagued humans for millennia. Both men and women would once again represent God to the world as they did back in the Garden. (We’ll come back to this idea in an upcoming post.)

If we want to model our ministry after Jesus, we need to take all of this very seriously.

The next post will take a closer look at three specific interactions Jesus had with women. They will continue to hammer home his radical new departure from gender role norms.

If we want to model our ministry after Jesus, we need to take all of this very seriously.


Post Script: Why Were the Twelve Only Men?

“But Jesus’ twelve main disciples were men! That has to say something about male leadership in church leadership!”

This is an objection I’ve heard and even used myself. Here are five quick thoughts to consider.

  1. In bringing God’s Kingdom, Jesus inaugurated a new covenant. In doing this, he fulfilled the Old Covenant. Jesus’ twelve disciples are a new covenant fulfillment of Israel’s twelve patriarchs (the twelve tribes of Jacob). As the twelve patriarchs represented Israel, so these twelve men represent a new movement of God. The old is gone and the new has come.
  2. Jesus was a strategic rabbi and missionary. He had twelve male disciples in his inner circle to accommodate the first century Jewish rabbinic culture. A man needed to have at least ten male disciples to be a rabbi.[13] Jesus did risk his reputation as a rabbi by having women disciples, but his closest twelve were males to provide legitimacy for his rabbinic ministry.
  3. The twelve have a primary role in the beginning and middle of the Gospels. But as we’ll see in the next post, the tide turns at the resurrection where the women are most prominent.
  4. Judas was one of Jesus’ disciples and he was a traitor. If one of Jesus’ disciples betrayed him, we should be careful to use the twelve as a model for pastoral leadership today. 
  5. Jesus did not come to organize (or even give instructions) on our modern church governments. (I’d argue Paul doesn’t do this either!) Instead, Jesus came to launch a people-oriented movement that began with the twelve and was carried on through to his larger discipleship network. After Jesus ascends, we see both men and women at Pentecost in Acts 2 preaching the gospel and living in community together. (We’ll address this passage in the next post.)

Notes

Feature photo: A woman is depicted at prayer in an ancient Christian mosaic seen in the Vatican’s Pio Cristiano Museum. Originally found here. From Wikimedia Commons/Miguel Hermoso Cuesta.

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the Old Testament,” New Testament Themes: A Middle Eastern Perspective online lecture series. I’m indebted to Dr. Bailey, as you’ll notice by looking at the notes, for much of my study of Jesus and women in the gospels. I highly recommend you dig into his cultural studies to better understand Jesus’ context. 

[2] “The harsh statements Ben Sira makes about women reflect the kind of instruction young Jewish males were exposed to in the early second century B.C. His patriarchal perspective is as unfair as it is one-sided.” New American Bible (Revised Edition), notes on Ben Sirah 25, on BibleGateway.com.

[3] Even in post-biblical Judaism (beginning around AD 70), “women were not viewed as equal to men or as full Jews. In this, Jews were no different from their various Greco-Roman, Semitic or Egyptian neighbors.” See Tal Ilan, “Post-Biblical and Rabbinic Women,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, December 31, 1999, Jewish Women’s Archive. When we get to our discussion of Paul and his broader Greek culture context, we’ll look at some examples from the Greek wisdom tradition of how it viewed women. 

[4] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), 212.

[5] Rachel Karen, “Torah Study,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, December 31, 1999, Jewish Women’s Archive. “Torah” means “instruction” in Hebrew. It typically refers to the first Five Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy). See Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 3:4 for the Hyrcanus quote.

[6] Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters 6/1 (2000), 2. 

[7] Ibid.

[8] While rabbis could not accept payment for teaching, their disciples could provide for their rabbis needs in practical ways. It was common for disciples to do this as a way to support their rabbi’s ministry. See Joseph Shulam, “Rabbis and Their Disciples between the 1st Century B.C. and the 2nd Century A.D.” Renew.org blog. 

[9] “Harsh is the slavery and great the shame when a wife supports her husband” (Ben Sirach 25:22).

[10] Luke 10:40, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, on BibleGateway.com.

[11] Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters 6/1 (2000), 2. The LSJ Lexicon—the most authoritative ancient Greek lexicon available—says that one definition of meris (“portion” in English) can mean “a portion of sacrificial meat offered to” someone. 

[12] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 193-194.

[13] Ten adult males represented a “community of Israel” and thus a quorum for a synagogue meeting. So it was common practice for rabbis to have at least ten (male) disciples.  

Categories
Commentary Theology

Women Who Flipped the Patriarchal Script

Since finishing my posts on Genesis, I’ve received a few questions about Paul’s use of Genesis in 1 Timothy 2. In my post on Genesis 2, I said we can’t project back onto Genesis how Paul uses Genesis for struggling churches. 

WHAT?!

But Paul!

I know some may worry that I’m saying Paul was mistaken. (I’m not.) I’d love to jump there right now. But I already had this post written. And we’re only a few posts away from 1 Timothy, so please hang with me.

Today, let’s look at some amazing women in the Old Testament who completely break out of the patriarchal norm. William Webb coined the term “breakout” to describe when a biblical author cuts against the cultural grain and does what the original reader wouldn’t expect.[1]

These passages on women flip the patriarchal script on its head. And they prepare us for Jesus who will obliterate all social divisions, including gender. 

I’ll discuss three Old Testament breakouts: The Women in Judges, The Prophet Huldah, and Queen Esther. (See note 2 below for other OT breakout examples.)[2]

The Women in Judges

The book of Judges gives us glimpses of Israel’s leaders before the monarchy. Wickedness, corruption, and cowardice defined this era. Some men are bold and faithful. But what would have stood out to the original audience are the several exceptional women God works through. 

The first, and most obvious, is Deborah (see Judges 4-5). Deborah was a prophet and someone who “was judging” Israel (4:4, ESV). This word for “judging” can also mean “to rule or govern.” In her role, she “held court” or “sat” (i.e. “presided”) as judge (4:5) and authoritatively spoke for God (4:6-7). As a military leader, she gathered up Israel’s troops to defeat the enemy (5:6-8).

In a male-dominated world, this is quite an accomplished woman.

Many complementarians try to downplay Deborah’s role and what it means for us today. Some argue that it was shameful for a woman to lead and Deborah only stepped up because a man did not. The text never says this or implies it.

God flips the script on the gender narrative: Deborah and Jael serve not in spite of their gender, but because of it.

In Deborah’s song (chapter 5), we actually see that Sisera was defeated “in the days of Shamgar son of Anath,” who preceded Deborah as a judge (see 3:31). It seems Shamgar and Deborah had overlapping tenures (notice the flow from 3:31-4:4 without the headings). 

If God wanted to use a man as leader and/or prophet, Shamgar was available. But God did not. He chose Deborah. Consider, too, that Deborah is married (4:4). God could have called her husband to lead. But he did not do that either. 

Deborah gave Barak, a military leader, the opportunity to deliver Israel from the hands of Sisera, the Canaanite general. Barak’s resistance to go alone led to Deborah prophesying that his honor would be taken from him and given to a woman (4:9). This mocking of the lack of male military leadership in Israel isn’t directed at all men in general, but at Barak in particular.[3]

Who gets Barak’s honor? Deborah is likely in view, as shown in her song in chapter 5. Jael, the “most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (5:24), is probably also included. When Sisera sought out Jael’s tent for a hiding place during battle, she put him to sleep with warm milk and then drove a tent peg through his temple (see 4:18-22). 

This story reveals that God demonstrates his power by using the weak to shame and overcome the strong. God flips the script on the gender narrative: Deborah and Jael serve not in spite of their gender, but because of it.

Some complementarians try to get around this breakout by claiming that being a prophet and a pastor are at odds. Here’s an example:

It’s not true to say that because Deborah was a prophet and prophets are leaders, therefore women can be any type of leader including the preaching pastor of a church. The difference between a prophet and the preaching pastor of a church may well be as profound as the difference between a cat and a dog. Therefore the argument simply isn’t relevant or compelling.

What we know about prophets from the Old Testament seems to indicate that they operated outside the formal boundaries of the covenant leadership structure. In fact, the real value of the prophet in the Old Testament is their ability to speak truth to power. The prophet is regularly sent by God to rebuke those in formal office.[4]

Let’s set aside the obvious differences between Old Testament prophets and pastors. The problem with this view is that, in Judges, Deborah, while a prophet, does serve within the covenant leadership structure. She is the person holding formal office—as formal as possible in this era before Israel’s monarchy. She not only speaks for God as a prophet but she rules on God’s behalf as his judge.

Other complementarians imply that Deborah isn’t a precursor to women church leaders because Old Testament prophecy and New Testament gifts of preaching and teaching are not the same. Denny Burk says that teaching is “always authoritative because it instructs people what they are to believe and to do” but that prophecy is spontaneous and not instructive.[5]

But Sam Storms, a complementarian, describes the role of prophets this way: “Their primary role was to make known the holiness of God and the covenant obligations; to denounce injustice, idolatry, and empty ritualism; and to call God’s covenant people, Israel, to repentance and faithfulness.”[6]

Doesn’t this sound like what we’d want one of our pastors to do today? 

Finally, it’s noteworthy that we’re never told what Deborah did was wrong or wicked in the eyes of the Lord. In a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes (see 21:25), Deborah worshiped the Lord and did what was right in his eyes.

There’s one more woman in Judges whom God uses to upend patriarchal norms. Samson’s mother in Judges 13. In this text, we see that the Lord appears to her, not her husband (Manoah) to announce the birth of her son. The woman believes the Lord’s message but the man questions it.

When the man asks the Lord to appear to him (likely for confirmation) the Lord chooses to appear to the woman a second time. After the Lord appeared to them both, Manoah is afraid and believes the Lord will kill them. It’s his wife who reassures him and says if the Lord wanted to do that, he would have already (see v 23).

God prioritizes coming to a woman, not a man. It is a woman, not a man, who has resolute faith in what God is doing. This is another subversive text showing women are valued, worthy, reliable, and have a primary role in God’s plan. God again incrementally moves the story of humanity a tad bit closer back to the ideal ethic he began in the Garden.

The Prophet Huldah

Huldah is a female prophet and her story is in 2 Kings 22:14-20 (cf. 2 Chron 34). She prophesied during the reign of Josiah (c. 640-608 BC). In Josiah’s eighteenth year as king, during the temple restoration project, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy). Josiah commanded Hilkiah to “go, seek an oracle from the Lord for me and the people—for all Judah” (2 Kings 22:13).

Hilkiah went with four other men and found Huldah, a woman (v 14). She spoke God’s word to them about the coming disaster of invasion and exile. But she told Josiah that he will die in peace because of his repentant heart (vv 15-20).

Here’s the thing. Zephaniah and Jeremiah were both well-known male prophets during this time (see Jer 1:2; Zeph 1:1). Why didn’t Hilkiah go to them?

Why didn’t Huldah seek male confirmation from Jeremiah or Zephaniah, or even her husband (see 2 Kings 22:14) before she prophesied?

The text doesn’t say.

Huldah’s prophetic voice is legitimate as it stands, regardless of gender. With confidence and courage, she speaks the authoritative word of God to Hilkiah, King Josiah, and all of Judah (see 22:13).

These women didn’t serve with asterisks next to their names.

These men did not reject her because of her gender. This shows God again defying and uprooting the patriarchal norm.

Queen Esther

During Israel’s exile, Haman, an advisor to the Persian king, plotted to kill all the Jews. God raised up Esther, a Jew, to become queen of Persia and save Israel from genocide. Without Esther’s intervention, God’s people would have been exterminated. God’s saving plan to redeem the world through Abraham’s line, leading to Jesus, would have ended.

Though Esther didn’t hold a formal religious position, her leadership is exceptional in a world where women were not valued as leaders (and the previous queen was deposed for disobedience!). That God would raise up a woman to save his people—and enshrine it in his holy Scriptures—is completely counter-cultural.

It flips the values of the world upside down.

Summing It Up

God used these prominent women to serve and lead his people in the Old Testament because they were women. They didn’t serve with asterisks next to their names. And they weren’t mere exceptions to the patriarchal rule. Instead, these women led Israel to imagine a better future for God’s people where equality and mutuality are embraced and treasured.

Now, let’s move on to the New Testament. We’ll start where everything starts—and finishes.

Jesus. 


Notes

[1] William Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 91-102.

[2] Some other “breakouts” to explore: 

  • Moses’ sister Miriam (Ex 15:20; Mic 6:4) and Isaiah’s wife (Is 8:3) are both identified as prophets. Micah 6:4 even identifies Miriam as one of the leaders of Israel.
  • Women served at the entrance to the tent of meeting and tabernacle (Ex 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22). The Hebrew word “serve” in these verses means “to fight/wage word” perhaps implying “to guard.” While women were not priests, this showed they played an important role in keeping watch over Israel’s sacred space.
  • Ruth’s courage, strength, initiative, and persistence to find a husband allows the family tree that would lead to David, and then Jesus, remain unbroken.

[3] Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals, 96.

[4] Paul Carter, “What Deborah Does and Doesn’t Say About Women in the Church,” TGC Canada Blog, 7/22/2017.

[5] Denny Burk, “The big mistake egalitarians make when they interpret Paul,” Southern Equip, 7/2/2019. 

[6] Sam Storms, “What Does Scripture Teach About the Office of Prophet and Gift of Prophecy?” TGC Blog, 10/8/2015.

Categories
Commentary Theology

Interlude: Answering Questions on Creation & Gender

In our journey through Genesis 1 and 2, I’ve looked at how the creation of humanity as male and female can help us understand the current gender debate in the church today.

Genesis 1-2 is important because it is the only picture we have of God’s ideal before sin. What I’ve tried to show is that man and woman were coworkers in the Garden who had equal status, function, and authority as God’s representatives on earth.

I don’t see any hint of hierarchy in the Garden before the Fall, but some Christians do. You may be one.

Almost all complementarians find their foundation for gender roles in Genesis 1-2. If someone accepts what I proposed in the first two posts, then likely several important questions arise. I want to briefly try to answer those before moving on to Genesis 3.

Isn’t There Such a Thing as “Biblical” Manhood and Womanhood?

We need to know some background to answer this. John Piper and Wayne Grudem are the fathers of the modern biblical manhood and womanhood movement. Back in 1991, they released the first edition of their book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Parts of this book influenced me in my late college and post-graduate years. (The link is a PDF where you can download the 2012 edition of the book.)

In chapter one, “A Vision for Complementarity,” Piper writes, “Our understanding is that the Bible reveals the nature of masculinity and femininity by describing diverse responsibilities for man and woman while rooting these differing responsibilities in creation, not convention” (my emphasis).[1]

Piper goes on to define masculinity and femininity this way:

At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.

At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.[2]

I can’t write a full response to Piper’s claim and definitions (defended over 690-pages!) in a short blog post.

But it’s simply not true that “biblical” masculinity and femininity, as he defines them, are rooted in God’s creation.

The way Piper begins to make his case is not rooted in creation or even Scripture. He fleshes out his definitions with only minor references to complementarian proof texts. Then he provides examples of how women can affirm and defer to men.

Here’s a very odd section of the chapter to give you an idea of how Piper sets the stage.

He writes about women who find themselves in a leadership role over men and suggests how they can do that in a biblically feminine way. He gives the example of a housewife asked by a man for driving directions. According to Piper, the woman (in an authority role here) should give directions in a way that both parties will not have their masculinity and femininity compromised.

“She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance,” he writes. “But we all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man in which neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.”[3]

We do?

Piper goes so far to say that a woman should not umpire baseball games. She would have to mediate “heated disputes between men” and this would put strain on their humanity.[4]

Is this really what Creation is getting at? That we can’t have a female calling balls and strikes in the World Series?

Please don’t think I’m building a theological straw man here. This is really how the seminal book on complementarianism begins. This is what evangelicals have been taught on gender roles for the past thirty years.

Piper and Grudem’s entire concept of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is actually rooted in convention, not creation. The problem, of course, is their system sets up an oppressive power dynamic that subordinates all women to all men.

Complementarians can argue that this isn’t true all they want. I used to say this exact thing! Yet Piper writes, “[S]he will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men.”[5]

It couldn’t be more clear.

This is not Genesis 1-2. The creation narrative actually tells us the exact opposite.

Now I can answer the question. When I look at the Bible, I see that all who follow Jesus–men and women–are to be conformed into his image (Rom 8:29; 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18). If women, like men, are called to become more like Jesus (who was a man) who is the standard for biblical womanhood?

A man?

I hope you can see how this gets a bit wonky. But it took me almost 14 years to see, so it’s okay if you don’t at first.

Women and men are both to be like Jesus. Women and men are both to follow Jesus by living in the power of his Spirit so that we bear the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Women and men are both to make disciples, like Jesus. Women and men are both to teach, correct, forgive, encourage, and love one another, like Jesus.

None of this is particular to males or females.

Aimee Byrd is spot on when she says, “I do not need to do something a certain way to be feminine…I simply am feminine because I am female.”[6]

Don’t Some Gender Roles Still Exist?

Complementarians want to put tight fences around gender roles. Genesis 1-2 reveals a capacious arena in which men and women operate together as Yahweh’s representatives. They are kings and priests together in God’s world.

Still, don’t some gender-specific roles exist? Because of biological design, they obviously do! Genesis 4 suggests that Adam and Eve did not have children until after they were kicked out of the Garden. But suppose they had stayed long enough to have children. Even in the Garden, Eve would have been the one to carry a child in her womb, not Adam. During pregnancy and early childbearing years, Eve likely wouldn’t have participated in the provisional tasks of gathering food or landscaping to the extent that Adam did.

These complementary (yes, I used that word!) functions did not subordinate Eve to Adam. Gathering fruit from a tree for dinner is no more a leadership activity than pushing a baby through the birth canal or nursing a newborn.

Outside of these natural, biological functions, what in the Genesis text suggests that Adam led, initiated, and protected Eve, or that Eve affirmed, received and nurtured Adam’s strength and leadership, as Piper and Grudem so confidently assert?

Absolutely nothing.

Doesn’t ‘Creation Order’ Matter for Something?

I’ll deal with this question when we get to 1 Timothy 2. For now, I’ll say that while creation order may mean something in that passage or others, Genesis never suggests the woman is subservient to the man just because she was created second. The text celebrates their equality throughout the narrative.

Isn’t this a Slippery Slope to Gender Confusion, Transgenderism, and Acceptance of Homosexuality?

I’ve heard Stuart Briscoe say, “Calling something a ‘slippery slope’ is what you say when you don’t want to deal with an argument.” I agree.

I believe this argument it’s a scare tactic of Christian culture warriors who need all the ammo they can muster to keep people from asking that powerful question, “What if I’m wrong on this?”

The fact that God made humanity as male and female is in itself an argument against homosexuality, gender non-conformance, or transgenderism. A Christian can (should!) be pro-woman and still affirm the historical Christian sexual ethic of marriage between one man and one woman.[7]

Does this Mean You’re Rejecting the Authority of the Bible?

No. I cherish the Scriptures and want them to shape me as I follow Jesus!

When complementarians use the term “biblical” in relation to manhood and womanhood it puts any other Christian (like me right now) in a no-win situation. Do you have a different interpretation on these texts? You will be called a liberal and accused of being unbiblical, even forsaking the inerrancy of Scripture.

What’s more is that complementarians have often touted their affirmation of the “inerrancy” of Scripture to affirm traditional gender roles. What this means, in a nutshell, is that if you don’t take the Bible “literally,” that is, at face value, you don’t really believe it is truthful and reliable (i.e. “inerrant”) in what it says.

But this is a patently false accusation.

Here’s what is really going on. Complementarians don’t uphold the inerrancy of Scripture as much as the inerrancy of their interpretation of Scripture.[8]

There’s a big difference between the two. And people who want to follow Jesus need to know it.


Notes

[1] John Piper and Wayne A. Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood : A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 40.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] Ibid., 62.

[5] Ibid, 59.

[6] Aimee Byrd, Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020), 114. You should know that Byrd is a complementarian.

[7] I want to be clear that I’m not saying some people, even Christians, don’t struggle with gender dysphoria, which is a real thing. We must be compassionate and welcoming to anyone struggling with their gender and those who are not professing Christians, are LGBTQ+, but are curious about Jesus. We can do this and uphold the historical Christian sexual ethic. If you are interested in seeing how the Scriptures are consistent across the board in their condemnation of homosexual behavior (in all its forms), see William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001) and William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

[8] This is why the subtitle of Beth Allison Barr’s book is “How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.”

Categories
Commentary Theology

Genesis 2: Coworkers in the Garden

In my last post, I made the case that Genesis 1 shows us that God created humanity male and female, and that both genders were endowed with equal status, function, and authority to carry out God’s command. As the “image and likeness” of the Creator, humanity served as representatives, or vice-regents, of King Yahweh on earth.

The first chapter of Genesis doesn’t allow us to construct a gender hierarchy. Indeed, to argue that way entirely misses the author’s point.

Now, what about Genesis 2?

In this post, we’ll see that the purpose of Genesis 2 is to show how God provides what is necessary for his mandate to actually be fulfilled. It will also show that the woman is never portrayed as subservient to the man. Instead, we’ll see the beauty of their mutuality as co-priests in God’s sacred space.

Is Genesis Even About Gender Roles?

Let me digress for a moment.

If we’re self-aware enough, we should often ask if our contemporary debates on a particular topic have much to do with what the authors of Scripture were dealing with in the first place. For our discussion, we should ask, “Is Genesis 2 even about gender roles?”

Listen to what Old Testament scholar, and Genesis expert, John Walton has to say:

My own opinion of the contribution of Genesis 2 to the debate is that it offers no establishment or articulation of gender roles. Regardless of what conclusions can be drawn about the issue as a whole once New Testament texts are considered, this text is concerned with human roles, not gender roles. Man and woman serve together. We still have the same problem Christ’s disciples had. While he busied himself proclaiming the spiritual qualities of the kingdom, they were busy arguing who would be most important.[1]

So why I am I spending all this time with the appetizer of Genesis when 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2 looks like the main course? Precisely because it’s part and parcel of the complementarian position.

A case for male “headship” (that is, leadership) is often made by complementarians based on Genesis 2 (and Genesis 1 for that matter). Complementarians argue that while men are not better than or superior to women, they are nevertheless called by God to be the “head” based on several things they see in Genesis 1-2, such as:

  • The man was created first (v 7).
  • The man was given the charge to keep the garden first (v 15).
  • The man named the woman (v 23).
  • The man is the one who leaves his parents to pursue a wife (v 24).[2]

I think Walton is right, however, that the creation account isn’t about gender roles. On the other hand, it displays the magnificent, mutual role humans have in God’s world. That’s what I’m trying to show in these first two posts.

If we can understand the original function and purpose for humanity at creation, won’t it go a long way to helping us peel back the layers of female subjugation that thousands of years of patriarchy have built?

I think so.

Now, on to the text.

Doing Priestly Work in Sacred Space

I made the case in the last post that humanity was created for a specific function/purpose. Male and female were to be Yahweh’s representatives in his sacred space. They were created “in his image”—an ancient Near East way of talking about someone ruling on behalf of a deity.

As we get to Genesis 2, this idea of God creating sacred space is bolstered by the fact that we see God resting on the seventh day of creation,[3] as well as the Garden being placed in proximity to four rivers (see 2:10-14, where the rivers actually flow out of Eden into the Garden). In the ancient world, temples were the place where the divine came to rest–that is, set up residence among its people. Descriptions of temples in ANE literature also contained references to rivers/water, vast gardens, and animals within the larger palace complex.[4]

As long as some Christians use Genesis 1-2 to parse gender roles of leadership and submission, we need to continue to revisit them in their context.

All of this would have been a common scene for the ancient audience of Genesis and they would have associated it with a sacred space for deity.[5]

Right now, you might be thinking, Wait, aren’t we talking about gender? What’s the point of all this ANE stuff?

Yes, we’re talking about gender, but as long as some Christians use Genesis 1-2 to parse gender roles of leadership and submission, we need to continue to revisit them in their context.

When we do, we’ll see the brilliance of God’s design for humanity that makes our question, “What can women do?” look rather silly.

Back to Genesis. Verse 15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (NIV).

The Hebrew words for “work” (‘bd) and “take care” (šmr) are often used throughout the Old Testament in connection to worship or priestly activities in the temple.[6] This is another piece of evidence that the man’s job, as image bearer of Yahweh, was likely a priestly one, mediating God’s presence in whatever he did.[7]

There’s only problem. This priestly work is too much for the man to do alone.

Just a Helper?

In Genesis 2:18, God sees that it is not good for the man to be alone in this garden work.

At this point, most English Bibles do something rather strange. They use the word “helper” at the end of verse 18: “I will make a helper fit for him” (ESV).

When you and I hear the word “helper,” we think of the boss’s secretary or our tiny toddler picking up socks around the house. Aren’t you a good, little helper! Perhaps our minds even drift to a person who serves at the beck and call of another–like the housemaids and servants portrayed in movies like The Help or The Butler.

The problem is that the word translated here, ‘ezer (pronounced ay-zer), doesn’t mean “helper” as we use it in English.[8]

Owen Strachan, one of the most outspoken proponents of complementarianism, says that on the basis of Genesis 2:18, women help men fulfill men’s calling as leaders. “In the wise and gracious design of God, women are ‘helpers.’ They are to be wives and mothers, the bearers of children. While men lead, protect, and provide, women come alongside and support them.” He goes on to say, “To be a woman is to support, to nurture, and to strengthen men in order that they would flourish and fulfill their God-given role as leaders.”[9]

There are several problems with Strachan’s view. First, he’s projecting modern gender roles into Genesis when the main purpose of the narrative is to talk about human roles in the sacred space of the Garden.

Second, this passage has nothing to do with women being wives and mothers. Nor does it have anything to do with men leading, protecting, or providing for a woman. (God actually provides something for the man, who is helpless!)

Third, Strachan fails to see that the use of ‘ezer throughout the Old Testament doesn’t allow for it to be exclusively a term for a subservient person. In fact, 72% of the 128 times ‘ezer occurs it is in reference to someone with a superior-status helping someone of a lesser status who is in need.[10] Quite often, it is used in reference to God himself. Here are some examples:

‘Ezer often refers to Yahweh throughout the history of Israel when he shows up to deliver them from their own sin or their enemies.

  • “And the other [son] was named Eliezer, for [Moses] said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Ex 18:4, NIV). The name Eli-‘ezer means “My God is help.”
  • “We wait in hope for Yahweh; he is our help (‘ezer) and our shield” (Ps 33:20, NIV).
  • “You who fear him, trust in Yahweh–he is their help (‘ezer) and shied” (Ps 115:11).
  • “You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper (‘ezer)” (Hos 13:9, NIV).

Walter Kaiser, a renowned Old Testament scholar, makes the case that ‘ezer is a combination of two older words meaning “to rescue/save” and “to be strong.”[11] Perhaps this is why ‘ezer often refers to Yahweh throughout the history of Israel when he shows up to deliver them from their own sin or their enemies.

Finally, consider that ‘ezer can also mean “help” in the sense of cooperating together, like in Isaiah 30:1-5 when God pronounces a woe on Judah for attempting to build alliances with nations who had more military might.

This, and more, leads me to be convinced ‘ezer is more than just a “helper.”

You may not be. After all, all of this doesn’t actually prove that ‘ezer in Genesis 2 is anything more than a secretary or servant. We need the surrounding context to help us.

No One Equal to the Task

This is where the word kenegedo comes into play. It occurs right after ‘ezer and qualifies it in this context.[12] It’s often translated as “fit for” (ESV) or “suitable for” (NIV). “A helper fit for him” (ESV) or something similar is what we typically read in English.

Kenegdo literally means “according to the opposite of him.” That’s pretty awkward. It’s essentially someone who corresponds to the strength of another. Coupled with ‘ezer we can roughly translate this like “corresponding strength” or, as Walton puts it (admitting he’s making up a word), “counterpartner.”[13]

The narrative flows like this. God puts the man in the Garden to work it and care for it (i.e. priestly activities in sacred space). God recognizes that it’s not good that he’s doing the job alone, so he declares he will make a “corresponding strength” for the man. God brings all of the animals he has created to the man to name them. He finds no ‘ezer among them for himself.

The text isn’t suggesting that the man is lonely and wishes he had someone to snuggle with. Romantic interest or even reproduction is probably not on his mind here–he wouldn’t have been looking at animals in that way at all! Also remember that he is living in the presence of his Creator and is free from sin. He’s not lacking fellowship.

Instead, the man recognizes what God did back in verse 18: working and keeping the Garden is too much for him to do by himself. Working the Garden is the context of this “account” (recall Gen 2:4). The man is unable to accomplish the task alone, so he’s searching for someone like him (the fancy word for this is his “ontological equal”). He wants a partner who can serve with him as a co-priest in the sacred space.

But he can’t find anyone.

So God finally provides one for—and from—him.

“Hey, You Look Like Me!”

In verses 21-22, we’re told God provides a woman from the man’s side (the word we translate as “rib” in verse 21 is an architectural term used for building projects that really doesn’t really mean “rib” at all).

Just as God forms the man from the ground to display his solidarity with the land he is working and keeping, so God forms the woman from the man to display the solidarity they have with each other. This reemphasizes that she is his “corresponding strength” as they work in the Garden.

The man’s reaction tells us everything we need to know about the equality of these two humans before sin entered the world:

It’s like he’s singing to her, “Hey, you look like me!”

“This finally is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘Woman,’
because she was taken out of Man” (v 23, ESV).

The man cries out in delight as he has finally found someone like him–bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh. Someone equal to him and to the task of keeping the Garden.

The man calls her “woman.” This is a Hebrew wordplay. The man, ‘ish, calls her ‘ishshah, showing how the woman comes from and is connected to him. As ‘ishshah, she’s elevated to his level, in contrast to the animals who are below him. It does not at all imply that she’s subservient to him.[14] She is, quite literally, from him. She’s his equal in every respect.

It’s like he’s singing to her, “Hey, you look like me!”

Some complementarians have focused on the man’s “naming” of the woman and equate it to the authority he had over the animals when he named them (2:19). But he’s not naming the woman like that or like he does in 3:20.[15] This is a poetic exultation that he’s found someone like him. He identifies her as someone in the same category he’s in–a human he can labor with.

The man and the woman in the Garden were the first team of priests to serve the Lord in his sacred space. There’s no hierarchy here!

What’s with the little bit in verse 24 about a man leaving his parents? The point, as it explicitly says in the text, is that he would be united to his wife and become one flesh with her.

This ties a nice bow on the chapter. The big idea is the unity, solidarity, equality, and partnership of man and woman in God’s creation.

The First Team of Priests

The man and the woman in the Garden were the first team of priests to serve the Lord in his sacred space. Let that sink in. This is incredible. There’s no hierarchy here! To pull out specific gender roles (like leading and following) based on Genesis 1-2, we’d have to import them into the text from our own cultural categories or project them back onto the text from other parts of Scripture.

Simply, the original Israelite readers–who were entrenched in patriarchy themselves–would have never thought about gender roles or headship when reading the creation narrative.

As I’ve already said, Genesis 1-2 is about more than gender roles. It’s about humanity’s identity and their role of being representatives of God and coworkers with God.

When we look down the corridors of biblical history, all the way to the end of the story in the book of Revelation, we see how this partnership in the Garden comes full-circle. All God’s people, men and women, are a kingdom and priests who reign with Yahweh in a redeemed Eden, that temple-garden-city where we will see Jesus’ face and sin and death will be no more (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 21-22).

Indeed, we are that kingdom and priests now. Later on, I’ll try to show that this is at the very heart of what Jesus brought when he ushered in the Kingdom of God and what the New Testament seeks to flesh out.

Still, until God brings the New Creation, we live in a sinful world which brings devastation to everything in us and around us. A significant part of that devastation is patriarchy.

That’s what we’ll consider next as we turn to Genesis 3.


Notes

[1] John Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com. For anything on Genesis 1-3, just read everything by John Walton. His book The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015) has also been tremendously helpful to me in understanding Genesis 1-3.

[2] For a brief article that sums up what most complementarians see in Genesis 1-2 see Denny Burk, “5 Evidences of Complementarian Gender Roles in Genesis 1-2,” The Gospel Coalition, March 5, 2014.

[3] As you probably know, in the original writings, there were no chapter or heading breaks. Try reading Genesis 1-2 without any of those breaks and notice the continuity from 1:31 to 2:3. Since 2:4 begins with “This is the account of…”, it should actually be the true beginning of “chapter 2” and signal the beginning something distinct from the week of creation that runs through 2:3.We see this formula again in Genesis 5:1, 6:9; 10:1, 32; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9, 37:2. Every single time this formula introduces a new section in the narrative, focusing on a new individual and/or family.

[4] Walton, “The Garden of Eden (2:8-17),” Genesis.

[5] All of these comparisons to ANE literature may freak you out a bit. But it doesn’t have to. The point is not to bring doubt on the Bible. While we start with the text of Scripture to see what it has to say, we need to read it through the lens of the people who originally read it if we want to be faithful to understand it. Otherwise, we project our contemporary categories and understandings onto the text. The point is to show that God, in his kindness and grace, spoke through the writers of Scripture in a way that would be understandable to them. (Theologians call this “accommodation.”)

[6] The word for “work” can be used in an agricultural sense of landscaping, in general for one’s day job (Ex. 20:9), or for worship (Ex. 3:12). For the word translated “take care,” see Lev 8:35 and Num 3:7, 28.

[7] The pseudepigraphal book Jubilees makes a comment about Adam as he leaves the Garden that fits this idea of priestly service: “And on that day on which Adam went forth from the Garden, he offered as a sweet savour an offering, frankincense, galbanum, and stacte, and spices in the morning with the rising of the sun from the day when he covered his shame” (3:27). While Jubilees is not book we recognize as Scripture and, indeed, it has extra details that have no Scriptural foundation, it does give us insight into how ancient Jews understood various aspects of their history. For more on this see, Walton, “Proposition 12,” The Lost World of Adam and Eve.

[8] “The English word ‘helper,’ because it can connote so many different ideas, does not accurately convey the connotation of the Hebrew word ‘ezer.” See NET Study Bible, Notes on Genesis 2:18, on BibleGateway.com.

[9] Owen Strachan, “The Gender of Genesis and Ecclesial Womanhood,” 9Marks, July 1, 2010.

[10] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 128.

[11] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005.

[12] Marg Mowczko, “A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew),” Marg Mowczko blog, March 8, 2010. Also read everything by Marg Mowczko.

[13] Walton, “Suitable Helper,” Genesis.

[14] Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homoseals, 116-117.

[15] Genesis 3:20 definitely suggests the man exercises some authority over the woman when he names her Eve, while his own name remains unchanged. Of course, we aren’t told this is a good thing! Nothing in Genesis 2:23 suggests he is placing himself over her. But even if we assume that the man is showing authority by naming the woman here in Genesis 2, Webb points out that we could see it as a subtle hint of the patriarchy to come through the Fall in Genesis 3. See Ibid., 117. For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced the man is naming her at all. Again, he’s simply identifying what she is.