Man-made religion has given God a bad name.
Whether by arrogant ignorance or by power-grabbing design, both the words and story of God have too often been perverted to suit the agenda of people. I don’t just say men, because I think many women have been complicit in various ways. And although in some ways women have been more overtly oppressed by these perversions, men have also suffered because perversion of truth badly affects even those who lie on purpose.
To understand what God thinks about women, we must take the whole story into account. The whole story, even aside from some important vocabulary issues, paints a picture of women fully loved and fully human in God’s eyes. God does not see women as less human than men in any way. They are not inferior, nor are they low-ranking. A couple of supposedly contradictory verses don’t change this.
Let’s start at the beginning
The first thing said about woman in the Bible is that she is created in God’s image in equal standing with man before God. (Gen 1:27) She and Adam receive the instructions of God together about having dominion. They are a team.
The second basic idea presented is that she was created because God saw that Adam would be lonely without her. Too many people take this to mean that a woman’s only role is to serve a man. Looking into the meaning of the Hebrew word that is translated as “helpmeet” or “helper” can help clear this up.
The original Hebrew phrase is “ezer kenegdo,” which my Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, editors) explains to mean “a helper comparable.” In other words, “a partner.” They even go so far as to say that this is God’s admission that He is not enough for Adam/man.
This “ezer” is actually the same word used to describe God about 22 times in the Old Testament as Israel’s “help.” Hardly a picture of docility. It is usually a matter of warrior-like intervention. While we may not know exactly what that was supposed to look like in the Garden of Eden (though we know from the story that an enemy was lurking), we can surmise that since there is the idea of ally, they were supposed to be that for each other.
The stress is on woman making man complete. He would be lonely and apparently more vulnerable without her. Nothing else that God had created was designed for filling that need. But by creating a different, complimentary version of human, God did not create a lesser or subservient one.
Helpmeet vesus partner
Unfortunately, cultural expectations of women may have overshadowed accurate translation of “ezer” in the King James Bible. There was at least enough expectation of a certain meaning, that it set the tone for the understanding of later translations, even when they were more accurately translated the word to “helper,” just like it is used of God. Most people don’t know it is the same exact Hebrew word, so assume other meanings.
There may have been a couple of things at play in this. First, the translation had to be approved by the political powers of the day. That was one nuance they could certainly get away with and not seem to be messing with the message of who Jesus Christ was.
Another thing to wonder about is that the meaning of words drift and morph over time. Even a simple online search for the etymology(history) of “helpmeet” shows that it meant “a helper like himself.” Someone of equal standing in the relationship. However, it is now only a word used in Biblical discussion and suffers from its association with “helpmate” which has the less clear meaning of “companion.”
What about her husband ruling over her?
There are parts of the Bible that are prescriptive and parts that are descriptive. In common terms, that means some parts are telling someone what they should be doing and other parts are only telling what did or will happen. When the two kinds of parts are right next to each other, sometimes people make assumptions.
Consider that story of the Israelites asking for a king. God responded that he would give them a king, but that the king would do certain things that would oppress them. God is not at all commending the king’s actions. In fact, the point is that God is the perfect king and a human king is going to abuse power.
The results of sin are in two categories in Genesis 3. Some are things God will do. Some are things that will be. God definitely states that He will increase a woman’s pain in childbearing, but there is an important break between that and the part about “ruling.”
With the description, “yet your desire will be for your husband,” God is setting the next statement up to also be part of the disappointing description of their future relationship. The husband ruling over the wife is not what he desires or condones. It is the result of sin in their hearts.
Mighty women of the Old Testament
There are examples of women in leadership in the Old Testament. The results of sin in general in male-female relationships do not keep all women from positions of influence. In the case of Deborah (Judges 4), God was quite willing to humiliate a man who would not listen to her God-directed wisdom.
The daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 26 and 27) were not shy of setting legal precedent to claim an inheritance. God himself declared them to be right. Hannah (1 Samuel 1) was not afraid to approach God directly for her request. Her request affected the history of Israel.
Huldah is a little known figure who was sought out by the high priest of the time. They apparently knew right where to find her and that she would be able to answer important questions about God’s book of the Law. No one made any apologies to anyone for asking about such high matters from a woman. (2 Kings 22 or 2 Chronicles 34)
Still under the law
If God was really big on husbandly dominance, he would have gone to Joseph first about the deal with Mary and the virgin birth. ESPECIALLY under those circumstances. Instead, what God did was confirm to Joseph, “Yeah, I’ve been talking with Mary and she agreed to this.” Then and only then was Joseph given guidance for his role in the events.
When the baby showed up, it can be no mistake that God gave both a man AND a woman important opportunity to publicly recognize the Christ-child. The story says that Anna told “all who were looking for redemption.” It wasn’t just her job to tell the women because that was beneath the male prophets.
When Jesus came across women, he was always astonishing the disciples by talking to them the same as he talked to men. There are no records of him restricting women. They were definitely allowed to approach him. There are records of him telling them to speak up about their faith in him. It took the disciples a while before they understood that Jesus wasn’t setting up a new power structure for them to rule over other people.
New creations should know better
Even if there has been some confusion about how things stood under the law or the theocracy of Israel, there really should not be any confusion under the new covenant. We should be able to take advantage of victory over sin in our relationships. Even if all we knew was that Christ considers the church his bride, we should intuitively know that a wife is not meant to be silent. The church is supposed to spread the good news!
To make it more clear, there are clear examples in the New Testament of women teaching and guiding any who want to know the truth. To mention a few, there is Priscilla (Romans 16:3), Phillip’s 4 daughters (Acts 21:9), Timothy’s mother, Phoebe (Romans 16:1). If those examples weren’t enough, there is the part of Joel that Peter quotes in Acts 2:17-18. Men and women, sons and daughters will prophesy.
But there are those places that use the word ‘silent’
If you want a more in depth discussion of these misused verses, I highly recommend Jon Zens’ concise book What’s With Paul and Women. To give you a taste, Paul is addressing a specific problem in that group. The word that is translated “silent” there is translated “in quietness” other places where absolute silence makes no sense. Men are also told to have a quietness about them in some places, but somehow it never gets translated to “silent.”
What often gets lost in the debate is that it is not about who has authority over whom! It is about mutual submission, humility, encouragement. And the kind of help an ally gives. Do I need to go on?
In the church, the ekklesia of the Christ, we are all brothers, in the gender neutral sense of the word. Women are still women and men are still men, but we are still all brothers in the way God does things. A loving brothers does not want to beat anyone into submission.
In marriage, there is supposed to be a picture of mutuality. One or the other may speak up about things or take initiative in addressing a need. There is no need for dominance. 1 Corinthians 7:4-5 emphasizes this by highlighting that husband and wife have equal stake in each other’s physical body.
What about being busy at home?
We tend to make assumptions about what we hear based on our own culture. It is understandable, but we need to try to be aware. It is very likely that home in Biblical times included helping to run the family business. It probably didn’t mean daily isolation unless there was a good excuse to go buy groceries. Especially not in the city. These people had to walk a lot. They probably lived close together and interacted in ways we find hard to imagine.
There are things about our culture that distort what a woman actually can do at home. There are government business regulations and zoning laws that prevent women from using the home to be busy in creative ways. As always, the theme in Titus 2 is about being responsible and not being contentious. It is about serving one another with humility and the best of intentions.
If you think about these things in conjunction with Proverbs 31, it is worth noting a few things. The Proverbs 31 “woman” may well be a poetic compsite of many women. It is also the picture of “a woman” who does business in the general marketplace. AND, it is quite likely she had servants!
It isn’t just Eve who is mentioned for bringing sin into the world
Woman get blamed for a lot of the sin the men choose to engage in. Men are drawn to women, but a fair number of them seem to be irritated by that. In order to make themselves feel more superior and less drawn to the partnership that should be the result, some men try to claim that women are the source of sin in their own hearts. It is a failed attempt to pass the buck that Adam began in the Garden.
The point is repeatedly made that sin came into the world through “the first man, Adam.” It is not just a matter of him being responsible for what happened. In fact, Eve is fully responsible for her own part in the events, but Adam introduced sin, too. Unfortunately, it was a team effort in the worst possible way. A total perversion of what that particular team was supposed to do and represent.
But we should be able to move on from there. The first part of the story is over. The second part of the story completely renews all things. We have the cure. We can exhibit it in our lives right now.
What does God think about women?
God made women in his image to be equally functional and participatory in his church. Disregard man-made organizations. Those are attempts to make the church fit worldly models of authority. Jesus said his church would not function like those. (Matthew 20:25-28)
Woman are unavoidably priests alongside the men in his church. A church that is not constrained by man-made systems or condemned by flaws of human nature. A church that is free from the cumbersome legalism of Judaism and free to love in spirit and truth. A church that doesn’t need hierarchy, because we have Jesus.