Thursday, April 28, 2011

Biblical Patriarchy: Old Testament

Any discussion of gender roles from a Christian perspective necessarily has to start…at the beginning, with Genesis. Let me say up front that if you hold to an allegorical view of the first 11 chapters of Genesis and deny the historicity of a literal Adam and Eve, this whole argument is going to be unpersuasive (and you have some bigger issues to overcome than gender roles). If however you hold to a literal Adam and Eve and the entirety of the creation account and the fall, read on.

The New Testament later will be shown to come back to the Creation account multiple times and the writers take positions that are directly related to the creation of man and then woman. Two major events that drive gender relations occur here and they are pivotal to the rest of the Biblical story of gender. First is the creation order and the way man and woman are created. God creates man from the dust of the ground….

then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.(Genesis 2:7-8)
God creates man first and then puts him into the garden that God Himself has planted. After God creates man, He created woman, not from the dust of the earth but from the man….

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:18-23)
Adam was made intentionally incomplete so woman was made as a helper for him, a helper that was different and, to borrow from that great theologian Jerry Mcguire, in doing so He completed Adam. As the New Testament will later affirm, God made woman for man, not man for woman (1 Cor 11:9 ). The order here is not an accident as we will see later in the New Testament. God created man and then woman and made woman for man and not the other way around.

That was the first part of the story, what comes next explains an awful lot of what we see around us and also gives us an important milestone in gender relationships. The fall is the most important even in the Bible until the cross. As we know, God decreed that they could eat anything they wanted in the entire garden, with one exception:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)
There is something vitally important to note here. This command occurs in Genesis 2: 15-17, before God creates woman. So how did the woman know not to eat of the tree? Her husband Adam must have told her. God saw fit to reveal this commandment to the man He created and then created a woman, who was bound by the same rule. Everyone knows what happens next….

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:1-7)
God left it to Adam to lead in the first family of man and to instruct his wife to not eat of the tree. As far as the Bible records, God never specifically spoke this warning to Eve, only to Adam who then passed it on to Eve. Eve in turn was deceived by the serpent and Adam took of the fruit given to him by Eve and they both ate.

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:8-13)
God calls out to the man and converses with him until Adam attempts to throw Eve under the bus.

Their disobedience of course displeases God (although it did not surprise Him) and God proclaims the curse but also the promise:

To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”(Genesis 3:16-19)
It is important at this point to say that there is blame for both Adam and Eve here but the way it is laid out is instructive. God chastises Eve for listening to the serpent and then He chastises Adam for listening to his wife instead of God. God doesn't mention the serpent at all when speaking to Adam. I think what we are seeing here is the first example of a man failing to exercise headship over his wife. Adam should have told his wife not to eat the fruit and refused to eat it himself. He did not and the rest of human history unfolds the way it does because of that failure to lead on the part of Adam.

So the curse is two-fold. First for the woman God is angered because she listened to the serpent instead of her husband and as a result childbirth will be painful and her husband will rule over her and she will desire him. This curse is still in effect (unless you want to argue that child birth is no longer painful). For the man, God is angry that he listened to Eve instead of God. As a result man is cursed to struggle to coax food from the ground. No longer will food be readily available but it will require the sweat of his brow to obtain.

Is this just a description of an event? Clearly not because the ramifications of this event run throughout the Bible. The order of creation, the means of creation, the events of the Fall and the curse are every bit as applicable to the way we look at families and the church as the doctrine of sin is to the way we understand humanity and the cross. God is not merely observing that child birth is going to hurt and that women will be ruled by their husbands and that men will coax food from the ground by the sweat of their brow, He is decreeing it. Note He says “I will multiply your pain” not “I happened to notice that child birth is painful”. He says “because you listened to your wife” that the ground is cursed. Is Genesis 3 merely descriptive? Not hardly.

I think I could stop here and move on to the New Testament but there is a lot more to cover. Because of the size and scope of the Old Testament and the nature of a blog, this is going to be something of an overview rather than an in-depth examination.

It is an undeniable fact that God primarily used men, flawed men for certain but men nonetheless, as His prophets and the leaders of His people in the Old Testament. God made His covenant with Abram, not Sarai. God commanded Noah to build the ark, not Noah's wife. God used Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, not Miriam. God made David the King, not his wives. God revealed the coming of His New Covenant to Jeremiah and used Isaiah to prophesy of the Suffering Servant, the Prince of Peace. Samuel, Aaron, Elijah, Malachi, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, Amos, on and on, God is often described (and describes Himself) as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God used men as His primary vessel for revelation. That is irrefutable.

That doesn’t of course mean that God never used women in the Old Testament, just that He primarily, normally and overwhelmingly, used men as prophets, priests and kings and that women often functioned and served differently. As one example, when God proclaimed judgment on His people, one of the condemnations was especially pertinent to this conversation:

My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths. (Isaiah 3:12)
It doesn’t sound as if God was too keen on men abdicating their leadership to women. I imagine He looks at the general passivity of men in the church and is similarly displeased when men step aside and leave their responsibilities to their wives. This leadership role is not one that is reserved to the corporate “people” which under the Old Covenant would be the Jewish nation and under the New Covenant would be Jew and gentile alike who have been regenerated and adopted into the family of God. It is also something we see in the family. Fathers are called to pass on the teachings of God to their children (Psalm 78: 5; Joshua 4: 21-24). Fathers were called to slaughter the Passover lamb in Egypt (Exodus 12:3) on behalf of their family. From start to finish the Old Testament is patriarchal.

Having said that, Christians are under the New Covenant so the question at hand: does the New Testament perpetuate the patriarchy system or overturn it? I will argue that not only does it not overturn it, it actually is even more overt.

Next up the New Testament…


John Krainis said...

Good solid points, Arthur.

It helped me to think of this as a hypothesis. Suppose God had intended to create Adam and Eve without male headship, how would He have communicated this through creation? It seems to me He could have a) created them both simultaneously, b) created them both from the same substance, c) created them both for one another, d) given His instructions to both, e) had them start working together, f) had them name the animals together, g) had them name each other, and h) held them both accountable for the fall.

On the other hand, if God wanted to communicate equality of personhood, dignity, and worth, along with Adam’s headship, every detail of the creation account makes sense.

A few other clues from Genesis as to Adam‘s headship: a) Adam’s curse (toil and death) passed to men and women, while Eve’s (painful childbirth) passed only to women, b) the Hebrew name for Adam is also used for the human race, and c) the Seed of the woman would be a man.

Thanks again for doing this series, it’s a good discussion to have.

Arthur Sido said...


Those are excellent thoughts, tghe exact sort of thinking I was hoping this spurs. My next post looks a lot at the creation order and how that theme is consistent in the New Testament.

Misplaced Honor said...

scripture, now here's where I want to have the dialogue. Since this is so fresh on my mind, my thoughts aren't going to be thorough and well articulated but I'm going to use you as a sounding board for my questions. Especially since this effort on my blog ends up dead in the water.

Some interesting and thought provoking ideas have come to me through Zens and Viola, among other organic minded authors I've been reading lately. One of these is the point that Eve was already present within Adam when man was created on the sixth day. Through this I see where man and woman is not two separate entities but one "for this reason man shall leave and cleave..the two become one flesh". In this line of reasoning I still see that there are two functions or roles, if you will but that those roles are played out on equal grounds. Not just equal in God's eyes in regards to worth but equal in one another's eyes in regards to authority. She needs him to lead, he needs her to help in order to lead well. Together, they move forward.

The continual and persistent theme throughout the scriptures that are focused on male headship and responsibility is one that is glaring, bright and worth careful consideration. I appreciate you bringing out that point. There is more I want to say but I have to get back to work.

Arthur Sido said...


One of the things that I think is without dispute is that God created woman from man and that He created woman for man. Not my words, that is simply what the text says. I just don't see any sort of command or example of the type of egalitarianism that Zens and Viola advoate for in either the Old or the New Testaments.

You should keep working on your series, I was enjoying it!

Arlan said...

Okay here when you say "From start to finish the Old Testament is patriarchal" you are using a much more accurate sense of patriarchy! Problem solved.

Personally I think the revelation of scripture is meant, by its own record, to be read Christ-first; that is, if you fail to see the Bride of Christ being provided for Christ, then you have missed the point of Genesis.

This by no means contradicts what you have stated thus far, but sometimes your point of reference (corner stone) does affect where you wind up.

Arthur Sido said...


The point was not that the primary message of the Bible in any way, shape or form is patriarchy. It is to point out that when examining gender relations there is not a hint of anything other than a patriarchal system.