Gender consciousness has receded behind race consciousness in the past two years due to the George Floyd incident, but it is still a salient issue. Indeed, it is more pervasive, since it spans across race, ethnicity, and culture. Between divorce statistics, radical feminist calls to ‘freedom,’ a resentful implosion of male identity, and the hermaphroditic proclivities of a genderflect culture, we have–of late–descended ever further into to the icy, bitter gender cold war that has been plaguing us since we chose to define human worth in the narrow terms of wealth, power, and achievement rather than the greater context of creation, purpose, and calling.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the gender cold war is a failure to parley. Rote assumptions in both left-leaning progressive and conservative paradigms mire meaningful discussion in a slough of loaded questions and straw man attacks. The gridlock is further exacerbated by the age-old conflict between the Epicurean ‘do what you will’ philosophy and the virtue-centric Stoical approach. But the Marquis-de-Sade-permissiveness of the one and the Victorian prudishness of the other both veil two fundamental, underlying questions
1) What is the significance of men and women in the first place? Why men and women rather than monolithic neuter?
2) Do we truly understand the patriarchal picture of women, or have we distorted history (from both sides) and thereby created confusion rather than clarity?
The biological answer to the first question might be the first idea that enters your mind, but you would be wrong to think that biology, which is limited to observation of a chain of discrete events, can answer the teleological question of “why.” Stick with biology, and you would probably be tempted to conclude that mitosis or meiosis, being far less messy, would be the choice for reproduction.
The political answer is even worse than the biological: gender roles have changed as rapidly as an electrocuted chameleon standing in front of a lava lamp. Rapidly morphing ‘good ideas’ based on rapidly changing economic and political factors have spawned a mad frenzy, and are as laughable as Nebudchanezzer’s conflicting decrees in the book of Daniel. Most politicians and economists seem to have no clue what the purpose of humanity is, much less what comprises the heart of a man or the heart of a woman. They are too busy courting polls like so many obsequious courtiers flattering the Queen of Wonderland.
The question of “why” is tied to purpose (teleology is the study of ends), which is tied to original intent, something communicated through instruction and narrative handed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately, our contemporary chronological snobbery, with it’s rote assumptions that the world is progressing in a way that renders the past obsolete, has alienated us from our own history and literature, rendering us wholly susceptible to a host of electricuted chameleons and lava lamps. We are a people who exist, at least in our minds, apart from the context of history, and are unacquainted with ancient narratives, particularly the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
This has rendered us susceptible to a rote set of presumptions about the patriarchs and their families in particular, an obstacle I’d like to help you overcome by demonstrating that the Biblical narrative in no way supports the shallow surmises of our day.
In order to clear our eyes of foggy agendas, we must go back to Genesis. As a caveat, the answer to each question requires an answer to both. The way Scripture is written, a conceptual question is answered both conceptually and concretely.
The conceptual answer to gender comes in three salient thrusts of the creation narrative in Genesis. The first is that man is made in the image of a triune God. God, being perfect, must contain in Himself a completeness, which includes fellowship: serving, loving, honoring, etc. Contrary to the paltry popular metaphysical metaphor stating that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like layers of an egg, the Scripture presents a rich fullness of relationship between the two. Never will you find one member of the Trinity working alone. They are always working together, reflecting glory, honor, and love beyond imagining. Man cannot properly image God without such a fellowship, and so we meet God’s original intent for the two who are to be one “it is not good for man to be alone. I will create a helper.”
The second thrust comes in the order of creation. The order moves from relative simplicity to greater complexity and from lesser to greater things (as measured by glory, not size). The woman, being created last and with the greatest intimacy (from a rib next to the man’s heart, shaped by the intimate touch of the living God) is the crowning achievement of God’s creative work. This, by the way, makes her the coveted target of an envious Lucifer (the light bearer), whose own resplendent greatness pales in comparison to the glory of the heart. The glory of the heart resting in that humility expressed in small whispers, however, we see that this crowning glory is made “for the man.” In other words, the highest glory, i.e. of the heart, is not intended to reflect light to itself, but to another. Just so did “the Son of Man not come to be served, but to serve…”
The final thrust is in the togetherness of the man and woman in the garden. There were no jobs and therefore no breadwinners, no houses built by human hands, and so no housewives. They work together. The man and woman worked together, apparently without any need for division of labor in tidy roles. They were together when Lucifer tempted Eve. They fell together. Finally, they become survivors of the great shipwreck of fallen humanity together, grieving together when Cain kills Abel, conceiving and giving birth to (and who was the midwife if not Adam?) another heir to the seed of the woman (Seth) and rejoicing at his birth, knowing that the promise is that the seed of the woman will crush the seed of the serpent. They mourned together and rejoiced together, just as Paul later tells the Roman believers to do.
These three thrusts carry the point to the heart, namely that gender was made complementary and not in contradistinction. The world is not a world of opposites, but of diversity such that, as John Donne put it, “no man is an island to himself.” As intuitive as this may seem to some, yet the limitations of the creation narrative are not intended to give a full picture of this truth. For that, we must continue the story.
Now to the narrative of the patriarchs. We’ll start with a woman named Sarai, whose name means “princess.” Sarai lives with her husband, Abram, and his family in Ur of the Chaldeans, a major city in the cradle of civilization. Given the references to wealth and servants, Abram and Sarai are the head herdsmen of a livestock operation large enough to require 300 men, and likely are ‘in charge’ of at least double that population accounting for women and children.
That sounds like a beautiful pastoral scene out of Fantasia, right? Not exactly. For those of you who have not raised goats or sheep, allow me to explain. Were you to encounter goats (say, at my small homestead) you would probably run in the opposite direction suppressing an urge to vomit. Why? Bucks (and rams) ‘cologne’ themselves with their own urine, a distinctly obnoxious scent that does not wash out of your clothes in one laundering. This odor gets over everything, because goats and sheep, like hairy Houdinis, get out of every pen you put them in and go everywhere you don’t want them to go.
Sarai is no Victorian lady arrayed in corsets and whalebone dresses. She smells like goats and sheep. She is a rugged, capable woman who, an able helper to Abram in whatever he does. She is more capable than most in the modern world, including our men. Her strength is not imperious and distant, but humble and present. Like a certain humble King who was ‘God with us,’ Sarai did not disdain to bind up wounds or fear to surrender her body to the choking dust and heat in order to tend her flocks or care for her family and servants.
As the narrative progresses, Sarai becomes even more rugged and capable as she and her husband are called out of the city (they likely lived in a village of houses with all their servants) into a meandering bedoin journey through deserts and desolate places. If Sarah were to show up at my own homestead, she would be the one instructing me on herding, tending, birthing, milking, and butchering my own goats, despite the fact that I’ve been doing (or more accurately attempting) this three years longer than most of you.
As this ‘princess’ continues her bedoin journey, apparently unphased by a harsh desert mileu, God not only personally defends her when Abram surrenders her to two harems because he fears someone will kill him to get his wife, but personally renames her as Sarah, “noble woman,” reflecting her maturation through trials and tribulations.
This name change is key to understanding who Sarah is, and who women are called to be. Proverbs 31 uses the same language (“woman of noble character”) to describe a woman who is hardy, decisive, strong–able to lift up her husband like Atlas holds up the world.
The parallel between Sarah and the Proverbs 31 woman extends beyond “noble,” also including “laughter.” Sarah’s laughter incident (when God himself asks her why she laughed and she has trouble explaining) has potential to be the model for the woman who can “laugh at the days to come.” There is no necessity for restricting her laughter to mere skepticism. The language used in the text (“Shall I…have pleasure”) could equally connote wonder, delight, and certainly connotes laughing at the future, making God’s questioning her laughter as rhetorical as it is admonishing and assuring. Reinforcing this is the fact that Sarah’s laughter in Genesis 18 compliments her husband’s laughter in Genesis 17 (an important lesson in shared laughter for all marriages), and is memorialized by naming their son Isaac (whose name means “laughter”). The paragons of faith are not defined by cynical doubt. One’s faith laughs, and the other’s faith laughs in response. It is like antiphonal trumpet music. Imagine how much brighter the world would be if women (and men) could laugh away the anxious fears like antiphonal trumpets sounding the battle cry against the fears that stalk in the deep watches of the night.
Let’s go further. Sarah’s character, as indicated by the narrative, is crucial to understanding the word “submission” used by the Apostle Peter in his first epistle. He is describing the woman’s relationship to her husband, and specifically uses Sarah as the paragon of submission. “Submission,” which has been grossly misunderstood as “subjection” in our I’m-going-to-be-offended-no-matter-what-you-say culture, gives us the picture of willingly moving under someone as a way of supporting them. This is similar to the model of submission we find in the Trinity when the Holy Spirit sustains the Son, the Son submits to the Father, and the Father submits all things to the Son. Connecting the Trinity, man as the image of God, and God’s pronouncement that “It is not good for the man to be alone” is tied to Adam having a “suitable helper” thus gives us a picture of the intention behind “So God created man in His own image… male and female He created them”. Thus two are considered one image of One God in Three Persons, and so the model for the relation of the two is the relation of a perfect union of mutual affirmation and delight in the Three.
As to the woman’s title, “helper,” this also images the Trinity. The title “helper,” which describes God himself at multiple points in Scripture (especially with regard to the Holy Spirit), is clearly not a title of subordinate weakness. The connotation of “helper” in the Scriptures is that of sustaining or imparting strength to the one being helped. Again, the picture of Atlas submitting himself to hold up the world is a useful comparison. Such a picture renders agenda-driven paradigms paltry by comparison: both the progressive tendency to tell the woman to drop the ball and walk away, and the conservative tendency to depict her as too helpless to hold anything up.
As for the modest dress code Peter commands in his epistle, this also has the connotations of strength and purpose: you don’t go to war or hard work in fine jewelry and silk; you dress for work, trim your nails, and prepare your mind to get into the trenches and slog out the day’s work with your partner. This should give us some pause to reflect on the inadequacy of the job-is-work model we currently use to separate the man and wife throughout the day (like tortured, electrocuted chameleons). E.F. Schumacher doesn’t cover this area specifically, but his analysis of the need for meaningful work in his book “Good Work” pairs well with this question. But I digress…
Let’s move on to our second patriarchal woman in hopes of further debunking the myth of patriarchal repression: Rebekah.
Our first encounter with Rebekah is at a well. She is not only surrounded by sheep and goats (and likely smells like them), but appears to be herding them by herself. This simple contextual clue, when cross-referenced to David’s shepherding experiences, implies that she is equipped not only to direct them, but to defend them with deadly force. She is, in our modern terms, a cowgirl with a .357, ready to let fly at any predator or thief that dares do harm to her animals.
Back to the narrative. When Eleazer requests water, Rebekah doesn’t do the minimum, but waters his camels as well. She is not only rugged and capable, but a true helper who not only knows what is needed, but is able to address the need with her own hands. What a woman! And yet this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The beauty of Scripture is it consists of multiple literary genres. The fullness of the WORD is expressed in the fullness of language. Rebekah and Isaac’s story is told in narrative, which requires us to pick up contextual clues, themes, motifs, etc as we read along, effectively letting the story build on itself.
Rebekah’s rugged, capable, and faith-strong character directly builds on Sarah’s narrative. She is the successor of Sarah’s faith and strength, and in her we see a reiteration of the theme of the noble woman. The repetition of the narrative structure also contributes to our apprehending this noble succession: Rebekah finds herself in the same predicament as Sarah when Isaac, in fear, identifies her as his sister, leaving her, as Abimelech notes later, available for another man to have sex with. But fear not. This fearfully endowed and dread shepherdess isn’t about to meekly surrender herself to strange men (and so her grandson Joseph, with like spirit, boldly repels Potiphar’s wife). With Rebekah we find a woman who is more than adequate to deal gently with her husband’s fear while shrewdly and forcefully repelling other men. The recurring motif of fear expressed by “she’s my sister” has now taken on an entirely new variation by virtue of a change from a ‘princess’ to a shepherdess.
If you aren’t paying attention to narrative build when reading Genesis 26, you might think Abimilech coincidentally sees Isaac and Rebekah ‘sporting.’ This term has the connotation of seductive flirtation in the form of touching. Lest you doubt, this, note that Abimelech clearly interpreted as sexually charged. If you attribute this to God’s plan, you would be only partially right. However, the scene is far too suggestive of a plot to ensure the ‘sporting’ takes place in a conspicuous location.
Whose plot? Would Isaac, who is afraid of being killed because his wife is so beautiful, intentionally render himself vulnerable by being near Abimelech’s palace with Rebekah, and then be so bold as to put the moves on her? Surely this cautious man would avoid such a thing if at all possible, even if they had been in the area for a ‘long time.’ What could possibly motivate him to let down his guard?
Unless…Rebekah, his rugged, capable, kind, loving, and beautiful wife, lured him there by deliberate scheme, and then seductively flirted with her own husband in direct view of a window Abimelech frequents, knowing Isaac could not resist her. Let’s contextualize: the Song of Songs warns against awakening love before it desires, but the implicit suggestion is that when the time is right, the woman has been given the power to arouse love. Rebekah knows her power over Isaac, and takes full command of the situation, saving her husband from his own cowering fear by irresistably drawing him out.
If the City of Lights has a video archive, I don’t think I’d ever tire of seeing this moment in redemptive history, especially if Rebekah’s thoughts are narrated. Everything Hollywood has ever produced would pale in comparison to this scene!
You can accuse me of imposing on the text here, but everything fits: Rebekah is bold, daring, kind, compassionate, and–as we find out later when she dresses Jacob to pose as Esau–she is also keenly aware of God’s plans and shrewd enough to entice her own husband to live up to God’s call for him and for Jacob. Lest we forget, we are also dealing with Laban’s sister, who would have learned to hold her own against a man who later dupes Jacob into marrying the wrong girl and changes his wages 10 times. Who but she prepared Jacob to contend with her own brother? In other words, she is a woman who will use her strength and shrewd wit to help (uphold) her husband to live in faith rather than fear or complacency. The Kingdom of Heaven advances forcefully, and forceful men and women lay ahold of it, using their strength for the good of their heavenly siblings. Rebekah exhibits this forcefulness in spades.
Her strength is, in a way, her weakness. Her inability to wait on God’s provision with regard to Jacob’s inheritance has been criticized, but this same impatience is likewise displayed in her offspring, Moses. For those who use such ‘failure’ as a means to indulge in hypothesizing that Rebekah, Moses, David, etc could or should have done better, I can only reply that such men and women are “the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” Their stories are not exposed to me to second guess their decisions and actions, but to confess that I am of like flesh and bone with them, and that I long to be united with them as a prodigal longs to be reunited with his family.
So we have, in Rebekah, a stark contrast with the cold war of bitter competitiveness and envy currently lived out in many if not most households in our narcissistic culture? Rebekah doesn’t berate or verbally castrate her husband for his weakness; she doesn’t discount him for his moral cowardice; instead, she musters every aspect of her feminine beauty (body and soul) to entice him to do the right thing. Like that One to come in her own lineage who would gently command “go and sin no more,” she gently but firmly puts an end to sin before its destruction wreaks havoc on those she fiercely loves. She is the epitome of the Master’s charge to “be shrewd as serpents and harmless as doves,” and serves as the active persona whose legacy is passed first to Jacob, and then to Joseph, whose shrewd testing of his brothers prompts the unveiling of the lion in the heart of Judah. Treasure begets treasure. Strength begets strength.
Perhaps more crucial than anything else in the story of these two women is the emphasis on physical presence and gentle tactile interaction (serving) which stands in stark contrast to today’s imperious rule-of-law, rule-it-over-others culture. The intimate, tactile affection that permeates the stories of these women and their men is not only a shadow of the future, but an echo of the past. A God who commanded the universe into being by fiat could have commanded man to come forth from the ground. But He did not. Why? Why did He form the man, and later the woman, with his own hands and whisper the breath of life into them? Why does this picture of our origens connote the gentle and tactile relationship of a mother with her suckling child rather than a king with his subjects in ordered rows and columns? The answer is repetitious: a still small voice for Moses and Elijah, an objection to Israel having a King, a later rejection of the human kingly line, a tearing down of two temples that had descended into authoritarian religion, seven woes to overbearing pharisees and teachers of the law, a stern and deadly threat against servants getting drunk and beating their fellow servants, and a Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. Could it be that our ways, whether conservative and religious or liberal and progressive, are not His ways? Could it be that we are poised on the brink of yet another round of pulverized temples and cities lying desolate because we cannot understand that power is given to feed sheep rather than terrorize them into compliance? Have we desecrated His name by worshiping profit over purpose? Have we failed to listen to the only voice that can lead us in the way of life, that still small voice?
In a culture where left-leaning progressives call women to hostile competition with their husbands, while conservatives call them to reduce themselves to relatively helpless, decorated accessories, isn’t it refreshing to know God calls each woman to be a strong and noble helper, able to take the initiative by her own God-given conscience and will, with great strength, and use all she has been given to hold her husband on course when he falters? And when this reciprocal righteousness grows like yeast between husband and wife, and spreads within a community of hearts, we have the Scripture’s great promise bursts forth like a mighty river: Shalom. Peace and mutually reinforcing prosperity.
I do want to make a point of clarification here. I am not advocating for “girl power” as a campaign to balance some arbitrary statistical demographic. That mindset is one of grasping after power for its own sake, and substitutes the ugly fiat I discussed above for the compassion and goodness of redeemed humanity. There is no need to prescribe what is descriptive by nature. The power is already there in women as it is in men, and needs only to be acknowledged, valued, and fostered within the parameters of seeking good for others. The title “helper” has few limitations (supporting/respecting her husband being as much a ‘limitation’ as loving a wife is a ‘limitation’ for husbands), and offers no regard for electrocuted chameleons and their lava lamps.
Let’s take this one step further. The narratives do not merely inform us on the relationship of husband and wife, but also inform us about how authority does and does not work. Whether or not you agree with the Scriptural discussion of the man having authority over the wife (and both man and woman having respective authority over the other’s body), you must concede that such authority cannot be reduced to crude or simple imposition of one will over another. To expand on what I wrote above, I’ll cite what Os Guiness notes in “Last Call for Liberty.” Namely that the center of God’s relationship with His people is not an imposition of His will on them (a lording it over others), but a simple injunction to listen (in the Shemah, in the first chapter of Isaiah, in Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem). As it is between God and mankind, so it is to be between man and woman.
The above should sufficiently prove that the patriarchal narratives, along with the rest of Scripture, clearly negate the purported conservative ‘Christian’ distortion of feminine submission as subjection to maleness, while also condemning the left-leaning progressive mantra that a woman is to grasp at equality with her husband and, like the prodigal son, contemptuously demand her share of the stuff. In contrast with the noisome rubbish of willful agendas stands the simple equation of Scripture: “submit to one another out of love…wives to your husbands.”
Extending this attitude of humble kindness to a more general level of relations between members of complimentary genders, we have also the instruction to “outdo one another in rendering honor” and live like brothers and sisters who look out for each other’s welfare, and “do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Let’s work our way out from this conclusion, extrapolating from gender and authority to our problems of group consciousness. Grasping at equality, lording it over others, using a status (elite or victim) to impose one’s will, competing with, refusing to help–all these are a distortion of the human spirit and defiance against the call of men and women to ‘listen,’ and to ‘submit to one another out of love,’ using the gift of strength, not for self-directed pleasure or aggrandizement, but for the good of the other. Anything less distorts who we are and creates a house divided, which will not stand. The bitter fruit of envy and dissension will necessarily spring from every construct of categorical group consciousness.
Categorical thinking (add Kant’s categorical imperatives to the categories of race, gender, and class) simply cannot substitute for a willing attitude of the heart to act rightly and lovingly for another, or for the creativity and conscience of an individual genuinely seeking the good of family and neighbor. It is precisely here where narrative trumps legal code by opening the soul to consider the individual in her entirety (heart, spirit, mind, body) rather than as a discrete subject following a list of parameters like a computer following an instruction set. This is why, when we read the patriarchal narratives with due diligence and attentive thought, the proper response is “whoa!” or more explicitly “whoa-man!”
Ultimately, there is only one way this attitude of heart is attainable: to listen (Shemah) to and willingly follow the One who wraps Himself in light as a garment and leads us on paths of righteousness. We may hoof-it-on-the-way like so many confused sheep wreaking mayhem (in stark contrast to modern people as so many soldiers marching in lock-step), but there is both dignity and relief in the humble admission that our success doesn’t depend on perfect achievement. Will we fail? Yes. But the Wielder of the rod and staff, moving us to repentance and offering us forgiveness, will gently restore our souls. Will we learn and progress? Of course: learning is unavoidable when following the Good Shepherd on a level path, even when it leads through dark valleys.