There are 783,137 words in the King James version of the Bible. The majority of those words are about men, but not all. Some of these words tell the stories women, stories that are just as varied as those about men. These stories are distributed regularly throughout both the Old and New There’s stories of Eve, of course, and Miriam, and Sarah, and Rachel, and Deborah, and Bathsheba, and Jezebel, and Naomi, and Ruth, and Hannah, and Tamar, and Tamar again, and Esther, and Joanna, and Junia, and Priscilla, and Martha, and Mary, and Mary, and Mary, and, well, Mary. Some women don’t even have names, like Lot’s wife or the Samarian woman at the well, but all play an important part in the development of God’s plans across the centuries.
But often the revealed wisdom of God concerning women is boiled down to four verses – 48 words, to be exact – from Paul’s first letter to Timothy: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (1 Timothy 2:11-14)
This passage may be little more than a call to female modesty in church, but it has become a touchstone for defining woman’s role as subservient to man’s. Like all passages in the Bible, we need to wrestle with this one, but on the surface at least it seems to be at odds with other depictions of the role of women, both in the Old and the New Testaments. It seems at odds with Paul’s acceptance of women, like Priscilla, in leadership roles. And, based on the arc of women’s stories throughout the Bible, at odds with the purpose of woman within God’s purposes.
Consider the following verse from Leviticus: “The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you.” No one accepts this passage as being a definitive, not to mention accurate, portrayal of rabbits, yet the passage from Timothy has been used as such for women for centuries, helping to keep women in a subservient position in both church and society. This is not at all what the Bible, taken as both a narrative arc and the revealed Word of God, has to say about woman. In order to live into a Biblical worldview, we need to understand the real story. What substantively is woman in the framework of the Judeo-Christian worldview as put forth in the Bible?
Let’s start with what is not woman. We live in an age where, at least in the western world, men are claiming to be women, so it would be interesting to discern just what, precisely, it is they think they are becoming. Biology is out – there’s that pesky Y chromosome which causes a host of other biological realities in the male body that don’t go away. Psychology seems at best iffy: after all, there are effeminate men who never claim to be women, so where, exactly, is that line drawn? The Bible is no help either, since it states definitively in the first chapter of Genesis that there are two sexes, a proclamation that is never, ever, questioned or challenged in all 783,137 words. All that’s left for a man to do is take on the façade of a woman, the appearance of a woman. While this might be therapeutic in some instances of gender dysphoria, it nevertheless reveals nothing about the substance of being a woman. The Bible is completely uninterested in façades and appearances and instead is designed to reveal the deepest truths about God and humanity.
Does the Bible – within its long narrative arc – confirm the subservience of woman to man as suggested in 1 Timothy? From day one – well, actually, day six – it does not. In Genesis 2:18, God states “‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” The word “helper” has been frequently taken to mean “assistant,” like an assistant plumber who hands the main guy the wrench he needs. But the Hebrew word used to describe Eve in this passage is ezer. According to Philip Payne, in his book Man and Woman: One in Christ, “The noun used here [ezer] throughout the Old Testament does not suggest ‘helper’ as in ‘servant,’ but help, savior, rescuer, protector as in ‘God is our help.’ In no other occurrence in the Old Testament does this refer to an inferior, but always to a superior or an equal…’help’ expresses that the woman is a help/strength who rescues or saves man.” Eve was specifically introduced into creation to be Adam’s ally, not his servant.
Originally without woman, the proto-male, Adam, is lost and lonely, so God wisely provides the proto-female, Eve, to rescue him. They clearly are designed to work in tandem, with complementary skills and abilities that produce strength greater than the sum of their two individual beings. This theme of the complementary necessity of man and woman is not confined to Genesis. In the Old Testament, relationships like that of Jacob and Rachel, or Ruth and Boaz, suggest that while the woman’s role may be different than the man’s, it is not an inferior role. Esther demands that she be considered an ezer by the king, the king accepts her as such, and she becomes a hero of the Jewish people. In the New Testament we see Priscilla and Aquilla working side by side, as equals with Paul, in establishing the church in Corinth. To be honest, I don’t know precisely what was going on in the church of Timothy, but whatever lesson it is teaching us, it is not one of subservience when compared to the whole arc of the story of women in the Bible.
Another trope often given about Biblical women is that they are either sexual temptresses or chaste saints. Again, this seems more like men projecting their fantasies about women onto the Biblical narrative than an accurate reflection of God’s purposes for women as revealed in the Bible. Eve is usually the first suspect. There they are, in the Garden, when the serpent – the real seducer – convinces Eve to eat the apple. She then gives some to Adam, and both their eyes are opened to good and evil. It is only at that point that they become aware that they are naked, not before. Eve didn’t use sex to bring Adam on board, but she has been accused of it ever since. Eve’s sin comes not from being in seductive collusion with the serpent, but from her foolishness – or perhaps, simple innocence – in believing him, which ultimately leads her to disobey God. Not really much of a temptress.
Then there is Mary, the mother of Jesus, traditionally so wrapped up in chastity that it must have been hard for her to breathe. Or be a mother, which was precisely why God chose her: to be the perfect mother for his son. Traditionally, Mary has been stripped of all sexuality, furthering the biblically false notion that sex is bad, and sex for women is really bad. Why would God pour himself into a human body and put Mary through Eve’s punishment of a painful childbirth if he didn’t want to embody the complete human experience, including having a real mother? The Biblical narrative certainly paints Mary as such. She does motherly things, she appears to have had children with Joseph, and she knows exactly who Jesus is and treats him like a son. Why would God want this woman to be perpetually chaste? Why would it be important that Mary herself be immaculately conceived so that Jesus could be immaculately conceived? The Bible is silent on both of these points, which were created and emphasized only in tradition.
It was, in fact, while pondering these peculiar circumstances attributed to Mary that I began to think that she holds another key to that which is distinctively female. I was struck by a vision of Mary kneeling at the foot of the cross, an agony for all humanity but a very peculiar, personal and unique agony for Mary. She suffered as no woman ever has, watching the Son of God whom she bore in her own body, fading to a slow and tortured death on the scrabbled rock of Golgotha. It is a suffering that only a woman who has lost a child can understand. No man, no matter how moved by the loss of a child, can know this kind of grief.
I am hesitant to ascribe ultimate meaning in suffering, but women, who share the bond of suffering placed on Eve at her exit from the Garden, also share other forms of suffering. There is the monthly menstrual cycle – for some women simply annoying and for others quite painful – that has no male equivalent. For most there is the painful birth of a child, for some, the loss of a child who is stillborn or dies as an infant. Certainly God must have chosen Mary to be far more than a convenient womb. There is a spiritual bond with the unborn child that is interwoven with the physical necessity of gestation that men do not and cannot share, making the loss of a child both a spiritual and physical suffering unique to woman. For a man to claim he is, substantively, a woman, he would need to not only acquire the benefits, such as physical appearance and mannerisms, but also the suffering linked equally to body and spirit, inherent in womanhood – something a man cannot do.
Of the twenty-one occurrences of the word ezer in the Old Testament, two refer to Eve; three refer to powerful kingdoms that Israel calls on for help; and sixteen times the word refers to God as our help. Eve and God are described by the same word, which makes it as difficult to think of Eve – woman – as subservient, as it does to think of God as subservient. In the New Testament, the Greek word for the Holy Spirit – paraclete – has much the same meaning as ezer: a help or strong aid. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Holy Spirit is often referred to in the feminine.
Although Eve, upon expulsion from the Garden, is punished by painful childbirth, she is also rewarded by having children; children who not only have to be birthed but then raised up to be faithful followers of God. But some women are unable to bear children – does that make them unworthy? Is a barren woman a worthless non-contributor to the process of kingdom building? It is on points like this that we run up against the problem of using attributes only, such as fertility, to define what is substantively female. In the Bible, the barrenness of women like Sarah or Hannah is viewed as a sorrow that is relieved when they both miraculously bear children. But prior to becoming pregnant, they were women faithful both to their husbands and to God. The Biblical narrative seems to suggest that while a culture may decide infertility makes a lesser woman, God’s ultimate qualifier is faith. Obedience to God. After all, it was disobedience that got Eve and Adam kicked out of the Garden, so surely obedience must be the best way back in, regardless of life’s circumstances. Faith is not an attribute that is distinctively female, but it is a gift that is distinctively human.
While child-bearing and rearing are central components of the Biblical worldview, the Bible is also clear that women can do many other things. Women like Deborah are prophets and judges, Esther becomes a queen. Mary Magdalene becomes a leader in the early church, followed by Paul’s disciples Priscilla and Junia. Woman is not one-dimensional, and actively participates in numerous other ways to further God’s kingdom. But, co-equal with man, their primary responsibility is to raise children who will follow God’s path.
Like two allies, man and woman could operate successfully on their own, but in our Biblical worldview they weren’t designed to work optimally in that way. God’s purposes – specifically new life that is growing toward God’s kingdom – are most directly and fundamentally fulfilled in the family, and a family is strongest when led by partners – allies. The distinctive physiology of woman, so biologically crucial to the species, is intertwined with the embedded imago dei – the image of God – that is so crucial to God’s forward looking, transformative purposes. In this the Biblical arc of the story of woman – just as varied, diverse and important as man’s – is abundantly clear.