Tag Archives: womanhood

The “Who am I to God?” of Abuse—From Pawn to Power through the Path of the Cross

IMG_3865I saw another one today. As I passed by on my morning run, she stood on the side of the road waiting for a bus, freshly groomed and tastefully dressed for going out into public. But the beautiful hair and clothes failed to hide her hideously disfigured face, bearing the characteristic pulverized look of someone whose features have been dissolved by acid. What this woman’s story is and how she has survived such a vicious attack on her womanhood I cannot say, but she bears the scars (quite literally) of her abuse for the whole world to see and never forget.

Somehow the sight of her grotesquely marred beauty reminds me of the high-powered civil rights attorney whom I met over dinner in a neighboring country last week. Her scars may not be visible to the human eye, but the lingering effects of childhood abuse continue to haunt her as she bravely battles for a relationship with the God who didn’t protect her. Beyond the ongoing fear of the same thing (or the next disaster) occurring again, she wrestles with the question of God’s involvement in her torment. Was He absent, uncaring, or simply using her distress to create a better story for her to testify to His grace? Even with the last option, she is left with a god who is little different from her abuser, callously using her for his purposes despite the damage it would cause her.

Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive.
For this is what the LORD says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.”
Isaiah 52:1-3

As I wrestle again with the deep theological angst to which abuse gives rise, I can’t escape the story of Jesus’ abuse and the way Scripture repeatedly weaves it through the stories of other abused individuals (and cities, as the case may be). Isaiah calls out to Jerusalem, referring to her in terms of a woman who has been penetrated, defiled, and held captive in fear and shame. He picks up the refrain of her lament (echoed in Psalm 44:11-12), acknowledging that she was tossed out and sold for nothing but also echoing the promise that her redemption will occur in an equally baffling manner.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
Isaiah 52:7,9

And what is this good news that the evangel’s feet so eagerly carry to the bruised, battered woman sitting abandoned in exile? Your God still reigns. He is neither bound by the helplessness that overwhelms you nor heartless towards the tears you are too numb to shed. He is still in control and His reign is one of both sovereign power and of tender compassion.

But how does that news help the one whom He seemed to abandon?

Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness— so he will sprinkle many nations,and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living…

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,and he will divide the spoils with the strong,because he poured out his life unto death…
Isaiah 52:14-15; 53:3-4, 8, 11-12

Isaiah leaps straight from this hope-inspiring call into a gut-wrenching description of the depths of abuse and abandonment that God’s Righteous One would experience. His face would be pulverized beyond recognition; His body stripped, beaten, flayed, and pierced until it could hardly be compared to a human form, much less the glorious image of the invisible God. The wrongness of what would be done to Him would not be protested by His contemporaries. Rather, He would suffer this abuse in silence, betrayed by His friends, ignored or despised by the public, and ultimately feeling forsaken by God.

And yet Isaiah’s description doesn’t stop there. It points forward to the fruit of this Victim’s suffering, the deeply satisfying vindication and glorification that would come as a result of all that He had endured. Perhaps most amazingly of all, that fruit would involve not just His exaltation to the throne of God and the adoringly bent knees of kings and angels en masse, but it would also include the healing, consolation, and exaltation of the broken woman spoken of in Isaiah’s earlier chapter.

By His stripes she would be healed. His suffering would be God’s reply to her agonized questions of who she was to Him. Far from the insignificant pawn or the castoff slave girl that her experience had led her to believe she was, she was the one for whom He would give Himself. He would personally shoulder her grief and take her abuse on Himself. But he would not stop there, leaving her permanently bowed at the foot of the cross having received forgiveness from her sins but still broken by the sins of others.

“Sing, barren woman… “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes… “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

“Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise,your foundations with lapis lazuli. 12 I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.

…no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1-4, 11, 17

Isaiah casts the spotlight back on the desolate woman, calling her forth to sing, to expand her sphere of influence, and to step up into the powerful position that God is preparing for her, too. Just as He will resurrect the Suffering Servant and exalt Him to a position of power and glory, He will turn the woman’s shame into glory, personally vindicating her before her abusers and rebuilding her to a level of beauty and status greater than she ever knew before.

As I zoom out again to the myriad of men and women who have suffered abuse in this world, Isaiah’s powerful prophetic words (many of which have already been so poignantly fulfilled) grip me with a new level of hope and vision. They confront the small-minded comfort to which I have clung, raising my eyes to the vision of empowered enthronement that God has for all of His beleaguered sons and daughters. His goal is not just His glory at our expense. Nor is it a warm blanket tenderly wrapped around trembling survivors. He responds to the pain of our past, the terror of our present, and the despair of our future by personally blazing a path through the same circumstances, but which ends in a radically different destination than human experience would teach us to expect.

IMG_3864 (1)

As we follow in the footsteps of our Lord, sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings even as He entered into ours, this path leads us to the splendor and strength that Isaiah called broken Jerusalem to rise up and embrace. This is who we are to God, and this is the destiny for which He has been preparing His suffering servants all along.

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Messy Genealogy

family-treeSo much of life is colored by how we tell the story. Which bits get highlighted and which details get left out determine how we interpret the events being narrated. Each historian has the opportunity (and the power) to weave the themes they want their audience to be influenced by into their telling of the story.

So when Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that highlights the roles of five women in the bringing of the Messiah, we can’t help but sit up and take notice. What to a modern reader might seem like yet another male-dominated list of names tracing the royal lineage of Jesus would have stood out to a first-century reader as a radical departure from Jewish tradition.

1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…
Matthew 1:1-6

In this ancient patriarchal society, genealogical records only mentioned fathers’ names. To be fair, they didn’t necessarily even mention all of the men in the family line, often skipping over a few generations in an attempt to clean up and condense rather complicated family records. At first glance Matthew’s opening genealogy fits this pattern, presenting a tidied-up version of Jesus’ lineage such that it fits into three neat historical categories, each fourteen generations long.

But while Matthew opens his account with a traditional accounting for who Jesus was based on his lineage, he radically diverts from the normal way of doing it by including several of the significant women through whose wombs the seed was passed. Their names interrupt the tidy cadence of the genealogy like signposts popping up in a perfect line of garden vegetables. They simply can’t be missed.

This can be no accident. Far from tossing a bone to the ladies so they can feel somewhat included, Matthew is throwing the spotlight on these unusual women.
And unusual is too gentle a word to describe them. The first three were Gentiles and four out of five are recorded in the Old Testament as engaging in sexually scandalous behavior–not exactly the sort of women to be proud of in describing the purity of one’s pedigree.

So why would the opening lines of a gospel emphasize these particular woman as integral to the identity of Jesus? Is it merely, as some have hypothesized, to show that God can use anyone, even the lowliest and dirtiest of people, to bring about His good purposes?

While that may be true of all of us, settling so quickly on such a conclusion severely shortchanges the significance of these great women of the faith. They aren’t included simply as passive participants in the line of Christ. They are there because of their heroic feats of faith, their unique contributions something that God (and Matthew) considered worthy of honorable mention.

Just as Abraham expressed his faith in God by sticking with Sarah to produce the promised seed, Tamar expressed her faith by sticking with her unfaithful father-in-law Judah, seducing him into fulfilling the promise that he should have kept through his youngest son. And because of her (albeit unorthodox) initiative, Judah commended her as more righteous than he.

By faith both the prostitute Rahab and the penniless immigrant Ruth (stigmatized not only as childless but also as a widow) recognized the superiority of Yahweh over their own gods, forsaking their national identity, their cultural heritage, and their own lives to join themselves to Him, even when that meant throwing themselves under the bus for His less-than-perfect people.

And what do we say of Bathsheba? Actually, it almost seems that credit is being given to her jilted husband (who, by the way, was a Gentile). Uriah’s loyal service-to-the-death for Yahweh and His anointed, especially in the face of his king’s double betrayal, earned him an indirect role (and an honorable mention) in the lineage of Christ.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1-2

Despite the way our tellings of Christ’s story tend to ignore and overlook these messy members of His family, Matthew’s gospel places them front and center. Each of these women represents not only God’s grace to the sexually impure and the social outcaste, they also represent the value God places on faith-filled, whole-bodied devotion. These are the examples He holds up to us of the kind of faith that pleases Him: women (and men) who offered their bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing in His sight.

…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Matthew 1:16

So when we get to Mary’s offer of her body to God to use as He pleased, we see how it stood in a long line of similar women. Her readiness to offer up her reputation, her womanhood, and her very heart to His purposes earned her the title “most blessed of women” and the painful privilege of nurturing the Son of God. Hers was the example her Son would follow as He, too, submitted His body to God’s good but painful plan.

As Matthew’s opening genealogy so beautifully portrays, the heritage into which Jesus took birth was one of faith-filled, godly mothers. This telling of Jesus’ story confronts our andro-centric assumptions concerning who we identify as the key figures in redemptive history. It also challenges us as men and women to step up to the heritage of sacrificial faith that is ours as adopted members of Christ’s family.

Holy Women Spoke From God

huldah-speaking“How can you teach and promote a book with texts in it that have been used for centuries to suppress and silence women?”

The question posed to me at the end of a recent informal talk captured a sentiment I rarely hear voiced in Christian circles, and yet which doesn’t fall too far from a feeling often repressed by devoted Christian women. We wouldn’t necessarily phrase it in such strong terms, largely because we cherish the Bible and the Lord who gave it to us. We want more than anything else to honor Him with our lives and to submit to His reign, no matter how counter-cultural or personally costly that may be.

And yet the way we are taught to interpret certain New Testament texts, namely 1Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, can leave faithful women feeling sidelined, if not confused. Is it true that the same Lord who protected, honored, and stood up for women would then turn around and tell us to be silent in church and to take only a submissive learner’s role in relationship to men? If that is what He is saying to us then we are willing to obey. But somehow these two isolated texts seem to go against the flow of the significance and freedom that belonging to Christ gives us.

So, as I have heard even the most educated and gifted of women admit, many of us quietly submit to a universally restrictive interpretation of these verses, preferring to be safe than sorry. After all, we reason, if we don’t have verses that specifically state otherwise, then the weight of evidence points to the conclusion that God doesn’t want women to be speaking or taking leadership over men in the church. (And even if we aren’t personally convinced this is the case, we don’t want to be seen as promoting ourselves or as undermining the authority and tradition of our churches.)

But playing it safe, as Jesus kept trying to convince the Pharisees, rarely leads us to accurate conclusions about what pleases God. In our well-intentioned attempt to stay within the parameters set out by Scripture, we have ignored the vast weight of evidence that Scripture itself gives us. Whether it comes from our tendency to ignore the Old Testament as less relevant to the Church or our preferential treatment of propositional over narrative texts, we fail to take into account the Bible’s many examples of godly women speaking to men on behalf of God.

Miriam gets a pass, because even though she is identified as a prophet, the people she led in assembled worship were women.

Deborah, also identified as a prophet and repeatedly used by God to speak to and lead His holy nation, gets explained away as an anomaly, the sad result of what happens when men fail to step and lead.

Abigail makes us squirm a bit, but we wiggle out of it by emphasizing what a fool her husband was and by picturing David as a renegade warrior, not the anointed king-to-be.

He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found…. Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.
2 Kings 22:12-14

But Huldah stops us in our tracks. Her story doesn’t make any sense in a paradigm that says God wants men, not women, to speak on His behalf to the church, particularly in the areas of interpreting and applying His Word. There was certainly no lack of qualified, committed male leadership in her time. King Josiah, surrounded by a band of strong, godly men, was leading the nation in a gutsy purge of its idolatrous practices and apathetic worship. Under the capable leadership of the high priest Hilkiah, the priesthood was well-established and organized. And even the prophet Jeremiah was on hand, faithfully speaking the words of God to the people.

So why would all these powerful men go to a woman to find out what God meant by what He had written in His Word? And why was a woman, married to a capable man from a well-known household, so seemingly comfortable with this role of prophet, interpreter of Scripture, and counsellor of the priests and the king?

She said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. …
Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. …’ ” So they took her answer back to the king.

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the LORD with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest.
2 Kings 22:15-23:2

Huldah’s voice rings loud and clear through the pages of the Bible, her Spirit-filled words recorded for leaders both then and now to listen to and learn from. Nothing in the way she spoke or in the way her story is told connotes that something is amiss with Israel’s leadership, other than the way the teachings of Yahweh had been ignored. Her prophetic role in this rare “how things are actually supposed to happen” story stands as a striking example of holy women speaking on behalf of God to both encourage and exhort His people, including their leaders.

In fact, this story as a whole stands out as one of the most ideal leadership scenarios in the Old Testament. Here prophet, priest, and king each take up their appropriate leadership roles, submitting to and cooperating with each other to guide the whole nation back into right relationship with God. God used the humility, strength, and voice of each of these leaders, both male and female, to call His people back and to present them to Himself, pure and holy in His sight.

And while this still does not directly address what God meant by the words He would later give us in the books of 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, the Biblical examples of Huldah and her fellow prophetesses must form the backdrop for how we read these texts.

Holy women spoke from God of old. Should they not still today?

God’s Kind of Woman

img_1998Reading Peter’s description of the model Christian woman used to send me onto yet another personality diet. Desperately wanting to be the sort of woman who was beautiful in God’s sight, I would attempt to reduce the number of opinionated words I spoke, subdue my boisterous spirit, and lower the level of leadership I naturally took. But try as I might to fit my rotund personality into the tiny box that this passage seemed to construct for me, it was only a matter of time until I would come bursting back out.

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
1 Peter 3:1-4

Discouraged and defeated, I prayed that God would re-create me as a more passive, demure version of myself. My picture of His ideal was a soft-voiced woman, listening intently to the men around her and unobtrusively serving their physical needs so they could go on doing the significant spiritual work God had called them to. Next to women who were naturally endowed with quiet natures and gifts of service, I felt less godly. If God wanted me to be a mild, behind-the-scenes woman, then why did He curse me with a sharp mind, pastoral heart, and assertive nature?

Obviously many of my jagged edges were in dire need of sanding down, as God saw fit do through painful but purifying life experiences. As any young leader has to learn, my tongue did need some reigning in, my Tiggerish traits did need more self-restraint to prevent me from bouncing all over others, and my will needed to be trained in submission before it could be qualified for leadership.

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6

But coming out the other side of all that, the question still remained: what kind of woman does God like best? I wish I would have read that 1 Peter passage more carefully years ago, because through more recent study I finally noticed the hearty clue it drops at the end. Who were these holy women of old who were being held up as examples for first-century Christian women to imitate? What was it that God commended these Old Testament women for in their own lifetimes? By examining their life stories, especially the way they used their voices, did or did not assert leadership, and related to the men in their lives, I hoped to better interpret what Peter had in mind when he what he wrote what he did.

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.
Hebrews 11:11

Starting with Sarah, the matriarch of our faith, I see a woman who heroically spoke up before kings to protect her husband by offering her own body in place of his. Far from being a passive pushover, she proactively embraced the promise God had made to her husband, travelling homelessly with him at her own peril and (albeit abusively) seeking to produce a descendent for him through her own servant. In honor of her faith, God insisted on establishing His holy nation through her, not just her husband. He also named her in the Hebrews hall of faith.

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Hebrews 11:31
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse…
Matthew 1:5

The Hebrew midwives stood up to the King of Egypt, using their voices to protect the unborn. Likewise Rahab stood up to her male authorities, covering for the foreign men who had come to her brothel for shelter. These women were expressly commended by God for the proactive leadership they took, not giving in to fear but by faith entrusting themselves to God. And, as He did for Sarah, God established their lines in reward for their faithful service, even naming Rahab in His own Son’s genealogy.

God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

Deborah completely turns my docile picture on its head. Though appropriately reticent to take leadership of the army, she had no qualms about judging the Israelites who voluntarily came to her for wisdom, justice, and a word from God. Her voice was one that God expected these men to heed, not to silence. General Barak got seriously shamed for ignoring her words. And contrary to how we often hear her story interpreted, the author of Judges presents her position as prophetess and judge as perfectly normal, even for a married woman. It wasn’t through her husband that God chose to speak to His people—it was through her. The victorious outcome of her story stands as testimony to God’s delight in this godly woman’s bold leadership and outspoken faith.

“The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. …you are a woman of noble character.
Ruth 3:10-11
David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day…
1 Samuel 25:32-33

Abigail overrode her foolish husband, going behind his back to save it. Ruth no longer had a husband to save but instead dedicated her initiative-taking, competent self to saving her dead husband’s mother. Both of these women took leadership through their bold words and their heroic deeds, gently shaming great men into doing what was right (or in David’s case, stopping him in his tracks from doing something horribly wrong). And both the landed-gentry Boaz and his warlord great-grandson David thanked these unexpected leaders for their kindness and considered themselves blessed beyond rubies to get such noble women as lifelong-allies.

My goal as a woman is to blossom within the full range of beautiful role models God has given me to imitate.

This will have to suffice for now as a representative sampling of the holy women of old. But what stands out to me is that these women were a far cry from the silent, second-string players that I had assumed God likes His women to be. They raised their voices, engaged their minds, and asserted their strength for the good of those around them, even when that meant functioning outside of cultural norms and established authority.

The point is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box.

If these are the sorts of examples that Peter was holding up for us in his call to a feminine, unflappable faith, then there is room for my personality in God’s definition of beauty, too. The point isn’t to change God’s Word to adapt to all shapes and sizes, but it is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box. My goal as a woman is no longer to conform to the objectified ideal of the Sunday school magazines, but rather to blossom within the full range of beautiful models God has given me to imitate.

After all, as the passage in 1 Peter concludes, God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

Reverse the Curse

debateRecently released footage of Donald Trump boastfully describing his sexual domination of women has prompted many Christians to revoke their support of his candidacy for president of the United States. But his remarks, as well as the public outrage they have provoked, beg the question: why is it so wrong for a man to speak of (or treat) women as objects to grab, use, and dominate at his leisure? Is this simply an embarrassing case of “boys being boys,” or is it indicative of a fundamentally flawed attitude towards women and towards power?

Amidst the shrill manipulative posturing of women and the boastful objectifying comments of men, God’s Word calls us back to an other-honoring submission.

But among Christians, the same people who would decry such sexual exploitation of women, a not-altogether-different attitude often comes to the surface. Men are often assumed to be right in exerting dominance over women, particularly husbands over their wives. Though the church would teach against abuse of this power, the necessary call for men to step up to leadership in their families is sometimes mistaken for an encouragement for men to treat women in controlling ways.

Laying the whole question of male headship aside for a later post, the problem I would like to highlight here is the competitive, controlling approach that has infected our relationships ever since the fall. Genesis 2 paints a beautifully cooperative and harmonious picture of the relationship between the first man and the first woman, in which the woman gloriously fulfilled the man and the man honored and gave himself to the woman. Just like the Trinity in whose image they were made, man and woman found their satisfaction in using their personal power and position to promote the cause of the other.

Then another sign appeared in heaven …The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
Rev. 12:3-4
…But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Genesis 4:7

Into the garden slithered another creature who had already traded in service for competition. Satan’s goal was to break up everything good that God had created, pitting humans vs. God, women vs. men, and man vs. earth. Poised in ambush awaiting the birth of a new creation, the serpent played the babe-like humans off of each other and off of God, successfully injecting his poison into all their relationships.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
Genesis 3:15-16

Worse than the scam pulled off against the man and woman, the serpent’s poison effectively turned his victims into perpetrators. He no longer had to strike at the woman’s glory—the man would subdue her under his thumb. And he no longer had to undermine the man’s strength—the woman would reallocate her power to compete with him rather than to complete him. She would start behaving towards her husband with all the mastering attempts that sin uses to control weakened human flesh. And her husband would start using his strength, properly directed against sin, to overpower and dominate her instead. (Note the identical language of desire and rule used both in Genesis 3:16 of husband and wife in Genesis 4:7 of Cain and sin.)

Far from being a prescriptive statement of God’s new intent for husband-wife relationships, Genesis 3:16 describes the painfully devastating effects of the fall. It stands in sharp contrast to the joyfully abandoned marital bliss of Genesis 2 (which is found again in the garden-songs of mutual delight and empowering love in the Song of Songs). What some Christians use to substantiate their claim that God has given husbands dominion over their wives should stand out to us as a clarion call to resist the curse, not to perpetrate it.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands…
Husbands, love your wives…
Ephesians 5:21-22, 25

As Christians, we don’t hesitate to fight back against weeds and drought or to overcome the dangers and pains of childbirth. If anything, we consider these efforts an extension of our faith in God’s resolute commitment to restore a broken world. And yet we fail to see the importance of resisting the human tendency to dominate and control each other. Is this not the very essence of Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership and of Paul’s teaching on mutual submission? God’s statement to Eve should jolt us into resisting the urge to exert our power over each other, not give in to it as our new normal.

Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”
Genesis 3:20; 4:1

And amazingly, this is exactly the effect God’s statement had on Adam and Eve. Adam took up his power and used it to bless his wife with a noble name. And Eve exerted her God-given power to give life to another man. Hand in hand they faced down the curse, taking the first steps in overcoming their common enemy by surrendering themselves to each other.

Amidst the shrill manipulative posturing of women and the boastful objectifying comments of men, God’s Word calls us back to an other-honoring submission. Each time we empower and promote each other, we deal one more blow to the serpent’s scheme. As counterintuitive as it may seem, women empowering men and husbands submitting to wives is a crucial part of our Christian task to reverse the curse.

Asset or Ally?

married-handsIn our early years of marriage, my husband and I faced a mish-mash of assumptions and theories about what our relationship was supposed to look like, especially in regard to my role as his wife. Before marriage we had been classmates, peers, and debate partners, enjoying the freedom of a relationship built on mutual admiration for each other’s opinions, abilities, and unique contributions to the world. But having said “I do,” I suddenly felt a nagging theological pressure to change the way I related to the same man.

Intruding into our easy friendship came the idea that I should drop a step back and start following him, that I should lay aside my goals and dreams and replace them with his, and that I should suppress my natural tendency towards critical thought and assertive action in order to make sure that he always came out on top. While introducing the element of hierarchy into our heretofore cooperative partnership seemed unnatural, I felt that it was the right thing for me to embrace as a Christian wife. Despite my husband’s protests that this is not why he had married me, I felt that I should live out my created purpose as a woman to be his “helper.”

Much of my confusion came from the way I had always heard the story told of why God made Eve. Looking back on the story from this side of the fall, I assumed that a “helper” is someone of inferior social status who exists for the purposes of someone higher up a chain of command. In a world of hierarchical pecking-orders, it was hard to imagine a working relationship without clearly delineated and regularly exerted indicators of who is in charge. But leaving behind these social assumptions and looking with fresh eyes at how Genesis 2 tells the story of husband and wife, I now see a refreshingly different sort of relationship from the one I had pictured.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Long before the lack of a helper suitable for the man comes up in our story, the Bible points out that there was no helper suitable for the ground. God had created the earth and the heavens, but without someone capable of taking care of the ground, there wasn’t much point in planting a garden. So out of the substance that was in need of help, God created a man. From within this telling of the story (which obviously does not encompass the whole range of God’s purposes for humanity), the man’s primary created purpose in being made was to meet the earth’s need for a “helper,” someone who would enable it to fulfill its created purpose and to maximize its full creative potential.

18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.

Similarly, within this telling of the story, the woman’s created purpose was to meet the man’s need for a “helper.” Though the nature of the man’s need was quite different from that of the earth’s, God’s manner of meeting it was surprisingly similar. First He took the man through an interactive learning task to help him discover his need for himself. The man exercised his authority over the animals by determining what they would be called, in a sense assigning them an identity. But as he set about his work, a realization about himself began to dawn. All these other creatures formed from the earth had two versions of themselves. In fact, it was through this diversity that they were each able to fulfill their calling to be fruitful and multiply. Where was his “other?”

So just as God had done for the earth, He completed what was lacking in the man by creating a helper from the very substance that needed help. From the man’s wounded side emerged a version of him more beautifully capable than anything he could have imagined. The word used to describe what she would be to her husband (ezer) is the same word used throughout the Old Testament to describe what God is to His people: a helper or ally (for more on this see Carolyn Custis James’ insightful book Half the Church). She would come to his aid in shouldering along with him the enormous task of governing the rest of creation and of filling the earth with more little images of themselves (and of God).

23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Genesis 2:4-25

And waking from his death-like sleep, Adam recognized just what a gift he had been given. This wasn’t another animal to rule or govern—her being was of the same substance and nature as his. He acknowledged her equality with himself in what he called her, embracing her as a treasure worth letting go of everything else (including parents) to gain.

Far from the picture of subservience and inferiority that I had assumed, Genesis 2 paints a picture of loving partnership and empowering mutuality between husband and wife. My role as helper to my husband doesn’t lower my status any more than God’s role as our Helper or man’s role as the earth’s helper lowers their positions. If anything, it emphasizes my God-given power, capacity, and responsibility in working alongside my husband to lead and to serve our shared corner of the earth. Yes, it will involve laying aside my “rights” and my independence just as much as God’s service to us required His sacrificial death-to-self, but it does not make me the second-class citizen or the passive follower that I had assumed. Rather, being the kind of wife God made me to be calls me forward to throw the full weight of my gifts, aspirations, and man-power into our shared calling as servant-leaders of God’s creation, whether in our home or out in the world.

And it’s about time I sorted that out–my poor husband has been waiting long enough!

The Worth of a Woman

img_1675Where does the idea of female inferiority come from? Why, when we survey the atrocities taking place around the world, do so many of them involve attacks on womanhood? Sex trafficking, rape, female genital mutilation, female feticide and infanticide, acid attacks, honor killings, and domestic violence just begin the list of far-too-common practices designed to degrade and destroy the essence of femininity (for more on this, see Darrow Miller’s excellent book Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women in Building Healthy Cultures).

Sadly, the problem doesn’t just exist in headlines and far-off places. The lie of female inferiority springs up in our homes, our church gatherings, our light-hearted jokes, and our social interactions. Of course we would vehemently deny it, affirming that as Christians we believe all humans are created equally in the image of God. We might even go so far as to remember to include women when we cite our belief in the priesthood of all believers.

But our actions betray us. And they speak louder than our words. Why are feminine intuitions laughed at as if they were silly or baseless? Why is an investment in beauty put down as an unspiritual waste of resources? Why is work typically done by women less socially or economically valued than that done by men? And where in the world do we get the idea that men should play leadership roles and women should stick to support ones?

I wince to even raise these questions as I can already mentally hear the defensive reactions that I myself used to respond with. But the questions are valid, and they deserve a biblical response. Rather than raise fear, they should increase our faith in the ability of God’s Word to speak for itself. So rather than continue to dodge the inevitable bullet by avoiding this issue, I am stepping out in faith, hoping that doing this on a public forum will open the way for some healthy, edifying interaction.

My goal over the next several posts is to explore what the Bible actually says about women, with no other agenda but to (attempt to) leave behind my cultural assumptions and examine the Bible through fresh eyes. And I want to avoid the trap of skipping over the first 900 pages in my Bible and running straight to the last few that include the Epistles. As my childhood pastor used to repeatedly emphasize, Scripture should be interpreted with Scripture.

So my question is this: In the overarching narrative of the Bible, what is God’s purpose for women? Why did He create two versions of His image: male and female? What are our shared features and roles and what about us is meant to be different?

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:26-28

Genesis 1, which lays the foundation for our whole story, paints a surprisingly undifferentiated picture of the nature and roles of male and female. Of course there is much more to follow from there, but allowing the full weight of this portion of Scripture to sink in begins already to form a different picture than what I had formerly imagined.

Somehow I suppose I have always inserted my own assumptions about the division of labor in the commission God gave to these first two image-bearers, as if He were implying that the man should take up the bit about ruling and subduing while the woman should stick to being fruitful and multiplying. Or perhaps the man’s area of dominion was the whole earth while the woman’s was contained within the walls of her home. But when I look more honestly at this text, the man’s mandate and the woman’s mandate are identical, because, in fact, there is only one mandate. Men are called to be fruitful just as much as women are. And women are called to rule and subdue the earth just as much as men are.

While the rest of the Bible will offer us plenty of opportunities to unpack what that might look like for each of the sexes, Genesis 1 drives a deep stake into the ground from which all other texts proceed. Male and female are equally embodiments of God’s very nature. And male and female are both called to be leaders, wisely governing the rest of creation as His representatives on earth.

As those foundational truths take their rightful place at the forefront of my thinking on this issue, I am increasingly appalled by the subtle but pervasive ways that we deny them. I am embarrassed to admit that the attitude towards women as inferior beings has found way too much space in my own values and thinking, to the point that I have avoided writing about women’s issues and have spent most of my life secretly wishing I were a man.

But if I, in my feminine form and intuitive responses, am a full-fledged likeness of my Lord, then I’m honored to be a woman. And if I, as a co-recipient of the creation mandate, have been charged with a leadership role over the earth, then I sure need to figure out how God is calling me to faithfully fulfill my commission.