I’m going to take a slight detour from my series on silence to reflect on something that came up during this past month’s Misfits Theology Conference. I had the pleasure of sitting on a Q&A panel for the event and had the chance to answer a question about women in ministry. While formulating my answer, I stumbled into a biblical parallel narrative I hadn’t noticed before – which is surprising, given that I have already published posts concerning the characters involved. The narratives in question are the temptation of Eve and the promise of Samson.
As I explained in earlier posts, I believe these parallel narratives are meant to show us something about the innovation of God’s good purposes and how they can transform the way we look at and handle various facets of life. With these two narratives specifically, I would like to take a look at what they say about gender roles and how we are supposed to interpret messages and signs in community.
Our exploration begins in Genesis 1, on the sixth day. The author says:
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
So we begin with a simple statement of God’s plan. He creates humanity for the purpose of having authority over the created world, and he creates them in his image, which is simultaneously male and female. Each by themself is adequate to be recognized as the image of God, but in order to understand the fullness of God’s image, you need to see them both.
God blesses them and gives them dominion over every other living thing. The only command given concerning the relationship between them is that they should “be fruitful and multiply”. From this picture, it would be safe to assume that both male and female had equal standing in God’s created order.
Genesis 2 is the next time that the man and woman’s creation and relationship is addressed. This account comes from a different author, with apparently a different revelation of who God is (based on the use of Elohim vs YHWH Elohim). This story expounds on the creation story and God’s intentions for the man-woman relationship.
First, the LORD forms man from the ground and fills him with the breath, or spirit, of life. He places the man in the garden and causes plants to spring up for his food. He commissions the man to work and to keep the garden. Lastly, the LORD commands the man to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which would mean his death.
The LORD’s next action is to acknowledge something: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.”
The term “helper fit for him” has been the center of much contention ever since. Joanne Guarnieri Hagemeyer has published her own blog concerning the interpretation of this term, and you can read that here. Briefly put, “helper fit for him” is a translation of two Hebrew words, the roots of which are “ezer” and “neged”, and, as my Greek professor always reminded us, “Every translation is a theological interpretation.” How we read these words will tell us a lot about what we think of God and what that means for humanity.
The word “ezer” plainly means “help”. For instance, the priest Eliezer is named “God is my help.” The ebenezer monuments of the Old Testament were erected to make sure the Israelites would remember how God helped them. Other verses which feature this word include,
“With your hands contend for him, and be a help against his adversaries.” (Deuteronomy 33:7)
“Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.” (Psalm 33:20)
“But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer…” (Psalm 70:5)
“Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God…” (Psalm 146:5)
“He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper.” (Hosea 13:9)
Many of the verses which feature this word are specifically using the imagery of God coming to the aid of someone who is struggling through battle. In these images, it would be fair to associate the term with words like “deliverer” or “salvation”.
The word “neged” literally means “in front of”, “opposite”, “parallel to”, or “before the eyes.” It is commonly used to depict when something happens in front of someone so that they can recognize what is happening, in a way that would be undeniable.
So when we look at these terms put together, should we picture the woman as an assistant trailing behind the man with her clipboard and pencil, or as someone capable and equal to the man in her capacity to carry out God’s commission?
God is by nature both one and communal. Man was one, but he was not yet communal. So God put the man in a deep sleep and formed woman out of the man’s rib. Man was now communal, having a strong helper to stand in his midst, but he was also still one with the woman, because she was formed of his substance. He could not look at her and say that she was anything foreign to him. Indeed, he rejoiced, because he recognized that there had been a longing for this community, for the one who was like him. And because they were of one substance and one commission, they could hold fast to each other without shame.
This is our picture of the beginning, the image which God brought forth to fill the earth with his goodness and authority. And, indeed, it was very good.
Then Genesis 3 happens.
First we see that the serpent sets out to deceive the woman. He asks her a misleading answer about God’s prohibition, and she responds with a slightly errant answer – she adds the prohibition against touching the tree.
In the narrative from Genesis 2, the woman had not yet been formed when the prohibition concerning the tree was issued. Did God later tell her and she remembered incorrectly? Had she thought it better to not touch it at all? Was it the man’s responsibility to instruct her, and he taught it to her incorrectly? We can’t say.
What we do know is that, apparently, the man had been with her throughout this whole exchange and made no comment on it. No words pass between them as the woman makes her decision to personally eat of the fruit. It would appear, then, that the woman interpreted the serpent’s words and made her decision alone, despite the man being with her, and it is only after they both eat, when the action is interpreted in community, that they recognize what they’ve done. The woman doesn’t have her eyes opened and then go try to seduce the man knowing what would happen. She sees the fruit as a delight and invites the man to join.
But as soon as their eyes were opened, they realize the position they’ve put themselves in. The LORD appears, and they hide from him, the LORD asks them what the did, and they pass on the blame, creating enmity where there was once safety. The man now sees his deliverer as his destroyer, and the woman now sees God’s good creation as a snare.
And only now, now that their communion has been compromised, does God describe their relationship differently:
“Your desire shall be for your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree… cursed is the ground because of you…”
Where there was once safety and equality, there is now mistrust and oppression, and we’ve been trying to find a way back to Eden ever since. The Bible contains many narratives which center around either the reinforcement or correction of this skewed relational narrative. So how does the Bible suggest we should address this new paradigm of mistrust and oppression?
To answer that, I would like to revisit Judges 13. God once used this story to teach me about how he uses women in ministry, and now I find it has helped me to see the Eden narrative in a new light.
We are first introduced to a man named Manoah and his barren, nameless wife. We aren’t told much else about them, short of that they belong to the tribe of Dan, which will be a source of trouble for the Israelites throughout the rest of Judges.
While Manoah’s wife is apparently somewhere away from him, the angel of the LORD appears to her and tells her that she will bear a son who will be a Nazirite to God from the womb, so she needs to observe certain practices throughout her pregnancy. Manoah’s wife then goes to her husband and tells him everything that happened and what the angel said. So already Manoah’s wife is correcting the woman’s mistake. She consults her husband concerning what the man of God told her instead of interpreting the message and enacting it on her own.
Manoah then makes a correction of the man’s choice, because he prays to the LORD and asks him to send the angel to them again so that they can have clarity on what they should do. He believes his wife but also exercises discernment, seeking out the LORD to lead them, and God listens to his prayer.
The angel appears to Manoah’s wife once again, and once again she is somewhere away from her husband. This time she goes and fetches Manoah so that he can receive the message with her. Manoah follows his wife back to the angel and asks for the clarity he desired. The angel makes it clear: the child his wife will bear is to be dedicated to God, and Manoah needs to be careful to let his wife observe all that the LORD has commanded her. And it is clear from the subsequent narrative that Manoah did allow her (and certainly must have helped her) to follow those commandments.
The rest of Judges 13 is slightly comical. The author says that Manoah offered the angel food, because he had not realized that it was the angel of the LORD. The angel tells him to make an offering to the LORD instead, and when he does, the angel goes up in the flames. Manoah and his wife are appropriately awestruck, realizing that it indeed was the angel of the LORD. And then Manoah fears for their lives, because no one can see the LORD and live. But his wife accurately surmises that if the LORD had meant to kill them he would not have made them these promises or accepted their offering. So it may be concluded that, in this particular relationship, the woman had a quicker spiritual discernment, but they still worked together to interpret and obey the will of the LORD. And that is very good.
As I have written out this piece, I have been reminded about another narrative which corrects this paradigm of mistrust and oppression. I’ll try to keep it brief.
Because we know that Joseph and Mary were betrothed before she received the promise that she would bear the Christ. And we know that Gabriel came to Mary when she was away from Joseph, and she received the promise with wonder and belief because she knew it was from the Lord.
We aren’t told how Mary broke the news to Joseph, but it would be safe to assume that Mary was at least a little bit terrified of doing so. It’s not easy to explain conceiving by the Holy Spirit, much less in a culture that places such a high value on virtue and family honor. It would have been perfectly logical for Mary to fear Joseph’s anger, the shame she would receive, and the difficulty she would endure because of her submission to God’s will. But she was not without an advocate.
We also know that Joseph struggled to trust Mary. Matthew 1 tells us that because Joseph was a just man, he planned to divorce her quietly. Joseph did not respond to his mistrust by becoming oppressive. He wasn’t willing to put Mary to shame. In spite of how things appeared, he demonstrated compassion toward his prospective wife. So when the angel of the Lord appeared to him to advocate for Mary, Joseph believed him and immediately obeyed his words. And so the Messiah was born into the safety of a family where there was love and trust between the man and the woman.
We might have to deal with the realities of mistrust and oppression in this world, but the way to return to safety and equality is to submit ourselves and each other to God. He will teach us how to relate to each other, how to interpret his will, and how to be obedient with love, humility, and wisdom. Doing this is not a mere returning to Eden, but an active demonstration of the true image of God in the world, a richer realization of the Kingdom of Heaven.