While it takes both man and woman to make a baby, for much of human existence only women were physiologically equipped to conceive and carry babies to term. Often it is only when the infants arrived that men joined in their care and upbringing. In any other situation, women, by virtue of their primary role in nurturing and sustaining life, would be pre-eminent in home and society. But in biblical lore that honor would go to men. In the Bible “male headship” is achieved through denigration of women. There is systematic devaluation of the female image that begins early in the origins stories and is relentlessly advanced throughout the Bible.
Some readers might object to my negative assessment of how women are portrayed in the Bible on grounds that the examples provided are subjective and/or insufficient. I will not contest such objections, subjectivity and inadequate representation are concerns with qualitative data analysis. In this article I will strive to minimize these pitfalls.
My larger goal, however, is not merely to point out unfair portrayals. More importantly, I wish to show contexts for the continued marginalization of women in contemporary Christian societies who use biblical stories and examples as a community model. Some of our assumptions about how God relates to women are filtered through a literalistic reading of the text. We should periodically re-examine the Bible, critically, not only to reacquaint ourselves with its foundational role in defining a woman’s role, but also spur us to change outdated perceptions of women.
The poisoning of the female persona begins early in the Bible with how Eve is portrayed. Of the two creation accounts in early Genesis, the second (in chapter 2, which is considered newer), is decidedly patriarchal. In this version man is created first and instructed about his responsibilities towards the created order and limitations in exploring his environment.
It was later, after a vain effort to find him a fitting companion, that God put him to sleep and created the woman from his rib. This story describes a process where Eve seems almost an afterthought. Her presentation lacks the “magic” of conjuring Adam from nothing. Even in the first story, the special approbation of being “made in [God’s] image,” appears aimed principally at man, and somewhat belatedly at his companion. From the very beginning, an implied hierarchy that favors men seems at play.
The next time we meet Eve she is at the scene of rebellion, away from the “protection” of her man, sauntering where angels would not go. This scene, with its implied notion of the woman as original sinner (but for whose “brashness” Eden would still be ours), would forever imprint itself in our collective consciousness. From here onward she, and by extension all women, would carry the burden of being considered unreliable. Every woman’s aspirations would be checked, and their freedoms curtailed, to protect men from corruption.
The Fall narrative in Genesis 3 is both elaborate and skeletal, leaving room for creative minds to fill the void. John Milton’s creativity was unparalleled, and more than any single individual he is responsible for many of the extra-biblical detailing of this scene in Paradise Lost (PL). Sometimes we are surprised when we realize that PL, and not scripture, is the source of what we believed was biblical. In our Adventist context, when we add Ellen G White (EGW) into the mix, we create an overabundance of extra-biblical detail that can overwhelm.
Milton’s additions, however, suggest “playful” artistic indulgence and license with no “I was shown” statements to imbue the text with sacred imprimatur. In the Fall story, the pivotal period was just before the couple separated. Yet the Bible is totally silent on their deliberations, a silence Milton exploits adroitly. Just before they part company leading to Eve’s fateful encounter with the serpent, Milton has them debating their “condition”. He paints a picture of a hemmed-in Eve feeling confined in the ever-present company of Adam. She wants some “me-time” and argues for a freer range:
If this be our condition, thus to dwell
In narrow circuit straiten’d by a foe...
How are we happy, still in fear of harm?
A few lines later he adds:
And what is faith, love, virtue, unassay’d
Alone without exterior help sustain’d?
Let us not then suspect our happy state
Left so imperfect by the Maker wise,
As not secure to single or combin’d.
Frail is our happiness, if this be so,
And Eden were no Eden thus expos’d. (Book IX, 322-342)
Adam would succumb to Eve’s logic and entreaties, agreeing with her that “solitude sometimes is best society.” And in so doing would let her go to her fall. What is relevant about this depiction of Eve in this and many extra-biblical details by Milton is that it lays the groundwork for Eve to take the fall. Milton “makes” her petulant, restless and blame-worthy.
Although Milton faults Eve for the separation, there is gentleness, even kindness, to his finger-pointing. Not so with EGW, who had PL in her library and might be indebted to Milton for parts of her Fall narrative in Patriarchs and Prophets (PP). White’s additions provide an interpretation of Eve’s mindset at the crucial pre-separation period. In the EGW account Eve ignored heaven’s warning of consequences by separating from Adam. In White’s telling:
The angels had cautioned Eve to beware of separating herself from her husband while occupied in their daily labor in the garden; with him she would be in less danger of temptation than if she were alone. But absolved in her pleasing task, she unconsciously wandered from his side.
So far so good. She had innocently strayed from him and couldn’t be faulted for a momentary inattention to her surroundings. But what she does next, or fails to do on becoming aware of her state, damns her. White continues:
On perceiving that she was alone, she felt an apprehension of danger, but dismissed her fears, deciding that she had sufficient wisdom and strength to discern evil and to withstand it. Unmindful of the angels’ caution, she soon found herself gazing with mingled curiosity and admiration upon the forbidden tree. The fruit was very beautiful, and she questioned with herself why God had withheld it from them. (p. 53.5)
It is one thing to insist on a cause of action not knowing its repercussions, but something entirely different if one chooses to take that action in spite of divine counsel. In PP, EGW has Eve choosing the latter. Eve was warned. By angels. Her initial reaction on realizing that she was alone was apprehension, fear and vulnerability. But she ignored prior counsel and present inner feelings in favor of self-reliance and personal wisdom. It is the choices she made when she realized she was compromised that make her unsympathetic. We blame her because she ignored, according to EGW, angelic counsel.
But let us willingly suspend our disbelief for a moment and pretend that God did not write or dictate the sequences of the Fall narrative as it appears in the Bible (or EGW). Let us pretend that the writer, be he Moses or post-exilic priest(s), wrote the events in firm belief that God was speaking to him/them. Why did the writer choose Eve, and not Adam, for this role? Would our view of Eve, and thus women, be different – and more positive – if Adam had strayed from Eve, been tempted and failed? In this scenario the problem is not with the text as we have it, but our belief in God’s authorship.
The punishment for losing their “innocence” was swift, and Eve’s cut most deeply. She would create life, but childbirth pain would be a reminder of her assertiveness and sin. While both Adam and Eve would suffer physical pain, Eve’s would include the psychic – the guilt. Why? Because she sinned more?
From here on, identified as culprit, the woman would be “justifiably” put outside the communal camp. She is pariah and no one will plead her case. Her treatment is just punishment for one who has cost humanity so dearly. Consequently when God entered into a covenant with Abraham to make the Israelites his “people,” he would seal the covenant with male circumcision, a ritual which effectively excludes women.
Circumcision served only a symbolic function with no inherent salvific value. And by sealing the “contract” with the cutting of a body part that is exclusive to men, half the population were rendered spectators. Why didn’t God use an inclusive bodily symbol, like the ear, nose or toe for this ritual? Or, if it must be circumcision, why not circumcise both male and female? And why would no one plead on behalf of the excluded half? Abraham was not shy in asking God for favors, so why did he not view this exclusionary act as discriminatory?
By the time the Ten Commandments come along the concept of women being man’s property was clearly established. As such, women are grouped with a man’s servants, oxen and asses, in the tenth commandment, which other men are warned from coveting. And it is only in the context of owned property that men could sell their daughters, not sons, into sexual slavery; or discard their wives, not wives their husbands, like worn out clothing when they were no longer desirable “in their eyes.” And still because they were property women couldn’t represent themselves. First their fathers, and later their husbands, had that responsibility (Numb 30:1-8). Most married women in Christian societies continue to adopt their husband’s family name, honoring a practice dating back to when women were considered property.
Moses would institute a war policy (Numb 31) in which non-virgin captives (how was this even determined?) would be killed but female virgins would be ritually purified (Deut 21:10-14) and given to their male captors as sexual booty. The punishment for a rapist was “dire”: he must buy his victim for 50 shekels to keep her “because she has been humbled” (Deut 22:28-28). Polygamy was virtually the norm in the Old Testament, but polyandry was prohibited. And why is there a law of jealousy for the husband “when feelings of jealousy come over him because [he] suspects his wife” (Numb 5:11-31) and none for the husband? Is it because women are incapable of jealousy? Or they are not allowed the privilege of being jealous because they are property? Whatever the reason, the horrendous poison test to prove a woman’s truthfulness – if she died after drinking the potion, she was guilty, if she survived, innocent – is an ingenious way to rid one of a wife. But what does this tell us about the god who instituted it?
If you’ve wondered why it took so long for women to gain the right to vote in the United States it is partly because the Bible provided the template of women’s unimportance. Women, like children, in Bible times were too insignificant to count. That’s why the gospel writers point out, after Jesus fed the multitudes, that women and children were excluded. That’s also why we insist that Jacob had 12 children. Dinah was a woman, but she wasn’t counted.
Women’s poor image was settled by the time we get to Paul. We are numbed into accepting and even defending Paul’s notion that women, as a class, should be silent in church or cover their head. Whether his orders were aimed narrowly at a local Corinthian congregation is immaterial. That he would single out women to silence, because a few were unruly, is the outrage. Because Paul would not have ordered the same for men and gotten away with it.
If we then wonder why, in the twenty-first century, there are still church leaders in reputable denominations who “sincerely” believe that there are limitations to what God would do with women in ministry, it’s because they point to scripture as validation of belief. They believe that God directly superintended the creation of scripture, with little or no human influences, let alone manipulations, and are reluctant to criticize its failings for fear they might be criticizing God himself.
But the Bible is not a dictation from God. How we understand revelation impacts how we relate to biblical flaws. And even though we often deny that the Bible is verbally inspired, in reality we relate to it as though it were. If God is not behind the horrific treatment of women in the Bible, some of which I outlined in this article, then humans are. If humans, then we should hold a mirror to our faces and denounce the indefensible. It is only by repudiating these abusive laws that we are freed to redress their wrongs and bask in the joy of the other parts of scripture that elevates God and us.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.