A Shocking “Exegesis” of Scripture
I apologize for what I am about to tell you – in advance. I used to have a book in my library that was written in the early 1900’s by a Baptist preacher from the South. It was an exposition of the Scriptures that demonstrated that God meant for black people to be slaves. He went right back to the Creation narratives and found evidence that God intended for the white man to rule the black man. My jaw dropped as I read it.
His “exegesis” focused on Genesis 1:24, which says,
“And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.”
He saw a progression here. First, God made livestock and creeping things. Then (yes, I’m not kidding – this is what he said) God made the “beasts of the earth” (or the “beasts of the field” as the KJV says in Genesis 2:19). He said that the beasts of the field were the black race – created by God to serve the truly human white race.
The Point of This Offensive Story
I know how offensive that is and some may question why I even repeated such racial nonsense. But I have a reason. This was not some wild-eyed heretic. This was a Baptist preacher who in every other way was an orthodox Baptist preacher. But the culture he lived in approved of slavery and he went back and found “biblical” support for that teaching. Unfortunately, that has always been a tendency within the church – to seek for and discovery biblical support for our cultural norms.
The church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be shaped and guided by the Word of God. All too often in our history, we have been guided by our cultural norms and have shaped the Scriptures to fit the standards of the world in which we live. The slavery issue may have been the most startling and horrifying example of that tendency, but it is not the only instance in which we have done that.
Culture Shapes the Gender Debate
There is no question that gender issues have been shaped by our culture. In a patriarchal culture, the church accepted and biblically justified male superiority and female servitude. Then, suddenly, the culture’s views shifted, during my lifetime. Ward Cleaver was the unquestioned head of his home, but Tim the Toolman would have had to duck if he had tried to declare the same. As our cultural views shifted, so did exegesis. Suddenly, people were finding that the Bible did not, in fact, teach patriarchy but if properly interpreted, it actually advanced the egalitarian cause. Magically, exegesis shifted to fit the cultural shift.
I believe both teachings, authoritarian patriarchy and modern egalitarianism, are not faithful to scriptural evidence. Both were products more of the culture than of accurate interpretation.
The biblical teaching is found somewhere in between these two extremes. I believe that the Bible teaches an absolute equality of men and women in being and in the favor of God. The male superiority and female servitude that often crept into the teachings of the church are contrary to what God intended. In the same way, the modern feminist perspective is just as foreign to scripture. While created equal, God also made us different. He gave men and women different roles and responsibilities. I believe that modern egalitarian thought is shaped more by cultural, feminist doctrine that by biblical exegesis. Frankly, I am disturbed at the exegetical carelessness of egalitarians, who often ignore or deny clear biblical teachings and then create mountains out of molehills on others.
In this continuing series, I will take up the issue of hermeneutics later. My point today is more simple. I believe that through the years, both the patriarchalists and the egalitarians have allowed cultural norms to shape their exegesis of Scripture. That is why I am working through Genesis and the Creation narratives to see, first, the original intent of God for men and women.
A Middle Position Between Extremes
In this debate, it is often assumed that there are only two positions – absolute patriarchy (men rule, women are subservient) and absolute egalitarianism (there is no biblical distinction between the roles of men and women.) On this comment stream, those who have argued against the position I have advanced have tried to cast the complementarian position as patriarchy and will not see the subtle difference between the positions. I am sure that we on the complementarian side do the same thing sometimes. I think the biblical teaching is more nuanced – a middle ground between these extremes, both of which I believe are drawn more from the cultural norms than from scripture.
In the previous post, I examined Genesis 1 and made several observations. First of all, God made men and women in his image. It is important to note that the image of God extended to both men and women. God does not love men more. We do not hold a higher place in the divine heart than women, nor was the blood of Christ shed for us any more than our feminine counterparts.
On the other hand, the Bible makes it clear that God made us different. He made a man and a woman. We are very different. But the glory of God is expressed in those differences as much as it is in our common worth and value in the eyes of God.
When God made the man and woman, he assigned jobs for us to accomplish. He told them first to multiply and fill the earth. Then, he commanded them to exercise dominion over the world. I believe it is significant that the very first job God assigned to us as a race was dependent on a man and woman complementing each other. A man cannot reproduce on his own. Neither can a woman. It is in working together while remaining different that a man and a woman could achieve what God intended.
I believe that is a template for all gender relationships in the Bible. Men and women, both created by, valued by and loved by God are created different. It is as men do what God has given them to do and women do what God intended and equipped them to do that we can together accomplish what God intended for us to do.
Genesis 2 expands upon the simple teaching of Genesis 1 about the creation of men and women. In Genesis 1, the creation of humanity is stated in overview form, as described above. God created male and female in his image and assigned work for them to do. In Genesis 2, we get a much more detailed view of the process of creation.
First, God creates Adam out of the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. He placed Adam in the Garden with the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In verses 15-17, God gave Adam a series of clear commands. First, he gives him all trees of the Garden for his enjoyment and sustenance. Then, he restricts the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Then comes the statement that is, perhaps, most important to our discussion of Genesis 2. God finally finds something in his creation that is not good. In Genesis 1, he calls every aspect of his handiwork good. Here, it is not good that the man is alone. The man need something beyond himself. He needs a “helper.” God then brings every creature on earth before him and no suitable helper is found. So, Adam is put into a deep sleep and God took something from his side, perhaps a rib. From that, God crafted the woman and brought her before the man. The man takes one look at her and affirms that she is what he wants. Eve is the helper that God has created – perfectly suitable for Adam.
This is the basis of marriage. In verses 24 and 25, God establishes marriage by his command. Since God created them perfectly for one another, a man is to leave his parents and be joined to his wife and the two will become one.
The facts are not really in doubt in this passage. The interpretation of those facts is disputed fiercely. I would make the following observations.
1) Man and woman complete each other.
The gender wars were not part of God’s created intent. He meant for men and women to work together to accomplish his commands. Adam needed Eve to be what God wanted him to be. The sexes were not meant to compete but to cooperate.
2) Man and woman are fundamentally different.
There can be little doubt about that if you read this story. We are not the same. Of course, that is true physically. But the differences between men and women are not just physical; they go way beyond that. They are not simply social constructs or learned behaviors. We were made different.
Man was created out of the dust of the ground. The woman was created out of the side of man. Much has been made of the fact that woman came from man’s side – most of that is speculation which cannot be verified exegetically. But what can be determined is that we were different by God’s design.
Our differences are intentional, programmed into us by the intent of the Creator.
3) The order of creation matters.
Man was created first and then the woman followed after. I cannot say that I know everything that this means, but we know that it is significant because the Apostle Paul tells us that it is. In 1 Timothy 2:13, Paul explains the reason for his teaching that a woman is not allowed to teach or to exercise authority over a man. The basis for this command is that the man was formed first.
“For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
Being created first does not give the man higher value or standing in God’s eyes. But it does demonstrate the intent of the Creator that in the male/female relationship, the man would have a place of authority. The created order grants a position of authority and responsibility to the man.
4) Woman was designed to be a helper.
Volumes have been written about the word “ezer” in Genesis 2:18.
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’”
The word is common in the OT and its meaning is not hard to discern. It refers to the act of one person helping another. God is described as a helper in Psalm 121:1-2.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
It is often used of the provision of military help in times of war. The noun form refers to someone who provides help to someone else.
In and of itself, the word does not imply authority or ordered rank. It simply means to provide assistance. A helper is someone who seeks to make another successful, to provide what another needs.
A couple of observations must be made here. First, this is a specifically feminine role in the Creation narrative. God created woman for the specific intent of helping the man. He did not same the same of the man. I know that observation may offend some. But the biblical account assigns the “helper” role to the woman and to the woman alone.
Second, it cannot be implied that being assigned the role of helper is demeaning. Whatever being a helper means, it is not shameful or humiliating. God is a helper. Serving another person is a noble and God-honoring task. The helper is not debased by providing help. So, whatever the term means, it is a noble thing.
So, what does it mean that the woman was a helper? That is, of course, where the rub is. The simplest meaning here is the best. The woman was designed to complete the man, to help him by being a companion, an encouragement and a support for the man in accomplishing the work that God gives to them. That is not to say that the woman exists solely for the man’s use or pleasure. Woman, like man, exists for the glory of God. But a woman’s best way to glorify God is to accept the role God assigned to her and accomplish the tasks that God has set before her.
I am left with a clear conclusion from the creation story. God designed women uniquely for the role of being a helper to their husbands. The idea that women have a special role in bearing children, nurturing those children, assisting their husbands and putting a high priority on making a home is an easily established biblical fact.
5) The creation story fits perfectly within the complementarian system, but gives little support to the egalitarian.
If the authors of scripture intended to advocate a complementarian system, they could not have done a better job of making that clear in the creation story. Complementarianism is rooted in three facts.
- God created men and women equal in value and worth.
God loves them equally. God saves them equally. Many patriarchal systems err when they demean women and act as if women have a lesser value or only exist for the benefit and blessing of men. Men and women alike bear the image of God and are equally valued by him and receive his blessings in the same way.
- God created men and women different.
God made the man from the dust, first. He then made the woman from man. He assigned to the woman the role of “helper” – assisting her husband in accomplishing the task that God has assigned to them. Different roles within essential equality – that is the heart and soul of the complementarian teaching.
- It is only as men and women work together as God designed that the work will be accomplished.
When a man behaves as a man and his wife behaves as a woman, we can be fruitful and multiply. In the same way, when a man behaves as a godly man and a woman behaves as a godly woman, we can become what God intended us to be.
This complementarian system is seen throughout the creation story, which is why Paul refers to the intent of creation when he gives his gender-related teachings in the NT.
If the authors of scripture, under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, intended to reveal an egalitarian system, they did a pretty poor job. Does the creation story reveal an equality of worth in God’s system? Yes. But it also clearly reveals that the Creator intended men and women to be different, with different roles in his kingdom work. If the writers of Scripture intended to teach an egalitarian system, they did not do a very good job. It takes strained hermeneutical gymnastics to find the egalitarian system in the Bible.
The complementarian teaching is directly in line with what the Bible reveals about the intent of God’s creation. Egalitarians are advocating a teaching that not only is not supported by a sound exegesis of scripture, but flies in the face of what God intended when he created us male and female.
Who are we to believe that we can improve on God’s creation by imposing a feminist, egalitarian ethic which is contrary to the way that God made us?