God is wild about women. Genesis reveals that, while men were formed, women were fashioned. The hebrew word for the making of man, is yatser – used for things like the making of pottery; but the hebrew word for the fashioning of women is banah – used for things like making palaces, temples or works of art. In futuristic terms, women are the better technology.
The writer of genesis makes a point that is often misused, misquoted and misunderstood. The Hebrew word ezer, which refers to Eve as a suitable helper to Adam, is often used to describe God as our Helper. It is a word of dignity and power, as opposed to inferiority and subordination. It tells us that the efficacy of a woman in a man’s life is related to the worth of God in the life of His people. Men need women as much as we need our Maker.
The Christian and the skeptic often gloss over the subtle but vital role of women in the story of Genesis to Jesus. They underline the mistreatment and abuse of women in a patriarchal age. But we must recognize that the patriarchal bias of the religious, social and cultural world of the ancient near east is reported but not commended, described but not prescribed, revealed but not encouraged. Every instance of polygamy, bridal purchase and abuse of women’s rights eventually and inevitably leads to disorder, dysfunction and devastation. A discerning reader will be sensitive to the simple and clear message, to biased men, that when we deny women their worth, it simply doesn’t work out for the good.
God even honors women in a scandalously incarnational way. He is not afraid to take on feminine qualities that reveal his nature, longings and person. God promises to comfort an exiled nation as a mother comforts her child. The book of Proverbs uses the feminine word ‘sophia’ to describe wisdom as God’s counselor, who was with him when the world was made. Jesus longs to gather Jerusalem to Himself the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wing. God, though a Father beyond gender, is not insecure about his femininity.
The Gospels conspire to convey a cage-rattling, counter-cultural, offensive idea, that women are worth more than men are willing to admit. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus defies patriarchal prejudice by honoring women who permanently live in the pages of the Gospels – Tamar, a childless widow victimized by men who defied their obligations. Rahab, an immoral outcast, used and abused by men of little character. Ruth, a devoted woman who rebelled against the temptation to escape responsibility. Bathsheba, a woman who lost her husband for committing the twin crimes of being beautiful and taking a bath. Ordinary women in unjust times are held in honor as vessels of the promised Messiah.
In the birth passages, there is a contrast between a doubtful religious priest, a fickle-minded man and a believing teenage girl. Zechariah and Joseph are reprimanded by angels for their lack of faith. But a willing and believing teenage girl sings a song of praise that rings through two millennia. The life of Jesus is marked by a new reality of relationships with women. The Messiah audaciously lives off the financial support of women, freely enters their homes and accepts them as students to his teaching. A widow meets a compassionate Messiah who raises her son from the dead and delivers her from oblivion. In doing this, he set the precedent for a culture that had no value for widows. Later, James will write that pure and faultless religion is that which looks after widows in their distress.
The conspiracy continues. A woman caught in adultery and sentenced to stoning is delivered by a poignant question and a timely word. An ethnic rival to the Jews, morally contemptible to her own people, finds her deliverance in a conversation by a well that subtly undermines every gender, ethnic, racial and moral prejudice. A woman of no reputation enters a room and invites the unreserved indignation of a room full of chauvinists. Ironically, they are rebuked by the only man who valued her worth and promised that her story would be told through the ages. In a time, and to a people, that regarded the testimony of a woman as worth no more than oil to a thirsty man, God wasn’t afraid to name women as the first witnesses to the Resurrection.
Jesus consistently, constantly and stubbornly defies the false portraits of manhood and embraces, upholds and endorses the value of women to men who would deny, suppress and ignore it.
Things go from bad to worse for the chauvinist. The Church is the Bride of Christ. God rejoices over His people in the way a young man delights in his new bride. In fact, the way that God loves His bride is the pattern for the way men should love their wives. All the Bible is screaming without reservation that women mean the world to God.
The interpretive key for the controversial passages in Paul’s writings is to place them in the larger context of the generous, liberating and celebrated view of women in the Bible. Though problematic, they are not central but rather peripheral to the portrait of women in a body of writing that arguably honors women more than all the other literature that emerges from the ancient near east.
The beautiful gender is a treasure to her maker, pleasing to his heart and cherished by him without measure. It is an injustice to Him, to subvert, control and violate the freedom God has given her and the honor he has bestowed on her. Men are called to release her into her destiny and support her as she takes hold of the life that is prepared for her. A man who refuses women their worth can hardly be a man of God.
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