Celebrate your womanhood! God loves women and men equally: He does not love males more! God is not biased for men over women. Throughout history, women have been denied the equal rights and freedoms of men. This viewpoint of unequal status has often rested on misinterpretations of the Bible. While the Old Testament does indeed appear in some places to sanction the unequal treatment of women, analysts have repeatedly misinterpreted and misrepresented the implications of the Old Testament provisions for Christians who, through Christ’s grace, are freed from the old law. Furthermore, although early Christians initially embraced the cause of gender equality and reunification through Christ, this cause was abandoned as the growing Christian church confronted the political challenges associated with its own expanding power. Even today, the Christian churches almost all fail to return to the God-ordained principle of gender neutrality through spiritual unity in Christ.
Misinterpretations of the Garden of Eden
It has been observed, “For two millennia now the Judeo-Christian tradition has placed man a little lower than the angels and woman a little higher than the demons.”1 From early in Christian history, misinterpretations and misrepresentations of the Garden of Eden story in particular have played prominent roles in the effort to deny women equal freedom and rights of men.2 These traditional misinterpretations and misrepresentations have held, in part, that woman was created as a mere “helpmate” and that women were therefore destined to be dependent upon and inferior to men.3 In these and other respects, the conventional (mis)readings have emphasized the supposed unlike and unequal traits of the two sexes, further exalting man as the “head” of humanity and deprecating woman as the “body” of humankind.4 Perhaps even worse, the Garden of Eden story has been repeatedly misinterpreted and misrepresented over the ages to cast the woman as a being driven by curiosity rather than intelligence.5 According to these misplaced allegations, the woman employed her powers of seduction lure the man to join her in sin and folly, thereby bringing unbounded suffering to all humanity.6
Although the woman becomes a casualty of circumstances set in place before her arrival, she evinces a number of positive traits that are downplayed or denied by traditional misrepresentations. To begin with, a careful exegesis of the story reveals the woman is a decidedly active player in the unfolding drama. As such, she actually differs immediately and markedly from the “docile, chaste, and homebound” Jewess who is seems to be present throughout much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible.7 Hardly a passive and submissive figure, the woman cannot be content merely to wander around the garden.8 Instead, she actively pursues the deeper meanings of life and, rather than artless falling victim to the devious serpent, seems to carefully consider what the snake tells her and to evaluate the desirability of the fruit of the forbidden tree.9 She then decides to eat the fruit because she saw that it “was good for food and pleasing to the eye,” and because of the promise that, upon eating it, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”10
Revealingly too, the Genesis account also suggests that the woman does become more like God than her male companion in at least one critical respect: the ability to produce new life.11 This godlike capacity is, of course, tarnished by serious punishment: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”12 Yet God never threatens to take this precious godlike ability away from the woman.13 For his part, the man is so amazed by the woman’s godlike capacity to create new life that, even though he has just received the undoubtedly devastating news of his new mortal status—“dust you are and to dust you will return”—he is moved to name his wife Eve “because she would become the mother of all the living.” 14 It is also revealing that the woman’s punishment is meted out to her in manner that is rather different from the manner in which the man and the snake have their respective punishments meted out to them. The serpent is “Cursed … above all livestock and all wild animals!”15 and the man is solemnly advised that the very ground is cursed because of him.16 By sharp contrast, the woman’s punishment is stated without preamble and with decidedly less emphasis.
Unequal Treatments in the Old Testament
Despite the rather positive beginnings that become obvious through a more careful reading of the much-misinterpreted Garden of Eden story in Genesis, later parts of the Old Testament do appear to reflect significant biases for men over women. Yet these biases should not be read as a reflection of the will of God. Instead, the biases are attributable in part to the fact that as ancient Israel developed into a more complex society it was marked by a more gendered division of labor, power, space, and of society in general.17 With time, the ever-sharper gendered divisions of duties and responsibilities translated into ever-deeper gender inequalities.18
These inequalities were reinforced by a Hebrew Bible (and by other religious and cultural sources) that presented decidedly restrictive and oppressive interpretations and portrayals of what it meant to be a “Jewess.”19 It is important to realize that the Hebrew Bible was concerned primarily with theological and religious transformations, rather than with social reforms.20 As such, the Old Testament scriptures generally spend little time questioning the fairness and justice of patriarchy—or, for that matter, of slavery and the various other forms of institutionalized social inequity that ancient Israel inherited from other ancient Near Eastern civilizations.21 These articulations of Jewish femininity were meant to stand in direct opposition to the supposedly active, sexual, and worldly gentile woman of Hebrew stereotypes.22 A heavy premium on women’s marital chastity became a key dimension around which the ancient Jewish society distinguished itself from its neighbors.23
In the Hebrew Bible, women’s affiliations to Israelite society were closely connected with considerations of marital fidelity.24 Jewish women were deprived of control over their own honor and sexuality, even as fathers, husbands, rabbis, and emperors positioned themselves as the guardians of marital chastity.25 Upon marriage, the Jewish husband came to be vested with full powers over the person of his wife, gaining exclusive access to her body.26 Never having enjoyed authority over her own sexuality to begin with, the married Jewess was further doomed to stricter confinement to domestic space than was the case even for many of her (disempowered) contemporaries in neighboring societies.27
The Old Testament appears to prescribe harsh treatments that seriously deny women the rights and freedom extended to men. Yet despite prescriptions that appear to reinforce especially severe forms of patriarchy, it is possible to argue that the Hebrew Bible does not justify subordinate social roles for women or sanction the position that women are inherently inferior to men. In fact, although the Old Testament does not set out to challenge and overturn patriarchy (or other institutions such as slavery), it does clearly empathize with women and other downtrodden elements of society.28 As subordinate and peripheral figures in the Hebrew Bible, women may even be read as embodiments of Israel itself alongside the more powerful empires of the ancient Near East.29 In this respect, the subordinate and relatively powerless women of the biblical texts actually reflect and represent integral aspects of ancient Israel’s own self-image.30
Freedom from the Old Law through Christ
Fortunately for Christian women and men, the hideously unequal and unjust Old Testament provisions were triumphantly overturned by a Savior who “set aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.”31 Christ himself clearly rejected the gender biases inherent and often blatant in the old system of laws. Jesus revealed, for instance, that Moses had penned the old law allowing a man to dismiss his wife simply by issuing a certificate of divorce and sending her away “because your hearts were hard.”32 Thus, the unjust laws had existed not because they reflected God’s will for inequity between men and women, but because they were all that suited a society filled with people of hardened hearts. By referring specifically to Genesis 1:27, Jesus made clear that his era reflected a return to the more perfect, egalitarian conditions that prevailed “at the beginning of creation [when] God ‘made them male and female.’”33 Jesus also references Genesis 2:24, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,’” to further emphasize the fact that his reign overthrows the gendered inequality and injustice inherent in the old marriage laws.34 By reiterating that the married couple “are no longer two, but one flesh” joined together by God,35 Jesus made clear that men and women entered marriage on entirely equal terms. After all, how could an entity that existed as one inseparable “flesh” be divided into separate parts with unequal rights and privileges?
Christian women and men are also freed of the curse of gender inequity by the fact that Christ came to earth as “the culmination of the law,” overturning whatever injustices might have existed in the law and ushering a new age in which there is “righteousness for everyone who believes.”36 Christ gave Himself not for those who, by virtue of gender or social standing, wielded privilege and power in earthly society. Instead, Christ graciously and freely gave Himself “to all who did receive him.”37 Christ grants to all “those who believe in his name … the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”38 By placing their faith in Christ, Christian women and men in turn “also die to the law through the body of Christ,” so that they “might belong to another: to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.”39 Throughout their previous confinement to “the realm of the flesh,” men and women had been bound to “the sinful passions aroused by the law.”40 Yet “by dying to what once bound us,” those who have placed their faith in Christ are wondrously and gloriously “released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”41
Having freed them of the burdens of the cumbersome and unjust old laws, Christ challenges his followers to comply with just two key commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”42 Once Christ’s glorious message was fully revealed to them, Jesus’ first apostles also recognized well that women have equal freedom and rights before God. This fact becomes obvious, for instance, in events surrounding the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles at Pentecost. Once they were filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles began speaking in diverse tongues that the Spirit empowered them to speak.43 “Utterly amazed” and bewildered, “perplexed” members of the multilingual audience of “Jews from every nation under heaven” pondered the meaning of this unprecedented development.44 Yet Peter explained to the fascinated and concerned audiences that they were witnessing the fulfillment of the prediction by the prophet Joel (see Joel 2:28-32) that the Lord would “pour out his Spirit on all people” so that “sons and daughters [alike] will prophesy.”45 Further quoting from Joel, Peter acknowledges the fulfillment of God’s promise that: “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”46
Banished forever were the defunct gendered division of rights and freedoms as Christian women and men alike were empowered to declare the wonders of God in the many and diverse tongues of those who hunger for His hopeful message. The people had been “held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed,” once that faith was revealed through Christ, but now Christians were finally freed from the restrictive “guardian” that was the often unfair and unjust law of the past.47 The old distinctions relating to of gender and other social constructs were rendered irrelevant as Christians of all types are brought together through faith in Christ Jesus. Once they are baptized into Christ and thereby clothed themselves with Christ, true Christians come to realize that: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”48
Early Christianity and the Movement away from Equality
How, then, has subsequent Christian history been marked by the continued denial of equal freedom and rights to women? How is it that even today women continue to be locked out of church leadership? Again, the problem is that, for much of the Christian era, people have continued to misinterpret and misrepresent the Bible—Old and New Testament alike—to “justify” unbiblical prejudices against women leadership and gender equality. Although Christians initially strove to live according to Christ’s fair and just standards, the pressures of life in the material world soon weakened their commitments to Christ’s perfect standards.
As Christianity began to take shape during the late Hellenistic era—and particularly during the period immediately after Rome consolidated its imperial power, there were immense challenges against the traditional roles of men and women in society.49 Longstanding distinctions between what was “properly” feminine versus what was “properly” masculine were seriously undermined as they became the object of heated debate and controversy.50 This pervasive phenomenon of “gender dissonance” had radical wide-ranging implications because in the ancient world “male” and “female” had a number of “sweeping metonymic associations” that extended well beyond today’s understandings of gender.51 Thus, “female” and “male” functioned in Hellenistic thought, not only (as is the case today) as psycho-sexual categories, but also as representations of the poles of a range of binary oppositions between mind versus body, rational versus irrational, and active versus passive—to cite but a few.52
Powerfully impacted as they were by the gender dissonance phenomenon, early Christians widely and persistently followed Jesus’ lead in embracing the image of what some have termed “the Androgyne”—that is, the first human of Genesis 1:27 who was created both male and female.53 Through the figure of the Androgyne, the early Christians embraced the unification of opposites—and particularly the unification of the opposite sexes—as a principal symbol of their salvation.54 Whereas the conventional distinctions between male and female were regarded as critical symbols of the existing order of the material world, the efforts to challenge and modify these conventional role differences became for the early Christians a powerful symbol of their criticism—or even of their total rejection—of that existing order.55 By adopting and championing the figure of the Androgyne to their eschatological sacrament of baptism, the Christians declared, in effect, that there was no longer male and female for the old world had passed away and, behold! the new has come.56
Yet as Christianity became more mainstream following the consolidation of Rome’s empire, Christian leaders found it increasingly difficult, for political, reasons to uphold the reunification of female and male.57 Reunification of male and female became symbolic, less of redemption through Christ than of “metaphysical rebellion.”58 Rejecting gendered conventions became an act of “cosmic audacity” for “spirituals” who sought, above all else, to abandon the community and the world for the sake of subjective transcendence.59 Confronted with such challenges, Christian leaders such as Paul insisted on preserving at least some symbols of the existing and differentiated order.60 This position helps to explain Paul’s odd concern, for instance, with the appropriate headgear for men and women while they pray to God.61 It is nonetheless important to note that from Paul’s perspective these symbols had, by the time of his writing, lost their ultimate significance because this world was already “passing away.”62 For Paul, women and men already operated from positions of equality because they were members of a community formed by the Spirit that belonged to the end of days.63
Yet as time passed and the end of days presaged by Paul failed to materialize, Christians became reluctant to persist with the equality accorded to women in the early Christian missions. Although the rhetoric of baptismal reunification of female and male persisted for a while, a conservative reaction to previous efforts to end gender stratification took hold.64 As Christianity moved to the mainstream of Rome’s expanding imperial power, the previous, biblically grounded, commitment to the notion of gender equality in Christ proved “too dangerously ambivalent” for the increasingly powerful church.65 In time, the once bold declaration that in Christ female and male ceased to exist faded to become nothing more than an “innocuous metaphor.”66 Nearly two millennia later, the Christian churches seem still to be awaiting the advent of the Christ-ordained era of gender equality on earth.
1 Adrien Janis Bledstein, “The Genesis of Humans: The Garden of Eden Revisited,” Judaism 26, no. 2 (1977): 187.
2 Ibid., 187-192.
3 Ibid., 187-189.
4 Ibid., 187.
7 Esther Fuchs, “Gender in Jewish Antiquity: Biblical Texts, Rabbinic Interpretations, and Feminist Interventions,” NWSA Journal 16, no. 2 (2004): 197.
8 Rooke, “Feminist Criticism of the Old Testament,” 166.
9 Gen. 3:2-6.
10 Gen. 3:5-6.
11 Rooke, “Feminist Criticism of the Old Testament,” 166.
12 Gen. 3:16.
13 Rooke, “Feminist Criticism of the Old Testament,” 166-167.
14 Gen. 3:19-20.
15 Gen. 3:14.
16 Gen. 3:17.
17 Avraham Faust, “Burnished Pottery and Gender Hierarchy in Iron Age Israelite Society,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 15, no. 1 (2002): 53, 66.
19 Fuchs, “Gender in Jewish Antiquity,” 197-198.
26 Fuchs, “Gender in Jewish Antiquity,” 197-198.
27 Fuchs, “Gender in Jewish Antiquity,” 197-198.
28 Fuchs, “Gender in Jewish Antiquity,” 197-198.
31 Eph. 2:15.
32 Mk. 10:2-5.
33 Mk. 10:6.
34 Mk. 10:7-8.
35 Mk. 10:8-9.
36 Rom. 10:4.
37 Jn. 1:12-13.
38 Jn. 1:12-13.
39 Rom. 7:4.
40 Rom. 7:5.
41 Rom. 7:6.
42 Matt. 22:37-40.
43 Acts 2:4.
44 Acts 2:5-12.
45 Acts 2:16-17.
46 Acts 2:18.
47 Gal. 3:23-25.
48 Gal. 3:23-25.
49 Austin Busch, “The Figure of Eve in Romans 7:5-25,” Biblical Interpretation 12, no. 1 (2004): 1; Wayne A. Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity,” History of Religions Vol. 13, no. 3 (1974): 206.
50 Meeks, “Image of the Androgyne,” 207.
51 Busch, “The Figure of Eve,” 1.
52 Busch, “The Figure of Eve,” 1.
53 Busch, “The Figure of Eve,” 1; Meeks, “Image of the Androgyne,” 165-170.
54 Busch, “The Figure of Eve,” 1; Meeks, “Image of the Androgyne,” 165-170.
55 Meeks, “Image of the Androgyne,” 207.
60 Ibid., 208.
61 1 Cor. 11:7-16.
62 Meeks, “Image of the Androgyne,” 208.