Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Genesis of Sexism

I did not preach this past Sunday morning. This entry flows out of my Scripture reading for the week.

Our New Covenant church family has begun a program of reading through the Bible in 2012. The emphasis is on looking at each book as a whole. Typically, we will read one book each week and when possible we will read through it in one sitting. I estimated this will require that I set aside three hours a week for reading. The church will begin the program this week but I plan to stay a week ahead and started early.

Reading through Genesis in one sitting gave rise to a number of observations that require further study. For example, one phrase that reappears throughout the book is “these are the generations of…”  The objects of the clause include Adam, Seth, Noah, Shem, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and Esau.  The clause is not applied to Abraham, the Father of Israel. Instead it is applied to Terah, his father.

Perhaps because I long ago wrote on the meaning of being male and female in the creation stories, I was tuned into the role of women in the remainder of the book. In the creation of Adam and Eve emphasis is placed on (1) they are created in the image of a singular yet plural God (“let is make man in our image”), (2) humans are singular yet plural (“He created man in His own image, male and female created He them”) (3) Adam was created first and was incapable of fulfilling his purpose for existence alone, (4) Eve was created in response to Adam’s need for a “helper” who was “suitable to him,” (5) “helper “ conveys merely one who comes to the aid of another without reference to superiority, and (6) the original word for “suitable to him” means “by way of comparison in front of him.” In short, Adam and Eve were created as equal and whole beings that only together could fulfill God’s purposes.

Eve was the first to give into temptation and God’s judgment on her included that her desire would be toward her husband and he would rule over her. The obvious but oft overlooked question is how did this curse unfold in the book of Genesis?  My reading this past week surfaced a few observations. First, the narrative of Genesis centers on men; it was a patriarchal society. After the fall women are secondary (but significant) characters in the narrative. They are seen largely as subservient to men. Second, women are objectified as if property; men make decisions governing them. Likewise, there is a surprising emphasis on their appearance – Sarai is described as a “beautiful woman” (12:11), Rebekah “was very beautiful” (24:16), and “Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful (yapheh) of form (toar) and face (mareh)” (29:17). [However, Rachel’s good looks were apparently passed on to her oldest Son who was described with the exact same phrase, “Joseph was handsome (yapheh) in form (toar) and appearance (mareh )” (39:6).]

While women were largely portrayed as background objects of a patriarchal society, the identified female characters were presented as strong and complex subjects who acted on others proving themselves to be as capable, intelligent, righteous and unrighteous as men. For example, Potiphar’s wife was sexually aggressive with Joseph. Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, was declared righteous by him for tricking him into fathering her child. God told Abraham to obey Sarah concerning Hagar and Ishmael (21:12). Rebekah guided Jacob into the reception of his father’s blessing through their scheme of deception (ch. 27). Neither the fall nor the curse removed from women the intelligence and abilities equal to those of men.

Women are portrayed in Genesis as strong and complex characters who have God’s full attention.  God acted to defend the honor of Sarai/Sarah when Abraham influenced her to lie about being his wife; He brought plagues on Pharaoh’s house (12:17) and threatened Abimelech with death (20:3) for taking Sarah into their households to marry. [In the last incidence she was apparently close to one hundred years old.] In addition to Eve, God talked with three women in the Book: Sarah (18:15), Hagar (twice -- 16:8-12, 21:17), and Rebekah (25:22-23). In each of these cases His words centered on their children yet to be born. With Hagar the Angel of the Lord found her in the wilderness fleeing Sarai the first time and along with her son near death from thirst the second time having been discharged by Abraham and Sarah. Mother and child wept and God listened. Rebekah, the only character (male or female) in Genesis said to go to “inquire of the Lord,” made inquiry concerning the state of her unborn twins. In Genesis, God spoke through dreams and through direct words to men; When He spoke to women it was always direct.

Genesis reveals the almost instantaneous and universal presence of sexism following the fall and the curse. But it also reveals the fallacies that undergird sexism. Power, control, and manipulation are traits of both genders; sin affects us all. But it would be a grave error to conclude that sexism flows out of the curse. Yes the curse on Eve was that her husband would rule over her, but that curse did not authorize Adam to oppress her. It merely gave him the opportunity.

It was not the curse that gave rise to sexism; It was sin. When his sin was exposed, Adam responded by blaming God and Eve, “the woman whom You gave to me…” (3:12). That sin-full response was the birth of sexism.  The curse was but God’s judgment on Adam and Eve for their sin. As in the first chapter of Romans, the judgment of God on sin is to turn humans over to their sins. Eve gave in to temptation and then became the tempter, but both sinned against God and each other.  Their union was shattered by their sin, not by God. No longer could they stand face to face; one would rule over the other.

The curse was an act of judgment that laid the foundation for redemption. It announced and described the new reality born of their disobedience. Thanks be to God, it also framed the context for a promised redeemer. Albeit through great pain, Eve would bring forth an offspring (seed) who would bruise the head of the seed of the serpent. [It is interesting to note that Eve would have a seed; in patriarchal societies men are thought to have seed, not women.]Thus, the curse was not given to subdue women or men, but rather to speak to the gravity of their sin and to announce the promise of their deliverance. The remainder of the book of Genesis tells the story of how God kept the promise alive by communicating hope to women and men.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful article.

Anonymous said...

Great article! You might also want to check the "great pain" word regarding Eve's seed-- I've heard it's the same word as Adam's "toil" but I don't know the original language.

Thanks for posting this!

Jackie Johns said...

Anonymous 2, you are correct. The curse for Eve included an increase in pain/sorrow/toil ("itstsabon") and the same word is used in Adam's curse; in pain/sorrow/toil ("itstsabon") he would eat of the ground. The only difference was that Eve's pain would be "greatly" increased.