Understandably, in some feminist circles, scripture is rejected. It is thought that patriarchy and sexism cannot be separated from the Bible. But I disagree, for one simple reason:
The Bible did not create patriarchy; patriarchy created the Bible.
A few months back I wrote that I believe the Bible to be inspired but not inerrant. This means I believe the Bible teaches truth, but because it was written down by humans, we cannot just take it at face value. That’s not to say we can just discard the parts we don’t like, but that we must study the context in which it was written to understand what the authors were talking about. We must also study scripture as a whole to understand the message God intended for us. If we take certain verses literally, it would seem that scripture supports an oppressive patriarchy. But if we delve deeper we can see that God’s plan for the different sexes was equality, not oppression.
As Julie Andrews sang in the Sound of Music, let’s start at the very beginning. The first two chapters of Genesis contain two different creation stories.** In the first, we read that humans were created last, together: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, NRSV). I often hear people say that God created man in his image, but Genesis tells us here that humans were made in his image. It doesn’t say just man, it doesn’t say man is more the image of God than woman. It says he created them in the image of God. Right from the start, men and women are equal.
Moving on to the second chapter, we find a slightly different story. First God creates man out of dust, breathing life into him. But man is incomplete because he is alone. This is the first time God says something is “not good” (Gen. 2:18). After creating all the animals and failing to find the perfect partner for man, God creates woman out of man’s rib. Woman is literally made of the same stuff that man is. Not only that, it is woman who completes man.
The word people often zero in on in this passage is helper, or helpmate (Gen. 2:18). They see it as proof that woman is meant to serve man. In Hebrew the word is ‘ezer, from the verb ‘azar. It has multiple meanings, including help, assist, join together, be strong, and make strong.*** It occurs in its various forms over 100 times in the Hebrew Bible. One of its many uses is in reference to God. God is a help against adversaries (Deut. 33:7). God is our help and shield (Psalms 33:20). God saves those who take refuge in him (Psalms 37:40). All of these verses use the same word to describe God as is used in Genesis 2 to describe woman’s relationship to man. If we claim the word means woman is meant to serve man that would mean that God’s purpose is to also serve man.
Through the creation story we see God’s intention for men and women is equality. Our fallen human nature has caused women throughout history to fall into a subservient role, but this is not how we are made to be. The effects of gender equality are not simply individual. By working for equality, particularly in developing countries, the world benefits, bringing economic growth. In addition their children have better access to food and education, ending the vicious cycle of poverty. People talk about a desire to end world hunger and poverty. In order to do that we need end the oppression of half the world’s population. Christianity’s history of viewing women as being below men has only perpetuated violence and poverty. We are not called to contribute to the evil of the world, but to work against it. This begins with the realization that both women and men are made in the image of God, as equals.
*I embrace the term feminist despite the negative connotations it has earned. Feminism is not about man-hating or placing women over men, it is about equality and bringing an end to the discrimination, abuse, and oppression women around the world face every day.
**Even if you do not believe in a literal 6 day creation, you can still find truth in the creation story concerning God and God’s purpose in creating the world.
***Translations from the Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew