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A few years ago I went back to school and earned an MA in Biblical Studies from Denver Seminary. I had been doing a bit of reading on what it means to be human, what it means to be male or female, and what it means to be a leader. It became apparent that I needed to study biblical Greek and Hebrew if I hoped to make any sense of so many conflicting views, all purportedly proven by the meaning of one or another biblical text in the original language. So off to school I went. I was pretty certain how it would all come out, since by then I had been following Jesus for a really long time and knew what the Bible said. It’s obvious, right? I knew what God expected of me and my family and the church and probably even you, if you had asked for my input on your personal life. (My children will tell you this is true.)

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John MacArthur, Beth Moore, and Jumping to Conclusions: The Assumptions Behind a Hierarchical Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12

Last week I listened to a podcast where two women explained how they “stand with the Bible” when it comes to their hierarchical interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12. As far as these Sheologians[1] are concerned, this verse proves that women should not teach the Bible to men, be in positions of authority over men, or be pastors and elders. The meaning of the verse is plain as day, they argued, so anyone who disagrees with their view is ignoring scripture.

These ladies went on to mockingly characterize women who believe God has called them to pastoral ministry as obsessed with selfish ambition. Women who “feel called” to church leadership, they laughed, go around whining about what they will do if they can’t be elders or pastors, as though there’s nothing else that needs to be done! As though men who aren’t called to be elders or pastors should go around complaining that there’s nothing for them to do, especially when there’s more than enough work to go around![

Then over the weekend a video of John MacArthur telling Beth Moore to “go home” hit the internet. After the laughter and applause died down Mac Arthur added, “There’s no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period, paragraph, end of discussion.” MacArthur went on to explain that “when you literally overturn the teaching of Scripture to empower people who want power, you have given up biblical authority.”[3]

Aside from the fact that the tone of both interviews was dishonoring, the idea that there is no room for differences of interpretation on this topic is presumptuous. John Macarthur and the women on the podcast are not “standing with the Bible” as they claim, but with certain interpretive assumptions they bring to Scripture, especially to 1 Timothy 2:12. This is what we need to grasp.

And this is why it is vital to take the time to identify those suppositions and determine if there are compelling reasons to accept them as a convincing argument for gender hierarchy in the church. We can do this with an attitude of respect toward those who come to different conclusions than we have. We do so by focusing on the ideas rather than attacking and mocking individuals.

So today I want to identify the main traditions that lie behind the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 that is said to prove male authority in the church. As you read you can think through the validity of the preconceived notions you have brought to the text. I won’t accuse you of rebelling against Scripture if, after weighing the evidence, you land on a different island than I have. I only ask that you take the time to listen, think, and perhaps do a bit of research.

Let’s review the passage first. We’ll look at vv. 8-15 since there’s wide agreement that these verses go together.

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Tim. 2:8-15)

Okay, here we go.

Assumption #1: The setting is the church meeting.

Women can teach men or be their supervisors elsewhere, it is argued, but1 Timothy 2 is about what happens at church so women aren’t permitted to teach or supervise men in church. This is a widely held view on all sides, yet it seems to arise primarily from church tradition. The passage itself has no markers to indicate that it has to do with a congregational setting such as “your meetings” (1 Cor. 11:17), “when you come together” (1 Cor. 14:26), or “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people (1 Cor. 14:33).

Also, the earlier commands about women dressing modestly and men praying without disputing point away from the church meeting, since presumably women should dress modestly everywhere and men should pray without arguing everywhere (as v. 8 states). At minimum it must be acknowledged that the congregational setting is an assumption, not something stated directly in the text.

Assumption #2: The switch from plural men and women to singular woman and man is inconsequential.

Virtually all hierarchical interpretations blow past this change that comes between v. 10 and v. 11, claiming that the singulars point to women and men in general. But in vv. 8-10 Paul was already speaking of men and women in general, so why the switch? And why the argument that the “plain sense” of the passage demands that a woman does not teach/exercise authority over men, when in fact all it states is that Paul does not want a woman to teach/exercise authority over a man?

Also, most hierarchicalists permit women to do the one thing the passage appears to prohibit, i.e. teach a man privately one-on-one. It is the public teaching of God’s word to a group of men that is forbidden, they say. Yet if we hold to a high view of the inspiration of scripture we ought to do our best to apply what is stated rather than what is not stated. We should also assume that Paul made the switch from plural to singular for a reason. Has, in fact, the setting shifted from men and women in general to the individual man and woman in relationship, perhaps in the home as husband and wife?

Assumption #3: The term translated “have/exercise/assume authority” is a general term simply meaning to be in a position or role of delegated authority over others.

The fact is that the word in the original language, authentein, is very rare and historically has proven extremely challenging to understand. Though modern studies have demonstrated that authentein is not a general term for exercising authority but rather has connotations of domination, domineering, and control, it is very difficult to turn the Titanic of hundreds of years of English Bible translation away from the iceberg of accepted interpretation. When your interpretation is unsinkable, why would you jump ship?

Even Chrysostom, who believed wholeheartedly in male authority in marriage, told men they should not authentein their wives. Clearly he did not understand the word to refer to a rightful use of authority, or he would not have forbidden it. An informed understanding of the word therefore indicates that Paul is not disallowing proper delegated authority or a position of authority, but rather inappropriate sinful dominance.[4]

Assumption #4: The prohibition on teaching combined with the one on exercising authority refers to the role of elder/pastor.

This one is a big leap. Even when I understood the passage hierarchically, it never occurred to me that it was talking about elders and pastors. In contrast to 1 Timothy 3 which explicitly deals with leadership roles in the church, chapter 2 does not mention them at all. Perhaps now that some of the foremost complementarian scholars acknowledge that neither 1 Timothy 3 nor Titus 1 prohibits women from becoming elders and pastors, it is seen as necessary to build the case from 1 Timothy 2.

So it is argued that since teaching and having authority are functions of church leaders, what Paul is actually prohibiting is the promotion of women to these specific roles. Yet a plain reading of the text would not lead one to the conclusion that it forbids women from becoming pastors and elders, but rather that an individual woman should not have an inappropriate relationship of dominance over an individual man.

Assumption #5: Verses 11-14 are perfectly clear even though v. 15 is not, since an understanding of v. 15 is not essential to Paul’s main point.

Hierarchicalists tend to throw up their hands over how in the world a woman can be saved through childbearing/childbirth, yet treat the difficulties posed by v. 15 as inconsequential or at least secondary. Read as a whole, however, it is apparent that in v. 15 Paul is responding to the issue that caused him to place restrictions on “a woman” in the first place. The passage builds to v. 15 and finds its climax there. For that reason it is essential to come up with a coherent explanation of v. 15 before we can assume we understand vv. 11-14. Without this, we do not know what problem Paul is addressing.

If v. 15 is understood in its simplest sense – that a woman will be kept safe through the ordeal of childbirth – it completely changes our conception of the situation Paul was addressing and the focus of his restriction. But my main disagreement with the traditional interpretation on this point is their claim that vv. 11-14 are plain as day while at the same time they struggle to make sense of v. 15. The two do not go together. At minimum it ought to be acknowledged that many unanswered questions remain that can and do affect the interpretation of vv. 11-14.

Assumption #6: The appeal to creation in v. 13 points to a fundamental hierarchical ordering of man and woman.

Since the man was created first, so it goes, men are created to be in authority over women. Yet Paul never says anything about men having dominion over women. His focus is that a woman (or a wife) should not teach a man (or a husband) in a domineering way or, perhaps, dominate him through her “teaching.” In other words, the appeal to creation may simply be a warrant that lends support to the idea that it is wrong for a woman to dominate or control a man, particularly her husband.

I believe we can agree that it is wrong for anyone to dominate another. Jesus called this “lording it over” others and strictly forbade it, even by those in proper leadership positions. The Bible never states that it is fine for a man to authentein a woman nor are men ever encouraged to exercise “proper” authority over women (echein exousiazo), but only to love them as Christ loved the church.

Assumption #7: The appeal to the fall in v. 14 demonstrates that women are inherently unsuited for leadership.

Paul’s point, hierarchicalists argue, is that women should not fill church leadership roles because they are more easily deceived than men. Yet Paul does not say that women in general are more easily deceived. It is a leap to assume this is what he meant and then apply it to all women everywhere, though that is precisely what was done throughout church history up to the modern age.

It is just as possible that Paul used Eve to communicate that some women in Ephesus were being deceived, just as he used Eve’s example to warn the Corinthians about the deception they had fallen prey to (2 Cor. 11:3-4). And in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 it seems that the specific deception had something to do with childbirth, explaining Paul’s focus on the women in this passage.

Assumption #8: The individuals who need to exhibit godly character in v. 15 are women.

This assumption has been reinforced by Bible translations that have changed the wording of the original language to “clarify” the meaning. Instead of what is stated in the Greek – “she will be saved/kept safe through childbirth if they continue…” – some English Bibles say “women will be saved/kept safe through childbirth if they continue…,” giving the impression that if women will continue in godliness God will reward them in some way. But the word “women” does not occur in the Greek of v. 15 and the verb “be saved/kept safe” is singular, so the subject is “she.”

If we take the original wording at face value, the “they” most likely refers to the man and woman of vv. 11-12. Except for Adam and Eve (who are past needing either salvation or protection) they are the nearest antecedent, and hence the most likely referent. If this is the case v. 15 would mean that a woman will be preserved through childbearing if she and the man she had previously been attempting to dominate (perhaps her husband)would now join forces and pursue faith, love, and holiness with propriety together.

Assumption #9: Submission and quietness are timeless feminine ideals.

Hierarchicalists teach that submission in quietness is the timeless role of women. This means women are to submit to the limitations and expectations placed upon them by men in the church and in the home, and they are to do so with a joyful spirit of servanthood. Men, on the other hand, are to establish those limitations and expectations with a humble spirit of servanthood. Both are called to servanthood, the one by following expectations and the other by setting them.

What we need to recognize here is that submission and the lack of agitation and aggressiveness entailed in the Greek word “quiet” or “quietness” were considered fundamentally feminine virtues by ancient Greeks and Romans in the same way that obedience was considered a fundamental virtue of slaves. There is undoubtedly a cultural component behind the application of these specific virtues to women in this setting.

I am not saying that women need not submit to proper Christian teaching or that they may be aggressive or contentious in learning environments. My point is that to take the words Paul used here and assume they describe the foundational calling of womanhood takes the passage out of its context. The New Testament teaches that submission and quietness are fundamental Christian virtues. All believers are called to submit to church leaders and Christian instruction without becoming contentious, so it is not surprising that Paul brings this up here.

Assumption #10: The Artemis/Isis cult background of Ephesus does not influence the interpretation of the text.

A recent study has demonstrated significant links between 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and the Artemis cult so predominant in Ephesus.[5] Strong parallels exist between the behavior and attire of first-century goddess worshipers and Paul’s instructions. The immodesty, the plaiting of the hair with gold and pearls, and the domineering aggressiveness Paul prohibits were all key components of the cult. In addition, Artemis was connected with the goddess Isis in a way that indicates a myth that asserted the woman was created first and the man was deceived enjoyed some acceptance in Ephesus.

In addition, we know that Artemis was worshiped as the “savior.” One of the key ways she functioned in this role was by protecting women through the ordeal of childbirth, the greatest threat to a woman’s health in the ancient world. Women were terrified of death or disability resulting from pregnancy and childbirth, and therefore were devoted to their goddesses of fertility. Walking away from paying homage to Artemis as part of their newfound Christian faith would have been terrifying, since the goddess was known to be vindictive toward those who dared to cross her.

With all of this in the background, it would not be surprising that some of these women were questioning their safety in childbearing and becoming contentious about certain Christian teachings, like the fact that they needed to turn away from idolatry. Paul wanted them to calm down, learn the truth, and be reassured that they could safely turn away from Artemis worship because Jesus would take care of them.

Whether you accept this precise reconstruction or not, it is difficult to argue that the Artemis background makes no differenceto an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, as many hierarchicalists seem to assume. One way or another, it needs to be integrated into our understanding of this passage.

The Path to Hierarchy

The path to an acceptance of gender hierarchy in the church includes, of necessity, grappling with the verifiability of these ten assumptions. As in a steeplechase competition, you can’t go around a barrier or skip a water jump and claim you finished the race. You may have gotten a lot of exercise, but you didn’t do the steeplechase.

In the same way there is no honest path to a hierarchical reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 that goes around any of these points. You have to go through them. In the end it was this weighing of all of my preconceived ideas that changed my views on the subject, though I’ll admit it took a lot of reading, a lot of study, and a lot of time.

If you take the time to work through each assumption yet still settle in the land of hierarchy, I respect your decision.

But at least you know how you got there.

[1] Their self-designation and the name of their organization. My earlier footnote here mentioned that I was unable to ascertain the names of the two women, but thanks to a reader I have learned that they are Summer White and Joy Temby. The confusion resulted from inadvertently accessing Summer’s earlier website at sheologian.com. The current site is sheologians.com. Thank you, Maria!

[2] “Why We Aren’t Egalitarian” by Sheologians, on podcast.apple.com, accessed 10/15/2019.

[3] “John MacArthur Beth Moore Go Home,” youtube.com, posted by reformationcharlotte.org, accessed 10/18/2019.

[4] On authentein see: Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 227; Klyne Snodgrass, “A Case for the Unrestricted Ministry of Women,” The Covenant Quarterly 67/2 (2009), 38; I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles (New York: T. & T. Clark, 1999), 457-58; Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ (London: InterVarsity, 2019), 268-70; Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 290-94.

[5] Gary G. Hoag, Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy: Fresh Insights from Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplements, vol. 11 (Winona Lake, Indiana; Eisenbrauns, 2015).

It’s Good to Be a Woman Day Retreats

A few years ago I was asked to join a team of young women who hoped to reach the women of their generation with a conference designed specifically for them. Feeling that the women’s ministry of our church catered to an older generation, these young leaders were hoping to capture the hearts of their peers.

What struck me that day was what these women hoped to communicate through their conference. A lot of ideas were knocked about but in the end it came down to this: our generation needs to believe it’s good to be a woman. Some of those present expressed the idea that it can be easier to think it’s good to be a woman out in the world than it is in the church. Once a woman becomes a Christian, a whole new set of expectations and limitations is placed upon her that can cause her to doubt the goodness of being female.

We’re at a point in time when women need to know that God created a good thing when he created woman. Rightly understood, what the Bible teaches about womanhood is empowering and freeing. Women are both fully human and fully woman. Women fully represent God in his eternal essence, just as men do. Women also reflect humanity as the object of God’s affection.

There is a lot of confusion in current Christian teaching on gender and “gender roles,” however. In some cases fundamental human qualities are ascribed to men alone, leaving the impression that women are somehow a bit less than fully human. In others, differences between women and men are minimized or ignored. And, very often, the fact that a husband and wife point to the greater “marriage,” that of Christ and the church, is taken to mean all sorts of things that it does not.

For this reason I have launched my It’s Good to Be a Woman day retreats. In one day women gain an easy to remember understanding of their essential identity, including how they are the same as men and how they are different. Drawing from my research on ancient understandings of the image of God and gender, I explain the surprising uniqueness of the Bible’s take on the essential dignity and humanity of all human beings, whether they be male or female, rich or poor, black, brown, white, educated or uneducated.

Then, working directly from Scripture, I break down a woman’s identity into six essential components, illustrating how each of them works out in practical ways through the lives of Bible women.

Here is a summary of the It’s Good to Be a Woman teaching on womanhood:

From Genesis 1 women learn that they represent God in his fundamental essence in three ways. Just as God is king of the universe, so women are given authority to rule and subdue the earth. As God is creator of all, so women are designed to be creative and productive and to work. And even as God exists as an eternal community through his triune nature, so women are created for community. In these aspects of her identity a woman is the same as a man.

From Genesis 2 women discover that they are also distinct from men. One of the most divisive passages of Scripture, this chapter is generally taken to establish either the authority of men over women or the equality of the sexes.

The point, however, may lie elsewhere. So that humanity might comprehend the intimate, passionate and very personal relationship God desires to experience with his own bride, the man and woman were created in such a way as to forever point to this far greater and grander truth.

For this reason the man was created first, to reflect the fact that God was first. And the woman was created for the man as his beloved, to reflect the truth that humanity was created for God as God’s beloved. The man leaves his mother and father to pursue his bride to remind us that God is the one who pursues us, who has sacrificed greatly in order to be one with us, his bride.

The woman is also the man’s strong help, his partner, revealing that humankind was designed as God’s strong help, the steward of all earthly creation. Finally, it is the woman who bears and nurtures life with her body, who is the mother of all the living. Through this God reminds us that his people bear the responsibility to nurture both physical and spiritual life around us. Without the cooperation of human beings, God’s family does not grow.

As part of my discussion of a woman’s unique feminine identity, I discuss the limitations of the husband/wife-Christ/church analogy and my understanding of headship. Though Christ is King, Lord, and Great Shepherd to his people, besides being our Bridegroom, Scripture never identifies a wife as subject, servant or sheep with respect to her husband.

If you are interested in hosting an It’s Good to Be a Woman event, or would simply like more information, please contact me through the form on my Speaking page. If you prefer a weekend retreat rather than a one-day event, I offer that option as well.

Five Reasons I Don’t See Male Authority in Genesis 1-3

I recently recorded another podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery, cofounder of Authentic Intimacy and author of Rethinking Sexuality. This time the discussion was about husbands and wives who control their spouses. The other guest that day was Dr. Ron Welch, a counseling professor at Denver Seminary and author of The Controlling Husband.

Our topic was prompted by this response to an earlier podcast Juli had done with the Welches about how Ron had overcome his tendency to be a controlling husband.

Juli, I would love to hear you discuss this topic, with the added element of spiritual abuse. My husband sounds so much like Dr. Welch, except he also acts as the voice of God in my life. He accuses me of resisting God, of being unsaved and not the kind of woman God esteems, etc. I’m in counseling and have had a pastor friend reach out to him, but he refuses to consider marriage counseling or meeting with a pastor. He says I’m unempowered by God because I’m seeking outside help.[1]

The abuse this woman is experiencing most likely results not only from her husband’s upbringing, personality, and sinful nature, as was the case with Dr. Welch, but also from Christian teachings regarding a man’s spiritual authority. No doubt this man believes he is the spiritual leader of his home and that God will hold him accountable for the behavior of his wife and children one day.

There may be other factors involved, but men who “act as the voice of God” toward their wives have undoubtedly embraced a hierarchical view of the male-female relationship. I know it is argued that male dominance is a perversion of the complementarian position, which is based on the idea of servant leadership, but the fact is that abuse is an all too common outcome.

Teaching men they are the one and only spiritual leader of their home, possessing ultimate authority before God, has the unfortunate result of harming really good men, potentially leading them down a path toward becoming controlling husbands.

What man would want to answer to God for the ways his wife has gone off the rails? None, no doubt.

Better to whip her into shape now.

So, perhaps, he explains how she is wrong and he is right. How, as the spiritual leader, he sees things the way God sees them. She is more easily deceived, like Eve, so she needs to listen to him. He becomes, in the words of this wife, “the voice of God” to her.

When she doesn’t line up with his view of things he may use stronger methods, taking “decisive intervention”[2] through force, coercion, manipulation, and perhaps even verbal, emotional, sexual or physical abuse.

A controlling husband is born.

Sadly, even good men may fall prey to this mindset if they are consistently fed standard teachings on “biblical manhood” which are, in fact, not found in the Bible.

Like the idea that the man is the (only) spiritual leader of the home, the priest of the family, who should direct the family devotions and make the decisions, who ought to be revered and, ultimately, obeyed by his wife.

All of these ideas are inferred from the biblical text; they do not appear directly.

The question is: Are they reasonable inferences?

Complementarian Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. finds this male preeminence in Genesis 1-3, citing five reasons: 1) the image of God has to do with holiness, not ruling authority; 2) God names the human race “man”; 3) God is uninterested in unqualified equality; 4) Adam demonstrated authority over Eve when he named her; 5) the idea of equal rights in an unqualified sense is unbiblical.[3]

Today I will explain how I disagree with each of Ortlund’s points. But as you read I want you to think about the wife suffering under her husband’s spiritual abuse. This is not an academic exercise to me; it is pastoral. Christians will never change our high rate of divorce, or our perhaps even higher rate of unhappy yet committed marriages, until we change how we teach manhood and womanhood.

Here we go.

The Image of God

Ortlund’s first argument is his definition of image-bearing. Even though men and women “display the glory of God’s image with equal brilliance,”[4] Ortlund thinks it…

…probable that the image of God in man [humanity] is the soul’s personal reflection of God’s righteous character. To image God is to mirror His holiness.[5]

My first response here is that personal holiness is an insufficient explanation of what it means to image God. Bearing God’s image has everything to do with authority and rule and very little to do with anything else. Genesis gives dominion as the explicit reason human beings are created in God’s image, so it is difficult to claim that imaging God is about something other than ruling authority.

Yes, we are created as moral beings, with the capacity and responsibility to reflect God’s holiness, but not as an end in itself. We are thus constituted so that we are capable of ruling this earth for God’s glory. It is but a convenient work-around to define God’s image within us in moral terms, thereby removing equal dominion-authority from women and granting it primarily to men.

Naming Humanity

The second reason Ortlund presents in favor of male authority over women is the way God names humanity:

He names the human race, both man and woman, ‘man.’ …Surely His referring to the race as ‘man’ tells us something about ourselves….God’s naming of the race ‘man’ whispers male headship. …God did not name the human race ‘woman.’ If ‘woman’ had been the more appropriate and illuminating designation, no doubt God would have used it. He does not even devise a neutral term like ‘persons.’…Male headship may be personally repugnant to feminists, but it does have the virtue of explaining the sacred text.[6]

The main error of this line of reasoning is that Ortlund’s argument only works because he is sourcing the English text. In Hebrew, in fact, the word is not “man” but adam, a word which means “human being, person, humanity, mankind.” In the plural it means “men + women” or, as we would say, “people.”[7]

So God did, in fact, use a neutral term like “persons.” That is what adam means. There is a different word in Hebrew for “man” – ish – and a word for “woman” – ishah. God used neither of those when he named the human race.

God didn’t name us either “man” or “woman,” but rather “humanity.”

The confusion arises because God created the first adam – the first human being – and he came to be called, unsurprisingly, ha adam – “the human.” And then, over time, adam became his given name.

If we were to translate literally, the first man’s name would not be Adam in English. Instead, it would be Human or Person.

This is akin to what happened with the first man named Smith. He was a blacksmith, that was his trade, and in time his trade became his given name: Smith. In the same way, the first man was a human, that was his identity, and in time his identity became his given name: Human.

Or, in Hebrew, Adam.

So it’s not at all that God named humanity “man,” but rather that the Bible calls the first man “Human.”

Then, as the world became increasingly interpreted from a masculine perspective, essential humanity came to be defined as male, or maleness. The truest expression of what it meant to be human was found in the male; females were but an incomplete, deformed expression of humanity.

So a word that was neutral, that applied equally to male and female, was translated into other tongues with the gender-specific word “man,” losing its original import.

This all happened long before Bible translators understood the importance of translating back into the original language in order to check the wording, a practice regularly employed today. To do this you get a separate team of experts to take the translation you’ve just created in English or Latin or Spanish, for example, and put it back into the original language, in this case Hebrew.

If Jerome or Wycliffe or Reina and Valera or the King James crew had done this they would have figured out their mistake, since they would have ended up with ish (“man”) where the original employed adam (“human”).

Luther got it right, though, when he used Mensch (“human, person”) not Mann (“man, male”) in Genesis 1.

Score one for the Lutherans.

In this case, then, Ortlund’s whole point rests upon an inaccurate Bible translation born out of patriarchy.

Unqualified Equality

Ortlund’s third reason why men’s authority over women makes perfect sense is that God is simply not interested in unqualified equality:

The paradox is this: God created male and female in His image equally, but He also made the male the head and the female the helper. …Consider the obvious: God does not value intellectual or aesthetic equality among people. He does not value equality in finances, talents, and opportunity. It is God who deliberately ordains inequalities in many aspects of our lives….God is not interested in unlimited equality among us.[8]

Here I think Ortlund is confusing God’s sovereignty with man’s inhumanity to man, and equality with the beautiful wonder of human diversity. All human beings, no matter how intellectually or aesthetically lacking Ortlund may consider them to be, stand as equals.

No matter their finances, their opportunities, or their “talents,” all are equally human. All possess the same value, the same worth, and the same ruling authority God grants to all of us as human beings.

This is, in fact, the wildly counter-cultural message of Genesis. Unlike all the other ancient creation stories – yes, every single one – all human beings image God – black, white, rich, poor, male, female, third world, first world, educated, uneducated, urban, suburban.

Therefore every single person who has ever lived fully embodies God-given, God-ordained, God-sanctioned ruling authority. According to Genesis, there’s no sliding scale of dominion authority. That’s an idea popular with bigots, racists, slave traders and the like, not Scripture.

Are we the same? Hardly.

Are we equal? Absolutely, amen and amen.

It is God himself who came up with the idea of equality.

Ortlund then applies his theory of God-ordained inequality to the issue of male and female:

So, was Eve Adam’s equal? Yes and no. She was his spiritual equal and, unlike the animals, “suitable for him.” But she was not his equal in that she was his “helper.”… A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God. … We must define ourselves not by personal injury, not by fashionable hysteria, not even by personal variation and diversity, but by the suprapersonal pattern of sexual understanding taught here in Holy Scripture.[9]

Perhaps unlike some who promote the equality of the sexes, I believe in the beauty of male and female as distinct realities. I am a woman, my husband is a man. During 39 years of marriage we have figured out that we are quite different, not only in our personalities but also in the way our respective genders impact how we think.

We find this beautiful.

Fashionable hysteria aside, however, I do not believe the differences between my husband and me lie in a differentiation in the level of our God-given dominion authority, for that is the fundamental identifier of human existence.

Unlike the animals, human beings rule; that is what we do.

For complementarians, in contrast, the “suprapersonal pattern of sexual understanding” is fundamentally about male authority. Other differences between men and women are only secondary concerns.

They may debate whether a mother should work outside the home or if it’s okay for a woman to share during the church service, but the one non-negotiable is that men possess ultimate authority over women.

Yes, the woman was created as the man’s face-to-face-help. Yet a woman can be a helper, rightly understood, without being a “second-in-command.” After all, in the Bible God is called “helper” more often than anyone else.

And God is certainly not our “second-in-command.”

Think of it like this: when you need help running your business, you can either find a partner or you can hire an employee. When God gave Eve to Adam, he gave him a life partner, not an employee.

Naming the Woman

Eve’s naming by Adam is Ortlund’s fourth argument for male authority, the bedrock of the role reversal argument. Here’s how he explains it:

He [God] allowed Adam to define the woman, in keeping with Adam’s headship. Adam’s sovereign act not only arose out of his own sense of headship, it also made his headship clear to Eve. She found her own identity in relation to the man as his equal and helper by the man’s definition.[10]

It is not precisely correct to say that Adam defined Eve. What really happened is that Adam identified the two of them, for the first time, as intricately connected to one another. Up to this time, as you know, the man was Mr. Human – adam – and the woman was Ms. Face-to-Face-Help – ezer-kenegdo.

Now, however, they are ish and ishah – man and woman.

In other words, Adam recognized that he and Eve were made for each other, so he came up with names that demonstrated that fact.

The point, then, is not Adam’s sovereignty, but their interdependence.

Equal Rights

Summing up his discussion of male authority,[11] Ortlund has this to say about human rights:

Does God really grant husbands and wives equal rights in an unqualified sense? Surely God confers upon them equal worth as His image-bearers. But does a wife possess under God all the rights that her husband has in an unqualified sense? …The ideal of ‘equal rights’ in an unqualified sense is not biblical.[12]

This is perhaps the most damaging of Ortlund’s assertions, since it leads godly men to believe their wives do not possess the same rights as them, that women are not their equals, that male-female inequality is God-ordained.

It leads men to think Christian responsibility and authority travel in one direction, from man to woman, so that it is appropriate for husbands to direct their wives but inappropriate for husbands to receive direction from their wives, and good for men to challenge women but bad for men to be challenged by women.

Unfortunately, the teaching that the concept of equal rights is unbiblical ultimately leads to the type of abusive Christian marriage I noted at the beginning of this post. Frankly, I see no way around it.

You can’t teach men their wives are not their equals without causing a great deal of harm.

Marital abuse is a fundamental rupture of the truth of the gospel, which teaches respect toward all. It has happened and does happen and will continue to happen, until we change how we teach the wondrous beauty that we embody as male and female.

Here are the five reasons I don’t see male authority in Genesis 1-3: 1) the image of God has everything to do with ruling authority; 2) God names the human race “humanity”; 3) God himself established equality; 4) Adam demonstrated interdependence with Eve when he named them; 5) inequality leads to abuse, contradicting the gospel.

[1] Comment by A. R., posted 9/13/18 under Authentic Intimacy podcast #48, “My Controlling Spouse,” published 9/10/18. Unfortunately, podcasts older than six months are accessible only to subscribers. Check out more recent recordings and other resources at authenticintimacy.com.

[2] According to Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Adam’s big mistake in the garden was “allowing the deception to progress without decisive intervention,” in “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Crossway: 1991/2006), 107. I agree that Adam should have said something; the problem is that teaching men they should take “decisive intervention” gives the wrong impression of how men and women should work together and too often leads to abuse.

[3] Ibid., 95-112.

[4] Ibid., 97.

[5] Ibid., 96.

[6] Ibid., 97-98.

[7] See Francis Brown, S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, eds., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2010), 9.

[8] Ibid., 99-100.

[9] Ibid., 102.

[10] Ibid., 103.

[11] The idea that headship has to do with a man leading a woman is a very common assumption, but it is very likely erroneous. In ancient Greek thought, being the “head” did not imply authority or even leadership, but rather an intimate, life-giving connection to the “body.” Male headship, I am convinced, is not about authority. Rather it has to do with being the source of life to another, in all its various meanings. For further reading see my posts A Husband is Not His Wife’s Shepherd, Jesus as Head of the Church, Heads, Hats and Honor: Man as the “Head” of Woman in 1 Corinthians 11, and Is a Husband Supposed to Be in Charge of His Wife?  

[12] Ibid., 105.

Adam and Eve Didn’t Reverse Roles

Some of you who read my post A Bad Decision and the Fallacy of the Role Reversal Argument had questions about the whole idea of a role reversal. What I want to do today is explain how Genesis 3 is interpreted to get the idea and how this position misses the point.

In case you haven’t heard, “role reversal” is basically the idea that Adam and Eve sinned by reversing their God-ordained gender roles. Eve wanted to be in charge and Adam didn’t.

Bingo. Roles reversed.

To help you understand this perspective first-hand, I will refer to what is probably the most thorough defense of the position, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” by Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., commenting as I go along.[1] Ortlund’s article progresses in two phases: 1) Genesis 1-3 establishes male authority over women; and 2) Adam and Eve sinned by reversing their roles.

In this post I’m going to respond to the idea of role reversal. In my next I will rebut the perspective that headship means authority.

After arguing that male authority over women is part of the natural order, Ortlund says this explains how Adam and Eve sinned: At its most basic level, it was a sex role reversal. Why? Ortlund gives four reasons: 1) Eve usurped Adam’s headship by taking the lead; 2) Eve’s temptation had to do with gaining power over Adam; 3) Eve’s curse proves she was grasping for power; and 4) Adam sinned by listening to Eve.

Let’s look at how Ortlund deduces these ideas from Genesis 3:

Mark well what the text says and what it does not say… The text does not say, ‘…she took some and ate it. Her husband, who was with her, also took some and ate it.’ What actually happened is full of meaning. Eve usurped Adam’s headship and led the way into sin. And Adam, who (it seems) had stood by passively, allowing the deception to progress without decisive intervention – Adam, for his part, abandoned his post as head. …Isn’t it striking that we fell [into sin] upon an occasion of sex role reversal?[2]

Eve did lead the way into sin; that much I acknowledge. And Adam apparently did stand by passively, saying nothing when he could have spoken up. Yet how did Eve usurp Adam’s headship? By responding to temptation instead of saying, “Let me ask my husband”? By making a decision instead of waiting for Adam to do it? By giving Adam the fruit?

By this reasoning, a wife should not respond to temptation, should not make decisions, and should not feed her husband. She should wait for her man to act.

Another way to say this is that wives ought to comport themselves as children, not trusting themselves to make decisions. And what about single women? How ought they to respond to temptation? Ortlund never discusses how his ideas apply to singles.

The vast majority of people in the ancient world would have agreed that women cannot be trusted to make good decisions. Every intertestamental man worth his salt knew that women are constitutionally inferior and fundamentally immoral, needing the guidance of a man or two to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Make no bones about it, however. From Adam’s quick participation there is no reason to believe he would have resisted the temptation if the serpent had approached him first. And if Adam had been the one who was tempted, should Eve have intervened decisively? Should she have refused to follow Adam’s lead? And would that have been a reversal of roles?

This is the lose-lose situation the role reversal idea engenders: women are put in positions where they either sin by disobeying God or sin by reversing roles.

Back to Ortlund’s point, Eve only usurped Adam’s authority if in fact Adam was supposed to have authority over Eve. And Adam only abandoned this position of authority if, in fact, it was his in the first place. As my discussion of Ortlund’s views on male authority in my next post should make clear, I find the reasoning behind a God-ordained male-female hierarchy unconvincing.

Ortlund continues: Eve’s calling was “to help Adam as second-in-command in world rulership.”[3] In other words, God’s command to the man and woman to rule and subdue the earth was primarily directed toward Adam (Gen. 1:28). How Ortlund gets this from the text is difficult to discern, yet he provides no support for this assertion. Instead he argues that Eve, unhappy with her subordinate position, was tempted not to rebel against God, but to gain authority over Adam.

Satan struck at Adam’s headship. His words had the effect of inviting Eve to assume primary responsibility at the moment of temptation: ‘You decide, Eve. You lead the way. Wouldn’t you rather be exercising headship?’[4]

Here Ortlund explains how he believes the roles were reversed: Eve assumed “primary responsibility” at the moment of temptation because she wanted “headship.” This was Eve’s big sin. Adam’s big sin was letting her. In contrast to this, however, the passage itself states that the serpent tempted Eve with insubordination to God, not to Adam.

[The serpent] said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the tress in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’.” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. (Gen. 3:1-5)

The text does not say: “Eve, don’t you want to be in charge? Don’t you want to rule over Adam rather than being under his authority? Well, here is a way to do it: Make your own decision and then get Adam to follow you.”

No, Genesis doesn’t say that at all. Yet so much of Ortlund’s argument for role reversal rests upon the assertion that Eve took the fruit because she wanted to gain mastery over Adam.

For this transgression, this grasping of power from the man that was not rightly hers, Ortlund says that “God hands her over to the misery of competition with her rightful head. This is justice, a measure-for-measure response to her sin.”[5]

Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Gen. 3:16)

Ortlund then explains that the statement “he will rule over you” can be understood in two ways.


God may be saying, ‘You will have a desire, Eve. You will want to control your husband. But he will not allow you to have your way with him. He will rule over you.’


God is requiring the man to act as the head God made him to be, rather than knuckle under to ungodly pressure from his wife.[6] 

Either way, according to Ortlund, Eve gets what she deserves for putting “ungodly pressure” on Adam and wanting to control him. Now she will be controlled, she’ll be dominated, by her man.

History attests to the sad truth of this prediction, but that doesn’t prove it was punishment for a desire to dominate Adam.

I agree with Ortlund that the battle of the sexes is a misery, the cause of a great deal of heartache over the course of human history. The predicted outcome of this battle, male dominance, has also been a misery, the source of much suffering.

Yet all of this, as seen in v. 16, is part of the curse, part of everything that is not right in the world, rather than part of the created order.

Verse 16 doesn’t prove that Eve was grasping for power, that she had reversed her role with Adam’s. It is quite possible to understand Adam and Eve’s descent into sin as a failure to work together as co-rulers. Adam had first-hand knowledge of God’s will, while Eve did not. He could have spoken up. And Eve could have consulted with Adam before moving forward.

Instead of conferring with one another, speaking truth to one another, holding one another accountable, they silently agreed to sin.

Sometimes when we want to do the wrong thing, it’s easier to skip the discussion. Easier on our conscience, that is.

Eve’s judgment in v. 16, then, does fit the crime. The first man and woman didn’t bother to work together in ruling the garden; from now on it would become even more difficult for men and women to collaborate.

“Male headship” wouldn’t have solved their sin problem, however, since Adam clearly wanted to eat the fruit.

Male authority won’t solve our sin problems either. For one thing, it’s not always the man who wants to do the right thing.[7] Nor is it always the man who has first-hand knowledge of God’s will. Sometimes it’s the woman.[8] So a man’s “decisive intervention” might lead the way into sin, rather than lead the way out.

We have to be humble enough to acknowledge that avoiding sin is not as simple as putting a man in charge, and that male authority is simply not the point.

In discussing Adam’s part in the role reversal Ortlund states:

Adam sinned at two levels. At one level, he defied the plain and simple command of 2:17. That is obvious. But God goes deeper. At another level, Adam sinned by ‘listening to his wife.’ He abandoned his headship. According to God’s assessment, this moral failure in Adam led to his ruination.[9]

Apparently, guys, listening to your wife is equivalent to abandoning your headship. In the end it will probably lead to your ruination.

Ortlund finds the listening/headship-abandonment connection in v. 17-19. Here’s a refresher if you’ve forgotten what it says.

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:17-19)

Gen. 3:17 is an important verse that needs to be understood; that is true The question is whether the point is that men shouldn’t listen to women, or if God was simply responding to the way Adam attempted to deflect blame for his own choice, his own action.

Because Genesis 3 is composed using an ancient literary device that in this case divides each conversation into separate parts,[10] we tend to forget that in v. 17 God is answering Adam’s statement in v. 12. If we put them together you’ll see what I mean.

The man said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.”  (Gen. 3:12)

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree….” (Gen. 3:17)

Not only did Adam blame Eve, he also blamed God for putting that seductive temptress right there with him. God is simply countering Adam’s excuses: “Yes, she gave you the fruit, but you didn’t have to take it. You’re the one who listened to a sinful suggestion and ate; it’s not Eve’s fault that you sinned. Her sin is hers, and your sin is yours.”

Listening to his wife wasn’t the problem; listening to her when she suggested a sinful course of action was.

Ortlund’s reading of v. 17 arrives at an impossible conclusion: It is wrong, an abdication of male authority, for a man to listen to a woman.This is the only way the Fall can be understood as a sex role reversal. On the other hand, if Adam’s error was a matter of listening to Eve when she suggested a sinful course of action, then the principle remains the same for men and women alike. As we all know, Sapphira listened to her husband and it led to her ruination.

Immediately, as it turned out.

As I discuss in Should Men Listen to Women? the Bible validates a man listening to a woman, even following her lead. Men should not, of course, follow women into sin. But this applies across the board; women should not follow men into sin either.

Near the end of his essay Ortlund gives a summary of his views, revealing his fundamental misunderstanding of the egalitarian position. Thinking it posits women’s rivalry with men, Ortlund states:

Nothing can change the fact that God created male headship as one aspect of our pre-fall perfection. Therefore, while many women today need release from male domination, the liberating alternative is not female rivalry or autonomy but male headship wedded to female help.[11]

This is perhaps the most unfortunate of Ortlund’s statements, for egalitarianism promotes neither rivalry between the sexes nor autonomy. Instead, a true egalitarian position presupposes a beautiful harmony, a working together, a mutuality of the sexes that is more satisfying to women and, importantly, to men, than the vain promise of hierarchy.

Even if this were not the case, the point is that the role reversal argument is hard to support from Genesis itself without making assumptions that are not in the text. I hope I have convinced you of that by now.

[1] In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Crossway: 1991/2006), 95-112.

[2] Ortlund, 107.

[3] Ibid., 108.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Consider David when he seduced Bathsheba, Ananias, and David’s men in 1 Samuel 24 and 26, especially in contrast to Abigail in 1 Samuel 25.

[8] Consider, for example, that Rebekah knew God’s will for their children while Isaac, at least by his actions, did not. Other examples include Deborah, Huldah and Abigail, who all discerned God’s will before the men around them.

[9] Ibid., 110.

[10] Chiasm, a device that parallels ideas in an A-B-C-C1-B1-A1 pattern, where A goes with A1, B goes with B1, and C goes with C1.

[11] Ibid., 109.

[12] Ibid., 110.

A Bad Decision and the Fallacy of the Role Reversal Argument

Now and then my husband and I make a bad decision. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Sometimes it’s one we arrive at together, sometimes it’s his decision, and sometimes it’s mine.

Recently we made a killer of a bad business decision.

The painful consequences of our fecklessness prompted Jim and me to reflect on our decision-making process and how we can improve it. Our bottom line: we didn’t work together the way we should have. We need to improve our commitment to sharing our gut-level hesitations with each other, to taking more time in conversation before signing on the dotted line.

One thing that never crossed our mind, however, was that our bad decision was due to a role reversal. In other words, we don’t believe that if I would just stay out of it, Jim would make terrific decisions.

We both know that wouldn’t work and hasn’t worked. We both make mistakes at times.

Yet that is exactly how a lot of people read the Bible, at least when the bad decision results from the suggestion of a woman. Clearly, these people argue, the real problem is a role reversal. Not sin or ignorance or foolishness, the true error is a lack of adherence to the God-ordained role men should play in women’s lives.

Their classic case in point is Adam and Eve. When Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit, so the reasoning goes, she was usurping Adam’s authority. Eve’s more fundamental sin, worse than disobeying God’s command, was reversing her role with Adam’s. Apparently if Eve had made room for Adam to step up when the serpent slithered onto the scene, deferring to his better judgment, things would have turned out differently. Now the whole world has suffered as a result of this reversal of proper gender roles.

It’s hard to say where these people are going with this argument, since the basic idea seems to be that sin is a result of women taking over. If we carry that thought to its logical end, we would conclude that women should just get out of the way and let men lead, and sin would be avoided (at least mostly).

I’m not sure history supports that conclusion.

Neither does Scripture.

If it was a role reversal when Eve gave the fruit to Adam, then it was a role reversal when Abigail convinced David not to murder an entire household. It was also a role reversal when she didn’t submit to Nabal, but instead chose to save his life.

I guess Abigail could have stuck to her role and let the blood flow.

It would also be a role reversal when the Shunammite suggested to her husband that they build a room on the roof for Elisha, when Huldah advised King Josiah, when Deborah spoke the word of the Lord to Barak, when Ruth approached Boaz about marriage, and when Esther saved her people by appealing to the king.

In other words, if the problem is roles, then they apply across the board, both when women suggest good things and when they encourage foolishness. To be consistent in this type of role paradigm, women should never suggest a course of action to a man. Women should never make an independent decision.

Yet women can and do and should make decisions all the time. That is simply part of being human, part of being image-bearers of God. The problem wasn’t that Eve made a choice; the problem was that it was a bad choice.

It’s right for women to influence men, advise them, suggest a course of action, and even give them a piece of fruit. And men should do the same for women.

The problem with the role reversal argument is that it implodes at its untenable conclusion. If going along with a woman is fundamentally wrong, then it is wrong both when the idea is bad and when it is good.

Adam could have spoken up, sitting right there with Eve as he was, and the two of them might possibly have arrived at a better conclusion. That is, after all, what Abigail did with David and what Esther did with King What’s-His-Face.

Speak up, I mean.

And it’s what Sapphira should have done with Ananias and Bathsheba ought to have done with David. These two women played by the rules and the roles, submitting to and respecting and honoring the right guy with the wrong idea, but nobody commends them for it.

Sometimes you can’t get no respect. You don’t play by your role and you’re blamed. You do play by your role and you’re blamed.

Déjà vu all over again.

Adam could have said, “Hey Eve, remember what I told you God said about this tree? We shouldn’t eat its fruit. I know it looks good and the serpent makes it sound good, but I think it’s a bad idea.”

And Eve could have responded, “You’re right. We shouldn’t listen to this. God has given us so much – really everything we could imagine. Let’s go home.”

Instead, apparently, Eve thought, “Sounds good to me!” And Adam thought, “Cool! I’ve wanted to try this fruit all along. Sure, I’ll eat!”

You know how that worked for them.

This wasn’t a role reversal issue. It was a discernment issue, a desire issue, a sin issue, a relationship issue. Adam and Eve didn’t work together toward what was right and good. Instead they tromped hand-in-hand down the path of pain and destruction.

If only it were so simple. If only women could be passive and simply follow men and all would be well. If only women could wait for men to make the decision rather than trying to influence them, and God would magically protect and bless no matter how ill-advised the course of action might be.

If only.

But it’s not that simple. God set it up so that we would have to work together as men and women, so that we would need both perspectives to arrive at the best conclusions. It’s a fallacy to think men are less likely to make a bad choice, less likely to sin, less likely to be deceived.

The Bible demonstrates that all of us are prone to these weaknesses.

That’s why we need each other, why we need a bit more honesty, and why we need a bit more humility. As couples we need to walk together in truth, advise one another, hold one another accountable, respect one another, and defer to one another.

This simply can’t be a one-way street. When we try to turn it into one, we crash and burn.

If we rely upon traditional roles and authority structures to keep us from sin and harm, we will be sadly disappointed. The Bible shows that it doesn’t work that way.

Jim and I are suffering through our bad decision. And I admit, it’s painful.

We’ve noticed something new however. Instead of getting angry and blaming each other, we’re standing together. We recognize that we were both in on this, both part of the decision, and the fault lies with both.

That’s some consolation.

Maybe even a big one.

Domestic Abuse, A Second-Class Wife, and a Bible Horror Story

Sometimes reading the Bible will make you sick. Unflinchingly honest about man’s inhumanity to man, there is more than one narrative that is nearly impossible to stomach. We are left wondering how and why such horrors came to be and, in our disgust, prefer to look the other way. We tell ourselves we don’t need to study these passages, since we would never do such things.

Of course not.

So we move on.

Yet if we skip the ugly stories we miss what God wants to say to us through them, how he wants to warn our minds of their dullness, open our eyes to their carelessness, awaken our hands to their blindness.

The account of the Levite and his second-class wife, found in Judges 19-21, is one of those. I know its general purpose in the Old Testament is to explain what in the world happened to the tribe of Benjamin, once so strong and powerful. But I am convinced its purpose for our hearts goes much deeper than that.[1]

Maybe you know the sordid tale. A Levite from the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem. This in itself is strange, since men didn’t usually take a second-class wife unless a first-class wife was already in the wings. Here no true wife is mentioned, yet the Levite didn’t marry the girl properly. Instead he took her as his concubine, his servant-wife.[2]

One wonders why.

Things didn’t work out as planned for this upstanding man of God, however. In no time at all, his woman split and ran home to Dad.[3]

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her father’s house in Bethlehem, Judah. (Judges 19:1-2)

Literally the Hebrew text reads that the concubine “played the harlot” against the Levite.[4] This does not appear to be literal unfaithfulness, since most likely the meaning is metaphorical.[5] No other man is identified, no adultery, no sexual indiscretion, no threat of stoning. Not to mention that no self-respecting Israelite father would take back an immoral daughter.[6]

All of these facts, taken together, work against a literal understanding of the woman’s “harlotry.” It seems that it was the act of leaving that constituted this nameless woman’s unfaithfulness.[7]

If she was not running off with another, more exciting man, one wonders why she left at all. She hadn’t been married long. No children as of yet, but no indication of barrenness either. As the narrative develops she is repeatedly referred to as “the girl,” so she was still young, most likely a teenager only recently thrust into a second-class marriage. And for some reason, unknown to us, she simply couldn’t take it.[8]

So the girl went home to her dad, her one safe place. No doubt the concubine and her father talked about what happened, going over it first from one angle and then from another: what caused the rift, why she decided to leave, what was next. Despite the shame and diminished community standing he experienced due to his daughter’s failed alliance, the father did not haul her back to the hill country boonies. Instead he kept her home with him.

Then, out of the blue, the girl’s erstwhile man showed up. Four months after she ran off he finally got around to going after her.

After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. (Judges 19:2-3)

Literally the Hebrew says the Levite went to “speak to her heart,”[9] yet he never spoke to her at all, so far as we know. The girl’s father, however, was very glad to see his esteemed son-in-law and welcomed him warmly.[10]

A comedy of manners ensues.[11] Played out between father-in-law and son-in-law, girl-concubine absent from view,[12] the Levite repeatedly tried to leave while the father repeatedly talked him into staying. After three days and three nights of male bonding with lots of eating and drinking, and one wonders precisely how much drinking, a several pounds heavier son-in-law attempts to take his second-class wife and head for the hills.[13]

“Sustain your heart,” said the father, “with a piece of bread.”[14] So Mr. Hill Country delayed, sitting down to eat and drink some more with his surprisingly hospitable father-in-law. When he decided to leave a few hours later the father talked him out of it saying, “Let your heart be good,” convincing him to stay another night.[15]

Day five dawned, and it was way past time for this classy man to take his second-class woman and hit the trail. Yet once again the girl’s father focused on the heart of the matter, telling his son-in-law to fortify his heart before he left.[16] And so he did. All this heart-fortification entailed more feasting on the part of the men, after which the Levite was determined to leave. This time the father did not prevail; though he tried to convince the man to stay another night, the Levite’s heart was sufficiently fortified and there remained no reason to delay any longer.[17]

So they left.[18]

Now comes the sickening part of our little bedtime story. The entourage headed out too late in the day to make it all the way home, so they had to spend the night in Gibeah, sheltering with an elderly man.[19] Some wicked Benjamites surrounded the house, demanding to have sex with the Levite. The old man graciously offered his unmarried daughter and our concubine instead, but the mob violently refused his thoughtful generosity.[20] What was our hero to do? Always a quick thinker, the Levite shoved his second-class wife out the door and climbed into bed.[21]

Sweet dreams.

Our girl, on the other hand, was raped and abused through the night and then discarded. Somehow she managed to make it back to the old man’s house, collapsing on the doorstep. In the morning the man of her dreams got up to leave, without a thought of his servant-wife on his mind.

At least until he practically tripped over her body.

At that point the Levite couldn’t very well leave her lying there so, solicitous as ever, he told her to “Get up!” With no response forthcoming, the man threw the concubine over his donkey and headed for the hills.[22]

Finally safe at home the goriest part plays out. The Levite cut the girl’s body into twelve pieces, sending them throughout Israel to incite civil war against those wicked, wicked Benjamites. When the nation assembled our hero explained how the men surrounded the house, how he feared for his life, and how his poor, dear wife was now dead.

In his account of the tragic events, though, Mr. Self-Righteous left out a few minor details.[23]

Such as the fact that his second-class wife had run away from him shortly after they were married (this might be hard to explain) and that he had shoved her out to the wild mob to save his masculinity (that might be even harder to explain).[24]

Nevertheless, like a true leader, he galvanized the nation to action!

An Oscar-worthy performance, no doubt.

His fellow Israelites were properly indignant at the wrongs suffered by our hero. The men of Israel made a snap judgment and went to war on the testimony of one, forgetting the law about having at least two witnesses before deciding a case.[25]

Oh, right. Didn’t think about that.

Rather than seeking the Lord about whether they should fight at all, the Israelites merely asked who should go up first.[26] God answered, even though they were asking the wrong question. Yet it is clear that God did not bless this ill-conceived war. Thousands of innocent people were slaughtered, the tribe of Benjamin was decimated, and hundreds of women were kidnapped so the few Benjies who survived could have wives.

And we never hear from the Levite again.

Good riddance.

As Bible readers we are horrified. Horrified at the rape and abuse, horrified at the massive bloodshed, horrified at the treatment of women.

Yet we maintain our distance, for we would never do such things. We would never treat a woman like that, we would never jump to conclusions, we would never slaughter an entire people due to the actions of a few.

We would never.

Of course not.

So we have a hard time relating to the story, a hard time applying it to our everyday lives.

Perhaps we succeed at keeping our distance because we are comparing ourselves to the wrong characters. We’re not like the Levite, we’re not like the men of Gibeah, we’re not like the old man.

True enough.

But maybe what we need to do is ponder more deeply the actions of the supporting actor. You know who I mean: our second-class wife’s father. We never hear from him again either; we never hear how he grieved, what he did, where he went.


Did his heart break? Did he ever recover? Did he spend his remaining years and days and hours and minutes grieving his loss?

We have no idea.

But we do know something.

The concubine’s father is the one person who could have changed everything, the one individual who could have protected his little girl. Think about it: he knew something was wrong with this man, this man of the cloth his daughter had abandoned in two seconds flat. Why else the comical hospitality, the repeated delays, the manifest hesitation to let this Levite take his little girl once again? Why else the hours spent wining and dining his first-class son-in-law, unless he was trying to uncover his character, to figure out what lay behind the polished religious veneer?[27]

He knew, he knew, he knew.

Yet in the end the concubine’s father did nothing.

He failed her.

What was he thinking when he let her go?

That his daughter’s failed marriage was embarrassing to him personally? That it couldn’t really be that bad? That there are always two sides to every story? That she should just learn to really submit, and her husband would become the man of her dreams? That she ought to be patient and forgiving and realize she was just as much the problem as her husband? Or was it simply that the father had a high view of marriage, that marriage is for life – no ifs, ands or buts?

And what are we thinking when we tell a woman to go back or to stay put?

That her separation or divorce would be embarrassing to our ministry, to our reputation? That it can’t really be that bad? That there are always two sides to every story? That she should just learn to really submit, and her husband will become the man of her dreams? That she ought to be patient and forgiving and realize that she is just as much the problem as her husband? Or is it simply that we have a high view of marriage, that marriage is for life – no ifs, ands or buts?

Is this how we protect the abused?

It isn’t always a woman, though often it is. And it doesn’t always happen in the home, though many times it does. No matter who the victim is or where the abuse takes place, the responsibility is the same: to protect, not abandon.

This is our takeaway from the account of the Levite and his second-class wife. We need to open our eyes, listen closely, discern the truth, and protect the abused.

[1] Numerous scholars note the ironic tone that comes through loud and clear in the Hebrew. I have adopted a similar approach in my retelling of the sad account here.

[2] Tammi J. Schneider comments, “Normally a man has other wives before taking a concubine – yet this Levite does not.” Judges (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2000), 249. See also Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 455.

[3] K. Lawson Younger, Jr. notes that “the text does not explicitly blame either party for this separation. But in light of the Levite’s later conduct, it seems most likely that the blame rests with the Levite.” Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) 352.

[4] The LXX, the Greek version of the Old Testament, has the alternate reading: “She became angry with him.”

[5] The same Hebrew word is used metaphorically in Judges for the Israelite practice of turning to foreign gods (Judges 2:17; 8:27, 33).

[6] Trent C. Butler writes, “A woman who had abandoned her husband could not expect to meet a warm welcome elsewhere, even in the house of her father.” Judges (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009) 419.

[7] Webb, 456, explains: “It seems that znh is used metaphorically rather than literally here: the ‘harlotry’ the concubine committed was nothing more, as far as we know, than walking out on her husband; and then, far from giving her favors to other men, she went straight home to her father and stayed there. Her only motive, it seems, was to escape from a situation that she found intolerable.”

[8] “The nature of the domestic problem is not disclosed, but judging from the Levite’s later behavior, one might easily imagine a scenario of abuse.” Danna Nolan Fewell, “Judges,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992/1998) 81.

[9] Webb, 457, says that the wording of speaking “to her heart suggests that she had not left without provocation, and that the Levite intends to win her back by gentle persuasion.”

[10] We are not told why the father is so welcoming. Butler, 420, thinks the father may desire “restoration of his daughter to social and economic stability,” want to “avoid disgrace for the family,” or “see economic advantage for himself.”  Schneider, 254, conjectures: 1) the father was naturally hospitable; 2) he wanted his daughter to go back; 3) he wanted to hear the Levite’s side of the story. Younger, 353, speculates that the father welcomes the Levite because “the separation of his daughter and her husband is a matter of disgrace for the family.”

[11] Butler, 420, remarks: “A comic series of rising and sitting, eating and drinking follows with the father-in-law strongly in control, the Levite silently giving in to each of the father-in-law’s tricks to make him stay, while the secondary wife does nothing and says nothing until it is time to stand to go.”

[12] Susan Niditch observes, “The woman has no voice throughout the men’s conversation.” Judges (Lousville: Westminster John Knox, 2008) 192.

[13] Webb, 458, explains that the string of verbs indicates it was the two men who ate and drank together. Fewell, 81, notes that “a scene of excessive male bonding replaces any attempt at romantic persuasion.”

[14] Webb, 458, notes that the father uses the masculine singular in v. 5, so it is clear the concubine is not included. It is the father and son-in-law who sit down for a meal. The masculine singular referents continue through v. 10, though they are clouded by the English words “you, yourself” that can be singular or plural, masculine or feminine. The point is that the entire scene at the father’s house takes place between the men.

[15] “The young woman has neither presence nor voice. She is at best a pawn in the game being played by her husband and father.” Webb, 459.

[16] Webb, 458-59, notes the father’s repeated reference to the Levite’s “heart” in vv. 5-8, translated in the NIV with “refresh yourself” and “enjoy yourself.” The Hebrew listener would have immediately made the connection to the Levite’s stated purpose for his journey – to speak to his wife’s heart – noting that it never happened. Instead the entire episode turned out to be all about the Levite’s “heart.”

[17] Webb, 460, speculates regarding what significance there might be to the father’s “exaggerated, and finally desperate, hospitality.” Webb concludes that “we do not know.”

[18] “We do not know if [the girl] wanted to return with her husband or if her father had persuaded her or had, more likely, simply arranged for her to return.” Fewell, 81.

[19] The way the Levite left out essential facts when talking to the old man raises suspicions about his character, foreshadowing what is to come, according to Schneider, 259. It is clear that the author of Judges intends the reader to pick up on the man’s duplicitous character.

[20] Younger, 357, remarks that “amazingly, there is no protest from the Levite” when the old man offers the women to the mob.

[21] Niditch, 193, writes: “A most troubling feature… is the apparent willingness of the men to hand over their women to violent miscreants. Implicit is a worldview in which women are regarded as disposable and replaceable. On the other hand, the narration that follows implies that the author [of Judges] does not condone the men’s behavior. They emerge as cowardly, and their complicity in the rape and murder of the woman is a clear and reprehensible violation of covenant.”

[22] Younger, 358, explains it like this: “Having tossed his concubine to the pack of men and being assured that he was no longer personally threatened, the Levite went to bed! He now rises without any apparent remorse for what he has done or concern for his concubine. In fact, he appears to give no thought to her at all until he practically trips over her as he goes out the door.” Schneider, 264, notes, “The point is clear by the way this verse is narrated that the man did not express any remorse nor did he feel responsible for her plight. He made no attempt to save her from the fate to which he threw her. There is no indication that he would have sought her out had she not been lying there.” See also Webb, 469.

[23] “Before the assembled company the Levite gives a cleaned-up, self-serving version of what happened,” according to Ailish Ferguson Eves, “Judges,” in IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002) 145.

[24] Niditch, 193, explains that there is more to the homosexual rape than merely sexual abuse. The point is that a “man who is actually raped is made into the woman, the quintessential defeated enemy. Issues of shame and honor are at play. The worthless men seek to assert their power over against the outsider, whom they seek to humiliate.”

[25] The other tribes first asked that the perpetrators themselves be handed over for judgment. When the Benjamites refused to give them up, they went to war.

[26] Fewell, 82, remarks that the Israelites “are careful to inquire of Yahweh. They are not careful, however, to ask the right question, which is whether or not they should fight at all.”

[27] Not all commentators agree with my assessment of the father’s reasons for dragging out the visit, usually arguing that the father’s extended positive hospitality was meant to contrast with the negative “hospitality” of the men of Gibeah. Robert B. Chisholm Jr. is an example of this perspective: “[The father’s] hospitality will serve as a literary foil to the treatment the Levite receives in Gibeah, for it places the heinous deed of the men of Gibeah against the backdrop of the societal ideal,” A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013) 490. Yet this view does not explain why the father himself chose to extend hospitality so far beyond what was customary, nor does it tie together the various lose ends of the narrative like the girl’s leaving the man in the first place. There is generally a key to a narrative of this sort, and the key in this case is the unusual hospitality of the father. The father’s hospitality is not an example of the “societal ideal,” but rather his doomed attempt to save his daughter and save face at the same time. As noted earlier Butler, 420, points to the “comic series of rising and sitting, eating and drinking,” and the “tricks” the father used to get the Levite to stay. Younger, 353, argues that “the father-in-law’s hospitality borders on the excessive. Six times he offers hospitality.” For the alternative view, see also Schneider, 256.

Rethinking Christian Marriage

Most people I know have an intuitive sense that men and women are equally capable and that in the best marriages they work together as a team. Yet many of these same individuals assume that it is God’s plan for the man to be in charge, based on the fact that the Bible commands wives to submit to husbands in a way that it does not require of husbands.

They believe it was God who established this patriarchal, hierarchical system of marriage.

I don’t fault my friends, though, since I thought the same thing for a very long time. I thought it, I taught it, I lived it. I wouldn’t have couched it in precisely those terms, but I was convinced that the Bible gave men the authority in marriage.

What hadn’t occurred to me was how the Bible’s instructions on marriage compare to the ones about government and employment, how we understand and apply those commands, and how that ought to instruct the way we understand the marriage teachings.

It was time for me to rethink Christian marriage.

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