About Sarah J. O'Connor

Reader, thinker, blogger. Wife, mom, grandma. MA Biblical Studies, Denver Seminary.

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 experience 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 is 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 in what way does Ortlund think Eve usurped 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, depending on their husbands to figure out the grown-up issues.

What about single women? How ought they to respond to temptation? Ortlund never discusses how his ideas apply to singles.

Some people would agree that men should handle the adult stuff, like temptation and where to live and all those pesky final decisions. The vast majority of men in the ancient world would have agreed, especially when we’re talking about dealing with temptation. Every intertestamental man worth his salt knew that women are 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 we can be assured he would have led the way into sin if it had come down to that. If Adam had been the one who was tempted, should Eve have intervened decisively? Should she have reversed roles by refusing to follow Adam’s lead?

This is the lose-lose situation role reversal engenders: women can either sin by disobeying God, or sin by reversing roles.

Have at it, ladies.

For Adam, though, letting Eve handle things was easier; that way he would have someone to blame.

More importantly, however, 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 highly questionable.

Ortlund continues: Eve’s calling was “to help Adam as second-in-command in world rulership.”[3] So, apparently, 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 finally explains how he believes the roles were reversed: Eve assumed “primary responsibility” at the moment of temptation. This was Eve’s big sin. Adam’s big sin was letting her.

I’m not sure where Ortlund finds Eve’s desire for authority over Adam. The passage itself states that the serpent tempted Eve with insubordination to God, not to her husband.

[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 interpolating Eve’s wrong desire for “headship” into the text.

For this transgression, this grasping of power from the man that was not rightly hers, Ortlund claims 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 says that the statement “he will rule over you” can be understood in two ways.

Either:

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.’

Or:

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 main man.

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

One wonders what Ortlund would suggest Eve should have done if she had experienced “ungodly pressure” from her husband. Should she have “knuckled under,” or held her ground and reversed the roles yet again?

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 curse 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]

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

Watch out for all that ruinous listening.

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 much I grant Ortlund. 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. If Adam’s error was merely a matter of not 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, the 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.

Perhaps intended as a comfort to women, created as we are as second-in-command, Ortlund extends this final appeal: “This life is not our fulfillment. This life is not meant to be a final experience. Our pain and limitations point us to God, to the eternal, to the transcendent, where our true fulfillment lies.”[12]

So be encouraged, dear ladies. Your limitations in this life are all part of the plan, the plan to point you to life on the other side.

I’ll let you decide what you think about that.


[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 wretched 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 ridiculous conclusion. If going along with a woman is 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.

Nada.

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 to 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.

Continue reading

Heads, Hats and Honor: Man as the “Head” of Woman in 1 Corinthians 11

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul goes on about church-goers covering and uncovering their heads in worship. At least most people agree that the setting is worship, and the majority understand Paul to be talking about head coverings rather than hair length, although that is a possibility given the wording.

Yet very few of us thoroughly modern Millies and Billys get stuck on the hat issue, thinking we have to apply the passage literally. At least here in the colonies. English royal weddings may flourish under the weight of over-the-top head coverings, but here in the New World men may wear hats and women can arrive hatless to church.

Not only that, these hatted and unhatted individuals can talk in church if they want to. Continue reading

Ignorance is Not Bliss

My latest sermon from Littleton Vineyard, on why engaging deeply with God’s word (including the Old Testament) still matters today. Jesus confronted the Sadducees, those powerful religious leaders who thought they had a corner on biblical interpretation, on their extreme ignorance of God’s word. Let’s not repeat their mistake.

When we lack understanding of the Old Testament, we miss out on the comfort found in David and Bathsheba’s story – that good people can do bad things, that despite our desperate wickedness we can be forgiven for anything, but also that God takes our sin seriously and disciplines those he loves. Continue reading

Jesus as Head of the Church

Lately I’ve been writing about the husband-wife relationship, setting the background for what it means for a man to be the “head” of his wife. An important factor to consider before discussing the specifics of a husband as head of his wife is what Paul meant when he said Jesus was the head of the church.

That’s what I want to look at today. Continue reading