Abigail and David’s Comrades: A Case of Great and Not-So-Great Advice

David, the future king, is on the lam. Except for brief moments of skin-deep remorse Saul is bent on impaling the young man who replaced the troubled king as the focus of public adulation. Seriously, how could the groupies do any less than swoon over the ruddily handsome warrior who took down a lion, a bear, and Goliath? And how could Saul do anything other than become absolutely, insanely jealous? So throughout the second half of 1 Samuel, Israel’s new hero is on the run.

The question the text seems to ask, especially in chapters 24-26, is whether David will stoop to Saul’s level. Under the pressure of the crazy king’s unrelenting pursuit, will David become just as murderous? Will David permit the strain of the continual fighting for his life, barely evading Saul here, there, and everywhere, to consume his heart and destroy his integrity? Will he allow his sense of responsibility for Saul’s ruthless slaughter of the priests of Nob to push him over the edge?[1]

Yet even as the text confronts David with three sterling opportunities to take a wrong turn, it also turns the spotlight on who advises David well and who counsels him poorly.

Guess who lands on the right side of history.

In chapter 24 David faces the wild prospect of doing away with Saul once and for all. What made Saul choose this cave to relieve himself, the very place David and his men were sheltering? It couldn’t be merely coincidence, could it? David’s men didn’t think so. No, they argued, it must be God.

So Saul took three thousand able young men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats. He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. 

Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” With these words David sharply rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way. (1 Sam. 24:2-7)

There is no record of God ever saying he would give Saul into David’s hands, so it’s likely that David’s men were jumping to conclusions. Yet it seems that David was influenced by their argument, at least to some extent, since he responded by creeping up behind Saul and cutting off a bit of his robe.[2] The fact that only afterward is David conscience-stricken, rebuking his men harshly and commanding them not to attack Saul, suggests that the men’s reasoning did affect David’s initial response. 

In the end, though, David makes the right choice.

Skipping ahead to the third narrative (1 Sam. 26) we find David and Abishai sneaking into Saul’s camp at night and stealing his spear and water jug. Saul and all his men of action are in a very deep snooze, thanks to the Lord himself, missing the action and missing the argument between David and Abishai. 

Then David set out and went to the place where Saul had camped. He saw where Saul and Abner son of Ner, the commander of the army, had lain down. Saul was lying inside the camp, with the army encamped around him. David then asked Ahimelek the Hittite and Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, “Who will go down into the camp with me to Saul?” 

“I’ll go with you,” said Abishai. So David and Abishai went to the army by night, and there was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying around him. Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands. Now let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of the spear; I won’t strike him twice.” 

But David said to Abishai, “Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless? As surely as the Lord lives,” he said, “the Lord himself will strike him, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed. Now get the spear and water jug that are near his head, and let’s go.” (1 Sam. 26:5-11)

No delayed response this time. As soon as the words leave Abishai’s lips David jumps all over him: Haven’t you figured it out by now, Abi? We don’t do that!! We don’t stoop to Saul’s level and we don’t kill the Lord’s anointed! To be fair, Abishai must have wondered why in the world they snuck into Saul’s camp if they weren’t going to do anything. He had been bold enough to accompany David, remember, even as Ahimelek mutely passed on this stellar opportunity to put his life on the line. Sneak into the center of a camp filled with ruthless warriors? No problem, Davey. You can hardly blame Abishai for his confusion. 

Once again, despite Abishai’s unhelpful urging, David makes the right decision.

And, significantly, sandwiched between these two hair-raising accounts is the story of David’s encounter with mistress Abigail (1 Sam. 25). This time, unaccountably, it’s David who flies into a rage and is consumed with murderous intent. Offended by Nabal’s insults David displays the passions of a man under pressure, swearing to do away not only with Nabal but also with every man in this wealthy landowner’s extensive household. Sure, Nabal was an arrogant jerk who wouldn’t listen to anyone. And sure, cultural expectations may have dictated that Nabal give provisions to David and his men.

But responding with dagger, sword, and spear? That might be, well, overkill.

Disaster seems inevitable until Nabal’s bold and beautiful wife Abigail intervenes.[3] With diplomatic genius Abigail appeals to David’s better instincts, convincing him that he would not want to carry a boatload of bloodguilt on his shoulders as he ascends the throne, as he surely will one day. 

When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground. She fell at his feet and said: “Pardon your servant, my lord, and let me speak to you; hear what your servant has to say. Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name – his name means Fool and folly goes with him. And as for me, your servant, I did not see the men my lord sent. And now, my lord, as surely as the lord your God lives and as you live, since the Lord has kept you from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands, may your enemies and all who are intent on harming my lord be like Nabal. (1 Sam. 25:23-26)

Abigail goes on to affirm that David will indeed become ruler of all Israel one day. And when that happens: 

“My lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.” (1 Sam. 25:31)

David’s reply to Abigail’s remarkable speech says it all.

David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak.” (1 Sam. 25:32-33)

As they say, all’s well that ends well, and in this case it does. David recognizes that Abigail has been sent to him by God and has spoken for God, expressing the Lord’s will and direction for David in this circumstance. And David is not alone in his assessment; even the rabbis thought Abigail was among the seven women – yes, a whole, entire seven! – who had been “graced with the holy spirit.”[4]  

In the end the Lord strikes down Nabal, David marries Abigail, and David (eventually) becomes king.

There you have it. Three splendid opportunities to commit heinous evil, yet our more-than-a-bit passionate hero manages to squeak through unsullied. And while David’s men push their leader to do wrong, an otherwise unknown woman presses him to do right.

My question for you today is why, in a world where literary structure is formed more around thematic than chronological development, the narrator placed the Abigail story where he did. What I mean is that ancient authors weren’t so worried about precisely what happened next, ordering everything exactly to the calendar, but rather about what shed light on what.[5] That is, these three narratives didn’t necessarily come one after the other in the Bible because that’s the way they happened in real life, but because they help to interpret each other.

And that begs the question: Precisely what is interpreting what here?

Numerous scholars note the implicit comparisons and contrasts between the characters. Saul and Nabal are two of a kind, fools who refuse to listen to the voice of reason. By sandwiching Nabal between the Saul episodes, the biblical author can imply that Saul is a fool without ever going so far as to directly say so, which might have been an uncool way to speak of a king.[6] David, who listens to the voice of wisdom (embodied by Abigail), is starkly contrasted with these fools. Though he has several superb chances to embrace folly, David ultimately declines.

But what about Abigail? Is she compared to anyone? 

Well, in an old but influential study Jon Levenson compares the Abigail narrative to the one about David and Bathsheba, arguing that in both cases “David moves to kill a man and to marry his wife.”[7] In the first case David gets his new woman legitimately, after her husband’s death, but in the second, well, you know the story. Levenson’s point is that in 1 Samuel 25 we have “the very first revelation of evil in David’s character” and, according to Levenson, this “evil” has to do with scheming to obtain another man’s wife. 

Are you scratching your head yet? Does the text say that David wanted to kill Nabal in order to snag Abigail? Or because he was offended? 

You tell me.

To me this is where Levenson’s argument falls apart. The reason David sets out to kill Nabal has nothing to do with Abigail; in fact, as far as we know, David hasn’t even met her yet. No, David decides to go after Nabal because his “pride has been wounded.”[8]

Levenson does not contrast Abigail and Bathsheba directly. He simply makes the suggestion and then goes on to make a big deal about Abigail being “the ideal woman,” a living embodiment of the Proverbs 31 archetype. Levenson explains that Abigail is the epitome of womanhood because she manages to covertly distance herself from her dastardly husband, saving the day, while remaining overtly loyal to him. If Abigail had “called a spade a spade,” that would “prove her unfitness for the wifely role.”[9] This would be disastrous, as you know, since Abigail eventually becomes David’s wife.

So although he never states it directly, Levenson does seem to imply a contrast to Bathsheba, that less-than-ideal woman, the dastardly “temptress.”[10]

Comparing the Abigail and Bathsheba narratives and contrasting David’s behavior in each is legitimate, but I think Levenson misses the point when it comes to Abigail. In the immediate context the more-than-obvious comparison is between Abigail and David’s men. Or perhaps I should say contrast. Abigail plays the same role in her narrative as David’s men do in theirs, as advisor to David. 

Yet how they counsel David is wildly distinct.

When the men say kill, Abigail says restrain. When the men mislead, Abigail leads. When the men rely on assumption (Hasn’t God given Saul into your hands?), Abigail relies on truth (You will regret this when you become king). Though in our modern world we tend to imbibe the Bible in piecemeal fashion, perhaps a chapter a day, if you read right through 1 Samuel (or listen to it all at once) the point-counterpoint is patently clear:

Abigail is elevated as a wise counselor — in direct contrast to David’s men.

What might this mean? And how do we apply it to our world today?

Well, not that women are always right or always have the best solution. Or that women are the wisest people on the block or even the church board. Neither does it mean that we shouldn’t listen to men or that men always shoot from the hip. 

Not at all.

But 1 Samuel 24-26 does demonstrate that sometimes a woman brings a perspective that a man hasn’t or perhaps wouldn’t. And that at times a man is better off listening to a woman than to other men. It might also suggest that women can be gifted in diplomacy and could be of great value in those roles.

And considering the many biblical examples of a man bringing wise counsel, this passage also probably indicates that we need both men and women in decision-making positions, working together toward solutions. Too much of one perspective or the other likely leads to an imbalance, an emphasis on one type of response over and above another.

There’s a lot more going on in this text that I won’t take the time to discuss, like how David strengthens his position in Hebron (where he first becomes king) by marrying the widow of one of the region’s most influential landholders,[11] and how the narrator uses the same terms of Abigail (intelligent and beautiful) that he does of David.[12]

But for today, all I want you to ponder is why the author of 1 Samuel intentionally contrasted Abigail with David’s men. 

It’s worth a second thought.


[1] According to Bill T. Arnold, 1 and 2 Samuel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 354, these episodes “are narrated in close proximity … in order to help us measure the development in David’s character.” Arnold applies this principle only to the first and last accounts (chs. 24 and 26), however. The ESV Study Bible, 530, states: “The three episodes in the next three chapters all have the same theme: David, who as a warrior has already killed many of the Lord’s enemies, should not kill for his own advantage.”

[2] Mary J. Evans writes, “David would have known the oracle was not valid, but in this emotionally charged situation he is easily persuaded and probably relishes the challenge.” In 1 & 2 Samuel (Rapids: Baker, 2012), 107.

[3] Abigail “takes immediate and decisive action.” CEB Study Bible, 460.

[4] Jon D. Levenson, “1 Samuel 25 as Literature and as History,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978): 20.

[5] The extended passage is an example of narrative analogy, “a device whereby the narrator can provide an internal commentary on the action which he is describing, usually by means of cross-reference to an earlier action or speech. Thus narratives are made to interact in ways which may not be immediately apparent; ironic parallelism abounds wherever this technique is applied.” Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988), 147, quoting R. P. Gordon.

[6] Evans, 113.

[7] Levenson, 24.

[8] CEB Study Bible, 460.

[9] Levenson, 19.

[10] I do not think Bathsheba was a temptress; in this I am reiterating the view of many commentators. As far as the contrast with Bathsheba, others are explicit where Levenson is not. Arnold, 344, writes, “In contrast to Bathsheba, Abigail is the ‘ideal woman,’ whose ‘rhetorical genius’ prevents David from killing her husband.” 

[11] Judging by his wealth and influence Nabal may have been the leading man of the region. By marrying his widow David inherited not only Nabal’s wealth but also his position. See Levenson, 24-27; and Robert D. Bergen 1, 2 Samuel (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 253.

[12] “Intelligent” is used of David in 1 Sam. 18:5, 30; David is “beautiful” in 1 Sam. 16:12.

In Search of Male Leadership: The Logical Inconsistency of Defining a Man’s Initiative in One Way and a Woman’s in Another

Recently I attended a conference on the theology of marriage hosted by Denver Seminary. Over lunch I had a brief conversation with one of the presenters, a megachurch pastor and chair of the theology department at a school in another state. 

We were talking about whether the differences between men and women have to do with leading and following or with something else. My discussion partner explained that he does lead his wife and that this is a very important aspect of manhood in general and his manhood in particular, since he views himself as the priest of his home. As an example of his leadership, he mentioned that he often says to his wife, “Let’s pray.” She usually does the praying, he noted, since she is better at it than he. But his point was that he is doing the leading by suggesting they pray. Continue reading “In Search of Male Leadership: The Logical Inconsistency of Defining a Man’s Initiative in One Way and a Woman’s in Another”

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![2]

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, but 1 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 difference to 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).

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

A Husband is Not His Wife’s Shepherd

The Bible compares the relationship of a husband and wife to that of Christ and the church, implying that a human marriage is somehow a head-body connection like that of Jesus and his bride. We read that a man is the “head” of his wife like Christ is the “head” of the church, and we assume we comprehend what is intended. Not only do we know how Christ functions in relation to the church, by leading and directing and providing, but we also understand what it means to be the head of a corporation, head of state, or the head of a household.

It’s as plain as day.

Or is it? Continue reading “A Husband is Not His Wife’s Shepherd”

Tradition, Teaching and Women in the Church: Podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery

I recently spent an hour chatting with psychologist Dr. Juli Slattery and author Michele Cushatt about how each of us is personally navigating the things we face as women who have a leadership and teaching role in the church. In our Java with Juli podcast Tradition, Teaching and Women in the Church, we also look at the role tradition and culture have played in forming our understanding both of Scripture and of a woman’s place in the church. While you’re over at Authentic Intimacy, you might want to check out some of Juli’s other podcasts and articles that cover a wide range of subjects.

How Manhood Teachings Harm Good Men

I used to be a big proponent of manhood studies, once even convincing my husband to undertake one with our son. Now, however, I wonder if there isn’t a dark side to our well-intentioned efforts to aid men in becoming who God intends them to be.

Christian manhood teachings increasingly stress the leadership role of men, telling guys they are the spiritual leader in their home charged with the task of leading family devotions, hearing from God, and making the final decisions. Continue reading “How Manhood Teachings Harm Good Men”

Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 3

In the first two segments of this three-part series I discussed three of the most important qualities I would look for in a senior pastor if I were in the market, which I’m not. Today I’ll add one final thought. If you haven’t read them yet, you can access parts one and two here.

A Pastor Who Embraces Ethical Church Governance

This might seem like a no-brainer, but in my experience it’s harder than you would think for a church to put in place a system that ensures ethical practices, particularly when it comes to finances. In this post I’m not going to try to convince you that one form of church governance is better than another, whether congregational, Presbyterian, episcopal, or the more recent development of senior pastor as CEO, although I have my opinion on that. Continue reading “Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 3”

Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 2

In the first segment of this three-part series, I wrote about two of the most important qualities I would look for in a senior pastor if I were in the market which, by the way, I’m not.

Sorry about that.

But if you aspire to the pastorate, hoping to be someone’s pastor somewhere some day, today’s discussion may be the most helpful to you personally. Applying what you read here may make the difference between surviving for the long haul versus crashing and burning before your time. Continue reading “Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 2”

Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 1

Don’t have a heart attack. I have no plans to leave my church. But life throws its curve balls now and then and I have learned to be flexible. So if, for some unforeseen reason, I happened to be in the market for a new church or even just a new pastor, here are a couple of things I would look for in the person chosen to lead the flock. In my next two posts I will talk about two more. Continue reading “Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 1”

%d bloggers like this: