Thursday, August 9, 2007

Gender Roles (4) -- The Law

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3

I don’t know if this study continues to interest anyone. My lovely wife tells me my posts are too long in this study. I will try to be as succinct as possible, but I also want to be thorough. I do wish this could become a conversation rather than a lecture, so feel free to offer your thoughts and reflections in the comments section.

Review: Thus far in our study, we have seen that there was no role/authority distinction based on gender in the creation. The tension between male and female and the consequent male domination of woman came as a result of the fall. God pronouncement of male rule in Genesis 3 was not necessarily prescriptive, but can be accurately understood as predictive.

Our study would be woefully incomplete if we stopped at Genesis 3. The rest of the Old Testament presents a mixed picture of gender roles. How can it be understood? We seek to answer this question today.

If our understanding of Genesis 1-3 is correct (and it very well may not be) then one might expect the Law that God gave to be consistent with that egalitarianism. However, the Law is anything but clear on how it views gender roles.

The law was delivered and recorded in the midst of a patriarchal world, as God predicted in Genesis 3. There are many aspects of the Law which fit perfectly well into that patriarchal culture. In fact, there are many things in the law which even the most traditional/patriarchal of modern readers would find objectionable. John Mark Hicks lists the following as examples:

  • A husband could overrule commitments made by his wife prior to her marriage but there is no indication that the reverse was true (Num. 30:6-15).
  • The legal status of married women was analogous to that of a daughter. The wife had no greater degree of independence than a child (Num. 30:16)
  • A husbands could divorce his wife, but there is no indication that a wife could divorce her husband.
  • Polygamy was acceptable for males, but not for females.
  • Inheritance is passed through the male line without equal share for females in the line but where there are no male heirs, daughters inherit ahead of the brothers of the male who died (Num. 27:1-11).
  • A widow did not inherit the property of her husband but she was cared for by the inheritor of the estate (sons, brothers, etc.)

However, there were also elements of the law which ran against that patriarchalism. These elements may not catch the eye modern reader who is accustomed to a much more egalitarian society. However, when considered against the backdrop of the culture of the time, these elements certainly elevated the status of women. Again, John Mark Hicks gives examples:

  • Adultery … is prohibitive for both male and female. It is viewed as destructive to the home.
  • Wives are not generally regarded as property and there is an embedded ideal within the text of shared identity (image of God) and shared task (caring for the world).
  • Deuteronomy 24:1-4 protects women. The law forbids a man from remarrying a woman he had previously divorced. In ancient Near Eastern culture men could remarry women to secure new assets they had acquired through another marriage.
  • Females were not abandoned at birth as in many cultures.

So we have on the one hand indications that God wanted his people to be patriarchal in their practice and, on the other hand, indications that he wanted them to break free from the patriarchal practices around them. How are we to understand this? I see some possibilities:

(1) God endorsed patriarchalism, but understood that it could go “too far” and fail to recognize the woman as also created in God’s image. However, I still find it difficult to understand some elements of the Law. For instance, in Exodus 21:7-11 actually ALLOWS a father to sell his daughter into slavery. Perhaps my mind is too clouded by American democracy, but regardless of whether you are egalitarian, complimentarian, patriarchal, or feminist, I can’t fathom how this is representative of God’s ideal for society, His people, or families. Yet it is a part of the law which He gave.

(2) God’s ideal is egalitarianism. However, bringing about this ideal among people was something that He chose in His sovereignty to do incrementally. Thus, he accommodated the prevailing culture to some extent while clearly indicating a disagreement with that prevailing culture. This position makes sense to me, but certainly leaves many unanswerable questions. For instance, why would God choose to do this incrementally when He required his people to be radically different from culture in other ways (i.e. circumcision, diet, monotheism, etc.)? I don’t think this question is answerable beyond his divine wisdom and sovereignty. However, it rings truer to me than the previous option.

My plan was to cover the rest of the Old Testament in this post. However, I fear that I have already violated my previously stated desire to be succinct. Therefore, next week we will look at how God actually used women in Israel. Until then, do you see any weaknesses in my assessment of the Scriptures thus far? Would you interpret them differently?


paul said...

Jeff, my wife often tells me the same thing about the length of my posts :)

It is of course hard proecting back onto a culture which we have very little in common with today - we do not live in a near eastern ancient context.

Using the principle of incarnation God is clearly working within time, culture, practice - i don't know`enough about other near eastern ancient practices of the treatment of women by other nations to know whether the law in this regard is particularly advocating :)

Recovering said...

Interesting post. Thanks for the link to the my Straw Poll post. As somone who used to live in Cedar Park and went to Leander Jr. High School, it's good to see someone from Leander in the blogosphere.

Lin said...

I was just rereading Torah this week and we see that God had laws for how they were to treat foreign slaves and they were different than how they were to treat Hebrew slaves.

So, is slavery good? It is never outlawed in the NT, either. However, Jesus was radical in the NT teaching that a believing slave is to be treated like a brother in Christ by his owner.

Was God working within the framework of the fall and sin to show His Glory? That is what I think about these things because like you said, the law is confusing. And then we have Deborah, Huldah, etc.

BTW: God did allow daughters in ONE instance to inherit their father's land when he died with no sons. However, later, after some complained, they were required to marry ONLY within their tribe and keep the land. I think this was in Lev. (they run together and my eyes cross reading all that!)

Daniel said...

I don't know if I agree that God adopts patriarchy as a result of the fall, i.e. women being sold.

This seems incongruous with the God who loves me. I think of Old Testament War, the gruesomeness and the context of David who says "happy are they who will dash your children against the stones" (something to that effect) in one of his psalms. Things have changed in these issues.

Context is very important, and this has changed. The PRINCIPLE remains unchanged however, i.e. Man can be head of the woman in the family. However social differences between then and now make the principle especially important to the home, and less so in society (there is no slavery for example).

We must simply understand the spirit of the principle as observed in scripture.