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Eve’s Curse

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1Tim 2:8-15 RSV)

I devoted the previous entry to this blog to “observations concerning the very real damage that unsophisticated or self-serving biblical interpretation can do to people” on the example of the so-called “Curse of Ham.”  The damage done by wrong-headed biblical interpretation in that case was and is, of course, to black people.  A range of other biblical texts, in the hands of careless or selfishly-motivated interpreters, have done and still do similar damage to other groups of people, and even to creation and the public good.  Hopefully, an examination of several of these texts, and, more importantly, of the poor hermeneutical practices that render them dangerous, will help readers to be better biblical interpreters and will provide them with resources for correcting such abuse of scripture as they encounter it.

According to an interpretation with an ancient pedigree, the passage from 1 Timothy cited above describes unequivocally and categorically the proper status of women in God’s order: they are to be submission (even silent); they may not hold positions of authority over men; these strictures result from the role Eve played in the Garden of Eden fiasco. In the background, of course, is the twofold “curse” placed upon Eve (Gen 3:16) involving pain in childbirth (cf. 1 Tim 2:15) and hierarchical gender relations (1 Tim 2:12).

Christians – from Roman Catholic officialdom to American Evangelicals – base their views on issues such as women in ministry and the proper model for Christian marriage on this strict, “literal” interpretation of this passage. Closer examination – of the wording of the text, of its context in scripture, and of its context in history and culture – suggests, however, that this interpretation need not, and indeed, should not prevail.

First, the author (Paul or one of Paul’s disciples, if, as many modern scholars think, the Pastoral Epistles are “Deutero-Pauline”) twice explicitly states that he is describing his personal wishes (v 8 – Βούλομαι boulomai “I wish”) and values (v 12 – οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω ouk epitrepō “I do not turn to” in the sense of “I do not turn over to”), implying that these wishes and desires do not reflect a divine mandate. On occasion elsewhere, Paul makes this distinction between his thinking and divine mandate explicit (cf. 1 Cor 7:12). This observation, in turn, raises the question of the nature of the Bible, of biblical authority, and of the authority of biblical authors.  Readers of the Bible must remember that, although we refer to the Bible, as a whole, as the word of God, it contains many statements that should not and cannot be understood as statements of God’s will. Further, the authority of the prophets (cf. Jeremiah’s hesitancy to denounce Hananiah without the divine mandate to do so – Jer 27-28; or Amos’ efforts to divert God from the plan to punish Israel – Amos 7-8) and of Paul was not a personal characteristic, i.e., they were not personally authoritative in and of themselves. Unless upon divine instruction and inspiration, the words of biblical authors carry no more authority than the words of any other person. Paul, in fact, typically based his claims to authority on tradition (cf. 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1, 3) and biblical interpretation (Rom 1:17; 2:24; 3:4, 10; 4:17, etc.).

Second, this text expresses an attitude toward women that does not comport with scripture taken as a whole.  It describes Miriam (Exod 15:20), Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the four anonymous daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) as prophetesses.  Deborah was a judge, exercising authority over Barak (Judg 4:6-9). The first to bring the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus, the first evangelists, were women. Prisca taught the Gospel message to Apollos (Acts 18:26) and Phoebe was a deaconess (Rom 16:1). In his letters, Paul sent greetings to scores of women whom he hailed as co-workers in Christ.

Indeed, an interpretation that regards the perpetuation of the curse upon Eve as an element of the Gospel entirely misapprehends the Gospel, itself. Paul wrote, “Christ redeems us from the curse of the law” (Gal 3:13), a recognition that enable him to assert just a few verses later that, therefore, “…in Christ…there is neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…male nor female…” (Gal 3:27-8).  In other words, while the fallen state of humanity may involve hierarchical gender relations, a redeemed humanity will enjoy restoration to the original harmonious equality between the genders. Disciples of Jesus Christ should not enforce the curse but participate with God in Christ lifting the curse.

Third, of course, one must take historical and cultural factors into account. First Timothy dates to a period and a place in which a casual observer would probably assume that a well-dressed, bejeweled, well-coiffed, vocal woman was a prostitute or mystery religion priestess.  Indeed, some in the churches Paul founded across the eastern Mediterranean probably came from such backgrounds. Everything that I have already said notwithstanding, one can understand why it would have been important, even in the symbolic mode of dress, to distance one’s self from such pasts.  In fact, if the passage before us continues to speak a positive word to Christians, and I believe that it does, it is probably on this point. Even our symbolical statements of who we are, as in how we dress and the vocabulary we use, stand under the claim of God. We should be careful not to undermine our confession through our style of dress and manner of comportment.

Finally, many of the conservative, Evangelical Christians, including Baptists in the South, who insist on the strict interpretation of the “silent and submissive” interpretation of this Timothy passage, do not employ a consistent hermeneutic.  They take “literally” the components of this passage with which they are comfortable; but ignore or explain away the rest. If this passage calls for “silent and submissive” women, it also calls for women to dress frumpily, to wear their hair simply, and to eschew jewelry.  Understood “literally,” this text calls for Christian women to be silent, submissive, and plain. I find it somewhat hypocritical for male evangelicals who insist on the “silent and submissive” interpretation not also to insist that their wives be as plain as possible. I suspect an ulterior motive – the will to dominate instead of the determination to serve as the lowliest.

I hope that readers of the Bible will see the importance of taking in the full biblical panorama. A snapshot cannot convey the breadth and grandeur.  Readings of the Bible designed to limit God’s grace do damage. The Bible is not the problem.

 

Note:  It is summer. I am busy with family visits and household chores in addition to my regular schedule of editing and writing.  Until September, I will be making blog entries irregularly, but I will not be entirely quiet and come fall, I will return to a normal weekly (or nearly so) schedule.

Seeing Only What We Expect to See

Luke 24:13-35

According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel reading for this Sunday, April 30, 2017, is the story of the encounter between two of Jesus’ disciples and the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, some seven miles outside Jerusalem. Only Luke tells this story, suggesting that he gathered it along with other information during his own research (cf. Continue reading Seeing Only What We Expect to See

Spring Break

I will be taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks to tend to some pressing professional and personal concerns.  Look for something new the week of March 20.

Until then, keep following Jesus.

Go to Shiloh (Jer 7:12)

“Do not trust deceptive words, saying ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these [stones]’.”  Jer 7:4, my translation

Sometime in the outgoing seventh century BCE, God sent Jeremiah to the temple in Jerusalem to warn the Judeans that, unless they changed their behavior, God would unleash the Babylonians to conquer. The venue for Jeremiah’s message proved to be as significant as the words themselves. Early in the sermon Jeremiah apparently quoted a Continue reading Go to Shiloh (Jer 7:12)

The Series Continues with “Angels We Have Heard on High”

As Ellen explains:

“On the fourth day of Christmas, my family sang to theee… Continue reading The Series Continues with “Angels We Have Heard on High”

Twelve “Moments Musicaux” for Christmas

My (professional singer) daughter was home this past weekend armed with the intention of reviving (and recording) a family Christmas tradition.  With her permission, I will sharing twelve Moments Musicaux over the next several days in the place of a standard blog entry. (The description of this blog includes music, after all).  You will hear and see my wife, Continue reading Twelve “Moments Musicaux” for Christmas

Thanksgiving Break

The end of the semester rushes up to meet me; the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature with its editorial board meetings and panel presentations begins at the end of this week; Thanksgiving will be waiting as soon as I return.  You will forgive me, I trust, if I take a couple of weeks off from blogging.

Instead, I have just posted in the “Sermons and Lectures” section recordings of the first two of five sessions I led in October on the topic of “Israel’s Ancestral Narratives” at First Presbyterian Church here in Richmond.  Have a listen. I will post sessions three through five next week.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!  If you will be travelling, please take extra precautions on the highways.  Rest well before setting out, stop frequently to refresh, and drive defensively.

“Like a Thief in the Night” 1 Thess 5:2

1 Thess 5:2

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” – Chicken Little

Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, which scholars date to the early 50’s CE making it probably the oldest document in the New Testament, largely to send greetings and encouragement, but also to assuage a fear that had arisen in the church.  The New Testament provides ample evidence that the early church eagerly anticipated the Continue reading “Like a Thief in the Night” 1 Thess 5:2

Sticks and Stones

We teach children the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” to equip them against hateful and harmful things that people say. The saying means to remind people – the adults passing it on and the children learning it – that what people say about us does not necessarily have anything to do with who we actually are. Continue reading Sticks and Stones

Because he could

Gen 32:28

Translating from one language to another always involves imprecision and a degree of informed speculation.  Such is especially the case with dead languages since the translator cannot have access to a native speaker for advice.  One passage in Genesis has long intrigued me because the almost universally accepted translation does not seem to fit the Continue reading Because he could