Is the Bible “Patriarchal”? Yes and No - An Excerpt from Gender Roles and the People of God
Patriarchy—literally, “the rule of the father,” from the Greek patriarkhēs—is any systemic structure in which men or the eldest male hold the power, particularly over women, typically within a household but also in broader society. It has been with us almost since the dawn of humanity.
But is it biblical?
Alice Mathews asks this question and more of this important topic in her new book Gender Roles and the People of God:
How are we to think about the role or place of a woman in a patriarchal system? What is this woman, created as the man’s helper, according to Genesis 2:18? Is she…merely “a loyal and suitable assistant” to a man? Is this what God intended us to learn from that text? Or is there more to the story? If so, what is that story? (36)
Before spotlighting the stand-out women of the Bible in their patriarchal world and assessing the theology behind gender-based hierarchy, Mathews pauses to address two competing views on the birth of patriarchy that place the social structure either in creation or the fall.
View 1: Hierarchy Is Baked into Creation
The Danvers Statement summarizes this first view: “Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall, and was not a result of sin.”
Proponents of gender-based hierarchy don’t believe ontological equality of men and women leads to functional equality; equality of being does not mean an equality of roles. Using Genesis 2:18, they argue four points:
- Eve was created as Adam’s helper
- Eve was created after Adam and is therefore secondary to him
- Eve was “taken from the man” and is therefore secondary to him
- Adam named Eve, making her subordinate to him.
Mathews explains the first argument is the most widely used of the four, quoting George W. Knight:
“It is simply the proper application of concepts and realities to affirm that if one human being is created to be the helper for another human being, the one who receives such help has a certain authority over the one who is his helper.” (38)
Supporting argument two, James Hurley suggests primogeniture from Old Testament law proves Adam’s prior creation gave him superiority. Similarly, Samuele Bacchiocchi argues that since origin and authority are interrelated in the Bible, Adam is the "source" of Eve, requiring appropriate respect and submission.
Finally, Hurley also maintains that naming implies control and domination in the Old Testament, making women subordinate to men.
In short, view one argues that God baked gender-based hierarchy into creation.
View 2: Hierarchy Is Distorted Creation
Mathews carefully addresses each of these four arguments. In summary:
- The Hebrew word ezer used of Eve in Genesis 2:18 is also used of God in our helplessness. “Any idea here of inferiority is untenable. God is not subordinate to his creatures” (39)—and neither is woman to man
- “The primogeniture law came much later in Genesis and we are not justified in projecting this law retroactively back into the creation story…” (41)
- Eve's formation from Adam isn’t about existence and subordination, but relatedness: “God chose a method of creation that underscored the absolute unity of the man and woman” (43)
- The standard OT formula of calling and naming is only found in 2:19 for the animals. Also, “It is in Genesis 3:20, after the fall, that Adam ‘named his wife Eve” (43); woman in v. 23 is not a proper noun.
Drawing our attention back to Genesis 1, she offers an alternative view. Here we see “the whole created universe (from stars in space to fish in the sea) is carefully organized into a hierarchy of order” (36). Genesis 1:26–28 reveals no hint of male-female hierarchy, however:
Everything in this text points to equal sharing in family building and in exercising dominion. God did not say to Adam, “You are to exercise dominion,” and to Eve, “You are to build the family.” Both the man and the woman were given both commands, pointing to shared parenting and shared dominion. In a world already carefully organized into a hierarchy of order, God placed a man and a woman without hierarchy. (37)
If gender-based hierarchy isn’t part of creation, and mutual dominion was God's intent, what happened?
The Fall. Hierarchy “was imposed when [Adam and Eve] chose to disregard [God's] command and eat the forbidden fruit” (46), because sin requires some form of hierarchy. “As a result of their sin, the man was now the master over the woman, and the ground was now master over the man, contrary to God’s original intention in creation” (47).
In short, view two argues that gender-based hierarchy is a distortion of creation; it was never God’s intent.
“In this book,” writes John Jefferson Davis of Gordon-Conwell, “Dr. Alice Mathews harvests a lifetime of serious scholarship and practical ministry experience in the church and academy to make a cogent case—biblical, historical, theological, and practical—for the liberation and employment of the spiritual gifts of all God’s gifted and called people, both women and men.”
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