Just Like a Woman, But What Is a Woman?

feminineIn the first and second posts in this series, I drew our gaze to a problem that is growing in attention and concern for Reformed and other church members, and then I offered some general direction for thinking through what a solution should look like. In that second post, I made the suggestion – no doubt unexpected, even strange – that a remedy for improved health includes some close and patient reflection on one of the most curious features of Levitical law: the relationship of a menstruating woman to sancta. More fully understanding the Levitical woman, I suggest, means having in place a widely clarifying and organizing biblical reality. This feature of the Levitical woman, in relation to the rest of the canon to which it belongs, illumines the “why” of so much of the biblical “what” concerning the responsibilities of headship and the special concern in Scripture for the feminine among us.

Today I would like to nudge us gently further down that path, and it would seem a useful service to orient us more concretely to the big picture at the outset. Giving away the ending at the beginning is bad story writing, but it is good theology. What is that ending? In short, it is that the statutes and ordinances of the Law, the narratives, a wide range of biblical types and figures, the wisdom literature, and the New Testament Gospels and Writings all commend to us a vision of the unique theo-ontology of a woman as a kind of sacred space who exists as such in relation to her husband who is her head, himself a kind of priest charged to protect, nurture, and cultivate that sacred space. This unique ontology of woman as created is conveyed beautifully in, among other forms, a range of biblical homologies as well as explicit links (both negative and positive) between the woman and the promised land/city. And the true “end” of the story of the biblical ontology of the feminine is an eschatology of the feminine, an eschatology figured forth and directly taught in the biblical preoccupation with the widows, mothers, and daughters of Israel, and ultimately of course in the redemptive love of Christ the groom-head for his Bride, the Church. Ultimately, the eschatological ontology of woman as a distinct creature from the man is an eschatology of the Lord himself. So says the Gospel.

Ten Observations

But we are gesturing now too far into generalities, so note the following ten brief observations, each of which will be taken up and explored in the course of this series of posts. Don’t worry: they will never be confused with Luther’s 95 Theses, but perhaps they will help the reader plot some of the various points in this constellation of ideas. (I will leave out the myriad of biblical (and other) references at this point in order simply to get the ideas out there for reflection, and we will pause over them in time, d.v.)

1. The Apostle Paul teaches us that the woman is the glory of the man. This is a provocative teaching on his part in his context, yet it is utterly unsurprising against the backdrop of the preceding biblical tradition. Paul’s words, however, give a special focus to the idea, and in context they have the precise function of correcting errors regarding the ontology and eschatology of the feminine.

2. The same Apostle points us to the significance, often overlooked, of the fact that the woman was created from and after man. The LORD could have created man and woman at the same time, but he did not, and the creation of woman second, rather than being a sign of inferiority to the first, is in Scripture an eschatological marker: the second is the glory of the first. She is created to be his eschatological glory. Instead of reducing her, it elevates her.

3. The significance of this eschatological marker (second, and from man, as his glory) is developed by Paul in the direction of its implications for understanding the nature of Adam’s and Eve’s Edenic transgressions, as well as the special class of temptations that belong to women as glory creatures.

4. However, Paul is not inventing this reading any more than John does, who teaches the same. It is the way Leviticus “reads” Genesis. Or, better, it is how Genesis was always supposed to be read, with Leviticus, and there are many indicators within both texts that this is the case. For Christians, we must remember, there is no such thing as Genesis as such but only, and from the very beginning, the Genesis given with and of a piece with the Torah and specifically Leviticus, and ultimately the Christian canon as a whole. The canonical environment for any text is not a later add-on; if we believe what the Scriptures say about themselves, the canonical environment is the natural environment of any text. Separated from canon, a text is an unrecognizable orphan. In our case, the temple/sanctuary world of Eden is a specifically Levitical world, and remembering this helps sensitize us to the nature of the roles, commands, and sins of Genesis 1-3.

5. To gain a basic appreciation of the biblical teaching regarding the “eschatological ultimacy” of the feminine, rightly conceived, we need only note that in the inspired Scriptures Eve is created from Adam, her head, as his glory; the land, the people Israel, and the city Jerusalem are feminine realities; Christ has redeemed his people who are conceived of as a feminine reality, the Bride of Christ; and Revelation 21-22 teaches us that the eternal mode of the Church’s glorified existence is properly conceived of as a feminine mode: the consummated and glorified new Jerusalem-Bride. The biblical Lady Jerusalem and Mother Jerusalem are not figures in the sense that they are somehow less real and less relevant to how we think of the feminine; to the contrary, she is most real and most relevant. To ask, then, about the why of biblical teaching regarding men and women in relationship, marriage and its bliss or burdens, and the forms of faithful ecclesiastical order and life is to ask what is the significance of this prominent and consistent biblical motif.

6. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the most familiar and classic OT text concerning divorce legislation, the series of steps in the argument resolve finally in the “why” of verse 4, which is that Israel must not bring sin upon the land that the LORD is giving as an inheritance. But why does the husband’s maltreatment of his wife (as per Daniel Block, this is what is in view in vv. 1-4a) have anything to do with the defilement of the land? Few scholars seem to ask this question, though books innumerable have been devoted to the rest of the unit. We will point to the biblical homology of woman and land to illuminate the Genesis-Levitical connection assumed in the text. When we do so, we discover the links between this divorce text and all the other OT ones, including the otherwise curious command by God to Israel in Ezra to divorce their foreign wives, a command beautifully reversed in 1 Cor. 7 because of what the Church is now as the Body of Christ.

7. As a sexual creature who embodies, in her sexual physiology, the degrees of sancta, biblical texts regarding the maltreatment of woman use the vocabulary of sexual violence and transgression not only for adultery and rape, but also for other forms of serious neglect, oppression, and the like. (Older Reformed writers were remarkably sensitive to this in their ethical manuals.) The biblical range of actions and destructive modes of relating are expressive of the primitive and universal sinful propensity, since the Fall, for men to fail to act with priestly care and concern for sancta, and which is captured in the language of mashal in Gen. 3:16 (“he will rule over you”). Mashal in Gen. 3:16 is, I will argue, not a reference to the (continuing, not new) fact of the husband’s headship. It is instead a reference to what is new with the Fall: oppressive rule in the form of an exploitative misuse of the real and continuing fact of the husband’s or authoritative figure’s headship into a tool of harm. The Gen. 3:16 mashal specifically is an etiology for the wide range of those abuses of power throughout the OT and NT and in our own experience, whether political, social-communal, marital, or otherwise. By nature we sin, and we sin often in abusing positions of relative strength or power. (“No poison or sword ought to terrify you as much as the lust for domination.” ~ Bernard of Clairvaux to his pupil, Pope Eugene. And as a friend of mine noted to me recently, “some guy named Tolkien wrote a story about this.”) As D. Block has demonstrated, the second iteration of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy already indicates this concern to restrain mashal in the ways it differs from the Decalogue in Exodus, clarifying the tenth commandment through reorganization especially in order to restrain exploitation of the Exodus form of it. Judges is a book-length narrative depiction of Israel’s devolution into Canaanitism precisely in the form of Canaanite-like mashal abuse of women: wives, concubines, and daughters. And so on.

8. Instead of the woman’s eschatological “location” in relation to man serving as some kind of warrant for her independence from him, biblically it works in precisely the opposite direction. Indeed, the unique temptation the woman faces in life is the unique temptation of the “glorious ones” in Scripture: to confuse her glorious status with the notion that she no longer needs the one whose glory she in fact is. This is the principle at work in Paul’s remark about Eve in 1 Timothy 2, against the backdrop not only of Genesis 1-3 but also Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14, and reflected again later in the climactic letter to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3).

9. These observations bear directly on how we understand what is going on in a wide range of Scriptural places. For instance, the Proverbs 31 woman, we will see, is chiastically described so that her central “virtue” is the way her husband is glorified by her beauty. The glory of the royal man of the Song of Songs is – and at one point especially dramatically – his approaching bride. We add to these what is happening in Ezekiel 16, Hosea, Jeremiah 3, Esther, Ruth, Sarah, Abigail, the spurned concubine in Ex. 21, Tamar, Dinah, Rahab, the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, Joseph’s righteousness in relation to an apparently adulterous Mary, the healing of the woman with the “issue of blood,” the meaning of porneia in Matthew’s “exception clause” divorce passages, Lydia who is the Proverbs 31 woman of Acts, the household codes in the NT epistles, the women in Corinth, the holy children and unbelieving spouse in relation to the believing spouse in 1 Cor. 7, the washing and glorification of the Revelation Bride, and on and on and on.

10. If the Scriptures revel and exude in these ways regarding the significance of what makes a woman different from a man, and vice versa, then the tragedy of the homosexualist agenda and of family or ecclesiastical maltreatment of women is clearer. In the homosexualist agenda, the push for a distortion of equality as uniformity, of practical undifferentiated sexuality, of sexuality as mere cultural more, we lose what makes us meaningful. We lose, too, what makes a woman uniquely special. The homosexuality agenda is thus a great oppression of women. In family or ecclesiastical maltreatment of women, the urgency of the biblical proscriptions is lost on us if we ignore the motif of the feminine as a kind of sacred space which is violated in the failure to protect, nurture, provide for, and love – a violation which, in marital form, can be so severe that it ruptures the one-flesh reality.

That Levitical Woman

What, then, about that Levitical woman? I will begin in the next post to outline what is happening in Leviticus, but – after tipping my hat in this direction already in the notes above – here is a brief window into her significance for our question. The Levitical woman is impure for 7 days during menstruation and 40 days following parturition (Lev. 15:19-24; 12:2-4). However, over against the assumptions of countless critical readers of Leviticus, feminist and otherwise, this is not reflective of an alleged biblical misogyny and a lower-than-male ontology for women. Quite to the contrary, in fact. Leviticus develops a rich, even captivating homologous relationship between the woman and the distinct regions or areas of the wilderness sanctuary.

As we shall discover with the help of some very useful scholarship on the question, in her unique sexual ontology and physiology, focused particularly on her reproductive cycle (the “mother of life”), the woman is conceived of as embodying the degrees of nearness to tabernacle sancta: there is a strict corresponding relationship of (1) the stages of relative purity in the sanctuary set-up (outside in the wilderness in the region of death, then within the boundaries but not at the center in sacred space, and then at the center) to (2) the relative condition of the woman (first described as with a pathological blood flow, then with a normal monthly blood flow, then without the blood flow). What transpires in her physiology is a microcosm of the biblical accounts of the creation and flood, as well as of the glorious temple itself. And this, we shall see, informs and in some cases directly shapes the biblical legislation regarding the urgency of proper protection of, care, and love of a woman. It also, in its variety of biblical reverse images, identifies the tragic and dark forms of the failure to properly do so.

To be sure, the woman as glorious, and its intimate connection to the notion of sacred space, has been tragically and idolatrously distorted into the worship of woman from time immemorial. But this distortion – whether in ancient Greek form or contemporary radical feminist form – is a distortion of the Creator’s design, of his purpose, and thus of something we would do well to remember. It is also worth reminding ourselves that Christians don’t do pendulum theology. Orthodoxy on the feminine, as elsewhere, is defined by the teaching of Scripture, not by the furthest possible point away from either feminist or patriarchal distortions.

There is much more to say, of course, but we may gain something of a footing for the path to come if we keep these things in mind. Stay tuned.

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4 Responses to Just Like a Woman, But What Is a Woman?

  1. Valerie Hobbs says:

    Wow, Mark. A fascinating read. This is going to stay with me for a while. I am going to be reading this several times and thinking through each point. Powerful stuff. Particularly important is the concept of mashal, which, in addition to creation order, are used sometimes to argue women are easily deceived (of course Eve was deceived since she was second) and to justify a controlling hand of leadership in the home. Thanks for writing about this.

  2. Valerie Hobbs says:

    Sorry, I meant to say, particularly important, I think, is the concept of mashal. Do you see the interpretations of this and creation order as the starting point for how women are viewed, or are there others more foundational?

    • Thank you. Mashal does have, for me, that etiological significance, yes. However, it is always hard to confidently nail down “the” starting point, but at least in my studies, what I’m pointing to is in fact what appears to serve that role. This is the case within Scripture but hasn’t always been the case historically. Appreciate your positive reflections on it.

  3. Valerie Jacobsen says:

    Following this discussion with great interest! Thank you!

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