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Opening thoughts

August 30, 2010

This essay constitutes some opening thoughts for a larger series of essays directed at the issue of gender theology. (Let me first object here to the terms I am using: as a biologist what I am really talking about is sex, the biological male-ness or female-ness of an individual. Gender is the social construct that informs how biological sex is supposed to look in a particular society. However, the word sex now mostly means the act of sexual intercourse and so I am avoiding the term to prevent confusion on this point.) I am using the term “gender theology” to indicate theological presuppositions that take the gender of a particular party into account. This may include any number of other things within it. For instance, it is common to find churches that give different marital advice to men and women. This, then, is gender theology, because it supposes that God wants something different from men and women with regards to their marriages. But even though marriage is an issue where differences of gender between the parties are expected some advice (for instance exhortations to monogamy) are not part of gender theology. In the same vein some churches make nearly every issue a gender issue, creating almost two parallel ways of Jesus, one for men and one for women. Others, of course, appear gender-blind.

I propose that before we can even begin to address what the Bible says about these issues we must lay down some ground rules. First we must distinguish between normal, possible, and desirable. It is, for instance, apparently quite normal for Israelite kings to have had large harems. This is an observation of a particular fact about gender roles within Israelite society (namely, that monogamy was advised for women only, in practice). It was, of course, possible for a king to avoid this trend, although the is no evidence to suggest that any did. Similarly, while it was normal for the ruler to be male the usurper queen Athaliah did take the throne for some time, indicating that whatever notions about female leadership existed in Israel they did allow for a supreme political leader to be a woman, under the right circumstances. Returning to monogamy it appears that the narratives about the Israelite kings and their numerous wives and concubines stress that this is a negative thing (an issue that we will perhaps address specifically later). So while this was normal it was not seen as desirable.

This particular issue is important for two reasons. First, it is important to understand these categories historically. We are most likely to find what is normal addressed because it’s the most common. This means that there may be possibilities for which we do not have evidence. Had Jehu not killed Ahaziah as well as Joram, his intended target, we would never have been aware that Israelite ideas of gender were flexible enough to allow for a supreme queen because Athaliah would never have had a chance to usurp the throne. It is also important, though, to bear in mind what is described and what is prescribed. A patriarchal clan system was fact in Israel. Finding evidence for this is an easy task. Finding evidence that this system is deemed desirable is harder, especially in comparison to systems that did not exist to compare patriarchy to. Pushing an idea because it is found within the Bible without discerning whether it is prescribed or simply found is both common and foolhardy.

Second, these categories bleed over into modern ideas about gender. Most discussion of these ideas presupposes two mutually exclusive options: either men and women are different, and therefore have different roles always, or they are not different, and do not have different roles. However, this is a failure to distinguish between normal, possible, and desirable. It is quite easy to imagine that it is normal for men and women to act differently. Indeed, I find it hard to believe that the psychoactive hormones present in differing quantities in men and women have no effect on the average personality and actions of the two sexes. This, though, does not mean that all men and all women are different or easily grouped. Most biological traits fall along bell-curved distributions, and while the averages may be different between two populations this does not mean that individuals on either extreme may not pass each other, or even pass the average. A practical example of this idea is height. Men are, generally, taller than women, but while I am a man of average height I have still met a number of women taller than me. If we made a rule that assumed that because the average height of women is shorter than the average height of men then no women were taller than any men we would simply have a bad rule.

I have yet to address our last category here: desirable. Many people who address issues of gender from a conservative perspective assume that what is normal is desirable and what is possible is not undesirable when it is an outlier. But this makes gender a moral virtue. Is it actually a good thing to be a “normal” man just because you were born male? If one is a woman and acts in ways we associate with masculinity is that actually immoral if it would be moral for half the population? And if I reverse the scenario, and it is a man acting in a feminine manner why might a chunk of my readership have just changed their mind about the acceptableness of this?

Clearly I do not intend to answer any of these questions in depth in this essay. They all require a lot of study. However, it is impossible to do this study without knowing what questions to ask, and I, at least, like to lay this sort of groundwork and think about it in advance of that study.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 11:31 am

    I look forward to reading about this! I’ve been asked to speak on Jesus and gender at my church in October.

  2. Eric permalink
    August 30, 2010 3:03 pm

    Neat! I’ll probably have managed to roll out another article or two on this issue before October, although you probably have a number of good sources already.

  3. February 3, 2011 9:28 pm

    Pushing an idea because it is found within the Bible without discerning whether it is prescribed or simply found is both common and foolhardy.

    I agree with this. However, I would add that if something happens or is mentioned frequently in the Bible and is nowhere proscribed, that also sends a message. Something may be morally obligatory, meaning you ought to do it, or morally impermissible, meaning you ought never do it, but there is a third option of moral permissibility where something is acceptable but not required. With hundreds and hundreds of very detailed rules for proper behavior, along with at least as many general platitudes about right and wrong, I would think that if something truly morally impermissible was accepted practice during Biblical times, it would be specifically mentioned by God or Jesus or someone quoting them, somewhere in those 66 (or 73) books. If they chose not to say anything about it, the only reasonable conclusion (if you believe in the Bible’s authority, anyway) is to conclude that God has no problem with that thing.

  4. Eric permalink
    February 4, 2011 9:29 am

    This depends primarily on seeing the Bible as a collection of explicit rules. I don’t. The Bible is not mostly rules but narratives (there are more books of poetry in the Bible than lists of rules but we sure don’t call it a poetry collection). If we leave the points of stories out of things (like, for instance, the fact that every story that gives more than a passing mention of polygamy involves bad things happening to one or more members of the family) we’re going to miss a great deal (and we’ll be reading Iron Age texts like they were 20th century textbooks). I mention the polygamy one both because I’ve written on it and because rabbinical Judaism came to the same conclusions suggesting that this is the sort of reading the original audience engaged in.

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