The patriarchal Bible problem

Ask any person you find nowadays and he’ll tell you that it’s inappropriate to use a generic “he” to describe persons of unspecified gender.  From the 1970s until now, the removal of God’s archetypal Fatherhood from the English language has been the order of the day, done in the name of Progress.

As those seeking to geld our language work to make their overthrow of male-oriented language complete, though, they have run into a problem: God’s Word doesn’t follow their rules. Michael Marlowe over at has done yeoman’s work summarizing the Bible’s male-oriented assumptions. He writes,

…the Bible for the most part records the names and actions of men, uses male examples, assumes a male audience, and in general focuses on men and their concerns while leaving women in the background.

All four of these are considered big no-nos in contemporary society—so what to do?

A popular approach  is to modify God’s Word to make Him fit in better with contemporary society…This is the approach taken with the NRSV and the 2011 update of the NIV. But such an approach will be rejected by all who fear God and tremble at His Word. After all, has God not warned us,

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. – Revelation 22:18-19

Having introduced the issue and given some indication of what’s at stake, I now give you an excerpt from a post by Marlowe titled The Gender-Neutral Language Controversy, from a section titled “The Patriarchal Bible Problem.” This excerpt does a good job of showing us how far astray from God’s word we are in our thinking regarding these things. O let us learn of God, humble ourselves, and repent!

The Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible often use generic masculine nouns (adam and anthropos, both meaning “man”) and generic masculine pronouns in a gender-inclusive sense, in reference to persons of unspecified gender. In the Epistles, believers in general are addressed as adelphoi, “brethren.” Such usages are not merely figments of “sexist” English translations; they are a normal feature of the original languages, just as they are normal in English and many other languages. In most cases the inclusive intent of the writer is obvious from the context, and when the intent is not inclusive, this is also obvious enough from the context. The interpreter must not proceed mechanically with the idea that every occurrence of adam and anthropos is to be understood in a gender-inclusive sense, because the Bible for the most part records the names and actions of men, uses male examples, assumes a male audience, and in general focuses on men and their concerns while leaving women in the background. This feature of the text is obviously related to the cultural situation and expectations of the original authors and recipients, and so any movement to disguise it in translation runs up against the academic qualms already being expressed by Bruce Metzger in 1976: “How far is it feasible to eradicate from an ancient text those features that belong to the patriarchal culture in which its narratives had their origin?” (4) To illustrate the extent of the problem we give now a few examples of how these “patriarchal” tendencies manifest themselves in the biblical text.

  • In Genesis 2:24, after Adam declares that Eve is “flesh of my flesh,” it is said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” It has been observed by commentators that among the Israelites for whom this text was written, it was really the woman who left her father and mother. She was brought into the extended family of her husband, and the new household was established on the property of the man’s family. Why then do we read that “a man shall leave his father and his mother,” instead of “a woman shall leave her father and her mother”? It is because this saying is describing the action from the man’s perspective.
  • In Genesis 3:23-24 we read that God sent Adam out of the garden of Eden, but the text says nothing about Eve being driven out. Obviously we must understand that both were exiled, but the writer sees fit to describe this event in terms of Adam’s exile.
  • In Genesis 4:17 we read “And Cain knew his wife.” But where did this woman come from? Evidently she was a daughter of Adam and Eve, but her birth goes unmentioned, and in the narrative her existence becomes important only in connection with the progeny of Cain. The genealogies of the Old Testament rarely mention wives or mothers. Often when a woman does appear in a narrative she is not named, but is referred to only as the wife of a certain man (e.g. Noah’s wife).
  • In Genesis 32:22 we read that Jacob “took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and passed over the ford of the Jabbok.” The word translated “children” here is yeladim, which might be expected to include both sons and daughters (cf. the usage in Exodus 21:4); but Jacob at this point in the narrative has twelve children: eleven sons and one daughter. Dinah’s birth was mentioned in 30:21, and in chapter 34 we have the story of how her brothers killed all the men of Shechem to avenge the loss of her maidenhood, but here in 32:22 she is omitted from the number of Jacob’s children.
  • God is often described as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (e.g. Exodus 3:16) but what of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel?
  • The tendency of the writers to address males in particular is seen in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). There we read, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Likewise the sexual ordinances in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20, though they pertain to both men and women, are all addressed to men. (Note the shift from second to third person in 18:23, “You shall not lie with … neither shall any woman …”). In Psalm 128, addressed to “everyone who fears the LORD,” it is said that “your wife shall be as a fruitful vine within your house.” Likewise, in Deuteronomy 21:10-13 (“when you go out to war … and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her as your wife …”) the persons directly addressed with the pronouns “you” and “your” cannot include women. In Deuteronomy 29 we read, “Moses summoned all Israel and said to them … you are standing today all of you before the Lord your God … your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp … so that you may enter into the sworn covenant,” and we note that “all of you” in this context can only refer to all of the men in the assembly. See also Exodus 22:24, 32:2, Deuteronomy 3:19, Joshua 1:14, Nehemiah 4:14, Jeremiah 44:9, 44:25, and Malachi 2:14. This male-oriented language cannot be explained by saying that the text presupposes a setting in which only men were present, because in several places we are explicitly told that women were also present in the assemblies (Deuteronomy 29:11, Joshua 8:35, 2 Chronicles 20:13, Joel 2:16). In Jeremiah chapter 44 it is explictly stated that Jeremiah spoke “to the men and to the women” (verse 20), “to all the people, and to all the women” (verse 24), but he says, “thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, Ye and your wives have both spoken …” (verse 25). The instruction he gives here pertains mostly to the behavior of the women (who have been burning incense to the “Queen of Heaven”), but, as usual, the women are addressed only indirectly. The men are addressed directly because God holds them responsible for the behavior of their wives.
  • Much of the book of Proverbs is addressed to young men, with warnings against getting involved with prostitutes and adulteresses (e.g. 7:5), but there is no similar advice given directly to women. The famous description of the “excellent wife” in Proverbs 31 is cast in the third person.
  • In Deuteronomy 7 there is a good example of how the Hebrew text tends to encode patriarchal ideas: the chapter begins speaking of the need for the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites, and in verse 3 it says, “you shall not give your daughter to his son, nor take his daughter for your son, for he will turn your son away from following me, that they may serve other gods.” The masculine singular forms are used here because the focus is on the duty of the Jewish father, the religious practices of his son, and the bad influence of a heathen father-in-law. The girl (usually at about the age of sixteen) is “taken” from her father by her new husband’s father, on behalf of his son, and she is “given” to her new husband. Nothing is said regarding the daughter who is given to a Canaanite’s son, because it is taken for granted that she must worship her husband’s gods. The text focuses on what may happen to the son who takes a daughter of Canaan to be his wife, because this association with heathenism will weaken the son’s resolve to worship only the God of his fathers. Regarding this, it is especially notable that the text does not say that she (i.e. the Canaanite’s daughter) will turn the Jewish son away, but instead skips over the woman to focus on a man—“he will turn your son away.” (The heathen patriarch is meant. See the American Standard Version for the literal translation.) The heathen mother-in-law is not mentioned. The linguistic features of these sentences are not meaningless accidents of the Hebrew language, nor are they constrained by any grammatical requirements of the language; they are reflections of the patriarchal assumptions of the author, which are in several ways controlling the choice of words in this text.

None of this changes when we come to the New Testament.

  • In Luke 18:29 we read a promise of Jesus, “there is no one who has left house or wife … for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive many times more.” He says “wife,” not “husband or wife.”
  • In Acts 21:4-5 it is said that “the disciples” (μαθηται) at Tyre accompanied Paul “with wives and children.”
  • In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul addresses the whole congregation with second-person plural forms which cannot be inclusive of women: “if you allow yourselves to be circumcised, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (5:2). In 1 Corinthians 7:27-28 he writes, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned—and if a virgin marries she has not sinned.” In 1 Corinthians 14:31 he says, “You can all prophesy one by one,” but in verse 34 he says “the women should keep silent.” In such places it becomes obvious that the authors of the New Testament are addressing their words primarily to men.
  • Typically men are addressed in the second person while women are referred to in the third person. In Luke 15, Jesus introduces one parable in verse 4 with the words, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep” (second person plural), and the next parable in verse 8, “what woman, having ten silver coins” (third person).
  • Sometimes a serious misunderstanding will come from a failure to recognize that the text presupposes a male audience. For instance, in Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus’ warning against frivolous divorce is framed entirely from the standpoint of the man — “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery.” Here the hapless wife, who is innocent of any wrongdoing, is said to be adulterated by any remarriage, after having been wrongly divorced. In ancient times a woman had to remarry if she was to have any security, and so it might seem that a woman who had been divorced is put in an impossible moral position by the saying. But this hyperbolic saying is aimed entirely against the man who unjustly divorces his wife, and there is no intention of stigmatizing innocent women here. The idea that the husband “makes her commit adultery” is merely an ironic way of saying that God looks upon the divorce as illegitimate. Jesus did not intend for anyone to draw from this saying any rule for the divorced woman, because the saying was not meant to be read from the standpoint of the woman. The woman is not even considered to be a morally responsible agent.
  • When people are numbered in the Bible, it is the men who are numbered. In Numbers 1:2 the “sum of all the congregation” is found by counting “every male.” Likewise in Ezra chap. 2 and Nehemiah chap. 7, the number of the “whole congregation” (Ezra 2:64, Nehemiah 7:66) is “the number of the men [enashim, here denoting common men or laymen] of the people of Israel” (Ezra 2:2, Nehemiah 7:7) plus the number of priests, levites, and other temple workers. In Matthew 14:21 we are told that “those who had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children,” and likewise Matthew 15:38 mentions “four thousand men, beside women and children.” In Acts 4:4 it says “many of those who heard the word believed, and the number of the men (arithmos ton andron) was about five thousand.” In Revelation 14:4 we read that the 144,000 redeemed from tribulation “have not defiled themselves with women.”
  • In various places the Bible contains expressions which are quite unacceptable in the modern climate of political correctness. In 2 Timothy 3:6 Paul refers to false teachers who prey upon γυναικαρια “silly women,” (5) and in 1 Timothy 4:7 he warns Timothy to have nothing to do with the worthless fables that are γραωδεις, “typical of old women.” In Isaiah 19:16 the prophet says “the Egyptians will become like women (כנשים) and tremble with fear” (similarly Jeremiah 50:37, 51:30, and Nahum 3:13). In 1 Corinthians 16:13 Paul urges the Corinthians to stand firm and ανδριζεσθε “act like men.” This is how a man speaks to men.

In short, the Bible is by no means gender-neutral. It presents from beginning to end a thoroughly “androcentric” perspective, and it often leaves it to the reader to decide what application to women or what inclusion of women is implied…If we begin looking for places where women are directly addressed in the Bible, we quickly discover that in such cases the message is even more offensive to the modern egalitarian mindset than anything which has been noted above. The women are addressed only to remind them that they are not equal:

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22-24. See also 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Colossians 3:18, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Peter 3:1-6, etc.)

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