A few posts ago I wrote about Jesus ‘crucifying’ Jewishness and maleness. I had an email from someone who both thanked me and suggested that all ‘ness-es’ that divide were taken to the cross.
I am going to reproduce the chapter here that looks at male redemption (click on the heading below), and why it was that Jesus himself was male. I propose that he is not simply human but male so as he can specifically redeem maleness – he has to deal with the specific sin of patriarchy.
If we accept the equality of men and women, particularly when we take a Christological and eschatological viewpoint,1
we have not fully removed every difficult concept from the Bible relating to women as equal partners. Perhaps the most difficult is the apparentdominance of male imagery in Scripture. This apparent male dominance is evident when male terminology for God is predominantly used in Scripture, and when the Messiah appears, not simply in human likeness, but in male flesh.2
These two aspects will be considered for they have been taken to imply female subordination and inequality. I, however, suggest that it is important for these male images to be present in Scripture in order to reveal the redemptive nature of God for the human race, and will argue that they do not, at any level, imply inequality for women. Therefore my suggestion is that the weighting of male imagery, far from undermining the equality of the genders, is in fact necessary when interpreted from a redemptive viewpoint.
Modifying the imagery
The above imagery can be modified fairly easily. As is often pointed out, the male imagery of God is not something which is exclusive. Yahweh is portrayed in female roles within the Old Testament. He3 is someone who supplies water for Israel, feeds the people with manna, and clothes the human family. Other maternal imagery includes the carrying and care for the sucking child, or, even more poignantly, Yahweh is like a woman in travail who brings Israel to birth.4 Jesus also, by implication, likened God to a woman sweeping her house clean until she found the lost coin. Although other similar imagery could be added, we are still left with an overwhelming tendency of the Bible to use male imagery to describe God.
Noting that there is female imagery used to describe God within Scripture should at least restrain us from holding solely to a male concept of God. God is surely neither male nor female (but arguably both masculine and feminine) and therefore any reaction to describing God as ‘she’ needs to be weighed very carefully. If, however, we accept that there is considerably more male imagery and language5 than there is female in the Bible, is there a way that the material can be approached which does not point towards male supremacy?
When the time comes for Messiah to be revealed, the birth is through a woman but the child born is male. Jesus was clearly revolutionary in the way that he treated women within his culture. As seen in chapter 3, Jesus had women followers at one level or another, he performed women’s tasks and he gladly gave women time and counted them worthy of discipleship. However, we are still left with a male Messiah.
I suggest that we cannot simply sweep aside the apparent dominance of the male imagery within Scripture, but that, perhaps, we can look for an explanation for this bias other than the concept of male superiority. The basic proposal will be that there is a redemptive principle at work which is underlined by the male imagery. We will look at applying this proposal to both areas beginning with the maleness of Jesus. We begin with Christ for he is the model for true humanity and the true revelation of God (to which Scripture bears witness). We can only understand God and humanity in the light of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus.6
Jesus- the Male Redeemer
Jesus was not one who endorsed ongoing patriarchal dominance, yet a crucial question remains which we can summarise as, ‘could the Messiah have taken on female flesh?’. Is it as simple as the issue that: for Jesus to appear in first-century Jewish culture and live as a female Messiah (the daughter of God) calling Yahweh her Mother would have been unthinkable?7 Or is it that there is more to it than this simple perspective?
If the witness of Scripture primarily reflects the story of God’s redemptive work within history, then we note that male dominance is part of the history of the fallen human race. Genesis 3:16 (‘but your husband will rule over you’) can be taken to speak of the sad state of affairs resulting from the Fall and to be an accurate record of male dominance throughout human history. To borrow phraseology and concepts from the Theology of Liberation: men have been the oppressors and women the oppressed throughout history. If this assessment is correct (both historically and theologically) we need to apply the theological principle of God’s bias toward the oppressed to the male/female relationship.8 Boldly, therefore, we can state that God has been on the side of women. This then I believe is the key to unlock the reason for God revealing Messiah in male flesh.
My own thinking on this issue began when I was gently challenged by a man in an audience I had been addressing on the subject of women in the Bible. He suggested that I was verging on hypocrisy by addressing the subject, and if I really believed what I was teaching I would be giving that particular session to a woman to address. The provocation coincided with some research into Liberation Theology which I realised was addressing this very situation. I perceived that they had rightly understood that God was on the side of the oppressed (the poor), but was not convinced that God addressed his word to them (the oppressed) in order that they might rebel. The word of the Lord seemed to come to the oppressors (the rich) and demand that they deal justly. His word came to those with the power and that had the voice so as they could repent, lifting up the broken and oppressed through servanthood, humility and the sharing of resources. This gave me a conviction that I needed to continue to speak out for those who were oppressed: to model a release of the powerless. It was this challenge that caused me to view Jesus in a new light and to gain fresh insight into his maleness.
For the powerless (in our study, women) to speak out for equality can soon be dismissed as coming from vested interest, or worse still as ‘rebellious’. It requires the one with the voice to speak up and make a call for the release of those that have been marginalised. It was this model that I then applied to Jesus and his maleness.
Jesus comes in the form of the oppressor but identifies with the oppressed. He come in the form of the gender who has power, but uses the position of privilege to elevate and liberate those without power and privilege.9 He models true redemption, for redemption does not begin with the oppressed throwing off the shackles of the oppressor, but with full and complete repentance being undertaken by the oppressor. When this repentance principle is absent, history records that the oppressed in a given situation tend to seek their own redemption-often through violent means. Although this cannot be justified, neither can the continuation of oppression, but true redemption surpasses any form of revolution, and it is true and full redemption that Christ came to bring.
So the only way for a female Messiah to bring about change would be to respond in rebellion. If, however, the female Messiah did not respond in rebellion but lived a self-sacrificing life, such as we see in Jesus, Stanley Grenz suggests that her life and ministry would merely have been interpreted as the ideal role for all women within society. There would have been nothing counter-cultural about such activity, and the status quo would have remained. But Jesus, as male, was counterculture and his maleness ‘was an indispensable dimension of his vocation’.10
Jesus identifies with the human race in its sinfulness,11 and specifically with males in their sin of oppression and exploitation, through taking on male flesh. He refuses to insist on his male prerogatives, but lays them down as the Servant-redeemer. In doing so he is not only redeeming humanity in general but is also redeeming maleness, for he demonstrates not simply the image for true humanity, but the image for true maleness. Gone is the image of one who dominates; centre-stage appears the image of a man who sides with the oppressed and becomes a voice for them. Gone is the image of the male who lives to exert his will; centre-stage is the true male who reveals that true identity is found in doing the will of God.12 Only in Jesus is true maleness revealed- he is the redeeming image for men.
Yet there is more to the redemptive imagery of the male redeemer, for Jesus is also the redemptive image for women. If men and women together are to fulfil the purposes of God,13 it is necessary for women to see in the new humanity a new model of maleness. In Jesus, who is the head of this new race, that model is clear. Those who have been oppressed (females) can now trust the oppressor (males) as they are conformed to his image. Only through repentance by the oppressor can trust be restored and the partnership of equals be truly initiated. Had Messiah come in the form of female flesh, vicarious ‘repentance’ by the oppressor would not have been possible. The giving away of privilege and power would not have been possible and equality could only have been restored through rebellion, which is not the way of our redeemer God. Jesus is (and indeed must be) male in order to redeem both males and females through his life as well as his death.
The quote from Grenz below is a helpful summary of the liberating impact of the maleness of Christ on both males and females.
Jesus liberated males from the role of domination that belongs to a fallen world, in order that they can be truly male… As a male, Jesus revealed that the way to life does not lie in acting the part of the strong, dominating and self-sufficient male.
The male Jesus liberated women as well, however. On their behalf he acted as the paradigm human standing against the male system. He brought them to participate in the new order where sex distinctions no longer determine rank and worth. As the author of their faith, the New Human, he provided resources to leave the past behind-to forgive and to be forgiven-and to seek the new order in which supplementarity is the rule.14
God as Male
Having begun with Jesus, let us now apply this redemptive principle to the male imagery of God. The male imagery of God, although not exclusive, is predominant in Scripture and therefore needs to be taken seriously.15 Before we look at the possibility of there being a redemptive principle involved in such language we can take an intermediate step of seeking to determine what such male imagery would have communicated within the early biblical (and patriarchal) culture.
It can be argued that male terminology would not have communicated maleness but transcendence.16 In the ancient Near Eastern culture the gods and goddesses promoted the fertility of all life – the crops, flocks and families. They were intimately tied in with nature and the seasons, but Israel’s God stood above nature. Goddess imagery would have communicated this intimate involvement with and even dependence on nature (mother nature?).17 Even a male god with a female consort would have tied deity to the cycles of nature. However a male God who stood alone communicated total transcendence and Yahweh as the ‘wholly other’. As Finger says:
But what about a “masculine” God without a consort, who created and changed things simply by his “word” and acts? Such imagery was almost unique, and well suited to the God who had begun transforming nature and society – including its patriarchal structures.18
Likewise Dale Youngs says,
The biblical message is clear: there is no multiplicity of divinities; God needs no female partner to perform the sex act with him, thereby giving birth to the earth and its creatures; God is above the condition of sexuality. When it some to goddess worship, the whole tenor of the Hebrew Scriptures is open hostility.19
Once the transcendence of God is established in the history of Israel, we find an increasing number of female imageries which come through in the later writings. This transcendent God is the One who has chosen to be involved in an intimate way with her people. Certainly the imagery related to the Holy Spirit might indeed prompt us to refer to God as ‘she’ whenever we speak of that aspect of the work of the Trinity.20
This leaves us with one important image of God as ‘father’. Jesus did not relate to God as an overpowering deity who needed to be appeased, and the deity with whom he had such an intimate relationship he revealed as ‘father’. Indeed the intimacy of the relationship was such that we can see that there are as many motherly aspects in the heart of God as fatherly.21 Jesus’ use of the term ‘father’ communicated the sovereign, liberating, compassionate dimensions of God, but in a way which was far from endorsing stereotyped male models of fatherhood. We could argue that indeed the term ‘father’ could well have been deliberately chosen by Jesus to combat sexism. He injected the term ‘father’ with new meaning and so revealed a picture of fatherhood that does not endorse male dominance and patriarchal hierarchy. True fatherhood contains as many feminine attributes as it does masculine ones.22
Theologically God is portrayed in male terms to communicate his transcendence. And from a redemptive perspective, God is portrayed as male, not to endorse continued male dominance, but to bring males in line with true maleness. Perhaps for males the Scripture, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’, carries the added dimension of acting responsibly and redemptively in the area of male/female relationships.
Excursus: God, feminine imagery and male language
Alongside the male language we also have a considerable amount of feminine imagery applied to God that firmly prevents us from understanding God as male.
1. Yahweh is described as fulfilling roles that women had in ancient society: he provides food, water and clothing.23
2. Feminine images are used to provide comparisons to God: a mother bird and a mistress (in the sense of a woman in charge of servants).24
3. He is described in motherly terms: as a woman in labour; as a mother who will not forget her child; as a mother of Israel; and as a midwife.25
4. The compassion of God (Hebrew rachim,) is essentially a feminine term from the Hebrew word for ‘womb’ (rechem). Likewise the Hebrew word ruach (Spirit) is feminine.
The feminine imagery means we cannot think of God in male terms; however the Bible avoids using female language as the God of Scripture is not female. If God had been known as ‘mother’ we would not only have goddess theology, but creation itself would be divine, having been given birth to by this deity. If God is identified with creation in such a way, we finally make ourselves into gods and goddesses. The Scripture avoids the possibility of this error and the rejection of Goddess worship ultimately comes from understanding that Creator and created are separate.
Hence Scripture gives us the sensitive balance. It uses male language to communicate God’s ‘wholly otherness’, his transcendence and distinction from creation – the God of the Bible is not dependent on creation. Yet this language is beautifully balanced by the feminine imagery which enables us not to fall into the trap of seeing God as male. This imagery does not however slip over into making God female, as the ‘rejection of goddess worship ultimately comes from understanding that Creator and created are separate.’26 Thus we have a God that is beyond male and female, yet embraces the masculine and feminine in each of us.
End of Excursus
Excursus: Trinitarian theology
The doctrine of the Trinity has been advanced in a hierarchical way (God the Father as the initiator / source / head of Christ) and has been used in a way to underline the rightness of hierarchical relationship between men and women. Understanding the inter-relationships of the persons within the Trinity is a major task which theologians constantly seek to find fresh language to express, and I do not intend to suggest that I have any new understanding to bring. However, I want to indicate that there are other ways, that are not hierarchical, of expressing those inter-relationships. I recently came across, in Miroslav Volf’s outstanding book on the church, the following discussion.27 (The passage quoted is part of a larger discussion and given the nature of the book, contains considerable technical language. However, the important point to grasp is his suggestion that the traditional discussions on ‘being’ and ‘substance’ do not necessarily male any statement on the relational level of the Trinity.)
The constitution of persons through generation and procession grounds the distinctions among persons, who are simultaneously constituted as standing in relations; these distinctions then manifest themselves in the salvation-historical differentiation of the persons.
If this distinction between the “hypostatic divinity” (constitutional level) of the Trinitarian persons and their “intertrinitarian form” (relational level) is persuasive, then the unilinear hierarchical relations can disappear from the Trinitarian communion, since maintaining that the Father constitutes the Son and Spirit says nothing as yet about how the relations between them are structured. In any case, within salvation history they do appear as persons standing in reciprocal relationships to one another… Moreover, within a community of perfect love between persons who share all the divine attributes, a notion of hierarchy and subordination is inconceivable.28
Thus using theological language and models, Volf makes the appeal that we must not confuse the means of being (even here language presents us with difficulty, for such language can seem to imply that Son and Spirit become something they were not, which would be an enormous error) with modes of relating. The Son and Spirit are constituted by the Father, who is the source of their divinity, but the Trinitarian form of God is determined by the mutuality of relationships.29
Thus using such a model of the Trinity and making an application to humanity would be to emphasise the interdependence of the genders, and the need for mutuality to be expressed. Something less than this would be to deny humanity the possibility of imaging the eternal God.
End of Excursus
Conclusions and summary
Redemption takes place within history and includes the redemption of relationships. Jesus is a male redeemer because of the history of male oppression. God is a father because patriarchal society and male leadership need to be redeemed. A new model of leadership, which is neither male nor female, but both masculine and feminine (both fatherly and motherly) is necessary. The revelation of God as father redeems true leadership which is neither male nor female but partnership. If the husband as head means that he has a primary role of leadership within the family, then it would follow that he is the one who, in the area of his family, also has the primary responsibility to model redemption. Because of male language within Scripture and Jesus the male redeemer, men and husbands can uniquely begin to reverse the tide of history. This is true redemption.
God is a redeemer. Yahweh frees the oppressed but calls for the oppressor (males) to repent through describing the self-revelation of the God, who is beyond gender, in male terms (though not exclusively) Yahweh has led the way for liberation. Male terminology might be open to abuse and misunderstanding, but it is also part of the process of redemption. Yahweh and Jesus often appear in the outward ‘form’ of the oppressor (the male) but identify with the oppressed. Surely as male followers of Jesus, men and husbands need to do likewise.
Terminology can at times be unhelpful and perhaps it is time to seek for new language which will help communicate the truths of Scripture within our culture. Perhaps we need to be more open to using ‘she’, when appropriate, as the masculine pronoun often now carries exclusive connotations.30 Perhaps even new pronouns need to be coined which will help us communicate the transcendent God’s journey with us through life.31 Whatever our approach to the issue of terminology we must be committed to going beyond terminology to discover and then apply the redemptive nature of God’s revelation in all of our relationships.
1. A Christological viewpoint means that we consider the revelation of God in Christ and how that impacts our perspective on men and women, who are both in Christ; and by taking an eschatological viewpoint this implies that we do not simply consider the new humanity in Christ as belonging to this creation but to the new creation. In Christ men and women are already experiencing the realities of the coming age in part, and their status and relationships must reflect that. (Return)
2. If we had not already covered the issue of the twelve male apostles and the ‘headship’ of men within the marriage relationship, we would have added those issues here. (Return)
3. Tempted as I might be to use the pronoun ‘she’ or to write ‘s/he’ I am aware that would be misleading. The feminine pronouns indicate a femaleness that would be inaccurate. We cannot bring correction by changing our concepts of God to a goddess. Although the masculine pronouns do not indicate that God is male, I will continue to use them. Such is the limitation of language. (Return)
4. See for instance the citations of feminine imagery for God in Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979), pp. 21-36; and in Mary Evans, Women, pp.21f. (Return)
5. We need to point out that a word’s grammatical gender does not necessarily denote the gender of the being it refers to. God and humankind are both masculine in the Greek and Hebrew languages and therefore any pronouns related to those words will be masculine. Nothing can be inferred regarding God’s actual gender simply because the pronouns used are in the masculine gender. (Return)
6. By so doing I am proposing a Christo-centric hermeneutic. In this particular sphere of superiority) I suggest that this must be the best hermeneutic. (Return)
7. See C. Norman Krauss, Savior, pp.95-96 for this suggestion. (Return)
8. The announcement of liberation to the oppressed comes to a climax in the ministry and work of Jesus (Luke 4:17-20), but is clearly traced throughout the Old Testament, and in particular with the denouncement of injustice in the prophetic writings. (Return)
9. This same principle is seen I other aspects of the life of Jesus. He was a Jew but did not exclude others. Rather he used his status in a redemptive way so as there might no longer be Jew of Greek in the new humanity. He was the Lord of all but used his lordship to become the servant of all so as there might be the end of the class barrier of slave and free. He laid aside wealth for our sake and did not avail himself of political power for his own ends. In short he never used his privileges to endorse any form of hierarchy. In different ways he had the opportunity to do so but at every turn refused to follow the cultural norms of his day. In this way he refused to submit to the sin of oppression but became theliberator of those who were oppressed. (Return)
10. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1994), p. 378. (Return)
11. Jesus was in ‘the form of sinful flesh’ (Rom. 8:3) and underwent the baptism of John to indicate that he was identifying with the human race rather than standing apart from it (Matt. 3:15). (Return)
12. Jesus clearly underlined that woman’s call was not in the bearing of children but in following God as a disciple (Luke 11:27,28). He stood apart from the rabbis of his day through the elevation of women alongside men. (Return)
13. The cultural mandate of Gen. 1:26-28 was given to humankind equally as male and female. This commission to rule was tied up with being created in the image of God. In the new humanity again both males and females are being conformed to the image of the Son, thus qualifying them together to fulfil the cultural mandate through the Gospel. (Return)
14. Theology, p.379. (Return)
15. A point that should not be overlooked is that the revelation of God’s essential being and character to Moses (Exod. 3:14) employs no noun, proper or common, but simply the first person (genderless) single verb (Return)
16. See Thomas N. Finger, Christian Theology, Vol. 2 (Scottdale: Herald, 1989), p. 485-490. (Return)
17. A female goddess giving birth to creation might lead to creation and the goddess being of the same substance. Creation would be deified (and therefore worshipped) by such imagery. The God of the Bible appears as committed to creation, but distinct from it. (Return)
18. Theology, Vol. 2, p.486. (Return)
19. ‘What’s So Good About the Goddess?’, Christian Today (August 16, 1993), p.21. (Return)
20. It has been argued that the work of the Spirit is one of bringing to birth and of nurturing and therefore feminine terms are more appropriate. The criticism from the feminist theologians that using exclusively male language for God conveys the impression that the human male is more God-like, than the female, needs to be taken seriously. (Return)
21. Kenneth Leech has suggested that once the motherly aspects of God are lost it can give rise to the Mother of God (mariolatry). See R. P. Stevens, ‘The mystery of male and female: biblical and Trinitarian models’, Themelios, Vol. 17.3 (April/May 1992), p.21. (Return)
22. See Robert Hamerton-Kelly, God the Father: Theology and Patriarchy in the Teaching of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pp.21-36 and 357-359. Bearing in mind that Jewish culture was patriarchal, it is natural for Jesus to present God in a culturally relevant way; however he also greatly modifies the common Jewish concept. (Return)
23. Food – Exod. 16:4-36; Ps. 36:8; Hos. 11:4; water – Neh. 9:15; Exod. 17:1-17; clothing – Neh. 9:21. (Return)
24. Bird – Ps. 17:8; 36:8; mistress in Ps. 123:2 (and also master in this verse). (Return)
25. Labour – Is. 42:14; mother and child – Is. 49:15; 66:13; Yahweh as Israel’s mother – Num. 11:2; Deut. 32:18 (also described as Israel’s father in this verse); midwife – Ps. 22:9; 71:6; Is. 66:9. (Return)
26. Youngs, ‘Goddess?’ p. 21. (Return)
27. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Another example of a considerably less hierarchical model is found in Thomas Finger’s Christian Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 379-406, 433-456. Two quotes will not do justice to these chapters, but will have to suffice: ‘The divine “substance” is not a quantity handed down from one level to another. It is an energy ceaselessly flowing among, and continually revitalized by, different sources.’ (p. 448). ‘In itself, then the Trinity is not structured hierarchically. Thus this doctrine hardly implies that the church or society ought to be. On the contrary, it implies that the church and society should be structured as mutually as possible, with authority flowing back and forth among different but equally valuable persons and groups.’ (p. 450). (Return)
28. After Our Likeness, p. 217. (Return)
29. This mutuality is well summed up in the Greek concept of the perichoresis of the Trinity – the concept that the mutuality and interpenetration within the Trinity being likened to the Godhead being involved in an eternal ‘dance’, one which humanity and all creation are being asked to join in. (This theme is developed well by Clark Pinnock and undergirds his social Trinitarian view, giving his Spirit in Creation material a very creative (no pun intended) feel – see Flame of Love.) (Return)
30. Historically the masculine pronouns have had an inclusive use, unlike the feminine pronouns. However this is increasingly becoming less true and if we insist of continuing to use exclusively masculine pronouns we might simply be adding to the confusion. Unfortunately, simply changing from masculine pronouns to corresponding feminine ones does not bring a solution, for those feminine pronouns have been historically even more exclusive than the masculine one. (Return)
31. Thomas N. Finger, Theology, Vol.2, pp. 448-450, suggests the use of ‘Godself’ to avoid saying ‘himself’ or ‘herself’ when referring to God. (Return)
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