The Flame Who Lost His Way It is not possible or commendable in mainstream United States to imitate biblical-times gender role patterns. In biblical times, male and female weren’t associated according to gender as much as they were according to relationship. Because of the enmeshed society where individuating was not only not done but wasn’t seen as normal or healthy we cannot as individuals in the United States begin to imitate let alone completely understand gender role patterns in biblical-times. Women were seen as sisters, wives, mothers, daughters etc. not as women in the sense of gender.
Men were also enveloped within relationship as brother, husband, father, son etc. not as maleness. Relationship defined who they were as a person in relationship. An individual was usually someone outside the group, inferior, sick or unacceptable. In the United States we value individuality. We have whole professions dedicated specifically to heal those who are not individuals in one sense or another.
We value the self-alone, not as much as relationship. Who we are isn’t bound in what relationship we are in but usually in what we do for a living. Because of this foundational difference in orientation as human beings we should not and could not imitate biblical-times gender role patterns. When we as Western thinkers read the Bible through our United States, individual promoting lenses we tend to view the culture of the ancient Near East as barbaric and dehumanizing for some classes, especially women. We feel they are treated as inferior and we cannot understand how a gracious God could not only allow but also institute such a prejudiced society. But here is where we misunderstand the culture and women.
Are they treated inferior or just different? The presuppositions of Hebrew culture regarding men and women lead to the understanding of the roles of each sex. According to Proverbs women were easy to fall into adultery, therefore, men were to keep them pure according to the relationship they had with the woman, as father or husband. In the same way, men were understood to be strong leaders therefore, they controlled aspects of government and religious ceremony. Using our worldview we cannot get past the fact that they are wrong. Men are just as much to blame and can easily fall into adultery as women, we think. We also can name a woman who was a much better leader than many men we know.
But does this mean the Hebrews were wrong, have things changed or maybe with our different view of the reality we can’t even understand how they came to their conclusions. The latter is probably the closest to the truth. Now that we have come to realize that the ancient Hebrews were altogether different people than we are today according to lifestyle, law, mindset and even the definition of egalitarian, how does this affect the biblical message or theology? Due to the different cultural understanding of gender roles should we absolutely disregard everything in the Bible that refers specifically to gender? Should we try to meet those expectations inspite of the realization that our Western mindset is not set up that way? Or, should we try to understand those passages according to the culture that it was speaking to and then make application that will be acceptable within our own worldview? I believe the latter is the only answer that gives justice to the Word and fits with us as Americans. Is this compromise? Yes, it is. Does it compromise the message or moral? I don’t believe so.
The Bible was written to lead the lost to a relationship with God and understanding it within its cultural context it doing just that. Therefore, the Bible’s message is not specifically bound up with ancient Near Eastern gender role patterns. The way the story is told might be though. As competent biblical scholars, or at least trying to be we must and I stress must understand the cultural surrounding the message, as well as, identify our own biases and lenses that we bring to the Word. If we can first realize that as male/female, married/single, tall/short, fat/thin etc.
colors our view not only as we act in our Western society but also in every aspect of life from the experiences we love to our reactions to the TV shows we watch then, and only then, can we come to some sort of evaluation of the text within its cultural tones. How plausible is this utopian idea? I firmly believe it is a process and that each day can be a victory. What steps should we take toward that goal? Evaluating ourselves according to relationships, experiences, traditions, societal standing, work and every aspect of our life lead us to transparency. This means we are able to put aside our glittering image at least for the sake of ourselves. Understanding what makes us tick and what ticks us off can lead to realizing what biblical passages get under our skin and gives us goose bumps. This will help in attempting to understand the cultural norms of the society of the ancient Near East.
As informed individuals we can then tackle the hard spots of the Bible. This doesn’t mean we will all of a sudden agree that Jephthah did the right thing by sacrificing his daughter or that it will even be more palatable to us but at least we can understand it from his own perspective. The most challenging thing in life is change. We are habitual beings but we must at least be open to change some of our biases so we can get the message or theology from a passage of scripture that defies our cultural norms. Sociology.