In Does It Really Mean Helpmate? we saw that God created man and woman to be equals in every way. In Genesis 1 both male and female were given the mandates to procreate and to have dominion over the earth. The human had been placed in the garden to tend it and guard it, and one assumes the male and female continued to do what the human was created to do, and they fulfill the mandates given in chapter 1 together and as equals. There we saw that complementarians try to subordinate woman under man because man was created first, and she was created to be an ezer cenedgo, a word that is normally mistranslated “helpmate” instead of its literal meaning: a power equal to.
Another tactic complementarians use is that women’s subordination is due to the Fall. When God said that a woman’s desire would be for her husband, and he would rule over, God meant it for all time. It doesn’t matter that the rest of curse is not meant for all time: we have made farming easier through machinery, we have diminished labor pains with drugs, and we normally don’t actively look for snakes to mutilate. Complentarians seem to think that the only part of the Fall that is for all time is the a man ruling over his wife.
Genesis 2 leaves us with the mutuality, trust and innocence of the man and woman in stating they were naked but not ashamed. Genesis 3 jumps right into the question of how the world and relationship between the sexes changed so dramatically. A serpent started a conversation. It wanted to know if God really said they could not eat from any of the trees. At this point some complementarians like to overlook a little detail that we find in verse 6–the man was with the woman the whole time. “She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (emphasis mine). The serpent did not address the woman alone but the couple. If woman was created as subordinate then why was the woman the one who responded? If man was the superior then why didn’t he answer the serpent? Again their solidarity and mutuality is shown. Because they were equals the woman can speak for both of them.
Other complementarians acknowledge the couple is together. They say the woman overstepped her boundaries and usurped the role of her husband as being her head, and that is her sin. In fact, they interpret the story to say that the sin of the couple is not eating the forbidden fruit, but for not living in their God-ordained hierarchal roles. The woman’s sin was acting in her husband’s place. The man’s sin is passively letting his wife take the lead and not exerting his role as head of the woman in responding to the serpent. Their sin is role reversal and lies less with disobeying the only command Yahweh gave them.
The text does not support their interpretation or conclusions. Yahweh’s only command to the human (before the creation of woman) was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the penalty for eating from this tree was death (Genesis 2:17). Since the woman knew of the command and its consequences, we can assume that the man told her, or that Yahweh at some point gave the command again. The couple knew of the prohibition and its consequences.
The woman engaged the serpent in an intelligent theological discussion of the prohibition. There is much ado made over her addition “nor shall you touch it” (3:3). The accusations range from her making her own additions to the divine command to her not only usurping her husband’s role but also now usurping God by adding to his “law.” She could have added it for the simple reason Phyllis Trible cites: she was faithfully interpreting the command: she cannot eat what she does not touch; it is a safeguard to insure obedience (p. 110).
But she gave in to the temptation to be like God, knowing good and evil, and ate. The man who was with her does not say a thing or try to stop her, and when she offered him the fruit, he ate too. It is only then their eyes were opened, and they both knew they were naked, and they both were ashamed. Together they sewed fig leaves for clothes, and they hid from God together. The text never assigns more blame to the woman; both the man and woman sin, and the consequences affect them after they both have eaten.
Then God came to the garden and told the serpent, the woman, and the man what the world and relationships will now be like because of their disobedience. They have chosen separation from God, which will separate them from each other and shift all of their relationships. There will be enmity between the woman and the serpent; the ground will now be cursed and require great work and toil to bring forth the food they will need. The relationship between the man and the woman will no longer be one of equals. “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:16). This is the first mention in the text of a hierarchal social pattern. It is here that the subordination of the woman under the man begins. It is not by divine design or judgment. The subordination of woman is a consequence of disobedience, and the result of the Fall.
In the beginning men and women were both created in the image of God, and they were created to be equals. They were both given the commands to be fruitful and to rule over the earth. The woman was not created to be a subordinate helper to her husband. She was created as an autonomous being; she was a complete human being, just as the man was. Her existence was not dependent on him as his existence was not dependent on her; their existence depended on God alone who created them both.
I now want to look at it in the broader biblical frame, particularly New Testament. First if all women are cursed through Eve disobedience then all women are blessed through Mary’s obedience. Mary trusted God and became the mother of the Messiah. She trusted God and obeyed God regardless of the cost. As Christians we also believe that Jesus Christ came to redeem all people–both men and women, and now “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We also believe “in Him [Christ] you have been made complete” (Col. 2:10, NASB). The doctrine of salvation through Christ alone means that any hierarchal structure that is a result of the Fall is now done away with–all of us have equal standing before God. Our relationship with God through Christ is what completes us and makes us whole.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled all the believers who had been gathered: both men and women. They went out to the streets proclaiming all the things that had happened in the last few weeks. It is reasonable to believe that the women who were at the foot of the Cross were in the upper room as well. It is possible that there were women proclaiming the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ on the day that 3,000 were saved.
Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Helpmate or Power Equal to Him?” 11-22.
Joseph Coleson, “Ezer Cenegdo”: A Power Like Him, Facing Him as Equal (Grantham, PA: Wesleyan/Holiness Women Clergy), 1996.
Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing), 2000.
J Lee. Grady, Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House), 2000.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1992.
Aida Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 1985.
Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1978.
All biblical translations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
NASB: New American Standard Bible
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