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The Engendering of Gender Generalities

Doing biblical theology requires one to lay aside even precious biases in order to hear the message of Scripture speaking from foreign lands in foreign tongues out of foreign cultures. The Phenomenological method, so vital to biblical theology, demands that we listen to each text as believers wholly convinced by the presuppositions, world view and cultural values of the author… even if we doubt.

This is hard to do. We often don’t know that our biases are biases… to us they are unquestioned truth, and anyone who challenges the validity of our understanding of them would, if we could get away with it, wake up with a horse’s head in their bed… unless they are PETA type folks… they’ll just poison your Cannoli.

One of the biggest struggles for modern western readers is to engage gender issues in Scripture. Indeed, it is easy this side of the technological explosion to judge the life paradigms of the past too harshly. The feminist inclinations of even moderate souls tend to cast an angry pallor over the whole Bible, and, if the truth be told, over most of world history; we blame all the perceived injustices and “inequalities” between males & females on a grand conspiracy by men to hold women down. Aside from how ironic I find this accusation, this approach is neither helpful nor accurate. I am not saying that biases were not present, see my blog “Is Prejudice Wrong?” I’m saying that the causes of cultural paradigms are complex and should be given the respect of understanding before judgment.

While any attempt to explain the causes of cultural paradigms is open to the accusation of being reductionistic, I think a basic understanding of the general processes is possible. Essentially, people respond to threats to survival in order to create thriving communities. These responses are made in the face of particular kinds of threat based on rudimentary ideas about the nature of God, humanity & reality. The rudimentary ideas are often shaped by practical experience and need. One of the vital shapers of these experiences is gender inclination & gender generalities. While it is common for me to hear people insist that gender is only skin deep, this just isn’t so.

Hormones and physical strength, including endurance are more significant than external body parts. Gender inclination is responsible for much of the inequity that we blame on prejudice.[1] Women generally make different kinds of choices than men do about how to sustain themselves & their families. The stress & strain of survival takes a heavy toll on gender relationships because of these factors. The more brutal the survival demands the more important is physical strength & endurance & the greater liability is physical weakness. While the Scriptures battle theologically for equality in divine image, & the need to protect & honor weaker vessels (The old, the broken, the poor & females) these contentions fight against the natural struggles of sinful individuals (male & female) to build practical systems for survival. Here, one’s worth is found in his or her enhancement of rather than hampering of the struggle to survive. Some people make life harder, and without compensation for weakness, strong prejudices can emerge.[2]

Now, women did have some advantages in this struggle for survival. While they lacked the physical strength often needed to thrive in brutal environments, they possessed something that the strong lacked—the ability to reproduce, to reproduce strong ones… future workers to sustain the reproducing generation as they grow too weak with age to work.  Women also had something that the strong desired—care, tenderness, love & sex. These are powerful virtues, and women then, as now, work their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. People generally worked each other the way they worked the gods, seeking through various means (ritual or otherwise) to secure what only the other could provide.

Out of these complex interactions of varied powers and both emotional & physical needs, complex social systems emerge between genders, generations, classes & external communities. In these social systems, the family has always been the core; family stability, thus, family patterns, are regarded as vital to the continued existence & prosperity of the whole. The brutality of survival demanded that society function in a consistent, orderly way, with little room for experimentation. People are not chess pieces, survival is not a game, and most communities resisted tinkering with proven social paradigms.

One is foolish to imagine that some 6000 years of certain gender patterns are merely the product of the arbitrary advantages of the good ol’boys’ club. Are women so weak that they are nothing more than pawns in a man’s game? I don’t think so. Women are players too, skilled players who use what they have to compensate for what they lack in the face of the brutality of survival.

If we phrased this dynamic as an equation it might look something like this:

The Economics of Survival + Gender Strength & Inclination + Foundational Beliefs about God, Humanity & Reality – Selfish interests in struggles for Power & Influence = Social Paradigms

While modern technological advances have alleviated many of the immediately perceivable needs for such strict social order,[3] just as it has resulted in a more balanced value in strength & endurance with brain power, it is unjust to judge the people of the Scriptures by modern perceptions of gender & class. It is unfair to interpret every event in the Bible through the angry lens of present struggle, assuming the worst of biblical characters and authors.


[1] See Thomas Sowell’s chapter on this very subject in his book, Economic Facts and Fallacies.

[2] It is also the case that certain conditions naturally elevate groups into power who thensecure those positions with careful exercise of that power, but for the sake of this discussion we need to focus on origins.

[3] Perceivable is the key term here. Our modern penchant for “tinkering” has yet to produce its true fruit. Some patterns take centuries to reach their true produce, and every society has an uncanny ability to adjust itself in the face of disturbing trends. History, however, bids us caution.

[4] Media pic is from sxc.hu

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