A Theology of Sex and Gender (Part 4): Covenant with Israel

The usual understanding of the Christian worldview proceeds along the lines of jumping directly from Creation and Fall to Redemption in Christ (see Creation Regained by Al Wolters for an example). Yet the majority of the Bible is actually concerned with Israel, not the church! To pass over the history of Israel and the covenant God makes with her when building a theology, then, would be to pass over a lot of what God actually says.

The Importance of Israel for Theology

One major reason that the history of Israel is important is because it shows what life is like in a post-Fall world. Israel’s failings are all too familiar to us because they illustrate our failures as well. Israel’s history also shows us that God is the ultimate realist: although He has laid down a good design in creation, God also knows that humanity has broken His design through sin. God often accommodates His laws to the reality of sinful people living in a world afflicted by the curse of Genesis 3. The history of Israel upholds God’s emphasis on the fully equality of men and women before God, albeit in ways that may seem strange to modern Western ears. Societies in the ancient Near East (ANE) were drastically different than modern, liberal democracies. So God interacts with His people in a particular way because they are living within a particular culture and time period.

Nevertheless, the history of Israel shows that God’s design of Genesis 1-2 is still the ideal for the world. God creates males and females each fully in His image. Yet, the men and women are different from each other. Furthermore, men and women are given different callings within the marriage covenant: men are called to be husbands and women are called to be wives.  Unfortunately, the reality of living in a broken world distorts God’s design. And, as the Old Testament demonstrates so vividly, these distortions are most easily seen in the covenant of marriage.[1]

The Equality of Men and Women in Ancient Israel 

Although some modern, Western people scorn the Old Testament because of its portrayal of women, the Hebrew Scriptures actually uphold the teaching of Genesis 1—that women are created in the image of God. Genesis 1 was part of the Hebrew Scriptures and so the implications of both men and women being made in God’s image should not have been missed.

It’s important to remember that God regularly makes “concessions” to human beings as flawed and sinful creatures.[2] Jesus even taught that divorce was a concession (Matt. 19:8). God is the ultimate realist: He recognizes that humans do not live in an ideal world. They are sinful and make poor choices, so therefore, sometimes it is better to limit the damage. Moreover, God does not immediately abolish sin and evil systems in the world. He often works within them. For example, God did not directly abolish slavery within Israel. He did, however, seriously modify it from the surrounding culture so that, if His Law was followed, the extreme abuses of slavery would not happen (Exodus 21:16).

Therefore, when we examine the equality of men and women in ancient Israel, the Old Testament is not going to sound like a charter for women’s liberation in the twenty-first century. Yet, we must also understand that God worked within a patriarchal culture to bring many freedoms to women because He made them in His image!

Equality is seen in inheritance laws. The family inheritance was passed down through the sons of the family with the firstborn son receiving double of the inheritance (Lev. 25:46; Deut. 21:15-17). Yet, Moses accommodated the Law to a situation where there were no sons within the family. The daughters of Zelophehad approached Moses because their father had died with no sons (Num. 27:1-3). They asked Moses, “Why should the name of our father be withdrawn from among his family because he had no son?” (27:4). In other words, if Israel’s typical inheritance laws stood, the daughters would receive nothing. Moses, however, brings the case before the Lord (27:5-6). The Lord then rules in the daughter’s favor and modifies the typical way inheritance laws were conceived so that surviving daughters could receive an inheritance, if there were no sons (27:7-8). The giving of inheritance to females was a remarkable departure from the typical way things were conceived in that culture.

Equality is seen in marriage and divorce Law. The marriage and divorce laws were also remarkably “progressive” in the Old Testament in contrast to the surrounding ancient Near Eastern Culture. For example, a man who buys a female slave could not just cast her out just because he got a “better” slave (Exodus 21:7-11). A woman who is captured as a hero prisoner and taken as a wife must not be abandoned (Deut. 21:10-14). A man with two wives cannot play favorites with his children and pass on the inheritance to whomever he wants (Deut. 21:15-17).

Equality seen in the depiction of prominent men and “strong” women. One of the most shocking things to see in the Old Testament is just how diverse its portrayal of both men and women is. Although men certainly take prominence in the story line of Scripture, especially within the covenants (Abraham, Moses, and David), strong women also show up at key points in the story.[3] The offices of king and priest were reserved for men in the Old Testament, while the office of prophet was apparently open to both men and women, as Deborah was a prophetess. Women being “strong” in the Old Testament is highlight in two prominent passages: Proverbs 31:10-31 and the book of Song of Solomon.

The Proverbs 31 woman is considered the “noble wife” (31:10). She provides for her family by bringing them food (31:15). She is business savvy (31:16) and even described as “strong” (31:17). She works day and night and helps the poor too (31:20). She makes her own clothes for her family and sells it (31:22, 24). She speaks with wisdom and teaches people about kindness (31:25). She is a woman who blesses her whole family, the surrounding community, and the world.

The Song of Solomon is considered one of the most difficult books of the Bible to interpret. Literarily, it is hard to make out just how many characters are in the book.[4] Furthermore, how to interpret the book is also fiercely debated. Some see the book as an allegorical depiction of Yahweh’s love for Israel (or Christ’s love for the church), while other see the book speaking literally of a man’s love for a woman.[5] However one interprets the book, the fact is the same: the female character in the story is often seeking and longing for physical intimacy with her lover (Song 7:9-13).

The Law Against “Cross-Dressing”

 Besides upholding the dignity of women, the OT also supports the creational design that men and women are different. The clearest expression of this truth is in the form of a command given to Israel: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deut. 22:5). Why would God give such a seemingly obscure command to the people of Israel? In our liberal, Western democracy, it could even be hard to conceive why dressing as the other gender would be a big deal. The most obvious reason it seems to me why God gave this law was because He made two sexes. If God made two sexes, then it is not our right as human creatures to tamper with His design, even in the way that we dress.[6]

Furthermore, God places much importance on the duality of the genders because the duality of the genders naturally leads to a man and a woman being united in marriage. Even in the Old Testament marriage could be seen as a “mystery” and a picture of God’s love for His people.[7] Collapsing the two genders into one would be “preaching” the message that humans are alone in the universe and unloved. Men dressing like women and women like men would also be confusing who is the husband and who is the wife in the marriage. When husband and wife are confused in marriage, Savior and recipient of salvation are confused in the spiritual realm. Thus, cross-dressing in prohibited because it does not send a clear signal of who is the Savior, as represented by the husband, and who is the recipient of salvation, as represented by the wife.

All Posts in this Series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part SixPart Seven

[1] One thinks of the sordid episode where a Levite dismembers his concubine and sends her limbs all over Israel in Judges 19.

[2] John Calvin taught that God accommodates Himself to our finiteness and weakness, especially in His word. Just like a mother does “baby-talk” to her newborn, so God brought His Word down to our level so that we could understand it (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.1).

[3] Andreas Kostenberger, God’s Design for Men and Women (Grand Rapids: Crossway, 2014), 70-71. Notable women in the OT include Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, Rahab, Ruth, Hannah, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Jezebel.

[4] Some interpreters see the book having two main characters: Solomon and the lover. Others see the book as having three characters: the beloved, the shepherd-lover, and Solomon. See Jack Deere, “Song of Songs,” in Bible Knowledge Commentary (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications, 2004), 1009.

[5] For a range possibilities see Andrew E. Hill and John Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 377-78.

[6] Jason DeRouchie, “Confronting the Transgender Storm: New Covenant Reflections from Deuteronomy 22:5” in Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Spring 2016, Vol. XXI, Issue 1). http://cbmw.org/topics/transgenderism/jbmw-21-1-confronting-the-transgender-storm-new-covenant-reflections-from-deuteronomy-225/

[7] Although not as clear as Ephesians 5:22-33, the Old Testament still seems to operate under the assumption that human marriage “pictures” God’s marriage to His people. The book of Hosea regularly draws parallels with human marriage to God’s relationship with Israel (Hosea 1:2-7; 3:1-5). Physical adultery by the spouse is seen as spiritual adultery towards Yahweh (i.e. idolatry) (2:1-13).

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