by Thandazani Mhlanga  |  7 January 2022  |

We in the western world have been greatly influenced by the ancient Greeks. Aristotle had strong opinions on gender, for example—women, in particular. He assigned them second-class status, and thought of females as “deformed males.” 

So the gender issues at the forefront of modern civil and religious society shouldn’t be entirely surprising. According to the Reykjavik Index for Leadership, most people are still uncomfortable with female heads of government. 

Is it still controversial to recognize and reward women in ministry at the same level as their male colleagues? 

For the longest time, we have been told that God designed it that way. But is that true? 

Limitations

I do not pretend that I can ever fully understand what it means to be a woman. It seems to me that the last thing women need is another male trying to be the face for feminism. The women of this world are, and should be, the champions of the cause. I only raise my voice here in support of the women on the front lines of this great social and spiritual injustice. I stand with them and speak with them, not in place of them. 

Nor is it possible to fully explain what I believe to be the genesis of our religious and social ideas on femininity, within the limitations of this essay. What I offer is, I hope, a clear but not fully comprehensive view. 

The beginning

Adam is misunderstood as being the name for the first man. It is not. The creation story tells us, in its original language, that God created both male and female as “adams” (Genesis 1:27). Wikipedia explains this quite nicely: 

The Bible uses the word אָדָם‎ (‘adam) in all of its senses: collectively (“mankind”, Genesis 1:27), individually (a “man”, Genesis 2:7), gender nonspecific (“man and woman”, Genesis 5:1–2), and male (Genesis 2:23–24).

The result is that there is a great deal of ambiguity in gender and personal identity in these first stories that is not apparent to the reader of a translation. Eve was, according to Genesis 3:20, the male adam’s affectionate nickname for the female adam. 

To all appearances, then, men and women were created equal. Their equality was a reflection of their Divine creators (Genesis 1:26), which was referenced by Jesus when He said to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

We see glimpses of this divine equality in some ancient civilizations, showing us that this is not just creative theology but a lived experience. The historical record suggests that for the ancient Sumerians (modern-day southern Iraq), gender equality in all aspects of life was commonplace. There was an egalitarian societal gender structure seen in the world’s oldest village, Catalhöyük, an archaeological site near Konya in Turkey

In light of the Biblical narrative and the historical record from these ancient societies, we have to consider that our ideas on femininity might be of a social and not divine construct. Many misogynistic ideas and behaviors in civil and religious communities have long been given a free pass under the excuse, “That’s how the good Lord ordained it to be,” when in reality, it is how men ordained it to be. 

Changes

When the Akkadians came to power under the leadership of Sargon the Great, women’s rights tumbled. The Akkadians passed laws that prevented women from public spaces and positions of power. Women became invisible second-class citizens, subject to the men in their lives.

Issues of rape were increasingly seen as an economic offense against the dominant man in a woman’s life and not a physical offense against the woman. When rape occurred, the girl’s father was entitled to compensation.

Also, since only men could own land and property, the desire to keep one’s land in the family inevitably placed male heirs at a higher rank, and cemented the patriarchy.

Over time, as patriarchy became law, males became the lawful owners of women’s reproductive systems. Female virginity before marriage became the way of exercising control over that, and the tradition of veiling women began.

In Hammurabi’s law, whatever rights women had were given to them by men. Those rights were quickly taken away when it served the men’s conveniences. 

But have things changed considerably in our time?

The inheritance of misogyny

Within a short space of time, historically speaking, some ancient cultures had commoditized women and placed them below men. Female gods were predominantly the gods of reproduction and nature, while male gods were the rulers. Talk about men making god in their image! 

These misogynistic tendencies were adopted and sometimes reinterpreted by future generations who, in turn, also passed them on to their heirs. 

It is interesting to see how, in the Old Testament, God interacted with a world in which His own people had followed the examples of these other cultures, and moved away from His original intent for how women should be treated. That is a topic for another day. But it is noteworthy that we are left with a long and shameful history of misogyny, with only a few exceptions when some decided not to perpetuate the generational trauma against women. 

These examples are too few and far between. One important one is Jesus the Messiah, who often visited with women in public and treated them with respect (John 8:1-11). Despite criticism, and most likely causing rumors about him, Jesus also had women in His team of disciples.

How far have we come?

From the times of the Akkadians and the Assyrians to the Romans and the Greeks and on into Christianity, misogyny has had a long and disgraceful life. 

Today, the veil is still used to control, class, and categorize women in some cultures. I can still recall a time when a bride who wasn’t a virgin wasn’t allowed to cover her face with a bridal veil while walking into the church—if the couple was allowed to use the church at all.

In religious circles, women are still taught to keep their bodies as a gift for their future husbands. Whatever happened to giving ourselves entirely to God?

And the emotional burden of being divorced continues to weigh heavily upon women in religious circles. Why are we quick to punish and label women who choose to divorce, more than their male counterparts? 

Biblical interpretation continues to shield the institution of patriarchy. We still argue that since the scriptures say “a bishop should be the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2), therefore, only males can serve as pastors.

This shows a tragic lack of appreciation for the world in which these authors wrote, as well as for the fullness of God’s ideal plan. We don’t treat other scriptural admonitions the same way. We don’t forcefully take other people’s lands because God has told us to, as he told Joshua. We don’t eat everything the good Lord created since everything God made was declared good.

So why do we still enforce the patriarchy?

I am not making a case for matriarchy over patriarchy, nor for the reestablishment of what many religious people are starting to think of as responsible patriarchy. I am advocating for the original plan: equality. I stand with American business executive Sheryl Sandberg when she says, “In the future, there won’t be any female leaders; there will just be leaders.”

I am committing to be “the change I desire to see in the world,” the change that will be proof positive that I have come to know Jesus (John 13:35).  

Bibliography

  • Aristotle, Immanuel Bekker, W. E. Bolland, Andrew Lang, and Aristotle. 1877. Aristotle’s Politics: books III. London: Longmans, Green.
  • “Mesopotamian Women (Chapter 2)” – Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia. Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press.

Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have been blessed with three beautiful girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.

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