Adam and Sophia: the biblical case for the dignity of women

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Is God Too Male?

It is easy to look back upon any preceding generation in history and in ignorance and arrogance contend that we know and behave better, but beyond our compounded laws and idle chatter how far have we really come? Today in Chapel I take up an age-old issue and focus on women. I wonder, women of today, when it comes to your relationships with men, have you, as a sister, girlfriend, wife, daughter, and/or mother, ever been made to feel like a second-class citizen? Women of society, have you ever been dissatisfied by the attitude of men towards women in the media, education and business? Women of the church, have you ever been disheartened to realize that although the slight majority of churchgoers are women, the far majority of pastors, priest’s, administrative leaders, and scholars in the church are and have been male? More directly, do you as a female feel that you cannot relate to the divine and human movement of the three, to God as a father, to Jesus as a son, and to the Holy Spirit who is sometimes referred to as a he? Does God seem, as it were, too male for your liking?

 

The Biblical Dignity of Femininity

What does the Bible really say about the dignity of women? Well, I think more that most any worldview, ancient and modern. Let us start where I think we should always start in matters concerning human rights: the ontology, or our essential understanding, of humanity. We read in early Genesis that God made humans in the Divine image. This includes both male and female. To make sure that we get the point, the author drives it home three times in the same sentence, “So God created humankind (Hb. Adam) in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27) From this, and this alone, any basic inequality and subjection of women is biblically uninspiring, for in the first Creation narrative even God is glimpsed or imaged in femininity.

Let us move then from creation of the cosmos to the creation of the Israelite nation. At the heart of the Torah, we find the setting apart of a nation by the establishment of a code of government called the Ten Commandments, or in the Hebrew the aseret davarim, literally the Ten Words. The first four words, as many Rabbis and Pastors have point out, deal with loving God, and the last six words deal with loving your neighbor. When the text does come to love for the sexes, there is equality across the board. Every member of society, male and female, are to rest on the Sabbath, male and female are not to be coveted, and both Father and Mother are to be honored. From the ten words, which form the backbone of Jewish government, any basic inequality and subjection of women is once again biblically uninspiring, for in the ten words love between the sexes does not play favorites.

We move further in the bible to its Wisdom Literature. Therein we also find quite front and center a strong femininity. The word for Wisdom in the Hebrew is Chokmah, and, perhaps better on the ears, in the Septuagint Greek its Sophia. Both Folly and Wisdom are personified as women, however Folly is foreign to God, whereas Wisdom is close to him. As we read today in the poetic language of Proverbs, Wisdom is the first-born of God (Pr 8:22), she is at his side day after day (Pr 8:30-31), and the world and heavens were made through her (Pr 3:19). Once again, any basic discrimination of women is biblically void, this ‘wisdom’ as one scholar put it, ‘possessed from the beginning royal or divine dignity.’

We come now to the New Testament. John starts his Gospel this way, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being’ (Jn 1:1). The Greek word for Word here is logos, and its form is masculine, but it is not hard to see the similarities between Logos and Sophia. John is harkening back to the traditions of Wisdom and Creation where the whole word was created through God’s word and wisdom articulating things into being. He says that this Word took on flesh, and literally tabernacled or pitched his tent amongst us in Jesus. The New Testament scholar James Dunn writes, ‘What pre-Christian Judaism said of Wisdom and Philo also of the Logos, Paul and the others say of Jesus. The role that Proverbs, Ben Sira, etc. ascribe to Wisdom, these earliest Christians ascribe to Jesus.’ For the early Christians, although Jesus was undeniably male, he is still also represented to be, as Paul says, ‘Christ the power and wisdom of God’, that is ‘the dynamis and sophia of God’. (1 Cor 1:24) Any basic inequality of subjection of women is yet again empty of substantial biblical content, for the early theology of the Masculine Word is somehow wrapped up in the arms of Lady Wisdom.

But how did Jesus himself behave towards women? The late pope John Paul II summed it up this way: “Jesus always showed the greatest esteem and the greatest respect for women, for every woman, and in particular He was sensitive to female suffering. Going beyond the social and religious barriers of the time, Jesus reestablished woman in her full dignity as a human person before God and before men … Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.” Once more, any basic human degradation of one sex under another is counter to the bible, for Jesus, often in contrast to the culture around him, treated women with the utmost dignity.

 

God Loves Women

God loves women. We have seen thus far that God is beyond our human category of male and female. Both men and women were then created in the divine image, that in the ten words of the Torah men and women receive equal respect, that in the Wisdom Literature Wisdom is personified as a female, that in the New Testament Jesus’ witness identity somehow involves reference to this wisdom, and, to top it all off, Jesus acted towards women with the greatest of honor. The biblical witness is this for women and those who know women: God, above and also for all, loves you and has not stopped encouraging women’s worth as equal citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven..

 

Blessing:

When you speak of God, may you remember that She is not only above and beyond, but by, with and most importantly for you.
When you’re pushed into feeling a second-class citizen, may you find that this God has been imaged in you.
When you feel ethically challenged, may you remember the femininity of Wisdom.
In every mountaintop and valley, may you find strength in a companionship and friendship with Jesus.