The Perennial Problem of Sin
by Cora E.Cypser
Chapter 6 in Taking off the Patriarchal Glasses, Kim Pathways, 1987, pp 97-116, here republished with permission of the author and the publisher.
The book can be ordered from Kim Pathways, 16 Young Road, Katonah NY 10536, USA; ISBN: 1-892063-00-x.
- Cultural Interpretations of Genesis
- Translating The Word Adam
- Enlarging on The Peaceful Authors Theology
- The Fall or The Rising?
- Original Sin
- Jesus On Adam and Eve (Matthews Gospel)
- Paul and The Garden (1 Corinthians)
- Pseudo-Paul on The Garden (Timothy)
- God-inspired Messages
The whole Bible sings of the marvel of men and women. It tells us what is wonderful about ourselves. We lose some of this wonder when we accept stereotypical interpretations that come about from one culture misunderstanding the culture of another. Gods Word as set down in theBible is a living word and contains new insights and fresh revelations for us who read it today against a backdrop of a changing world. Old wine is good for the old bottles, and new wine should be put into new (Matthew 9:17). The new wine of fresh insight into Gods wisdom has always flowed freely to his beloved humanity across every race and culture. God gives new theological inspiration for new times and new seasons. If we read his word prayerfully and carefully, trying to understand what the message was for the people in whose times it was written, and then attempt to reinterpret that message for ourselves today, we will find enriching applications that will lead us to a more fulfilled existence.
The main author of Genesis theologized about the First Cause and came up with a story of our beginnings which she hoped would inspire the people of her day and also people of future times (Isaiah 49:6). As human beings have beginnings and endings, we stretch our minds to try to think of God in his beginnings. The Peaceful author, considering the picture from a time-bound viewpoint, visualized a God with no creation, way back in the dim reaches of the past. She described the allegorical manufacture of the world, but she gave no reasons for this creative urge of God. Next she brought the human on the scene, and in this section, she gave us reasons. Things seemed to happen when an allegorical snake talked, and human beings created with freedom to choose, used poor judgment. Our author was trying to explain why there was evil in the world, when a good God had just made a good creation.
The early theologizing human didnt think that much about evil and sin in himself. It was easy for primitive societies to explain evil as lesser gods acting up. Good gods were usually considered to be the more powerful, so they were able to straighten things out. What was wrong with the world, wasnt so much humanity, as it was these lesser gods. This theory seemed to solve the problem of evil in a fairly satisfactory manner. However, if your tribe became monotheistic, and your religion couldnt admit to the possibility of any lesser gods, you would have to discard this naughty-gods-make evil theory and find another explanation. Our author and other theologians of her time were working on this problem. They set aside the notion of other gods, and also, temporarily, the notion of an evil angel. The snake for them may have been a representation of human wisdom, more than it was intended to give any idea of a devil. They decided that humankind itself had the freedom to make evil, and also the responsibility to try to create loving community, to protect against this human-made evil.
Many stories similar to the Adam and Eve story of creation were circulated orally through the Near East. The Moses traditions on our beginnings were restructured by the Peaceful author to be theologically correct, and it is principally to her that we owe the story of the seven days of creation. One of the purposes behind this blessing of the seventh day (Genesis 2:3) was to emphasize to her compatriots in captivity in Babylon the need to keep the Sabbath holy. She was trying to explain to her fellow exiles why they had been displaced from their beloved land. Her message to a weary generation torn with the distress of exile and concerned with this banishment as a punishment for their sins, was that God had created the world and humankind, and that the world and humankind were both good.
Moses or his wife Zipporah, and other pre-Peaceful authors also contributed to Genesis. For authors who contributed before the Babylonian captivity, evil and sin were looked upon quite differently than we view them today. Sin might be thought of as a missing the mark which had been set down in the perfections of the law. Evil could come upon a person for following after strange gods, or worshipping the true God in an incorrect manner. Evil could be handed down to you from your parents. Those born lame or blind were considered to have somehow offended God (by their own actions or through the misdeeds of their ancestors) and thus were excluded from usual temple worship (Leviticus 21 :18-20).
After the carrying away of the tribes to Babylon, much thought was given to the many just persons who had suffered even though their conduct was exemplary. Gods anger seemed to fall on good and evil alike, but Ezekiel, the theologian for his time, affirmed that God still stood beside the just man (Ezekiel 14:12-23). The question of sin as due to mans free choice comes up in the Book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18) and was probably much discussed in the exile community. The Peaceful author, the final editor of the Moses traditions, had listened to all these theological discussions about sin, punishment, and responsibility, and she continued to reaffirm that all things were being taken care of by a good God. She believed that although man had to work and women had to suffer in childbirth, ultimately one would come who would get the serpent (or worldly wisdom) under control.
Many varying theological messages can be gotten from the study of this Adam and Eve story. Jewish rabbis and followers of Christianity from the time of the Peaceful author until our own day have come up with fresh life-giving interpretations. Paul and Jesus, as specialists in rabbinical lore, are each credited with a teaching which brings in threads of this creation story. Augustine derives his theory of original sin from it, a shifting of guilt which comforted the people of his day. Freud reads other psychological meanings into it, for a more scientific generation.(1) Some readers are desirous of taking the story literally; others see metaphors and anthropomorphisms. As we are all different, we each get out of every Bible passage only what we have the ability to extract, and what we will accept as reasonable from others who have studied it before us. Individual great thinkers with varying viewpoints, who pull seemingly opposing interpretations out of this passage do not replace or conflict with one another, but are the means whereby we are inspired and can build enriched theologies.(2)Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there are innumerable possibilities of learning from this early folk tale.
The Adam and Eve story has often been studied from the viewpoint of the first sin of humanity. Another favorite emphasis is its creational aspect. I should like to look at it from the perspective of loving community. What is this story saying about humanity, both male and female? For so long, our first parents have been observed from behind patriarchal glasses. I would like to see the creation story as showing possibilities of human fulfillment, rather than sin. Many books could be written from this fulfillment viewpoint, but I will content myself with only a few observations to open up regions for further discussion.
Many new readings of inspired literature come about through a clarified translation of a single word. When early Hebrew is translated into Greek and retranslated into English, there are several possibilities of misunderstanding the proper meaning of a word or a phrase. The word for humanity in Hebrew is ha adam. This is easy for a translator to confuse with adam which all by itself, without the ha means man. It is also easy to confuse with the name of a person, Adam, who is introduced as the first man in this story of our early beginnings (not until Genesis 4:25, or perhaps not until 5:1). Pick up your Bible and read Genesis 1:1 to 2:17, and for every word man substitute the word humanity or humankind. The crucial part will read like this:
Then God said, Let us make humanity in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild beasts and all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth. God created humankind in the image of himself, in the image of God he created it, male and female he created them. God blessed them saying to them, Be fruitful, multiply...(Genesis 1:26-28). Further down in Genesis 2:15 is the information, Yahweh took humankind and settled one of them in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it. Then Yahweh gave humankind this admonition, You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden...
Starting with Genesis 2:18, the author had to make a choice as she began to speak of humankind in the singular. This brings up another important difference between our English language, and both Greek and Hebrew, which is usually overlooked by translators. To put this difference as simply as possible, lets take again the English statement, She sees (Section 1.4). Translating the Greek letters into recognizable English counter parts, we come up with the Greek word blepei, which means She sees. There is no pronoun she as that is contained in the verb form blepei. This situation would be perfectly all right and quite usable, except that the English for He sees and the English for It sees also use the same verb structure blepei. When a translator of the New Testament comes up against the Greek word blepei, he/she automatically translates it as He sees, unless there are other qualifying words in the sentence that let one know a woman is in the picture. Frequently one can find these other qualifying words, so that the translator can get a comprehensive picture.
However, in Greek and in Hebrew, too, there is a secondary problem with these qualifying words. Suppose we are talking in Greek about a teacher who is a woman. Greek has male nouns, female nouns, and neuter nouns. The English word teacher can be referred back to in a sentence, by using either the pronoun he or she to designate the sex of the teacher. The Greek word for teacher, didaskalos, is a male word and any pronouns used in the sentence to refer back to it do not take into consideration the sex of the person spoken of, but only the gender of the word which is of male gender. We cannot learn from the Greek language whether the teacher is male or female in its person, unless a specific female name is given, or unless it is explicitly said that this teacher is a woman.
Another example of a male gender noun is the Greek word for disciple, which has to do with a student witnessing to his masters teachings. All pronouns that might refer back to this word disciple must agree with the male gender of the word, even though they may be talking about a female person who has done the witnessing. As the Greek language uses the male gender for words such as teacher, bishop, humankind, ruler,presbyter, apostle could have been written about a female elder or presbyter or teacher in the first century AD, and it might contain no female pronouns to let translators know that a woman was involved. If this person had a female name, then translators might suspect that this was a woman, and translate the male gender pronouns as she. However, if this church person had a unisex name such as Polycarp, no one would have reason to know if the individual were a male or a female. It is easy to see that proper understanding of one word can make a tremendous difference in a translation.
With these renewed warnings about the underlying sexism contained in the Greek and Hebrew languages, lets return to Adam and Eve. We were saying that the author had to make a choice. Perhaps it was not the author but the interpreters in her society who made the choice. The choice appears to be to use the male singular as the original human, and to add to it, the female. It could have been done in the opposite manner, and the story would have been just as realistic. Because of this choice of interpretation, many people have concluded that man is more important than woman. There is no reason to hold up one sex as better than the other, but people choose to believe what they want to believe, and go with what makes them comfortable. Those who are grounded in a patriarchal society, often will hold firmly on to the tenets of that society, as a sort of life boat, or protection against the unknown. Security, for them, consists in going along with the powers that be.
It probably was not the authors belief that man is more important than woman, but these imperfections of society are allowed by the Holy Spirit working through a specific age and culture. The Spirit blesses humankind with the ideas that are the most fulfilling for that culture. As we are human, there are many ideas about the infinite God that we cannot grasp, but as age follows age, it is to be hoped that we come closer to the ideal of love that created us.
The author of this section of Genesis did an excellent job of portraying male-female equality. However, she might have been distressed if she could have looked into the future and known what injustices would occur because of her particular rendering of the Garden of Eden story. Words are such fragile bearers of the message! They are also a wonderful gift that God has given us, for us to use to increase love in the world. Our interpretations can go in either direction. They can further community, or they can make rifts in it, and wound others. Our author did a very inspired job with a difficult topic. She certainly could not have given a female emphasis to the Adam and Eve incident, because then all the males would have suffered. Genesis 2: 18-25 might be more unbiased as follows:
Yahweh God said, It is not good that a human being should be alone. I will make this one a helpmate. So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven. These he brought to the human being to see what that one would call them; each animal was to bear the name the human being would give it. The human being gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven, and all the wild beasts. But no helpmate suitable for the human being was found for the human being. SoYahweh God made the human being fall into a deep sleep. And while that one slept, God took one of that ones ribs and enclosed it in flesh. Yahweh God built the rib God had taken from the human being into another human being, similar, yet different, and brought this new one to the original human being. The original human being exclaimed: This at last is bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh This is to be called a human being equal to myself, for this one is made of myself.
Reading this selection in this manner enables one to see why a human being leaves the father and mother and joins to the helpmate, and they become one body. They can become this one body, for they are made of the same original material, the stuff of earth. Not only can we see here a reason for a loving marriage, but because all human beings are made from the same original material, the stuff of earth, we should be able to empathize with one another, and become one loving cooperative community whenever we come into contact with one another.
When the story of the creation of humanity is set down in the above manner, one can see a reason for the writer or the interpreters using the man as the original human being, instead of the woman. If the woman were used, the story of Genesis would bear a striking resemblance to stories of the earth mother goddess androgynously bearing the first male human in her womb. The author of Genesis is stressing that both male and female are formed from the stuff of the earth. They are not chromosomal offspring of a god or goddess. Their resemblance to God is that they are made in Gods image, spiritually free, but they are made materially from the dust of the earth.
In the ancient Near East the myth of the mother goddess persisted, as an explanation for the human race. In tilting away from this Great Mother theory, the writer of Genesis is put into the awkward position of getting a woman out of a man. Her allegory of a rib suffices to do this, and successfully imparts side by side equality to male and female. If we continue on and read the rest of the Garden of Eden story with this different, but equal, viewpoint, we will see that the whole emphasis is on the equality of man and woman before God and before each other. It also destroys the superiority-of-women notion inherent in the Mother Nature version.
Up to this point in the story, man and woman dont know the difference between good and evil, and have no responsibilities. They dwell as thoughtlessly as cows munching the grass in a lush meadow. The snake, as a symbol of wisdom, makes its first pitch to the woman, as wisdom is usually personified as female, such as the goddess Athena of the Greeks. With all this symbolic wisdom lined up in front of him, the man comes off looking a bit pushed to one side, as the less important actor in the scene, but this isnt the reality of the matter. The man is right there on the spot, in the thick of things, side by side with his wife, the way he should be. She took some of the fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her and he ate it (Genesis 3 :6b), as women are usually the servers of the food in a family situation. The man and the woman are both given a free choice decision, and together, as equals, they leave the Garden.
Thats the way it is, isnt it? Each individual has free choice. One can live in blissful ignorance in the Garden of Eden, or one can seek to find out what the world is all about. One can try to puzzle out the purpose for the creation of humanity, and the basis for belief in the existence of God. One can search for answers as to how one should behave, and attempt to take care of ones spiritual and physical needs and those of others. Living life outside the Garden is rough going, but only outside the Garden is there the possibility of fulfillment.
In the Garden the human being can be in a state of blissful ignorance, refusing to admit that the existence of God can never be proved. He unthinkingly accepts any dogmas that are given to him, and feels secure as long as no one gives him reason to question these beliefs. Like a Klu Klux Klan member, he refuses to look beyond the bounds of his narrow vision, and convinces himself that the totality of God is contained there with him, in his narrow confines. Like an animal, he receives as his just due, the largess of nature, and has no concern for others who may be needy near-by. However, wisdom has a way of snaking into these little personal paradises with provocative questions and suggestions that stimulate a human being into responsible actions. A person can develop an elitist attitude of I know God and Im saved, its too bad about the rest of the human race who are such sinners. He can imagine himself in a state of bliss where God is taking care of him, and this is a desirable state for an individual. It is good to behave morally and to have personal faith in God, but it doesnt effectively further the process of loving world community. The person can go one step further, and admit that he doesnt really know anything for sure, that faith is not-knowing. Faith is unreasonable trust in something that cant be proved. That one further step takes the person out of the Garden and puts him in the position of seeker of knowledge. That person is trying to understand humanity and life and the God that may be behind all life. Of that person, God can say, The human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil (Gen esis 3:22). Humanity has become partners with God, in Gods plan for the earth.
At some point in our evolutionary processes upon the earth, humanity came into existence. The human being could reflect in upon itself, and observe certain things about itself; it could plan its actions, and look ahead to death. At this point humanity knew that it knew.(3) Further along this evolutionary path came the moment when humanity knew that it didnt really know.(4) They ate the forbidden fruit, and the inquiring mind was created. They accepted the responsibility for their actions and left the Garden of dependent ignorance. They went out of the Garden together, as they had been created, side by side, made from the same stuff of earth, equal but different. He banished humanity, and in front of the Garden he posted the cherubs, and the flame of a flashing sword ... (Genesis 3 :24).
Why was this called a fall?
There were two trees in the center of the Garden of Eden. One was the tree of life and the other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Only the fruit from this second tree was forbidden. Man and woman chose freely to partake of the tree of knowledge. Surely this wasnt a fall!
Many ideas of heaven existed in early communities. Paradise or heaven or the place where God dwelt, was considered to be on the top of the mountain or up in the sky, so humanitys descent from the home of God to terra firma may have been logically described as a descent or a fall. It was not necessarily a departure from something good to something worse. In the paradise of the Greek gods and goddesses, there may have been more quarrels and dirty deeds in heaven, than there were on earth.
Thus humanity in the Garden Story may have progressed from one set of living conditions, to a more demanding set that encouraged development of their abilities. God may have condemned man to tilling the soil, and woman to child bearing when he hustled them out of the Garden, but in Genesis 2: 15, the original human (man or woman) was already farming the Garden, and in 1:28, both partners are told to be fruitful, so we cant consider this a terrible penalty (Genesis 3:16-19). Although God curses the snake, the consequences on it arent too heavy either, for it is already crawling on the ground in Genesis 1:26.
We have been led to believe by patriarchal interpretations through the centuries (such as Augustines)(5) that the snake represents the devil, and the passage about women serving their husbands is a direct command from God for beaten wives to accept black eyes joyfully. When this passage was written the snake was considered to be the wisest of all the animals.(6) It was a symbol of healing wisdom, as in the present day Aesculapian snake-and-cross motif used on physicians certifications, and as in Numbers 21:9 when Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and commanded his afflicted tribespeople to look upon it and be healed. They were looking to healing wisdom for a cure. The Gospel of John 3 :13-15 compared Jesus as healing wisdom to the lifting up of the bronze serpent of Moses. Dans blessing from his father Jacob (Genesis 49:17) was that Dan should be, serpentlike, a wise judge. Jacob was not wishing something evil on his son. Even Jesus recommended to his apostles that they possess the wisdom of the serpent (Matthew 10:16) yet still be harmless as doves. It should be noted that wisdom is often not harmless when used by reckless humans; scientific knowledge can feed the world or destroy it.
The Peaceful author of this serpent story is not so much emphasizing a God who curses soil and animals and who condemns woman to a second-class citizenship as she is telling us that she has pin-pointed certain things that are wrong with her contemporaneous society. In her Babylonian exile she has thought a lot about these imperfections of community, such as oppression of women and greedy misuse of healing and religious knowledge, and she is explaining the existence of these imperfections through this mythical story of early beginnings.
She is saying that we have these human conditions of oppression and servitude because of the way God made us with freedom of choice. She is telling her society that they should shape up and make better choices. The Garden for her smug elitist tribespeople may have been Palestine; the place into which they were cast in order to learn more about loving community, was Babylonia. She is saying to the Hebrews that they wouldnt have been punished by being dragged off to Babylon, if only they had accepted responsibility and made better choices in their beloved homeland. The self-centeredness of the Hebrew community with its patriarchal power base, led to its downfall.
God does not punish us, so much as we bring these consequences on ourselves. It is our own choices that have caused us to be a male-dominated society. We prefer to see ourselves as the chosen and the superior, rather than to practice humble love and justice for the oppressed, as taught by Jesus. The subjugation of women to their husbands is not an order (or a curse) from God; it is what we have done to ourselves and our community, and the Peaceful author is telling us that this is far from optimum behavior. The Peaceful author affirms that God has made everything good (Genesis 1:3), and she names the malfunctions that humans have brought on themselves by their self-centered actions.
Actually the exile in Babylon was good for the Hebrew people. It turned their hearts back to God. Think of the hours of meditation, the time spent copying the Book of The Law, the fruitful discussions on God and his purposes, by the Peaceful author and her friends, which never would have taken place in the secure homeland! Perhaps the author saw this growth of her people and thus in her story was commending man and woman for the choice that took them out of the Garden.
The story goes that God cares for us in a beautiful garden where nothing is required of us, but to eat fruit from the trees and to loaf in the sun. Is there any motive for us to learn to care for ourselves and for each other? Adam and Eve were wise to choose the study of good and evil, the problems of good choices and lesser choices; they were wise to accept the pain of child bearing and the toil of wrestling a living from the soil (or God as All-wise, showed his infinite love for us by allowing this situation to develop). In the beginning Adam and Eve were unconcerned about community, about the effect of their choices on one another. Under the snakes prodding (under the guidance of healing wisdom), they chose to eat the fruit, to be concerned with life, and to be responsible individuals. Thanks be to God!
Suppose they had eaten of the fruit of the first mentioned tree, the tree of life (Genesis 2:9)? Suppose we could live forever? If we could live forever, there would be no point to most of the things we do. We could always put off until tomorrow whatever it pleased us to postpone. There would be no requirement to work in the vineyard for our needs or the needs of others, because no need could bring us to the point of death. We would exist forever, meaningless blobs, on the face of the earth. We would exist, but we wouldnt really live. It is the temporary nature of our condition, that makes a human creative and useful to his neighbor. It is our knowledge of finitude that causes us to perform actions that may have infinite directions. If we could have life eternal, by eating of the fruit of the first mentioned tree, it would be a life not worth living. Death gives us reason to live!
Perhaps that is why God created us. In his never-dying, he was denied the fulfillment that comes from being time bound. Through us, he can act in a finite environment. If we could live forever, would there be any need for us to love? Perhaps love needs a time bound situation.
By eating of the fruit of the second tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humankind progressed from the safe secure spot of no fulfillment. It progressed from being placid cattle eating grass thoughtlessly in the eternal meadow, to thinking beings fighting the treacherous battles of our material everydays. Winning these battles, with the help of our God, gives the human being a sense of fulfillment.
It might be downright boring to live forever and have no challenges. God has given to human beings the choice of being active for the good of humankind, or of selfishly dwelling in Eden admiring our navels. God has offered to us and to succeeding generations the opportunity to be partners with him in the creation of a world unified in love. Leaving Paradise was never a disaster. It was the wonder of humankind accepting the responsibility of being human. It was humankind stepping out on the path of loving community. This microcosm of community is sketched strikingly through the skill of the Peaceful one, as a family of two, Eve and Adam, side by side, rising to challenges. She shows us these prototypes of the human race, going forth to participate in new possibilities of cooperation and empathy.
Instead of looking at the Garden story as having to do with fulfillment, lets see what it might say about sin. Later day authors were determined to find something wrong with the goings-on in the Garden. Humanity has short comings, and we search around for someone to blame. How convenient to blame what is wrong with the world on legendary ancestors! Anything seems preferable than outright accepting the blame for our failures. Perhaps that is what is wrong with the incident in the Garden. Look what Adam did to Eve! God said, Why did you do it? and Adam implied that it was the helpmate who made him do it. If original sin means a typical basic ignoble action that all of us do, blaming someone else is surely that repetitive act. We make laws so that we can point the finger at those who break them, and get a sense of superiority for ourselves. Fingerpointing to make ourselves look good is the basic problem of the human ego.
The first sin had nothing to do with sex. God made sex, and it was a good gift, and supposedly there werent any third parties around to mess up the good relationship that existed between Adam and Eve. The first sin may have been the disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit, but we get the implication that God really admired the couple for daring to try to be wise. If there was any sin, it was the sin of un-love. The human pointed at his helpmate, in order to preserve his own great self-image before God. He displayed no empathy for his helpmate. He was selfish! The humans action made a rift in the community that God was hoping they would build.
The helpmates motivation likewise left a lot to be desired. She blamed the situation. We could interpret the snake for her, as the wisdom incorporated in society, and we could excuse her by saying that the ways of her culture were irresistible. Many of us want to believe that we are the products of our society, and therefore cant be expected to act independently of that society. With the woman, we dont want to take responsibility for our actions, particularly if we might find ourselves in conflict with our culture. How many of us float from day to day in the ocean of experience, and let the tides push us around! The formation of loving community requires positive actions on our part. Drifting with the waves leaves the whole thing up to chance. We must form our fundamental beliefs on Gods purposes for us, set our sights on the good we hope to create in our lives and the lives of others, and take constructive actions that we believe will fulfill those purposes of God. The woman may have loved her helpmate, but she wasnt about to go out on a limb to make a point about it. She, also, was self-centered.
Augustine may have acquired his notion of original sin from the fact that we all start off life being basically self-centered. However, this self-centeredness has the advantage of keeping the human race alive. Looking at the situation from an evolutionary viewpoint, we might have died out long ago, if we were all willing to give up our lives altruistically in every difficult circumstance. But besides creating us with the urge to self-preservation, God also created all these wonderful possibilities that we have for loving and helping one another. The Genesis author does not lay her emphasis on original sin, but confirms the goodness of God and the goodness of creation. Due to this original blessing of God by Gods gift of the earth to us humans, we are free to act responsibly in love and to build the earth into a heaven.
Jesus, the Messiah, read Genesis. What did he make of the two trees and the banishment? We know that he was thoroughly cognizant of the allegory of Adam and Eve, because when the Pharisees asked him about divorce, he answered, Have you not read that the creator from the beginning made them male and female and that he said: This is why a man must leave father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two become one body? They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, a man must not divide(Matthew 19:3).
The men of Jesus day ran a patriarchal society, where man was king. If his wife served him a meal he didnt like, the husband could tell her to get out, and then at his convenience, he could select another woman as a replacement. Some people thought that this was a little hard on the original wife and that divorce should be permitted only for weighty matters, such as a wife committing adultery or otherwise breaking the law. Thus the disputing groups asked Jesus for a decision:- Could a man divorce his wife for any petty reason?
Jesus saw the plight of the cast-off wife. He saw the equality of the man and the woman in the Genesis story. He saw that the women of his day did not have this equality. He saw that the throw-away wives were denied their right to livelihood, that they were forced into prostitution to acquire food for their stomachs. He answered his questioners by reminding them of the equality of men and women before God and of the loving union that can be created by a coming together of equals. The loving community of two that was held up as an example in Genesis 1, had been reduced by Jesus contemporaries to an unstable relationship that could be ended by the word of a man. Jesus conclusion was that it was unseemly for one of the partners to end this partnership, especially when it meant the destruction of the other partner, the woman. There was something totally unloving about this whole Palestinian divorce situation. Moses permitted it in the law because men had such unloving hearts. Jesus turned the tables on his male questioners who felt they had the right to divorce a wife for HER sins. He told them they would be the ones who were considered the sinners. They would be guilty of adultery if they put aside their wife to marry another. He expected men to have loving consideration for their wives. The husbands should accept their wives imperfections, as their wives were required by the Hebrew society to quietly put up with all that was difficult in their men.
The totality of Jesus message is even more emphatic about the relationships among men and women. It asks for love. It requires that there should be not just a resigned acceptance among men and women, but that both women and men should love, forgive, and encourage one another. As loving friendship exists only between equals, a good marriage requires considerate equality.
We see that the Bible starts off with an affirmation of the equality of women, and that this positive direction is continued in the teaching of Jesus. This same gallant attitude is found in the writings of Paul. It may waver in the writings that are set down by the disciples of Paul, under his name, as in 1Timothy. It may have been this same disillusioned disciple that slipped an insert in the truly Pauline document of 1Corinthians. In 1Corinthians 7: 10-16 Paul gently affirms the equality of women. In 1Corinthians 14 Paul is talking about prophesying, and at verse 33b we are confronted by an insert, that sounds very much like the writer of 1Timothy. He changes the subject from prophesying, to women, and insists on their non-equality as in the Jewish synagogue, to prove his point. Then the interrupted text goes back to its discussion of prophesy in verse 36. The truly Pauline writings always emphasize the equality of women with men.
Check this inserted text out in your Bible (1Corinthians 14:33b-35). It is very obvious that it is an insert of unrelated material, and that the true Paul writes affirmatively on women in the earlier chapter seven of 1Corinthians.
The real Pauls esteem for women can be seen in his special mention of Phoebe in Romans 16:1. Most translations describe Phoebe as our sister, but the word sister is not the word Paul used. If you were a sister, you were something a little less, not quite an equal, one of the lesser sex. Paul calls Phoebe the Greek word for brother, and puts a feminine ending on it. It could best be translated into English as brotheress. This term means that Phoebe, as deaconess is really one of the guys, an equal, a good friend, on the same footing as any male church person.
The true Paul also gives us an interpretation of the Adam and Eve story in Romans 5 :12-21 . Keep in mind that Paul is not the author of what seems to be a conflicting interpretation of Adam and Eve in 1Timothy 2:13-15. Paul was a Jew who had studied Hebrew law, and he knew all the teachings of the rabbis and their interpretations on Adam and Eve. He probably knew the different versions of the story and was cognizant of the fact that two famous rabbis had taken all the blame for whatever went wrong in Eden, off the man, and laid it all on the woman.(8) According to these rabbis, woman was evil, a tempting prostitute, little better than an animal. Possibly these rabbis were the offspring of good Jewish mothers who pushed their sons into the elite profession which in their day was the rabbinate. The men probably subconsciously resented the push given by these particular women, and their resentment grew into a disregard for all women. The actions of some women, affect some men very adversely.
But Paul wasnt like those particular rabbis. He had many female friends whom he respected. He also had a physical problem, which may have been epilepsy, and he may never have married because he didnt want to inflict the care for his problem on another.
Knowing that Paul was cognizant of certain unkind condemnations of Eve that were current in Jewish teaching, we can only admire his gentlemanliness in Romans 5, where he puts the responsibility for Adams actions squarely on Adam. He uses Adam to represent humanity, either male or female, who missed the mark. Thus ha adam s try at community, showed how humankind fared when wrestling with his environment without a clear vision of God. Consequently, to help humankind, God sent the law through Moses to give a clearer picture to humankind of the behavior that would help them to live successfully in community (Romans 5:13, 14a). This was still not enough, for human beings lived in selfishness. They obeyed the law for their own good, but were not too concerned with how the law affected their neighbor. Even today we are like that with our laws. As long as our laws enable us to maintain our property and our well being, we dont worry too much about how these same laws affect the jobless in Harlem.
Paul points out that the law wasnt being successful, so that God gave us the final help towards life and loving community; God sent us Jesus as the man and Messiah who will help us to have true life and to live in loving community with one another. Jesus Christ gives us the opportunity of being put right with God (Romans 5 :17). Paul is very respectful of ha adam. He says that this human prefigured the one to come (5 :14c). This first ancestor is a person who is accepting responsibility to form a loving community, a person who desires to search out the purpose of life and the wisdom of God. Ha adam broke no societal laws because there were no laws to break, but ha adam was unsuccessful in bringing total loving community on the earth. Moses pointed in the right direction, but his law also failed to bring the millennium. Law cant bring total love and justice, as there is no law that can change hearts.
Jesus came with the message from God on how to change hearts and how to transform the earth into a loving community. Paul feels that Christ was successful (Romans 5:21), but although the world now has the message, the key that unlocks the door, how many of us turn the key in the lock and go through the door?
Paul writing about 57 AD in Romans 5 :12-21, says ha adam (or humanity, both male and female) sinned or missed the mark. He understood the proper nuances of the name Adam. A disciple of Paul wrote a letter of instruction for the early church about 125 AD.9 This disciple, known as Pseudo-Paul, blames the sin on Eve (1Timothy 2: 14). Both Paul and his disciple do not seem to realize that the concept of sin didnt get a foothold in Hebrew culture until the return of the tribes from Babylon. They both were speaking to the needs of the culture of their separate times. Paul blamed the whole thing on ha adam, or humanity in general. His disciple blamed the whole thing on Eve, because in his culture, two or three generations after Paul, when the early church was in its growing pains, over-enthusiastic female leadership tending towards gnosticism, was in danger of destroying the credibility of the church. In a patriarchal society male converts would be very edgy about coming into a female-run church with mystical ideas. In the year 125 AD the Holy Spirit found it efficacious to calm down the women, for the sake of the survival of the church in the Graeco-Roman culture. As the carrier of Gods message across the centuries, the church had to be a viable institution, accepted by a male dominated society.
1Timothy 2:8-15 starts off rather reasonably. I shall quote it, putting my comments in parenthesis. Verse 8: In every church service I want the men to pray, men who are dedicated to God and can lift up their hands in prayer without anger or argument. (Obviously, the men of Pseudo-Pauls day tended to be argumentative, just as we find both men and women today who find it difficult to pray without first discussing heatedly as to what would be the best solution to a difficult situation.) Verse 9: I also want the women to be modest and sensible about their clothes and to dress properly, not with fancy hairstyles or with gold ornaments or pearls or expensive dresses, Verse 10: but with good deeds, as is proper for women who claim to be religious. (This is a reasonable request.) Verse 11: Women should learn in silence and all humility. (Both men and women should listen politely to teachers who are instructing them, but for proper learning, there should be a question period for feedback, so that the teacher can see if the student understood the message.) Verse 12: I do not allow them to teach or have authority over men; they must keep quiet. (This is a low blow, but we must assent that women should not have authority over mature men, any more than men should have authority over mature women. The author must have a reason for his emphatic remark, which must have to do with some special problem in the church of his day. He next strives to back up his remark with what some of the people in his culture might accept as sound theology.) Verse 13: For Adam was created first, and then Eve. (For his present purposes, he chooses to ignore the side-by-side equality of the humans in the Adam and Eve story, and to emphasize his perspective of the time element. He evidently sees himself that the time element is a rather flimsy argument, because he makes a second try.) Verse 14: And it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and broke Gods law. (Because of the problems in his particular church, the author is taking a minor rabbinical thread, and hoping that his fellow church members will agree with his reasoning.) Verse 15: But a woman will be saved through having children, if she perseveres in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (A man may also attain salvation by raising, loving, and agonizing over his children.)
It is easy to see that the author of 1Timothy had some sort of a problem in his community that required tact and a bit of gentle manoeuvering. He probably was convinced that in his particular situation, he was guiltless, and that the woman was working under unChristian and heretical misconceptions. He wanted to encourage this militant woman to be less obvious, as he felt she was somehow deceived.
How are these anti-feminine sentiments of 1Timothy to be interpreted by us today? Cultures away from the time of the writing of the 1Timothy passage, many of us are bound by the same assumptions as Pseudo-Paul. The unthinking majority assumes the superiority of the male, which was not the stance of Paul, and more importantly, not that of Jesus! Perhaps even Pseudo-Paul is not denying the equality of the female, but is merely striving to maintain a semblance of order in his church. We of todays church are usually not confronted by problems of order. We of todays church are being asked by Jesus to form loving community, to care for the elderly, both male and female, to comfort those men and women wounded by divorce. We are called to restructure society in order to eliminate the need for prostitution, abortion, poverty, drug abuse, and imprisonment.
The message of the Adam and Eve story of the Bible is not that we should concentrate on a policy of discrimination against women and keep them silent and pregnant. The message is that women are equally responsible for the salvation of the earth. The message of Pseudo-Paul may be a plea to have all this restructuring of society done in an orderly fashion.
This slightly anti-feminine passage of Pseudo-Paul in Gods inspired word brings us back to our problem of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation. The first question we have to ask ourselves is whether we have an authentic translation. If that is the case, the second question concerns whether or not we are interpreting the culture of the times correctly. A third question we might ask ourselves is whether it is necessary to obey every injunction given by every God-inspired prophet that is setdown in Gods word. It seems that God enables us to choose what are the best methods for bringing us closer to loving community. Abraham gave us the rite of circumcision, and Moses is credited with food regulations. Both these religious contributions assisted the people of their days to form more workable communities. Paul allows the Gentiles to dismiss both these burdens.New times and seasons bring new insights from the Holy Spirit that go beyond the constrictions placed there by earlier ages. If Gods dream for the human race, is loving community, it seems reasonable that better means of achieving this, would be revealed to people by a loving God as time passed on and as people were able to accept the changes involved.
Jesus, understanding the totality of Gods message, spoke to us about the Holy Spirit. He told us that he would not leave us as orphans (John 14:18), but would send his Spirit to tell us what we needed to know to be just, righteous, and whole individuals. In this age we are blessed with a flood of communications on how to live God-fearing lives. We have to decide whom we are going to believe; we want to know who is speaking with Gods Spirit, and who is speaking on his own.
I should like to start off with a debatable assumption; that every person in any age who out of a sincere heart asks for Gods wisdom on a subject, will be given as much wisdom as that particular human creation can hold. This is because although we are all created from the dust of earth, we each contain a spark of Gods Spirit as our birthright. However, God can work only with what we are and have. God must speak in each individuals language and culture. God gave to Moses the best that was available for building a successful community in that day. I dont think that anyone would deny that Moses was a God-inspired man. Paul, also was God-inspired, and led the people of his day towards loving community. In our day there are many God-inspired people giving us advice that comes from sincere hearts. According to their different upbringings and culture, they may give conflicting messages. However, if they will dialogue with each other, what will come out of all these varying opinions will be the formation of loving community that is closer to Gods designs than anything we have yet formulated. For optimum community we must keep open to one anothers opinions and respect one anothers differences, in love.
The ancient Hebrews, when confronted with the problem of which prophet was the true prophet, let time be the test. If the prophesies he made came true, that prophet became the one who was truly inspired. In the meantime, the true prophet may have been stoned to death, because someone disagreed with his theology or because he spoke against the accepted societal norms of the time. Jeremiah predicted the length of the Babylonian exile, so he was considered a major prophet. This does not mean that every word that Jeremiah spoke, was absolutely true for all time.
As we are human beings, none of us can speak the absolutely final word on any subject. If I say, It is raining, I have made a true statement for a particular time and place, but my statement is certainly not true for all times and all places. People living in the Sahara would not consider me a true forecaster of events. Likewise my theology is restricted to a very small area of the earth. Perhaps it is true in my church for the year 1998, or perhaps it only holds true in my home, or perhaps it is only effective in myself for a particular day.
So it is with others:their inspiration comes from a particular time, place, and individual. The God in them strives to communicate with the God in us, and, together, in love, we will find some common meeting ground. We communicate with others whose lives cross our paths. We read their ideas in books. We see them in action in our world. All this information is assimilated into our quest for knowledge of God and enables God to speak in us more effectively.
For those whose life spans do not coincide with ours, we can go back in time by reading the stories they have left behind. Our communication with them is hampered by the barriers of language and culture. We cannot hope to understand the fears and problems of other days, the raids of the mountain men down onto the fertile plains, the Bubonic plague accepted as the design of God, the enslavement of those defeated in battle. The language in which they set down their theologies is communicated by inspired translators, but, again, these translators are imperfect individuals. They are doing the most inspired job they are capable of, but they cannot possibly know all the varied meanings that a given word or phrase can have. Biblical critical scholars have enlightened us with many new interpretations for certain passages that had been incorrectly understood by earlier researchers, but there is still much study to be done.
An interesting example of misinterpretation is Exodus 34:29 which describes Moses as having a horned face after talking on the mountain with God. After famous paintings dramatized Moses horns on the memory of humankind, fresh translation brought to light that the horns described the radiance of Moses face, rather than an animal appendage. We should view productions of other famous artists keeping in mind that they are not the final word in theology. We must realize that when we view Michelangelos grandfatherly type God creating a male humankind on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, that this representation of God is merely an artists notion, like the feminine version on this page. Neither one is to be engraved on our minds as a truth for all times. Similarly, not many of us have seen an angel, but artists are willing to fancifully portray these messengers of God.
Thus we see that the marvelous tool that is the Bible can occasionally benefit from a cleaning off of the collected dust of the centuries. Reinterpretation of difficult biblical passages is still going on. Sometimes different groups of scholarly translators will come up with varying interpretations of the Bible that serve different aspects of their theology. An example of slightly conflicting meanings, can be seen if we turn to The Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 12 and 13. The Jerusalem Bible translates this passage as: But to all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to all who believe in the name of him who was born not out of human stock or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God himself.
A slightly different emphasis is found in The Revised Standard Version of the United Bible Societies: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
The most prominent difference in translation occurs in the phrases who was born and who were born. The was born phrase refers back to Jesus; the were born refers to all of us as children of God. Other biblical versions display their own choice of emphasis. Having examined the Greek language myself, I can understand the dilemma of the translators. One statement cannot be given preference over the other. In order to harmonize these two particular choices, the translators would have to gather in loving consensus and ask the Spirit to give them the best possible solution.
This example from John 1 :12-13 has been given to illustrate that there are many places where Gods inspired word is hampered by the humanness of interpreters. We have to accept that there are imperfections, as Gods writing instrumentsnamely, human beingsare imperfect.
We must also accept that we are remarkable instruments for Gods use, for we can hear the Spirit speaking in our hearts, we can tell this inspired message to others, we can accept Gods word from the translations of others, and we can pray together to the Holy Spirit and receive from a bountiful God that message which is best for our time and our culture. God loves us, and gives us marvelous abilities. As we pursue our non-patriarchal investigation of the Bible, we must keep in mind both our abilities and our imperfections.
Cora E. Cypser
1. Sharon MacIsaac, Freud and Original Sin (New York: Paulist, 1974), p. 103 ff.
2. Jean Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979) p. 35.
3. Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harpur & Row, 1965).
4. Cypser paraphrase.
5. George Forell, Christian Social Teachings (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1966), p. 71, Augustines Enchiridion, Chapters 23-26.
6. The translation of the Hebrew word in Genesis 3:1, is wisest rather than subtle or clever.
7. Norman Perrin, The New Testament (New York: Harcourt Brace Jova., 1974), p. 7.
8. Maurice Harris, Hebraic Literature (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1936), pp. 23-25.
9. Norman Perrin, loc.cit., p. 7.
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