Rooting Out Non-Essentials from the Garden

Revisions Editor · Friday, 30 September 2011

This article was originally published in the Spring ’10 issue of Revisions, Gender and Christianity.

The God who vindicates and cares deeply for the crushed and persecuted would not make sense as an oppressor designing or cursing women to subservience.

In her essay, The Second Sex, Simon de Beauvoir considers that the Bible presupposes innate gender essences and advocates oppression of women. How can Christianity be true to the Bible without falling under her critique? Many Christians assume that the Bible presupposes two gender essences, that is, innate qualities of all females as contrasted to all males. Many Christians assume the Bible advocates subjugation of women to men, or at least of wives to husbands—is this biblical? Many Christians and non-​​Christians are averse to misogyny, gender roles, and gender essentialism which urge them into either a masculine box or a feminine box, regardless of how awkwardly their personality might fit that expectation—how can we answer their concerns?

I will explain that de Beauvoir’s position does not properly stand as a critique of the Bible itself but only of some formulations of Christian thought—particular articulated in terms of “the Curse,” or advocacy of gender Complementarianism, which is the idea that men and women bear innate, particular traits and roles by which they balance each other. De Beauvoir believes the creation account in Genesis demonstrates the very way that gender constrains. I will argue against the notion that gender essentialism is endemic to the Bible and instead suggest that a tempered gender equality underwrites the narrative.

The heart of de Beauvoir’s essay, The Second Sex, is the claim that when human beings convince themselves that a feminine essence exists, they live in a self-​​deception that prohibits every person from experiencing true liberty.1 De Beauvoir maintains that every person is choosing their identity by their choices, by living authentically.2 The idea of feminine and masculine natures constrains women and men from acting in freedom, either by proscribing or prohibiting sets of cultural behaviors.3 The “tomboy” is perceived negatively or, at best, humored instead of regarded as an equally legitimate form of authentic being as other girls’ personality types.

For de Beauvoir, gender is a culturally located concept that varies widely from time and place, and consequently we cannot pinpoint a description of masculinity or femininity that applies to every culture and period’s perspective: “there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.“4 De Beauvoir holds that “femininity is neither a natural nor an innate reality, but rather a condition brought about by society, on the basis of certain physiological characteristics.“5 Judith Butler similarly defines gender as “a relative point of convergence among culturally and historically specific sets of relations.“6

If de Beauvoir is correct about gender, then Christianity should have a form compatible with this. Though no one can pinpoint a description of masculinity or femininity that applies to every culture and period’s perspective,7 we can see what the Bible has to say.

Genesis 1:27–2 gives the first appearance of humans:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them… “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.“8

Reading innate masculine and feminine natures into the obvious anatomical difference between men and woman in this verse is without basis. As Bible scholar John E. Hartley articulates in his Genesis commentary, the words “male and female” ascribe sexuality, that is, the solely physical characteristics of humanness: “In the essence of being human there is no qualitative difference between male and female.“8 The passage indicates identical treatment. Both sexes receive the very same vocations of reproduction, subduing the land, and holding dominion over animals. The text gives no support to redistributing the tasks such that woman is to reproduce and man to conquer and provide.

A key passage for reconciling genderless reality with the Bible occurs in Genesis 2:

…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.… Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” .. .whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name… but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner… And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.9

Here, “It is not good” provides stark contrast to the good results of the preceding creation, showing that companionship is very important.10 On a quick read one might conclude that woman was destined by God for man, that “in her mate was her origin and purpose,“11 but a more sensible reading considers that the two humans are anatomically designed to reproduce together, entailing a reciprocal designing on the part of God for both sexes. Notably, the text describes fashioning the appendage into the woman, which conveys being made according to the same model as man.12 Whereas man was formed in a single verse, Hartley holds that the woman’s placement as last and the use of three verses connotes her high importance.13 When the man speaks, he does not name her as he did the animals, but rather calls her.14 Contextually, this implies that he does not rule over her or hold authority over her.

Tragically, “helper” has been incorrectly read as being subservient, or as supportive of males’ ambitions and ministries, and thereby used against women,15 when actually the word is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe God as helper of Israel.16“Helper” loses any pejorative meaning when we recognize that God himself is renowned as helper. In fact, we see in the Genesis text that the first human needed a companion. Notably absent is any instruction as to any act she must do or model for male/​female relationships. She saves him from solitude simply by being herself. Here, both human beings are equal and still no constrictions of gendered natures are evident.

The closest a reader could come to identifying a proscribed role for one sex in this Genesis passage is by way of the “therefore” of “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife,” which applies the story to later known practice. De Beauvoir’s concern about wives submissively tagging along wherever their husbands’ occupation takes them does not reflect the passage’s intent for marriage. I know a man who, because he takes this verse seriously, has relocated to find a job where his girlfriend grew up and lives; he has told her that neither before engagement nor after marriage would he ask her to leave her hometown to come wherever he might want to be. De Beauvoir is on target with her belief that marriage must be transformed to free both men and women;17 if a reader conceptualizes this leaving as a male role, it could be observed as an endeavor of reconstitution. De Beauvoir is upset by the woman-​​in-​​the-​​garden story (Genesis 3), but not because of the content of the passage itself. Her crucial mistake is failing to notice that Christians historically brought their notions of women to the Biblical text and interpreted it in light of them, ideas often based on the “science” of their day.18 These theological interpretations have been lorded over women and employed in repression, for which de Beauvoir has just cause to be disgusted. De Beauvoir doesn’t realize her denial of gender essentialism is compatible with the narrative, because she readily accepts the interpretation of those with whom she is arguing rather than considering the teachings implicit in the story itself.

De Beauvoir rightly notes that the woman first ate the fruit, but she misses the possibility of interpretations that do not remove the man’s freedom to eat or not eat it (Genesis 3:4–6). Deeming the woman untrustworthy or evil for eating first and for “causing” man’s downfall is a stretch which sadly many have made. It was his own conscious decision, the very free will sort of choice that a person makes when existentially choosing his or her actions.

There is also no evidence in the account about malevolent motives. The woman’s rationale for eating the fruit was sensible, seeing it as good for food, a delight to the eyes, and to make one wise. Further, she had never heard a lie told before in her life. Consequently, the readings which assigning females lesser intelligence or judgment, or a dormant evil temptress essence that may rear its ugly head at any moment are a function of the reader’s notions of gender rather than the text’s narrative or cultural indications.

The Curse” is another major reason that Christian men and women have permitted women to stay oppressed and often still argue that wives should defer to their husbands. In Genesis 3:16–19 God speaks as follows:

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ’ You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Working hard at manual labor is not at all the same sort of punishment as being damned to oppression, especially if oppression precludes living authentically. Admittedly, the language of the cursing can instill the idea that God purposefully caused the woman to be dominated by the man. The apparent inconsistency arises only from a nuanced reading (like those of the church fathers who imported “scientific” deductions into their readings). Why not accept the birthing pain as God-​​inflicted punishment, and the second half of the statement as commenting on the state of affairs rather than illocutionary words that bring into existence the state of affairs? Think for a moment on the second half of the words aimed at the man; do you consider returning to the ground as dust to be a curse from God rather than simply a description of how things are as a consequence of the sin?

Even if a person is unwilling to grant this reading, there remains no excuse for wielding this verse as proscribing all women a place under the rule of man. Why not? In looking at the rest of the Biblical narrative, the reader is relentlessly instructed to care for the poor, widows, orphans, foreigners—in short, the subjugated and marginalized. Exodus and Leviticus are filled with provisions for slaves and daughters, also subject to injustice and mistreatment. In light of this core theme of concern for the marginalized, the God who vindicates and cares deeply for the crushed and persecuted would not make sense as an oppressor designing or cursing women to subservience.

Furthermore, Jesus fulfilled the Law so no one is to be under curse anymore. Galatians 3:10–15 elucidates:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law… Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… I give an example from daily life: once a person’s will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it.20

Continuing the tradition of suppression proscribed by God having cursed anyone born female would also entail prohibiting any sort of pain relief for delivery (both drugs and Lamaze method) and making illegal any convenience or appliance that reduces toil. If woman is still to be punished for “the Curse” and disallowed relief, man too must persist in his trial as well.

Gender essentialism and female oppression are not positions taken by these Genesis texts nor are supported by the Biblical corpus. So why has the idea of roles persisted in Christian mindsets, with submission of wives even lauded as God’s design? And why do some romantic types of feminisms think that women bear separate qualities than men, rather than see both sexes as equally the image of God with the same mission?21 The answer is 1) bringing the lens of Christian tradition, compounded by a history of misreading, to the Word instead of reading the text on its own terms, and 2) personal experience that de Beauvoir likens to George Bernard Shaw’s statement, “The American white relegates the black to the rank of shoeshine boy; and he concludes from this that the black is good for nothing but shining shoes.” In both cases, she explains:

…the former masters lavish more or less sincere eulogies, either on the virtues of ‘the good Negro’ with his dormant, childish, merry soul—the submissive Negro—or on the merits of the woman who is “truly feminine”… the submissive woman. In both cases the dominant class bases its argument on a state of affairs that it has itself created.“22

De Beauvoir raises valid concerns about the equality of the sexes and erasure of lies about nonexistent gender roles. While her disdain for unfounded theology is right on the mark, she misses God’s heart for women and men in her assessment of the Biblical texts because she does not realize that the prevalent interpretation she dislikes is not part of the actual creation narrative. The common command to both man and woman for reproduction, subduing the land, and holding dominion over animals frees readers to a Christian view that is true to the Biblical account but operates without the unwarranted assumption of gender essentialism, and enables each self to confidently assert itself regardless of sex, traits, or responsibilities. Christians and non-​​Christians alike find it difficult to view God as loving and respectful because this seems irreconcilable with the “Curse” or their cultural conception of gendered Complementarianism. Will we encourage them by stepping into a Biblical interpretation of men and women who, though differing in physiology, are given the same commandment of Genesis 1:28?

  1. Jean-​​Paul Sarte terms this self-​​deception “bad faith.” De Beauvoir, Simone, The Prime of Life, (Cleveland: World Publishing. 1962), 291. []
  2. De Beauvoir shares Sartre’s central tenet of existentialism: that humans are not anything preceding their existence, so their choices and actions form who they are. Ibid., 291. See also De Beauvoir, Simone, The Ethics of Ambiguity, (New York: World Philosophical Library. 1948), 24. []
  3. Two dangers of the Complementarian view are 1) The origins of women abuse are in a patriarchal system dependent on hierarchy. Between 25–50% of women who have intimate relation ships with men are physically abused by them at least once, 30% of women murdered in America are killed by husbands or boy friends, and domestic violence is rarely a one-​​time occurrence. Christian Complementarianism views males as designed for hierarchical leadership, especially in a nuclear family. Christian women indoctrinated in this view believe they experience God’s beautiful plan for male/​female relationships in how they submissively interact with their boyfriend or spouse, who enjoys her acquiescence to this hierarchy and circularly also perceives it as God-​​ordained. See Ginny NiCarthy, Getting Free: A Handbook for Women in Abusive Relationships, 15th ed. (Toronto: Publishers Group West. 1997), xxi, xxvi; National Woman Abuse Prevention Project, Helping the Battered Woman: A Guide for Family and Friends (Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice), 3; and Linda Day, “Rhetoric and Domestic Violence in Ezekiel 16,” Biblical Interpretation, no. 8 (2000), 212. 2) Since Complementarianism assumes innate masculine and feminine traits, it cannot answer the convictions of people who declare themselves to be transgendered or transsexual, an identity based on this idea that certain traits match certain anatomy. Christian Egalitarianism, which argues that men and women are to minister in whatever way they are gifted (their sex being irrelevant), does not need to entertain the idea of trans, because it does not assume innate gender traits exist. It may thereby affirm that these people are not mistakes, but rather exactly bear the traits God intended in a particular person of their biological sex. []
  4. Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (London: Routledge. 1990), 25. []
  5. De Beauvoir, Prime, 291. []
  6. Butler, 10. []
  7. Imagine dedicating yourself to concocting trademark perfumes to wear on your elaborate, flowing clothes and in your long hair which you style by tying it atop your head. You paint portraits to give as gifts, and correspondence usually features your exquisite poetry. The sight of a dawning sunrise or a sparkling drop of dew upon a blade of grass causes you to cry, and all of your friends admire your sensitivity. If you live in Kyoto, Japan during the eleventh century, you are the man of every woman’s dreams. Japan’s perception of gender norms and qualities has historically differed from that of the West. See Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, (Kodansha America Inc. 1994). []
  8. Hartley, John E., Genesis, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000), 61. []
  9. Genesis 2:7, 18–20, 22–24. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. De Beauvoir, Second, 131. []
  12. Hartley, 62. []
  13. Ibid., 62. []
  14. Ibid., 63. []
  15. In some cases, the word has been interpreted even worse than as any real help. Augustine overlooked the commissioning of humans, writing, “I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?” See Ranke-​​Heinemann, Uta, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: The Catholic Church and Sexuality, (London: Penguin, 1990), 88.

    Thomas Aquinas concurred that Scripture deems woman “a ‘helper’ to man; not, indeed, as a helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation,” suggesting, “It would seem that the woman was… made through the ministry of the angels, and not immediately by God.” See Aquinas, St. Thomas, “The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas,” in New Advent, 2008 [accessed 17 October 2009]; available from <http://​www​.newadvent​.org/​s​u​m​m​a​/​1​0​9​2​.​htm>. []

  16. Hartley, 61. []
  17. De Beauvoir, Second, 131. []
  18. For example, Clement of Alexandria wrote of the “weaker sex” in his Paedagogus, “This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve, and is the token of the superior nature. In this God deemed it right that he should excel, and dispersed hair over man’s whole body. Whatever smoothness and softness was in him He abstracted from his side when He formed the woman Eve, physically receptive, his partner in parentage, his help in household management, while he (for he had parted with all smoothness) remained a man, and shows himself man. And to him has been assigned action, as to her suffering; for what is shaggy is drier and warmer than what is smooth. Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females, animals that are entire than the emasculated, perfect than imperfect…Women are therefore to philosophize equally with men, though the males are preferable at everything, unless they have become effeminate.” See Clement of Alexandria, “Clement of Alexandria: Stromata, Book 4,” in Early Christian Writings, 2001 [accessed 17 November 2009];available from <http://​www​.earlychristianwritings​.com/​t​e​x​t​/​c​l​e​m​e​n​t​-​s​t​r​o​m​a​t​a​-​b​o​o​k​4​.​h​tml>.

    Augustine explained to his readers, “It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.” See Augustine, “Questions on the Heptateuch Book I, § 153,” in Women Priests Internet Library, 2005 [accessed 17 October 2009]; available from <http://​www​.womenpriests​.org/​t​r​a​d​i​t​i​o​/​a​u​g​ust. asp#order>.

    Thomas Aquinas stated, “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist.” See Aquinas, St. Thomas, “The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas,” in New Advent, 2008 [accessed 17 October 2009]; available from <http://​www​.newadvent​.org/ summa/1092.htm>. []

  19. See also Hebrews chapters 8 through 9. []
  20. See also Hebrews chapters 8 through 9. []
  21. Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Sexism and God-​​Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 44. []
  22. De Beauvoir, Second, xxiv. []
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