Shalom and Gender Justice
It is hard to talk about women and girls without dealing with the reasons we need to talk about “women and girls.” I wish it were true that women and girls didn’t present a special case in the world and we could just talk about humans and the human family. But, the truth is that our human family is a broken one — shattered, actually. The first break occurred in the third chapter of Genesis, and the gulf got wider with every page and every generation until finally women are widowed by war and violence, deemed to be property without rights in marriage, raped by family and kings alike, and pushed into prostitution for basic survival. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
At the end of the first creation story God, looked around at the end of the sixth day and declared that all the relationships in creation were very good.
Genesis 1:26: God created both men and women in God’s image — in the tselem of God. The Hebrew word tselem means representative figure. The writer of Genesis was communicating a revolutionary truth to the original readers. To a culture where women were considered property to be traded for goods, to an ancient world where women had no rights at all, the writer of Genesis proclaimed that both men and women are divine image bearers. As God’s representative figures we are both endowed with the inherent dignity reserved for royalty!
What’s more, in the same verse — in the same breath — God says, “ … and let them have dominion.” The Hebrew word for dominion is radah, which means to tread down, or, in this agrarian society, it would have been understood to mean to steward. Genesis 2, a more intimate account of the creation story, gives us a clearer picture of what dominion looks like. Creator places adam, a gender-neutral word for human being, in the middle of the garden to serve and protect the land.
Mark this: In Genesis 1 and 2, there is no distinction between the kind of dominion the man and the woman should exercise over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle of the earth and every other wild thing on earth — no distinction. Nor is there any distinction in the kind of dominion in Genesis 2, when the human being — not a guy named Adam — was placed in the garden and given work to do.
Note: Much like God separates the land from sea and sky in Genesis 1. God separates out male from female in Genesis 2. It is not until Genesis 2:23, when God takes the rib from the human and makes woman, that gender-specific language enters the text: adam (human) becomes iysh (male) and ishshah (female). And still there is no distinction between the kinds of dominion that iysh and ishshah are supposed to exercise according to the text.
Two things are clear in both creation stories: 1) both men and women are created to exercise equal dominion, and 2) according to Genesis 1:31, this relationship between men and women was “very good.” This is what right relationship between men and women looks like. It is only after the fall of humanity — when we decided not to trust God’s ways, when we decided to grab at our own way to peace and gratification — that women were subjected to men. And I see nothing in the text that says this is the way God wanted it. Rather, I see this is the natural result of choosing to exercise a human kind of dominion rather than one that reflects the image of God. Humanity grabs at its own peace at the expense of the peace of all.
How does this affect us today? My friend, Mimi Haddad (president of Christians for Biblical Equality), is onto something. In a recent conversation, she said there is a relationship between the theological stance a society takes on women and girls and the level of poverty and violence in that society. The more a society uses theological grounds to subjugate women and girls, the higher the poverty and violence levels will be in that society. This is proving as true in the West as it is in the Middle East, the Far East, or the Global South. It is as true in the geopolitical and economic realms as it is true in the day-to-day lives of churches.
What if this is true? What if our view of women and girls, undergirded by millennia of poor theological exegesis, is at the heart of the problem of violence and poverty today? If that is true, then there is one major remedy: We must return to the Scripture. We must allow the Scripture to examine us, down the most basic assumptions we carry about what right relationship looks like. And when we hear God speak to us — whispering “tselem, tselem” to both women and men, we must say: “Forgive us.”
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Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners.