Proverbs 31 contains a poem praising a “woman of valor” in a systematic review of her duties and the excellence with which she serves her family and community. In Jewish homes every Sabbath, this poem is read by the husband to praise his wife as the woman of valor she is. (This is such liberating news, as I was always taught it more as a checklist of things to do in order for God to be proud of me or to attract a Christian husband. Women will let comparison rob us blind if we aren’t careful. We aren’t in competition with this woman of valor, we are her. All of us. Anyway.) The Hebrew words are eshet chayil. This post is a part of a series on this blog looking at various women of valor in the Bible, history, and contemporary times. You can find the others with the tag Woman of Valor or Blog Series.
This entry is adapted from the manuscript of a spiritual formation class I taught at my church, as I mentioned here.
INTRODUCTION - ORIGIN STORIES
The Bible is one book but within it, there are 66 (at least) whole works and many of them contain multiple genres of writing. Genre is an important aspect of the Bible to think through because understanding genre helps us to discern how to read/interpret a specific passage. Some genres within our sacred scripture include origin story (creation, origin of man, origin of sin, origin of the Jewish faith), Poetry (Genesis 1, Proverbs 31, the Psalms), Wisdom (meaning it is a generality, not a guaranteed outcome; Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job), Apocalyptic/Prophetic (Isaiah, Daniel, Revelation. etc) and more.
All Ancient Near Eastern cultures had their version of an “origin story” – a cosmic, cataclysmic event where out of a struggle or battle or defeat of an opposing god/power, the earth and its inhabitants were created. Each tribe and nation all over ancient Mesopotamia had their gods, their ethics/codes, and their stories. The Judeo-Christian creation narrative is the only one from that area and time that is not one of struggle, battle, bloodlust, power-grabbing, or a catastrophic event. It tells of one good, relational, and all-powerful God that is over all created things – not one god for the sun and another for rain, not one god in conflict with another – who is an “us” and within that “us,” there is total unity, order, and goodness. The story we believe is one of rhythm, poetry, order, blessing, power-bestowing, relationship, and love.
It’s important to understand our origin story because so much of what we have talked about in this series goes back to God’s original design in creating men and women, families and communities. So let’s look back not just to God’s creating wisdom and design but to Godself first.
(This section is condensed down from the original work of Rachel Held Evans, in her book Inspired. It is not original to me. Also, this whole series was inspired by her work around the Proverbs 31 woman and the eshet chayil. #becauseofRHE is a beautiful hashtag you should read through sometime if you’re needing hope.)
IN THE BEGINNING, GOD...
Let's Read It: Genesis 1:1-2, 27
God created each of us in God’s own image and likeness, which tells us a lot about ourselves (which we’ll get to in a bit) but first, it tells us a lot about God’s image and likeness. Genesis 1:27 says “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This means that the full image of God is not represented by men alone or by women alone. In the church, in our English Bible translations, and in our liturgies, hymnals, and prayer books, we use almost exclusively male language and pronouns for God. This is certainly not wrong, but it is incomplete. God makes clear that male and female together bear the full image of God.
Dr. Wilda Gafney points out that a better translation — more true to all that exists in the Hebrew — for Genesis 1:1-2 is, “When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word for the Spirit of God is a feminine word and many Jewish people refer to the Spirit as “she” in their readings and teachings.
Some scholars point out, when God reveals the Divine Name, YHWH, to Moses in Exodus 3, the word is made up of two syllables, the first having a feminine grammatical ending and the second having a masculine grammatical ending. God’s personal name in the Hebrew scriptures is a perfect reflection of what Genesis 1:27 says about God’s whole image being reflected in male and female.
Many of the writers of the Hebrew scriptures use names, words, and titles for God that are feminine Hebrew words— used not interchangeably, but interdependently, alongside masculine Hebrew words and pronouns and titles for God. Additionally, God refers to Godself in the feminine with language and analogy repeatedly. Let’s look at just a few examples here:
a. Isaiah 42:14 The Lord says, “For a long time I have said nothing; I have been quiet and held myself back. But now I will cry out and strain like a woman giving birth to a child.” (NCV)
b. Isaiah 49:14-15 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (NIV)
c. Isaiah 66:11-13 “You will take comfort from her and be satisfied, as a child is nursed by its mother. You will receive her good things and enjoy her wealth.” This is what the Lord says: “I will give her peace that will flow to her like a river. The wealth of the nations will come to her like a river overflowing its banks. Like babies you will be nursed and held in my arms and bounced on my knees. I will comfort you as a mother comforts her child. You will be comforted in Jerusalem.” (NCV)
d. Hosea 11:3-4 “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” (NIV)
e. Psalm 131:2 “But I am calm and quiet, like a baby with its mother. I am at peace, like a baby with its mother.” (NCV)
f. Matthew 23:37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that.” (CEB)
g. Luke 15:8-10 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.” (CEB)
It’s important also to remember that “masculinity” and “femininity” are social constructs that vary based on location, culture, time period, and more. What makes something masculine or feminine in the US in the 21st century might be completely different than in India or Ghana or Taiwan or the year 200 A.D. God is not bound by our social constructs and certainly does not embody one shred of “toxic masculinity”. It’s important to note that because some people feel as though by speaking about God in feminine terms, it is disrespectful to God. God is not offended by femaleness or femininity, maleness or masculinity. God is not a man or a woman, a male or a female. God encompasses and also transcends these things.
MALE AND FEMALE HE CREATED THEM...
Let's Read It: Genesis 2:7-8, 15-25
Contrary to popular readings of this text and the standard ideas of Adam and Eve, there is more going on here than many of us notice. In our defense, it’s because it’s all going on in the Hebrew language and our English translations have butchered this section for generations now. More modern translations like the CEB have begun to translate it more accurately which is great. There’s a wordplay evident in Hebrew that isn’t readily identifiable in English. God creates the earth, and then takes the dust of the earth and creates a human, but a better word here is something like, “earthling”. The dust of the earth, ha’adamah, is very similar to the word for the human/the earthling, ha’adam. The Hebrew word adam does not appear until several verses later and will serve as the name of the first human male, but also refers to “mankind”. This first human is not gendered but contains within it what will be called woman, isshah, and what will be called man, ish.
God has made the first human but sees that they are alone, and for the first time, God declares that something he created is “not good”. After the poetic rhythm and refrain of Genesis 1:3-25, where God creates and then declares, “and it was good,” it’s like a record scratch when we read for the first time God saying, “It is not good for man/mankind/the human to be alone. I will make a partner suitable for them.”
The word I’ve used here, partner, is a better but still incomplete translation of the Hebrew words ezer kenegdo. Some English translations say “helper” or “help-meet” (KJV) — this too is insufficient. Communicated in these two words is a combination of two ideas. First, that of twin pillars — both holding up a structure by bearing equal weight and depending on the other to perform its function, so that the whole structure can stand. Second, the word ezer is used elsewhere in the bible to describe God as warrior coming alongside Israel in its various battles so that they would prevail. It is not simply “to help,” which can connote inferiority or hierarchy (for both parties, depending on how you look at it) but in that context — just like we have seen throughout our time together — God partners with Israel to accomplish God‘s purposes, and those purposes could not be accomplished apart from God’s help. In the same way, God created humans to be communal, social, and interdependent.
(Importantly, this text/word choice isn’t even primarily about marriage – despite being discussed almost exclusively as a way of prescribing only heterosexual marriage as God’s design. God’s design was more general than that. It was about partnership, community, and God’s goodness being unwilling to leave us in loneliness.)
God then anesthetizes the human and takes from one of its sides (there is little-to-no scholarly support for translating that Hebrew word as “rib”), making the one earthling into two people, one male and one female. It is not until Genesis 2:22 that the gendered Hebrew words for man and woman appear in the text.
The Judeo-Christian version of humankind’s origin story is that a loving and personal God (who strolls on earth in the garden to commune with his creation), the source of all goodness, did not stop his creation process until he could say “It is very good,” about all of it. So out of one earthling came the two, male and female according to their kind, and the two rejoiced, with the man saying, “At last! You are like me, we are the same and we are of one another; and even our names will indicate that we are the same and distinct, alike and varied. It was not good to be alone, and now this is good.” [paraphrasing of course] The two lived together with the animals, working and tending the garden, naked and unashamed (because sin had not entered the picture yet). There’s a Hebrew word that encompasses this intimate, personal, sinless, shameless, existence in communion with God and without hierarchy or inequality among the humans: shalom. Perfect shalom.
The generality of God’s intent (vs. God intending only marriage in that context in Genesis 2) in creating a partner, an ezer kenegdo, for the human shows us the diversity of God’s creation, giving us more than just one way to live and fall within the blessing of “it is good”. Natural families, adoptive families, “fr-amilies” (friends who are more like family than some family), friendships, romantic partners, communities of faith/churches, villages, co-workers and colleagues, bands, teams, platoons, school classes, recovery groups, fraternities & sororities, senior living & activity centers, and many others fall under the umbrella of solution to the problem of mankind being alone. God has given us myriad ways to have community and interdependence in everything from our work and worship to our rest and play and still be operating according to design.
(Many people and faith groups use Genesis 1 and 2 as a weapon against queer, trans, non-binary, asexual, and intersex people as if their personhood is excluded from the "it is good" or from the "original design". Not only is this NOT AT ALL what these scriptures are saying, it is in fact antithetical. Genesis 1 tells us, for example, "There was evening and there was morning, the first day. And God saw that it was good." But we know that there is more than just evening and morning -- there is midnight, early watches, dawn, noon, and dusk. There are 24 hours in a day but Genesis only says evening and morning are good. In this comparison, we can easily see that God was not making exclusions, setting up boundaries for God's blessing. Verses 3-25 is a poem, a rhythmic process of speaking, creating, gathering, separating, according to kinds, blessing, and repeating. Any other use of this text, especially to harm those created in God's image too, is egregious and unsubstantiated.)
Our God is a God of and in relationship. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have eternally existed in three equal persons with one essence, in loving, delighting relationship to one another. God, from the first day humans walked this earth, existed in relationship with humans that was intimate and personal – delighting, providing, blessing, upholding, sustaining, teaching, making and keeping promises, and loving all creation. The imagery and reality of God as Father, and the imagery and reality we looked at today of God as Mother, communicates more than God’s gender – it communicates God’s love, God’s delight, God’s attentiveness, and God’s wrath toward things that harm those he loves. God describes Godself as a mother who lifts her baby to her cheek, a mother who teaches her children how to walk, a mother hen who gathers those she loves under her wings to protect them, a father who knows how to give good gifts to his children, a father who watches always for those who have wandered away to return home and then runs to celebrate them and restore them to their true identity as child. 1 John 3:1 says, “See how much the Father loves us; he loves us so much that we are called children of God.” I want to urge you not to get hung up on what pronoun, title, or name to call God to be “correct” but rather to get down below all of that to what God is communicating about Godself by using parental titles and imagery with us: That God is the source and sustainer of life, and that we are unimaginably loved.
Hebrew biblical scholar and Episcopal priest, author of Daughters of Miriam, Womanist Midrash, and the creator of A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church