Leviticus 10:1-11 “Nadab and Abihu…offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.”
When addressing the age-old spiritual pathologies of feminism, humanism, and hedonism, there is no passage more appropriate than Jeremiah 17:9. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
Nadab and Abihu evidently held to the same maxim as feminism and today’s emasculated church: “Listen to your heart.”
I believe they meant well. They wanted to express their devotion to God in a dramatic way, but it is not man’s place to decide when, where, or how to worship God.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this story to understand is Moses’ instruction to Aaron and his remaining sons. They were not allowed to touch the bodies nor show any grief or sympathy for the two dead men. They appear to have been in the middle of consecrating the Tabernacle for its first use, and Moses said that if they were to leave the Tabernacle or disrupt the ceremony before the consecration was complete, they would die. That’s not because they were weak, but because there are dangerous spiritual forces at work in the world, both good and evil.
God allows us a wide margin of freedom in showing our love for him, as fathers do their children, but every good father imposes rules for the health and safety of his family. There are some tasks in a house which are only appropriate for more mature children and only appropriate at certain times and when done in certain manners.
There are also tasks in God’s kingdom which he has set apart with more specific guidelines, and not all of them have to do with the Levitical Priesthood. In fact, most of them don’t.
God also gave us instructions on crime and punishment, clothing, diet, and family relationships. None of his instructions are arbitrary. They are all given for our benefit, to keep God’s house healthy and family safe.
He appointed men to be the heads of their wives and the spiritual coverings of their houses, for example. When they abdicate their authority, their families suffer. When women attempt to take on those roles, they are more likely to be harmed than blessed, not because women are weaker, but because they are the wrong tools for the job. A voltmeter is a great tool, but it makes a very poor hammer.
When our hearts lead us to actions contrary to God’s design, they deceive us and leave us vulnerable to consequences which we might not foresee or to attacks against which we are not prepared to defend. It’s better to accept God’s design without understanding than to rely on your own understanding and be burned like Nadab and Abihu.
When a wife consciously rejects her husband’s covering–or a child rejects his father’s or, indeed, when any person rejects the covering of God’s instructions–based solely on the feelings in her heart she must accept the consequences of her own actions. Courts and other sympathizers who would blame her husband for her actions insult the woman by treating her as completely incapable of controlling herself, and they treat her husband unjustly.
Nadab and Abihu walked their own path instead of the one that God had mapped out for them. No one forced them to act outside the covering of their priestly calling. They were not deceived by anything outside themselves, and no one else could accept any blame. They followed their hearts and they died for it.
God will not hold them blameless who hold their own hearts higher than his Law.
The son of a woman of Israel and a man of Egypt went out among the sons of Israel. And this son of the woman of Israel and a man of Israel struggled together in the camp. And the son of the woman of Israel blasphemed the name of YHWH, and cursed. And they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith (“Peaceful”), the daughter of Dibri (“My Word”), of the tribe of Dan. …And YHWH spoke to Moses saying, “Bring forth the despiser outside the camp. And let all that heard lay their hands on his head. Let all the congregation stone him.” (Leviticus 24:10-14)
Torah doesn’t record names merely for the sake of entertainment. This man was the son of a woman who was known as Peaceful, the daughter of a man who was probably known for his integrity (My Word), but she made the mistake of marrying an Egyptian man, metaphorically a man of the world and not a man of God. The precise bent of the Egyptian’s character isn’t as important as the fact that he did not fear God, and so never taught his son to fear God either. No doubt Shelomith was a good influence on her son, but her husband had a powerful influence as well, and her son grew into a violent, blasphemous man.
Most of us have known a family like this one, in which one or the other parent was a believer, while the other was a drunk or a criminal or simply a man who didn’t care. It rarely turns out well.
Of course, “bad” doesn’t always mean violent and blasphemous. Sometimes it just means unkind, but isn’t that bad enough?
Having one bad parent–or even two!–doesn’t automatically make for bad offspring. I’m sure most of us know of cases in which the child of an abusive parent matured into a loving and kind adult. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought bad parenting doesn’t have bad effects.
Having good parents and a healthy home life as a child is a lot like eating a healthy diet. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never get sick, but, all else being equal, you’ll be better off eating right than not.
Be careful whom you choose as a mate. For the vast majority of people, there’s no single person we’re meant to be with. It’s more a matter of the kind of person than the specific person. Don’t rely on chemistry or feelings, and definitely don’t rely on your own judgment. Take some time. Seek God. Get good council.
Remember that it isn’t just your own happiness and personal fulfillment at stake, but potentially the very souls of your children.
I’ve heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who learn from others’ mistakes and those who have to learn from their own. Esau represents a third type: those who don’t learn from anyone’s mistakes and blame others when things go badly.
Esau had a number of character flaws, the most obvious of which was an inability to master his base urges. This is illustrated in Genesis’ characterization of him as a hunter, as opposed to his father, Isaac, who was a farmer, and his brother, Jacob, who was a herdsman. There’s nothing wrong with being a hunter, but it is emphasized in the narrative because it is an activity through which an impetuous, yet skilled, man can easily earn a living, at least for a time. If he wants meat, he can go out and get it. A herdsman, on the other hand, tends his animals today for next year’s meat. He plans many more moves in advance than does a hunter. A wise hunter also plans in advance to learn effective techniques and to ensure conditions favorable to game, but such wisdom isn’t absolutely necessary to be a successful hunter, while, without planning and preparation, a herdsman must shortly seek a new career.
However, this Torah reading (Genesis 25:19-28:9, called Toldot) reveals another of Esau’s flaws, one that isn’t discussed quite as much.
Esau hated asking for directions.
He was a lot like Cain in this respect. When Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s wasn’t, Cain’s response wasn’t to ask for help, but to attack Abel. Esau was especially bad at this when it came to women.
The custom in those days–and it was a very good custom–was for parents to a spouse for their child, or at the very least to be heavily involved in the vetting process. Esau, however, being a man of the “now” didn’t wait to ask his parents’ advice. He married not one, but two, Hittite women who “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.” (Genesis 26:34)
Perhaps Esau misinterpreted the friendly commercial dealings between his family and the Hittites or perhaps he just fell prey to his impulsive nature. We aren’t told precisely why he chose these women. We are only told that his decision was deeply offensive to his parents.
About thirty-six years later, Jacob and Rebekah conspired to get Esau’s blessing from Isaac and seized on Jacob’s need for a wife as an excuse to send him away from Esau’s murderous rage. Rebekah told Isaac, “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Genesis 27:46)
Esau learned of this and, in an attempt to regain his parents’ favor, decided to get another wife, this time from the family of Abraham. Unfortunately, he went to the wrong side of the family. Instead of going to Abraham’s nephew, Bethuel, for a wife, he went to Abraham’s half-Egyptian son, Ishmael.
Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.
Instead of asking Isaac and Rebekah directly, he again tried to reason out for himself what he should do. Instead of resolving the problem, he merely added to it. He could have saved everyone trouble by asking for help in finding a good woman from the beginning. When his parents’ displeasure became obvious, again he could have saved even more trouble by asking for help. Unfortunately, Esau just wasn’t the type to ask for directions. With no map and only a hint at the proper bearing, he thought he could plot out the correct route for himself, and he failed at every turn.
I’ve been where he was. I thought I was smart enough to plot my own course. Marriage, parenthood, career… Billions of people manage these things. Surely I could figure them out too. What I failed to see is that nobody does it successfully without the active support of family and community and the advise of others who did it first. I didn’t have those things–didn’t know that I needed them–and I foundered.
The Scriptures are full of admonitions to listen to counsel.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.
Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.
But these verses leave out one important lesson that we should take away from Esau’s example: You can’t follow advice that you never received.
Esau didn’t do what his parents wanted, but it appears that he wanted to. For whatever reason, Isaac and Rebekah failed to teach Esau in a way that he understood, and he failed to ask. He was an intelligent and capable man who could learn the habits of wild game through observation and reason. Applying those skills to his relationships, he saw what his family did and heard what they said, but he drew the wrong conclusions because there were factors that he couldn’t see.
The world is full of wisdom. Some comes only by experience and some by listening, but there is wisdom that only comes by asking.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
If you find that your plans continue to end poorly no matter how hard you try to do the right thing, it’s time to ask for help. Ask your parents, brother, pastor, or rabbi. Ask God. If you ask honestly, very few will deny you, so ask them all. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22) Nobody can figure everything out alone.
Wisdom is all around you, available for the asking, and you can’t follow advice that nobody gives you.
The third Bible-based argument for equalitarian marriage says that husbands only had authority over their wives as part of the punishment for eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. If Adam and Eve had never sinned, marriage would have remained an equal partnership. More importantly, Jesus restored marriage to its original form, so whatever the state of authority was in marriage during the days of the Patriarchs and Prophets, now authority has been redistributed as God originally intended: equally between husband and wife. Any remaining dogma that subordinates a wife to her husband is rooted in cultural prejudice and the sinful pride of men.
This argument is Bible-based, but is it actually Biblical?
To the contrary, patriarchy in marriage is not a result of the Fall; it is an inherent characteristic of marriage as God designed it from the very beginning. The authority of a husband over his wife is evident in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, in the Fall itself, the stories of the Biblical Patriarchs, the Torah, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Apostolic Epistles. I believe the divine intention of patriarchy is expressed so ubiquitously in the Scriptures that it can only be denied by ignoring large swaths of text and selectively reading the remainder. Let me show you exactly what I mean.
The Pre-Fall Garden
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” …Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen 2:18,23 ESV)
Three elements of this story show an authority relationship of Adam over Eve:
Adam was created first.
Eve was created specifically to be a helper for Adam.
Adam named Eve.
The order of creation of two people says very little about the relationship between them, let alone which is subordinate to the other. Likewise, the fact that one thing helps another doesn’t necessarily imply an authority relationship. God is our helper, after all, and He is in no way subject to us. However, both these circumstances say a great deal if the second person is created explicitly as a helper for the first. God helps us, but He was not created to help us. Indeed, He was not created at all.
Suppose your neighbor sees that you are having a hard time walking down your driveway on an icy day and lets you lean on him until you reach your vehicle. His assistance implies no authority relationship in either direction. Imagine, however, that when you return home from work that evening, that this same neighbor has installed a hand railing from your front door to the curbside. He says to you, “It’s not good for you to have to walk on this ice alone. Here, I’ve made you a railing to help you along the way.” In this case, because the handrail was given to you and because it was built specifically for your use, there is most definitely an authority relationship between you and the handrail.*
Adam was created incomplete—deliberately so that he would know his need for a companion—and the creation of Eve allowed him to fulfill his purpose more effectively, like prosthetic arms for a man born limbless. This was Paul’s point when he told Timothy that one of the reasons he did not allow women to hold authority over men was the order of Adam and Eve’s creation (1 Timothy 2:13). He wasn’t referring only to temporal precedence, but to the purpose of that precedence. Limbless people are not born in order to provide mobility for prosthetic limbs, but rather prosthetics are designed for the benefit of their users. Likewise, Adam was not created for Eve’s use, but she was created for his.
And then he gave her a name. Throughout Scripture, certain activities represent a demonstration of authority: surveying, counting, and naming, for example. In Genesis 2:19-20, after giving Adam authority over creation, including all of His earthly creatures, God brought all the animals to Adam to see what he would name them. Parents have God-given authority over their children and give them names. God names His chosen servants (Abraham and Sarah, for example). Kings take captives and give them new names, but servants do not give names to kings. Recall the interaction between Moses and YHWH in Exodus 3. When Moses asked who he should say sent him, God replied “I Am Who I Am,” as if to say, “Who is above Me to put a label on Me. I am who I am.” The power to name a person is a natural extension of the possession of authority over the one named.
Eve was created after Adam for Adam’s benefit. God presented her to him, and then Adam gave her a name.
Individually these points are inconclusive—there are arguments of varyingly persuasive power to explain away each one of them—but in the aggregate they are substantial evidence of divinely ordained patriarchy in the pre-fall Garden.
Following the creation of Eve, the very next event in Scripture is the temptation of Eve and the fall of man. You are familiar with the story, I’m sure. The serpent talks Eve into eating from the forbidden tree, then Adam eats, then God banishes them all from the Garden.
First, I’d like to point out the most widely understood evidence in this story for divinely established patriarchy: although Eve was the first to sin, the Fall of all mankind is ascribed to Adam.
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 ESV)
One might say that this is because Eve was only deceived, while Adam sinned willfully, but that’s only partly correct. Eve was deceived, but that doesn’t make her actions any less sinful. God said not to eat of the tree, she knew that, yet she ate anyway. The reason Adam’s sin tainted the whole human race, while Eve’s did not, was his authority relationship over all of humanity. Had only Even sinned, it is possible that they would not have been banished from the Garden, and it is certain that we would not need a redeemer.
There is another evidence for patriarchy in the Genesis account of the Fall, one with which feminists and equalitarians seem to be only half familiar, and it lies in God’s words to Eve after their sin had been found out.
Take a look at what God said to Cain many years after the Fall:
… sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. (Genesis 4:7 ESV)
God’s meaning is clear. Sin was waiting to ambush Cain. It would seek to control him, but he must master it. Cain must not allow sin to take authority over him. Ultimately, allowing the usurper to have power over him ended in the death of his brother and his own banishment from society.
Back to God’s sentencing of Eve:
…Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16 ESV)
The sentence structure and word choice is almost identical to that in Genesis 4:7, changing only in tense, subject, and object.
Its desire is for you
You must rule over it
Your desire shall be for your husband
He shall rule over you
If God had been speaking to sin instead of Cain in 4:7, it would read very much like 3:16:
Your desire is for Cain, but he will rule over you.
If 4:7 means that sin would attempt to control Cain, but he must not allow it, then wouldn’t 3:16 mean that Eve would attempt to control Adam, but that Adam must not (or would not) allow her to usurp that power? The clear implication is that God wanted Adam to have authority over Eve—definitely not the other way around—and that the two of them must work to maintain that divinely ordained structure. If Adam allowed his wife to control him, they could suffer terrible consequences. Or a third party could suffer, as was the case with Cain’s failure. God informed Eve that she would have an instinctive desire to control her husband, and that life would only go well if Adam did not allow her to give into it.
The Patriarchs of Israel
The honorable standard of husbands having authority over their wives continued from the Garden, through the Fall, and into the world of the Patriarchs of Israel.
God gave Noah a job to do, a crazy, unpopular mission that took many years and invited incessant ridicule from everyone who heard of it. His wife must have been one of the most amazing women who ever lived. She went along with all this, staying by his side for many decades while he built this monstrous boat far away from any water. She must have worked right at his side all that time, encouraging him, feeding him, fetching supplies, and wielding a hammer. She deserved accolades, yet because she was there to support Noah in his calling—and not the other way around—scripture nowhere even records her name.
Sarah also had a key role to play in her husband’s saga. In one instance God even commanded Abraham to do as Sarah told him. We could say that this was a case of Abraham obeying God rather than obeying Sarah—and we would be correct—but Peter is much clearer in his summary of that relationship:
For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:5-6 ESV)
According to Peter, Sarah and the other matriarchs (Racheal, Leah, Rebekah, and possibly others) made themselves beautiful to their husbands, not with jewelry and makeup, but with submission. That still works today.
Patriarchy within marriage is commanded by the Law of Moses in multiple circumstances.
Patrilinealism is required by marriage laws. Tribal identity is determined solely by a person’s father, never by his mother. When a woman marries, she joins her husband’s tribe, but may return to her father’s house if she is widowed or divorced. Marriage never changes a man’s tribal identity.
Inheritance laws assume patriarchy by giving the double-portion to the eldest son, and only giving an inheritance of land to daughters if there are no sons at all.
A husband may cancel a vow of his wife when he hears about it, but a wife may never cancel the vows of her husband.
In Torah, a married man cannot commit adultery with an unmarried, unbetrothed woman. He would be required to pay a fine if he has sex with her, and he might even be required to marry her, but he can never be guilty of adultery with her. On the other hand, a married woman commits adultery if she has sex with any man who is not her husband, no matter what his marital status might be.
There are many more examples, but I believe four is sufficient to demonstrate that God commanded the Israelites to respect a husband’s authority over his wife, and God would not command His people to do something of which He does not approve.
Patriarchy within marriage continued to be the standard throughout the time of the prophets of Israel.
In Isaiah 2 and 3, God described a very sorry situation in Judah as the nation is overtaken by idolatry and other forms of wickedness. The men, He said, abandon their responsibilities, and the people are ruled by children, fools, and women–not an especially flattering statement concerning women. The most interesting part for the purposes of this article is in Isaiah 4:1.
And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.” (Isaiah 4:1 ESV)
The restoration of Judah begins when women repent of their pride and beg to be taken under the authority of a man. They don’t ask that he fulfill any of the usual obligations of a husband, only that he give them his name, i.e. take authority over them. They considered living outside the authority and name of a husband to be a disgrace.
Much later, when the exiles to Babylon were returning to Judea, Israelite men were found to have married pagan women and were forced to divorce their wives and send them back to their people. Surely if the men were intermarrying with pagans, Israelite women were too, but the women were not made to divorce their husbands. It isn’t because those marriages were somehow acceptable, but because they didn’t bring pagans into the nation of Israel. When women married pagan men, they left Israel altogether, joining their new husbands’ people. However, the patrilinealism prescribed in Torah meant that when men married pagan women, they brought those women and their false gods into Israel, a much bigger problem.
Four passages in the Gospels record Jesus discussing divorce: Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, and Luke 16:18. The Matthew accounts both acknowledge the right of a man to divorce his wife for adultery in accordance with the Law of God. The Mark and Luke accounts state that neither husband nor wife may divorce the other if their purpose is to marry another. What is pointedly missing from any of these accounts is an exception for a wife whose husband has committed adultery. Jesus did not say that a woman is absolutely forbidden from divorcing her husband for sexual immorality, but he made a special point of saying the reverse, that a man may divorce his wife. That is not proof positive that he recognized the husband’s superior authority, but it is evidence.
In all Scriptural instances in which marriage is used as a metaphor of God’s relationship with mankind, God is the bridegroom and never the bride. Who is the authority in those metaphors, the bride or the bridegroom? Note also that the bridegroom always comes to take his bride. The bride never comes to take the groom. See the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, for example. Nobody prepares for the coming of the bride. She isn’t coming to spirit her new husband off to her castle. No, the groom comes for the bride. This is because, even in Jesus’ parables, the woman joins the house of her husband, coming under his authority, and never the reverse.
Jesus had ample opportunity to explicitly state that men and women are to be equal partners in marriage as He slaughtered a host of other sacred, cultural cows. But He didn’t because marriage was designed by God to emulate the relationship of God with His people. He never said wives should have equal authority with their husbands because the church can never have equal authority with Him.
Paul’s opinion on marital hierarchy is notorious. He instructed the women of Ephesus to submit to their husbands (see Part 1), and he gave identical advice to the women of Colossae:
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Colossians 3:18 ESV)
He told the men to love their wives and not to be harsh with them. Why should he tell husbands not to be harsh if he didn’t also mean “submit” in the previous sentence? It seems he was making sure they understood that they should not take undue advantage of their wives’ submission. The purpose of the submission wasn’t slavery, but an efficient and peaceful house.
Peter, as noted above, was even more explicit about the relationship between husband and wife when he told Jewish women to submit to their husbands and defined “submitting” by appealing to Sarah’s example in obeying her husband, Abraham, whom she called “lord.”
The Apostles, the Messiah, the Prophets, the Patriarchs, and God Himself appear to be united in their opinions. Scripture is consistent from start to finish that husbands have authority over their wives, not due to the fallen nature of either party, but due to their design. The case is unusually strong as theological arguments go.
Marriage was designed by God to be patriarchal.
Wives were designed to be subordinate to their husbands.
Eve was warned that she and Adam must keep her rebellious inclinations under control.
Husbands were commanded to take authority over their wives.
God’s relationship with his people is consistently, repeatedly couched in terms of a husband with authority over his wife.
The apostles instructed women, both Jewish and gentile, to obey their husbands.
And finally, Jesus portrays himself as a vengeful husband, coming to take away his spotless bride and to punish anyone who does her harm.
God is a Patriarch of His house and requires His men to be patriarchs of their houses in turn. Equalitarianism is toxic to marriage and families, but following God’s design and command cannot be wrong.
*Obviously women are not handrails. God created Eve to be like Adam, “flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” She wasn’t an inanimate object. The analogy would be closer if the neighbor had created a living, breathing person to walk you to your car, but then he would be God, the person would be Eve, and we would be right back where we started. Analogies aren’t perfect, just useful so long as you don’t take them further than they were intended to go.
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Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, His body, and is himself its Savior. (Eph 5:22-23 ESV)
The predominant opinion of popular cultural in America today is that marriage is–or ought to be–an equal exchange between husband and wife, that the two should work together in mutual and equal submission for the greater good of the partnership and the family. But this ideal seems to go against the plain meaning of Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians as quoted above. Was Paul wrong? Or have we misunderstood his intent? Since Paul was a Hebrew writing in Greek, and we are Americans (or Australians, Canadians, Brits, etc.) reading an English translation of his ancient Greek text, the idea that something might have gotten lost in translation cannot be ignored.
There are three main arguments I have heard in favor of an equalitarian interpretation of this passage. I will refer to them as Mutual Submission, Source vs Authority, and The Fall.
Source vs Authority.
I’ll consider the first two arguments in this post and the third argument next time.
The argument: The submission of wife to husband in Ephesians 5:22 is merely a reiteration of the instructions in the immediately preceding verse for all believers to submit to one another.
It seems to me that the Mutual Submission theory depends on the assumption that women are predisposed against mutual submission to their husbands. Not to other believers, just to their husbands. Why else would Paul devote one verse (21) to the mutual submission of all believers, but twelve (22-33) to the submission of wives to their husbands within the overall context of mutual submission? I don’t disagree with that premise at all. In fact, it is almost self-evident that most women have trouble submitting to their husbands, especially if those husbands are already submitted to them. I’ll explain what I mean by that in more detail when I discuss the consistency of Biblical expression on patriarchy within the family later. For now, I believe it will suffice to point out that this logical dependency on the unsubmissive nature of women within marriage is also the fatal flaw in the Mutual Submission argument. If women are by nature less able or willing to submit to their husbands, then it is only to their own benefit for women to expend extra effort on that submission and for their husbands to encourage them in it, and there is very little difference between “wives submit to your husbands” and “wives, make extra effort to submit to your husbands as opposed to everyone else, because that is especially difficult for you.”
Source vs Authority
The argument: The Greek word for “head” in verse 23 (kephale) was used in the sense of the head of a river, i.e. the source, rather than in the sense of a controlling authority.
Understand that I am not an expert in ancient Greek or Koine Greek—I’m not even a novice—so I must defer to the actual experts.
Wayne Grudem of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School wrote,
Those who claim that κεφαλή could mean “source” at the time of the New Testament should be aware that the claim has so far been supported by not one clear instance in all of Greek literature, and it is therefore a claim made without any real factual support. The editors of the standard lexicons for New Testament Greek (such as Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker) have been correct not to include “source” among their lists of possible meanings for [kephale].
In fact, all the standard lexicons and dictionaries for New Testament Greek do list the meaning “authority over” for κεφαλή, “head.” Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker give under the word κεφαλή the following definition: “In the case of living beings, to denote superior rank.” They list thirteen examples of such usage. 1
Thayer’s Greek Definitions says:
1) the head, both of men and often of animals. Since the loss of the head destroys life, this word is used in the phrases relating to capital and extreme punishment.
2) metaphorically anything supreme, chief, prominent
2a) of persons, master lord: of a husband in relation to his wife
2b) of Christ: the Lord of the husband and of the Church
2c) of things: the corner stone
I won’t abuse your patience by quoting the hundreds (thousands?) of Christian theologians and Greek scholars who, for the past 2000 years, have almost universally interpreted “head” in this passage to mean “authority over.” I don’t think it’s at all controversial to assert such a continuity of thought. The argument isn’t whether or not submission of wives to husbands has been taught throughout most of historic Christendom, but whether or not this throng of learned men and women were and are wrong in that teaching. I’m not opposed to the idea that nearly every great thinker for two thousand years could be wrong. I believe they have been wrong on some significant issues. However, I would not discard their opinions without strongly compelling reasons. I’ve read a few articles that take the opposite view, and I haven’t been very impressed, either with their scholarship or their logic. Maybe I just haven’t read the right ones, and as I already said, I’m no Greek scholar myself, so whether or not I am impressed is hardly relevant.
Fortunately I don’t think the precise meaning of κεφαλή is relevant either. However the word is translated, the context makes Paul’s intent imminently clear. Let’s break down Paul’s individual statements beginning in Ephesians 5:22:
v22 – “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” How should a wife submit to her husband? In the same manner she should submit to the Lord. Jesus washed His disciples’ feet and said the one who would lead must serve, and the first will be last. But He also said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” In other words, “Obey me.” Although Christ serves us of His own free will and in the manner of His and His father’s choosing even to the point of giving up His life for us, Christ does not obey us. To the contrary, He is our King. We owe all obedience to Him, while He owes no obedience whatsoever to us.
v23 – “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, His body, and is himself its Savior.” There are two important ideas here that need to be addressed: First, the husband is to the wife as Christ is to the Church. This is a rephrasing of the previous verse. If the church owes submission to Christ, so does the wife owe submission to her husband. Second, the term “head” is explicitly, if metaphorically, used in the sense of the physical head of a person’s body, and not the source of anything. Even if the ancient Greeks didn’t understand the cellular mechanisms of the brain and the nervous system (who does?), they were fully cognizant of the fact that the head houses the command center of the body. There can be very little doubt that when Paul wrote that Christ is the head of His own body, he meant that Christ is the controlling authority of His body.
v24 – “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Again, Paul expresses the same idea as in the previous two verses, only rephrased. Since Christ’s body is submissive and obedient to Christ, so should the wife be submissive and obedient to her husband. The Church’s submission to Christ is not mutual. Christ does not submit Himself to the Church in any manner other than in choosing to serve her for His own purposes. He sacrificed Himself for the Church in submission to His Father, not in submission to the Church.
I could continue through the rest of the chapter, but I’m sure you get the idea. (And again, I don’t want to waste your time. You’re here, and I’m grateful.) Paul keeps saying the same thing in different ways: “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” I’m not saying that the Greek word kephale cannot possibly be translated “source” anywhere in this passage, although I think that would be awkward and implausible. I’m saying that it is much more natural and consistent to render it just as the vast majority of Bible translators have done: “head,” as in the hard, roundish object at the end of your neck. I’m also saying that it cannot be understood to imply anything but an authority relationship of husband over wife, even if it is translated as “source” instead of “head.”
Christ is the source, founder, and head of the Church, and He is the ultimate authority over her.
The Church submits to Christ in all things, without expecting or having any right to His submission in return.
Christ serves the Church even to the point of giving up His life for her, but He never serves her in a submissive role. He is, was, and always shall be the King of Kings, Lord, Master, and Law-Giver of the Church.
Please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that wives should submit to their husbands in exactly the same way that the Church should submit to Christ. Jesus is perfect; husbands are not. Jesus would never expect the Church to do something that clearly violates God’s Law. Some men routinely expect their wives to sin against God on their behalf. No woman owes her husband more allegiance than she owes to God, and His Law trumps any command of men. With that caveat in mind, Paul still wrote, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”
There is no way to interpret this passage in an equalitarian manner without doing severe injustice to the clear meaning of the text, not to mention the rest of Scripture. The clearly patriarchal, non-equalitarian nature of Paul’s instructions to wives does not depend on the translation of the term κεφαλή, nor are they merely a subset of the mutual submission owed by all believers to all other believers. The submission of wives to their husbands is of a different nature altogether, and this nature is illuminated throughout all of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.
Next time, I will address the third equalitarian argument, The Fall, and show how Paul was not saying anything revolutionary nor acquiescing to cultural expectations. His words were solidly based in the Garden of Eden and reinforced by God’s law, the Prophets, and the Apostles.
1. Wayne Grudem, “Does κεφαλή (“Head”) Mean “Source” Or “Authority Over” in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples,” pp 46-47, Trinity Journal ns 6.1 (Spring 1985): 38-59. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/tj/kephale_grudem.pdf Last accessed 9/14/2014.
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No sane and knowledgeable person disputes the fact that the nuclear family is at the core of all civilized society. From Israel to China to Britain, every civilization that stood for more than mere decades codified the defense of marriage in their laws. When those civilizations reached their heights and began to suffer all the depredations of pride, they disregarded the sanctity of marriage. Temple prostitution, homosexuality, divorce… They each began to fall. You can’t chisel away the structural support of a building and expect the walls and roof to remain intact for long.
If we value our nation, our civilization, we must protect the institutions that are common to all strong, enduring peoples:
Rule of Law
Family and Community
Most importantly, marriage.
And I do not mean the equalitarian business partnership which that word seems to bring to mind for most modern Americans. I mean the only form of marriage that has proven itself throughout history as the nucleus of strong families, communities, and nations. The kind of marriage instituted by God, not by men, women, and lawyers.
God’s Law (the Torah, the first five books of the Bible) tells us how God intended marriage to be, and His intentions were not politically correct. Marriage in God’s plan is patriarchal, fertile, and strong. In today’s America marriage is equalitarian, barren, and frail, a very weak support indeed for such a large and diverse nation.
The requirements of God’s Law aren’t always easy. They aren’t always what we would want. But they are always right because God is always right. He knows you and every other person at a deeper level, more intimate and thorough than we or any therapist could ever hope to realize. If we are uncomfortable with God’s prescriptions for healthy relationships, perhaps the problem is not with the Doctor, but with the patient.
If we are to restore a robust and enduring America, then it’s far past time to put God’s plan for marriage ahead of our own. It’s time to get back to the basics and relearn what we once knew about relationships, about men and women and the very core of a strong nation.
She mends and alters our clothes.
She makes the best homemade spaghetti sauce I have ever tasted.
She listens to me when I rant.
She makes a fantastic hot cocoa from scratch.
She cuts my hair.
She mixes up the best hamburger patties.
She bakes outstanding carrot cake.
She looks like a dancer.
She makes these great low-sugar ice-fruit-milk things that her dad taught her.
She does what I tell her.
She makes a roast that could start wars.
She works hard so that I can work hard.
She also makes a perfect, kosher gumbo.
She is helpful and generous.
She makes french toast that you wouldn’t believe.
She is smarter than 99% of the rest of the world.
She wants me to eat more meat and plenty of fat.
She loves God and wants to learn his ways.
She makes homemade trail mix so I won’t buy junk food.
She is a great conversationalist.
She can turn anything into a soup to make you melt.
She makes me laugh.
She makes better coffee than anyone else.
She makes me think.
She can make any green taste great.
She sleeps in a tent with me during Sukkot.
She is, in short, the most amazing woman I have ever met.
And did I mention that she can cook? And she’s a dancer?
02/23/2015 note: Guys, if your wife doesn’t do Barre, have her contact Paula or Patti at Noble Living Studios. Thank me later.
Authority. 1. Legal power, or a right to command or to act; as the authority of a prince over subjects, and of parents over children. Power; rule; sway.
Property. 4. The exclusive right of possessing, enjoying and disposing of a thing; ownership. In the beginning of the world, the Creator gave to man dominion over the earth, over the fish of the sea and the fowls of the air, and over every living thing. This is the foundation of man’s property in the earth and in all its productions. Prior occupancy of land and of wild animals gives to the possessor the property of them. The labor of inventing, making or producing any thing constitutes one of the highest and most indefeasible titles to property. Property is also acquired by inheritance, by gift or by purchase. Property is sometimes held in common, yet each man’s right to his share in common land or stock is exclusively his own. One man may have the property of the soil,and another the right of use, by prescription or by purchase.
“Ownership” and “authority” are near synonyms. Authority is the right to use or dispose of something. Every single authority relationship is also one of property ownership. My employer owns a certain amount of my time in exchange for modest pay and benefits. I have granted them some authority over me for certain purposes. Every parent has some ownership of their children. Every husband has some ownership of his wife.
Note that I did not say ownership is the absolute right to do whatever you want with something. No authority but God’s is absolute. Therefore, no property interest but God’s is absolute. The Bible is very clear that if you abuse the things God has given you, he will take them away. That includes land, objects, people, and nations. All people have God-given rights and responsibilities. Like King George (whichever one you care to name), if you try to deny them, you forfeit your authority.
So when people, who otherwise accept the Bible’s teachings concerning a husband’s authority over his wife, get upset about a husband owning his wife, they’re actually conceding the point to the opposition. If a husband has no property interest in his wife, then he has no authority over her either. Otherwise the concept of “property” has no real meaning. There is no shame in being under authority. Everyone is under someone else’s authority in some way.
So does a husband own his wife? Not in the way we Americans normally talk about ownership, but possibly in the way that the Scriptures talk about it.
If you don’t accept the Bible’s teachings on patriarchy, then that’s another argument altogether. It still doesn’t change the definitions of property or authority.
There is not a single extraneous character recorded in the Torah (Matthew 5:18). Every word is written for a purpose, and there is nothing wasted. This is one reason why the names of wives are rarely mentioned: not because women were considered unimportant, but because their names were not significant to the point being made. So when the names of Lamech’s wives are given without further information about them in Genesis 5:19, we should immediately ask why.
As a descendant of Cain and a probable murderer, Lamech is often used to argue that God does not approve of polygamy. “See? The first recorded polygamist was also a murderer and of the line of Cain. It must be wrong!” This kind of reasoning is based on the Law of First Mention, which is a theological land mine all on its own (see here), but apart from that, they are ignoring some important details in the story.
Lamech’s wives names can be translated roughly as “ornament” and “shadow.” Ornamentation is a symbol of wealth and shadow is often used in scripture to symbolize a powerful patronage. Could Lamech’s wives symbolize wealth and power as mulitple wives often do? Perhaps one father-in-law brought him great wealth, and the other was a king or warlord. Lamech’s declaration that he would be avenged seventy-seven times was a declaration of independence from God and immunity to the vengeance of men. He believed his access to wealth and power provided him with greater protection than God.
The point of Lamech’s story is not to highlight the evils of polygamy, but rather the evils of pride and the abuse of power.
Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself as the glorious church, without spot or wrinkle or any such things, but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
A husband is to love his wife, being willing to give up his life if necessary to allow her to become more “holy and without blemish.” What if she doesn’t want to become unblemished? What if she wants him to give up his life so that she can be more comfortable or more “appreciated?”
Although the answer can be found in Paul’s writings, we have something better. In Revelation 2 and 3 Yeshua told us exactly what he would do in such a case:
Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and will remove your lampstand out of its place unless you repent….
Repent! But if not I will come to you quickly, and will fight with them by the sword of My mouth….
But I have a few things against you because you allow that woman Jezebel to teach, she saying herself to be a prophetess, and to cause My servants to go astray, and to commit fornication, and to eat idol-sacrifices. And I gave her time that she might repent of her fornication, and she did not repent. Behold, I am throwing her into a bed, and those who commit adultery* with her into great affliction, unless they repent of their deeds….I will give to every one of you according to your works….
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth….
That doesn’t sound like the eternal, all-enduring love I’ve always heard preached in our churches. God is patient and forgiving, but only to a point, and only with those who are truly repentant.
*Adultery? Then the woman is married, but to whom? I say she was married to Yeshua. In Biblical usage, adultery can only be committed between a married woman and a man who is not her husband. Those who commit adultery “with” her are not the male perpetrator, but co-adulteresses with Jezebel. Yeshua would not be so harsh with her if he was not claiming the place of her husband. Therefore, this Jezebel was an accepted member of his corporate bride, and Yeshua is threatening to divorce her with all her co-conspirators.