Cue incoming brain shut down. This statement has been used to terminate further discussion for generations. I could read the signs written all over the body language of my opinionated teenager. I would have limited time and verbiage to be heard without an argument.
If you haven’t read part 1 and 2 of my daughter’s voyage into the “offending” limitations of 1 Timothy 2, you might want to catch up.
My daughter had just finished reading 1 Timothy 2 through verse 15. Even though I had prepped her reading with interesting tidbits about the pervasive mythology driving Paul’s instructions to Timothy, she had done what many Bible readers have done in the past. She divorced the context from the passage, hence misunderstood the meaning, and then made sweeping conclusions by being complacent with a naive, literal interpretation. Simply, it was confusing and she didn’t want to think any more about it.
I asked, “Who was Paul talking to?”
“Which women, specifically?”
“Uh… the women in Timothy’s church?”
“Yes. You remember where I said they were?”
“Oh yeah. The place where the temple to Artemis was?”
“Ephesus. Can you see any connections?”
Window of Opportunity closing in 5…4…3…
Speed talking now, I said, “Could it be possible Paul wasn’t talking about women, everywhere, in every time? The women in Ephesus had been deceived by the Artemis myth, and most likely, they were pretty confused. Paul didn’t want them teaching others.”
“Oh, Okay. I just want to get my reading done.” She opened the Book and began flipping to the right page.
“Great. Let me know if you have any more questions.”
She sat on her bed with the Bible open. She might not understand all the theological points Paul was and was not making in that chapter, but she was still reading. I consider that a successful foray into the mires of a modern mind reading 1 Timothy. Simply understanding that we might not understand, is an important lesson to learn when reading the Words of God.
So, what about 1 Timothy 2:9-15?
It was enough for my daughter to know that I believed the passage taught something different than her literal, isolated understanding of it. For me, that was a gift I could give to her… an open door.
For decades, this passage closed the door to ministry for me. I was taught this passage was written to all women, everywhere, at every time. Like many others, I used this passage to interpret all other Scripture written about women, instead of using Scripture (especially the immediate context) to decode the meaning of these limitations and teaching.
If you’re willing to go deeper with me than my daughter wanted to go, join me for the next few posts as I explore the purpose of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in context and in application.
I thought I had set the stage carefully. I’d explained the historical, cultural and religious background of Ephesus at the time 1 Timothy was written. I had her attention and interest. I thought she could just read through the second chapter, and accept that there were things she didn’t understand, and give Paul the benefit of the doubt. That’s what I had done as a young girl.
I was wrong. A few minutes later, this…
“I CAN’T STAND READING THIS. PAUL MUST REALLY HATE WOMEN. I THINK THIS IS CRAP.” She slapped the Bible closed.
And I absolutely agreed with her.
I would like to cut this portion of our sacred text out and silence it, as it has been used to silence God’s feminine image for thousands of years.
But if I did that, where would I stop? There are a lot of passages that have been used to harm. Should they all go? Am I the proper judge for God’s Word?
Nodding my head in agreement, I said to her, “I know. Its hard to read. That’s why I spent time giving you context. I wanted you to see the problem these words were addressing. You’ve done what so many other people have done, isolate this passage from the rest of the letter and the rest of the Bible. Do you believe God likes men better than women?”
“No. But this passage makes it seem like it!”
“Yes, it does. But Paul himself said that God does not show favoritism (Rom. 2:11). This is a hard passage to understand, and there are many explanations.”
Let me stop the conversation there.
Take a moment and read the words of 1 Timothy 2:9-15. The Revised Standard Version reads:
9…also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire 10 but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. 11 Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continuesin faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
You have just done what many expositors, preachers and theologians have done since… well, forever. You have read these words in isolation.
When we segregate these instructions from Paul’s intent and passion for the truth, it offends. When we quarantine these instructions away from Jesus’s life and ministry, it confounds. When we disengage this passage from its surrounding context, we are kinda horrified. When we detach this passage from Paul’s support of women in Christian ministry elsewhere, we get this zinger of demands that has been used as justification for restricting women for millennia.
This was not its original intention. I can say that with absolute confidence. Because, this passage is nestled in a literary context that Paul explained. Paul was no misogynist. Nor was he worried about acquiescing to the patriarchal culture of his day. Paul saw no difference between Christian men and women in Christian ministry (Gal 3:28). Paul appreciated that women worked hard for the advancement of the gospel (Acts 8:3, 9:1-2, 22:4; Rom. 16:12; 1 Cor. 1:11, 16:19; Col. 4:15). He affirmed their prayer and prophesy in the church gatherings (1 Cor. 11:4-5, 14:23-24). He confirmed that Christian women taught men elsewhere (Acts 18:24-26, Acts 21:9, 2 Tim. 1:5, 3:14-15), that women served as deacons (Rom. 16:1-2) and apostles (Rom. 16:7), and were co-laborers with men (Rom. 16:3, Phil. 4:2-3). The “extreme” limitations Paul placed on the women of Ephesus was contrary to his customary practice.
So, why does he limit women when writing to Timothy in Ephesus?
That’s where we’ll pick up our conversation next time.
Recently, my daughter was reading through a certain New Testament book that I knew was going to get her all hot and bothered. I knew that if my little feminist read that letter to a particular young man, she would only see the words written at the end of the second chapter, lose her temper, and then feel confirmed in her impression that her mother was stupid for making her read this archaic, misogynistic nonsense. So, when I saw that this book was next on her Bible reading chart, I prefaced it with a bit of background, hoping to jump start her critical thinking ahead of her thoughts of criticism.
“Honey, let me give you a little background on why this book was written before you jump in. That way as you read, you can imagine why Paul wrote the things he did.”
“Because if you isolate Paul’s words from the historical setting and his motivation for writing the words, you’re going to not understand God in the right way.”
“1 Timothy is a personal letter written to Timothy from Paul. Paul left Timothy in Ephesus when he had to leave it suddenly due to the whole city demonstrating against him for preaching against Artemis.” My avid Greek mythologist perked up at that name. “You remember Artemis?”
“Yeah. She was a hunter and Apollo’s twin. She stood up against men.”
“Yep. She was a virgin, and she refused to consort with men. In Ephesus, they had built a huge temple in her honor. It was bigger than the Parthenon. Inside was a gigantic statue of Artemis, and people from all over the Roman Empire came to Ephesus to worship her. The wealthy Ephesian aristocrats dedicated their young, virgin daughters to serve her. It was very prestigious to be a priestess of Artemis. She was also the goddess of childbirth, not because she gave birth herself, but she was supposed to sympathize with women in labor. Her own mother, Leto, labored for seven days to give birth to Apollo. So, pregnant women prayed to Artemis to help them in childbirth. Half of the women in those times died in childbirth, so Artemis had great power with women. The women would bring her beautiful clothes and dress up to worship her at temple.”
“What does this have to do with Paul and Timothy?”
“The church in Ephesus had people that were teaching the wrong things about God. Paul wanted Timothy to correct that bad teaching. So, Paul gave him specific instructions about how to do that.”
“What does Artemis have to do with God?”
“Exactly. She doesn’t have anything to do with the real God. She is an idol, a made-up story. But, she had a strong influence with the Ephesians, and some were mixing her worship with the Christian worship. Especially the women. Because Artemis had such appeal to women.”
“So, as you read, just keep in mind the women were influenced by their previous devotion to Artemis, and Paul wanted to clear up that confusion. Jesus is the one, true, living God.”
“Are you done? I want to just get this reading done.”
Ames, Frank R. “Appendix One. The Ephesian Social World Providing the Backdrop for Paul’s Teaching in 1 Timothy,” in What’s With Paul and Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Timothy 2. By Jon Zens. Lincoln: Ekklesia Press, 2010.
Baugh, Steven M. “Cult Prostitution in New Testament Ephesus: A Reappraisal.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42 (1999), no. 3: 443-460.
Glahn, Sandra L. “The First-Century Ephesian Artemis: Ramifications of Her Identity,” Bibliotheca Sacra 172, no. 688 (2015): 450-469.
Glahn, Sandra L. “The Identity of Artemis in First-Century Ephesus,” Bibliotheca Sacra 172 (July-September 2015): 316-34.
Oster, Richard E. “Acts 9:23-41 and an Ephesian Inscription.” Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), no. 2: 233-237.
Proverbs 5 was written to warn a son about the dangers of an adulterous woman. Daughters needed no warnings about topics like this in the ancient world because their autonomy was determined by the men in their family. I suppose they might be warned away from becoming an adulterous woman, but I bet this chapter worked double-duty on that account.
As I read through the chapter this morning, I wondered if our modern daughters, who are now self-determining, could benefit from a contrasted warning? How many women have been trapped in abusive relationships because they were never given warning signs? Let us consider how to prepare our children to resist the allure of evil men (and women) by educating them that such evil, like abusive relationships, exist. Teach them how to spot one and how to resist.
I changed a few words in bold, but the passage is from NIV. Proverbs 5:
My daughter, pay attention to my wisdom, turn your ear to my words of insight, 2 that you may maintain discretion and your lips may preserve knowledge. 3 For the lips of the abusive man drip honey, and his speech is smoother than oil; 4 but in the end he is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. 5 His feet go down to death; his steps lead straight to the grave. 6 He gives no thought to the way of life; his paths wander aimlessly, but he does not know it.
7 Now then, my daughters, listen to me; do not turn aside from what I say. 8 Keep to a path far from him, do not go near the door of his house, 9 lest you lose your honor to others and your dignity to one who is cruel, 10 lest strangers feast on your wealth and your toil enrich the house of another. 11 At the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and body are spent.
Are you my mother? God would say , yes! It is a well-used metaphor throughout the Hebrew Scriptures : God giving birth to Israel. Maternal imagery is used to describe the trust we must have in God and the steadfast tenacity of His love. In the New Testament, Jesus uses the well-loved metaphor of (new) birth to describe how God delivers us into Her* eternal family which is birthed from the love the persons of God share and enjoy with each other. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
*Just for fun, and because the English language is not accommodating with a gender-neutral pronoun for a person, this article will switch the gender of the pronouns describing God to reflect the feminine imagery of God as mother.
God is “like” a mother just as She reveals herself “like” a father. She is the most affectionate mother. You can think of Her as a mother, because Scripture reveals God as having the perfections of both father and mother. (Wade Burleson, Knowing God as Father and Mother. https://vimeo.com/55788482.)
God gives birth.
In Deut 32:18, God describes Herself as “The God who gave you birth.” In Isaiah 46:3, She expands the metaphor and describes Israel as “you who have been borne by Me from birth and have been carried from My womb.” If you remember from Part 1 of this series, the Hebrew word for womb is racham. Racham is also translated less literally as “mercies, compassion or tender love.” The Triune God, who mutually loves each other, extends that tender love even further to Her creation- Her children. God birthed Israel with great affection and tender care.
In Exodus 3:7, God heard Her infant crying in the voices of the slaves of Israel in Egypt, and She was moved with great compassion (racham) to deliver them. Childbirth imagery is pictured through the parting waters of the Red Sea, the provision of food and the weaning of the great nation of Israel. The imagery of God giving birth to Israel helps us to understand the strong emotional attachment God feels for Her children. In Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah, the great orthodox theologian writes, “God did not satisfy himself with proposing the example of a father, but in order to express his very strong affection, he chose to liken himself to a mother, and calls His people not merely children, but the fruit of the womb, towards which there is usually a warmer affection.” Human mothers and even animal mothers forget themselves in their care and protection of their young. It is this mother-love that God says She feels toward Her children.
God provides and nurtures us from Her own self when we are helpless and unable to care for our own needs. This provision is so intrinsic to who God is, it became one of Her many names: El Shaddai. El Shaddai is rooted in the Hebrew word for breasts, and it introduces the imagery of our God who promised Her children a fertile land filled with milk.
In one of my favorite chapters, Numbers 11 (read my articles on this chapter), Moses was stressed out. He asked God, “ What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? … Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother?” Moses charged God as being the Israelites’ true mother. Moses was, at best, a wet nurse. This passage alludes to the nourishment that mothers bring to their infant, milk, and the provision of God in the wilderness. Later in Isaiah, God says to Her children: “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!” (Isaiah 49:15). God is like a nursing mother who bore us from her womb and is filled with compassion for us. There is no chance She will forget or abandon us. As a mother comforts her child, so the Lord will comfort you. (Isaiah 66:13) God uses Jerusalem to describes Herself as giving birth and nursing the nation of Israel after exile. She teaches Israel to walk and bends down to feed them as a young toddler. (Hosea 11 1a, 3-4)
God tenderly loves.
The mother-love of the Triune God is deeply emotional. Yes, God has agape love toward us – love that chooses to act in our best interest regardless of feeling or emotion – but God is also deeply stirred at the thought of Her children whom She birthed and nourished from infancy. This is racham, tender compassion.
As we think of the great compassion of God, we cannot skip over Jesus. When he saw the world’s pain, the suffering and the sick, the hungry and the miserable, the lonely, those in despair over death and bewildered by the sheer agony of a hard life… Jesus was moved with compassion – mother love. Jesus shared the same tender love for humanity as the others in the godhead.
It is God’s merciful compassion that invites us into Her family. In John 3, Jesus describes this invitation as being born again. “You must be re-born from the Spirit of God.” Who gives birth to us? God, our Mother. We are the fruit of Her womb. In birth, a mother gives life by opening herself to the harm of delivery and possible death. Don’t we see that in Jesus, the mother of all those who believe? He died in childbirth, if you will, so that we could be born of God. The Tri-une God labored for us, loved us and delivered us into eternal life. Romans 8:29 calls Jesus the firstborn of many brothers. The Greek word for brothers is literally those who shared the same womb. We are invited into the bosom of God to be reborn as family.
And we come full circle back to the womb. The special place of creating life from love. From the eternal love of God, a community of three, a family is born.
Wil Gafney, Hosea’s Mothering God: Back to Egypt. http://www.wilgafney.com/2013/08/04/hoseas-mothering-god-back-to-egypt/
Wade Burleson, “God Has Chosen to Liken Himself to a Female and We Are the Fruit of His Womb.” http://www.wadeburleson.org/2011/12/god-has-chosen-to-liken-himself-to.html
The mystery of the three persons of our One God is conceivable in love. Love is impossible in solitude. Love must include others. As mothers, we understand this love that creates, shares and adores. That bears life. That births newness. This is mother-love, an idea that the Hebrew Bible uses to describe our Creator, who wants a family that enjoys each other forever.
I struggle to write this because of what I do not know. I do not know SO MUCH. And what if I write wrongly? And yet I cannot GO wrong with Love. And love is where this story starts. And love is what a mother knows. Not because she is a great scholar. Not because she is more worthy. But because that is what she IS. A mother IS love.
In Hebrew, the word translated compassion or tender mercy is racham. And do you know what other meaning that word has- in fact its first literal meaning? Womb. That lump of tissue only women who conceive utilize and KNOW. The womb. Mother love. Compassion. Forgiving, merciful, tenacious, overlooking, self-denying, unfailing, eternal love.
And God is rachum – compassionate. A feeling founded in the womb.
God is the ultimate womb that birthed the cosmos. He knows about mother-love.
Here the story starts. With God as love. And here our connection as moms begins. For love is not singular. It is not solitary. It is not alone. It is not an island. Love conceives ideas and dreams and it grows to include a family to adore. Mother love – that creates and adores. That bears life. That births newness. That nourishes and feeds innocence. It protects. It fights tooth and nail. It does whatever is necessary for the little ones it formed, and fed and nested for. For the babes she pushed out in agony or had cut from her very flesh as independent lives – living souls formed from her cells; shared her blood, fed on her flesh. Love must include others.
This is racham – womb –mother love.
This is a hint of who our God, who is neither he nor she – is. The “I am.” The mother of all the living souls in the universe. Who wanted a family.
And I sit before this magnificent love and am afraid I’ll get it wrong, or you’ll misunderstand and think God is not what is. Because God IS everything you dreamed of and more. I don’t even know what more.
“ What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, ‘Give us meat; we want meat.’ I can’t do this by myself—it’s too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I’ve seen enough; I’ve had enough. Let me out of here.”
In my head, his tantrum sounds just like the one I had this morning with my three children. Moses felt the stress of a mother*, who constantly cares for her children only to have them complain about the ONE THING they don’t have. And he lost it.
Oh Moses, I so get you.
*Or father, or nanny, or any full time caregiver of children.