Hopefully everyone had a fantastic Labor Day weekend. Today’s chapter fits quite well into that theme, actually, since it is entirely devoted to how men have an “inborn” need to provide for their families– although the way he is “intended” to provide extends beyond physical needs and goes into achieving both status and acclaim.
Helen begins by returning to familiar territory– Genesis 3. It’s here that God supposedly gives the ultimate, overriding command to men: they’re the ones responsible to provide while their wives have babies. She explicitly says that “This command was given, not to the woman, but to the man.”
Let’s accept, for a moment, that Genesis 3 is a valid argument for gender roles and ignore the fact that this passage is God delivering The Curse. Let’s ignore that, for a second, and go along with her argument. Let’s see what it says:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain 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, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Do you remember your junior high English classes? Remember learning about things like declarative and imperative sentences? Declarative sentences give information; imperative sentences give orders. There is a rough approximation of this idea in Classical Hebrew; however, the imperative typically appears in Hebrew in the form of a prohibitive statement: “thou shalt not have any other gods before me,” for example. Using the second person future tense is something called the future indicative, and that is what appears here, in Genesis 3.
Grammatically, it isn’t a command.
But, let’s accept for a moment that this passage is, in fact, a command. God does seem to be strictly addressing Adam here. But, this is only chapter three. Let’s take a quick look back at the end of the first chapter:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to 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 heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
And God said to them.
In Paradise, in the Garden– in the place that is a beautiful, extraordinary metaphor for the world as it is intended to be, men and women are working together. Being fruitful and multiplying is not singly under the purview of women– it’s given to both of them. Subduing the earth, practicing husbandry and good stewardship isn’t only to be performed by men– but by both.
A few weeks ago I was in North Carolina, and Handsome and I decided to go visit Renovatus Church. The sermon I heard that morning . . . it was beautiful, and reminded me that the first few chapters of Genesis aren’t there to tell us how horrible life is, the extent of our failure, or how deserving we are of torment and punishment. In Hebrew, the more an idea is repeated, the more important it is, the more emphasis it receives. And the idea that receives the most emphasis?
And God saw it, and behold, it was very good.
Not broken. Not Fallen. Good.
Helen has forgotten that. The only thing she seems to remember about Genesis is the Fall and the Curse. And if that’s the only part of Genesis you care to remember and present to your readers, then your conclusions are going to be unhealthy. They can’t be anything but.
She repeats very tired, very worn-out ideas in this chapter. The “man is the breadwinner” narrative is so commonplace in middle class American culture that it is barely worth commenting on. Except for that one detail: it is a middle class narrative, a middle class ideal. The nearly constant conservative evangelical emphasis on “stay at home mothers” and “providing fathers” completely erases an entire class of people. Being able to stay at home is a luxury. It is nothing more than a statement about status and wealth. Saying that wives must remain at home or they risk destroying their husbands is nothing less than making wealth a moral requirement. According to the 2007 census, of all households with stay-at-home mothers, over 25% of them reported incomes of more than $100,000 per year. Statistically speaking, that puts them in the 82nd percentile for household income. Another 65% of stay-at-home mothers are in the lower end of middle class, but well above poverty level.
Telling women that it is a biblical mandate for them to remain at home is wrong. It is ethically and morally repugnant, because it utterly ignores those who can’t afford to. It tells those who live at or below the poverty level that having a “God-honoring marriage” is completely beyond their ability.
This is one of the many, many ways that conservative evangelical Christianity has lost its soul. Evangelical Christianity, by and large, is the religion of the rich, the prosperous, the white, the middle-class, the white-collar, the fortunate, the privileged. This is, to me at least, the most apparent when it comes to gender roles. Helen quotes from her husband’s book, Man of Steel and Velvet:
Failure to meet this obligation [to provide financial support] has always been just cause for divorce . . . Financial support, and along with this, fidelity have always been the two main entitlements for a woman in marriage.
Not exactly, Mr. Andelin. No where in the Old Testament was the woman ever given the ability to divorce her husband. Divorce, even in the Bible, was strictly a legal privilege for men, not for women. And men could divorce their wives, according to Hillel rabbis, for wearing her hair down outside or burning his dinner. The situation doesn’t exactly improve in the New Testament, either.
Outside of the Bible, a woman could not divorce her husband for anything less than adultery or desertion (with desertion being extremely difficult to prove) until 1923 in England. In America, a woman had to prove her husband guilty of infidelity, desertion, or a crime until 1969– and at no point since Medieval times was failure to provide adequate financial support considered just cause for divorce.
Always, Mr. Andelin? Bah.
But, this sort of thinking is common place. Huge misrepresentations of history are presented as factual, with a rosy view of history that ignores sweeping injustices. The history of the white, upper or middle class male is the only version that many people in conservative Christianity seem to remember most of the time. It’s certainly the only version that Helen seems to remember.