One cannot avoid the gender asymmetries put forth in the Bible. As much as it repeatedly insists that men and women are equal (e.g., Genesis 1:27, Numbers 6:2, Matthew 12:49-50, 1Corinthians 11:12, Galatians 3:28, enGendered, ch. 4), it is just as stubborn in proclaiming a difference between them, how they love each other differently in close community (e.g., Genesis 2, Numbers 36:1-12, Luke 6:13-16, 1Corinthians 11:3-16, Ephesians 5:22-33). Therefore, those Christians who happily swim in our culture’s stream of gender minimization must find other arguments to reach that waterfall of no restrictions on communal behaviour. That is, they must find a way to explain away or otherwise nullify the Bible’s clear directives of gender distinction.
One popular method is to affirm that while the Biblical mediators (and God) were “progressive” themselves, they could not make a change against the patriarchy because the culture was too set against it. Challenging gender norms would be too disruptive. So, for example, there are no women priests in the Old Testament. (Or kings. One royal female briefly usurps the throne, 2Kings 11:1-16, but she is, after all, a usurper.) Throughout the thousands of years of Israel’s history, through highs and lows, in good times and bad times, bearing any and all provocations, not a single female priest. And, in fact, laws to the contrary (Exodus 29:9, 29–30; 40:13–15).
One sometimes hears this argument, then, that a solely masculine priesthood was not the way God would have had it. But the culture demanded it. It would be unthinkable to the ancients and so Abraham, Moses, David, Nehemiah, and God of course, acquiesced in this area to the peoples’ hardness of heart.
One could make such a case in regard to some laws (Matthew 19:8), but not this one. The plea has one big problem: it simply was not culturally hard to have women priests. At all. The cultures surrounding ancient Israel had priestesses aplenty, as Susan Ackerman of Dartmouth amply documents. As she puts it,
“Priestesses abound in the religions of the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean — in Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient Syrian tradition, and Greece. Priestesses are even attested in the records of some of ancient Israel’s closest neighbors (for example, from Phoenicia and the Transjordanian site of Deir Alla).”
Anywhere you turned, for all that long history, you could bump into female priests. In fact, priestesses were culturally expected! It would have been easy to include women. But not a breath of it in Israel, in YHWH’st worship. Why? As I explained in a previous post, God and His mediators reserved the priesthood for men for reasons of representation, and They are adamant about it because of the purpose of gender.
So, in the beginning of our age, did Jesus chose His twelve apostles to be men because that was expected? If He had been able to do as He wanted, would He have chosen six girls and six boys, or something like that? In His eminently significant task of reconstituting the twelve tribes of Israel in the new community of God’s people, did He have to compromise?
I would say, Jesus was plenty disruptive when He wanted to be. In this case, though, He was following God’s pattern of representation. Because our Lord recognized how, in the past, for our best, God was okay with not being cool with the culture.
Can we do the same?