In the first post of this “Surprising Men of the Old Testament” series, we looked at men’s work and activities. We turn now to examine men’s relationships with women and children.
There’s been a lot of talk in the past couple of decades about what “godly manhood” might look like. Among “complementarian” Christians (representing a hierarchialist, patriarchal view), the model of husband as leader and initiator in his marriage is usually presented as the only authentically biblical option. In this model, women have no place in leading men, particularly in matters of faith. Men are often exhorted to “man up” instead of being “weak” or “effeminate.” Is this focus truly biblical? And is a biblical marriage focussed on authority or relationship?
A Godly Man’s Relationships with his Wife and Children
Although patriarchal culture introduced many practices which ran contrary to the one-flesh relationship envisaged in Genesis 2 (including polygamy and treating women as objects to give away at whim), the Old Testament depicts a number of genuinely loving and tender marital relationships.
Jacob’s love for Rachel was such that he endured fourteen years of indentured slavery and being tricked into marrying her sister, in order to win her hand (Genesis 29).
Although it was Abraham’s servant who determined Rebekah’s suitability to marry Isaac and arranged the marriage, their love was genuine. Isaac was emotionally open and vulnerable to her, finding comfort in his time of grief for his mother’s death in the love he had for Rebekah (Genesis 24).
From their first meeting, Boaz treated Ruth with respect and gentleness. He made it clear to the men working for him that they were “not to lay a hand on (her).” He treated her with generosity, providing for basic needs such as drinking water, and inviting her to eat with him, and yet expected nothing in return. He demonstrates the esteem in which he held her, valuing her highly as a result of what he had learned of her character and faith, and he later calls her “a woman of valour” (a more accurate translation of the Hebrew “eshet chayil” than “woman of noble character”), recognising the strength and courage required for a woman in her situation in that culture. Naomi says of Boaz, “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” Boaz fulfils the requirements of his culture by giving a closer relative the opportunity to marry her if she prefers but at all times, treats Ruth with gentleness and respect. When Ruth makes a culturally unusual move of proposing marriage to him, he feels honoured, not affronted. As a result of their union, they become ancestors of the Messiah.
It was considered an absolute right for a married man to have children. A wife’s failure to conceive and bear children was an accepted reason for divorce. However, Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, consistently demonstrated his love for her in the special consideration he gave to her childless state. “Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Paninnah (his other wife) and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Sam 1:4-5). Elkanah was supportive and tender-hearted, and accompanied her to the temple when she went to pray. There is no sense in the text that Elkanah felt the need to be “in charge of” his wife. Note that when Hannah made a vow that if she were blessed to conceive a son, she would give him to the Lord’s service, Elkanah did not insist that it was his right to make the decisions about their child. He respected Hannah’s vow to God.
Because the Bible is generally concerned with the “big picture” stories of those who led God’s people, rather than with domestic matters, there is very little said directly about the interactions between fathers and their children. However, the command to teach God’s laws to your children is given without reference the gender of the teacher. Also implied is that teaching the next generation is not merely a parental responsibility, but a community one.
Although Caleb participated in patriarchal traditions such as exercising the right to give his daughter away to a man of his choice, he also took the unusual step of giving her an inheritance when she requested it (Jos 15:16-20, Jud 1:12-15).
Despite the norms of a patriarchal society, godly men loved and cared for their wives and children in ways which were often completely counter-cultural.
A Godly Man’s Care for Vulnerable Women
While patriarchal culture led to many abuses of women, there are numerous OT depictions of men’s kindness to women.
Genesis 34 tells the story of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who was captured and raped by Shechem the Hittite. He then decided to marry her, with no respect for her feelings in the matter. Cultural rules would have made it very difficult for her to be married to anyone else after her rape, so any offer of marriage would have been considered by the male family head as being the only way of saving her from living in shame the rest of her life.
But her brothers’ response is unexpected. Gen 34:7 records that they were “shocked and furious, because Shechem had done an outrageous thing in Israel by sleeping with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done.” Note that they are not furious at Dinah for besmirching the family’s honour, but at the perpetrator of the crime. Nor do they query why she was off on her own, visiting the other women. They recognise their sister’s right to undertake normal activities without question, and place the blame where it belongs. Their killing of Shechem and his men does not sit easily with us today, but we should remember the Bronze Age context of this story – a very different culture and set of circumstances to today.
When Elijah was instructed by God to hide, but had run out of food and water, he went to Zarephath in Sidon, where God had told him a widow would supply him with food. The woman was in such dire poverty that she expected death was near for herself and her son. However, she shares what little she has with the prophet. In return for her incredible generosity, Elijah blesses the oil jug and flour jar, so that they will not run out during the time of famine. The prophet does not demand the widow’s help as his right, but recognises the great faith and generosity her actions required. He later causes her son to be raised from death. (1 Kings 17.)
A Godly Man’s Response to Women’s Leadership, Initiative and Accomplishments
Godly men have a collaborative attitude, and recognise and value the gifts and leadership of women.
Lappidoth, the husband of Deborah, appears to have had no objection to Deborah fulfilling the taxing role of judge of Israel (Jdg 4). Barak relied on Deborah’s leadership, even in the male domain of the battlefield (Judges 4 & 5).
The high priest and other officials sought out Huldah to authoritatively interpret the newly found Book of the Law (2 Ki 11, 2 Chr 34). This was not because of a lack of male leadership at the time – Huldah was a contemporary of Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum and Habakkuk. Some Jewish traditions hold that Huldah was also a public teacher. Even though many Jewish kings ignored the warnings of many of the other prophets, the king, high priest and the entire nation bow to Huldah’s judgements on this matter. A time of incredible religious revival ensues.
A godly man is not afraid of women taking the initiative. The daughters of Zelophehad took the initiative to challenge unjust inheritance laws. Moses did not rebuke them, but consulted with the Lord. As a result, they and other women after them were able to inherit property (Num 27). In Song of Songs, both the man and woman take the initiative in the area of romance.
The husband of the Proverbs 31 woman had “full confidence in her” and as a result, “(lacked) nothing of value.” Along with her children, he would “arise and call her blessed,” recognising the blessing brought to their family as a result of her strength, skills and hard work.
A godly man respects the dignity and worth of women, and does not feel affronted or demeaned by women’s leadership and accomplishments. While he may have a role in protecting her, he also releases her to make her way in the world. Despite the strongly patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near Eastern society, many men went against the cultural flow in their relationships with women.
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