Women have equal importance with men in God’s first revelation to mankind. This needs to be shown in detail today in order to affirm the worth and potential of women and to enable them to see more clearly their role in creation and their vocation to holiness.
In the Genesis account of Creation God reveals himself as the one Creator God (Genesis 1-2). Only centuries later did the Greek philosophers prove the existence of God by reasoning from the orderliness of nature to recognize that one Divine Being must exist to have created the universe and set it in order. Significantly, God chose to reveal His existence and His nature long before any human being reasoned it out, and God linked this revelation of His own nature with the revelation of human nature as well: Man is created in the image of God, and Male and Female are each created in the image of God. This is the basis for the true understanding of humankind. This is the foundation of Catholic anthropology: man is blessed with being in the image of God himself. And this is equally true of man and woman.
Strikingly, the spiritual equality of the sexes is so important that God paired it with the revelation of His own nature. No one else on the planet was asserting that male and female are spiritually equal. Being in the image of God entails being able to know, to choose the good, and to love. These common abilities imply that both sexes are morally competent. That is, both sexes are capable of knowing and choosing the good and therefore both sexes are responsible for their choices. This is shown at once in Genesis in the Fall of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3). Both the man and the woman fail to choose virtuously, and so they sin. This shows, painfully, that while both sexes are capable of being living images of God, both sexes can also fail in that, and both sexes have responsibility for their choices.
That, too, is important: Scripture did not present God as assigning all the blame to Adam as the one responsible for himself and for Eve. Scripture records that both the man and the woman bear responsibility for their own actions and presented God himself as explaining this to them individually. For God speaks with both Adam and Eve after the Fall. The Lord God first called Adam and questioned him (Gen. 3:9-12) and then questioned Eve (Gen. 3:13). Following the woman’s testimony, God punished the serpent (Gen. 3:14-15) and revealed that it would be woman who would crush its head under her heel (Gen. 3:15). This alluded in mystery to the role that the new Eve, the Theotokos, would fulfill in the Incarnation and thus in accomplishing human salvation and the defeat of the Devil. Both Eve and Adam for their sin shared the punishment of mortality and expulsion from Paradise. This shows the full, common humanity of men and women. In addition Eve and Adam each had a sex-specific punishment (Gen. 3:16-19), and this shows the complementarity of the sexes. Both sexes are in the image of God, both sexes are essential for the fulfilment of creation, and both sexes are distinctively different.
This holds more meaning than we can yet understand. The main implications, however, are shown clearly within the Old Testament itself. The Old Testament gives balanced examples of male and female moral competence. Notably, the equal competence of each sex is particularly seen in times of danger and stress for the people. Seeking the people’s release from bondage in Egypt, Moses demanded from Pharaoh the release of all the children of God, “old and young, with our sons and daughters” (Ex. 10:9, 10:24). He rejected Pharaoh’s offer to let only the men go (Exodus 10:11). As Pope Benedict observed, the true worship of God required that both men and women participate. The climax of the people’s delivery was the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, after which Miriam the prophetess with timbrel led the women in dance to celebrate God’s delivery of them, and she also led them in song: “Sing to the Lord for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exod. 15:20-21). Indeed that passage, a woman’s words of praise, is among the oldest texts in Scripture.
Later, during the Babylonian captivity, the moral competence of male and female was treated with impressive completeness in the Book of Daniel. First, in what was the initial chapter in the pre-Christian prophet book, Susanna risked her life to be faithful to God when an abuse of the law threatened her, and God vindicated her. Then the three youths took a parallel risk in the fiery furnace and were likewise vindicated, and finally Daniel ran a parallel risk in the lions’ den and emerged unharmed. The virtuous heroism of Susanna, the three youths, and Daniel are powerful, positive examples of the moral competence of men, women and children. In contrast, moral failure is seen in the Elders who plot against Susanna and seek her death, and also in those who plot against the prophet, for when Daniel had been released from the lions’ den the first time, his “accusers, their children and their wives were cast into the den” and the lions devoured them (Daniel 6:25). In the book’s final chapter the demographic span of men, women and children is again clearly seen. Daniel proved that the false priests of Bel “with their wives and their children” were deceiving the people, and the outraged king executed the wrongdoers, both male and female (vv. 14, 19, 20). Thus the book comprehensively treats the motif of the capacity of everyone, male and female, old and young, to act responsibly and to be rewarded or punished for it.
When the survivors of the people of God had returned from the Babylonian captivity and rebuilt Jerusalem, at once Esdras read the Law anew to the people. Scripture is specific that everyone gathered to hear the law: “men and women and children old enough to understand” (2 Esdras 8:2, 3 = Nehemiah 8:2, 3). The entire people, inclusive of women, answered “Amen” when Esdras blessed God as great, and they lifted up their hands and bowed down and adored God together (8:6). Then for several days they feasted together and listened to the Law of God daily (vv. 8-18). Then, reminded of the Law, they fasted and repented together (chapter 9). This affirmed the sexes’ equal responsibility to worship and obey God and their equal competence to express their faith and penitence.
These few examples show that the revelation made in Genesis of the spiritual equality of the sexes is borne out in the rest of Holy Scripture. So, too, does the Bible demonstrate consistently the real difference between the sexes. Some differences between men and women may prove to be gendered differences, that is, differences that arise from cultural patterns that are merely social convention. But it is a powerful fact that the first revelation of human nature, in Genesis 1-3, indicates that sexual difference is real, as real as it is biologically observable. Therefore, we must look with care at the presentations of women and of female imagery within the Bible and examine that evidence for indications of what is perhaps being revealed of female human nature.
When the soul or the community of the faithful is personified, always the personification is female. Jerusalem and Zion are personified as a woman by the prophets. Even when the whole of God’s people is addressed as “Israel,” the name of the man whose twelve sons are the origin of the twelve tribes, still the prophets personified the community as a woman. This biblical tradition in the Old Testament is the wellspring of the Christian personification of Ecclesia as a woman, a metaphor the Church still upholds as meaningful. In the Church throughout history and in its diverse languages, the Church herself is represented by a noun of feminine gender, such as ἐκκλησία in Greek, ecclesia in Latin, idta in Syriac, and церква in Ukrainian. Likewise consistent and powerful is the biblical personification of the soul in relation to God as female, as in the Beloved of Canticles. Thus woman embodies the soul’s and the community’s capacity to be responsive to God.
In addition, God’s Wisdom is personified as a woman. The Book of Proverbs, largely devoted to the praise of Wisdom, personifies her as the mother of all good and the worker of all things (Prov. 7:12, 21). She is “holy, one, manifold, sure, sweet, loving that which is good… having all power …” (vv. 22-24). Indeed, some scholars hold that Wisdom is to be identified with God, for Solomon prayed to God “and the spirit of Wisdom came upon me” (Prov. 7:7). Wisdom herself speaks, declaring, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning,” before Creation, and she was the means of creating (Prov. 8:22-31). Wisdom holds a banquet which is the prototype of the wedding feast of the Lamb (Prov. 9). Wisdom is active, for she delivered Joseph from the pit (Prov. 10:13) and God’s people from slavery in Egypt, saving them in the crossing of the Red Sea by drowning their enemies there (Prov. 10:15-19). The female figure of Wisdom is richly presented in the Old Testament, especially in Proverbs but also elsewhere (Sirach 6:13-27). At the Ukrainian Catholic University two banquet scenes flank the sanctuary in the main chapel: Wisdom presiding at her banquet and Christ presiding at the Last Supper. That is the classic Christian interpretation of the Wisdom of the Old Testament, that she is a prefiguration of Christ.
Crowning the Old Testament’s presentation of wisdom as female is the wondrous fact that God likens Himself to a woman. Rarely, but in significant contexts, God compared himself to a woman, and specifically to a mother. Profoundly, God presented the supreme redemptive act of his Incarnation as maternal: his crucifixion. First, in the Old Testament, the Lord inspired the prophet Isaiah to declare, Can a mother forget her suckling child? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands (Isaiah 49:15-16). The graven hands of God are the hands of Our Lord on the cross, carved by the nails of his execution. In the New Testament Jesus himself, approaching his Passion, also compared himself to a mother, exclaiming to Jerusalem that he had often wanted to gather her children together, as the hen gathers her chickens under her wings, “but you would not” (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34). This maternal image for God Himself we know, not through a prophet, but from the very words of the Incarnate Lord, and he uttered them when He was about to suffer the passion in a parental love for mankind that was more than maternal.
In considering what is shown of female nature in the Bible, one must also consider what is shown of the male. Manifestly, some gifts and roles are fulfilled mainly or entirely by men in the Old Testament. The revelations God gave to an individual human person and recorded in the Bible He generally gave to men. As a result of such experiences, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made covenant with God. Moses prophesied, and Isaiah and the others whose visions and prophecies comprise entire biblical books were all men. Yet God granted prophecy to Huldah, also, and the judge Deborah prophetically foretold to Barak that the enemy would be defeated by the hand of a woman. Old Testament warriors were ordinarily men, but the boy David defeated Goliath and the women Jael and Judith defeated the enemy generals Sisera and Holofernes. The anointed kings were men. Yet the Bible also attests female rulers, who show the range of good and ill seen in the kings. Prudent and virtuous Abigail has her opposite in wicked Jezebel. Notable, too, are the perceptive gentile Queen of Sheba and the heroic Jewish Queen Esther, who, married to the luxurious Assyrian Ahasuerus, providentially gained from him the power to save her people.
One religious and cultural role, however, was exclusively for men. The Jewish priesthood from its inception was entirely male. Even before God established the Levitical priesthood, the man Melchisedek was the only priest who served the one true God, and sacrifices were made only by men: Cain, Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
Much, then, is revealed of the male and female images of God in the Old Testament. As Christians we must be attentive to what the New Testament shows. When Our Lord came among his people in the flesh, He gave a new and unprecedented emphasis to women’s spiritual equality. The Genesis revelation asserted women’s being equally in the image of God, an insight no one else on the planet had. Jesus reaffirmed this. Indeed, His life and ministry and teachings and prophecies established with a comprehensiveness never before seen on the planet that women are in truth spiritually equal with men. Even before He was born, when he was newly within the womb of His mother, the Lord evoked from both male and female an inspired recognition of Himself as the Lord, when Elizabeth and the pre-born John in her womb hailed Him at the Visitation. Again the Lord arranged for both male and female to acclaim Him, in His first public appearance in the Temple, in his mother’s arms, when both Symeon and the prophetess Anna greeted Him as the salvation of Israel. When He matured, he healed both men and women, taught both men and women, had conversations with both men and women drawing them into true belief, and even elicited professions of that belief from the man Peter and the woman Martha of Bethany. Indeed, it was the homemaker Martha who articulated the faith more fully than the fisherman who became the head of the Church. And Martha’s profession was prelude to the Lord’s greatest miracle: the reviving of Lazarus after three days in the tomb, the most dramatic miracle, the furthest from natural possibility, and the type of the Lord’s own resurrection.
Note the complementarity of Peter and Martha here: Peter professed and was named head of the Church. Martha professed, and her faith and intercession elicited from the Lord miraculous restoration to life. Peter and Martha epitomize what perhaps we may call male and female charisms, with Peter’s being priestly, and Martha’s being like the Church, like the soul.
Today Feminists of the New Evangelization can articulate afresh the insights of the Church through the centuries regarding what it means to be a female image of God. Women in particular are called to explain what is present in Scripture and tradition but needs still to be analyzed and put into words accessible to people of the New Millennium. In concert with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, new research by women is proceeding. The study of the Old Testament image of Wisdom promises to be fruitful. My own work includes recovering women as types of Christ, articulating the pastoral program of the balanced representation of the sexes in liturgy and sermons and art, the singing of women’s words equally with men’s in the liturgy to provide inspirational models for all the faithful, and drawing upon modern reproductive science and genetics to explore how the Incarnation’s earliest months brought about the resanctification of both men and women.
The sexes are spiritually equal, with the same competence and capacity for holiness or for its inverse. And in mystery the sexes also have a complementarity beyond the biological but manifest through biological differences. As a result, together the sexes image God as neither sex alone can do. It is upon us to seek with reverence and care to understand how these biological differences not only serve but also manifest the glory of God.
The most powerful witness to the complementarity of the sexes is introduced in the New Testament, in the Incarnation itself. Two facts are essential here: that God became incarnate as a male, and that He could bodily enter His own creation only through the means He Himself had designed, namely, the divinely created reproductive capacities of a woman, his mother Mary, whose wondrous title Theotokos means “Birth of God.” Note well: the Creator designed creation such that His Incarnation required the holy cooperation of a woman. On behalf of all mankind she said, “Let it be done to me according to Thy word.” Profoundly in Mary woman is shown capable of embodying the human capacity to receive God and be fruitful through God, which is the calling of every human soul. Much is yet to be discerned in the mystery of created human sexual reality, but surely for Christians it is clear that male and female are both essential for the full imaging of God.