Wednesday, 6 February 2013

In the beginning... (part 2)

Two months ago, I began looking at the Biblical basis for masculinity and femininity. In part one, I looked a little at what it means to be made in the “image of God” and the responsibility given to humanity to populate and bear God’s authority over creation. In this post I want to look at Genesis 2 and see how it relates to our understanding of humanity, masculinity and femininity.

Starting from verse 4 of Genesis 2, we have a more detailed account of the creation of man.

4This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

5Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

As an aside, the astute reader may notice that in Genesis 2 there appears to be a slightly different order to creation than in Genesis 1. This apparent contradiction is not found in the Hebrew, but is a translation issue; there is a Hebrew word שָּׂדֶ֗ה (sadeh) preceding the words for both shrub and plant here, meaning “field” and sometimes translated as “of the field” when used as an adjective (as in Genesis 2). This qualifier is not found at all in Genesis 1. It may not seem very important or relevant, but it is actually quite significant for helping us to understand the responsibility given to humanity. You see, the word “field” here (unfortunately absent in many translations) gives a distinct impression of something occupational and practical; it's an agricultural term. A ‘sadeh’ does not come into being by itself, it is planted.

8Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.

(and, skipping over some geographical details)

15The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Sometimes Christians get the idea that the whole world was created just how God wanted it, and then we went and messed it up. While there's some truth to that, it glosses over some important points. Namely, before the creation of man, the earth had no ‘sadeh’ (fields); there was life and vegetation, but not the kind of organised agriculture required to support human community. That was Adam's job, man's responsibility (Adam and man are the same word in Hebrew) – the first ‘sadeh’ was planted by God as described in Genesis 2, and man was commanded to tend and expand this field (in the process of multiplying to fill creation).

God not only gave Adam (and, by extension, us) this job, but everything Adam was going to need to do the job. There was an established field, livestock (as we will see next), a river for water (that split into four of the largest rivers of the ancient world – I believe this is meant as a symbol that Eden was the source of all life), and let's not forget that God himself was there.

Of course, the question is; how is Adam going to do all this by himself? I believe that the author of Genesis has deliberately built up this crisis in the narrative. (There is also a second crisis building, regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but I will not address that in this post.)

18The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found.

Here we see Adam starting to do his new job. Adam, bearing God's authority over creation, names the creatures (a responsibility which is rightfully God’s). We also see the first appearance of livestock here (literally, field beasts, using the Hebrew word ‘sadeh’ again); something not found in Genesis 1. The author of Genesis further highlights the crisis that Adam cannot do this alone.

A ‘suitable helper’

At this point, I want to explore the meaning of this term, עֵ֫זֶר נֶ֫גֶד (ezer neged). Many people have debated the exact meaning of these words, and in modern times the discussion has unhelpfully focused on whether the term implies inferiority or equality (of the woman). The fact is, the author did not write this passage to address that kind of question, and it is an exegetical mistake to read it is though such a question were in scope. That's not to say we can't look at the subtle implications of the term, but we must be careful not to take it out of context.

According to my Hebrew dictionary (Strong/Vine's), נֶ֫גֶד (neged) means “a front, i.e. part opposite; spec[ifically] a counterpart, or mate; usually (adv[erb], espec[ially] with prep[osition]) over against or before.” It's an interesting word, with this variant being used just a couple of dozen times in the OT; it is used in both positive and negative contexts, and gives the distinct impression of two things or people intentionally oriented towards each other. In this context, it is probably best translated as “corresponding”; that is, Adam needs a helper corresponding to him (and his needs, and his problem that he physically cannot fulfil God’s command.)

What about עֵ֫זֶר (ezer), then? The dictionary entry is just “help”, and mentions that it is from the Hebrew word for aid. It appears 21 times in the OT:

  • Twice to refer to the woman in Genesis 2.
  • Three times to refer to the help or assistance given by one person or group to another, each in the context of God's judgement (Isaiah 30:5, Ezekiel 12:14, Daniel 11:34). The first two are explicitly negative references to the assistance requested by a rebellious people from other men.
  • Eight times it refers to something that God gives or does.
  • Nine times it refers to God himself as the ‘help’ of his people. A typical example is Psalm 33:20 (“We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.”).

What shall we make of the term ‘ezer neged’ then? First, the helper is a gift from God. It would be right to say not only that she is a helper, but that she embodies God‘s help in this particular instance. Some commentators make a big deal about the word for ‘help’ not implying inferiority; this much is true, but it is just as much of a mistake to read this as implying equality. The term implies neither inferiority nor equality.

To be continued in the next part...

Unless otherwise noted, scripture quoted is taken from the NIV 2011.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Homelessness in Australia: Women in Need?

I noticed an article on the ABC web site this morning, “Homeless women, young people most in need”, which said:

Almost 230,000 Australians used a homeless service in the past year and 99,000 of those were children or young people under 24, a report has found.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found an average of 19,000 people slept in a government-supported accommodation each night during the 2011-12 financial year.

The Institute's Geoff Neideck says more women than men needed help to find shelter.

"Overall, we see that that main cause is in relation to domestic and family violence," he said.

The first thing that struck me was that throughout the entire article, women were only referenced twice; once in the title, and once in this indirect quote of Neideck (I'd be interested to know what he actually said). The next thing to note is that the only thing supporting the indirect quote is a statement about “domestic and family violence” which doesn't mention women at all ­– in other words, an implicit assumption that all or most victims of domestic violence are women, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary (H/T Dalrock).

The report by the AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) referenced by the article can be found here, but there are some significant problems with their data collection. They collect this data from agencies which work with vulnerable groups, and so any bias in the client demographics of these agencies will be reflected in the data. In particular, since most of the some 1500 agencies referred to are exclusively working with female clients, and the majority of funding goes towards these agencies, it's not surprising that men would be under-represented.

Since the AIHW reflects the number of people being helped but not the number of people needing help, I decided to look up the latest census data instead. Released just over a month ago, the government's official estimates of the number of homeless people tell a different story.

Firstly, over 56% of homeless persons are men, and men comprise the majority of homeless persons for every single age group. However, those numbers include people who live in crowded dwellings and temporary accommodation, not just people living “on the street”. Perhaps the situation changes if we look at the unequivocally homeless?

Okay, so it gets worse – men comprise 68% of those most in need of housing support. And before anyone says “but men don't need the same level of protection”, just check the violent crime statistics where you will find that men are significant majority of victims of violent crimes for all age cohorts, so any innate protection they have is obviously not enough to counteract this.

We've already seen that the AIHW admit that most services go to women. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data also shows this:

There are a couple of age groups where it's close, but a majority (51%) of the support goes to women despite men being such a majority of the homeless (56-68%). If Neideck as quoted thinks this is because women are more in need than men, he should look more closely at the data. It's not that we shouldn't be helping women – the issue is that we are not doing enough to help men, and the media still insists on focussing solely on how homelessness impacts women in spite of evidence that men are much more likely to be homeless.

The ABC article title claimed “homeless women, young people most in need.” I'll let the reader examine this last pie chart to help assess the validity of that statement.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

In the beginning... (part 1)

What is our basis for understanding humanity, masculinity and femininity? For some, it is just the prevailing cultural attitudes. Others base their understanding on feminist ideology and its construction of ‘patriarchy theory’. Many in the manosphere base their understanding on the precepts of ‘game’ and in the evolutionary psychology that underpins it. But I am not content with any of these approaches.

I want to spend a few posts exploring what the Bible has to say about humanity, masculinity and femininity. Of course, it would be possible to write many books on this, and indeed many such books have been written. But rather than attempt to take on the issue in its entirety, my intention is to start with a couple of key issues and see where things lead from there.

Genesis 1:26-31

26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

31God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day.

I contend that any discussion of humanity, masculinity and femininity must begin here. How can we discuss what it means to be a man or a woman without first discussing what it means to be human?

Clearly, fundamental to being human is that we are created in God's ‘image’ (something I will attempt to elucidate shortly). However, too many people stop half-way through verse 26 and so miss the reason why God wanted to make us in his image. “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over [creation].” Therefore, the concept of authority is crucial to understanding humanity – not only are we under God's authority (by his creative authorship), but we are to embody and extend God's authority to creation.

In God's image

I've heard many different theories on the meaning of the term, but most of them are unconvincing. A superficial reading of the translated text leads some to conclude we look like God in physical appearance. Others see it as meaning we have some of God's qualities like being creative and loving. Some preachers I know explain it to mean we are made to function as a community in some kind of trinitarian sense because God is triune. Now, any of these may be true to some extent, but I think we can do a lot better.

We are not made in God's image just for the sake of it. We are made in God's image so that we can embody God's authority to creation. This will be the key to determining what it really means to be created in God's image.

The Hebrew word used for ‘image’ here is צֶלֶם (tselem). The word comes from the Hebrew root word for shade, as in the shade of a tree. I suppose the connotation is that a tree's shade looks somewhat like the tree itself.

The Hebrew word is used 14 other times or so in the Old Testament (not including Aramaic variants). Of course, not all usages will be relevant to its usage in Genesis 1, but since there are not too many I will list all of them for completeness.

Gen 5:3When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.

Gen 9:6Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

I Sam 6:5,11Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and give glory to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land... They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors.

II Kgs 11:18a / II Chr 23:17All the people of the land went to the temple of Baal and tore it down. They smashed the altars and idols to pieces and killed Mattan the priest of Baal in front of the altars.

Ps 39:6Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be.

Ps 73:20They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

Eze 7:20They took pride in their beautiful jewellery and used it to make their detestable idols. They made it into vile images; therefore I will make it a thing unclean for them.

Eze 16:17You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.

Eze 23:14But she carried her prostitution still further. She saw men portrayed on a wall, figures of Chaldeans portrayed in red

Amos 5:26You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god – which you made for yourselves.

Taking these verses together, what we see is that an image (tselem) is a representation of an object intended to bear its responsibility, significance, or function. For example, in Genesis 5, Adam's son Seth carries on the responsibility of Adam – of Adam's children, only Seth is described this way; perhaps because Seth is the son whose lineage carries the responsibility given to Adam (leading to fulfilment in Christ). In Genesis 9, we read that it is God who demands an accounting for our blood, but since we are made in his image, it is other humans that typically bear this responsibility. Most of the other verses here speak of idols which are not gods in themselves but rather symbols bearing a god's significance and function of communication in worship.

Mankind bearing God's authority

God was not under compulsion to allow animals or mankind the ability to reproduce. He could have created the Earth fully populated, with everything directly under his authority (and saved all the drama in the process). Instead, he created humanity and gave them his authority to bring about these ends. Therefore, to be made in the image of God means to bear his authority over creation on his behalf.

Having now looked at what it means to be human, in the next parts we shall look at Genesis 2 and 3 and our understanding of what it means to be men and women.

Unless otherwise noted, scripture quoted is taken from the NIV 2011.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Sex is icky, right?

It's that time in a single man's life where he finds it increasingly difficult to be grateful for another wedding invitation. You see, as chance would have it, many of my friends in their early twenties are preparing to get married in the next six months. It's not that I dislike weddings, but I dislike a lot of the fuss that goes on around them

Like most young Australians, they dream of one day owning their own house and raising a family in it, but this is certainly not cheap – trying to follow this dream will leave a young couple working with little disposable income for 15 or 20 years to pay off a hefty mortgage (it's hard to get a house around here for less than eight times the average annual pre-tax salary).

I plan to talk more about newlywed culture in upcoming posts, but for now I just wanted to mention a discussion that my friends and I had recently. I can't remember exactly how it started, but I think one of my friends was complaining about the cost of the house they had just bought, and I suggested something along the lines of

“Why not find a housemate or something to help pay the bills?”
To which my friends immediately objected
“No way! You've got to have a few years on your own first to get to know each other.”

I understand that this is the standard way of thinking in a nuclear family culture, but I've really started to question the wisdom behind this. Leaving aside my other musings (especially about the selfishness of this assumption) until a later post, I thought it was fascinating that the primary reason my friends gave for their objection was:

“But, if you had a housemate, they might hear you... you know...” *laughs nervously*

What? You mean someone might realise that you, a married couple, have sex sometimes? Lord forbid it. I couldn't believe I was hearing this from a couple that was going to be married in little more than two months at the time. There are two inherent issues with their objection. One is that, at some level, they are uncomfortable enough about the idea of sex that they can't speak about it directly – I understand that Christians are not usually brought up discussing these things over breakfast, but by the time people are in their early twenties (and especially when they are about to be married) they should at least be able to say the word ‘sex’ without looking really awkward.

The second issue here is that my friends apparently seem to find the idea of sex “icky”. On an intellectual level, they know that sex was created by God and that it's normal for married couples and all that, but on another level, they seem uncomfortable about it. Certainly, sex is not meant to be a public affair, but I would think that any housemate living with a married couple would reasonably assume that the couple are going to have sex regularly and if they had a problem with that then it's their own fault.

What do you think causes this attitude? Do we shelter adolescents too much in the church? It's not as though they won't hear about sex from any other sources (they certainly will). If this is a tactic to somehow curb the rate of premarital sex, then the statistics indicate it really doesn't work. Some churches run mens meetings and womens meetings, but these are typically for older people who are already married, so it doesn't help the teenagers to develop more healthy attitudes themselves. I know that my pastor spends a lot of time talking about sex in pre-marriage counselling of young couples, but I wonder if even waiting for them to be engaged is too late.

Is this something you see as an issue too? If you are married, do you remember whether you felt squeamish about sex as a newlywed? How did that affect your early marriage and how long did it take before you could discuss it comfortably?

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Sketching at the window of this train of thought

I have been meaning to start this blog for some time now, but it seems as though every time I herd my thoughts together, there are newer and more pressing concerns to address. I've already written several drafts, but I haven't really been happy with any of them as far as introductory posts go.

The matters I wish to discuss are as far-reaching as they are deep, and it has been more difficult to summarise my thoughts than I had expected. Therefore, I decided that perhaps it was better to just write something to get the ball rolling, and then see where I go from there.

What's this all about?

I have spent many years now reflecting, with some dissatisfaction, on the relationships in my own life, and on those of my friends. What I saw was an apparent disconnect between the way in which we idealised our relationships, and the reality that those relationships faced. Friends I saw making lifelong commitments to one another would not even be on speaking terms within a few years. My slightly younger friends were busy getting married, and my slightly older friends were busy getting divorced.

None of us expected these kinds of tragedies to occur to us personally. “Yes, I know that 60% of marriages end in divorce”, we'd say, then rationalise that those “other people” were obviously not as committed/faithful/devout/Christian/etc. as us and that of course we would be okay. And perhaps we were right – perhaps there really was something especially deficient in those broken relationships, something we could avoid. But maybe those people had felt no less sure than we do.

I was not content with just wishful thinking; I wanted to delve deeper into this disconnect between our idealisation and reality. If I were ever to marry or have children, I wanted specific reasons and hard evidence to indicate I was in the percentage of husbands that would never put their children through a divorce.

A few months ago, I stumbled across some blog posts about divorce and statistics that had been compiled. What I found was a shock to me – the high percentage of unilateral no-fault divorces initiated by wives (up to 70% of such divorces), the number of children born of married women estimated to be the result of affairs (10% or so), and the extent to which society encourages women to focus on their own personal happiness and use any excuse to divorce their husbands and take the house and the children.

The blogs looking at these issues, especially the degree to which they impact men, are part of what is called the “manosphere” – operated by those who have rejected the tried-and-failed relationship dynamics promoted by modern culture. A common refrain throughout the ‘sphere is that feminism has played a large part in creating this environment where relationships are set up for failure and set up to benefit women over men and benefit women over children. While being initially hesitant to reach these conclusion myself, especially insofar as relationships between Christians (which I had naively believed to be less influenced by secular feminism), the evidence has led me to the same conclusions.

At this point I wish to mention the blog which has been most influential in challenging me to rethink and reconsider my views on marriage and relationships: Dalrock – Thoughts from a happily married father on a post feminist world. For anyone who would like to know more, I strongly recommend you read his blog. For those who plan to be married for life (you know, nearly half-a-million hours or so), spending one or two hours reading a blog is more than worth it.

Recommended reading:

Why write my own blog?

Why not just keep my thoughts to myself, far more private from the eyes of those who might object (future employers, friends, relatives)? Well, here are a few reasons why I have decided to do this:

  1. I firmly believe that explaining our views to others helps to develop and accelerate our own understanding. Our brains are designed to focus on just a few things at once, so we often fail to notice gaps in knowledge or in our logic until we attempt to formally articulate our views. I fully expect that my opinions and ideas will change as I write.
  2. One way to articulate our thoughts is to write them in a private journal, but the advantage of a blog is that, hopefully, people will interact with you. I do not write for fame or glory, but iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17) and there is much I can learn from the comments and debates that people might bring to this blog. It's my hope that the interaction can give me motivation to continue to express (and so develop) my ideas.
  3. While there are already hundreds of blogs looking at these issues, I do believe I have something unique to offer. Firstly, there are relatively few blogs dedicated specifically to examining these issues from a Christian perspective. Secondly, while most Christian blogs in the manosphere come from the perspective of those who are already married or divorced, yet fewer blogs come from the perspective of young Christian men yet to find partners, so I hope to spend some time focusing on issues for the not-yet-married and newly-married. Lastly, it is my hope to contribute via some other skills like being able to dig up interesting research papers or perform new statistical analyses.

This post is already longer than I had intended, so I'm just going to leave it there for now. In the next few days I'm hoping to complete and publish some of the other draft posts I had written. Thanks for reading.