Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Jacques B. Doukhan

The Woman or the Genesis of Man

Without the woman, the world would not be; without the woman, Israel would not be. The Jew not only exists thanks to his mother, who gave birth to him, but also because his mother is Jewish.

It is through his mother that the Jew naturally and biologically inherits not only his existence but also his Jewishness. One is Jewish, and his mother is Jewish. This tradition suggests how important women are in Israel. She is the one who determines the people and ensures their biological and spiritual survival. The Bible testifies to this vital role the woman plays in the destiny of mankind and, more specifically, in the sacred history of Israel.

We owe her life.

This is the first thought associated with the woman in the Bible: We owe her life. This message is given in the very name of Eve, the first woman in human history. Contrary to the name Adam, which is derived from the word adamah, meaning “earth” and “dust," and thus loaded with the perspective of death, the name Eve is derived from the word hay, meaning life. We see there the horizon of the multiplicity of men and women, all the humans who will populate the earth and give meaning to life: “Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). This mission of giving life was already suggested in the previous chapter, where the woman is defined as “help” (Genesis 2:20). From this verse, people religiously concluded that the woman had to limit herself to the role of “assistant.” The working market has “generously” reserved for her a whole field of assistant specializations: medical assistant, social assistant, assistant pastor, etc. Yet the Bible meant something else. According to recent philological and exegetical research, the Hebrew word ezer (help) means the help that is needed in cases of mortal danger. And in most cases, the word refers to God Himself (Psalms 33:20; 70:5; 121:1-2, etc.). Far from reducing the role of woman to that of subordinate, the use of the word ezer raised it instead to God’s level—who saves and gives life.

We owe her salvation.

But the role of a woman does not limit itself to that of the mother who gives birth. The future she carries is not just of a biological order. For the living will die, and to have generated them is not reason enough to exalt her. It is remarkable that the first biblical promise is channeled through a woman. It is from women that the redemption of mankind will germinate. Speaking to the serpent, who is the cause of the fall of the first couple, God includes in the curse a prophecy that concerns the woman: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed, he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). From then on, the woman will be a sign of hope, even in the metaphors that will be used to describe the announcement of redemption. In the Song of Songs, she embodies the expectation of the God who is coming; she represents human love for God and Messianic nostalgia. In the prophets, she is the woman in travail whose trembling evokes the anguish and the deliverance that characterize the Messianic Era. In the Apocalypse of the New Testament, she is successively the lover, the pregnant woman, and the mother, and she incapsulates all the nuances of the plan of salvation. Besides, the woman is chosen to represent the object par excellence of biblical hope: the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2).

We owe her an identity.

It is to the woman that man owes his first consciousness about himself. Thanks to the woman, man learns who he is, for she reflects his own image: “This is now the bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). It is not an accident that this lesson is given at the end of the story, which tells about man’s frustration towards the animals: “But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:20). Without the woman, a man was condemned to reflect himself in the animal. Without the woman, a man was bound to lose his identity. This is why, immediately after this confession, the biblical text calls on man to go out of himself and leave the place where he is in order to find himself: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Through women, man is confronted with difference and discovers a world beyond himself. It is this adventure that makes him become something other than himself, above himself, and thus, paradoxically, really himself. This truth is registered in the fact that the creation in the image of God, the imago Dei, implies the presence of the woman (Genesis 1:27). In other words, a man can be himself only with a woman. A community that is only made of men is a community that deprives man of his humanness and ultimately of his true identity. Man needs women not only to find himself but also to discover himself. Being confronted with the difference, man is then obliged to get out of himself, and as he discovers himself, he can fulfill himself at his best. This double function of the woman is recorded in the Hebrew expression "kenegdo," which is generally translated “comparable to him" (Genesis 2:18). This word, however, contains both the meanings of “like” (ke) and “against” (neged). Those two poles are given to men by women. The possibility of identification reassures him and comforts him, and the challenge of difference disturbs him and obliges him to grow up.

We owe her history.

This is why women play such an important role in biblical history. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word that renders the notion of history is toledoth, which means genealogy and refers to the stories of giving birth, thus implying directly and primarily the involvement of women. It is also true that at each turning point in sacred history stands a woman. From Eve, who affects definitively human history, to the wise woman of Tekoa, who counsels King David, and to Ruth, who runs all the risks to become the ancestor of the Messiah, there is always the same emphasis on the importance of women. Therefore, the woman receives in the biblical society all the charges and responsibilities. The Bible attests to the presence of women among the prophets: Miriam (Exodus 15:20), and even a false prophetess who is able to frighten the great Nehemiah (Nehemiah 6:14). Contrary to the general usage in the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew society had several woman leaders: judges (Judges 4:4), queens (2 Kings 11:3), and above all, “wise women” (2 Samuel 14:2 ff.; 20:16, etc.), who exerted a powerful influence on the course of events.

Furthermore, research in the domain of biblical anthropology has revealed the existence of a strong matriarchal trend along with traditional patriarchal tendencies. Women were involved even in the cultic domain. The Bible includes women in religious convocations (Nehemiah 8:2; 12:43) and also among those who serve at the door of the tabernacle (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22) or who sing in the temple (Ezra 2:65).

The man who reads the Bible therefore has no excuse. There he learns that he should respect the woman, and first of all, he finds there all the reasons to give back to her the place that has been hers since the creation of the world. It is only under these conditions of respect and attention that man will return to his original destiny and will bring with him the message of a new society where love and respect for differences will guarantee success in relationships between men and between men and women. On this accomplishment depends the success between all men and peace, the universal shalom, and ultimately the salvation of the world. As an ancient rabbi put it, “The continued existence of the world depends more on women than on men” (Pesiqta de Rav Kahane 9.1).

 

Image: "The Life and Age of Woman: Stages of a Woman's Life from the Cradle to the Grave," 1849. Public Domain

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