God Behaving Badly? Sexism & Misogyny

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February 15 2020
Author: Pastor Bill Henderson

It’s no secret that our contemporary culture often jumps on the band wagon driven by militant atheists and feminists: the God of the Bible is sexist and responsible for the loathing of women for the past two thousand years.

In fairness, it can be appreciated why this caricature persists just by reading through the Old Testament, even though from the very first chapter, four times in the space of two verses God affirms the co-equality of men and women in their dignity of personhood as image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:26-28). In other words, men as men and women as women were equally created God-like. As the Old Testament scholar David Lamb says, “The first thing that God says about women is that they are like him. Women are Godlike. (Men are also Godlike, but most men think that already).”

At our last Growth Group get together, as we were winding down our reflections on Numbers 1-11, wonderment was expressed about Numbers 12 for next week’s get together, and rightly so. From time to time in the Pentateuch and elsewhere there are socio-cultural conventions or happenings that appear to favour men over women as though God is sexist. So what about God’s judgment of Moses’ sister Miriam when his brother Aaron was spared? We wrestle with perplexing passages like this until we go deeper one passage at a time.

Let me assure you that in Numbers 12 there is no trace of divine sexism (God discriminating against Miriam on the basis of her gender). So why was Miriam afflicted with a skin disease when it was both she and her brother Aaron who had enviously carped and criticized Moses together (Num. 12:1-1)?

First, there are two grammatical clues in 12:1 that make a noteworthy distinction between these two siblings:

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman (TNL).

In this case, grammar shows that Miriam plays the principal and leading role in the criticism against Moses while Aaron plays a supportive role. Here’s why:

1) I notice the Hebrew verb translated “criticized” is in the feminine form. Verbs in Hebrew typically have a gendered suffix or ending that matches the subject of the verb, unlike English. So you can tell that while the author of Numbers uses Miriam and Aaron collectively as the subject of his sentence, this subject, by taking a feminine rather than masculine verb, indicates under inspiration that Miriam is the spokesperson for the two of them.
2) Also, the placement of Miriam’s name before Aaron’s at the beginning of this verse is no accident; this was the natural literary way to indicate that, of the two, Miriam was the leading sinner. In other words, she was the chief instigator. Both were to blame, but Miriam had greater responsibility for the initial criticism of 12:1, which was probably a smokescreen for the real criticism which challenged Moses’ unique God-given status and authority (12:2).

Unfortunately, since the advent of feminism the Bible has been subject to exceptional misunderstanding along gender lines. When it was published I read the best-selling book, “The God Delusion,” by the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, and he charges God with barbarity and misogyny (the hatred of females), plus a lot more. Regrettably, his discourteous and superficial reading of the Bible is misleading. But in fairness, like the present “Me Too” movement, feminism has its praiseworthy side! Men behave badly, and Scripture is against all female abuse, exploitation and injustice, and Christians should be thankful for feminism in one sense. But not in other senses. For example, because feminism is rooted in humanism (not theology) there has arisen a hyper-sensitivity about the presentation of moral failure or bad behaviour on the part women in the Bible, which gets red flagged as gender discrimination or even misogyny on God’s part. But in the case at hand, Miriam was not judged because she was a woman; she was judged because she was a sinner. And she was not judged cruelly or unfairly because her chastening was deserved and measured out by God who is perfect in righteousness and justice. Like Abraham affirmed: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).

Therefore, it was not unjust for God to extend more mercy to Aaron than Miriam. One might ask, “Even though Miriam was more to blame than Aaron in their sin of envy, wasn’t it unfair for God to judge her but not Aaron?” No explanation is given for why God spared Aaron on this occasion. Maybe Aaron’s role as High Priest was too valued by God, but who knows? The Bible doesn’t tell us. It does tell us that God does as only God can do: “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deut. 32:4).

Miriam’s chastening could have been much worse. God was very gracious to her. I was searching for where else God judicially afflicted people with skin-disease only to discover that King Azariah was afflicted until the day he died (2 Kings 15:5), as was King Uzziah (2 Chron. 21:15-19), and for Gehazi his affliction extended to his descendants (2 Kings 5:26-27). For Miriam it was only seven days (Num. 12:14). But we won’t allege that, comparatively speaking, therefore God must be guilty of discrimination against men, even misandry (the hatred of males). No, if God mercifully weighs the balance and spares someone it is never unjust. He has the right to temper his own justice towards whomever he will, such is the very nature of mercy. Ethically speaking, God’s mercy is non-justice (not giving what is deserved) but never injustice. Job tells us: “It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice” (Job 34:12). God revealed Himself to Abraham in a way that he did not to other pagans in the ancient world. He graciously appeared to the Apostle Paul when Paul was Saul, the terrorist, in a way that he did not to Judas Iscariot. God is His own interpreter. So if He ever appears to be unfair we know that it is not true, and we read more widely and go more deeply into the Bible always to discover the God who really is.

 

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