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Jesus, Patriarchy, and the Wellbeing of Women (Part 2 of 3)

Jesus, Patriarchy, and the Wellbeing of Women (Part 2 of 3) September 29, 2021

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(Read this series from its beginning here.)

toppling the patriarchy illustrated with chess pieces

In Mark’s narrative, Jesus appears to be anti-divorce. Id like to consider why. The divorce laws referenced are said to have been created because of patriarchal obstinance. Originally, a man could send away any of his wives for the slightest displeasure. But by the time we get to Mark’s gospel, Jesus opposes this kind of divorce, which left women in a male-centered society with little economic protections. Jesus’ opposition was rooted in mitigating harm for women facing little to no recognition, much less protection of their equal rights. So he argues that while men may have created a legal loophole to avoid committing “adultery,” they were not avoiding adultery but simply transforming it.

Verse 12 of this passage states, “And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” On the surface, this sentence seems to distract from Jesus’ opposition and critique of patriarchy, but I believe this sentence is present in Mark because this gospel was written for both Jewish and Roman Gentile Jesus communities. While under Israelite law only men had the right to divorce their wives, Roman marital law permitted divorce to be initiated by men and women..

I see this passage through a justice-for-women lens where Jesus is more concerned about the wellbeing of women who could be divorced and sent away from their homes with no economic protection within a patriarchal system that was tied to ones economic survival. Jesus’ primary concern was for women’s wellbeing, not the protection of a heterosexual, monogamist marital institution as many in certain sectors of evangelical Christianity define it today.

I also want to note that the story describes “some Pharisees.” There were two schools of Pharisaical interpretation in Jesus’ time: the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. These schools forcefully debated divorce.

As we interpret this passage, let’s acknowledge that interpretations of this passage are often deeply heterosexist. I reject binary interpretations of the Hebrew creation story, and both the Genesis story and Jesus’ words here are not “male or female,” but “male and female.” God created a spectrum: male on one end, female on the other, and a whole graduated spectrum in between these poles of identity. The phrase “Alpha and Omega” doesn’t imply that there are only two Greek letters; rather there are a whole alphabet between the first letter, Alpha, and Omega, the last. Each of us lives somewhere on the gender spectrum, identifying gender identity, sexual attraction, gender expression, etc., along that gradation. In the Hebrew creation story we read of the creation of day and night: not a hard binary but two ends of spectrum that can produce beautiful sunrises, sunsets, dawns, evenings, and twilights. These states are neither day nor night alone but somewhere on a spectrum between.

I also see Jesus’ phrase, “at the beginning of creation God made them male and female’” as stating that from the beginning God did not create patriarchy, but men did. In the Hebrew creation story, God creates male and female side by side, both in the image of God. The woman is not given to the man to continue his lineage as patriarchal social structures do, but both male and female (and the spectrum) bear the image in God equally. They are male and female: one body, one flesh, spread out by creation and combined again in equity to create another oneness, a commonality, a new social relationship, a new kinship.

Any time people join together to create a new kinship, we see this reunifying creativity at work. Being “flesh of one’s flesh” in the Hebrew scriptures is not about the sexual unity of one man and one woman. It’s about creating a new kinship bond between humans, making family from previously un-joined people. As Laban said to his nephew Jacob, “You are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (see Genesis 29:14, cf. 2 Samuel 5:1; Judges 9:2; 2 Samuel 19:12, 1 Chronicles 11:1).

I interpret Jesus as not being against divorce wholesale in this passage. Rather he’s against the patriarchal practice of his day that undermined the coupling and equality communicated in the Hebrew origin story and left a woman in his society with few means to survive. He is standing in the spirit of Malachi 2:16, also written again in a patriarchal context: ‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.”

Some translations of Malachi 2:16 do state “God hates divorce” but even if that is an accurate translation, I grew up witnessing multiple abusive parental relationships and I believe there are some marriages God hates more than divorce.

Mark’s narrative ends with one more consideration. We’ll discuss that next.

(Read Part 3)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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