“Feminine Deception” and Gregory of Nyssa: An Advent Motif

Jael 2

While reading Joshua Torrey’s A Lying Spirit over the weekend, I began to ponder again Gregory of Nyssa’s view of the Incarnation and Atonement. The fit is quite natural, both considering “holy deception” (as Torrey calls it)—the former explaining and justifying, the latter applying to the cloaking of God in flesh.

Torrey reviews many examples of deception in the Bible, from God employing a lying spirit to deceive a wicked king, to Rahab’s concealment of the Hebrew spies in the City of Jericho, to Solomon’s baby splitting ruse, in each case quoting the approval God and the commendation of Biblical authors. The book itself is set against the backdrop of Project Veritas’s recent public outing of Planned Parenthood’s wicked and disgusting practices. Deception was plainly used in gaining access to the facilities and employees, earning their confidence and gathering information. The question is, were these methods Biblically justifiable? Torrey answers, “yes.” He bases this not only on many in-kind Biblical examples, but in particular on the apparent narrative theme of deception used to despoil the Deceiver, all in order to save life, subvert the forces of injustice, and further God’s own historical redemptive program.

But of most interest to me, relative to Gregory of Nyssa, is Torrey’s observation that,

The Scripture provides a pretty interesting undercurrent of feminine deception in response to the authority of men. (p. 9)

It is clear from the context that Torrey is neither implying that there is something feminine about deception, nor that there is anything inherently deceptive in femininity; rather, he is simply noting how often in God’s providence, “female use of deception helps to undermine male unfaithfulness to God,” as found throughout the pages of the Old Testament (p. 18).

“Feminine Deception”

Rebekah and Isaac

Rebekah mimics the right feel, the right smell, and the right pot of stew to convince her aged, blind, and epicurean husband Isaac that Jacob was in fact Esau, thereby insuring that the blessing of the first born would be procured by the younger Jacob. This is blatant deception. The Scripture gives us no moral appraisal of her actions, but what we do see in the narrative is Rebekah’s faith in the promise of God that “the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23), while her husband remained faithful to the attainment of “savory food” (27:4), which his eldest son could provide.

Tamar and Judah

Tamar was the daughter in law of Judah, from whom Messiah would come. She had been given to one of Judah’s sons and then to another, both having been executed by God for denying her offspring.  Judah, fearing Tamar was the cause of their judgements, then refused to give her to his next son, violating God’s Law meant to ensure godly Covenant seed. Tamar took matters into her own hands, disguised herself as a prostitute, and lured Judah in by means of his wicked lusts. Judah apparently had no idea who she was. She was then found with Judah’s child, leaving Judah enraged for her treachery, until she successfully proved that it was in fact his child. Clearly the prostitution and fornication are condemned by God; but again, the moral appraisal of her deceit is left unclear. All we are left with is Judah’s acknowledgement that “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son” (Gen. 38:26).

The Hebrew Midwives and Pharaoh

After many years of slavery, the Egyptians having forgotten Joseph, the Pharaoh began to fear the strength and multiplicity of the outcast Hebrew people. His solution was to instruct the Hebrew midwives to kill every male Hebrew as soon as they were born. But the midwives disobeyed this order, refusing to kill the infants. When the Pharaoh asked why they had not been following his orders, they lied and said, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them” (Ex. 1:19). In this case we are given a moral appraisal: “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty. And so it was, because the midwives feared God, that He provided households for them” (Ex. 1:20-21). (As a side note, this is a slam dunk for Torrey’s aim re: Planned Parenthood.)

Rahab and the King of Jericho

This is certainly the most discussed example of (presumably) “holy deception” found in the Scripture. As Israel began their conquest of Canaan, the first great city they were to conquer was Jericho, a great walled city. Spies were sent in by Joshua for reconnaissance and were discovered by the guards of the city. Rahab, a prostitute, hid the spies in her home. When the king of Jericho sent messengers to Rahab, requiring that she bring out the spies, she replies,

“Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.” (Josh. 2:4-5)

This is as clear a lie as one could imagine. Many have argued that Rahab’s lie was in fact sinful, though her other saving actions were just. But all that she accomplished for the spies hinged on this lie. There would be no preservation of the spies without it. And so we read in James: “was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (Jas. 2:25), and in the great hall of faith: “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (Heb. 11:31).

Jael and Sisera

In Judges 4, we read of the prophetess Deborah who is called by God to judge the children of Israel whom He had placed under the hand of the Canaanite king Jabin. Deborah calls Barak to command the armies of Israel to go out against Jabin’s general Sisera, in order to deliver God’s people. Barak is too fearful to go to war without Deborah’s presence, and so Deborah declares to Barak, “there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (v. 9). After Barak (with Deborah) routes the Canaanite army, Sisera the general flees to the home of Heber the Kenite, an ally of Jabin. Heber’s wife Jael meets Sisera, makes him comfortable, gives him some milk, and gives him a nice place to rest. He is in fact so comfortable that he falls to sleep, at which point Jael drives a tent stake through his head. Barak receives his victory through the hands of Jael, a woman, just as Deborah had prophesied. “Most blessed among women is Jael,” sings Deborah in the next chapter (5:24).

Eve and the Seed of the Woman

The backdrop of all this deception is the first and most infamous deception, the deception by the Devil in the Garden of Eden. And this must be emphasized: Eve was indeed deceived by the Devil. It was not that she stepped out from under her husband’s authority, making a rash decision on her own terms (as suggested by so called “Christian” Patriarchy); it was not that Adam failed to exercise his dominion, leaving her weak, unaided, and unable to overcome (as suggested by many Complementarians); and it was not that the entirety of potential consequences and the full meaning of her rebellion were plainly laid before her, and she nevertheless consciously chose to reject God and His authority in toto (as implied by many Van Tillians). No, the Apostle Paul says that Eve was “deceived” (1 Tim. 2:14). “Yes,” said the Devil in not so many words, “we know that God is in charge, is the Creator, and is overall a pretty good guy. But He’s keeping you from one thing that you would really enjoy. And the consequence of enjoying it won’t be so bad—you won’t actually die the day you eat it. I mean, don’t you want to be like God? It must be that He doesn’t want you to achieve your holy calling for some reason.”

(To be sure, doing evil in response to deception leaves one just as culpable as any other reason. The heart is exposed when one gives in to the lust of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life in response to temptation. The same is true even with holy deception. Wicked Ahab believed the prophets moved by the lying spirit in 1 Kings 22 because they said what he wanted to hear. Isaac fell for Rebekah’s ruse because he was blinded by his lust for delicacies. Judah was exposed by Tamar because of his fornicating heart. Etc.)

Following this primordial deception, God comes in judgement to all involved—Adam, Eve, and the Devil. He tells Satan,

“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.” (Gen. 3:15)

By God ordained enmity between the seed of Eve and the seed of the Devil, the great Deceiver will be crushed. And in each case of “holy deception” discussed above, it was the preservation of this seed of the woman that was accomplished. Rebekah’s deception ensured that Jacob, the chosen one of God, would become the covenant conduit through which the Head Crusher would come. Both Rebekah and Jacob are to be found in the genealogy of Christ, along with Tamar and Rahab. And like Rebekah, Tamar’s deception of Judah ensured the continuance of Covenant seed, leading from Judah to the Messiah prophesied to come from him. The Hebrew midwives, though not themselves in the physical seed line of Christ, were nevertheless essential to the preservation of the Covenant seed. And Rahab, through her deception of the Jericho guards, was instrumental to the conquest of Canaan, preserving the seed-become-nation of Israel.

Last, we come to Jael. She, like the midwives and Rahab, was used by God to preserve the seed. But even more is said of her in Deborah’s song found in Judges 5. When Deborah sings of Jael, the Spirit gives both allusions pointing backward to the post deception Garden promise, and allusions pointing forward to the last woman in Christ’s genealogy. We read,

“Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked for water and she gave him milk;
she brought him curds in a noble’s bowl.
She sent her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his temple.
Between her feet
he sank, he fell, he lay still;
between her feet
he sank, he fell;
where he sank,
there he fell—dead.” (Jdgs 5:24-27)

We see both a typical fulfillment of the promise given to Eve—a crushing of the enemy’s head at the feet—as well as an allusion looking forward to her through whom the Head Crusher would be born, the Virgin Mary. As Deborah sings of Jael, so Elizabeth exclaims to Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk. 1:42)

Gregory of Nyssa on the Incarnation

But what possibly could “an undercurrent of feminine deception” have to do with Mary, the mother of our Lord? This is what brought to mind Gregory of Nyssa. In his work, The Great Catechism, he proposes a truly awful explanation of the Atonement. Gregory believed that the death of Christ was a sufficient ransom paid to the Devil himself. Through the deception of Adam and Eve, the Devil had successfully enslaved mankind. So, God offered an exchange: the greatest of all men for the rest of mankind. According to plan, the Son of God came hidden in human flesh, not allowing His true person to be known. He lived a perfect life, wrought the greatest of miracles, and showed Himself to be the greatest of all men. The Devil was so enticed by this one man, that he was willing to free the whole of mankind in exchange for Him.

But, unbeknownst to the Devil, he had swallowed a poison pill by taking the man; for this man was also true God. We read in Gregory,

[I]n order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish , the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active. (Ch. 24)

Thus, death itself is destroyed by smuggling Divine cargo into the house of death, and the Devil is thereby routed. Gregory explains that the cosmic justice of this method of Atonement is to be found in the adequacy of the payment, and the equity of catching the Devil in his own wiles:

That repayment, adequate to the debt, by which the deceiver was in his turn deceived, exhibits the justice of the dealing. […] [H]e who practised deception receives in return that very treatment, the seeds of which he had himself sown of his own free will. He who first deceived man by the bait of sensual pleasure is himself deceived by the presentment of the human form. But as regards the aim and purpose of what took place, a change in the direction of the nobler is involved; for whereas he, the enemy, effected his deception for the ruin of our nature, He Who is at once the just, and good, and wise one, used His device, in which there was deception, for the salvation of him who had perished. (Ch. 26)

Now I, of course, completely reject that any payment was made to the Devil, as does the entirety of the Western Church. I also do not believe that the Devil was literally deceived, for even his demonic minions declared, “I know who you are!” Nor am I sure that the cloaking of the Son of God in flesh was deception proper; it is the Devil’s own seeds of corruption that catch him. But there is certainly reason to see this “undercurrent of feminine deception” as a literary motif, beginning with the first deception in the Garden, typically overturned through important female seed preserving deceptions in the Old Testament, and concluding with a final deception of the Deceiver himself by means of the last woman in the genealogy of the Christ.

We see some evidences of this in the New Testament (as well as the Old). First, we see a whole class of passages that speak of the unrecognizability of the Son of God in His flesh. For example,

[W]ho, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)

Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
[…] He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him. (Isa. 53:1-2)

His flesh is even likened to the veil that covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, that no man but the High Priest could enter:

Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh[.] (Heb. 10:19-20)

And there are dozens of passages wherein Christ attempts to conceal His true nature from those around Him, even stopping the mouth of devils who knew who He was. The unbelieving world saw Him as only a man, even if a great wonder working man:

He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 16:13-17)

And more,

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor. 2:7-8)

And last, we read in highly apocalyptic language of the events of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Ascension as viewed from Heaven:

Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.  His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Rev. 12:1-9)

What do we see here but the Devil waiting expectantly to devour the Seed of the woman? But the Child is caught up to the throne of God to rule the nations, while the Devil and his angels were routed and cast to the Earth. Rather than gaining victory at the feet of the woman, he instead found his defeat.

An Advent Conclusion

As I consider the coming of our Lord (the Christ, the promised Seed of the woman) this Advent season, this “undercurrent of feminine deception” will definitely be playing through my mind. Not because I am 100% on board that “holy deception” is a normative Biblical category; nor because I have any sympathies for Gregory of Nyssa’s Atonement theology; but rather because of the obvious (to me) and powerful literary motif of “holy deception” running through the full arc of Redemptive History.

The story begins in the Garden of Eden, wherein Adam and Eve are deceived by the Devil, plunging they and all their posterity into ruin. But God pronounces a curse on the Devil, declaring that the seed of the woman would crush his head. Then at multiple critical points throughout the progression of this seed line, God providentially employs women to preserve it, destroying its powerful enemies. Then comes the last woman in this line, the Virgin Mary, the mother of the true and final Seed, our Lord Jesus Christ. And through her, God Himself is clothed and veiled in flesh, hidden from the eyes and understanding of the fallen world, and is crucified. Has the Devil won? Has the Deceiver of the Nations been successful with his deception? God forbid! Rather, Christ is then “declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4)!

And I will likewise keep in mind the great courage, intelligence, and covenant faithfulness of the women through whom God sent His Son, the Seed, the Head Crusher, and the Savior of the world.

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

11 thoughts on ““Feminine Deception” and Gregory of Nyssa: An Advent Motif

  1. Barbara Roberts December 15, 2017 / 6:50 pm

    Deep stuff here Brad.
    I pretty much see all this the way you see it.

    I’m not sure what ‘a normative biblical category’ means, but I think the Bible DOES endorse the use of deception in order to do any of the following:
    — despoil the Deceiver
    — protect the lives of the vulnerable and the righteous
    — subvert the forces of injustice
    — further God’s own historical redemptive program.
    … especially if deception is the only tactic which will work.

    If that were not the case, we would have to say that it was wrong for Corrie Ten Boom and her family to hide Jews from the Nazis. We’d have to say that was wrong for the Allies to camouflage their tanks and their soldiers during WW2. And we’d have to say that it’s a sin for a country to use espionage to gather intelligence about an enemy country.

    There are many applications of the principle of holy deception when one is dealing with domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is pretty much domestic terrorism. The victim is married to (or trying to get free from) her spouse whose conduct is equivalent to the conduct of an enemy. She often has to hide her whereabouts or lie about her actions or withhold details from her abuser. And to protect her safety she often has to send out signals that will deceive her abuser — put him off the scent of what she is really thinking and feeling and planning to do.

    I also believe that the Bible gives many narrative examples of godly women using deception because women generally have less social power than men, and men can be very wicked when they have a lot of power. To carve a path through those dangers, godly women often have to use deception. If they sought justice and safety using the methods men can easily use (the nation’s justice system, etc) there is an automatic bias against women.

    The systems in society privilege men (especially wicked men) and under-privilege women. Sometimes women are not even allowed to use a system which men are allowed to use. (e.g. Saudi Arabia until very recently did no allow any woman to drive a car)
    And even if the society allows women to use the systems men can use, in practice many of those systems do not help godly women nearly as much as they help wicked men.

    So godly women often know that they must use deception if they are to achieve justice and protect the vulnerable. Abigail going against Nabal’s directive is another example…


    • Joshua Torrey December 16, 2017 / 1:40 pm

      Great stuff Barabara. If I get the chance, I’d love to re-visit the excurse on Genesis and deception into a full-blown book on how God has gifted deception to the downtrodden. In particular, Scriptural examples of unfaithful men being subverted through deception by faithful women.


      • Barbara Roberts December 16, 2017 / 3:09 pm

        I love that idea of yours for a second book, Joshua! I’ve had that idea myself, but if you do it before me that’s fine! I have so many ideas I need to write about, and my greatest fear is that may never get them all down before I leave this mortal body. Feel free to email me if you want to chew things over. My address is in the ABOUT tab at the A Cry For Justice blog.


    • Den Drouillard October 29, 2020 / 12:46 pm

      My heart breaks for anyone today who is forced to struggle to survive under the knee of this world’s oppressive way’s.

      God doesn’t dwell in temples made by men’s hands
      He dwells in temples made by women’s labor pains


  2. sean December 16, 2017 / 6:07 am

    It’s instructive that the law is not an abstract construct able to be pulled out of it’s covenantal context. I understand not bearing false witness within the context of God’s giving it within a covenantal arrangement. Nowhere am I free to understand and apply God’s law apart from it’s covenantal context and the one who gave it. God himself isn’t held to an abstraction of His law. He is above the law, and we are engaged with him under it in specific relationship. That He is consistent with his law is his goodness but we don’t get to bring God into *the dock* and evaluate His performance. On the flip side, the attempt to parlay *deception* examples into our own experience is, again, another attempt to rip a specific RH interaction from it’s particular(covenantal) engagement and make application to our distinct experience. This is illegitimate. God is free, but not absolutely free(inconsistent with His nature) and we are limited and constrained in our specific covenant relationship in our responses. None of this is an attempt to explain away God’s *apparent* inconsistency but to remember that the Law is not above God and we don’t understand our ethical imperatives apart from the one who gives the imperatives and it’s His interpretation and use that gives meaning to His commandments not our abstractions of the same. So, in a related example, I don’t *follow Jesus*(WWJD) in that I’m not the son of God in a redemptive covenant with the Father by which I fulfill a messianic mission. Jesus’ path is not mine in that very real sense. Application to me is found elsewhere in NT instruction.


  3. Barbara Roberts December 16, 2017 / 3:33 pm

    Responding to Sean where he said—
    ” … I’m not the son of God in a redemptive covenant with the Father by which I fulfill a messianic mission. Jesus’ path is not mine in that very real sense. Application to me is found elsewhere in NT instruction.”

    This is a very important point. Thanks Sean!
    Allow me to take it a little further.

    There is a widespread notion in ‘c’hristian circles that we should use Jesus’s life as a model for our own lives in every respect, including sacrificing ourselves for the *redemption* of others.

    The R word (redeem) is being used by many teachers today to mean any improvement at all… They say we must ‘redeem’ the culture, ‘redeem’ marriage, ‘redeem’ the abusers and wolves in sheep’s clothing who are devouring and then spitting out the vulnerable members of the visible church…. I could go on and on but you get my point.

    This notion greatly harms victims of domestic abuse. We (I’m a survivor of domestic abuse and child sexual abuse) get told we must redeem our marriages, redeem our relationships with our abusers. Or we get told that God can redeem those things so we just have to pray, stay, wait, have faith, be patient, *display the covenant-keeping love of God*, etc. etc.

    This teaching is very very wrong. It lays immense burdens on the victims …and in domestic abuse most of the adult victims are women.

    But if you look at Ephesians 5 you see that the it is the husband’s role to we willing to sacrifice himself for his wife, not the other way round.

    So, Sean, while I agree with your statement which I quoted above, Eph 5 does make one application to men to serve and sacrifice themselves for their wives. Not that a man can atone for his wife’s sins, but a husband is called to follow the path of Jesus (the WWJD model) in a way that wives are not specifically called to do to.


  4. sean December 16, 2017 / 5:05 pm

    Thanks, Barbara I’m familiar with others who have been through abuse similar to yours and the toll is terrible. As a husband I feel my role is mainly one of sacrifice whether I like it or not. Both toward my wife and child. I don’t generally imagine that I’m following Jesus while I’m doing it(though maybe this will serve as a helpful reminder)but that this is just the nature of the role I’ve taken on. I’m fortunate to have a wife that is happy to have me fill a traditional role in our marriage and I can’t imagine doing it another way. But again, this has been largely formed by the model I had in my father and family life and that it happens to dovetail into how Paul affirms the marriage relationship is an example of even God’s common grace toward me and others.


  5. Alastair Roberts December 17, 2017 / 8:07 am

    The deception theme is huge in the Old Testament. I’ve written on this in several places. To the (positive) examples you mention, you could add Sarai with Pharaoh and Abimelech, Rebekah with Abimelech, Rachel with Laban, Michal and Saul, and Esther and Haman. The use of deceptive weakness is also seen in the story of the plaguing of the Philistines by the captured Ark following the Battle of Aphek, the story of captured Samson (again in the House of Dagon), or perhaps also the story of David in the land of the Philistines, first feigning madness, then feigning loyalty to the Philistines, while killing them. Jacob also has a number of deception narratives, not least his deception of Esau concerning the stew, which is set up as a sort of Fall narrative.

    On the subject of Eve’s deception, it is important to notice how she was deceived and why she could be deceived, and why Adam couldn’t. Notice that the commandment concerning the tree was given only to Adam and that, every time God refers to it later, he refers to it as something given to Adam in particular, and applying to him in particular (see the singular pronouns in Genesis 3:11 and 3:17). Adam was set in the Garden as the priest, who had a duty to uphold and teach the divinely given law. Eve could be deceived because she was relying upon secondhand information. The serpent played off what she had been told directly (1:29) against what she had learned only secondhand from Adam. The Fall was Adam’s in particular because he was the priest who was particularly responsible and, rather than teach and protect Eve, he listened to her over God.


    • Sam Powell December 18, 2017 / 8:36 am

      Hi, Alastair. I normally do everything I possibly can to stay out of internet discussion, especially those of a theological nature, but Barbara asked me for my thoughts on your comment. Thank you for it.
      I agree in substance with what you said about Adam and Eve, but I think we must be careful not to go beyond scripture.
      I am not big on referring to Adam as a “priest” as opposed to Eve. I agree that the only way she could have heard God’s word is through Adam, but by using the term “priest” for Adam, you open the door to some very unbiblical teaching about current marriages. I reject the idea that the husband is set as a mediator between his wife and God. I cannot see how that does not usurp the place of Christ alone. It seems to me that those circles who refer to the husband as the priest of his family are simply making hundreds of mini-popes. The answer of the Reformation is that Christ alone is our great high priest, and we are members of Christ by faith and thus partakers of his anointing. Therefore, all who have faith – husbands and wives – are “priests” in that sense, offering themselves as living sacrifices, and having direct access “through the veil” according to Hebrews.
      By referring to Adam as a priest over Eve, you seem to be saying that this is normative and God’s created order, that he only speaks to women and blesses women through the mediation of the husband. I don’t like that thought.
      The Heidelberg Catechism puts the cause of the sin and misery of mankind “in the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in paradise.” The Reformers avoided attempting to make a sharp divide between the two in the fall. Just an interesting note.
      This is why I generally don’t like to speculate on passages and say more from them than is actually there. To me, a priest is an office that is necessary because of sin. Before the fall, there was no sin, and Eve also walked directly with God as a covenant creature in his image. Genesis 1:26-27 must govern the interpretation of Genesis 2.
      Just my two bits, for what they are worth.


      • Alastair Roberts December 18, 2017 / 1:51 pm

        Thanks for the response, Sam.

        To your points:

        1. There is a danger of going beyond Scripture, but there is also a danger of failing to join dots that are right before us. The Garden of Eden is presented as the prototypical sanctuary, the place where God dwells in the midst of his people. As scholars such as G.K. Beale have argued in considerable detail, the text of Genesis sets it up as such, and various parts of the rest of Scripture develop the connection. Adam is established in the Garden in a unique way, as the person appointed to guard and to serve it, the same two terms used of the Levitical ministry. He is given the divine commandment and the instruction concerning the holy food. His ministry is a priestly one.

        2. Any problems that might be caused by this result chiefly from the careless or imprecise use of the term ‘priest’ in broader contexts. Understandings of the priest as a ‘mediator’, popular in many Reformed circles, really don’t help here. The priest is rather the palace servant of the Lord. He guards the boundaries of the temple, performs its ministry, and represents the authority of the Lord to those within his Master’s household. As a member of the divine council, speaking on behalf of the people to the council and on behalf of the council to the people, the prophet is more like a mediator.

        3. The way that we draw lines between the situation of Genesis 2 and contemporary marriages also needs to be considered carefully. Frankly, I am a little frustrated that you would so readily jump to statements like the following: ‘By referring to Adam as a priest over Eve, you seem to be saying that this is normative and God’s created order, that he only speaks to women and blesses women through the mediation of the husband.’ This is quite the leap, one that makes a host of undeclared assumptions about the meaning of priesthood, the way I connect the situation of Adam and Eve with men and women in general, etc. As long as people so consistently assume the meanings of the terms, the import of concepts, and specific connection between teaching and application, it will be incredibly difficult to handle Scripture carefully and attentively, rather than merely reading our prejudices back into it. One of the problems we face is that people, wary or protective of certain applications, fail to pay close attention to the text. On issues of men and women, the text of Genesis 1-3 really isn’t going to colour within most people’s lines. Rather, we need to reconsider our understandings based on greater attention to what it says.

        4. There are a number of important things to be noticed here. In particular, Adam is given his priestly role before Eve comes on the scene. He is made the priest of the Garden, not primarily the priest to his wife (this is one reason why the proper definition of priesthood matters). When Eve comes onto the scene, she must recognize and submit to Adam’s priestly authority, because God has appointed him. However, Adam’s priestly authority is primarily oriented out into the realm of the Garden, rather than over his wife. Eve is not given the same priestly office, but as someone placed within the Garden with him, she is included in the things that Adam must guard and serve.

        5. How does this relate to marriage? First, we must recognize that Genesis 2 is about a lot more than merely marriage. Genesis 2 is about the continuation and completion of God’s creative work within the world and the means God establishes for achieving this. It is about humanity’s labour within the world. It is about the different reasons for the creation of man and woman. And then it is also about marriage, but that shouldn’t eclipse the rest. Second, Adam and Eve are paradigmatic, but they are also protological and sui generis. Adam doesn’t just stand for every husband, but also stands for all humanity, and for every male. Third, we must recognize that the Garden of Eden isn’t just the family home, but is the divine sanctuary, the place where God walks in the midst of his people, the navel of the earth. Taking these things into account, though, there still remain ways in which the priestly duty of Adam has broader application to men in particular. Men are responsible for upholding the boundaries of society and authority within it in an especial way, and for ministering to the life that is formed within society. God created men stronger than women socially and physically, not least in order that they might perform this duty for the sake of others. The biblical teaching is not that the man should be the head, but simply that he is it. Within the family, this won’t be a matter of the husband acting as mediator for his wife, but of his establishing and maintaining the moral form of the family’s life. He is the one who particularly represents direct authority in the life of the family. To act well as husband and father, he must use his particular natural capacities to uphold righteousness as the principle of his family’s life and must minister to and serve those within his family. This is not a matter of exercising authority over his wife, but of representing authority and upholding righteous order within his family for the sake of all of its members. When he fails to play his part, or, even worse, exercises it sinfully, everyone else is weakened. When he acts well, his wife is strengthened by him.

        6. Getting into the issue of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ would get us a little off course here. Suffice it to say that neither the New Testament nor the Old Testament (where the concept also surfaces in various forms) flattens out all believers. Structures of ministry and authority remain. And the notion of priesthood is a complicated one, with a grammar of its own. Among other things, it is not an individualistic priesthood, but a universal participation in the priesthood of Christ. And this participation is not one in which everyone is interchangeable, but is lived out in the context of the body of Christ and its particular ministries. Yes, it does put an end to intermediation, but not to mediation tout court (although this is not primarily a point about men and women).

        7. I would like to see you substantiate your claim about the Reformers. I disagree. And, more to the point, the Scripture makes clear distinctions between them. The Heidelberg Catechism refers to the fall and disobedience of Adam and Eve as the source of our corrupt nature. This makes sense, because it is a point about the spread of the sinful nature through natural generation, rather than being a point of Adam as the head of the race. However, when it talks about the lostness of humanity, it attributes that to Adam in particular, juxtaposing him with Christ (Lord’s Day 7). The distinction between Adam and Eve is even more apparent in documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith. And these documents are only following Scripture in this regard.

        8. Again, if we study the concept of the priest and sacrifice more carefully, we will discover that they needn’t presuppose sin. God’s temple still needed an appointed steward. There still needed to be symbolic means of approaching and enjoying fellowship with God. Sacrifice isn’t just about dealing with sin, but is about drawing near more generally. Christ does away with certain forms of sacrifice, while retaining others (such as the thanksgiving sacrifice).

        9. Genesis 1:26-27 isn’t as free-standing and clear as many would like it to be. Modern readers of the passage typically read their assumptions into it. In particular, they operate with the rather modern assumption that the individual is the fundamental unit of humanity and reason that the point of Genesis 1:26-27 is that every individual, male and female, is the image of God in the same way. It isn’t so simple, though. Genesis 1:26-27 should indeed be read in relation to Genesis 2, but bear in mind that Genesis 2 is the fuller text, helping us to flesh out the meaning of the earlier text. So, for instance, reading the threefold parallelism of Genesis 1:26-27 in dialogue with Genesis 2 suggests that God created humanity in his image, creating Adam, the first and paradigmatic man (and male) in his image, then establishing a disjunction in humanity, establishing humanity as male and female. This isn’t the creation of a lot of individuals, but the creation of a kind, a head of that kind, and then a gendered differentiation.

        The concept of ‘image’ attaches itself in a more particular way to Adam (and to an extent also to men). Adam is the one created in the image of God, who begets sons in his own image and likeness (Genesis 5:1-3). ‘Image’ is a concept that finds its primary home in the father-son relationship (observe the way that it is applied to Christ, for instance). We all bear the ‘image’ of our father Adam (1 Corinthians 15:49), note, not the image of Adam and Eve. The son is the ‘image’ of the father, symbolizing his authority and rule. While all humanity participates in the image, the image is focused in Adam and especially re-presented in men. The consequence of this is not that women are less than men (in part because the modern assumption of the commensurability of all persons isn’t one shared by Scripture): the attentive reader will come to appreciate that different concepts are focused upon them. This point scandalizes modern readers who believe that the dignity of human beings must rest upon an individualistic and democratic understanding of the concept of the image of God. Many might jump to the conclusion that any challenge to their beliefs about the image of God are a direct assault upon the dignity of certain classes of human beings. However, once again, the Bible isn’t colouring within our tidy modern lines. Working out how to relate all of this to contemporary questions requires a little more careful and patient work from us.

        I won’t have time to follow this comment up with any further ones, so I’ll leave you to have the final words. Thanks again for the interaction!


  6. Barbara Roberts December 18, 2017 / 4:34 pm

    I’m very unimpressed with Alastair’s reply to Sam: he says many things (Alastair is almost always long-winded!) and then he says he won’t interact any more here. And then he thanks Sam for the ‘interaction’ … which comes across to me a flippant and insincere ‘thank you’.

    I agree with everything Sam said.
    In my view, Alastair is being presumptuous in the way he joins all his dots.

    Alastair is wrong on several counts in what he says here about the pre-fall garden:
    “God’s temple still needed an appointed steward. There still needed to be symbolic means of approaching and enjoying fellowship with God.”

    Genesis 1 – “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” If we are happy to use the term ‘appointed steward’ then clearly that job was given jointly to “them” – the man and the woman who Genesis 2 describes.

    Gen 2:15 — “the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”
    It’s presumptuous to assert that God’s temple *needed* an appointed steward. Do you know the mind of God, Alastair? It is just as plausible to imagine that God gave the man the task of cultivating and keeping the garden because He knew that would be a blessing to the man: it would help him be happy. Anyone who enjoys gardening knows the happiness of cultivating and keeping a garden!

    Verse 18 shows that there was only one need, one thing which was lacking at that point: “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.’ ”

    Gen 3:8a — “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, ”
    Most if not all commentators believe that this indicates that prior to the Fall man and the woman enjoyed sweet, unafraid, unashamed communion with God in the garden. Alastair is going right against scripture to assert that “There still needed to be symbolic means of approaching and enjoying fellowship with God.”

    Before the Fall, NO symbolic means of approaching and enjoying fellowship with God was necessary.


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