How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The breasts of Jesus and some other suspect egalitarian arguments

Read time: 6 minutes

I am all in favour of a biblical egalitarianism grounded in the conviction that the people of God as new creation does not need to live under the curse of patriarchy. I don’t think that under Christ the man is mandated to rule over the woman or that the woman is relegated to the position of mere helper. I warmly endorse Daniel Kirk’s chapter on the place of women in the story of God in his book Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? I think “headship” in Paul is not a metaphor for the authority of one person over another or others, and that Paul’s requirement that women should learn and not teach is a response to practical contextual problems. I also disagree strongly with John Piper that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel”.

However, not every egalitarian argument is a good one. In the interests of fairness, therefore, I will mention four here that I think are unreliable. The first two come from a post by Daniel Kirk called “Imaging the Biblical God“—a response to John Piper’s now notorious remarks—which has also been published in the Christians for Biblical Equality newsletter. The second two I was reminded of recently in a sermon that promoted the complementarian position and have been meaning to mention them.

1. God of the breasts? Sadly not

In his post Daniel argues, first, that the account of the creation of male and female in Genesis 1 points both to an egalitarian understanding of God and an egalitarian understanding of humanity:

…it is not merely as humans that we reflect God together as male and female, but as those who rule over the world as male and female we bear the image of God. The kind of rule God has in mind is not a “masculine” rule, but a masculine plus feminine, male plus female, rule. Only this kind of shared participation in representing God’s reign to the world is capable of doing justice to the God whose image we bear.

This seems to me to be exactly right, at least as far as Genesis 1 goes. But then he goes on to highlight a couple of obscure, and admittedly intriguing, texts where both God and Jesus appear to be described as having female breasts.

The first passage is Genesis 49:25, which is part of Jacob’s blessing of Joseph:

…by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb.

Daniel seems to read the last clause as meaning that God is presented as one who has breasts and a woman, reinforced by the fact that “Almighty” (shaddai) and “breasts” (shadayim) sound very similar. The argument, then, is not simply that feminine imagery is used for God—there is nothing controversial about that—but that the name “God Almighty” could mean something close to “God of the breasts”.

Appealing as that may sound, for good reasons and bad, I think it is a misreading of the verse, which is saying only that Joseph, who is a “fruitful bough” (49:22), will be blessed with fertility and numerous descendants. The “breasts and womb” of his family will be blessed. This is even clearer in the Septuagint: “my God helped you, and he blessed you with a blessing of heaven above and a blessing of earth containing everything, for the sake of a blessing of breasts and of womb”. As Daniel points out, the God who is El Shaddai says to Jacob, “be fruitful and multiply”. The blessing of Joseph simply transmits that promise. There may be an associated play on words, but the verse does not ascribe the breasts and womb to God.

The breasts of Jesus? Doubtful

Daniel notes that in Revelation 1:13 Jesus, as “one like a son of man”, is said to have a golden sash around his mastoi. Elsewhere in the Greek Bible mastoi always refers to a woman’s “breasts”. Josephus uses the word to describe two “hills” (War, which would lend support to Daniel’s argument about the God of mountains, perhaps. But it is not unheard of for the word to be used for men. In Testament of Solomon 9:4 a male demon claims to see through his nipples (mastōn); and in Diodorus Siculus 1.72.5, in an account of a royal funeral, we find: “wrapping strips of linen cloth below their breasts (mastōn), women as well as men went about in groups of two or three hundred”. BDAG has as the first meaning “one of the mammillae, of a male, nipple”. So I don’t think it can be regarded as certain that Jesus is described as having a woman’s breasts.

Head as “source”? Definitely not

In an attempt to deal with the complementarian argument about male headship, egalitarians have sometimes promoted the view that the “head” metaphor in Hellenistic Greek could denote the “source” of something. C.K. Barrett in his commentary on 1 Corinthians claims that Herodotus uses kephalai for the sources of a river: “The heads of the river Tearos supply the best and finest water of all rivers” (A Commentary on The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 248). But this misunderstands how metaphors work. In this context “heads” refers to the beginning of the river, the furthest point upstream. The furthest point of the river is naturally also the location of the source of the river—that’s how rivers work. But this does not mean when used metaphorically “head” generally means “source”. It denotes the furthest or most prominent part of something, and in a limited number of cases that will be the source. But the connotation cannot be carried over into other contexts. Those who argue that “head” signifies “having authority over” make exactly the same mistake.

Be submissive to one another? No, but…

Paul urges the Ephesians not to get drunk, to sing Christian songs, to give thanks for everything, and to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ”. He then instructs wives to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22), children to obey their parents (6:1), and servants to obey their earthly masters (6:5). Egalitarians would like to think that Paul is advocating mutual submission, but this seems unlikely. In the three categories of relationship that follow submission or obedience is in one direction only, which suggests that “to one another” means “according to the relationships of inequality that prevail amongst you”. However, I think Paul’s language does push us to ask why such submission is enjoined:

The particular emphasis of verse 21 extends into verse 22, where the omission of the verb indicates quite strongly, I think, that subordination within the household is more an accepted fact than a deliberate objective, and that it is rather the indirect object (‘to their own husbands’) and in particular the manner of subordination (‘as to the Lord’) that are of primary concern to Paul. So his argument is not, ‘Be subordinate rather than equal or independent’ but ‘Be subordinate as to the Lord, rather than resentfully or from some less worthy motive’. He is not teaching them to be subordinate but how to deal with the subordination that society generally expected of them. Norbert Baumert… says, ‘The actual ethical-theological statement of the apostle is probably: “accept the position appropriate to you under the contemporary circumstances”.’[fn]Andrew Perriman, Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, 1998, 53.[/fn]

On the OT references, as the comments ferreted out a bit more, wordplay can be as telling for what a word's connotations are as actual meaning/etymology. Why associate this particular name with the promise of fruitfulness and multiplication? Might the word-play on breasts or womb be telling? Or might "El Shaddai" be less about all power and more about powers of procreation? A more historically engaged argument than the one I made might push toward seeing this traditionally feminine divine power as the work of YHWH, since Israel has but one God.

On Revelation: man breasts. Just embrace it. :-)

I see what you’re getting at, and there’s no question that YHWH is seen as the source of Israel’s fecundity. I still wonder whether El Shaddai is not associated primarily with covenant rather than with procreation, in view of Exodus 6:2-4, where there is no reference to fruitfulness:

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners.

And if the word-play is significant, it seems at best latent. But a helpful pushback. Thanks.

On Revelation: man breasts. Just embrace it. :-)


"Those who argue that “head” signifies “having authority over” make exactly the same mistake."

I Cor. 11:3 is the verse under consideration -- "Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ." Here are some comparative Pauline verses in which the same Greek word for "head" appears:

Eph. 1:22 -- And He [i.e., God the Father] put all things in subjection under His [i.e., Jesus'] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church.

Eph. 5:23-24 -- For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is head of the church, He himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything."

Col. 2:10 -- and He [i.e., Jesus] is the head over all rule and authority.

If it's a mistake to associate the head with authority, then Paul seems to make that same mistake repeatedly.

John, there’s all the difference in the world between signifying authority and being associated with authority. The “head” of a river is associated with the idea of “source” but the metaphor does not mean “source”. The 1 Corinthians 11 passage is not about authority but about social standing—it has to do with the visibility and prominence of the man as “head”. Jesus is exalted to a position “above”, not “over”, all things, etc.—the metaphor signifies his prominent position not his authority. Ephesians 5:23-24 is not so straightforward, but I think it can be shown grammatically that Paul argues for the woman’s submission on the basis of the analogy between the exalted status of Christ and the exalted social status of the male, without making the authority of the male an absolute requirement. But, as I say, not so straightforward. The argument has a lot to do with how the metaphor is used in Hellenistic Greek, for which see my book.

At least we agree that men’s authority over women was a cultural tradition, subject to change without throwing either nature or the Godhead into disarray. When I was a kid all the ladies wore hats to church; despite Paul’s vehemence in 1 Cor. 11 that tradition nearly vanished over the course of one generation. I doubt that many slid down the slippery slope to perdition as a consequence.

I was curious as to whether in ancient Hebrew “head” meant or signified or connoted or otherwise referred to a king or leader. It did —  see 1 Samuel 15:17, 2 Kings 2, 3-5, 1 Chronicles 29:11, Psalm 18: 43, Isaiah 7:7-9 and 9:15.

Christine | Tue, 02/14/2012 - 03:04 | Permalink

My dear friend.  Thank you.