JUST WHAT DO
``WEAKER VESSEL'' ?
Jared L. Olar
Human history quite readily shows that religion of all kinds-Judaism and Christianity included-has been most shamefully used to sanctify false and evil beliefs about women. Some of the earliest clear instances of misogyny in Hebrew literature may be encountered in The Wisdom of Ben-Sirach (also commonly known as ``Ecclesiasticus''), a collection of proverbs written circa 200 B.C. by a Jew named Yeshua ben El'azar ben Sirach. To a great extent this book is little different from the Solomonic books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and is filled with helpful and edifying advice and admonitions. However, the only example of misogyny in Solomon's books (and it is a marginal one at that) is a frustrated observation in Ecclesiastes 7:28 about how completely unfulfilling, how utterly lacking in trust, were all of his relationships with his 1,000 wives and concubines. (And in that case the blame certainly mostly goes to Solomon!) Contrast that comment to these from Ben-Sirach:
``Any iniquity is small compared to a woman's iniquity....
From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.'' (Ben-Sirach 25:19, 24)
``A woman will accept any man as a husband, but one girl is
preferable to another.'' (Ben-Sirach 36:26)
``Do not let [your daughter] ... spend her time among
married women; for from garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman's
wickedness. Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good. It is woman who brings shame and disgrace.'' (Ben-Sirach 42:12-14)
Unfortunately, many believe that this kind of twisted thinking about women can
be found all throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Some
would claim that Ben-Sirach's opinions (and
other, similar opinions) are nothing less than divinely-revealed truth, while
others use these kinds of remarks and teachings
as reasons to reject the religion of the God of Israel. Sad though
it is to learn, nevertheless many Israelites and Christians undeniably have held misogynistic beliefs and justified them as
revealed truths-and many of us still do. Yet my own studies have
convinced me that the canonical writings of the People of God-when properly
interpreted and translated-provide no support for
the kind of ugly attitudes and opinions toward women that Ben-Sirach displayed in his otherwise useful compilation
Of course, whole books have already been written to clarify what the Bible ``really'' teaches about women. Quite a few of these books only confuse things further, for they are either written from a``male chauvinist'' bias, or else from a radical feminist, anti-family, pro-sodomy bias. I do not intend to write yet another book on this subject, but in this article I would like to examine one particular text found in the Christian Scriptures that has traditionally been misinterpreted to justify false and negative attitudes about women. It comes from a letter written by Simon Peter, the man appointed by Jesus Christ Himself as the first human head of the Church, and many cite it as proof that women are divinely created to be inferior to men:
``Likewise you husbands, dwell with them according to
knowledge, giving honor to the wife as to the weaker vessel, and as being
heirs together of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be
hindered.'' (I Peter 3:7)
Well, there we have it, don't we? Women are the weaker vessel. But
does this verse really teach that women are
inferior to men? Let us examine these words
closely to find out what it actually does-and does not-say about men and women.
First of all, notice to whom Peter addressed these words. He is talking specifically to husbands, not to men in general. And what is Peter discussing in this text? Is he filling husbands in on what women are like? Why no, he refers to wives in this context, not to women in general. Indeed, Peter's subject is the duty of a Christian husband-how he ought to treat his wife. That is, he is telling husbands what they are supposed to do when it comes to their relationships with their wives.
Now, if Peter were really going to reveal the ``truth'' that women are inferior to men, why would he tell the men? Men are superior, right? Why would they have to be told this? Would they not have been able to figure all of that out on their own, without a divinely-inspired apostle to tell them? Surely it would have made much more sense for Peter to have told the women about their inferiority, since their supposed impaired mental capacities would presumably have prevented them from discovering the truth about themselves. I think you get the idea. Peter was not talking about women here at all. He was talking about Christian marriage.
Well then, Peter must have meant that in a marriage, the wife is somehow inferior to the husband, right? Hardly. Take special notice of the fact that Peter did not say, ``Give honor to the wife, who is the weaker vessel.'' No, what he said was, ``AS TO the weaker vessel.'' That little word as means that something is similar to some other thing, not that it is identical to it. And to what specifically does the phrase ``as to the weaker vessel'' refer? To women? To wives? No, it refers back to the verb and object GIVING HONOR. That is, it tells us how husbands are to give honor to their wives.
This is of the most supreme importance. The only reason the words ``weaker vessel'' appear in the Bible is to draw a picture to help husbands see how God wants them to treat their wives. There is nothing here about God revealing that women are generally weaker than men in an anatomical sense-that's something science has been able to ascertain without any recourse to prayer and Bible study. Even more, in this text there is nothing here about women being constitutionally incapable of handling positions of authority. What about mental inferiority? No, nothing there about that. As a matter of fact, there is absolutely nothing here about women being across the board inferior to men. ``Weaker vessel'' is part of a picture that God intended to show husbands how He expects them to treat their wives-it is not a picture of womankind.
Consider this: If ``weaker'' meant ``inferior,'' why would a husband give any honor at all to his wife? If a potter threw a fine porcelain vase which was virtually without flaw, but then later that day out of fatigue threw a vase which came out of the kiln lopsided and lumpy,to which of those two vases would he give honor? What human possessed of all his reasoning faculties would give honor to an ``inferior'' vessel? Inferior vessels are tossed in the trash, are destroyed. Logically, if Peter expected husbands to give honor to the wife as to the``inferior'' vessel, then he must have intended them to abuse and dishonor, even to kill, their wives. Granted, almost every day we might encounter men who seem to think that is what God intends, but we can be sure that emotionally unstable and violent men are not the kind of husbands Peter had in mind. No, he is talking about the kind of men who would pray with their wives,not men who brutally assault and torment the women for whom they vowed to God (and they will all surely answer to Him face-to-face for having violated their oaths) that they would lay down their very lives if called upon to do so.
If I may, I would like to adapt an analogy that some two or more decades ago was presented in a sermon at the Feast of Tabernacles in the Lake ofthe Ozarks, Missouri, by Mr. Fred Kellers, one of our elders. I believe that it serves as an excellent illustration of Peter's words ``weaker vessel.'' A cast iron skillet is used to cook food using great heat. It is strong, and can take extremes of temperature. But would anyone give honor to a skillet? Use it, take care of it, sure-but honor it? Contrast that to a fine crystal wine glass. It is used in elegant dinners, and looks beautiful and delicate. If one were to drop a cast iron skillet on the floor, it would produce a loud noise-and the impact might even crack a floor tile. But if one were to drop a crystal glass, it would simply shatter to pieces.
Which vessel is the weaker of the two? The wine glass, obviously.
But which one is inferior?
I would never use a wine glass to fry eggs on a stove, anymore than I would expect my guests to drink champagne out of a skillet. In the same way, I have no sense of frustration or resentment either toward God or toward the human race as a result of the fact that I am incapable of breastfeeding my son. On the other hand, neither do I mind moving heavy boxes and furniture around while my wife carries items of lighter weight-especially during the nine months of her pregnancy. So, I trust it is evident that weaker vessels are not necessarily inferior vessels. The weaker vessel merely has a different purpose. In the family, the wife is something like a fine and lovely crystal wine glass-fragile, perhaps (or perhaps not, depending upon the woman), but certainly designed by the Creator God for a special place of honor. She is someone who is valued, cared for, and protected-someone of immense value.
In the New King James Version, I Peter 3:7 has a total of thirty-five words. Yet for much of the past two millennia it seems that Christian men have focused their attention upon just two of those thirty-five words. In my opinion, if one wishes to select just two words out of this verse and place special emphasis upon them, why not look for the verbs? Because God's Truth is not simply a matter of knowing something. God reveals His knowledge so that we will be able to do rightly. So, in the next two millennia of Christian history, I believe the Church of God should begin to lay extra weight upon the words ``dwell with'' or ``giving honor.'' Or best of all, let us finally start to live by every word of God, and put away once and for all every misogynistic prejudice.
translated fromTE Xby
On 11 Nov 2000, 14:39.