Names have been changed.
I have the privilege of serving in Bible translation with the Mountain Jews of the former Soviet Union. They believe they descended from the 10 tribes of Israel, who were taken into captivity by Assyria and resettled in Media (northwest Iran). From there they moved northward into the Caucasus Mountains region. Today they number about 100,000, with another 100,000 who converted to Islam, centuries ago. They are wonderful people to work with, full of pride for their traditions and enthusiasm for change as they leave their ancient homeland. Some have come to faith in Jesus the Messiah.
Many within the present day Mountain Jewish culture view women as inferior to men. One elderly woman, the daughter of a rabbi, repeated to me what she was taught, “Women are worse than the serpent – for even the serpent in the garden didn’t dare to lift its head and speak to Adam directly – but the wife did! So it was she, not the serpent, who brought destruction on the human race.”
The men and women lead distinct and separate lives. They come together for weddings and birthdays (the latter are only a recent addition to a family calendar), but for other celebrations, they are kept apart.
Until very recently, parents arranged marriages with little regard to their children’s preferences. After the wedding, the young bride is led away to her husband’s parents’ home. During the first year, she is completely cut off from her own family. Her status will improve if she bears sons and serves her mother-in-law well.
Another custom, borrowed from Muslim neighbors, bars women from the synagogue, except on one day of the year —the Day of Atonement (some communities also allow women in the synagogue on the New Year). During these events, the women sit on the floor in the entryway, because the benches are filled with male worshippers. This is changing as the Mountain Jews are leaving their homeland, yet the gender separation is still reflected at funerals. A rabbi leads the men in prayers from the Bible in one room, while the women, in a separate space, are led in traditional folk laments by the older women in the group.
This distinction between male and female roles existed in the Jewish and Roman cultures of Paul’s day as well. My familiarity with Mountain Jewish life has caused me to notice something new in Paul’s concern for the Ephesians. His use of the terms, “head” and “submit,” need to be understood in a context where a great separation between the sexes exists, and the males are given the higher status. We should not define the terms, “head” and “submit,” by our modern, western point of view, where status has been essentially removed from gender distinctions. This makes a difference.
I addressed this concept in a letter to a Mountain Jewish couple, Gitya* and Shlomo. This is an excerpt from that letter.
Gitya, do you remember our last visit together, when I asked about your marriage? You hesitated, and replied, “Marriage? What’s a marriage for?” I thought you were joking, because you smiled; but I know that deep down, you were sincere. I laughed then, but, to be honest, I’ve thought about it some more, and I’d like to share some wisdom with you from the Bible. Let me share with both of you what I’m learning from the apostle Paul in his letter to the congregation of the Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 18-33.
Paul was writing to Jewish and Roman believers who lived two thousand years ago on the coast of today’s Turkey. Those people had many of the same social customs that we have. I’m going to focus on one of these customs that I believe your people share with the Ephesians. It is the custom of keeping separate, even disconnected, roles for husband and wife.
In the beginning, God created the first man and woman to be “one flesh:” “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NRSV). What do you each understand the phrase, “one flesh” to mean? Does it refer to knowing each other sexually? Does it mean treating each other with consideration? Does it mean saying, “I’m sorry,” and meaning it? Perhaps the idea of “one flesh” refers to spending a lot of time together. What about the way a family makes plans? Do husbands and wives make their plans independently, or as one flesh – one body?
God’s original design for oneness in marriage was critically torn apart when Adam and Eve sinned. The original relationship of mutuality was broken and became one of conquest and domination. The marriage bond continued as a matter of tradition, but all too often, sexual fidelity was neglected. Today, a woman can make it on her own, so she doesn’t need to remain in a marriage in which she plays second fiddle. Divorce has become the norm. What went wrong in the original design, and does new life in Jesus make a difference for marriages? Paul addresses this in Ephesians 5:18-33.
First, he speaks to the group of believers as a whole (Ephesians 5:18-21): “Be filled with God’s Holy Spirit by speaking to one another with psalms, with hymns and with spiritual songs, and by singing or humming melodies within your hearts to the Lord. Be filled by coming together in unity, both men and women in the body of Messiah; come together without competition or self-centeredness, but with love. This seeking to live and work together as a community, also brings honor to the name of Jesus, our Messiah.”
You will find the word, “submit” in your bibles, where I’ve written, “coming together in unity;” this is because, in this context, the original word means, “attach,” “append” or “connect.” (This additional definition can be found in any good Greek lexicon.) Paul is saying that we are to become connected to one another; we are to come together as a congregation and care for one another. It’s the same thing he writes to the Philippians, in 2:2-4 (TNIV): “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.” That’s dynamite love! This mutual connectedness and care giving is the goal and possibility of our congregational life. Let’s take the word, “connect,” and apply it to the next verses in which Paul addresses the married couples.
First he gives the wives advice (Ephesians 5:22-24): “Likewise, you, Gitya, as a wife, live connected to your husband, Shlomo, in the same manner that you live connected to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, just like Jesus is the head of the congregation. Now, Jesus is the Savior of us, his body. Just like the congregation is united with our Messiah, so wives are to be united with their husbands – in everything – in all aspects of family life.”
In these verses, Paul is using a figure of speech called a simile. A simile draws two ideas together, and implies that they share some aspect in common. With any figure of speech, we must find the identifying factor – what aspect of the two things is being compared; then we are to ignore most of the other details about the two things. If we misunderstand what particular aspect of the two things are being likened to each other, then we will misunderstand what the teacher is trying to convey. Here, Paul is comparing the connectedness of two distinct parties – the connectedness of a wife to her husband and the union of the congregation with her Messiah. What aspect of that union do you think he wants us to experience in marriage?
Some interpreters say that the point of comparison in the marriage covenant is obedience --just as we are to obey the Messiah in all things, so the wife is to obey her husband in all things. But this cannot be.
Do you recall the teachings about the flesh and the spirit? As long as we rely on our own “flesh” (which is to say, our own strength or will power), to keep us from sin, we will fail. But as soon as we begin to rely on the empowerment of God, through his Holy Spirit, then we are set free to fulfill his holy will – for his Spirit will work in us to do his will. (Read Romans 8, for the entire explanation.) Paul also explains this succinctly in Galatians 5:16 (NASB), “walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” All the obedience in the world, even if we are almost always successful, can never bring about the change needed to become one with God. For this, we need God’s Holy Spirit. With the help of the Spirit, we do not just “obey” God’s commands, as a slave or a dog; but rather, we are empowered to do so. God himself empowers us to live a good and blessed life. This is the difference between raw obedience and the gift of empowerment through the Holy Spirit.
In former covenants with God, humans didn’t have access to this empowerment. This Holy Spirit empowerment is only available to the person who has asked Jesus the Messiah to forgive them for their sins and to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. Then that person is brought into union with God, a union much like our covenant of marriage. It is a union where all things belonging to God are given freely to us; and this includes empowerment from God to overcome sin.
In Paul’s comparison in Ephesians 5:22-24, the emphasis is not on the notion of raw obedience, not for the congregation and the Lord, not for the wives and husbands. Something else is the focus of our comparison.
It is this – the wife is to be united to her husband – exclusively. This concept is clearly stated in the Bible, where Moses is given the Ten Commandments for the congregation of Israel; the first word is this:
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God ” (Exodus 20:3-5a; NRSV).
God is telling the people of Israel to love him as their one and only God, exclusively, with no other gods to worship. In the same way that Israel is to unite herself to the Lord exclusively, so too the wife unites herself to her husband exclusively. A wife is to have no other lovers. None of her human relationship should be as dear to her as her relationship with her husband. Not her mother, not her father, not her siblings, not her girlfriends, not her new mother-in-law, and not even her own children. Second only to the Lord Jesus himself, your husband, Gitya, is to hold the dearest affections in your heart.
In this same passage, Paul uses a second figure of speech by calling Jesus the “head” of the congregation. “Head” is an idiom and means “source” (like the head of a river), or “beginning” (as in, rosh hashannah, the beginning of the year). “Head” in the Bible never means “boss,” as in our modern use of the term. The few times in the Old Testament that this word “head” refers to a person, it is designating a man in relationship to a clan or to Israel. The “head,” in these cases, is the person in the group through whom the whole group is identified.
When Paul writes, “For the husband is the head of the wife, just like Jesus is the head of the congregation” – the comparison is not being made between husband and commander, but between the husband and the source of life for the congregation; it is Jesus who makes us one, and by his name we are all identified.
Think of it this way – as our congregational life begins with and is built up by Jesus, its “head,” so a family begins with the husband. This does not mean that the husband is more important than his wife, for each is dependent upon the other (1 Corinthians 11:12). But it is the husband who is to leave his father and mother and begin a new family, thereby becoming its source, its head, and the one by whom the new family is identified. This is a blessed concept for both men and women, because it brings unity, whereas the concept of boss and servant only brings hurt and disunity.
Next, Paul addresses husbands. He continues with the same idea of the Messiah who is husband, and the congregation who is his bride (Ephesians 5:25): “Husbands, love your wives, in the same way that the Messiah loved the congregation and laid down His life for her.” In that same way, Shlomo, lay down your own life – that is, lay down any of your own selfish desires to serve your wife. Gitya is to hold first place in all your affections (second, that is, only to Jesus, our Lord). Live with her and make a family.”
In Ephesians 5:28-30, Paul further explains the relationship between husband and wife by a comparison. He writes, “Shlomo, you love your own body, right? Of course you do – no one ever hates his own body! You feed your own body, clothe it and take care of it; you know where your body hurts and you do all you can to relieve it of its pain. You pamper it! In the same way, love and nourish and give special attention to Gitya, your wife. For she is as close to you as is your own body. After all, this is just how the Messiah, Jesus, takes care of us, the congregation – for we are His own body. He really loves us and enjoys our company! Thus, in the same way that Jesus loves and takes care of us, Shlomo, you are to love and take care of Gitya, your wife.”
Paul quotes Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The husband, as a head, is to leave his parent’s house and begin a new family. He is to “cleave to his wife.” Like the wife, he should not have an eye for any other lovers. Nor is he to consider any other human relationship as important as is his relationship with his wife. Not his father, not his mother, not his siblings, not his buddies, and not even his own children – but second only to the Lord Jesus himself, your wife, Shlomo, is to hold the dearest affections in your heart. This is what family life means.
This is the model for a strong and lasting family life: the relationship between husband and wife is to be exclusive – no one is to come between you, Shlomo and Gitya. Your love and regard are to be mutual – you are to serve one another. Neither male nor female is more important in God’s sight (Galatians 3:28), for God has created both in his image (Genesis 1:27), and Jesus made both man and woman to be joint-heirs of his New Covenant life (1 Peter 3:7). Spend time together; work together on any new plans for your family; raise your children together; teach them about the New Covenant blessing together. The more time you spend together, and the more you serve one another, the more you will be filled with his presence, and the more you will grow to be like him – full of the love and the joy and the power of the Holy Spirit.