The following article is written by Rachel Gilson. Rachel serves on the leadership team for theological development and culture with Cru. You can find more of her writing at rachelgilson.com.
Does anybody actually know what biblical manhood or womanhood is?
For those of us who love the Triune God and his image bearers, this question persists. Our culture is raising new and unexpected questions about manhood and womanhood all the time. How can we love those around us as we grapple with this conversation? How can we understand our own selves, right here, right now?
Christians can affirm that sex and gender are good gifts from God, and yet struggle to agree on much after that. We sense that Disney-scrubbed expressive individualism, which would define sex and gender based solely on the slogan “you do you,” falls short, even if it at times appeals to us. But the eager confidence of others who claim to know exactly what biblical manhood and womanhood are also can make us uneasy. Especially when suspect exegesis is fired like bullets at siblings in Christ.
I have nothing against confidence. There are so many things the Lord has told us of which we can be life-sacrificingly sure. For example, we see that the very creation of dimorphous sex was God’s good idea in the first place. But the how of sex in the world, how to not just be male but a man – this is where certainty becomes suspect.
Our evangelical instinct to turn to the scriptures may occasionally turn up surprises for us, however, when it comes to gender. This is exactly what happened to me in Psalm 144.
Tucked in the back of the Psalter, this poem spends the first eleven verses in martial action. Here is the Warrior LORD, strengthening his servant for battle. Here is the transcendent God, whose touch makes mountains smoke. He is able to rescue, no question. This is the LORD who flexes his muscles, against whom no one can stand. Based on our cultural milieu, we would easily call this a very masculine God.
We need remember that, though God always bears the pronouns He/Him/His in scripture, he is not at all afraid of representing himself in other places as maternal (Isa. 46:3,4). This occasional comparison to the female does not diminish the image of the Warrior LORD, but instead lends it extra texture and weight. When he represents himself with this imagery, it’s not because it’s the only tool in his belt, but because certain moments call forth this beautiful, terrifying aspect of him. Namely, the need of humanity to be rescued.
This psalm is intensely centered on this LORD, this God of Israel, who wages war so that his people might have peace. This prefigures Jesus Christ himself, who according to Ephesians 2:13-17 became our peace precisely by waging war with his own body and blood. The gospel is nothing less than God himself rescuing sinners through his own might alone. And he rescues us for relationship, and for blessing.
So Psalm 144 spends its final four verses not on the war, but on the blessings the war will win. And right at the top of the list comes the part that surprised me:
“May our sons in their youth
be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
cut for the structure of a palace.”
Reader, this may not surprise you at all, especially since you read The Center’s blog. But it made me stop in my tracks. The way that biblical manhood and womanhood gets discussed in certain segments of the church still traffics heavily in strong men and beautiful women. And there is nothing at all wrong with strong men and beautiful women.
But look at this blessing God has laid out. The sons are portrayed as bountifully fruitful, with the vines, and leaves, and flowers of plant life. Here there is life and vitality – the plants are full grown. There is also beauty and adornment of the type we might expect on the cover of a book targeted to evangelical moms.
The daughters, meanwhile, are portrayed as steadfast, calm as marble and just as strong. So sturdy that they can act as the very corners of a palace. The place where kings live, after all, must stand up against attack, and also visually engender both admiration from subjects and fear from enemies. Here there isn’t the active life we see in plants, which blossom today and die tomorrow. Rather we find permanence that can last long after the culture that hewed them has died.
Call me crazy, but it would have been so easy to imagine this image reversed. Daughters as beautiful, vibrant plants. Son as imposing, grand palace pillars. And yet the blessing that the psalmist envisions, which the Holy Spirit breathed out, is just what we see in the text. And what is more, the Spirit envisioned different, complementary metaphors for the sons and daughters. Though at times the gender-inclusive “children” share in a metaphor (c.f. Ps. 127:3-5), here there is beautiful differentiation.
I’m not trying to make grandiose claims from one section of poetry. But I am trying to call us to have the full imaginative scope for our sons and daughters that God himself has. That men are strong and beautiful, that women are beautiful and strong. Our cultural stereotypes and mores do not exhaust the goodness or vision that God has entrusted in our sexed bodies. Let us keep diligently searching all of scripture, seeking the surprises and blessings that God has stored for us there in this conversation.
As Psalm 144 ends, so shall we: “Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall! Blessed are the people whose God is the LORD!”