Image via Lightstock

I was chatting with a young man yesterday and during our conversation he stated that he believes the Bible teaches “a soft patriarchy while we’re on earth.” One reason he believes in this “soft patriarchy” is because he regards primogeniture as being part of God’s pattern for society, with Adam being created before Eve as a key example of this primogeniture.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “primogeniture” can have two meanings. It can simply mean “the state of being the firstborn of the children of the same parents” with differing implications, or it can mean “an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son.” With the first definition in mind, Adam and Eve might be understood as being children of the same parent, God (Luke 3:38; cf. 1 Cor. 11:12).

Genesis 2 and 1 Timothy 2:13 (which is a summary statement of Genesis 2) tell us that Adam was created first and Eve was created second. But do these scriptures indicate that this order is significant and part of God’s design for relationships, or that there is a continuing pattern of primogeniture or priority (of man first and woman second)? Do these scriptures somehow mandate an exclusively male authority or a soft patriarchy? Do these scriptures indicate “an exclusive right of inheritance” for Adam which excluded Eve?

To link the notion of a soft patriarchy among Christians to primogeniture in Genesis is fraught with problems.

First, after the operation recorded in Genesis 2:21-22, the first (hu)man was different than when he was first created by God. A part of him had been taken out. A part of him was now missing and had become an integral part of the woman. This transference of a significant body part from Adam to Eve makes the idea of man first, woman second, less clear cut and decisive.

Second, while the custom of primogeniture was part of ancient Israelite society (which was patriarchal), it only involved sons, not daughters, not women.

Third, the custom was not followed in many prominent families.

Cynthia Westfall writes about this third point:

Throughout the Genesis narrative, it is clear from the beginning that someone who was born or came first did not necessarily have authority. Primogeniture among brothers was continually subverted, so Genesis cannot be used to provide an argument for male authority based on Adam being formed first. Cain was born first, but Abel received God’s favor. Esau was born first, but God chose Jacob. Reuben was born first, but the line of Christ came through Judah, and Joseph saved the family and assumed authority over them. Manasseh was Joseph’s firstborn, but Jacob placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head to say that he would become greater.”[2]

Other books of the Old Testament also show that God endowed younger brothers with a greater authority than that of their older siblings. For example, Moses had more authority than his older brother Aaron; David was the youngest son of Jesse but was chosen by God to be king of Israel; and Solomon became David’s successor despite not being David’s firstborn son. Clearly, the custom of primogeniture was not closely or universally followed by the Israelites.

Lastly, the concept of primogeniture has no place in the New Creation. Rather, Jesus taught that in his kingdom “the last are first and the first are last” (Matt. 20:16). He also taught other similarly counter-cultural and equalizing principles. (More about Matthew 20:16 and the parable of the vineyard workers here.)

The only person who can claim the right of primogeniture is Jesus himself. Westfall points out that “Jesus is the firstborn of all of us” who are in Christ (Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18), and that this truth “relativizes relationships among his followers.”[3] In other words, there is equality among Jesus’ followers as we each, without respect to gender, are being conformed into the image of our older brother.

Primogeniture is not a dynamic which God instituted in society or that Jesus condoned.[4] Furthermore, Paul debunked the idea that men have some special position or privilege simply because Adam was created first. In 1 Corinthians 11:12, Paul taught that even though the first woman came from the first man, every other man has been born from a woman. And he stated, “But everything comes from God.” Both men and woman ultimately have God as their source. There is no gender distinction here.

Men do not have a greater level of authority nor do they have a better inheritance than their sisters. Rather, we will all share in an amazing inheritance (Eph. 1:21-22). Christian men and women are co-heirs with not the slightest sense of primogeniture.[5] We are even co-heirs with our older brother Jesus (Rom. 8:16-17)!

Meanwhile, the amazing theological truths of the New Covenant and New Creation in Christ have a direct bearing on our relationships within the community of Jesus followers. In this community, the church, there should be no place for a gender hierarchy or a patriarchy of any description.


Endnotes

[1] The Hebrew word tselah, which is traditionally translated as “rib” in Genesis 2, typically means “part” or “side”. In the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), tselah is translated into Greek as pleura which means “side”, particularly the side of the body. An English translation from the Septuagint is that God “took one of [Adam’s] sides . . . and he built the side into a woman” (Gen. 2:21-22).

[2] Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 78. Westfall quotes Richard Hess in a footnote: “The norm among the patriarchs is not primogeniture but God’s blessing on the second or third born.” “Equality with and without Innocence: Genesis 1-3,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2004) 84.

[3] Westfall, Paul and Gender, 78.

[4] Jesus never mentions anything like a created order of man first, woman second. In the gospels he quotes from Genesis 1 where the narrative indicates that men and women were created at the same time. For instance, in Matthew 19:4, Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Haven’t you read that the Creator, from the beginning, made them male and female?” Jesus also quotes from Genesis 2: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Jesus taught about unity (i.e. oneness) in marriage, not a male priority or a hierarchy (Matt. 19:5-6).

[5] Question and answer 34 of The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that, through adoption, we “have a right to all the privileges of the Sons of God.” There is no gender distinction here.

 


Related Articles

The Status of Christian Women, in a Nutshell
The Complementarian Concept of the Created Order
Do women have a special obligation to be helpers?
Articles on Gender in Genesis 1-3, here.
Articles on 1 Timothy 2:13, here.
The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16