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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Weaker Vessel

I had more than one response to the post on the weaker vessel. It certainly can be taken in different ways. Let's look more closely. 1 Peter 3:7,
    οἱ ἄνδρες ὁμοίως
    συνοικοῦντες κατὰ γνῶσιν
    ὡς ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει τῷ γυναικείῳ ἀπονέμοντες τιμήν
    ὡς καὶ συγκληρονόμοις χάριτος ζωῆς
    εἰς τὸ μὴ ἐγκόπτεσθαι τὰς προσευχὰς ὑμῶν

    Likewise, ye husbands,
    dwell with them according to knowledge,
    giving honour unto the wife,
    as unto the weaker vessel,
    and as being heirs together of the grace of life;
    that your prayers be not hindered.

    Likewise, husbands,
    live with your wives in an understanding way,
    showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel,
    since they are heirs with you of the grace of life,
    so that your prayers may not be hindered.
I don't personally find these two translations all that different. The KJV is definitely more literal. "Give honour to the wife as to the weaker vessel." The preposition is left out in the ESV. Does it make a difference?

There have been times when this was interpreted to mean that women were morally weaker or intellectually lesser than men. There are those who preach this gospel today, that women lack "logical analysis" and are not fit to be the "moral guardians." But, we are not concerned with this. We want to know what the author intended to say.

The term for vessel, σκευος, is used in several places so we can look at a few more examples.
    But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. 2 Cor. 4:7

    If a man [anyone] therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work. 2 Tim. 2:21
So from this, we can see that both men and women have "vessels." Both men and women have "earthen vessels." We are both of us mortal and vulnerable. We can equally be sanctified and suited for God's use.

So, as "vessels," we are instruments of God. As humans we have "bodies" of clay. We are Adam. However, in some way, women are weaker in their physical being than men.

Not in longevity, not in endurance, not in many ways. I am sure that sometimes men just look at women and say, wow, I wish life were that simple. I think sometimes, life is very straightforward for women. Grow up, make friends, sit and drink tea, raise you brood, and you don't have to ask the heavy questions like what is life all about anyway. 'Cause women know what life is all about. (I'm kidding!)

But, most women don't mind admitting that they are physically weaker. That doesn't mean women can't do most things men do, but not everything. And the average women cannot compete in hand to hand combat with the average man. So ... men have to honour this. I don't think it is any more complicated than that.

Both men and women have weak bodies, in some ways women's bodies are weaker. No argument from me.

There are three ways to read sexism in the Bible.

A God intends women to exercise their gifts in fewer arenas than men. Not sexist, just God's sacred design.

B Sexism was put into the Bible by the scribes or translators.

C Sometimes authors of scripture have sexist presumptions, like "A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike." And how about men, eh?


At Tue Jan 15, 12:36:00 AM, Blogger Glennsp said...

"A" with the slight modification that it is not "fewer" it is only one area.

At Tue Jan 15, 04:00:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Ha, good points Suzanne. C is a very very bad answer: Some of us men have been drips and can be very contentious like women as well.

Since you've brought in one of those Hebrew parallelisms, how about the LXX translation of the parallelism (Ecclesiastes 10:1) in which the verb form of σκεύει is used by the (polygamist) Solomon?

μυῖαι θανατοῦσαι σαπριοῦσιν σκευασίαν ἐλαίου ἡδύσματος τίμιον ὀλίγον σοφίας ὑπὲρ δόξαν ἀφροσύνης μεγάλης

(which further translated into English by a male scholar in NETS:
"Deadly flies will make a preparation of aromatic oil give off a foul odor; a little wisdom is of more worth than honor derived from great folly")

And could those men using Greek to translate Solomon have been familiar with the sexist Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4.285) which starts with this rant?

σκευάζοντα κατ' οἶκον ἄτερ ψόφου

("since you have stolen his furniture, and without making a sound" as Daryl Hine puts it in English)

Isn't stinky folly and stolen furniture related, somehow, to the weaker vessel woman?

At Tue Jan 15, 08:01:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Some women have appropriated this term and use it to stand for themselves as victims of abuse. Somehow, I don't think women see it as objectifying women, so I don't see it as sexist myself. It is interesting that some men see it that way.

At Wed Jan 16, 05:33:00 AM, Blogger Antoine said...

Interesting conclusions:

I've always read "as unto..." as meaning "as if she were" meaning not that she is, but treat her respectfully, and preciously as if she were.

I believe that in that context it makes much less of a sexist connotation, and probably fits with what the KJV translators had in mind in using such word choice.

I preface that with saying that I am by no means a literary scholar, just a person who himself likes to dig into the meaning and semantics behind words.

Great blog, keep up the great work; its been a blessing for me personally.

At Wed Jan 16, 08:13:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

We had some discussion about this on the translation project I worked on, in which the translators are mostly women. The rendering we came up with (translated back into English) was something like "treating her as you would treat a delicate pot", in other words according to the grammar taking "weak" as a description not of the woman but of the vessel.

At Wed Jan 16, 08:27:00 PM, Blogger Kevin A. Sam said...

most women don't mind admitting that they are physically weaker.

Sometimes, it seems that biblical writers reinforce us to believe that since men are usually the stronger vessel, we men can get away with using brute force rather than being kindhearted, e.g., "A gracious woman gets honor, but violent men get riches." -Prov.11:16. I'm not sure what knd of sexism this is. I wonder what violent women and gracious men would get?

At Wed Jan 16, 09:27:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks for all the good thoughts. I think this shows how valuable it would be to have a group of women involved in bible translation. We are all going to have different thoughts on this. Especially with the Proverbs!


That is an interesting option. Nyland has "weaker livlihood." I guess it seems that σκευος is broader in meaning that "pot" or "container" in English. "Is in a weaker position" might be a better translation. That is, σκευος is not as specific as pot. It can mean that the woman is more poorly equipped in some way, physically, socially or financially.

Lots to think about.

At Thu Jan 17, 07:04:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In support of our rendering I might refer again to 2 Corinthians 4:7, where the same word skeuos is used in a context in which the pots or vessels are literally of pottery and the point is that they are fragile.

At Thu Jan 17, 07:59:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Good idea to see the various ways Paul would use σκευος.

And I still think Paul's readers find more here. Following Dr. James Strong's collaborative concordance, we can find a Greek phrase correspondence to Jesus without too much difficulty.


σκευος - skeuos 4632; furniture, i.e. spare tackle:--tackling.

of uncertain affinity; a vessel, implement, equipment or apparatus (literally or figuratively (specially, a wife as contributing to the usefulness of the husband)):--goods, sail, stuff, vessel. [SEE the Verbal Uses in the Homeric Hymn and in the LXX, as in my comment above]


σκηνή skene 4633 - apparently akin to skeuos 4632 and skia 4639; a tent or cloth hut (literally or figuratively):--habitation, tabernacle.


καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας (John 1:14)


οὐ γὰρ ἔχομεν ἀρχιερέα μὴ δυνάμενον συμπαθῆσαι ταῖς ἀσθενείαις ἡμῶν πεπειρασμένον δὲ κατὰ πάντα καθ' ὁμοιότητα χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας (Hebrews 4:15)


From the various senses of ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει, we see Jesus himself having the very qualities of τῷ γυναικείῳ. He is "vesseled" or "tented" or even "furnished" like us, in our very skin; and he sympathizes with our "weaknesses," whether we're male or female.

All of the sudden, our constructs of women and of the man go fragile and delicate.


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