How stories such as Jacob, Deborah, and David nuance and expand feminine and masculine norms

Written by Jeff Hawker

When I was in Grade 6, a few of my peers started calling me gay. In the ‘90s this was an unfortunately common way kids would tease each other. Instead of being a rough-and-tumble boy, I preferred the arts. Instead of seeking to dominate, I was accommodating. I had a gentle, thoughtful demeanour. These traits didn’t fit male stereotypes at the time.

Culture has shifted in recent decades. The anti-bullying movement was certainly needed as many kids received far worse treatment than I ever did, especially kids who did experience same-sex attraction or struggled with their gender identity.

However, the pendulum has swung so far now that if you don’t fit a stereotype, instead of being bullied for it you might begin questioning your gender. In an attempt to be inclusive and affirming of diverse personalities and traits, our culture has begun to celebrate gender transitioning.

This has raised many controversies (such as over the safety and ethics of offering hormone therapy and surgery—especially to children). Ironically, these attempts have also brought further stereotyping. A trans person cannot help but present their gender identity based on superficial aspects such as their clothing choices rather than the much deeper, nuanced reality of what it means to be a man or woman made in the image of God.

I believe people can flourish when they are neither boxed in by gender stereotypes, nor encouraged to choose their own gender identity, but rather grow into the unique person God made them to be.

The Bible has often been misused to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes, such as macho masculinity and submissive femininity. However, there are people in the Bible who did not fit the typical gender stereotypes of their time.

In the book of Judges, we come across Deborah. Before Israel had kings, they were led by judges. Deborah was called a prophet and the judge of Israel. She was essentially the tribal leader, an unusual role for a woman in that patriarchal culture.

Deborah prophetically directed Barak to lead Israel’s army into battle. Barak told her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” (Judges 4:8). Her mere presence determined this man’s courage.

Yet Deborah’s strength and political prominence, which certainly broke ancient stereotypes of women, was no threat to her femininity. She remarkably declares, “Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).

In Genesis 25:27-29, Jacob also departed from the expected gender roles of the time. His brother Esau is described as “a skillful hunter, a man of the open country.” Meanwhile, “Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents.” He is shown cooking, which was more commonly a female responsibility in that culture.

His father favoured Esau while his mother favoured Jacob. This seems to portray Esau as a stereotypically manly man while Jacob is portrayed as a momma’s boy.

And yet as the story unfolds, Jacob is no less a man than his burly brother. He was active in leadership and politics (activities then reserved mainly for men, with Deborah being the exception) and became the father of 13 children.

There are also examples in the Bible of people who can help us rethink and expand the gender stereotypes of our own time and place. Consider David, a poet who played the harp. These skills may have been common enough for some men in the ancient Middle East, but in the ‘90s a boy could be beaten up for such hobbies.

David was deeply aware of his emotions and freely expressed them in the psalms he wrote, such as in Psalm 6:6: “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” David’s passionate words go against stereotypes common in Canada today of men being emotionally reserved.

David’s passionate words go against stereotypes common in Canada today of men being emotionally reserved.

In 2 Samuel 6, when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, he leaped and danced before the Lord. His wife, Michal, watched from a window and despised him for it, thinking it undignified to be dancing around less than fully dressed.

There are plenty of cultures where men dance freely with no threat to their masculinity. Yet even today, if you Google “dance,” the vast majority of images are of women and girls. There could be plenty of boys and men who want to dance but feel internal or external pressures not to because of cultural or subcultural contexts that stereotype dancing as a female activity.

David was more emotive, artistic, and freer with his body than the average dude, nuancing our picture of his masculinity. We also know him as a warrior king. He was a leader, a husband, a father, and a “man after God’s own heart.”

He didn’t need to worry about whether he measured up to his society’s definition of manhood because his deepest identity came from who he was in relation to his Creator and Lord.

Throughout the Bible there are many more examples of men and women who defy gender-based expectations.

Mary sat at the feet of Jesus along with the male disciples who were learning from their Rabbi (Luke 10:38-42). Priscilla and Aquila explained the way of God more accurately to Apollos, who was basically a biblical scholar (Acts 18:24-26). A woman teaching a man—especially a very knowledgeable man—was unexpected at the time.

These stories can teach us to stop putting so much focus on gender stereotypes or the most commonly shared characteristics of the men or women of our time and place. They remind us we would be better off appreciating the great variety God has made and affirming the gifts and skills God gives to individual women and men.

God wisely gives different gifts to each member of the one Body of Christ, so that our unity in diversity brings flourishing for the common good. The same Creator who thought up beavers, orcas, cedars, and ferns made a variety of men and women with different interests and abilities.

Let’s honour the unique gifts and personalities of our friends, families, and neighbours so that everyone can grow into the people that God made them to be.

Jeff Hawker and his family reside in Vancouver, BC, where he serves as the pastor of spiritual formation at Tenth Church, helping people experience the life-changing love of God.