The Office of Deaconness in the Garden
The last act of Yahweh God in creating the world was the glorification of humanity by the creation of woman. The woman is the glory of the man, and thus a “better version” of the man, an improvement in the sense of being more glorious (1 Corinthians 11:7). The man does not have glory because he comes first and is not eschatological. The woman, coming last, partakes of eschatological glory, and in doing so, brings glory to the whole situation.
Once the woman was “built” from the side of Adam, humanity received a new glory-name. The original name of the specific first man and subsequently the name of the human race in its first iteration is adam, from adamah meaning soil, earth. Humorously we can call this first man Dirtbag. Waking up from his “death-sleep,” the “evening” into which God put him before awakening him to a new and better “morning,” Adam gave himself a new name, ish, which is related to the word esh, meaning “fire.” The woman is called ishshah. Thus, Flambeau and Flamette, if you will.
Oddly, modern Hebrew dictionaries routinely state that the words Ish and Ishshah come from different roots, and neither has anything to do with fire. These odd assertions call for comment. First of all, a reading of 1 Kings 1 will reveal a clear association between the two words, when Elijah says, “You want me to come down, me, and ish of God? Well, if I be an ish of God, then let esh come down and consume the fifty men!” Are we to think that this is merely a clever pun and that there is no relation between ish and esh?
Moreover, every time God makes a new world and builds a new garden sanctuary, His last act is to light the fire on His altar, which is essentially an altar of earth, an adam (Exodus 20:24-25; Leviticus 9:24; 2 Chronicles 7:1). The final manifestation of this pattern is in Acts 2, when flames of fire stood on the heads of the disciples, lighting them on fire. This pattern makes it completely clear that the same thing happened with the completion of God’s original work of creation: the humanity of earth was lit on fire.
Without the participation of women in the sanctuary, the men cannot be glorified and lit on fire. Without the participation of women in the sanctuary, humanity cannot be glorified and empowered with the fire of the Spirit.
The woman is a fit helper, and thus someone who can assist the man to move forward in his callings, which become their joint callings. In the garden sanctuary, the calling specifically is liturgical. Animals were brought to Adam and he named them, but none of them spoke back. The text does not say that they animals came in pairs, and what Adam learned was not that he needed a wife. What he learned was that he needed a conversation partner, someone who could speak in response to him in the liturgical situation of the garden sanctuary.
When the woman would speak would be the second word, the glorifying word. We see this right away in the narrative of Genesis 2 and 3. Before the woman was made, God told Adam that he was not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Later, when the serpent challenged the woman to eat of that fruit, she replied that God had said not to eat of it. How did she learn this? From Adam, or rather from Ish Flambeau.
God could have made man and woman at the same time and told both of them together not to eat of the fruit. He did not. He told the man, who then told the woman. This established the pattern that the man speaks first. He speaks a pioneering, directing word. He and other men, however, cannot be the only speakers. It is necessary for the woman to speak second, to speak a word that advances beyond that of the man, a glorifying word. The woman will be stimulated to new insights by the word of the man, insights that the man will never have by himself.
“Now, Flamette, before you came along, God said not to eat the fruit of that Tree of Knowledge.”
“Well, Flambeau, if we should not eat it, we’d probably better not touch it either, right?”
“Wow, Flamette! I never would have thought of that, but you are clearly right.”
And of course she was right, no matter how many commentators and preachers have tried to find fault with her. “Touch not; taste not; handle not” writes Paul in Colossians 2:21; they go together. Also, a study of Leviticus 11 shows that uncleanness from eating is paralleled by uncleanness from touching.
As man was created to be a prophet, to speak the words of God, so woman was created to be a prophetess, to speak the words of God inspired by the Spirit in response to the first words from God. This is specifically in the sanctuary, in the setting of worship, in the church. The man teaches the woman, but in replying, the woman also teaches the man. The man’s initial teaching is used by the Spirit to stimulate the woman to respond with further teaching.
Outside of the sanctuary, there will be occasions when women will speak the first words. Mothers teach their children. Women with expertise will teach men about music, physics, gardening, biology, and so forth. The rule that a man speaks first applies at the beginning of things, and it is in the sanctuary that we return to beginnings. Divine worship takes place at the center of the world on the first day of the week and re-starts reality. In that setting, the Apostle Paul will say, it must be a man who occupies the leading speaking position. We shall get to Paul in due course, but for now let us look at some further patterns and examples.
Prophetess and Deaconness in the Sinaitic Era
The establishment of Israel at the exodus from Egypt is led by three persons: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Micah 6:4 says, “Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and ransomed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Miriam was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20) through whom Yahweh spoke from time to time (Numbers 12:2).
This triumvirate consisted of a judge (Moses), priest (Aaron), and prophetess (Miriam). As we shall see, the same triumvitate appears at the conclusion of this period after the destruction of the Tabernacle: Samson, Samuel, and Jephtha’s daughter.
So, who were Aaron and Miriam? In his most useful book Rethinking Genesis (Baker, 1991), Duane Garrett points out that the Levite clan was already a clan of religious leaders at the time of the Exodus. Aaron was the leader of this group, who were educated and able to read and write. Aaron was able to get in to see the Pharaoh without any difficulty. Aaron was asked to make a golden calf while Moses was away, and this was months before he received any ordination to the new priesthood, and before Moses returned from the mountain with instructions to ordain Aaron. He was already the chief religious leader of Israel, recognized by all.
The fact that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt does not mean they were all chattel slaves who had to make bricks. It seems very likely that the Levites were a scribal class who served the palace and other Egyptian notables, and who lived a somewhat more comfortable life. As regards the house of Amram, Pharaoh’s daughter had adopted their youngest child, and it is pretty inconceivable that she did not learn who his parents and family were. This may be how Aaron wound up in a high position at court.
Whatever the case may be, it seems that Miriam also already had a high standing as a religious leader, for as we have seen, she is already a leader of the women in Exodus 15 and recognized as a prophetess. It seems clear that as a prophetess her primary ministry was to women, which is also what Paul says about the ministry of women. Yet, the events of Numbers 12 occured one year after the exodus, when Moses was 81 years old, Aaron 84, and Miriam even older, perhaps 88. Are we to believe that this wise women, through whom God prophesied from time to time, never taught any of the younger men? Never answered their questions? Never taught classes that men attended as well? Of course she did these things, as Deborah did afterwards.
It is not only Miriam who shows us that an order of women ministers already existed at the time of the exodus. Exodus 38:8 tells us that Bezalel “made the laver of bronze with its pedestal of bronze, with the mirrors of the serving women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting.” These women had been serving at the earlier tent of meeting that preceded the official tabernacle that Bezalel was building, but the fact that their mirrors were used for the laver coupled with the fact that such serving women are seen again later on (1 Samuel 2:22) clearly indicates that these women moved into serving at the tabernacle.
Three aspects of this warrent our attention in this essay. The first is that a considerable company of deaconnesses already existed. We don’t know how large the laver was, and it is unclear whether the mirrors were melted down to make the laver and its pedestal, or whether the laver was plated with them. Whatever the case, there must have been forty or fifty, or even a hundred or more such women.
The second aspect is to consider what these women would do at the tabernacle. For one thing, given the association of women with wells (Genesis 24:16-20; 29:1-12; Exodus 2:16-22) it is appropriate that the well in the tabernacle should be associated with women. For another, the laver would need to be filled with water regularly. Unlike the tabernacle and the altar, the laver is not said to be “holy,” and therefore one did not have to be a priest to draw near to it. Rebekah’s bringing water to water Eliezer’s camels in Genesis 24 can give us a clue here: It would be these deaconnesses who would maintain the laver until the Gibeonites took over this task (Joshua 9:27). Finally, women were entitled to draw near and make offerings at the tabernacle, and perhaps the deaconnesses assisted with that. We can readily imagine that if a woman had a suspicious white spot on her inner thigh (Leviticus 13), it would be a deaconness who would examine her and report to the priest, who would then decide what needed to be done.
The third aspect is this: The word “serve” is tsava’, and this is the word used for Levitical service in Numbers 4:23-43 and 8:24-25. By far the most common use of tsava’ is “to go to war,” and in the plural tsava’oth it means “armies,” as in Yahweh Tsava’oth, “Lord of Hosts.” The fact that the service of the tabernacle by both Levites and deaconnesses is associated with holy war leads us to Deborah, the Warrior Deaconness par excellence.
Moving briefly to Deborah, we find a great stress in the text on the fact that she was a woman and a prophetess: “And Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time; and she used to sit under the Palm Tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4-5; significant terms highlighted). Deborah’s ministry is not said to be to other women but to the “sons” of Israel. In her song she calls herself “mother” (Judges 5:7) and pits herself against the evil mother of Sisera (5:28).
Deborah was not a deaconness in the garden sanctuary of the tabernacle. Hence it was appropriate for her to be a leading teacher of men. Usually men are judges, but it does not have to be so, and if a woman is the person gifted with leadership and insight in the cultural sphere, it is appropriate and wise for the men to hearken to her.
Thus far we have seen prophetesses and deaconnesses. We now move to someone who was both: the daughter of Jephthah, whose name we do not know. In Judges 11:29-31, the Spirit of Yahweh came upon Jephthah, and right after that he vowed that he would send up to Yahweh as an ascension the first person to be born out of the doors of his house to greet him. The Hebrew term ‘olah, which means “go up, ascend,” is grossly mistranslated in English Bibles as “burnt offering,” so that too many expositors have assumed that Jephthah, guided by the Holy Spirit, vowed to burn up the first person to come out of his house. What he in fact promised was to dedicate that person to the service of the sanctuary, to send him or her up to Yahweh.
As it turned out, it was his daughter who ran out to greet him. This was a severe disappointment to Jephthah, not only because he would lose his daughter, but because she was his only child and he had hoped to set up a ruling dynasty (Judges 11:9, 34-35). She spent two months weeping over her virginity (vv. 37-39), which implies that at this time in Israel the deaconnesses were sworn to perpetual virginity, like the Vestal Virgins who tended the sacred fire in Rome. God Himself had not given any such directive concerning deaconnesses.
In a somewhat obscure statement, we read that “it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went annually to recount ‘to’ the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.” Some ancient translations change “recount” to “lament,” which would mean that for four days each year the daughters of Israel came to lament over her death. That assumes that Jephthah burned his daughter up, which is impossible. (E. W. Hengstenberg demolished this notion long ago, in his Dissertations on the Genuiness of the Pentateuch, translated by J. E. Ryland [Edinburgh: John D. Lowe, 1847], 2:105-121. This book can be read at Google Books.)
What does it mean to recount “to” Jephthah’s daughter? It might mean that annually these women came to report to her, perhaps confessing or asking advice. It is possible, however, that it means “recount along with,” in that “because of the extreme variety of its meanings, [the preposition translated ‘to’] often has a rather vague meaning” (Paul Joüon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew [Rome: Pontifical Institute, 2000], p. 488). This possibility is a bit enhanced by the only other use of “recount” (tanah) in the Bible, “To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they recount the righteous triumphs of Yahweh” (Judges 5:11). The clear implication of this statement is that the people are singing, recounting, the song about the battle composed and sung by Deborah (Judges 5:3, 12).
We have now seen two prophetesses involved in leading in singing: Miriam and Deborah. The use of “recount” in Judges 11:40 implies that this recounting was a matter of singing songs. Again, the implication is that these are songs composed by Jephthahsdaughter and taught to the women of Israel.
What kinds of songs? Well, here we can ask another question: Why would some of the ancient versions substitute “lament” for “recount” in this passage? None of the various Hebrew words for lamenting bears any resemblance to tanah. The easiest explanation for this paraphrasing of the original Hebrew is that the songs sung by these women were lamentations. That is, matching the victory songs of Miriam and Deborah are now lamentations authored by Jephthah’s daughter.
The reason why such recountings might well be songs of lamentation is answered by the historical context, to which we now turn. According to Judges 10:7, the Ammonite and Philistine oppressions began at the same time. The Ammonite oppression lasted eighteen years (10:8), at which time Jephthah delivered Israel and his daughter was sent to the tabernacle. This was in central Israel. In the south, the Philistine oppression lasted forty years (13:1). This was apparently the year Samson was born (Judges 13). We read in Judges 15:20 that Samson judged Israel for twenty years, at which point in his death he destroyed all five kings of the Philistines and all their leaders (16:27). This ended the Philistine oppression.
Parallel to these events, Samuel was born evidently about the same time as Samson, after which he was adopted into the priesthood by Eli. Samuel was grown and already recognized as a prophet at the time Israel attempted to shake off the Philistine yoke (1 Samue 3:19-4:1). The Philistines captured the Ark of the covenant and took it into their territory, where it caused plagues, causing them eventually to send it back (1 Samuel 4-6). The Ark was not restored to the tabenacle, with the result that the worship system set up by God in the wilderness was wrecked until reestablished at the temple of Solomon a century later.
During the twenty years after the capture and return of the Ark, Israel “lamented after Yahweh” (1 Samuel 7:2). At this twenty-year point Samuel called upon Israel to fight the Philistines again, and this time they were successful at the battle of Mizpah (1 Samuel 7).
Putting the histories together, we find that Jephthahsdaughter arrived at the tabernacle to take up deaconness duties two years before the Ark was captured. If she was eighteen when she went to the tabernacle, she was twenty when the Ark was taken, and she was the same age as Samuel and Samson. At the time the Ark went into Philistine territory, Samson also went down to Timnah and offered marriage (and salvation) to a Philistine girl. During the time that the Ark sent plagues on the Philistines Samson was making guerrilla war on them (Judges 14-15). Twenty years later, Samson destroyed all the leaders of the Philistines, and Samuel called on Israel to attack and defeat them.
During the twenty years when Samson was a judge like Moses, Samuel served as a priest like Aaron. During this time the people sang lamentations, and during this time Jephthahsdaughter was serving as a deaconness at what remained of the tabernacle and meeting with the women of Israel for four days of “recounting” annually. These twenty years were years of reconstruction and education in Israel, a time when a new Moses, Aaron, and Miriam built up the nation so that it was able to reconquer the land, just as the original triumvirate had spent forty years preparing Israel for the original conquest.
Conclusion: What we see in the original exodus from Egypt and in the twenty years of preparation for reconquest is that building a Godly world requires priest, ruler, and women. This is true in the church today. The minister of word and sacrament is the new priest. The wise men who are able to judge issues (1 Corinthians 6:5) correspond to the judges and elders of the gate in the old time. And deaconnesses and elder women correspond to the prophetesses and deaconnesses of the older time.
It is not necessary to continue a survey and point out the spiritually wise and authoritative women who show up from time to time in Bible history, such as the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Samuel 14:2-9), or the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). Such women were respected as prophetic authorities to whom wise men readily hearkened, but none of these women were working directly in the sanctuary in the way that Eve and the tabernacle deaconnesses were. In the next essay, we turn to the New Creation church situation and see further implications of the matter of women’s office in the church.
James B. Jordan is Founder and Director of Biblical Horizons, and scholar-in-resident at Trinity House.