The Weaker Sex

Okay, I admit it . . . I sometimes wish Peter and the other Apostles were here to answer for some of their word choices. As much as I love learning about the culture and thoughts of their day to try and understand the message behind their words, sometimes their words leave me having to answer so much more than I would like. Peter’s reference to men remembering that women are the weaker sex is one of those times. The lightbulb moment I had with this verse was so refreshing . . . I admit I cannot prove that this is, in fact, what Peter exactly meant. BUT none of the ideas about what he meant can be proven. They are all someone’s best guess about what Peter meant. So, here are my thoughts thrown into the mix.

First, especially in ancient times, I seriously question the idea of women being viewed as “weaker”. I’m sure in some cultures that was the perception of women, but I read Proverbs 31 and other writings and I see amazing women who are honored for all that they do for the family and the community. The perception that women weren’t valued in Jewish culture could not be further from the truth. Women were not “forbidden” from studying Torah — they were “excused” from the obligation to study it for two reasons.

1. They were caring for the family members who included babies and young children and wouldn’t be able to commit to the requirements put on the men.

2. It was believed that women intuitively got a lot of spiritual truths that men didn’t get without a lot of study.

I’m not saying this just because I’m a woman, either. I would encourage anyone who wants to learn more about women in Judaism to visit the page on women at jewfaq.com.

Second, when I went to look up the reference it does not say, “women are emotionally weaker”, OR that “women are physically weaker.” In fact, it does not say that women are weaker!!! What Peter does is use a simile comparing women to the “weaker vessel.” So the question is, what is the weaker vessel?

Third, Peter wrote two letters that bear his name. The first was written to the Messianic believers (Jewish believers in Yeshua as Messiah) and the second was written to the Greek believers. The first verse of 1 Peter says that it is written “To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion. . . .” The reference to women as the weaker sex is found in the first letter — which means his Jewish audience would understand what he meant. The reference was used to speak to something that the Jewish believing men would know.

1 Peter 3:7
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.

The word “likewise” or “in the same way” speaks to what was just said about women — to be subject to their own husbands and to submit to them, showing them love and honor. Verse 1 actually says this:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives…

We can actually trace this “likewise” back through servants obeying their masters and masters treating their servants with care. The beginning of this train of thought is found in the statement in 1 Peter 2:17:

Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

What wise words for everyone to obey! But what is the reason? Wives are told the reason to behave the way he is admonishing is, “so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” Peter is concerned about our witness and testimony — to one another, and to those who are in our lives and might not yet know the Lord. Peter is saying that women have the opportunity to live out their faith in the presence of their unbelieving husband and might accomplish what was not even accomplished by the Word of God. By faithfully living out their walk they might lead their husband to the Lord.

Likewise, in the same way, here is how men are to treat their wives. We are going to be given instruction for how men can live out their walk and and be a witness to those around them, how they can bless their wives, and minister to their wives, even their unbelieving wives!

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.”

Live with your wives in an understanding way — what wonderful counsel.
Showing honor to them — yes! What beautiful wisdom!
As the weaker vessel — we’ll get back to this.
Since they are heirs with you of the grace of life — Amen!
And so that your prayers may not be hindered — failure to do what Peter is admonishing them to do has strong consequences for sure.

So let’s tackle the simile (a comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as’). Peter is saying women are to be treated as the weaker vessel, treated the way one would treat the weaker vessel. This means that the weaker vessel is something that would make sense to compare to a woman and is something that the men would understand how to treat, so that they could treat their wives similarly. There actually was something that would have been identified as a weaker vessel in the Jewish culture.

One of the very important vessels used within Jewish culture was the vessel used for ritually purifying items. The pitcher that held the water for purification could be made of different substances. Stronger vessels were used in the Temple and in synagogues and were usually made of a strong metal so that they would not easily be damaged. In the home, however, the pitcher was often made of clay. It was a “weaker vessel” than the ones used in the Temple and Synagogues, but was still used to purify the home. It was the woman’s responsibility to purify the home (the utensils and objects for use in the home) using the weaker vessel. It was also the woman’s responsibility to prepare the home for the weekly Sabbath, and for the annual Feasts and Festivals, and to raise the children with a foundation of faith, and so many other things that are a part of running a home and a family.

So with this understanding, if we consider Peter’s words, what we find him saying is this:

Live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman who, as the weaker vessel, has been responsible for purifying your home even as you studied at the Synagogue, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

If a Jewish man is married to a Jewish woman and he is a believer in Messiah while she is not, it would be the greatest of witnesses to her to remember that she has purified and cared for his home and family and, by remembering that, he would be able to minister to her and win her to the Lord even when the Word of God did not persuade her to faith. If they were both believers it would be a beautiful picture of unity to remember that no matter what realm you inhabit for your daily life, you are both responsible for purifying your lives.

Treating each other as Peter suggests would certainly result in a beautiful witness and testimony. I would suggest that this is an interpretation of Peter’s instructions that is consistent with the overall message of his letter, consistent with the understanding that his Jewish audience would have taken from the letter. I would also suggest that if men today, or in any day, are treating their wives with this level of respect and care, they are very happy men with very happy wives!

Photo Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/trublueboy

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