Does the Bible Portray Women as Emotional and Men as Rational?
In a 2001 Gallup poll, respondents were asked to attribute the description “emotional” to one of the two sexes. Was “emotional” truer of men or women? And 90% said “emotional” was truer of women.
Surveys like this feed an old stereotype, at least as old as Aristotle, that says the pink brain is more emotional and the blue brain is more rational. But does such a dichotomy hold in Scripture? Today’s question comes from an anonymous woman.
“Hello, Pastor John! It seems there’s a constant narrative in our culture here in the West that women are hyperemotional, irrational, crazy, incomprehensible, and almost intrinsically unreasonable. Attributes such as rationality, reasonability, and emotional stability are typically attributed to men. Unfortunately, I hear this same narrative from brothers in my church. I often feel that I cannot speak up as expressing my upset at the destructiveness of this narrative may itself confirm hypersensitivity. Can you help to outline the problems with this narrative? How should a renewed mind address this caricature? Is ‘emotional woman’ versus ‘rational man’ a biblical dichotomy?”
There are three things I might be able to squeeze into this episode that I think need to be said.
1. Competing Narratives
This narrative is not the only one that is prominent in the West. Frankly, unless I’m blind as a bat, I don’t live in a milieu where this narrative that she described is prominent at all.
“You don’t find a uniform paradigm in the Bible of rational man and emotional woman.”
I mean the ministries that I associate with, the church I go to, the fellowship of churches I’m involved with, the conferences I attend — they don’t think this way. They are resistant to that kind of caricature and stereotyping — namely, that women are hyperemotional, irrational, crazy, and incomprehensible while men are the models of reasonableness and emotional stability. That’s just not a narrative that I live with. In my home, I’m Mr. Emotional, my wife is Mrs. Rational. That’s been one of our problems for 49 years.
I also don’t see this narrative as prominent in television and movies. Instead, it seems to me — with my little bit of exposure (perhaps in reaction to that very woman-demeaning narrative) — the dominant narrative today in the media is that women are equally rational, equally feisty, equally brash, equally violent, equally dominant in sex, equally strong, equally sinful in most every way that men are.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the narrative I’m being asked to address is the only one that is prominent in our culture. But she asked for it. She sees it. She feels it. It’s reality where she is, and no doubt not just in the West, but perhaps even more outside the West.
So I need to say something about it, and I’m eager to, especially because she asked, “Is emotional woman versus rational man a biblical dichotomy?”
2. Mrs. Rational
My answer to the question “Is this a biblical dichotomy?” is no — no, that’s not a biblical dichotomy. But when I say no, I don’t mean to imply that the Bible teaches women and men are in general emotionally identical. But I’ll get to that in my third point.
Abigail in 1 Samuel 25 is clearly more cool-headed and rational in dealing with David than her idiot husband, Nabal, whose very name means fool and who pouts his way emotionally into the grave.
“I doubt very much that males and females are identical emotionally and rationally.”
Deborah in Judges 4 has to rebuke Barak for acting foolishly in response to God’s word about going up to battle with Sisera. Jael was cool-headed enough to trick careless Sisera into being drugged with a soporific bowl of milk so she could drive a tent peg through his skull.
Jezebel had the ruthless, shrewd, cool rationality to trap the righteous Naboth in a plot to steal his vineyard so that her moping husband could get out of his self-pitying funk because he couldn’t have some little property that he wanted.
The virgin Mary — I love this contrast between Mary and Zechariah — the virgin Mary’s question to the angel, “How can this be?” was answered, while Zechariah’s skeptical question, “Whoa, we’re too old to have kids. How is this possible?” resulted in being struck dumb because God was so upset with his unwise response.
So you don’t find a uniform paradigm in the Bible of rational man, emotional woman.
The place where interpreters have found this presumably is in 1 Timothy 2:13, where Paul says that Eve was deceived, not Adam, in the temptation in the Garden of Eden. Interpreters say, “Whoa, the reason for that is because she’s emotional, and he’s rational.”
Now I think that explanation — which isn’t in the text — that she’s emotional and he’s cool and rational and has everything worked out, is utterly simplistic and overlooks something more crucial. Satan knew God’s created design was for the man to be the leader and the protector in this relationship with his wife.
Therefore, with both of them present — as it makes clear in Genesis 3:6 — Satan scorns the man’s leadership and scorns God’s design. He ignores the man, and focuses all his attention on the woman, and thus inverts and assaults God’s plan with the catastrophic result of the fall of humanity into sin. And they fell together.
Adam fell in failing to step up and face this enemy, and the woman fell as the one dealing directly with the tempter, which is what I think Paul had in mind when he said she was deceived, not the man. She was deceived directly as the spokesman, but both of them accepted the temptation.
So the point does not seem to be mainly that the woman is emotionally deceivable, and the man is rationally not. They both yielded to the tempter. Rather, the point is that destructive consequences follow when God’s design for manhood and womanhood are undermined by the devil or by culture.
3. Not One and the Same
Now, here’s my third and last observation. We need to be careful when defending the rationality of womanhood and the emotional richness of manhood that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the only way we can have equal value and equal dignity and equal personhood is by having identical sameness of emotional tendencies and identical sameness of rational tendencies in men and women.
“Demeaning stereotypes do not enhance the vision that God has for manhood and womanhood at all.”
I doubt very much that that is the case, that there are identical and same emotional and rational tendencies in male and female. I say this more as a caution than a biblical conviction. My caution is that in our rush to defend equality, we assume sameness instead of equally valuable differences.
What if women (now test this) in general have kinds of nurturing tendencies that men don’t as generally have? And what if, therefore, women in general have kinds of empathy that men don’t as generally have? And what if, therefore, women in general have kinds of emotional connectedness and engagement that men don’t as generally have? And what if, therefore, women in general bring to relationships kinds of emotional support and healing that men don’t as generally bring?
What fool would say this is less valuable or less precious or less needed in the world than any particular kinds of cool, detached rationality that men in general might have?
So again, I say this is just a caution. This is just a caution lest we throw away beautiful things, crucial things, that the world so desperately needs from men and women in our rush to see men and women as emotionally and rationally identical.
My guess is that there are innumerable differences between manhood and womanhood in general as God designed them. We are far and away the richer for it, not the poorer. I think we need to labor continually to prevent these differences from being demeaned or discounted by using pejorative words like hyperemotional, irrational, crazy, incomprehensible, and unreasonable. Those kinds of demeaning stereotypes do not enhance the vision that God has for manhood and womanhood at all.