The church: sons of God


So in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:26-29.

As I wrote last time, ” Attempting to emasculate the language of our hymns, prayers, and Bible translation does not make our worship more inclusive. It merely hides and obscures profound imagery that could lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our relationship to God. It makes utter nonsense of the passage that says there is neither male nor female in Christ (Galatians 3:28).”

Inclusive language (as used by later editions of NIV, the NRSV, and I’m not sure what all else) requires translating the first assertion in our passage as “children” or “sons and daughters” of God. If that’s what Paul had written, it would have made any of the women who first heard that letter read in church feel left out! Women didn’t count for much at the time the New Testament was written—not in Palestine, not in the surrounding Greek culture, not in the larger Roman empire.

A woman never inherited anything from her father. She merely partook of her husband’s social status until he either died or divorced her. Then she became a burden to her children, or if they did not take care of her, she would either have to remarry or simply starve to death. The story of the widow of Zarephath illustrates that fate as well as anything; if her son had been as old as 13, it would have been his obligation to work to take care of her, but she could not work to take care of him.

Consider also the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, who died leaving five daughters and no sons. After his death, they approached Moses and asked to receive an inheritance so that his name would not perish. Moses took this radical request to God, who told him the girls were right: they should inherit. So it became a law that if a man with no sons died, his daughters would inherit from him. That disturbed other members of the clan. What happens to the property if she marries outside the clan? God also sided with them: Zelophehad’s daughters had to marry within the clan.

To put the matter in plainest English, the law became a compromise between two conflicting interests. If a man died without sons, his daughters essentially became sons in the eyes of the law so they could receive an inheritance, but in order to inherit anything under even those special circumstances, they had to accept restrictions on whom they could marry. That was probably the best deal women could get anywhere in the ancient world.

Therefore, what the women of the Galatian church (and others) heard when Galatians was first read encouraged them. They might have been left out of receiving an earthly inheritance, but as sons of God through Christ, they would receive the heavenly inheritance the same as anyone else.

So should we, today, understand the passage as meaning children of God, inclusively? Absolutely. But please keep “sons” in translation of the scriptures. Making people study an obscure passage of scripture in order to understand a difficulty in a familiar one is a good thing.

Image credit: The Daughters of Zelophehad, as in Numbers 27:1-11, illustration from The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons. Edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908.
(Public domain)


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