In my book Finally Feminist I refer to I Timothy 2:15ff as the passage that finally clued me in to an important truth about Biblical study: no one knows how to interpret some passages. Lots of people think they do, of course. But there is certainly no consensus as to what’s going on here even among evangelical scholars. Paul seems to contradict himself, the gospel, Genesis, and good sense, all in a few verses!
(I mean, goodness gracious: Paul seems to see hierarchy in the Genesis accounts that rabbinical and Christian scholars agree isn’t [obviously] there; Eve being “deceived” actually shows her at least being reflective, while Adam seems to sin without a thought, so it’s not obvious why God would want men exclusively to teach and have authority in the church; the apostle of sola fide tells us that women will be “saved” via childbirth + faith + good works, which is not immediately coherent; and so on, and so on.)
First implication: As a preacher, teacher, Bible study leader, or individual reader, don’t feel you have to come up with The One True Interpretation of what is one of the most exegetically puzzling texts in the Bible.
Indeed, this passage is one of my favourite examples of how people who insist that they know what God is saying about gender “because the Bible is so clear about it” are not paying sufficient attention to the Bible.
Last week, at Wheaton College, I made this point and referred to the Sermon on the Mount, another “clear” passage that “just needs to be obeyed.” No one in this audience of exemplary evangelicals sported an empty eye socket or an arm stump as a result of “just obeying” the SotM. In fact, we tend immediately to think, “Oh, well, Jesus was being, um–what’s that scholarly word that lets me avoid ‘just obeying’ Jesus?–oh, yes, hyperbolic.” And of course he was, which is why I still have my eyes and hands.
But the point is that this “obvious” hyperbole comes smack in the middle of other texts that we are supposed to “just obey,” with no literary signal that we’re switching from apodictic teaching to hyperbole.
Likewise, then, in I Tim. 2:15ff. It is not “clear” just what form(s) Paul’s argument(s) is/are taking. It isn’t “obvious” what he says. And to respond, “Oh, well, we’ll just obey what is clear and leave the rest” is to fail to interpret responsibly. For how do you know what a passage says “clearly” if its immediate context is fraught with difficulties? The “clear” stuff cannot simply be extricated from the other stuff (verse divisions are actually quite harmful here for exactly this reason, as if each verse is a Lego block one can separate from the rest, hold up, and then say, “I’ll obey this one!”).
In fact, to practice such exegesis and ethics would be as stupid and as harmful as if you had complicated instructions for repairing your computer, didn’t understand most of them, but “clearly” understood the command to “plug it in to an electrical socket and turn it on” and just went ahead and did that at any old point in the proceedings!
Second implication: By all means follow the ancient advice to interpret obscure passages by clear ones. Just be clear (ahem) what are the clear ones.