Webb v. Grudem: Primogeniture

This blog is interested in the ongoing discussion surrounding William Webb’s work in Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (IVP, 2001). After two largely positive reviews from The Journal of the Evangelical Theology in 2002, the book was severely criticized by Wayne Grudem in a 40-plus page article in the same journal entitled Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic? Unlike the other two reviews, Grudem has little good to say about Webb’s work. In this post, and ones to come, we will take a look at the issues brought up by both authors. Today’s installment is on primogeniture.

Grudem criticizes Webb for thinking that the creation account in Genesis 2 is not historically accurate (EBFT 113-16). Indeed, Webb writes that the “whispers of patriarchy” in the pre-Fall Garden of Eden are to be understood as part of a “literary device” that is inserted into the narrative to foreshadow the curse. This is evidenced by the text telling us that the Serpent is “crafty” even though the creation is “good.” This “not good” description of the Serpent foreshadows his deceitfulness. Secondly, Webb sees the patriarchal overtones as descriptions of the past in terms of the immediate patriarchal context of the author. God permits such accommodation to cultural forms so that the main point being made (monotheistic creation) will not be lost. Third, they may have been seen as reflective of the agrarian/hierarchal society that the First Couple was about to enter (SW&H 142-45).

No doubt is this a strange approach to the text. Why does Webb take this route? According to Grudem it is to deny male headship before the Fall. This headship is recognized by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:13, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” The logic of Paul’s citation is connected to an ancient value called “primogeniture”—the idea that the firstborn son is given rights to the family inheritance. Since Adam was the “firstborn” over creation it follows, in this scheme, that he had authority over all of creation including the woman (who came second). Yet Webb points out that primogeniture is culturally relative, and that in a number of cases the values of primogeniture are overturned (Gen 4:3-5; 16:15; 25:23; 38:27-30; 49:8). Today no Christian sect of even the most conservative commitments values primogeniture since it is highly contingent on cultural and sociological factors. We are left then with the awkward problem of Paul citing a culturally relative factor found in the original creation which supposedly only contains transcultural truth. Therefore, Webb is lead to interpret Genesis 2 with an eye for culturally relative influences through the lens of a culture-bound literary device.

Grudem’s argument has always been that male headship is not culturally relative, nor is it a result of the curse because it is rooted in the original creation. Grudem contends that Webb has essentially said that Genesis 2 reports facts that aren’t true by claiming that neither male headship nor the Serpent’s craftiness was part of the original creation. Grudem further contends that Webb has denied the historical truthfulness of a major section of Scripture that affirms the “theme of primogeniture.”

Grudem’s concerns about the historicity of the text are not unwarranted since most evangelicals see the text as communicating factual history. However, he seems to have missed Webb’s central point about the culture-bound logic of primogeniture values. He may be able to claim that male headship is established before the Fall, and is therefore part of God’s created order and intended for men and women to follow in all times and all cultures. But can it be claimed that the basis for that headship, which seems culture bound, also follow? There does not seem to be any reason why not. If this is so, then primogeniture is a transcultural ideal in the same way male headship is, and there seems to be no good reason why it is not applied to the lives of Christian siblings.

Webb admits that this is a weak point. Perhaps Christian siblings should be adhering to roles of authority and submission based upon their birth order. But the fact that God regularly overturned such values, and in some cases for ones that valued honor and character, does not seem to bode well for the ethics of primogeniture and plays into the hands of egalitarians who never fail to insist that our callings are based upon gift not gender.


One Response

  1. “whispers of patriarchy” in the pre-Fall Garden of Eden?

    I do not hear them. What are Webb and Grudem referring to?

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