When it comes to the Bible, bigger and more prominent is not always better. For example, it’s a mistake to think that because women don’t appear as often as men in the Old Testament, they are less important in God’s story of redemption. I heard a Biblical Studies scholar say disdainfully some years ago that the Christian Bible is a male Bible. This is a serious misapplication of the principle of proportion.
The principle of proportion is a concept at work in all sorts of disciplines like art, architecture and linguistics (which is where I come in). Proportion is the relationship between two or more elements, their points of similarity and difference. Proportion involves (im)balance and (dis)harmony.
Playing with proportion can involve making certain parts of a text more or less prominent, emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain character traits or attributes. This proportional play does all manner of things. It draws our eye towards certain things and away from others. It creates and relates perspective.
Understanding proportion tells us something about the nature of the author’s message. What does she or he want us to see and why? How does he or she wants us to view different people, objects, landscape, animals, ideas, etc? When we humans play with proportion, it can be on purpose or even subconscious. But God never does anything without purpose (Col. 1:16).
Take, for example, the two books of Samuel. I wrote a while back that these two books have men, men, and even more men. And so it is with 1 and 2 Kings as well. So many men, look at all the men, please can you stop with the men.
But does that mean that men are the best? NO NO NO to the NO, it does not. What all the male mentions do mean is that God is showing us over and over that men are the worst. And when I say that, I mean that we aren’t supposed to look to men (aka ourselves) for our salvation. Not even the nice ones pointing us to Christ (no, not Daniel, nor even Boaz). We cannot find freedom from bondage in the first Adam nor any fallen man after him. That’s of course because we all died in sin in the first Adam. Our hope is only and securely in the last Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 5:22). That’s the principle of proportion at work.
Which takes me to my next point. For ALLLLL the men we read about in the Bible, eventually we’ll meet a woman in the text. And another one. And another. And this is where God is trying to tell us something, and it isn’t just a message for mothers and wives, not even just for women. Whether you are a man or a woman, girl or boy, single or married, parent or not, God is saying ok here it is: You are dead in the first Adam. Your identity choices are between the Woman of Folly and the Mother of Israel / Bride of Christ. Which is to say you can stick with death in the first Adam, the anti-Christ, or you can follow Christ to life.
The widow in 2 Kings 4:1-7 is a wonderful example of this. Just look at what God is revealing here. What a sense of heaven He offers to us in this short story! The abundance of joy that flows out of such a small space.
A woman comes to Elisha because her husband has died and creditors are threatening to settle his debt by taking her children as slaves. Elisha’s first words to this widow reveal his compassion: How can I help? He thinks quickly and asks, What do you have in your house? She has nothing but a jar of oil, but he will work with what she has.
Here we need to stop and say a few words about oil. When it comes to the principle of proportion, oil is a big deal, mentioned around a whopping 200 times in the Bible. For the Israelites, oil (along with grain – see 1 Kings 17:12) was the essence of life, a sign of God’s blessing and refreshment (Deut 11:13-17, Psalm 45:7, 92:10). In the NT, Jesus is anointed with oil (Heb 1:9), a sign of His divine nature. And through His death and resurrection, He offers us favour symbolized by oil (Psalm 23:5, 1 John 2:20-27).
But why oil? Perhaps because it has so many uses, both everyday and sacred. Oil is good for baking (Num. 11:8), for light (Ex. 27:20-21) and for the wounded (James 5:14). It is fuel (Ex. 27:20) and offers a sweet scent (Song of Songs 4:10). In oil, we have so many signs of God’s provision, all wrapped in one.
So when Elisha performs a miracle with oil, overflowing for the widow, we have quite a play of proportion.
First, the surrounding text gives loads of space to the stories of men yet here’s a story of only SEVEN VERSES.
Second, the widow’s one jar of oil is miraculously enough to fill every container she owns. All that oil, that significant sign of favour, essence of life, pouring out of a limited space. And more than all the practical and ritual uses, this oil brings salvation from debt and slavery (Gal. 5:1) and even sustenance for life after that.
And finally, we have all this blessing for a widow and her children, less prominent not in the eyes of God but in society.
This story pulls on a storyline already in progress. A recent point in that line is Elijah’s miracle of flour and oil for the the widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:1-16). As our Savior later reminds us, this was not just any widow but a widow in the land of Sidon, from whence came Jezebel (Luke 4:26, 1 Kings 16:31)! Another miraculous act of power poured out on a woman proportionately less favoured. And whoa did this make Jesus’s audience want to throw Him off a cliff!
But this is the essence of the gospel. God’s treasure of salvation through Jesus Christ is poured into jars of clay, the liberty of new life and more new life to come, given freely to people of no privilege. We who were enslaved to sin and death in Adam. Now set free, now Bride of Christ.
Do you see? The (dis)proportion is the point.
There is so much here to soothe the soul and lift eyes to Christ. One way I see disproportion at work among some exegetes is by overloading metaphors. For example, Ephesians 5:23: “For the husband is head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church, His body, of which He is the Savior.” The Puritan Gouge in his Domestical Duties, amplifying Ephesians 5, “To declare the quality of wives’ subjection to their husbands, two rules are set down. 1. That it be such a subjection, as should be performed to Christ [as unto the Lord]. 2. That it be such a subjection as the Church performeth unto Christ [as the Church is subject to Christ]. The extent of wives’ subjection doth stretch itself very far, even to all things [in everything]. The reason to enforce all these points is taken from that place of eminency and authority, wherein the husband is set above his wife: which is, 1. Propounded under the metaphor of an head [for the husband is the head of the wife]. 2. Amplified by that resemblance which therein he hath unto Christ. In which resemblance two points are noted. 1. That the husband, by virtue of his place, carrieth the very image of Christ [even as Christ is the head of the Church]. 2. That the husband by virtue of his office is a protector of his wife [as he is saviour of the body]. 2. Of a wife’s subjection in general. (See Treatise 4, Section 2) The first point to be handled in the treatise of wives’ particular duties is the general matter of all [subjection] under which all other particulars are comprised, for it hath as large an extent as that honour which is required in the first commandment, being applied to wives. When first the Lord declared unto the woman her duty, he set it down under this phrase. Thy desire shall be subject to thine husband (Gen 3:16).”
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I just found your comment in a spam folder, so apologies I haven’t replied before now! I couldn’t agree more. Metaphor is so often flattened, even made literal. What a mistake!