Years ago, my sister took a class at Clemson University, a land grant college, called Animal Husbandry. Sustainable practices around breeding and calving, the term for cattle, and farrowing, the term for hogs, is an important focus of animal husbandry. My sister learned to distinguish various breeds of livestock and even sheared a sheep. She dropped the class, though, the day they wanted her to check to see if a cow was pregnant by palpitating its uterus. That was enough animal husbandry for her.
After God created the world, Adam was the first to practice animal husbandry. It was his job to name the animals and see to their health and multiplication. He was a husband before Eve was even created. The etymology of the English word husband helps us understand why this is the case.
From the Old Norse hus meaning “house” and bondi meaning “occupier and tiller of the soil,” the word husband originally did not mean a married man but simply the male head of a household. The bondi were the heart of Norse society, hardworking, middle class land owners, farmers and craftsmen, who fed and clothed society. The husbondi stewarded his land, his animals, his household, and his craft. A feminine version, husbonde, was also adopted into Old English, for women too were stewards of their household, land, and craft. Eventually, the Anglo-Saxon word wif became the term used for the mistress of the house. Husbandman eventually came to mean one who tilled the soil and husbandry the act of raising crops and livestock.
And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard.
Genesis 9:20 KJV
In the first garden, God didn’t just create plants and animals. He created seed-bearing plants and reproducing animals. After the Fall, Adam and Eve had to steward those animals to provide food for their family. As predators turned on prey and thorns choked the ground, Adam was the first of many husbandmen after him who worked to keep his crops and animals alive and reproducing to protect his growing family from starvation. Genesis 4:2 divides the responsibilities of the farmer in two main categories, Able tended the sheep while Cain tilled the ground. Genesis 4:2 is also the first use in most English translations of the word shepherd, animal husbandry at its finest.
Heads and Husbands
Now, what conclusions can we draw from the etymology of the English word husband? Allow me to continue this word study a bit more before I make my suggestions.
The husbondi in Norse, remember, was essentially the head of his household. This suggests to me that we go back into Scripture for another controversial word associated with husbands in the Bible, head. Consider I Corinthians 11:3:
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
Our modern understandings of the words head and husband have been flattened in English. Understood in the larger metaphor of land and stewardship of God given resources for the flourishing of all people, we will see God’s noble vision for the male human as head, husband, and husbandman.
In I Corinthians 11, Paul discusses headship in the context of head-coverings for women, two subjects in the church that leave us wrestling with Paul’s meaning and intended application. The first law of hermeneutics is that the Bible is the best commentary on itself, and I Corinthians is not the only place the Bible talks about head coverings. Deuteronomy 21 mentions shaved heads and clarifies for us the specific issue at hand in Corinth, the disturbing case of female captives of war forced into sexual subjugation. Shaved heads were a sign of captivity and slavery for women. This was the case in Corinth and the wider Roman empire when Paul wrote I Corinthians 11.
Tours to the Acropolis in Corinth today will tell you of the long history of sexual subjugation of female captives around the Acropolis. In the days of the Old Testament and the New, women were taken captive, and female slaves were considered the sexual property of their owners. Their head coverings were integral to their representation in that culture. A woman’s shaved head (and in Corinth apparently even just going without a head-covering) represented her status as a captive and opened her to exploitation without consequence. This is the context in which Paul is teaching men about what it means to be heads in their families.
When civilization was still quite uncivilized, God’s children were to treat conquered women differently than the rest of the world. In the Old Testament Law, if an Israelite took a female captive that he wanted sexually, there was a process. She went through a ritual to mourn her losses, and the Israelite then must marry her. He could not force her to be his sexual slave without the protections of the covenant relationship of marriage. And from the next chapter, Deuteronomy 22, we know that God took the marriage covenant very seriously. Covenant marriage under the Law, especially to a woman who was without family protection, offered the woman much needed protection, provision, and representation (consider Ruth and Boaz) in a brutal land that would otherwise exploit and abuse her.
When Paul addressed the church in Corinth, much had changed from the days Deuteronomy was written. Much also remained the same. But 1700 years later, even the history of our own founding fathers in the United States reflected many of the same concerns for women. Consider the sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his wife’s biracial half sister, Sally Hemmings. Much had changed, but much still remained the same.
The story of Hemmings and Jefferson demonstrates both headship and its foils, exploitation and abandonment. Thomas Jefferson was an authority in Sally Hemings’ life. But he wasn’t her head. He didn’t take responsibility for her. He didn’t represent her with his name. He didn’t steward his role in her life or the lives of the children he created with her. He used her. His authority over her resulted in her abuse and exploitation. He was not a husband to her. Jefferson’s wife had protections and inheritance that his sexual slave did not. Their story gives us insight for understanding I Corinthians 11. And it helps us understand why current controversies around sexual abuse by pastors, husbands, and fathers in evangelical churches are so offensive to God and harmful to His purposes in the world.
The Greek word for head in I Corinthians 11 is used most often in Scripture to refer to the literal head on a body. But there is one time in Matthew 21 that it is used in a different way by Jesus:
“Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, This became the chief corner stone; This came about from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes’?
The stone which the builders rejected became the kephale cornerstone. If you think about the difference in cornerstones and chief cornerstones, you start to understand the nuance of headship. And when you then apply that nuance to the application in 1 Corinthians 11 of headship to women caught up in a culture of sexual subjugation, the whole concept breaks open.
The head or chief cornerstone was the first stone set in the foundation of a new construction. It’s placement was important because the rest of the stones would be set in reference to this first stone, which then determined the position and strength of the entire structure. The kephale cornerstone didn’t subsume other stones. It instead contributed to their best use, as the other stones and cornerstones bore weight and contributed to the alignment of the building as well.
Jesus is the kephale stone, the chief cornerstone of the entire building that is the universal Church. And Christians are called to reflect this in their families. Like the self-similarity of a fractal image, Christian husbonde/heads were created to reflect in repeated smaller forms the outline of the Shepherd of their own souls. I’d argue that men who are not yet married also have a husbonde role to steward in their own realm of influence.
Lots of men have authority. But how many men own their covenant commitments, their responsibility and need to represent their family and steward their resources?
Look at the absence of husbands and fathers who act as load bearing weights in their families and, by the results of their absence, you perceive more of God’s vision of an ‘adam who tends and stewards—who husbands—his land and his household. Any wife who has had a husband abandon his responsibilities and walk away from covenant relationship with her can tell you exactly what her family is missing, what she has to make up in his place, the weight she has had to bear and the triple work she must do. I’ve watched a dear friend do this. By God’s grace and a lot of help from her earthly father, my friend was strong in her home, raising her sons to love God. She was faithful in church, paid her bills, and stewarded her children. But her perseverance doesn’t negate the gaping hole left by the abandonment of her husband. It’s hard to muster up outrage that Hollywood’s latest female lead or a Silicon Valley female CEO made less than their male counterparts when the real scandal is the estimated $10 billion dollars owed mostly by men to their children’s mothers in back child support. These men didn’t steward their land. Some exploited the land. Some raped the land. And many more simply abandoned the land and resources God gave them to tend, to steward, to protect—to husband.
The Bible speaks of men (and women) in Genesis 1 and 2 in noble, inspiring ways. It speaks again in the New Testament similarly. Husbandman, shepherd, head. Understood in the larger metaphor of land and stewardship of God given resources for the flourishing of all people, we see God’s noble vision for the male human, ‘adam, a cornerstone in his household bearing weight and responsibility for the good of his family, stewarding and tending all God has given him.
Wendy Alsup is a mom, author, and math teacher who lives in the lowcountry of South Carolina on her grandparents’ farm. She is the author of Practical Theology for Women: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in our Daily Lives and Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness.
 See, for example, David Prior’s The Message of 1 Corinthians, p. 180. Also note the interesting connection in this regard made by Charles Bethea in his article in The New Yorker.