Having counseled the more vulnerable of the marriage partners, Peter briefly turns his attention to those with more social power—the husbands. He urges them as follows:
“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (3:7, ESV).
In the husbands’ instructions, Peter uses a comparative term to say the wife is the “weaker.” He does not say she is “weak,” but “weaker,” suggesting the husband, though stronger, is also weak.
And indeed, females are physically weaker on average than men. They have less muscle mass, though this reality is less apparent today to those living in a society in which women rarely must do as Ruth did, carrying thirty pounds of barley to Naomi on the day she meets Boaz (Ruth 2:17). Nor do they hoist a sixty-pound bag of it on their backs like Ruth did to take home barley from the threshing floor (3:15). While the idealized woman in Proverbs 31 is twice described as having physical strength (v. 17, 25), most non-agrarian women today struggle to carry a ten-pound bag of dog food from the car to the pantry.
Part of why women in Peter’s day developed much more muscle strength than the average western woman today, and part of why physical strength in women then was considered a good quality, was because they had much more need of it. So even though most women were stronger then, they were still generally weaker than men. Husbands had to do the work wives were physically unable to do. And the weaker a wife was, the more her husband had to concern himself with her vulnerability.
Add to this the fact that to maintain zero population growth, a wife had to have an average of five children. And pregnancy for many wives meant morning sickness in addition to all the other physical weakness associated with multiple gestations—and not always to a good end. Childbirth was the number one cause of death for women.
To modern audiences, the significance of Peter’s use of “strength” is less clear. But everyone in his readership would have been quite conscious of the strength differential. Certainly Peter’s audience would have been well aware of females’ weakness relative to men’s strength. Women’s bodies are also vulnerable to rape in a way that men’s bodies relative to women’s are not. Women’s physical weakness, and the risk of exploitation that accompanies it, contributes to women’s lack of social power.
In his phrase, “weaker vessel,” Peter is probably using “vessel” as a synonym for the “body.”
Paul uses the word “vessel” similarly in 1 Thessalonians 4:4. And both the word “vessel” and the idea behind Peter’s suggestion that husbands live with wives “according to knowledge” carry hints of sexual intimacy. When the patriarchs “knew” their wives, such knowledge was deeply intimate. And Peter links living with a physically weaker wife according to intimate knowledge with the husband’s inheritance.
Peter tells husbands to “show them (wives) honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life,” saying that “in this way nothing will hinder your prayers” (v. 7). In Peter’s view, godly husbands are to view their wives not as deficient creatures, but as co-heirs. And this “heir” image, focused as it is on inheritance, would have sounded radical to those in a world that greatly limited women’s ability to inherit and own property. According to Peter, in Christ not only is the wife granted an equal inheritance with her husband, but treatment of her would actually influence how the husband’s impartial judge would hear—or refuse to hear—his prayers. The powerless person, Peter reveals, has both an unseen virtue (a gentle, quiet spirit) and a great unseen power that goes all the way to the throne of God.
Peter’s ideal picture is of a partnership in which both husbands and wives honor one another in ways that are countercultural in order to please God, emulate Christ, and lead to the spread of the gospel.
Using existing household ideals, Peter has created an image in which the godly husband and wife uphold society’s structures as they grant each other honor and respect. She treats him with honor because she fears the God who prizes virtue; and he treats her as an equal (a radical idea!) because he fears the God who can refuse to hear his prayers. In Christian marriage, both honor each other because they are fellow inheritors.
Peter’s instructions to both partners form two sides of the same coin. In a context of suffering in which believers had few resources and little power, the apostle tells readers that together the husband’s and wife’s honoring interactions foreshadow a future they will share as joint heirs. In that day their Lord Christ will redistribute social power, and the meek shall inherit the earth.