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How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

What are the differences between man and woman according to the creation stories?

Here’s a good opportunity to defend a more or less egalitarian reading of Genesis 1-3. An older piece by Alastair Roberts on the differences between men and women in creation has recently been published in abridged form on the 9Marks site. The first two sections consist of a complementarian reading of the two creation narratives; the third offers a somewhat tempered application of the reading to the modern context. I think that Roberts reads too much into the texts and unnecessarily absolutizes the patriarchalism that was introduced by the fall.

The creation of humanity in Genesis 1

The argument about the account of the creation of humanity in Genesis 1:26-31 is largely uncontroversial—there is little for the complementarian to work with here. Even so, it is given a polemical spin that is not entirely warranted by the text:

Rather significantly, Genesis does not gesture toward the generic plurality of humanity. Instead, humanity’s maleness and femaleness renders us a race and establishes the primary bonds of our natural relations and the source of our given identities.

This is inference, not interpretation. Sexual differentiation is obviously the means by which humanity will be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, but no distinction is made with respect to the primary mandate. Humanity as male and female will have dominion over all living creatures and will subdue the earth. The primary emphasis is on the relation of humanity to the rest of creation, not on sexual difference, which only becomes an issue in chapters 2-3 as part of a quite independent narrative. Created humanity gains its fundamental identity from its image-bearing capacity, which Roberts rightly understands in terms of the exercise of dominion, the embodiment of the creator’s rule.

The misreading is highlighted by the assertion that we have been “empowered as male and female to bring forth new images of God and of ourselves”. It is humanity as a whole which is in the image of God, not individual humans. The confusion is made worse by the appeal to Genesis 5:1-3: God made man in his own image, humanity as male and female, but Adam then fathered a son not in God’s but in his own likeness and image.

The differentiation of male and female in Genesis 2

Roberts says that we must read the two creation accounts “in close correspondence with each other” because Genesis 2 “offers a more specific and differentiated view of what it means to male and female”. It is important to note, however, that there is no reference to the first account in the Adam and Eve stories (Gen. 2:4-4:26). There is no evidence that the second account was written to complement the first.

Roberts thinks that “gendered differentiation in the fulfilment of the divine commission” is explained by the fact that exercising dominion and subduing creation are naturally male tasks, whereas women are much better at bearing and nurturing children.

Again, let’s be clear, this is not exegesis. This is Roberts imposing a narrowly construed traditional gender paradigm on the texts. Nothing in the two creation accounts points to such an allocation of responsibility. On the one hand, the male’s greater strength, resilience, and willingness to take risks were, presumably, of little use in a prelapsarian world in which God had given every plant and tree with their seeds to humanity to eat (Gen. 1:26). On the other, nothing is said about the woman bearing children until they have been thrown out into a hostile world. Outside of Eden the greater strength of men would be needed to dig the unyielding ground, build shelters, and defend the community—all of which would be essential to the task of being fruitful and multiplying.

The conventional argument that women “play the chief role in establishing the communion that lies at the heart of human society” seems dubious to me. In developed patriarchal cultures throughout history the role of women has been so circumscribed as to allow them very little opportunity to contribute to the mesh of relationships and negotiations that holds a social order together. Pederasty flourished in Greece (I have been doing a lot of reading on this subject recently for my book on same-sex relationships) largely because women were excluded from cultivated public life. I venture to suggest that it is either in “primitive” or in modern societies that women have played an active public role, and then precisely because in these contexts the forces of patriarchy are greatly weakened. The sharp distinction between nurturing children and social cohesion that Roberts’ argument presupposes is a false and demeaning one.

Nine marks of difference between men and women in Genesis 2

According to Roberts we find a series of “sharp and important contrasts” between the man and the woman in Genesis 2, which prioritise the male in the created order.

1. The man is created before the woman.

In the first creation account it is barely possible to separate the ʾāḏām whom God makes in his image and likeness from the duality of being male and female in which he created them (Gen. 1:26-27).

In the second account the ʾadam is formed, like a piece of pottery, from the dust of the ʾadama in order to work the ʾadama or “ground”; the breath of life is breathed into the inert clay, and he becomes a living soul (Gen. 2:5-7). Having made the labourer, God then plants a garden and puts him in it. So the man has been conceived and created for the specific purpose of working and preserving the garden (Gen. 2:15). This is probably, at one level, an allegory for Israel’s responsibility for preserving the land as a garden of YHWH, in which are the trees of knowledge and of life, in the midst of the nations.

It then appears that this lonely existence as a labourer in God’s garden is not good, so a “helper” is provided for him (Gen. 2:18). The creation of the man before the woman, therefore, is not a good thing.

2. The man can stand for humanity as a whole and will be regarded in the New Testament as the “representative head of the old humanity”.

According to the texts the ʾadam is quickly found to be representative of an inadequate version of humanity. He is “head” only in the sense that he came first, but this cannot be regarded as in any sense a position of honour or elevated status.

3. The image of God is especially focused on the man. “Like God, in his great dominion and subduing acts of the first three days of creation, the man names and orders the creatures.”

I have to say, I struggle to understand Roberts’ argument at this point. He suggests that the ʾadam is placed in the garden “as the light within its firmament… and charged with upholding the divisions that God had established, performing the royal function associated with the divine imaging”. It seems to have something to do with a contrived correspondence between the two creation accounts.

The naming of the animals is not presented as an act of subduing or ordering. That may suit a complementarian theology (“orders” is a controlling word), but it is not in the text. The story is part of the search for a suitable “helper”. Adam names the animals in order to find out what they are and, specifically, to ascertain whether any one of them would make a good “helper” for him.

4. The man is created to be “a tiller and guardian of the earth”, and the woman will “help” him by having babies.

Roberts notes the debate over the meaning of “helper” (ʿezer) and argues, on the one hand, that another man would have been more useful for working the garden, and on the other, that men prefer the companionship of other men. Therefore, the “primary help that the woman was to provide was to assist the adam in the task of filling the earth through child-bearing, a fact that is underlined in the later judgment upon the woman”.

Frankly, this is borderline misogynistic. The social arrangement that Roberts describes is at every point a consequence of the fall (Gen. 3:16-19):

  • After the expulsion from the garden, the ground is cursed and becomes difficult to work, and the task is assigned to the (stronger?) man as part of his punishment. There is no reason to think that the woman could not have worked with him in the garden of the Lord.
  • The relationship of equality and mutuality established by the creation of the woman from the side of the man (see below) is replaced by antagonism and subjugation (Gen. 3:16)—so in an unequal patriarchal culture men and women prefer the company of their own sex.
  • In this telling of the story, procreation becomes relevant only once death has been introduced: it is because the man and the woman will return to the dust that the woman must bring forth children in pain.

An ʿezer is typically an equal or stronger person who makes up for another’s lack or deficiency, and in this case the deficiency is plainly stated: it was not good that the man should be alone. The unusual prepositional expression kenegdo means something like “corresponding to him” (in contrast to the animals), but I argue in End of Story: Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission, 33-34, that in context it carries connotations of kinship that are further implied by the “one flesh” metaphor (Gen. 2:23-24).

5. The man was created from the dust, the woman from his side.

The “building” of the woman from the side of the man differentiates her not from the man but from the animals, which like the man were formed out of the ground (Gen. 2:19). The point is not that her being is derivative but that she is of the same kind or species. In that sense, she is fit for him; she is on the same biological-cultural level. It is an argument for equality and, indeed, companionship. By Roberts’ reasoning the animals, formed from the ground, would also have priority over the woman.

6. Adam was created outside the garden, the woman inside it. “The woman has an especial relationship to the inner world of the Garden; the adam has an especial relationship with the earth outside of the Garden.”

This is true inasmuch as humanity becomes subject to the malign forces of patriarchy when Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden. But there is no basis for imposing the distinction between inner and outer worlds on the story, as though Eden represented the life of domesticity and the rest of the earth the public and political world of the male. If anything, the contrast is between the land of Israel and the harsh world of the pagan nations into which Israel was exiled: “the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD” (Is. 51:3).

7. The man is directly given the priestly task of guarding and keeping the garden, the woman is not. God subsequently accuses Adam of not keeping the commandment.

The characterisation of Adam’s work in the garden as a “priestly task” is tendentious: it overlays an essentially agrarian occupation with the peculiar authority of the male Jewish priesthood. I have never been convinced by the argument that creation or Eden are conceived as a temple. If the language of working and preserving (šomr) is later used for priestly service in the tabernacle (eg., Num. 3:7-8), is working in a garden being compared to working in the temple? Or is working in the temple being compared to working in a garden? The difference is not trivial. In any case, the language is very general—for example, Jacob offers to pasture Laban’s flock and to “keep” (ʾešmōr) it (Gen. 30:31). There is no real reason to make the connection with priesthood.

It is certainly the case that the commandment is given to the man, and the man is held directly accountable for breaking the commandment (Gen. 2:15-16; 3:7, 11). This is a consequence of the fact that in this creation narrative the man is first created alone. His aloneness is discovered not to be a good thing, so the woman is made from his side, and he exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). Humanity now exists as a kinship group in microcosm. This is the properly “good” state of humanity, but the narrative structure has seemingly generated a flaw or a vulnerability, which is exploited by the serpent.

What the story teaches is that the unashamed communion of the man and woman was preferable to the aloneness of the man with the commandment, even though it introduced the flaw that would lead to the loss of innocence.

This is certainly how Paul understood it. The serpent took the opportunity presented by the order of their creation to deceive the unformed—and “uneducated”—woman (1 Tim. 2:13-14). Therefore, a woman should not teach but learn, while quietly getting on with the task of bearing children. Of course, two thousand years later, women have finally been allowed to learn as much as men; they are, therefore, no longer susceptible to the serpent-like insinuations of false teachers (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5-6), and the inequality is removed.

8. The man, not the woman, is given the task of naming the animals “as a sign and preparation for his rule over the world”. He also names the woman.

The point has been made already that the naming of the animals has nothing to do with exercising rule or the assertion of authority over them. The man identifies the animals in his search for a “helper”, and by doing so discovers that they are not suitable companions. The naming of the woman after their expulsion from the garden affirms her function as mother: “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20). The ʾadam had already been named by God, identifying him as a creature of the ʾadama or “ground’..

9. Marriage is asymmetrical: the man leaves his father and mother and joins his wife.

Interestingly, what Roberts highlights here is the idea that the “bonds of human relationship and communion are chiefly formed by and in women”. The verse is a comment on marriage under the conditions of patriarchy. Because the man and his “helper” were originally “one flesh” (by virtue of the woman’s creation from the side of the man, not by marriage), in the postlapsarian world a man leaves the kinship group of his own family and forms a new kinship group with his wife. The emphasis is entirely on the formation of a new and distinct “one flesh” identity, not on the role of the woman in nurturing social relationships. Israelite marriage was typically patrilocal. The assumption here is that the woman has already left her own family to live in the vicinity of the man’s family.

Genesis, gender and sexual difference

Roberts concludes from his examination of the texts that men and women “are created for different primary purposes”: the role of the man is to name, tame, divide and rule; the woman’s vocation “principally involves filling, glorifying, generating, establishing communion, and bringing forth new life”. It is in this differentiated binary that we reflect, as God’s image, “his own creative rule in his world”. That sounds to me as though sexual difference is being read back into the image of God, which I think is a mistake. God is not sexually differentiated. Humanity as humanity is given dominion over the earth as the image of God, but it is as male and female that humanity will be fruitful and multiply and so exercise that dominion globally.

The typology inevitably undergoes development and expansion over time, under changing cultural conditions, but the fundamental dimorphism remains determinative for behaviour. So the stark discrimination that emerges from Roberts’ reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is somewhat mitigated by the cultural contextualisation: “Each man and woman must find ways to bring their gendered aptitudes, capacities, and selves that God created them with to bear upon the situations he has placed them within.” Cultures construct and express gender in different ways but always as an expression of “our created natures and purposes”.

The submission of the woman to male leadership is also qualified: “not so much because he is given direct authority over her, but because his vocation is the primary and foundational one, relating to the forming that necessarily precedes the filling in God’s own creation activity”. So first men build things, then women fill them with life.

Historically, this has obviously been the case. But in an increasingly egalitarian world, this differentiation of roles barely survives. Male and female instincts may still come into play, but the machinery of government, social nurture, and production, has been developed to the point that it can be operated, for the most part, by men and women alike. The stereotypes have not been eradicated, but they are no longer scalable; Western society is not now a direct projection of the basic male-female dimorphism that Roberts describes.

The Bible assumes patriarchy from Genesis 3 onwards. Even the household codes of the New Testament do not fundamentally challenge this: they show how patriarchy might look under the lordship of Christ. What the second creation account offers, however, is a pre-patriarchal narrative of the development of the good, but morally precarious, companionship that exists at the heart of kinship groups.