Here are some thoughts I wrote during Old Testament last semester, which have formed the basis for some of my thinking about gender.
Equality in creation ordinances: Genesis 1:26-28
Genesis 1 has a bold message of human equality. Genesis 1:26-28 establishes the essential oneness of humankind through the ‘image of God’.* Whatever the ‘image of God’ refers to, its use here concerns the unity of humankind. Male and female are presented corporately as humankind. God creates ‘man’ but ordains rule for ‘them’; God creates ‘man’ but makes ‘them’ male and female. Image-bearing is conferred on male and female together. Humankind’s twin tasks of filling the Earth and subduing it are likewise given to humankind as a whole. In this, the image of God is connected with humankind rather than sexually differentiated individuals. In this case, the reference to ‘male and female’ is mainly connected with the commission to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ rather than the image of God.
Genesis 1:26-28 therefore teaches that the identity of both male and female is founded in God, defined corporately in their God-given humanity. There is a striking contrast here with other Ancient Near Eastern accounts of divine image, which concern only the king rather than the royal couple. Genesis emphatically democratises the divine image to include both male and female together and, by extension, the whole of humankind. If there is any wider significance to be found in the sexual differentiation mentioned in Genesis 1:27, it does not come from Genesis 1 itself.
Complementarity in creation sequences: Genesis 2:4-24
In the second creation text, Genesis adds to and nuances its message of human equality. The respective creations of the man and the woman point to a relational complementarity alongside the equality of male and female. What develops is a picture of equality in complementarity.
God first forms the man out of the earth and breathes life into him, grounding the man in the earthly realm yet distinguishing him from the earth creatures (2:7). God then places the man in the bountiful garden and commissions him to take care of it (2:8-15). Along with this, God provides many trees for the man (2:16) and prohibits one of them (2:17). This creational sequence involves three key features, raising three questions for us:
- God creates the man and the woman each at a different moment and in a different manner. Why are the man and the woman not created at the same moment and in the same manner?
- Before the creation of the woman, God’s commission for work in the garden is addressed to the man alone (2:8, 15). Why are both the man and the woman not present together?
- Before the creation of the woman, God’s provision and prohibition of the trees is addressed to the man alone (2:16-17). Why are both the man and the woman not present together?
This is pertinent because nothing in the text is random or haphazard. Every aspect of the text is an essential communication in the narrative. With the differences between male and female emerging here, there’s no sense of complete male-female sameness. There is some kind of difference within human equality. Without spelling out what this looks like for relationships in general, Genesis 2:4-24 appears to present the man as primarily responsible for both the undertaking of God’s garden commission and the obedience to God’s tree prohibition. But where does this leave the woman?
A ‘helper’ is required for the man (2:18). Despite the beauty and complete sustenance provided by the garden, despite even the presence of God, the man is ‘alone’, which God declares ‘not good’. The sole man is both relationally and functionally incomplete. The man’s uniqueness is not right. And the man’s ‘helper’ must be a very specific kind: one suitable for or rather corresponding to him (2:18). This is hugely significant: this helper is the man’s equal complement, his counterpart and match, not his twin, not his subordinate. ‘Helper’ itself ultimately carries no personal evaluation, no sense of lesser value; besides, the term is used of God elsewhere (eg, Ex 18:4). The woman’s construction out of the man’s rib, or rather side, emphasises her oneness with the man (2:21). In contrast to the animals, she is his equal partner, which he immediately celebrates (2:23).
Therefore, while men and women are each equally human, humanity is incomplete without both. Men and women each have their nature and purpose integrated with the other’s. Men require women and women require men; there is nothing superfluous about either. Together, they are to be co-workers in creating human community in an outworking of God’s commission.
Equality in complementarity
The initial creation of the man points to his equality with and complementarity to the woman. Likewise, the creation of the woman inheres both equality and complementarity in their relationship. Although the narrative does not detail the ways in which the roles of men and women are to be complementary, it is clear that they are to be so. Men and women interrelate like matching jigsaw pieces rather than carbon copies of one another. In this way, the opening of the Bible presents us with a magnificent vision of working together in the pursuit of human community under God.
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* There has been a wide variety of views about the meaning of the ‘image of God’, but I reckon the best explanation is that it encompasses the whole human person, in which function, relationships and personage are all intertwined.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.