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Gender in Genesis, part 2

This is a continuation of the discussion about Genesis 1-2. Below I’ve taken another angle on the story, focusing on the man. Along the way, I’ll interact with Richard Hess’s contribution to Discovering Biblical Equality. One of his summary statements, “unity in personhood and diversity in gender”, aligns with the phrase I’ve been using, equality in complementarity, so his article is a useful point of reference.

To recap…

Firstly, the resounding clarion call of Genesis 1-2 is equality and mutuality between man and woman — from God’s announcement of all humanity as his vice-regents (1:26-28) to the man’s celebration of the woman as his match (2:22-23).

Secondly, the narrative connects this gender equality/mutuality with correspondence rather than sameness in every respect. The woman and the man are not clones but counterparts, like two interlocking jigsaw pieces. They are to play equal parts in being the image of God (1:26-28), but these are corresponding parts, not identical parts — just as their own persons are not identical but corresponding (2:18, 23). There is intimate oneness without sheer sameness.

At this point, of course, the question is whether the narrative is teaching something more specific. Does the text say anything further about the shape of this correspondence?

I’m following the literary structure outlined by Tryggve Mettinger in The Eden Narrative, as follows: 2:4a-7 — 2:8-17 — 2:18-24 — 2:25-3:7 — 3:8-13 — 3:14-19 — 3:20-24.

A redeemed complementarity?

Richard Hess presumably finds in Genesis 1-3 a ‘complementarity without hierarchy’, as the book’s subtitle says. For example, Hess identifies the man’s distinctive responsibility as garden-worker (82-83, 85). Hess states that this responsibility came to an end with the expulsion from the garden — after which the man and the woman will both toil alongside one another, the woman facing the additional burdens of children and male domination (93-95). For Hess, the man’s garden task is distinctive but apparently incidental. Hess assumes that pre-fall gender equality carries through into redeemed relationships (94-95), but he offers no such extrapolation about complementarity.

If there is a redeemed equality, is there also a redeemed complementarity? I think there is more to be said about a redeemed complementarity in connection with the man’s garden task.

The gardener and the trees

God’s provision and prohibition of the trees is especially intriguing (2:16-17). God addresses his command to the man without the woman. Why? Why does the narrative include this before the search for the man’s helper has even begun? Hess simply says, “God… does not command the woman because she has not yet been created” (83). This is stating the obvious, but the question remains. What purpose does this passage serve in the narrative before the creation of the woman? Hess rightly says that it “anticipates the events of Genesis 3” (83), but is that all it does?

I take it that 2:16-17 is part of the narrative’s elaboration of 1:26-28 in terms of complementarity. The trees are connected with the man’s presence in the garden from their first appearance in the narrative (2:9). 2:5-7 has already signalled the connection between the man and the ground through wordplay (adam and adamah; see Hess 82-83). 2:8-17 establishes an interrelationship between God, the man, the garden, and the trees, in which the man is the garden-worker. 2:8 and 2:9 introduce this and 2:15 and 2:16-17 elaborate on it, so that the two trees are part of the man’s task. God commissions the man as garden-worker, in which the man must answer to God for the provision and prohibition of the trees.

Following this comes the woman’s creation (2:18-24) as the one integral to the man’s humanity (I discussed this earlier). With 2:25 comes the ominous reference to the innocence and harmony of humanity before the introduction of the serpent. As the serpent and the woman begin their deadly dance, the man becomes an onlooker, fading into the background of the narrative. We expect the man to uphold God’s provision and prohibition (2:8-17), and we expect the man to care for the woman who is so integral to him (2:18-24). He does neither (3:6).

It is not surprising, then, that God immediately addresses the man (3:9) and specifically questions him about the tree (3:11). Neither is it any surprise that God’s judgement on the man (3:17-19) directly concerns the tree and the ground, which he was drawn from, and which he was supposed to tend. So far, the man has been specifically commissioned by God, answerable to God, held to account by God, and judged accordingly by God. Hess implicitly acknowledges this (89-91).

The all-important relationship

The implication of the man’s garden-work task is not, as Hess rightly observes, for men to take hold of some kind of authority. However, Hess himself does not offer a particularly adequate explanation, saying that the implication of the man’s garden work is simply for the woman to join in with him (85, 94) — the fact that the task has been particularly addressed to the man does not seem to signify anything, especially as the task itself was terminated with the fall. Instead, I think the answer is this: because the man’s task is inextricably bound up in his relationship with the woman, the implication is that the man must above all care for the woman.

The man’s task, via the trees, is precisely what focuses the narrative on the all-important relationship between the man and the woman. While Hess does connect the trees with the breakdown in harmony between the man and the woman (85), he does not explore how these connect with the man’s task. We’ve seen that the narrative relates two things which God gives to the man: a task (2:8-17) and a corresponding helper (2:18-24). We’ve seen that the man had responsibility for the task, in that the man particularly answers to God for this. However, the task is not purely for the man alone: 1:26-28 has already presented male and female as joint image-bearers, and the “alone” man cannot proceed without his corresponding helper (2:18). The success of the man’s task does not depend on how fit the woman is — she is fitting (2:23)! Rather, the man’s task depends on his relationship with the woman, apart from which the task makes no sense. In the fall passage (2:25-3:7), the man abandons the task through his abandonment of the woman.

In other words, what is significant is not the man’s role as gardener but the man’s relationship with the woman. This is the great hinge and focus of the narrative. God has given the man an initiative — but the man’s initiative is bound to and directed towards the woman. This means that men must value women not simply because women are “the other half”, but because women contribute something to humanity that men never can, for the very fact of their manhood. This means that in human society, men have a prerogative to care for women, without whom society is incomplete (2:23). Marriage is to be a microcosm of this (2:24).

In this way, the narrative has a message that persists quite apart from the man’s task: a true man takes initiative in the care of women. This is the male responsibility, a responsibility for which men will answer to God. ‘Male responsibility’ may be an alarming term, but we have no need to fear Scripture’s affirmation of this, because of the paradoxical, ‘foolish’ ways in which God overturns human thinking. I take the Bible’s great anti-patriarchal statement to be Philippians 2:5-8, in which Christ shows true power by dissolving his power in sacrifice. This is what redeemed complementarity looks like for men: men take up their responsibility by sacrificially serving women.

Categories: Woman Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

7 replies

  1. Thanks Arthur, good stuff!

    Mettinger has done some great work don’t you think? I really love what narrative criticism has brought to understanding the Bible!

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