In my previous column (based on my recently published book, Abusing Scripture), I argued that the “abuse of words” often does violence to the meaning and message of Scripture. I illustrated this by showing that the designation of the woman as man’s “helper” (Gen. 2:20) does not show her as a subordinate person, but rather as a person of strength and vitality, whose creation rescues man from his aloneness. In this column, I want to place this insight into the larger literary and theological context of Genesis 1-3. For it is the abuse of this context in Scripture that continues to undergird a patriarchal understanding of the male-female order.
In Genesis 1:26-27, human beings, in male-female polarity, are created in the image of God. In that male-female polar complementarity they are, together, given the mandate to exercise responsible sovereignty within and over the rest of the created order. These affirmations are powerful theological convictions that stand radically against the cultural religious environment within which Israel’s faith traditions were being shaped. For in that environment, women were largely held to have been created from inferior material.
This general male-female nature and structure of humanity, presented in Genesis 1, is now articulated in Genesis 2 in terms of its particularity in the man-woman relationship (Gen. 2:18-23) as the grounding for the covenant relationship of marriage (Gen. 2:24-25; cf. Mk. 10:5-9). Viewed from the theological perspective of Genesis 1:26-27, the reason why the animals cannot be man’s “suitable helper” is because they are not created in the “image of God.” They are not the man’s equal, cannot correspond to him “face to face” (“fit for him”), and cannot be his partners in exercising stewardship over the earth.
Further, the woman’s creation from the man (Gen. 2:21-22), as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), signifies that she is made from the same essence and substance, a further confirmation of the Genesis 1:26-27 affirmation of their equality—both before God (as God’s co-image bearers) and in relationship with each other.
These literary and theological connections—together with the meaning of “helper” as having redemptive, rather than subordinate connotations—make it impossible to interpret the Genesis 2 narrative of man and woman in terms of either essential or functional inequality. The concept of a creationally intended male-female hierarchy (superior-inferior, leader-follower, authority figure-assistant) is the result of the abusive reading of Scripture, and, as such, is contrary to the order of creation.
This literary and theological unity of Genesis 1-2 provides the overarching theological anthropology for our hearing of the male-female relationship that is a result of the fall in Genesis 3. The “rule of the man over the woman” (Gen. 3:16) must be seen as a dramatic departure from the order of creation. The Creator’s good design and intent for the man-woman relationship has become twisted and distorted. The hierarchical over-under condition of the male-female relationship is bondage to sin. It is, therefore, not prescriptive (as God’s intention for the man-woman relationship) but descriptive (the nature of that relationship when marred by sin). It is God’s creation design, not its distortion by sin, that must function as the normative paradigm for this relationship.
Within the larger literary and theological context of the whole of Scripture, the human condition—in its distorted, cursed existence—is the object of God’s redeeming and transforming work. This work culminated in Jesus Christ, whose sacrificial servanthood liberates humanity from its bondage to sin—including the cursedness of male-female hierarchy.