One of my first experiences as an intern with Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) involved my staffing a CBE booth at a conference. Here, I met a woman who was very excited about egalitarianism; however, in spite of the enormous favor toward egalitarianism that she found in the Bible, she still considered herself a complementarian. Why? She said it was due to the “order of creation.” The creation of Adam before Eve was the last and major “obstacle” that she could not surmount.
Her response surprised me greatly. In my opinion, the “order of creation” is one of the weakest objections. As my internship progressed, I encountered more people who, although supportive of CBE’s mission, were convinced that Adam, being created first, had a special role as representative of humanity that Eve did not share.
The “order of creation” argument is significant to the hierarchical case. If inequality between man and woman was part of the original creation, it is logical that inequality was part of God’s original design for male/female relationships. By interpreting the creation order to imply that man was created to be an authority over woman, hierarchists teach that men are to be authorities over women today. A woman’s authority is, therefore, limited so that she cannot be in a position of authority or leadership over men. To be so, according to this line of thought, would be to ignore her God-given “role” as a subordinate helper to man.
While hierarchists refer back to the original creation for support for hierarchy in female/male relationships, egalitarians refer to the original creation to support equality. Because we are living after the fall and in the midst of broken relationships, egalitarians believe one must look to the biblical account of creation to gain a clearer understanding of God’s original intent for humanity. What implications does the “order of creation” in the Genesis account have for the structure of human relationships?
According to the egalitarian perspective, the creation account in Genesis indicates that (1) man and woman were created equal in value, both being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27); (2) man and woman were both given equal dominion over the earth and its creatures (Gen. 1:26–30); and (3) there was no hierarchy in male/female relationships in the original creation, but this came as a result of sin (Gen. 3:16).
According to the hierarchical perspective, as quoted from the Danvers Statement, (1) “both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood”; (2) “distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart”; (3) “Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall, and was not a result of sin.”1
In the chapter entitled “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the author defines “headship” to mean that “the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction.”2 According to him, man was created to lead, and woman was created to submit to man, who is to be an authority or “head” over the woman. His claim is that, because the man was created first and the woman second as a helper, or partner, for the man, the man is to be the leader and an authority over the woman.
The Genesis accounts
How valid are such claims as readings based on the Genesis 1 and 2
accounts? Genesis 1 explains that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (v. 1). God first created light, then the sky, the water and land, the plants and vegetation, the sun and the stars, the creatures of the air and sea, the creatures of the land, and, then, the end of creation was humankind (Gen. 1:1–27):
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:26–28 NRSV).
The account concludes with God giving humans the plants for food, and God looking at everything and calling it good (vv. 29–31).
What is clear from Genesis 1 is that both man and woman were equally created in the image of God (vv. 26–27), told to be fruitful and multiply (v. 28), and given dominion over the world God created (vv. 26–31). Both were created equal in value in the image of God, and both were given the same task of caring for the earth. Genesis 1 gives no indication that man and woman were created any different, other than one being “male” and the other “female.” Both are included within the Hebrew term for humanity, adam. In Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time, and no temporal ordering appears.
Hierarchists agree that man and woman were both charged with authority over creation, but argue that they will not exercise authority over creation in the same way.3 Women, they claim, are to be stewards within a position of submission under authority, and men are to steward within a position of leadership. But, such a distinction is not made in Genesis 1.
In Genesis 2, another account of creation focuses in more detail on the creation of humankind, male and female. In Genesis 2:7, God formed the being (adam) from the dust of the earth (adamah). This word usage in Hebrew is intentional. It is a play on words to demonstrate the connection of human life to the earth. God then put adam in the garden of Eden to till and keep it, God gave the command to adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and then God perceived that it was not good that adam was alone:
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. (Gen. 2:18–25 NRSV).
It is here in Genesis 2 that claims are made for a “creation order.” There is a moment when adam is created alone before the creation of Eve. We must ask what the intention is in this narrative. Is there a reason that one person was created first alone before the creation of the other? Hierarchical belief is that this “order of creation” hints towards male “headship.” Is this so? Let us focus our attention on the main intention of this passage.
The necessity of Eve
First of all, it is made abundantly clear that it was not good that Adam was alone. Adam needed Eve. This is a shocking statement, for, up until this point, everything God had created was considered “good.” Only here, when seeing that Adam was alone, did God declare that it was “not good.” This is a remarkable witness to the fact that Adam had a lack that was not fulfilled until Eve was created. Adam was in need of a partner, of a helper. In Genesis 2:18, God acknowledges that it is not good for man to be alone and that it was necessary to create Eve.
Before creating Eve, God wanted Adam to recognize his need for Eve. God first wanted Adam to be aware that he was, in fact, alone. God brought all the animals to Adam to name (vv. 19–20). Most likely, when Adam named the animals, he did not merely glance at them quickly and give them a name. Adam probably took time considering each animal before naming it. In this way, Adam became familiar with all of the animals and recognized that he was different from them. None was fitting to be his partner, for none was like him. God wanted to make it clear to Adam what or whom he was missing before creating Eve, so that the creation of Eve would be fully appreciated by Adam.4
Similarity and unity
The next main point of this passage is the similarity and unity between the man and woman. Eve is a fitting partner for Adam because, unlike the animals, she was like him. Woman was created by God from the side of the man (vv. 21–22)—not from the dust, but from the same flesh as the man. This is a beautiful and poetic way to describe the “one flesh” relationship between men and women. Some interpret this part of the story to show woman’s subordination to man. However, since the animals were created first and Adam later as their superior, one could just as easily conclude that Eve, created after Adam from his flesh, superseded him and became his superior. Such understandings miss the main intent of the story: to show the unity between the two humans.
Adam rejoices in this similarity when he exclaims, “this is at last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken” (v. 23). To understand the full force of this statement, it is necessary to recognize that the Hebrew word for man used here is ish, and the word for woman is ishah. Just as the man (adam) was formed from the ground (adamah), so woman (ishah) was formed from man (ish). The names given to man and woman continue the theme of rejoicing in the unity of the two.
Just as Adam and Eve were made from the same flesh, in marriage they become one flesh again, as verse 24 states, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh.” Here, in Genesis 2:24, is the first time marriage appears in the Bible. There is nothing patriarchal about this text. In fact, contrary to the tradition of the woman being “given away” by her father to her husband, this text has the man leaving his father and mother to unite with his wife. There is absolutely no hint that the husband is to have authority over his wife.
At no point in the creation account does God give the man authority or a special leadership role over the woman. Would not this have been the perfect time to give such mandates? God directly told man and woman that they were given a share in dominion over the earth and its creatures (Gen. 1:26–30). If God intended man to be the authority over woman, would not God have directly stated this in the same way? The first mention of a spouse ruling over another only comes at the fall as a consequence of sin in Genesis 3:16. But, at the beginning, the focus of marriage is the unity and one-flesh relationship of the two.
Order of creation
The creation account in Genesis 1–2 clearly states that both man and woman were created in the image of God, both were told to be fruitful and multiply, and both were given dominion over the creation. Genesis 2 shows how Adam had a lack when he was alone, and that Eve was created in a manner demonstrating the similarity and one-flesh relationship between the two. She was, in fact, the pinnacle of creation, completing the creation of humanity. Why, or how, is this text being used to support male “headship” and gender “roles”? Some suggest that the creation of man before woman supports male headship. As one hierarchist writes:
The paradox of Genesis 2 is also seen in the fact that the woman was made from the man (her equality) and for the man (her inequality). God did not make Adam and Eve from the ground at the same time and for one another without distinction. Neither did God make the woman first, and then the man from the woman for the woman. He could have created them in either of these ways so easily, but He didn’t. Why? Because, presumably, that would have obscured the very nature of manhood and womanhood that He intended to make clear.5
According to this author, God intentionally created Adam before Eve in order to make it clear that Adam was to be the leader in the relationship (manhood), while Eve was to be a subordinate helper (womanhood).
First of all, the author assumes that, in order to be equal, man and woman would have had to have been created at the same time, both from the dust. He presumes hierarchy based on the creation order. I believe, however, there was a greater purpose in creating one partner before the other: to show the need of man and woman for one another. The emphasis is not that one partner was created to be the helper, but that one partner was momentarily alone, and this was “not good.” Adam recognizes not only his need, but also how invaluable Eve is. The fact that the creation of the woman came second as a helper does not imply her subordination or that she was a “gift” to Adam, but that she was created to fill a need and to help in the task of maintaining God’s rule on earth. Creating one person first and then the other from his flesh poetically demonstrates the one-flesh relationship of man and woman, showing unity, not hierarchy.
Whenever hierarchists refer to different “roles” for men and women, they are referring to who leads and who obeys. They suggest that woman was created as a subordinate help to man and that man was created to be the leader of the relationship. For example, the author quoted earlier believes that the creation order of Adam before Eve was intentional to make these “roles” for man and woman clear. He writes, “A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God.”6 On what is this claim based? Not once in the text is Adam called a “leader” or a “head.” The woman’s “role” as “helper” is based on two Hebrew words in Genesis 2:18: ezer kenegdo, often translated together as “helper.”
It should not be assumed that, because Eve was created as a helper, that this is the permanent role or identity for all women. The main purpose for her creation was that Adam not be alone. Adam needed an equal. Christiane Carlson-Thies writes in her article “Man and Woman at Creation” that, although such arguments claim to address only the woman’s “role,” in reality, these claims have implications for woman’s ontology. If a man, just by virtue of being a man, is supposed to be a leader, and a woman, by virtue of being a woman, is supposed to be a subordinate helper, then something intrinsic about the essence, or ontology, of a man and woman must be different.7 This interpretation was drawn by some in the past. For example, John Calvin (1509–1564) writes:
Now Moses shews that the woman was created afterwards, in order that she might be a kind of appendage to the man; and that she was joined to the man on the express condition, that she should be at hand to render obedience to him. (Gen. ii. 21.) Since, therefore, God did not create two chiefs of equal power, but added to the man an inferior aid, the Apostle justly reminds us of that order of creation in which the eternal and inviolable appointment of God is strikingly displayed.8
Today, we would be hard-pressed to find someone who will say what Calvin said—that woman was created after man to be an “inferior aid” and an “appendage.” The contemporary argument that attempts to maintain hierarchical relationships while at the same time affirming equality in essence and value is inconsistent.
Does “help” imply inferiority or subordination?
What reason do we have to assume that a “helper” implies subordination? I often go to people for help who are my superiors because I have more confidence in their help. “Help” can come from someone of superior, inferior, or equal status.
As I noted, the Hebrew words often translated as “helper” are ezer kenegdo. Ezer (help) is often used of God as helper (Ps. 10:14, 30:10, 54:4, 70:5, 72:12, 121:2). Clearly, there is no connotation of inferiority or subordination of the One designated a help! Rather, ezer is a sign of strength and power. A better case could be made that ezer refers to a superior rather than an inferior.9Kenegdo means “corresponding to,” “opposite to,” or “face to face,” making it clear that the relationship between man and woman is one of equality. Eve was a fitting partner for Adam, for she was like him. None of the animals was able to be an ezer kenegdo, because they were not like Adam. Ezer kenegdo implies not inferiority or subordination, but strength and power.
God first brought animals
A common hierarchist argument is that, because God first brought the animals to Adam, the helper would likewise be one over whom Adam exercised authority. This reasoning suggests that Eve was created in a rank closer to that of the animals than to that of Adam. Here we find the Greek influence of the “chain of being”: man, then woman, then animals, then inanimate life.10 This understanding misses the point: that Eve was different than the animals and like Adam. None of the animals was suitable as a helper. Adam needed someone like himself and equal to himself (unlike the animals), and Eve is suitable because she is like him.
Some maintain that Adam’s temporal priority grants him authority over that which comes after him. They turn to the concept of primogenitor, or rights given to the firstborn (cf. Deut. 21:15–17). They reason that, because Adam was created first, he received greater authority and was given a special role as representative of the two. According to Richard Hess, this is an illegitimate model upon which to base the creation narrative. Primogenitor applies to children’s rights to their father’s inheritance. God does not give birth to man or woman, but creates them. There is no “inheritance” because God does not die.11 Furthermore, Adam and Eve are not siblings. To read primogenitor into this context is improper.
Even if we were to grant the premise of primogenitor, we should not neglect the many examples in Scripture where preference is given to a younger child over the first: Isaac over Ishmael (Gen. 21), Jacob over Esau (Gen. 27), Rachel over Leah (Gen. 29), Ephraim over Manasseh (Gen. 48), Joseph over his brothers (Gen. 37), and David over his brothers (1 Sam. 17). Would we say that John the Baptist had authority over Jesus because he came first?
There is nothing in the text to suggest that man, because he was created first, is meant to be the leader. If we follow this logic, we would have to say that the plants and animals are to have authority over human beings, or that the dust of the earth is to be an authority over Adam. Derivation does not necessitate subordination, nor does prior existence entail authority.
Why this hierarchical interpretation of Genesis?
Are we reading the Genesis text as it is, or are we reading it according to what we expect to find based on the interpretations of others? Is it possible that we have been influenced by notions that are completely external to the text?
We should not assume that the creation of Adam first means anything other than he was created first, or that the creation of Eve second means anything other than that she was created second. To assume that this suggests a relationship of subordination is to read things into the text that are simply not there. Anne Atkins has stated the point aptly:
Suppose God had made the woman first, and the man out of her. . . . Now who comes over as the helpless, dependent one, the weaker, inferior partner? Why, the woman again of course! She could not cope alone; man had to be made to bail her out. Part of her body was taken away to make him; she can never again be complete on her own. The man was made last, after the plants, after the animals, and certainly after the woman; he is the crown of God’s creation. He was made out of human flesh; she is nothing but dust. Even her name (“man” now of course) is a diminutive version of his (“woman”). She is to “cleave” to him (and, as it happens, this word is “used almost universally for a weaker cleaving to a stronger”; no doubt a great deal would be made of this if the woman were to cleave to the man!). Most significant of all she is to leave her parents and her way of life to join him and adapt to him; she was clearly found to be inadequate on her own.12
If people come to the text with certain expectations, then they will certainly be able to interpret the text to meet those expectations. Because historically, and in certain situations today, men have had authority in relationships, this does not mean it is what God originally intended. We do not see relationships of male authority over women in the Bible until the fall as the consequence of sin (Gen. 3:16). The roots of gender hierarchy, or male authority over women, are not in creation, but in the fall.
Further, we have been influenced by the Western idea that first is best—but God created in an ascending order of importance, with the more complex beings created last. On this basis, it could be as easily concluded that Eve was more complex than Adam, and that Eve was the pinnacle of creation. The purpose of the sequential creation of Adam and then Eve in Genesis 2 is to show the need they have for each other.13 Adam alone was “not good,” and he was in need of a partner. It was not until Eve was created that the creation of humankind was complete and good.
God, who has ultimate authority, gave humanity (man and woman) a share in God’s authority over creation. The creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 are beautiful accounts of the interdependence of man and woman and the unity and partnership that they share. This is made even clearer when we look to the new creation and the way in which Christ restored man and woman to a similar relationship of unity and interdependence (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 3:28).
- Found in Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2004), 538.
- Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1–3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991), 95.
- Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 107.
- Joy Elasky Fleming, “Man and Woman in Biblical Unity: Theology from Genesis 2–3” (Minneapolis, Minn.: Christians for Biblical Equality, 1993), 7.
- Ortund, “Male–Female Equality and Male Headship,” 102.
- Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” 102.
- Christiane Carlson-Thies, “Man and Woman at Creation: A Critique of Complementarian Interpretations,” Priscilla Papers 18, no. 4 (Fall 2004): 5.
- John Calvin, “The First Epistle to Timothy,” 2.13, in Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1989), 69.
- Fleming, “Man and Woman in Biblical Unity,” 9.
- Aristotle recognized a hierarchy of nature in his De Anima. For the history of the idea, see Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936).
- Richard S. Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence: Genesis 1–3,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2005), 84.
- Anne Atkins, Split Image: Male and Female After God’s Likeness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987), 20–21; cited in Rebecca Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1997), 137.
- Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence,” 84.