Evidence for Equality in Genesis 1-3 | CBE International

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Evidence for Equality in Genesis 1-3

Positive evidence for the equality of male and female is nowhere more clearly apparent than in Genesis 1:26-28. If God creates in his image, and that image is defined in v. 27 as “male and female,” then the most important distinction between human beings and all other life on earth is a distinction that is shared by both male and female. Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, God creates groups of animals (birds, fish, etc.).  The creation of the human species is more specific; it is the species that is created with both sexes, not a single person or general group. 

God also blesses them and commands fruitfulness and dominion. This command for fruitfulness continues the theme of Genesis 1, which exhibits much less emphasis on matter and force and much more on the creation of life. The dominion that God commands humanity to exercise over creation involves the continuation of God's work in the promotion of life and the provision for its increase and wellbeing.

The use of the plural when God speaks, “Let us,” may suggest a social context such as the divine court (e.g., Job 1-2, Psalm 82, Isaiah 6).  In the ancient world people understood their deities to function as part of a great court, just like the royal court in a kingdom.  In the case of the God of Israel, there is only one God and the court is made up of different angels, such as the seraphim in Isaiah 6. The ancient Israelite reader would have first understood this reference to "we" as a reference to divine deliberation in the heavenly court.  However, it does not seem as though this would apply for the reference to the creation of humanity “in our image.” Perhaps this suggests something of the complex nature of God, a view that in the New Testament will progress closer to an understanding of the Trinity.

Nevertheless, the point in Genesis 1 is that God's creation of humanity includes a shared social capacity for the accomplishment of their mission. And the basis for that social dimension is the male and female constitution of the human race. Most of the rest of life consists of male and female genders. However, it is only in the creation of humanity that this distinction is explicit. It is not stated with the creation of the animals, only with the creation of Adam and Eve. The effect is to emphasize the importance of mutual support that men and women have with one another.

Genesis 2:4-25 focuses on the man, his home, his work, and his need for a partner. There is a beautiful picture in this passage of the search for a partner without success. Finally, God puts the man to sleep and creates the woman from his side. The rib or side that God removes from the man forms the basis for creating the woman. The picture has often been cited as a wonderful illustration of equality, for the woman is not taken from the head or from the foot of the man, but from his side.

Genesis 2 also raises the question of the order of creation. Whereas the account of the first chapter recognizes little or no time between the creation of the male and female, chapter two suggests a considerable period between the formation of the two sexes. It would appear that the writer of the second chapter used the Hebrew language and its propensity toward wordplay in order to relate the story of the search for compatibility. The man is somehow insufficient without the woman.

In order to fully appreciate the intended unity of male and female, it is important to notice the materials employed in their creation. The man comes from the ground. In Hebrew, the most common means of expressing the feminine gender is with a suffix, -ah. The word for “man” in most of chapter two is 'adam. The ground from which the man is created in v. 7 is 'adamah. Therefore, when God introduces the woman to the man, he cannot use the 'adam/'adamah distinction, because 'adamah has already been used as a word to mean something else. Instead, the man uses two new words, 'ishah for woman, and 'ish for man. Thus as the man ('adam) was taken from the ground ('adamah) and will return to it (Gen. 3:19), so the woman ('ishah) was taken from the man ('ish). However, here something happens that is unexpected. Instead of the woman returning to the man, and thus completing the circle, the man returns to the woman (Gen. 2:24). The man and woman together create “one flesh,” as was the case before the woman was created from the man. This picture reverses the expected means of reconnection. By doing so, it avoids any sense in which the woman is a derivative secondary figure who must find her way back to the man for completion. While the woman is taken from the man, the man returns to the woman to complete the picture of unity. This symmetry of activity emphasizes harmony rather than dependence. And indeed, the picture at the end of Genesis 2 is one of harmonious relations. The man and woman are naked and unashamed (v. 25), without any barrier between them.  

This mutuality continues into chapter three. It becomes clear that the man and the woman are given equal priority in terms of the order in which they speak or appear. In the account of Genesis 2, of course, the man appeared first and was followed by the woman. In the first part of Genesis 3, verses 1-7, the woman appears first and then the man. Again the order reverses in the excuses of verses 8-13, where the man appears first and then the woman. Finally, in the judgments of verses 14-19, God addresses the woman before the man. This manner of switching back and forth emphasizes how neither woman nor man has precedence, but instead exhibits an equality of purpose, opportunity, and responsibility.

This observation also implies that the man and woman are together in each scene of Genesis 3. When the woman gives the man the forbidden fruit in v. 6, he is “with her.” Why then does the woman speak and not the man? I believe that the main reason that the woman is the most vocal in this conversation with the snake is to demonstrate that the man and woman equally shared the guilt of what happened. In Genesis 2:16-17 God had already given the man specific instructions regarding the fruit. There was no indication that the woman knew of these matters. However, her conversation with the snake establishes beyond doubt that she was also knowledgeable. The well known distortion of God's words in the woman's words to the snake does not alter the basic prohibition. Furthermore, the presence of the man in the scene and the absence of any protest suggest a mutual consent to the description the woman provides. 

We come finally to the judgment of Genesis 3:16 for the woman and of Genesis 3:17-19 for the man. They are different and reflect different roles that God would give to the couple. Yet, other than the biological reality that women bear children, nothing here changes the message of underlying equality. Both the woman and the man will need to work hard as the same word, 'itstsabon “hard toil,” is used in v. 16 and in v. 17 to describe the roles of each, now that they would no longer remain in the Garden. The woman's “desire” for her husband is not primarily sexual desire. In accordance with basic principles of interpretation, one finds this rare word, teshuqah, nearby in Genesis 4:7, where it refers to sin's “desire” to control Cain. The same verb, “to rule, master” mashal, describes both the man's domination of the woman and Cain's ability to dominate sin. Thus the woman will desire to dominate the man but the man, perhaps with superior strength, will dominate the woman. However, this is a judgment of how things will be, not necessarily how they must be. The patriarchal societies of the world express the reality of male domination. But it is no more a sin to end this consequence of the fall than it is to use weed killer to end the promised weeds and thorns in the following verses. No, the emphasis here is on the terrible effects of sin, and the destruction of a harmonious relationship that once existed. In its place comes a harmful struggle of wills.

In Genesis 3:20 the man names his wife Eve, and he connects the name with her role of motherhood. As with the naming of the animals (Gen. 2:19) and with the naming of the woman in terms of her gender (Gen. 2:23), this is more an act of discernment in terms of the purpose for which God created the woman. In Genesis 4:1 Eve will name Cain. In Genesis 4:2 no one explicitly names Abel. In Genesis 5:3 Adam will name Seth. Whether explicitly, as with Cain and Eve, or implicitly, as with Abel and Seth, the name itself , through meaning or sound, indicated some aspect of the person's role and place in that early family. 

The opening chapters of Genesis portray how, in the very beginning, man and woman were created as equals. That equality promoted a wonderful harmony, which sin destroyed. A conflict of wills arose between men and women, a conflict which is still present today. However, through Christ, we are reconciled and given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20). As we know the good news of reconciliation, so we can claim this good news of equality, and work for a restoration of the harmony God intended from the beginning. 

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