On Male-Female Equality: Readings of Genesis 1 and 2

On Male-Female Equality: Readings of Genesis 1 and 2
By David V. Feliciano
Retrieved from Vol. 9 No. 2 (1993)

Genesis 1:26-28

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after 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 the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And 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.” (RSV)

There is something wrong in solo leadership – be it a family situation, in an institution/organization, or government. Solo leadership is open to abuse. Cases of battered wives and terrorized children due to abusive husbands and fathers are quite common. A number of religious and business ventures eventually fall apart from heavy-handed leaders or managers. And we are familiar with dictators like Marcos who brought much suffering and evil on their own people.

My own experience in solo leadership in the family has made me reflect seriously. It made me re-think my belief in the traditional view of marriage which stresses the headship of husbands and the complete subjection of the wives in all things. The most commonly quoted verse to support such a view is Ephesians 5:24. This verse more than any other has been used by many well-meaning husbands to compel and sometimes even force their wives to blind subjection. To do so is to take the text out of context and read it out of balance with other texts of the Bible.

Thus, going back to Genesis 1 and 2 is crucial. For in it we discover man and woman in their original state before the Fall. These accounts tell us a lot not only about why and how God created them but also what they were before God and to each other before the entrance of sin. This must be underscored.

Genesis Account of Creation: Created in His Own Image

Genesis 1 recounts the majestic drama of God’s creation, of the world reaching its climax in the creation of man and woman (vs. 26-28). That this was so is stressed by the fact that there was a divine consultation before man’s creation: “let us make man” (v.24). This was not the case when God created the rest of nature. This makes human beings unique and distinct from the others, for we were created in God’s image and likeness (vs.26-27). These words set us apart from the animals. Also, they put us in a special relationship with our Creator.

Interestingly, the words image (Heb. Selem) and likeness (Heb. Demut) are almost synonymous with just a slight distinction between them. Selem (image) means an “exact copy” or “reproduction” while demut (likeness) means “resemblance” or “similarity”. This humankind – man and woman, is an exact copy or resemblance of the Creator. Both man and woman bear God’s image (imago dei). This imago dei in them is in the area of mind or reason, moral and spiritual qualities, conscience and will, creativity and freedom. Perhaps it may also refer to some kind of physical resemblance (Ex. 33:12-23).

Not only do we find God’s image in man and woman, but there is also a distinction in how this is imaged in the sexes. For in the first part of v.27a, the word man (Heb. Adam or ish) actually refers to man in its generic sense. So, the more accurate translation is “mankind” or better “humankind” as the New Revised Standard Version translates it (v. 21a, NRSV). But the second part clearly shows the distinction of the sexes: “male and female he created them” (v.27b). They are similar, yet in some ways distinct and different from each other.

There is also the fact that “the full meaning of ‘mankind’ is realized only when there are man and woman” (JC, p. 11). That is to say, there is incompleteness in man’s life without woman. Woman complements man and vice versa. This point is more fully discussed in Gen. 2 which we will do shortly.

After God created man and woman, both were mandated by their Creator to subdue the earth and to rule over it (v. 28). The control over the newly-made earth and all its creatures were not for man alone but the woman as well. Man and woman are co-rulers of the earth. In its clarity and simplicity, we tend to overlook this obvious fact. Perhaps this is the result of our chauvinistic reading of Scripture in which we only see man but not the woman as ruler over the environment. This is not at all the case. This co-rulership extends over the world and not just over the animals. Nowhere can we find in this first account that the woman is subject or even subordinate to the man, much less inferior to him. In short, Genesis 1 underscores man and woman’s equality before God.

Genesis 2:7, 18-24 complements and supplements Genesis 1:26-28. In this passage, the style is “more anthropomorphic, the perspective is earthly and human rather than cosmic and divine” (JC, p. 12). The central focus of God’s creative act is man (Heb. Adam), again in its generic sense, by forming him from the dust of the ground (Heb. Adamah). Then the Lord God breathed into his nostrils and man became a living soul/being (v. 7). Thus, humankind has a relationship to earth; for out of it we were taken and to it, we will return (3:19). The earth is also destined for our use (1:28-30). But more to be stressed is the special kind of life that we have since we came from the Creator. As von Rad commented, “Here the creation of man and woman is pictured as a much more personal and indeed much more intimate act of God”. 

Yahweh also planted a beautiful garden in Eden in the east for man’s dwelling. He put him there to care for and develop it (v. 15). But then a problem arose because man was not fit for solitary existence. Neither the birds nor the animals could provide him that companionship he so greatly needed for they are entirely different nature and world (vs. 19-20).

So, Yahweh created woman (Heb. ishshah) out of man (Heb. ish) by taking one of his ribs, to be his helper-partner (vs. 20-21). The phrase “helper as his partner” (NRSV) means someone who corresponds to him, has a similar nature with him yet “not identified with him, but rather his counterpart, his complement”.  Distinctly created for him, she was an ideal companion for the man who readily recognized and received her as such (v. 23). The expressions “his ribs”, “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” could be figurative and refer to “the unity of marriage and its monogamous nature as God-willed” (JC, p. 12). This in effect becomes “the greatest miracle and mystery of creation” (von Rad, Vol. 1, p. 150). If Genesis 1 underscores man’s and woman’s equality before God, then Gen. 2 emphasizes their complementary.

What It Does Not Mean

Thus, the two passages show the original state of man and woman before their Fall. We now draw basic truths from it. Perhaps it would be good to state first what the narratives don’t mean.

For instance, it does not mean that woman is inferior to man. This concept has dominated the thinking of Christians in history, remnants of which still persist today. To say that woman is inferior to man implies that she is not of the same quality that man is made of, making her sub-human or at least subordinate. Nowhere can we find such an idea stated nor even implied. Both were created by the same Creator, God, according to his image. Both are endowed with the same divine nature. Both have the same dignity, honor, and worth. Both have received moral/spiritual qualities, natural talents, special abilities, and gifts from God. So how then can woman be inferior to man?

There is the often-repeated argument that because man was created before woman, the latter necessarily becomes man’s subordinate. Subordination means “placed in or occupying a lower rank”. Again, nowhere do we find this setup in the Garden of Eden. When Adam sang that the woman is “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh”, he was rejoicing at someone who was finally, like him. In calling her woman, he was not exercising dominion over her as some commentators suggest but celebrating sameness and the possibility of communion because of it. No hierarchical setup was in view, either from the standpoint of man or the Lord God himself before the Fall.

Still, others insist that because woman is created after man, she stands as a subject to him. To be subject is “to make oneself amenable to the discipline and control of a superior”, like a “vassal to a monarch and be governed by his law.” Given such a definition, man and woman are then placed in an inferior-superior, superordinate-subordinate relationship. To say that subordination of woman is not necessarily subjection is mere quibbling over words. There may be a fine distinction between subordination and subjection. But then in the final analysis it boils down to women having a lower status than men.

Cause of It All

The hierarchical setup is more the consequence of the Fall than of creation. When Adam and Eve sinned, God spoke in no uncertain terms: “To the woman he (Yahweh) said, I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing, in pain you shall bring forth your children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16).

The last part of the verse – “he shall rule over you” is crucial to our present discussion. Henceforth the woman, especially the wife, will be a subordinate and subject to her husband. This is not to say that her inferiority of status is God’s Will, or that it is a normative state decreed by God in judgment. The whole point here is that subordination and subjection are now inevitable consequences of sin along with pain in childbearing. It is a prediction, not a penal law. The tenor of the whole verse is literal. Just as childbearing is now literally painful to a mother/wife, so she is to be literally ‘ruled’ by her husband. This painful ruling of man over his wife and her subjection to him is their sinful making. This setup contravenes the creation order. For it was, and is not, the original design of God as our study shows. Says Tribe: “specifically, the rule of man over woman is a perversion of creation, which stands in need of grace”. 

Woman’s Steady Decline

Since the Fall and almost throughout the history of Israel and other nations, society has become male-centered and male-dominated. There was a tendency under rabbinical teaching to make man superior and to demean the dignity of woman. Consider, for instance, what Rabbi Judah Ben Elai said: “One must utter three doxologies a day: Praise God that he did not create me a heathen! Praise God that he did not create me a woman! Praise God that he did not make me an illiterate person!” 

During the patriarchal period, the Hebrew woman, from childhood to old age, belonged to the men of her family. A daughter was less desirable than a son. When relinquished by her father to a husband, she is bound to serve him, bearing his children as her primary duty. If she was mistreated or abused, she had to submit without recourse (Gen. 19:8; Luke 11:29-40; 19:1-20). When her husband dies before her, then his brother or some other male relative assumes control over her. (Gen. 38)

This unfair and dehumanizing treatment of women was even expanded in the legal corpus of Israel. Jewish laws concerned only men. In this respect, women were not considered legally responsible. In fact, one law makes them the property of men (Ez. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). Stoning was her punishment if found guilty of adultery and divorce could only be initiated by men.

In religious observances, only the men mattered. The people whom Moses consecrated at Mount Sinai were all men (Ex. 19:7-15). And in Deut. 16:16, only males were designated leaders of the religious feasts. The priesthood itself was strictly a male world. Women were not totally excluded from religious observances, but definitely, they were just passive participants (Deut 12:12; Num. 6:2).

Central to this exclusion is the idea of ritual purity. All bodily discharge – of men and women alike – was unclean and therefore prevented from ritual activities (Lev. 15). But then uncleanness was more a woman’s problem than man’s. When a baby boy was born, the mother was only unclean for seven days and required thirty-three days of purification. Whereas if it was a baby girl the entire purification time was doubled. At the end of the purification period, the mother herself sought atonement through the male priest of the sanctuary (Lev. 12:1-8) A man with his discharge of semen was unclean until the evening while a woman with her menstrual discharge was unclean for seven days. (Lev. 15:16-24).

In Leviticus, monetary value was placed on people dedicated to Yahweh. A man between the ages of 20-60 was worth 50 shekels. A woman in the same age continuum was only worth 30. Monetary discrimination was also true for other age groups (Lev. 27:1-7).

Then the binding nature of vows further reinforced the inferior status of women in religious matters (Num. 30). Though the woman had the right to make a vow on her own initiative, yet her father or her husband could nullify the vow. The exception for a widowed or divorced woman is not because of her independent status, but of her precarious existence in a patriarchal world.

Exilic and post- exilic period

The status of women further deteriorated during these times. Ezekiel, with his priestly heritage, described sin at times as impurity and specified this uncleanness by several metaphors demeaning to women (22:10-11; 26:17). Zechariah, who had his priestly connection (Zech. 1:1, Neh. 12:1), also continued with this demeaning practice. He identified woman with wickedness and saw her removed from the restored land (5:7-11). Thus, the Priests with their increased authority promoted a cultic understanding of sin with its negative consequences on women.

The same attitude appeared in the regulations of Ezra whose concern for racial, ritual, and sexual purity diminished respect for women as human beings (10:23; 10-44). Gradually in the post-exilic period, there developed an understanding of womanhood toward misogyny, that is to say, woman as an impure, subordinate, and inferior human being. There were exceptions, however to this dehumanizing trend. Women like Miriam, Deborah, and Esther survived as humans in their own right rather than as creatures subjugated by male dominance (Ex. 15:20-21’ Judges 4-5). But on the whole, the situation of women was extremely pathetic. They were treated no better than slaves. 

What It Means

Now since this inferior status of woman is an aberration of God’s original intent or a result of the Fall, what then do the creation accounts truly mean? The following could be derived from the creation accounts.

Equality— If equality means “of the same quality, nature or status” then man and woman are indeed equal. Both accounts explicitly state this fact. They are equal for they have the same Creator and God. The word ‘created’ (Heb. basa and yason) is used for both of them and both man and woman are in the image or likeness of God. Equality negates inferiority or subordination or subjection of one over the other. This came as a result of the Fall and as a historical development but not in the context of the passages under study. Says Pratt: “Man and woman are endowed for equality and mutually interdependent”. 

Complementariness – That being so, it follows therefore that they are complementary. It means “mutually supplying each other’s lack or need.” This explains why it is “not good” for man to be alone. While the animals were his helpers, they were of different kinds, and not his equal. Thus, they were not fit as true and complete companions, they could not fill up man’s deep lack. So, God had to create someone, a woman, who is and will be a “helper fit for him”. Fit because she is like him and yet different from him. Thus, she can be a complement to him and he to her. It is undoubtedly a mutual act of meeting each other’s needs. Being human, each has his/her own particular needs – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. It was a balanced partnership! 

This fact of complementariness must be stressed because of man’s incompleteness without woman. Even Yahweh himself realized this lack of man (Gen. 2:18).  It was necessary for God to create someone who is man’s equal and partner at the same time. God did just that and presented her to him. The result was absolute ecstasy as man “discovered a partner in woman rather than a creature to dominate.” 

Diversity – Complementariness does not mean mere sameness. Man and woman are similar but not the same. They are similar in the sense that both are humans, thus possessing the same nature. But each is also distinct, yes, different from each other. Obviously, this difference in man and woman is definitely God-planned, for he created them “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). Woman is, therefore, no mere appendage of man. So, both are similar and yet different as well. Barth says that “to be created good, man needs a being like him and yet different from him, so that in her, he will recognize himself.”

Interestingly, these areas of diversity between man and woman are seen in their physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual make-up – a common knowledge and observation supported by medical science. Because of their differences, each is in a position to meet each other’s need or lack. Hence, each is an ideal complement to the other. Life put on color, meaning, adventure, romance because there is a man and a woman.

Implications for Today

Genesis 1 and 2 remain a challenge to couples of today. Definitely, its basic implications and principles stand as good as it was during Adam and Eve’s time as it is now. The Creation account of the man-woman relationship should remain the basis of our relationship as it was the original intent of God. The Fall distorted such a relationship but God in Christ through his death and resurrection restored its original state of equality and partnership. Paul thus can say: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female for all of you are in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Mutual Headship and Leadership

One of the principles that can be derived from the Creation account of man and woman is mutuality in leadership. This simply means that the husband and the wife exercise joined or shared leadership in the home. Nowhere in the two passages of Genesis did God categorically designate Adam as being the head. Nor did he say so to Eve as we find in Paul’s injunction to the wife in Ephesians 5.

Such shared leadership is best illustrated by the Fall itself. For how else was the woman tempted and sadly succumbed to the temptation if there had been no tacit understanding between them that they could share in decision-making? Put positively, how else could she be tempted if in the first-place she knew she had no right to make decisions on her own as some would argue. Furthermore, granted that the woman because of free will decided on her own, why was it that the man did not put up any resistance during the whole time that the Tempter was beguiling her nor did he refuse when she offered the forbidden fruit to him?

Clearly, the answer to these questions is that in their original state of relationship, man and woman shared leadership. They were meant to be equal partners expressing oneness after God’s image and heart.

How then do we explain 1 Tim. 2:11-15 where Paul argued that women should learn in silence and be barred from teaching because Adam was created first and it was Eve who was deceived and Adam was not? Admittedly, this is a difficult passage along with Corinthians 11:3-16 which are dealt with more extensively elsewhere in this magazine. The most that we can say for our purposes is that these two passages are in the context of public prayer/worship, in a teaching/learning situation, and not of the home. We are properly warned that “reserve must be exercised in deducing universal principles from particular cases” as in this instance. 

But then, there is Ephesians 5:24 which command wives to submit to their husbands. How can we assert that leadership at home should be a partnership in the light of an injunction as clear as that? This particular passage is discussed quite fully elsewhere and we need not elaborate except to say that submission in this passage is premised on the universal humility Christians should observe towards one another (Eph. 5:21).

Joint headship is defensible not only via the Creation accounts, but it also has very practical import. Admittedly, not all husbands have the gift of leadership and some wives fortunately have. Thus, when husband and wife join forces together out of love and respect for one another, the family is strengthened and their relationship deepened. Headship in the home is not “you or me” but “us, together”.

Marriage after all is complementing one another, not competing against each other. By shared leadership, husband and wife can truly be filling each other’s needs as well as checking and balancing each other. Both with their knowledge, skills, and abilities can be fully used for the welfare of the family. Besides as stated earlier, there is always danger in solo leadership – either for the husband or the wife. Unqualified one-person authority is open to abuse.

Mutual submission – “This, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man”. Therefore, a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they shall become one flesh (2:23).

Man joyfully accepted the woman from God’s hands, recognizing her as his splendid but quite different image. And as a universal rule, man leaves his parents to give his whole life to her. Woman came to man as a gift, filling the deep ache in his soul and mirroring him as his image. There is a deep interconnectedness of being between man and woman and such unity can only be enriched and enhanced by mutual submission.

Submission, as envisioned in the Christian faith, is always voluntary. The Church is never forced to submit to Christ as Lord though it is commanded to. But even if it is a command, the choice to obey or not is still there and obedience is always commended and even rewarded. Comments White, “They (referring to the injunctions in Ephesians) suggest neither, superiority in the man nor inferiority in the woman (such ideas are firmly dismissed in Gal. 3:28) but rather a mutuality or complementing of roles. Not only is the woman to submit to the man but the man is to submit to the woman.” 

Mutual sharing or taking of responsibilities  

In Genesis 1:28, the command to rule God’s created natural resources was given to both man and woman. The responsibilities of cultural stewardship rest on both their shoulders – sharing its bounty and developing it further to serve their needs.

Sharing responsibilities in the context of home life means taking roles which need not be fixed as tradition has dictated it. It is not important whether a wife stays at home or works outside. Or the husband earns more or less than the wife for so long as they agree that such an arrangement is most satisfactory to them. Their personhood and worth are affirmed by what they are doing as they live in obedience to God. That man and woman shared in their cultural mandate is part of the “very good” which God saw after he completed his works.

Mutual Caring and Respect

The whole tenor of humankind’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2 is geared to caring and respect for one another. The Lord God himself demonstrated such care and respect in the way that he lovingly formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed life into his nostrils. We can almost hear it in his voice when he said: “It is not good for the man to be alone”, he then went ahead to give him one person suitable for deep companionship. For this relationship, a man is to leave his father and mother.

Adam voiced his awe and respect for the woman in his “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” exclamation. He proceeded to call her “woman” because she mirrors man in his essence and quality.

Mutual Development

The creation order also implies mutual development of each other’s personality, spiritual life, potentials, and gifts. God himself has set the example of nurturance of his entire creation, especially of humankind. In the same manner, that man and woman care for the earth in obedience to the Lord’s command, so should they nurture each other. The original design for man and woman is wholeness as they unite in the bond of matrimony. As a husband testified: “It was not until we came together in God’s presence and I expressed my feelings that she felt that I needed her help as much as she needed mine and that I had as much to learn from her as she was from me.” 

Interestingly, it is in marriage where mutual counter-balancing can be practiced freely and fully. In this state, man and woman come to know each other truly in the deepest sense of the word, where their need and lack, potentials and gifts, spiritual condition and personality make-up, dreams and ambitions, fears, and doubts are exposed and known to each other. Marriage strips off the mask we may be tempted to wear before others.

Mutual development simply means helping each other to grow in areas where we need growing, stimulating potential gifts we discover in one another. It means encouraging each other in times of pain and difficulties, standing by each other when all others have deserted us and forgiving each other when we fail, believing in what we can become apart and together by God’s help and grace.

Let us then with strengthened resolve go back to what God has originally intended man and woman to be. True the Fall affected us. But Christ through his death and resurrection is restoring us back to what we should be in our relationship as man and woman. We can look forward to the complete realization of wholeness and equality in Christ at the end-time when Jesus will come again declaring: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:15). 

Selected Bibliography

[1] Alexander, D. & Alexander, P., eds. Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Non. B Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1973.

[2] Black, M. ed. Peaks Commentary of the Bible. Ontario Canada: Thomas Nelsons or Tons Ltd., 1962.

[3] Brown, C., ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976, Vol. 2&3.

[4] Brown, R-E., ed. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Clipps, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1968.

[5] Crim, K., ed. The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdor, 1976. Supplementary Volume

[6] Douglas, J.D. ed. The New Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Non-B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973

[7] Trees, S., ed. The Role of Women, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.

[8] Lloyd-Jones, D. M. Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home and Work. Edinburgh The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975.

[9] Von Rad, G. Old Testament Theology, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962. Vol. 1

[10] White, J. Parents in Pain. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980.

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