Egalitarians Need to Locate Genesis 2 in the Grand Narrative of Scripture

Probably most egalitarians have been accused of claiming there’s no difference between men and women.[1] It’s a common response to the view that both women and men are full image-bearers of God and therefore equally participate in the fundamental human calling of leadership on this planet. 

Mine came in a private conversation with one of the speakers at a theology of marriage event at my seminary. I was surprised he assumed that everyone in attendance agreed with his belief that men lead and women follow, and he was surprised when I said I did not think this paradigm described the difference between women and men at all.

Incredulously he asked, “Are you saying there are no differences?”

It’s just as well I didn’t know he was a council member for CBMW when he plopped himself down at my table and asked, “What would you have said if you had been part of our panel discussion on gender differences?” I could have wished, though, that he had been willing to hear me out before he jumped to the conclusion that I deny distinctions.

We don’t like being inaccurately labeled as promoting full and complete androgyny when what we are really saying is that men and women are the same in our fundamental human essence, which happens to be a full-orbed reflection of God’s eternal essence as Creator, Lord, and King, however humble this likeness may be in comparison to the greatness of God. 

And since the foundational text on human identity, Gen 1:26-28, links authority with our human – not our gendered – nature, it seems patently obvious that all humans are created to lead (rule and subdue) in their spheres of influence. This we are called to do neither unilaterally nor domineeringly, but in cooperation with those who share our domains. 

Which, by the way, is a key point: no single person and no single sex has authority over all the earth. At best, each of us is responsible in some limited sphere that is invariably shared with others.[2]

OUR APPROACH TO GENESIS 2

As of late I have been wondering, however, if part of the reason for this misunderstanding lies in our approach to Genesis 2. It is true that egalitarian scholars have done an impressive job refuting the common hierarchicalist assertions, such as “being created first means possessing authority over the one created second,” “helper means subordinate assistant,” and “naming demonstrates authority.”[3]

In response to claims that the whole passage points to a hierarchical ordering of male and female, egalitarians have noted that neither hierarchy nor authority is ever mentioned in the passage, the first man himself does not view his “role” as one of authority over the woman, the text reaffirms the equality and sameness of the woman and man, and the idea of unity is paramount.

While these contributions are essential to any valid understanding of Genesis 2, is it possible that so much focus has been placed upon responding to complementarians that too little has been expended in considering what overarching message the text may intend to convey and how that might provide insight into our gendered identity? Or do we avoid this avenue of investigation because we fear what we discover will be used against egalitarian views of equality? 

I do admit this is a real concern. Yet I am convinced that as long as we leave this to hierarchicalists we are left with an inadequate response to their assertions. Citing Gen. 2:24, Paul tells us that in some sense husbands and wives reflect the relationship humans enjoy with God through Christ, that human marriage is somehow a picture of something far greater that has now become reality (Eph. 5:31-32).[4]

If people who believe in the functional equality of women and men – not just our ontological equality – cannot explain from Genesis 2 what that sense is and is not, we leave the door wide open to all sorts of claims regarding the potential import of male-female differences.

For example, most complementarians teach that Genesis 2 reveals the man and woman as a beautiful depiction of an assumed “Leader-follower” relationship that God enjoys with humankind. Though they do not and would not couch it in these terms, it seems to me that Lord-servant, Shepherd-sheep, and Father-child work just as well. Lords decide, shepherds lead, and fathers teach. Isn’t that the male “role” according to complementarians?

Oh yes, complementarians add, the link between men and women illustrates God’s love for his own bride, the Church. But primary to the human echo of the divine-human relationship, without which the whole reflection falls apart, is male authority and female submission. 

SINCERE CHRISTIANS AND THEIR QUESTIONS ABOUT GENESIS 2

Besides potentially opening the door to misunderstanding and misinterpretation, this defensive approach to Genesis 2 can leave many sincere Christians grappling with valid questions. I for one struggled for years as I read every egalitarian explanation of Genesis 2 that I could get my hands on. 

My biggest question was whether the overarching theme of the text, the reason we have it in the form presented, is to affirm the essential and functional equality of women and men and to demonstrate that men and women need each other.[5] To me it seemed clear that although Genesis 2 cannot contradict Genesis 1, the primary intent is not to restate what we have learned about God and humanity thus far, but to add to it, and that the text, as it stands, is more about the man’s need for the woman than their mutual need for one another.

Some egalitarian scholars do note this focus on the man’s need but do not venture to consider why the problem is presented in this way in the first place. Is there any reason the text presents the man (not the woman) as the one who had to go through the whole process of realizing he was alone and the woman (not the man) as the one who met his existential need? Yes, the text focuses on the man’s need for a suitable partner. But why?[6]

What I am trying to say is that there is an inherent weakness to any interpretation of Genesis 2 that could just as easily be derived from a man-from-woman scenario. Just as “no animal is a suitable partner for the man,”[7] so also no animal is a suitable partner for the woman. Just as the “man is no longer alone,”[8] so also the woman is no longer alone. Just as the woman “saves the man from his loneliness,”[9] so also the man saves the woman from loneliness. Just as Adam needs help to “till and guard the garden,”[10] so also Eve needs help to fulfill the dominion mandate.

If the text can so easily be reversed and yet achieve fundamentally the same meaning, why does it take the form it does?

Beyond this foundational issue, I had questions about the details. For example, if being first doesn’t mean having greater authority, what does it mean? Nothing? Why is the woman created from and for the man? If alleviation of solitude in a context of equality is the point, wouldn’t it have made more sense for God to create the pair separately yet simultaneously, then bring them together?

If receiving the command directly from God does not imply greater responsibility, then what does it imply? Anything at all? Is it really enough to say that the woman didn’t receive the command or the charge to keep the garden because she wasn’t created yet?[11] Why are those details even included if they’re insignificant? And, if it is agreed that the term ‘ezer does not indicate subordination but partnership, is there any reason God gave the woman (and not the man) this particular title? What did God intend by it and does it, perchance, suggest a gender difference?  

Not everyone stumbles over these issues, to be sure. For many, the numerous egalitarian discussions of Genesis 2 more than suffice, and no doubt some people will view my suggestion that we take things a bit farther unnecessary, distracting, and potentially dangerous. So, I acknowledge the challenges inherent to what I am suggesting. On the other hand, I have known too many open and honest believers for whom these very questions pose a giant roadblock to the acceptance of the functional equality of women and men. 

It is for their sake that I propose the following.

GENESIS 2 IN THE GRAND NARRATIVE OF SCRIPTURE

What I want to suggest is that locating Genesis 2 in the grand biblical narrative of who God is to us and who we are to him can answer these questions in a manner consistent with the view that women and men are equal in terms of God-given and God-ordained ruling authority, responsibility, and drive. 

To understand precisely how that is possible we need to recognize that we discover not one, but two key concepts regarding human identity in the first chapters of Genesis that are surprising, remarkable, and completely unparalleled in the ancient world. Together they form the conceptual background to a proper understanding of human identity. 

The first is addressed in Genesis 1, where the Bible stunningly and counterculturally asserts that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of the one God who is the Creator-King of all that exists. As in all the surrounding cultures, this divine image-bearing is specifically and inextricably linked to ruling, to the exercise of dominion over the earth.[12]

In contrast to its ancient context, where the ruling designation “image of god” was reserved for the few and the powerful while the rest of humanity existed to serve these image-bearers (and thereby serve the gods), the Hebrew scriptures insist that every human being images God and therefore every person has the responsibility, authority, and ability to participate in the proper ruling and subduing of this planet. 

And just to make perfectly clear that this human calling of dominion includes women, an idea that never crossed another ancient mind, the words “male and female” are included. This means not just every man, but also every woman, fully reflects who God is in and of himself in his eternal nature, and therefore possesses all the human qualities necessary for ruling such as spiritual awareness, moral consciousness, reason, emotion, intelligence, decisiveness, discernment, initiative, creativity, rationality, and relationality. 

Surprising and countercultural as it was to contend that every human being images the divine King, that no person, female or male, is a lowly peon whose only role is to serve other humans, the Bible doesn’t stop there. Not only are we created as God’s image and likeness, reflecting who he is in his essential nature, we are also the object of his affection, his “beloved.” 

This is where Genesis 2 comes into play. In a world where “the gods” flaunted their romantic and sexual relationships with one another, scheming and cavorting, backstabbing and murdering their way through their sexual escapades, the Hebrew scriptures reveal a single God who, stunningly, creates humanity as the focus of his “romantic” love. 

In a milieu that emphasized how the many gods must be feared, revered and, most of all, appeased, the Bible introduces a Creator God who is to be loved wholeheartedly. In a cultural context that believed people were created to bear the work the lesser gods found a drudgery, the grand narrative of Scripture shows that human beings are created for an unheard-of intimacy with their Maker, that despite God’s fulness in and of himself he chose to create a race upon which he might shed his boundless love.[13]  

Make no mistake: nowhere else is human identity described in this way; no other belief system locates humankind as the focus of divine affection.

Because this was so astounding, so ridiculously unfathomable to the ancient mind, God placed within the human experience, within our sex-differentiated beings, some small echo of who he is to us and who we are to him.[14]

Yet not as Creator and created or Lord and servant or Father and child or even Shepherd and sheep, but as Lover and beloved. God accomplished this in his own wisdom and in his own way, creating us male and female with our natural and sometimes overwhelming desire to unite in intimacy with one another. 

It is the shocking incomprehensibility of God as Lover and humankind as beloved that explains the intricacies of Genesis 2. 

GENESIS 2 AND THE HUMAN REFLECTION OF ETERNAL TRUTHS

So, for example, maybe the fact that in Genesis 2 it is the man who leaves and cleaves, who sacrifices intimacy with his parents in order to pursue a woman, pictures the fact that it is God who relentlessly pursues us, who has sacrificed in order to unite us to himself. And because our entire beings are so engaged with the human echo, our hearts – not just our minds – are primed to grasp the overwhelming beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice, how he left his Father in heaven and emptied himself so that we might become his bride and enjoy intimacy with him. 

Maybe the way the woman is created from the man and for the man throws wide the stunning truth that all human beings, male and female alike, come from God and are created for God as the focus – not of his authority and dominion – but of his love.[15] And the way the man exults over the woman reveals some microscopic inkling of how God exults over his own bride, how he rejoices when those he loves so deeply respond to him. 

Of course God retains authority and dominion over all, ruling over the earth and the seas and the skies and the heavens and, yes, over human beings. 

But that is not what God is revealing to us through our gendered natures.

Hierarchy is not the point of Genesis 2 and not the point of male and female and not the point of any of our differences that make life so much more interesting and full. As egalitarians have aptly demonstrated, there is no hierarchy in Genesis 2; that was never, ever, ever the point.

Truly, if what God really needed and wanted were servants and peons upon whom he could off-load his more tedious work, he could have achieved that in some other way. But that was never his intent; what the Creator of the universe desired, more than subjects and objects and rejects he could rightfully and imperiously command, was a bridea beautiful, faithful, responsive beloved. 

And I, for one, doubt we would have possessed the faintest hope of grasping the depth of our beloved status without an echo in our very human and very humble experience. To me, this is the point of Genesis 2 and the reason we must locate it within the grand narrative of Scripture. 

When we don’t, we not only miss an opportunity to convince but we also lose sight of the beauty, the love, and the very heart of God. 


Image by kalhh from Pixabay.

[1] Kevin Giles writes that “almost every ‘complementarian’ book presents egalitarians as denying male-female differentiation.” Giles, “The Genesis of Confusion: How ‘Complementarians’ Have Corrupted Communication,” Priscilla Papers, 2015.

[2] And yet I was taught, based on Gen. 1:26-28, that a woman is “mistress of the domain” while a man is “lord of the earth.”

[3] Key egalitarian discussions of Genesis 2 can be found in: Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ (2019); Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women (2019); Kevin Giles, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women (2018); Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ (2009);  Richard Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, 2nd edition (2005); Linda Belleville, “Women in Ministry: And Egalitarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, revised edition (2005); Rebecca Groothuis, Good News for Women (1997); Stanley Grenz and Denise Kjesbo, Women in the Church (1995); Gilbert Bilezikian,Beyond Sex Roles (1985/1989/2006); Aída Spencer, Beyond the Curse (1985).

[4] The idea that God is bridegroom to his people did not originate with Paul. Throughout the Old Testament Yahweh is depicted as husband to Israel, his wife, and Jesus referred to himself as the bridegroom.

[5] Some egalitarian scholars ascribe to both rationales. Examples of the first include: Giles, 53, “I argue that Gen 2 ‘complements’ Gen 1 by giving a second account of creation to make exactly the same point as ch. 1”; Spencer, 28-29, “In a concrete manner, Genesis 2 reiterates the message of chapter 1”; Payne, 43, “The dominant focus of the text is on the equal status and mutual responsibility of man and woman”; Belleville, 25, “So there is distinction. But the primary thrust of Genesis 1-2 is the sameness of male and female.” Examples of the second: Hess, 84, “to demonstrate the need they have for each other,” and 86 (footnote), “the main point of the text [is] overcoming loneliness or aloneness”; Bilezikian, 21, “God created humans as social beings,” and 28, “a rationale for the essential oneness of male and female”; Belleville, 30, “the human completeness that occurs after the creation of the woman”; Groothuis, 137, “We would not have had such a clear picture of how fundamentally man and woman fit together, and of how unfit humans are for solitude, if God had created the man and the woman at the same time and in the same way.”

[6] Grenz and Kjesbo, 162, “the central figure in Genesis 2 is clearly the man. And the alleviation of his solitude is the goal that leads to divine action.” But they do not venture to consider why “Genesis 2 presents the woman as the one who saves the man from his loneliness. In so doing she does indeed function in the story as the crown of creation” (ibid.). Payne, 44, notes that the woman is created second “to highlight man’s need for a partner corresponding to him,” yet does not discuss why the man had the need and the woman filled it. Bartlett, 75, “in the final step the problem is solved: man is no longer alone,” and, 76, “the natural reading of Genesis 2 in Hebrew is therefore that woman was made to be man’s powerful ally,” but that is as far as he takes it. Witt, 57, “the woman was created to satisfy the man’s need for companionship” but, 58, the themes introduced in Gen. 2 are “equality, mutual harmony, and companionship.”

[7] Payne, 44.

[8] Bartlett, 75.

[9] Grenz and Kjesbo, 162.

[10] Spencer, 28.

[11] Hess, 83; Giles, 62; Witt, 57-58.

[12] The best resource I have read on this is J. Richard Middleton, Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (2005).

[13] Resources on ancient Near Eastern views of humanity that can be accessed online include: John Bloom and C. John Collins, “Creation Accounts and Near Eastern Religions,” Christian Research Journal, (2012:35/1); Bryan Windle, “Three Ancient Near Eastern Creation Myths,” Bible Archaeology Report, (2019/02/22).

[14] This is what Paul is alluding to in Eph. 5:31-32 when he cites Gen. 2:24.

[15] In 1 Cor. 11:12 Paul notes that when it comes to who comes from whom, the bigger point is that all come from God.

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