Did the Man Name the Woman in Genesis 2:23? Maybe Not.

It has often been argued that God created men to be the leaders in the male-female relationship. One of the reasons given is the way the man names the woman “woman” (ishah) in Gen. 2:23. So, although God formed both men and women to rule and subdue the earth, from the get-go he also designed men to rule over women. By claiming that naming is an exercise of dominion, Gen. 2:23 is taken as important evidence of the man’s God-given authority over the woman.

Not everyone agrees. Many counter that the man’s naming of the woman has nothing to do with exercising dominion, but rather with identifying who she is in relation to himself. She is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, like him and equal to him, the ishah (woman) to his ish (man). Rather than an indication of hierarchy, these people argue, the naming speaks to mutuality and sameness.

However, lately I’ve been wondering whether we are missing the point and whether this whole argument is much ado about nothing. What I mean is, do we know that it was the man who named the woman – who came up with the name ishah? Though we do hear ishah on his lips, the text never states that he named her. Frankly, compared to Gen. 3:20, which directly asserts that “the man called his wife’s name Eve,” Gen. 2:23 is rather vague. 

But before we go any farther, let’s review the text:

But for the man [adam] no suitable helper [ezer kenegdo] was found. So the Lord God caused the man [adam] to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of his ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman [ishah] from the rib he had taken out of the man [adam], and he brought her to the man [adam].

The man [adam] said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ [ishah], for she was taken out of man [ish].

That is why a man [ish] leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife [ishah], and they become one flesh. The man [adam] and his wife [ishah] were both naked, and they felt no shame. (Gen. 2:20b-25)


The first thing to notice here is the progression of names for both the man and the woman. The man, initially and typically called the adam (human being), is eventually named ish (man) in relation to the woman. The woman, introduced as the ezer kenegdo (powerful ally or strong help), comes to be known as the ishah(woman) in connection to the man. The names ishah and ish, by their very sound, highlight the mutuality and similarity of the woman and man, stressing that they were made for one another.

And, as you may have astutely observed, what we have in vv. 22-23 is not one new name, but two: ishah and ish. Not only that, but ishah occurs first, in v. 22, whereas ish first appears at the end of v. 23. 

So it would seem to me, if we’re going to make a life-altering assertion (that God designed men to be in authority over women) based on an assumption (that the man named the woman), we first need to acknowledge the wrench in the works. Only when we admit that both names are new, and that ishah appears before ish, can we determine whether our contention holds water. If we’re going to uncover the genesis of ishah, it’s necessary to factor in the wild card ish

As I see it, there are four options.

If we start with the perspective of those who believe the man’s naming of the woman points to his authority over her, the first possibility would be that God revealed to the man his new name, ish, and from that the man invented the similar term ishah. If this is the case, the man really did name the woman. We can imagine the man musing, Hey, if I’m ish, what shall I call this vision of beauty so like myself? Let’s see…. I know! How about ishah? Yes, I like that!

In this case male over female dominion might be argued, but only if it could be convincingly demonstrated that naming has to do with authority rather than identification. However, in its efforts to provide a tidy solution this interpretation hits a brick wall. As I mentioned earlier, we do not see the word ish before it occurs on the man’s lips in v. 23. Yes, the man has been around for a while, but up to now he has been known as the adam.

On the other hand, we have already encountered the new name for the woman (ishah) in the previous verse. If the text intends to make a significant point about the man’s naming of the woman – that this means he has God-given authority over her – you might think it would reserve ishah for his lips. The simple fact that ishah occurs earlier makes me doubt this is the intent.

But, perhaps even more significantly, when the Lord God brings the ishah to the man in v. 22 the man is still called the adam, not the ish. If God had previously revealed the name ish to the man, which the man then used as a starting point for the name ishah, we would expect the text to state the opposite: that God brought the ezer to the ish

Yet that is not what we see. 

What does this mean? That this first alternative has counter-evidence in the text and is perhaps not such a slam dunk as so many people take it to be.

A second option, starting with the fact that the new name for the woman shows up in v. 22, would be that God revealed the term ishah to the man, and from there the man invented his own new name ish. Here the man’s ponderings would be the opposite: Let’s see, if she’s ishah, then I must be, I must be…. What must I be? I’ve got it! Ish! Yes, that’s it! 

While this alternative may fit the text, it fails logically. If the man doesn’t know himself as the ish when God introduces the ishah, the point about the suitability of her name in relation to his is lost. So, it doesn’t really make sense that she would have her name before he got his. Sadly, perhaps we should jettison option two as well. 

On to round three, that the man came up with both names. This is a possibility if we assume that in v. 22 the narrator, writing much later, introduces the name that he knows the man will soon give to the woman. And if we do, it is textually possible that the man gives himself a new name when he grants the woman hers. 

However, this option has the same logical hurdle as the last, that the man speaks the woman’s name before he speaks his own. Her name is based upon his, yet in the text her name occurs before his. In this scenario we might imagine the man thinking things through like this: Wow! Let’s see… bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Unlike the animals, this being is truly like me. I think I’ll call her…give me a moment… ishah! Because, well… because… let me think this through for a second… because, well, ha! I know! Because I’ll name myself ish! Get it? Ish-ishah! Clever, huh!

Honestly, this seems like a stretch-limo stretch. Though possible, I have a hard time convincing myself this is how it all went down.

This leaves us with our final alternative, that the new names originate with God. That would mean, of course, that God determined the names ish and ishah and then revealed them to the man. When and how might this have transpired? And why don’t we see these details in the text?

Interestingly, both Martin Luther and John Wesley suggested that God must have disclosed the process of the woman’s creation to the man, for how else would he have known that she was bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, seeing as he slept through the whole event?

If this is the case, it could very well be that God unveiled the new names to the man at the same time. Then, as he gazed upon the woman, the man was overcome with a deep understanding of the import of those names. Ah! he thought, No wonder she is ishah, for she is bone of bones and flesh of flesh of ish! This is why she shall be called ishah! Now I understand!

This last option makes the most sense to me, I’ll admit. Mostly due to the text itself, but also because it seems to me that in Scripture the most important namings begin with God, even though human beings are involved in some way. Like the way God named Isaac and John the Baptist and Jesus long before they were born. And Isaiah’s and Hosea’s children. Without the story behind the story, we might think Abraham and Elizabeth and Joseph and Isaiah and Hosea did the naming.

But they didn’t. God did. 

I suspect that this is what is going on in Genesis 2:23.

Yet the fact is we don’t know who came up with the names ish and ishah, because the text does not tell us. We simply cannot know for sure. And that makes me question the wisdom of basing something as important as male-female hierarchy, even in part, upon the naming game. It also makes me wonder if maybe – just maybe – the text is intentionally subverting the temptation to make much ado about nothing. Perhaps those vagaries, those seeming inconsistencies, are designed to help us keep things simple.

But there is no way to determine that either.

All I keep thinking right now is that it might be a really big mistake to make a really big assertion based upon a really big mystery.

How about we agree that the man exulted in the woman, and leave it at that?


Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

Why I Write: For the First Time, Women Are Less Religious Than Men

I haven’t been posting much on my blog lately, partly because I’ve been working on some other writing projects but also because I’ve taken a position at my church as the executive pastor. But recently Christianity Today came out with a report that explains why I write, why I believe God has called me to throw my hat in the ring with so many others who are discussing what the Bible does and does not say about women.

“With Gen Z, Women Are No Longer More Religious than Men” details recent research demonstrating that the differing rates of religious involvement for men and women in the United States, which previously has always shown higher rates among women, has reversed in younger generations. It is no surprise that compared to previous generations there are more nones (who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular) among all Gen Zers (women and men). The startling fact is that this is the first generation in which women nones outnumber men.

Historically, about 5 percent more American women than men have reported holding some form of religious belief. This still holds true for Americans over the age of 50 but begins to flip as we come to younger Americans. The lines meet somewhere around age 35, and by the time we get to 20-year-olds, it is men who are about 5 percent more likely to be religious than women, at least in the population as a whole.

This shift has occurred primarily among White non-Hispanics, where the discrepancy is greater than 5 percent. Among young Asians and Hispanics, women remain more religious than men; among Gen Z Blacks, women are slightly less religious than men. But when it comes to young Whites, women are significantly less likely to adhere to any faith, lagging behind men by 9 percentage points.

Traditionally, there has been an even wider gap in church attendance. In evangelical churches, on average, women have comprised about 60 percent of people in pews. Once again, this still holds true for older generations but has reversed among those under 40. 

For the over 70 crowd, men are about 8 percent more likely than women to report that they never attend church. Among those under 20, however, women are some 3 percent more likely never to attend. Also, while Gen Z men are slightly more likely to attend religious services than men over 70, Gen Z women are about 6 percent less likely to go to church than their older counterparts. 

Reading these stats transported me back to a conversation I had with a council member of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood a few years ago. When I suggested that evangelical women were struggling with the way their identity and place in the church has been presented, he quickly responded, “Women are fine. It’s men who need help.” He went on to cite various statistics demonstrating that women are doing much better than men.

It is true that women are pursuing college education at higher rates, graduating more often, advancing more professionally, and earning more than they used to. Women have also adjusted more easily to a modern economy that no longer provides as many employment opportunities in traditionally male occupations, such as manufacturing and mining. 

This has resulted in some of the lowest employment rates for men that the United States has ever seen, with only some 70 percent of men in the workforce compared to 85 percent in the mid twentieth century.[1] It has also resulted in women in their 20s outpacing men in earning power. In addition, men report higher rates of various addictions, from substance abuse to online gaming,[2] suffer “higher poverty rates than their counterparts 40 years ago,”[3] and are much more likely than women to live with their parents in their 20s and 30s. Clearly, men face significant challenges in America today.

Yet none of the issues facing men is causing them to leave the church in droves. In fact, if there is any connection between cultural issues and men’s involvement in religious activity, it may be that these challenges are having the opposite effect, pushing men toward faith rather than away from it. As I mentioned earlier it is interesting, in a world where adherence to any type of belief system is decreasing, that Gen Z men are slightly more likely to attend religious services than their counterparts over 70.

What I tried to explain to the CBMW council member that day was that the unique challenges men and women face arise from different sources. Men, and perhaps White men in particular, are facing new hurdles in the outside world, as detailed above. But women, and perhaps uniquely White women, are facing a situation within the church that is prompting them to step out for good.

The question is this: Why are women, who historically and across the globe have been more religious, leaving the church and even the faith in such high numbers?

I can only answer that question anecdotally. From my experience, the driving motivation is that women, especially younger women, do not feel as respected in the church as they do in society at large. In today’s world women can aspire to any profession and any position. Their agency as decision-makers in the public arena is affirmed. In most cases, women are treated as just as intelligent and capable as men, if not more so.

Then these women go to church and are taught that the woman was created second because women need guidance, because women need leadership from a man. They are told women were created to follow and support, but not lead, and that the essence of a woman’s identity is submission. They are trained to believe they must listen to and learn from men who may never take the time to listen to and learn from women. 

And though they have spent decades or years or days loving the God of the Bible, they begin to wonder if he’s truly good. For how could he be good if he created one sex to rule the other, one sex to be listened to and one to listen, one sex to command and the other to obey? And yet that is apparently what the Bible itself teaches about this God of Creation, this Ruler of the Universe, this Lover of their souls, at least according to what they have heard at church.

These women don’t need a pep talk, they don’t need to be patronized by those who laud the wonders of the hierarchical ordering of male and female, and they don’t need a sort of aggrandized, paternalistic “protection” from men who are neither their fathers nor their bodyguards nor the cop on the beat.

What they need are answers rooted in scripture, a believable explanation of the text that makes sense, that is faithful to the ancient historical context, that relies on the text as written and doesn’t add or subtract words here or there to prove that the “plain” sense is truly plain,[4] that doesn’t jump to modern conclusions in a modern context about what some or other passage must mean.[5]

And they need to know their value, they need to know God loves them and that he created women, just like men, to participate in the ruling and subduing of this little planet for his glory, and that it brings him honor when they do so.

This, my friends, is why I write.


Image byJack Sharp on Unsplash.

[1] The male civilian labor participation rate was some 85 percent in the 1950’s but so far this year (2022) it has hovered around 70 percent.

[2] According to Andrew L. Yarrow, a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute, twice as many men as women report being hardcore gamers. See his “Why Progressives Should Stop Avoiding Men’s Issues” in the Washington Post, Jan. 18, 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Many translations add “a sign of” or “a symbol of” before the word “authority” in 1 Cor. 11:10. Also, “she” has often been changed to “women” in the first half of 1 Tim. 2:15, giving the impression that the “they” in the second part of the verse refers to women, which is not at all apparent from the original wording. The updated ESV also has also changed “your desire shall be to your husband” to “your desire will be contrary to your husband,” based on an understanding of Gen. 4:7. 

[5] An example here would be that because the Bible emphasizes the submission of wives to husbands (though it demands the mutual submission of all believers), Christian marriage must be arranged hierarchically, with one person (the husband) holding personal and absolute authority over another (the wife). The error here is the same as assuming that because the Bible enjoins obedience of slaves to masters and citizens to emperors, we must arrange our employment and government systems hierarchically, with one person (master, emperor, king) holding personal and absolute authority over another (slave, citizen). But very few people believe that. Mostly, we know that systems where power is shared are more in line with principles of Scripture than those that grant absolute authority to one individual. So we have employment systems based on contracts and laws and government by rule of law rather by the personal power of one or even a few individuals. For more on this, see my article “Rethinking Christian Marriage.”

Can a Woman Be a Pastor’s Right-Hand Man?

Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the pastor’s Girl Friday, who pens the letter in his name, buys the coffee at Costco, and types the announcements into the bulletin. Neither am I referring to the pastor’s Yes Man, the one who is uniformly loyal, gets behind every plan, and takes the pastor’s side in every disagreement. 

What I’m thinking of is that person who can be fiercely loyal yet also possess the courage to speak the truth, who is overwhelmingly supportive yet can correct or admonish when necessary, and who does so only out of a pure and undefiled love of God. It’s the one who hears from God and can speak for God not just out of their own wisdom, however valuable that may be.

I’m talking about the person God uses as a prophetic voice in the life of the pastor.

And since, in most cases, the senior pastor is a man, I’m going to focus on whether God might ever call a female leader to serve as a male lead pastor’s right-hand, truth-speaking, prophetically-gifted “man.”

The prophet Nathan, in his relationship with King David, might be the closest biblical example of this role. We only have record of a few of his interactions with the king, but those we do shed light on how God uses someone in this position.

We encounter Nathan for the first time in 2 Samuel 7. David is at rest from his enemies and settled in his palace when he turns to Nathan, apparently one of David’s regular palace companions, and states that he would like to build a permanent home for the ark of God. 

Nathan, speaking out of his wisdom, loyalty, and knowledge that God’s favor rested upon the king, encourages David to do “whatever you have in mind” (v.3). However, that night the word of the Lord comes to Nathan declaring that David is not the man for the job. Nathan has to eat humble pie and reverse himself, delivering an unhappy and unsettling message to his friend. 

Yet that is exactly what is required of Nathan as a prophet of the Lord.

The next time we see Nathan he is confronting David for taking Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed in battle (2 Sam. 12). If you think telling David he was not the guy to build the Lord’s house was rough, imagine confronting the most powerful monarch in the ancient Near East about abuse of power, adultery, and murder. And then imagine that insanely powerful man’s response to your challenge.

What comes to mind is a Mark Driscoll screaming at the top of his lungs, Who the **** do you think you are??[1]

Yet David wasn’t that man and didn’t respond to Nathan’s rebuke like that at all. 

Sure, Nathan was savvy, presenting David’s sin to him in the form of a parable about a poor man and a rich man. The poor man had only one little lamb while the rich man had many, yet, in unconscionable selfishness, the rich man took the poor man’s lamb and served it to his guest.

Initially David responds with outrage at the heinous deed, declaring that the man who did this ought to die. But when Nathan confronts David with the words, “You are the man!” (v. 7), David is immediately repentant, admitting, “I have sinned” (v. 13).

What do we learn from Nathan? What does this right-hand man role consist of? 

At its core it is not something that can be conjured up, that results from our own wisdom and insight and knowledge. It is truly God who appoints, authorizes, validates, and verifies this ministry. 

Most of the time we speak out of our understanding, which of course is valid and necessary. Yet sometimes in our understanding we are at complete loggerheads, we are blind to our sins and failings, or we have simply missed God somewhere along the way. 

It is in these moments that we need an intervention, a supernatural intervention. The point is, even if we permit God to speak, which does not always happen, we don’t get to choose the vessel. We might think it should be this person or that person and not this one or that one, but it’s not up to us. We can listen all we like to the wisdom of the saints, but if God has not chosen to speak through them in a specific instance, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

Yes, discernment must be activated and whatever is said must be weighed according to the scriptures and the witness of the Holy Spirit within the broader community. No doubt there are false “words” and false messengers. 

But there are also true words and faithful messengers.

All of this brings us back to our initial question: 

Would God position a woman as a male pastor’s right-hand man?

How do we answer this question? By proof-texting one verse? Or do we consider how God himself used the voice of women in Scripture?

You can probably guess what I think.

The New Testament is very clear that God will speak prophetically through both men and women. Peter, quoting Joel 2, declares:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

In the church age, no longer would God speak prophetically through a few “professional” prophets. Now this anointing would spread wide, without the limits we are so accustomed to placing on God regarding who he may or may not use to speak his truth. Young and old, male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free all received the Spirit, and all could be used by God according to his will and his purposes (Gal. 3:28).

Paul agrees with Peter, assuming as an established practice that both women and men will prophesy in the worship service:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is the same as having her head shaved. (1 Cor. 11:4-5)

Yes, men and women were to abide by culturally determined dress codes, but their freedom to prophesy publicly was not restricted according to sex.

So what, precisely, do we think these women in the early church prophesied about? (Just pondering here for a moment.) Who was going to win Sunday’s chili cook-off? Or who should have kitchen duty that week? Or perhaps which babies would sleep through the church service and which would fuss for an hour?

Or do you think these first-century churchwomen prophesied like Elizabeth and Mary and Anna, who were among the first to speak forth the identity and work of the Messiah (Luke 1:42-43; 46-55; 2:38)? Or Abigail, who prophesied David’s future kingship yet warned him, very personally and very directly, not to jeopardize all that in the heat of the moment (1 Sam. 25:28-31)? Or perhaps Huldah, who interpreted Scripture, speaking the word of the Lord to the king and the nation, giving them God’s bad-news-good-news report of the day (2 Kings 22:15-20)? And then there’s Deborah prophesying to Barak, directly and personally instructing Israel’s top military commander on his role and responsibility in God’s plan for the nation (Judg. 4:6-9).

Well, how do you think God used women in the early church, and how do you think God might choose to use them today?

It’s been a few years now, but I’ve seen God use women in this role. In most cases it wasn’t planned and was never officially acknowledged; it just happened. No one was more surprised than the senior pastor himself, for it was a God-move, a God-anointing, a God-position.

So perhaps, when God moves into our pre-planned and prearranged and perfectly-ordered systems, we should simply get out of the way.


Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

[1] “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast series by Christianity Today contains this audio. If I remember correctly, the quote airs on every episode and is discussed in its context on one of the later episodes.

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 all his views on male-female differences 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. And when I look at the common egalitarian understandings, that is exactly what I see. For example, just as “no animal is a suitable partner for the man,”[7] so also, if the woman had been created first, no animal would have been a suitable partner for the woman. Just as the “man is no longer alone,”[8] so also would the woman no longer be alone, if she had been first and the man had been created to meet her need. Just as the woman “saves the man from his loneliness,”[9] so also would the man have saved the woman from her loneliness, had he been created second. Just as Adam needed help to “till and guard the garden,”[10] so also would Eve have needed help to fulfill the dominion mandate, had she appeared first.

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. I also have known of too many who have left or are at least questioning the faith due to what Genesis 2 appears to teach.

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 would have been so astounding, so ridiculously unfathomable to the human 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.

“Around the House, Women Rule” and Other Marriage Myths

It seems like everywhere I turn these days I’m hearing that women rule the roost. Recently I had a conversation with a Christian leader who said that it’s women who have the power at home. He went on to explain that, for example, men ask their wives for permission before heading out to the golf links on Saturday.

Then I ran across an article at the Love and Respect website where Emerson Eggerichs responds to concerns of wives whose husbands seem less respectful toward them since doing his study. After citing numerous Proverbs that warn about contentious wives, Eggerichs quotes a couple of sources including a USA Today article that claims “around the house, women rule.” Eggerichs goes on to say that the true problem in these marriages may be “a contentious wife who is expressing her disgruntlement over the fact that periodically her husband puts his foot down and breaks the pattern of her getting what she wants.”

And then Christian therapist Kevin Leman, in his book for wives frustrated by their husbands’ irresponsibility and insensitivity, writes that “in the midst of all this struggle for power in a unisex society, guess who rules the roost? No doubt, it’s you women!” Leman references the article Eggerichs cites and another from the same journalist to support this claim.[1]

So here we have three highly influential Christian authors responding to women’s marital frustrations by explaining that wives have misconstrued the situation. In truth, we are told, women have the power in marriage and men are just trying to find a place at the table so they can be equal.

Rooting around on the Internet I found the USA Today articles plus others along the same line. With taglines like “Study: Women Are in Charge at Home,” “Women rule the roost, and that’s OK with men,” “Wives have the marriage power,” and “Women Call the Shots at Home,” one would think wives’ dominance of husbands is firmly established.

Until you look at the research it’s based on, that is.

It turns out that all of these articles are based on the same two studies, one by Pew Research and one from Iowa State.[2] Eggerichs also cites the work of widely respected marriage researcher John Gottman, though he leaves out salient parts of the paragraph and appears to misunderstand the terminology.[3]

I don’t have time to look at all of this in detail today so I’ll focus on the Pew study, a phone survey interviewing couples about who makes more decisions at home, the husband or the wife.

Pew asked 1260 men and women who was more likely to make the decisions in four common household scenarios. Here is the exact wording of the questions: Who decides what you do together on the weekend? Who manages the household finances? Who makes the decisions on big purchases for the home? And who most often decides what to watch on television?

Results showed that in 43% of couples the woman makes more of these decisions, while only in 26% of couples does the man make more. From this arises the idea that “women call the shots at home.”

Frankly, when I read the Pew study I was more perplexed than convinced. Does it really prove that women are “the boss” at home? Does it prove anything? I wondered what the outcome would be if different questions had been asked.

For example, who decides how much personal leisure time each partner gets while the other cares for the home and kids? Is this a decision the couple has worked out together or does one person have the upper hand here? Is the fact that many men let their wives decide what they do together on weekends a function of a mutual agreement they have made – as long as I can play golf Saturday morning, honey, whatever you want to do Saturday night is fine with me – or indicative of an unfair arrangement – I’m playing basketball two nights a week this semester, just so you know – that makes him feel guilty and her resentful, so he pacifies her by going along with her dinner plans? Or is it truly a case of the woman controlling leisure time? It could be any of these, but from the way the survey was set up we have no way of knowing.

Instead of asking who manages the finances, what about finding out who decides how funds are allocated in the first place or, for that matter, who is left with the grunt work of paying the bills and balancing the budget? The women I know who manage the household finances (I am one) do so for one of two reasons: either they and their husbands agreed she would do it (because she is more naturally suited to it or has more time) or their husbands refused so the wife stepped up.

It is true that the person who handles the finances has a better grasp on what the couple can and cannot afford, so a wife managing the day to day finances may result in a husband asking his wife if it’s okay for him to make a purchase. But this may not be about getting permission from his wife, but rather from the budget. In our case, my husband has certain goals for our finances and so do I. We talk about these and agree upon priorities, then I work out the details in a practical plan.

As for big purchases for the home, my question is how things would fall out if the question was about big purchases for the garage. Is the fact that women make more decisions about appliances and sofas related to men’s lesser interest in these items compared to cars, boats and tools? We don’t know since the survey didn’t ask the question. Numerous longitudinal studies do indicate, however, that although men have gained some traction with respect to household purchases women still take the lead in buying toilet paper, cleaning supplies, cooking utensils, and bedspreads.

If that means I call the shots at home, well, I don’t know what to say.

The bias in the methodology here may be comparable to the bias inherent in some studies of who works more, men or women. Some data has indicated that women work an entire second shift compared to men, when total working hours (at home and at a job) are calculated. However, the main study asserting this inequity was based solely on women’s assessments of how much they work compared to their husbands. More accurate research indicates that on average stay-at-home wives/mothers work the fewest total hours, husbands/fathers with full-time jobs work about the same total hours as wives/mothers with part-time employment, and wives/mothers with a full-time job work a total of about one hour more per week than anyone else, varying a bit by country.

When it comes to television I wonder if the survey respondents assumed the couple was watching a show together, since a question about who handles the remote would seem to imply they’re both watching. And when they do, the wife is more likely to decide what they view.

But is that because she dominates, or because he’s fine with what she wants as long as he gets to watch his game on ESPN and play a few rounds of his favorite video game first? And does he even want to watch TV with her, or is she the one looking for some couple time in front of the tube? I don’t know; I’m sure there are couples where the wife is insensitive to her husband’s interests and dominates time spent as a couple, but I don’t think you can prove a general trend by this question.

Beyond these weaknesses, to me the Pew questions seem trivial. Bigger issues in my mind are things like who decides how household responsibilities are divvied up or how much extra work each partner gives the other through their thoughtlessness or selfishness. Is one person tacitly saying, I’ve done my share; the rest is yours? And if a wife manages the family’s social schedule, does that mean she’s dominant or that no one else is willing to do it? Or has the couple agreed that she play this role? It could be any of these.

And how about some questions relating to interpersonal interaction, like who decides when it is okay to be angry and when it is not? Does one partner believe his or her anger is warranted but the other’s is unprovoked? Who decides when a “sin” issue necessities intervention and when it’s “no big deal”? Who decides when something “makes sense” and when it does not, when “this conversation is over” or when it’s okay to say “I don’t need your approval to do this.” I think when either partner dominates does these things it is a much stronger indication that they “rule the roost” and, frankly, that their marriage is in trouble.

Back to the original illustration of a man asking his wife if it’s okay for him to go golfing on Saturday. Is this really an indication of a woman holding power in the home? Or is it simply common courtesy? What else should the man do – announce he’s leaving as he walks out the door, without checking if his wife has an appointment and needs him to watch the kids? And is that what his wife should do as well? Announce her departure as she heads out for a hike with a friend, without asking if her husband needs something first?

Perhaps checking with your spouse about personal leisure time is simply a reflection of the fact that when we live together in family we meld our schedules and priorities with each other, working things out in a mutually satisfying way so that we have time together but also time to pursue individual interests. As Jesus said, if you recall:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Caring enough about your spouse to consider their needs reflects a fundamental Christian principle, not some sort of dysfunctional codependency.

The bigger question in all of this is simply why. Why do some of our most influential marriage teachers think they need to convince husbands and wives that, actually, women are dominating men at home, especially when the studies they cite do not support this claim?

Yes, some research does demonstrate that women place a higher premium on closeness in marriage while men assign a greater importance to autonomy. So a couple may have different goals for their relationship and different feelings about their relationship dynamics. This is where compromise and the commitment to create a mutually satisfying marriage are needed. But perhaps it explains why a man can view running his Saturday plans by his wife as demonstrating her power over him while she thinks of it as common courtesy.

And yes, it is also true that women are more likely to push for change in a relationship no matter who brings up the problem. Husbands, on the other hand, tend to “demand” (press for change) when they point out an issue but withdraw in the face of their wife’s concerns. However, as Gottman notes, in healthy marriages husbands learn to respond to their wife’s “demands” rather than withdrawing from conflict. Though a wife’s compliance in the face of her husband’s withdrawal can lead to short-term marital satisfaction (perhaps this is why Eggerichs’ ideas seem to work at first), it is also highly correlated with long-term marital dissatisfaction and divorce.[3]

So, no, there is no compelling evidence that, in general, women rule the roost. An individual woman may dominate her home life, of course, just as an individual man may. Those things need to be figured out and worked out on a case by case basis, not by broad, inaccurate brush strokes.

Yet all this talk of women having the power at home is causing a lot of damage in circles where it is embraced as gospel truth. If we’re going to make claims about what is universally true in marriage we need to take the time to investigate the research rather than default to unsubstantiated myths.

We can do better than this.


[1] Have a New Husband by Friday, 29-30.

[2] The Iowa State study is also mischaracterized by the popular media, though it does demonstrate that wives are more likely than husbands to press for change in the relationship. Husbands push for change when it’s an issue they brought up but often withdraw and avoid if their wife chose the topic. Husbands are also more likely to be convinced of their wife’s arguments and agree to changes than the other way around, but this may be a sign of a healthy marriage according to the study’s authors. John Gottman would concur.

[3] Eggerichs drops the part that a wife’s “highly emotional” interaction includes “both positive and negative emotions.” He also leaves out the corresponding assessment of men’s interaction: “Men, on the other hand, have been described as conflict-avoiding, withdrawing, placating, logical, and avoidant of emotions.” Also, these comments are located within a section explaining that male socialization that results in avoidance of emotion “will have serious consequences when love relationships bloom and become serious in young adulthood.” John Gottman, What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994) 283. Gottman also explains that a wife’s push for change is positive as long as the husband responds to her needs rather than stonewalling her. In fact, he has a section entitled “Embrace Her Anger” (p. 131). Gottman also notes that a wife’s agreeableness and compliance in the face of her husband’s withdrawal and avoidance correlate to short-term marital satisfaction but long-term dissatisfaction. That is, the stonewall-comply marital dynamic is a high predictor for divorce (p. 131-135). Eggerichs also gets the page number wrong, so it took me a long time to find the quote. The correct page is 283, as noted above.

Who is Struggling More (Men or Women) is the Wrong Question

In my last post I mentioned a conversation I had with a speaker at a recent theology of marriage conference. I have since learned that he is a member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which may explain why our conversation was like two trains passing each other in the night.[1]

Anyway, this man joined my table during lunch, asking what we would have said if we had been part of the panel discussion that had just completed. Since the topic was one of my interests – gender differences – I jumped in and said I don’t believe the difference between men and women is a matter of leading and following, as had been implied by the panel. Ruling authority is granted to all human beings equally in Genesis, and since leadership and authority go hand in hand, it does not seem that there is any basis for claiming men were created to lead and women were created to follow. Continue reading “Who is Struggling More (Men or Women) is the Wrong Question”

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