Vive la différence!

A World for Worship

Narrative Theology

The Biblical Facts of Life

The French may say: Vive la différence! Some Christians aren't so sure. Recent letters in the evangelical press show we are still far from agreement about the roles God ordains for men and women. Expectations around us have changed dramatically. Non-Western cultures (often Muslim) are pressured to toe the line and provide equal opportunities.

Some families of churches have embraced the cause of women's liberation. While for Catholics the Pope in Rome stands bulwark for the old ways. Baptists have no Pope, but all recognise a written authority. Clearly we must look to the word of God for guidance on this, as on all matters of faith and practice.

People try to discover what the Bible teaches in many ways:

Here, let's accept that we cannot discover what the Bible teaches by discovering what some Bible verses teach. We must look at the Bible as a whole. For the Bible, and not just some parts of the Bible, is the Word of God.

The Word is a whole, and its whole must direct our thinking. The Bible begins with a story. It is filled with narrative. So, if we are to discover what "the Bible says", we should listen to its stories and discover its story.

To make sense of any story you must know its beginning. For, at the beginning, the basic facts are laid out. The Bible's beginning, in Genesis 1, 2 & 3, tells of the purpose and meaning of the world's creation.

A World for Worship

The goal and major highlight of creation, according to the narrative of Genesis 1, is worship.

The universe is made in six days. Three days provide the world with its form:

The second three days provide this form with fullness:

So the sky and sea of day 2 are "filled" with birds and fish on day 5, and the land (day 3) with animals and people on day 6. Day 1 put in place only "light" and "dark", an undifferentiated cycle of days, while on day 4, the Sun, Moon and stars provide the markers of time, tellers of seasons.

Thus the "fullness" of creation begins with a calendar which determines the times and seasons of agriculture and of the festivals and celebrations of religious worship. The "fullness" of creation begins with a calendar for worship, and worship is also the highlight of creation's story, as the consecration of the seventh day to God makes clear (2:1-3).

However the activity of creation reaches its climax at the end of day 6. There, the creation of humanity is singled out for special attention. In place of the usual "let there be...", this once, God associates himself more closely with what he makes. He says "let us make humanity in our own image" (1:26).

If all creation exists for worship,/1 humans have a particular and special function. Unlike the other creatures, humans are to "have dominion" (1:26) and are created "in the image of God" (1:27). That is, as an Emperor's image on coins is the sign of his authority throughout the Empire, so the image of God in humanity declares the creator's glory. Human dominion is intended to reflect divine, not human, authority.

Verse 27 deserves close attention. It is poetry in the middle of prose, and its few words are carefully placed and balanced.

   "So God created humanity in his image,
    in image of God he created them,
    male and female he created them."

Poetic repetition draws attention to the "image of God". This image is found in humanity, male and female. The text denies that either partner alone images the creator. Rather, it is precisely in our dual and related nature that humankind images divinity. Worship not only is relationship (with God), it also takes place within relationship.

Any biblical understanding of the nature and roles of men and women must take account of this partnership in the image of God. Anything which reflects less than this cannot be biblical.

Narrative Theology

Chapter One is theology told in narrative form. In Chapters Two and Three of Genesis we have another and more story-like story. Here we focus on the nature of humans and their relationship with God. First, God shapes a single human from the dust of the earth, breathing life into this lifeless mannequin (2:7). God planted a garden as his home (2:8), makes the animals as companions (2:19), yet the human is alone and lonely (2:20). The creator recognises that this is "not good" (2:18,21).

The only possible answer to loneliness is companionship. No other creature among the animals is truly capable of providing this (2:20). They are inferior. So from the flesh of his human creature God forms another, like it. When the human meets this other-half, he exclaims, "at last this is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone" (2:23), recognising their equality.

In naming her ishah "woman" (2:23) he names himself ish "man", and announces their complementarity. For up to this point, the creature has not been described as a "man" rather he has been an adam, a "human". The equality and complementarity planned by the creator find their expression in marriage (2:24).

So Chapter 2 fills out and repeats the message of Chapter 1 concerning the nature and purpose of men and women. While Chapter 3 adds something which Chapter 1 had ignored. For in Chapter 3 we discover the human capacity for rebellion. Made in the image of God, and made for fellowship with God, humans nevertheless cannot resist seeking equality with God. "Eat, and you will become like God", says the serpent (3:5).

Disobeying God's instruction, pretending equality with the creator, humans have destroyed relationship. In 3:8, instead of joyfully greeting the creator, on his evening stroll round the garden, they hide.

As consequence of their sin, they are excluded from the garden that God planted and from tree of life (3:24). Another result is damage to their own relationship: "you will desire your husband and he will dominate you" (3:16). This domination, unlike the dominion over the rest of creation (1:28) which humans enjoy as God's representatives, is not part of creation's story but a consequence of human sin. According to Genesis 3 the domination of man over woman is a perversion of God's plan, brought about by sin.

So, the story of Chapters 2 & 3 continues and fills out the theology we learned in Chapter 1. Man and woman need each other and are complementary to each other, neither is complete alone. Though they are different, they are not created unequal (2:23).

The Biblical Facts of Life

These chapters, then, provide the foundation for the whole Bible story. They teach, of a creator who seeks relationship with his creatures and that humanity is made for worship and for relationship (with God and with fellow humans).

They display, too, our tendency to sin and to destroy both relationships. They affirm, not the authority of one gender over the other, but mutuality in worship, declaring God's authority.

These are the facts of life to which any biblical understanding of the roles and relationships of men and women must conform. For this is the understanding of the nature and purpose of men and women with which the Bible begins and from which its stories must be understood.


This article is part of the "Electric Angels" collection

It is the first of a series about Men & Women, Sex & God

Next Article: "Myths and Heroines"

1  See for example Isaiah 55:12:

For you shall go out in joy,
  and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
  shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

In Hebrew ’adam, despite the way it becomes the name of the first man in Chapter two, means "human" or "humanity", "man" is ’ish (with a corresponding feminine, ’ishah, "woman").


© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2002

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