Biblical understandings of human gender: Part Two: The creation of human gender

Although Gen 1 talks of humanity as created “male and female” it only uses the biological terms, and not the particular words for “woman” and “man”. Like most languages the gendered terms for man and woman suggest much more than mere biological significance.

‘ishah the word for woman is first used in Gen 2:22 where the LORD God builds a woman from the material taken from the human/humanity. The word for “man” is first used in the next verse, where in identifying her as “woman” the first man identifies himself as such ‘ish.

[At this point we need an excursus on the relationship between Gen 1 and 21 These two chapters cannot be a sequential narrative for at 1:27 human female(s) already exist. Therefore, I will not try to harmonise the two narratives, though one perhaps might by seeing Gen 2 as a description of what happened in Gen 1:27.) Rather I will try to ask what each separately is seeking to teach us.]

Gen 2:25 seems to me more closely connected to chapter 3 than to chapter 2, note not least the keyword “naked” – though it may serve as a narrative bridge linking the two episodes.2 In that case the conclusion to Gen 2 (before we start to think of what is to come in Gen 3) is Gen 2:24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

The linking word “therefore” (‘al-ken) strongly suggests that this verse provides the conclusion (or punch line) of chapter 2. Both Jesus and Paul cite this verse in teaching about marriage (Mat 19:5-6; Mark 10:8; 1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31) in each case it is the unity created by this union that is stressed.

That too is what Gen 2 has stressed. When presented (v.22) with the “woman” the human says:

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken. (Genesis 2:23)

Coming after the “unsuitable” helpers that all the animals proved to be, though it is clear that in purely functional terms animals can be a great help – horses carry us faster than legs, elephants lift tree trunks it would take many humans to move at all… – they do not fulfil the divine intention of 2:18 to provide a helper kenegdo (like opposite/corresponding to him). What woman has that animals do not (since reproduction is NOT mentioned at this point in the narrative) is that man and woman correspond.

Noticing further that a “helper” is usually one who supplies a lack or need, and is never a term for an inferior in Scripture reinforces the overall impression that this chapter teaches the equality and complementarity of the two human genders.

[I am aware that the two “tendencies” at war in debates over gender in Christian circles today are named “complementarian” and “egalitarian”. My point here is not that either (or even both) doctrinaire positions are correct, but that both have names that express biblical truth.]

So, in Gen 1 we learned that humanity was created (male and female together) in the image of God, and that this image does not reside in one part of humanity or the other alone. Here in Gen 2 we learn that humans are made for each other, that we need the companionship of beings who are like us but different. The need of Gen 2:18 is not for mere physical help, that animals can provide, nor merely to reproduce (however highly the Bible values that) but for complementarity and equality. Both Feminism (as it is often expressed to imply some sort of quasi-sameness rather than equal-but-different) and Complementarianism (as it is often expressed to imply less than equality) are unbiblical. Yet both are also (understood “rightly”) thoroughly biblical, Feminism (with the Bible and against thousands of years of popular culture) afirms the equality of women and men, Complementarianism (with Scripture and against some strands of contemporary culture) affirms that women and men are meant to be different (Hurray! ;) and should not be forced to behave or think alike, forced into uncomfortable molds.

[The really hard questions will, of course, come when we ask about this “difference”. Some “Complementarians” will assert that all sorts of gender roles are “built in” by the creator, and that particular men and women must try to conform to these predetermined roles. As I hope to show my view is that such attempts go beyond the biblical hope expressed in Gen 1-2, and are not called for elsewhere in Scripture. But that’s another story ;) ]

  1. Always remembering that the “real” chapter division takes place after the seven days of the week in chapter one are finished, at Gen 2:3-4. []
  2. See Ruth 1:22 for a nice example of such a bridge that clearly links to both chapters. []

One comment on “Biblical understandings of human gender: Part Two: The creation of human gender

  1. Andrea Candy

    “Let there be light” (or at least lucidity) and there was. Thanks.