Biblical understandings of human gender: Part One: Beginnings

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I’ve been prodded by a couple of careful and humane responses1 to my quick and thoughtless post pointing to a neat mocking of the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to address in greater depth (and I hope with more respect to those I disagree with) why I come to the conclusions I do about gender and gender roles.

Where should I start? As a Baptist, obviously with Scripture. But different people start in different places in Scripture, we might begin by looking at the gender roles described or assumed in the Bible, but it seems to me worth beginning at a more fundamental level.  Why not start at the start of Scripture itself, in Genesis 1ff. with the strong clear teaching there about God, the world and humanity?

God and Human Gender in Genesis 12

Genesis chapter one is a powerful piece of highly polished writing, it often seems on reading it that every word has its place and has been carefully chosen.3

God

Among many other important things the chapter hammers home an understanding of the God (‘elohim – the word looks like a plural of the word for a god, “gods”, but is clearly singular here and throughout the Hebrew Bible except where it does refer to a collection of gods) who is the only character to speak4 in the chapter. This “God”:

  • acts alone, is accompanied by no pantheon of subsidiary – still less equal – powers
  • creates by mere volition: “‘Let light be!’ and light became“…
  • is not to be included in any class or group with other beings, for all other beings are creatures (including explicitly the lights in the sky worshiped by Israel’s neighbours as divine beings, who here serve as clocks and calendars regulating the worship of God).

This is important. Any theology which sets God alongside another, which fails to recognise that God is creator and every other being a creature, or which places God into some class or group with other beings who are similar in some way, would make this chapter a lie.

Human gender

This magnificent chapter is more mysterious and less clear about humanity. For example, what does “having dominion” and “subduing” entail? Or, why were humans created last? What does it mean to claim we are “made in the image of God”?

However, on human gender it seems much clearer:

So God created humanity in his own image,
vayibra’ ‘elohim et-ha’adam besalmo

in the image of God he created them;
beselem ‘elohim bara’ ‘oto

male and female he created him.
zakar uneqebah bara’ ‘ota

Humanity5 is made explicitly in two biological genders. The words “male” and “female” are the biological ones that would be used by animal breeders and such contexts, not the more respectful “man” and “woman”. These two sorts of human are created together.

Whatever the “image of God” is, it applies to them together. The parallelism of the verse is strong and powerful, there is no way we can make this “image” apply to one gender and not equally to the other.

The rest of what is said about humanity, including the subduing and dominion over the rest of creation is said about an ‘adam defined as “male and female”.

In my next post in this series I will move on to Gen 2.

  1. For which I thank my interlocutors both here and on Facebook :) []
  2. When I speak of Genesis One I mean Gen 1:1-2:3 or 4a, for our purposes here there is no need to join the arguments over where exactly the division should be made 1:31 might even work for these purposes. []
  3. The great German scholar von Rad even said that it was hard to overinterpret this material! []
  4. Apart from the anonymous and mysterious narrator. []
  5. ‘adam while it becomes a name for the first man in the next chapter, here seems – as in a number of other places – to mean either a human or humanity. []

One comment on “Biblical understandings of human gender: Part One: Beginnings

  1. Pingback: Biblical understandings of human gender: Part Five: Corresponding - Sansblogue