Tag Archives: feminism

Genesis and Womanhood

30 Nov

As Julie Andrews once sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to start.”  Thus, our first delve into the world of Biblical Womanhood will deal with the book of Genesis, specifically Chapters 1, 2 & 3.  A great many doctrines find their basis in these three chapters. Though most discourse on this section of the Bible deals with the Evolution issue, I will be focusing only on the aspects which pertain to gender.   Let’s begin.  By the way, this exercise will be significantly more fruitful if you follow along in your Bible as well.  If you do not have a Bible, Biblegateway.com is a great resource.  Go there, and simply find Genesis 1.  I am referencing three versions:  The Revised Standard Version because it is still the accepted version for the academic world and it is preferred among Wesleyans, the New American Standard Version because it makes Reformed folks happy and the New International Version, because it is what most normal people have.

 Genesis 1

The author of Genesis has offered us a beautiful introduction to the Book of Genesis, and perhaps even the Bible itself.  God creates, and humankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation!  Notice the build-up to verse (v) 26.  Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”(27) So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.(28 )God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground,”

This is our first Biblical look at humanity and a few things stand out.  First of all, in this narrative, we are not given a detailed account of the man or woman.  However, we are given one HUGE theological truth.  Both the male and the female were created in the image/likeness of God.  The word used to denote the imago dei is the same word used for an idol.  That’s a big deal.  God’s good creation (and we know it was good because verse 31 tells us it was good) included male and female humans who bear the likeness of God.

The second observation I’d like to make is that both the man and the woman are charged with the same tasks.  Both were given the responsibility and authority to rule over the rest of creation and both were commanded to be fruitful.  In the first creation story, God makes no distinction whatsoever between the roles of the man or the woman.

But we can’t stop there.  Let’s go on to Genesis 2.

 Genesis 2

This account has God forming the man first (v 7).  In v 18, the writer says that God notices it was not good for the man to be alone.  None of the other animals were suitable companions for the man, so God chose to make a helper fit for him.  The story unfolds as God removes the man’s rib to create a new creature.  The man announces in v23 that she is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh and that she shall be called woman because she was taken out of man.  The chapter then concludes by saying a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.  Then v25, the man and his wife were naked and were not ashamed.

Complementarians will use this chapter and argue that God’s original intent for humanity (because Eden represents God’s original intent) was for there to be what I will call a “harmonic hierarchy.”  By this I mean humanity was created with a hierarchy between men and women, but in Eden, where sin was absent, this was a natural and harmonic aspect of creation.  Here is their evidence:

-the Man was created first, which suggest priority

-the woman was created as a helper or helpmeet, which suggest a subordinate role

-the man named her “woman” which suggests authority

-the two were functioning as one flesh, which suggests emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental unity

-the man and the woman were naked and unashamed, which suggests a complete vulnerability and openness between the man and the woman.

There are aspects of the Complementarian view here that I agree with completely.  For instance, I believe the text makes it clear that in Eden (or God’s original intent) men and women live in complete harmony.  The two function as one flesh, living in total unity, and they are completely vulnerable in the other’s presence.  Quite frankly, it represents the perfect marriage.  There were certainly no power struggles between the man and the woman.  A Complementarian would argue this was because sin had not crept in and the wife was perfectly submissive (and happy to be so) and the husband functioned as a perfect, loving leader.  While this view is idyllic, even appealing, I do not believe the text supports this conclusion.  Let’s look at the specifics.

 The Creation Order Man was made first.  I will grant, birth order in the ancient world (and in the modern) was significant in terms of inheritance and status. However,  in and of itself, creation order is not enough to suggest any such authority.  Animals were created before the man in this narrative, yet it is not the animals to whom God grants dominion.  Besides this, there are plenty of Biblical examples of God working outside the norms of culture with respect for birth order.  For example, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph, and Ephraim are five examples from the Book of Genesis (and likely the same author), in which birth order is disregarded.  Thus,the fact that Adam was created first is not a strong argument for either side.

 Woman as Helper.The Hebrew word we translate as “helper” or “helpmate” is עֵ֖זֶר.  We would pronounce is as ‘ezer. It literally means “one who helps.”  In an English translation, our first inclination may be to consider the role of helper as somehow subservient or “beneath.”  In Hebrew, however, the word ‘ezer contains no such meaning. The word is found in the Old Testament 21 times.  It is used twice in Genesis to refer to a woman (2:18,20).  It is used in a neutral context, where “help” is the noun, in six instances (Ps. 20:2, 121:1, 124:8, 146:5, Ez 12:14 & Dan 11:34).  ‘Ezer  is used in Isaiah 30:5 to refer to a group of people without gender distinction.  Interestingly, this word is used most often in reference to God.  On nine occasions, God is referred to as עֵ֖זֶר or helper to Israel.  Obviously God is not subservient to Israel (who receives his help)!  Additionally, there is no female or feminine element in this world.  It’s actually a masculine noun.  In my estimation, the fact that the woman is referred to as a helper cannot suggest a subordinate role because the word עֵ֖זֶר isn’t used in that fashion anywhere else in the Bible!

 Adam names the Woman. I would suggest that announcing the female as woman, or Ish-sha is not a “naming.”  Naming in ancient Israel carried great meaning.  Names always had reflected the character of the individual, his/her calling, or the circumstances of the child’s birth.  This woman does indeed receive a name, which denotes her as the mother of humankind.  However, she does not receive her ‘name’ until chapter three, after the Fall.  When the man declared that she was woman, he was singling her out as part of his kind, his species.  She was not like the animals, whom he gave names to.  He was recognizing her as his counterpart.  His title, ish, simply means man.  It is not a name, rather a designation of species and gender.  And he uses his own designation with the woman.

In conclusion, when I read Genesis 2, I see a beautiful picture of God’s original intent.  There, man and woman lived together in perfect unity, harmony, vulnerability, and equality.

Genesis 3

Genesis three is a classic tale of temptation and sin.  Eve was challenged with a crafty, deceptive message.  The serpent appealed to a human tendency to doubt the goodness of what we have (however good that may be), as well as the desire to grasp honors and power that belongs only in the hands of God (the ability to discern good from evil).  And Yes, she was clearly deceived.  But she was not alone.  Her husband, who was standing right there, sinned right along with her (and with less coaxing I might add).

I have heard a few Complementarian arguments about this section.

The one that I hear most often is that the woman sinned, but her sin was the result of a negligent husband (who was clearly present when she sinned).  The man, failed to lead his wife away from temptation and ultimately sin.  I have even heard it phrased that the Man abdicated his role as leader to his wife, who seems to have taken the lead in the exchange with the serpent.  Thus there was sin.  The fault in this situation ultimately falls to the man, who failed to properly instruct and lead his wife.  I have also heard that the woman sinned first because she was more susceptible than the man.

I take issues with both of these views (I know you’re shocked).  Let’s address the first.

This position has a counterpart in history- femme covert.  It speaks to the idea that a woman is “covered” by her husband (or father if she is unmarried).  Her male authority was responsible for her in every way.  He would care for and protect her, but he would also take responsibility for her.  In an age when women had no education or respectable means of providing financially, this system made sense.  However, it effectively strips women of all financial, legal, or social freedom.  In America, this lasted until the end of the 1800s! Now, this notion can be found in Scripture.  The concept of femme covert goes hand in hand with any patriarchal culture.  However, it is not supported in Genesis 3.  Here’s why:  God never said so.  I’ll elaborate.  God never told the man he was responsible for the woman.  In Genesis 1, God gave the BOTH dominion over creation.  In Genesis 2, God made zero mention of the man being responsible for the free decisions of the woman.  The one aspect in which the man may have culpability, deals with the one prohibition.  According to Gen. 2, the man was given the prohibition prior to the woman’s creation.  It could be fair to say that the man should have communicated the prohibition as he understood it.  Given the woman’s actions- and the fact that she misquotes the law given to the man- it is possible he failed on this score.  However, when God addresses the man and woman’s sin, the man is punished for his own sin- not his wife’s.  And Eve receives her consequences as if she was completely responsible for her own choices.  If the man truly “covered” her the way many claim, God would have rebuked him for allowing his wife to stray.  God does nothing of the sort, rather the man experiences the consequences of sin for listening to the woman when he knew better.  Remember, he knew better because God had given him the prohibition first hand.

The second assertion, that the woman was deceived because women are naturally weaker or less spiritual, also doesn’t hold up under scrutiny or reason.  The woman was deceived by the Serpent who was crafty, manipulative, tempting, and so forth.  She followed the direction of the deceiver- who we can assume was good at his job.  The man follows the direction of another human being- who at that point was not full of sin and therefore would not have been manipulative or crafty.  Should we really make comparisons about the intellectual capacity or spiritual discernment of these two?  If we did, I’m not sure Adam would come out on top, but I do not believe we have enough textual evidence to argue either way with integrity.

** I will address Paul’s comments on this part of Scripture when I reach those texts.**

And now we come to the “Curse section.”  “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” Genesis 3:16

I would like to begin by saying that everyone is in agreement that God’s statements to the man and woman are not “curses.”  Only the serpent and the ground are curses.  There is consensus that God was simply stating the realities they will face in a fallen world.  Women will now experience pain in childbearing.  I do not pretend to understand how the a child would have been conceived, carried and delivered without any pain in Eden, but since that’s not the focus I’ll move on.  The second clause states that the woman’s desire would be for her husband but he will rule over her.  Some people argue that this clause means that women will have in innate desire to usurp of dominate their husbands.  This idea comes from the way the word “desire” (תְּשׁוּקָה) is used in Genesis 4:7.  There God tells Cain that sin’s desire is for him but he must master it.  The word is also used in Song of Solomon,but there it is used in the context of sexual desire.  I am inclined to believe “desire” in the context of Genesis 3 refers to a  continuous emotional and sexual desire on the part of a woman towards her husband, regardless of the resultant pain (from childbearing) or the fact that a husband will now rule over her.

As for the “rule over her,” it is very telling that this is mentioned only after the fall and as an obvious consequence to sin.  Men ruling over women is the result of sin and is a symptom of a broken world, in need of redemption.  It is not a biblical mandate.  It is the symptom of  a disease.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, Genesis 1,2,& 3 has a lot to say about the relationships between men and women. Though Genesis 2 is frequently cited for a Complementarian foundation in Genesis, the text simply cannot support such conclusions.  This, combined with Genesis 1- which presents an equality between the man and woman- leads me to believe that God’s original intent for human relationships was one of harmony based on equality between the sexes.

The inequality experienced between Adam and Eve (which culminates when Adam exhibits his “rule” over her by giving her the name of Eve), was the direct result of sin.  It is not God’s intention for relationships.  Thus, we should not seek to propagate inequality or domination between the sexes.  For those who think Genesis 3:16 represents a command for all people and all times, I would ask whether or not they use fertilizer, farming equipment, medication during childbirth, medication or surgery for illnesses or anything else that seeks to lessen the consequences of sin upon the earth or the human life.  If they do, they should reexamine the consistency of their doctrine.

As a redeemed community, we are called out of our life of sin.  In a sense, we are called and empowered to live into Eden (God’s original intent), which means we should pursue harmony and equality between men and women.