Genesis and gender

One of the many frustrations, in the church’s current debates over human sexuality and gender, is that people who are in disagreement with each other rarely engage substantially with each other’s theological arguments, and there is a great deal of two sides talking past each other. In particular, what we might call for convenience the “conservative” side has come to lay a great deal of stress on the creation narratives in Genesis, which are read as demonstrating that a strict and simple ontological gender binary, usually seen in complementarian terms, is a fundamental feature of the order of creation. The Genesis narrative is also important in this discussion because, in the single instance where Jesus says anything that could possibly be construed as relevant to the contemporary marriage debate, the divorce teaching in Mark and Matthew, he quotes briefly from both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. It is important, then, to engage closely with these texts, to see what they might actually be saying on these subjects, and to consider what Jesus may have intended to convey by his use of them.

Texts are created, at least in part, to answer specific questions, and no text can be compelled to answer all questions; and forcing a text to answer questions it was not written to address will create inevitable distortions. To say this is not in contradiction to a high view of scripture; it is to say that we cannot derive answers about animal husbandry from the story of Gerasene demoniac simply because pigs are mentioned. It is a mark of basic respect for, even submission to, a Biblical text to let it make the points for which it was written, not the points we want it to be making. It also prevents us from throwing all our pigs into the sea for no good reason.

There is no question that gender features in the two creation accounts in Genesis, and is particularly emphasized in the second account. But it strains credibility to suppose that these texts were trying to address any of our contemporary debates around gender and sexuality; these questions were not even thinkable questions at the time the texts were composed. Do they, despite this, indicate that a gender binary is to be understood as fundamental to the created order? I would argue that, if we actually approach the texts themselves without preconceptions, the answer is probably no. In any case, if we are able to start to identify the questions which the texts probably are trying to answer, we may get some way further towards discerning whether, in either account, the intention is to encode a strict gender binary into the order of creation.

Part of this process involves reading the Genesis accounts in comparison with the Sumerian and Mesopotamian creation accounts, and especially, of course, the Enuma Elish. The strong similarities between Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish are well-known; the great difference, and I would argue the single great purpose of Genesis 1, is the affirmation that the One God is fully in control of the entire process of creation, and that no part of it whatsoever is beyond or outside God’s control. There is no equivalent of the battle between Marduk and Tiamat, because there is no other remotely comparable power with which this God must compete. There is no force of chaos or evil against which God must struggle – there is non-existence, the formless tohu wa-bohu, and there is the breath of God which brings meaning and causes being. And all of this created order is proclaimed “good” and “very good.” Human beings are not created through the slaughter of another god, nor are they made, as in the Enuma Elish, in order to serve the gods – humanity is one more aspect of the ordered existence which God’s word, borne on God’s breath, effortlessly and joyfully creates, not for God’s personal service and gratification, but because it has inherent goodness.

This ordered existence is described, using a basic technique of Hebrew poetry, mostly through a series of binaries (or in one case a triad) – evening and morning; water and dry land; seed-bearing plants and fruit trees; sun and moon; flying creatures and swimming creatures; wild animals, domestic animals, and creeping animals; and male and female human beings. In no case other than gender do we read these pairs or triads as imposing absolute limits on creation – we do not deny the proper existence of noontime, of marshes and wetlands, of ducks or amphibians, nor do we believe that the taming of a wild creature, nor a domestic cat going feral, is a violation of divine law – nor yet do we believe that every fruit tree must have a specific seed-bearing counterpart plant to be complete. We understand that the author’s intent is to speak of a wide and diverse creation, with many porous boundaries, variations, and interrelationships.

It is not likely that the person who wrote down the Genesis 1 account actively and consciously wanted either to include, or to exclude, gender identity outside of the male/female binary. It is most likely that the question was just not particularly active for this writer. But, though the order of God’s good creation which the author perceives is poetically expressed through binaries and triads, it is meant, overall, to be understood as representing a wide range of possibility, wherein details may be filled as they are experienced. As we have found a place for the platypus within this diverse order, so we may equally find a place for other gender identities and expressions. The fundamental message, that all of creation is ordered, good, and fully within God’s control, is one which should be able to accommodate an understanding of gender beyond a simple binary without undue anxiety.

There is an additional reason for the mention of gender in this account, of course – and it is where the text makes its most distinctive move. It stresses, in contradiction to much of the thought of that time and later, that all human beings, not only male ones, are created in the image of God. This question – unlike any questions about gender identity or same-sex partnerships – would have been very much alive in the author’s own time. That women are fully human, and fully in the image of God, was then, has been for much of history, and is sometimes even now, a strong and challenging statement. It is not the primary intention of the text, but it is nevertheless a clear intention, and one which distinguishes Genesis 1 from many other creation accounts, which either fail to address the place of women within creation (sometimes, it appears that only male humans are part of the story at all), or mark them as distinctly subordinate.

When Jesus cites this passage in Mark and Matthew, it is this intention, I believe, that he is invoking. This is, actually, the most obvious possible example of a story which intends to answer a particular question, because in this case Jesus has been asked a particular question – he has been asked whether divorce is permissible, and his answer is directed to this question. Needless to say, Jesus was never asked whether two men or two women might get married – while we may believe that he, as the incarnate Word of God, could have been able to anticipate the eventuality, it would never even have entered the minds of his questioners; it was, at the time, not an imaginable issue, and was, therefore, not a question which Jesus was attempting to answer. To apply an answer to a specific question in order to answer a very different question is never a useful epistemological strategy.

Marriage in first century Palestine was, as it has been through most of human history, essentially a property transaction; and the crucial property in question was the woman involved, and her reproductive potential. There were, no doubt, many marriages which also included deep bonds of affection and loyalty, but that was more of a by-product than an intent. Divorce was a contract revocation, initiated by the man, who was the one party treated legally as a full person, and the one able to revoke his ownership of the female property. Jesus, instead, treats marriage as a partnership between two persons of equal humanity, a covenant relationship which cannot be set aside easily (or, in Mark’s gospel, at all), and which involves the breaking of a fundamental human relational bond. To invoke the Genesis passage is to recognize the female person involved in the marriage as not a piece of disposable property, but as one created in the imago Dei.

As a side note, it is interesting that the primary good which Jesus identifies in marriage is that it breaks bonds of biological family, a unit for which he seems to have had very little enthusiasm. Moreover, in Matthew’s gospel, he moves immediately from the divorce teaching to the teaching on eunuchs. This is a difficult passage to interpret, and I do not believe that it is legitimate to identify Matthew’s “eunuchs” precisely with sexual or gender minorities today, but it is clear that Jesus speaks neutrally or positively of people who are non-standard with respect to sex and gender, whether because of how they are born, or because of choices they make. So the divorce teaching is embedded in a context which, on the one hand, elevates covenant relationship and presents it as the desirable standard for humanity, and on the other hand validates non-standard sex and gender states, and does not by any means identify the procreative family unit as a singular source of good.

The two motives I have identified for the Genesis 1 text – to stress the goodness and order of creation through the techniques of Hebrew poetry, and to affirm the full humanness of women – are sufficient to account entirely for the mention of gender there, and to explain what the text is trying to say about it. It is quite true that the human creatures are told to reproduce, and much weight has been placed on this; they are also told to farm, and it is not clear why we should rate one of these commands so much more highly than the other. We do not now consider agriculture to be a required activity in each individual human life, nor are life paths judged by their “agricultural potential,” although farming is more necessary than urban-dwellers often remember. Biological reproduction and basic food production both need to be done by at least some humans if humanity in general is to continue, but at the moment basic food production seems by far the more threatened of the two functions.

The creation story in Genesis 2 is of quite a different nature, less poetic, less concerned with the broad scope of creation, and more engaged with the specific position of the human creature and that creature’s moral nature. The human creature is the first thing to be created except the earth and the heavens themselves (and one stream of water), and it is far from clear whether, in that initial creation, the creature is sexually differentiated. The human being is called ha’adam, which may not be a name so much as a descriptor. The author of Genesis 2 appears to derive it from adamah, earth. Though the actual derivation is more likely from the Hebrew word for “red” or the Sumerian word for “to make”, it would seem that the Genesis 2 author’s intention is for the original human to be “the creature of earth.” The Hebrew adam does not necessarily signal maleness. The word ish, which indicates specifically a male human being, does not appear in the text until after the creation of the female human, ishshah, later given the name Eve. (To be fair, the male creature also continues to be called adam sometimes even after the woman exists, so the text does give him a partially favoured ontological status, but the verbal play is more complex than most English translations capture).

The sequence which leads to the creation of the female creature is an interesting one – God observes that it is “not good” for the adam to be alone. It is not clear how far this is a deliberate contrast to all other aspects of creation being designated “good” and “very good” throughout the first creation account, but it is striking. Though there has not been, and still is not, an active principle of evil, something has been designated “not good”, and that thing is solitude, loneliness, the lack of a relational bond. Most of the rest of creation comes into being as an attempt to provide a companion to the adam, but no creature is appropriate. They are all formed out of the earth, like the adam, but they are not similar enough (possibly because only in the case of the adam has God breathed into the creature, some hint of the imago Dei theology of Genesis 1?). Finally, the adam‘s partner must be made from the adam‘s own flesh – that is, the emphasis is not on difference, but on similarity, an emphasis made stronger by the adam‘s response, “This at last is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” While the ish/ishshah language may hint at a theology of sexual complementarity, the stronger thrust of the text is towards the necessity of a relational bond with a peer, with one who is the same, a fellow sharer in the breath of God. And again, it is this realm of meaning which I believe Jesus intends to be active when he quotes from this passage in the divorce controversy. As with Genesis 1, the real question this chapter is trying to answer is a question about the humanity of women, and again the answer is an affirmative one.

And while it is quite obviously not a text written to provide an answer of any kind to contemporary debates about human sexuality and gender, the principle that it is not good for the human creature to be alone, and that the only acceptable relational bond is one which is based on an equal sharing in the life of God, is a principle which does not require a strict gender binary or any theory of “complementarity”, despite how much this has been read into the text by later commentators in the Western church. While I have largely tried to read these texts without invoking later interpretation, it’s worth remembering that the Greek fathers, unlike most Western theologians, consistently understood the story as indicating equality and likeness of being between men and women, and prioritizing companionship as the primary goal and good of marriage.

The Greek fathers also, almost without exception, did not see gender as having ontological status, but as being a purely “economic” arrangement required by the postlapsarian human situation, and often used the Genesis narratives as a part of constructing this understanding. Greek patristic thinking about gender is a sufficiently rich topic to be worth an essay of its own, but for now it is enough to note that the patristic tradition casts some doubt on the idea that Genesis can be easily read as expressing an ontological gender binary.

In summary, then, the Genesis texts are complex, and Jesus’ quotation of them even more so, but, though it is more than probable that the Genesis authors perceived gender as binary, this was not the point they intended to stress. The overall emphasis is on equal humanity – on the relative unimportance of sex and gender – and, in the case of Genesis 2 and Jesus’ divorce teachings, on companionship as the primary good of human covenantal relationship and/or marriage. As a side note, Jesus also seems comfortable with expressions of sex or gender which in some way do not conform to the simple biological binary. Once again, the Bible is just too interesting and profound to be very useful in proof-texting anything.

2 thoughts on “Genesis and gender

  1. This is an excellent reading of Genesis 1 and 2, deeply rooted in its historical context and attentive to both the nuances of the text and much of the scholarship on these passages. Thank you so much.

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