Creation and sexuality

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailI am writing a Grove booklet on the biblical texts relating to same-sex unions. This is the first draft of my section on Genesis 1 and 2. All comments welcome; they might find their way into the final text!

Genesis 1 and 2

Then God said, “Let us make human beings 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.”

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number… (Gen 1.26–28)

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”… So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found… The Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Gen 2.18–24)

Traditionalist reading: The first creation accounts presents a strong image of humanity as male and female, a unified but binary reality, in which only male and female together fully represent the image of God. The second creation account fills this out further, portraying humanity at first as undifferentiated by gender, and only subsequently differentiated into male and female to address the problem of human aloneness. The coming together in sexual union of a man and woman signifies the reunification of differentiated humanity in the image of God.

Revisionist reading: The depiction of humanity as male and female together as the image and likeness of God must be quite general, rather than specifically refer to marriage, since otherwise this would mean that the single person is deficient as the image of God. The coming together of man and woman in sexual union is about companionship rather than reunification, and its meaning is primarily to do with the establishing of kinship bonds. All these can, in principle, be extended to same-sex sexual unions.


The first thing to note about the creation narrative is that it is in two parts, which do not integrate with one another in any simple way.[1] In relation to the creation of humanity, however, they share some key concerns. Gen 1.28f offers a strong, binary presentation of humanity as male and female who, nevertheless, represent together the ‘image and likeness’ of God—unity and distinction almost alternate in these verses. The Hebrew text uses adam (usually translated ‘human being’) in vv 26 and 27, and then adds the explanatory comment ‘male and female’ using the Hebrew terms zaqar and neqevah.

There has been considerable debate about what it means to be the ‘image and likeness’ of God, and we are offered two clues.

  • The phase comes again in Gen 5.3, describing Adam’s son Seth as also ‘in his likeness, in his image.’ This and other contemporary texts suggest that the central idea is of family resemblance.
  • The phrase is strongly associated with God’s sovereign rule over the creation. ‘Let us make…so that they may rule’ and ‘He created them…and blessed them…and said… “Fill the earth and subdue it.”’

So the idea appears to be that humanity, (adam) male and female (zaqar and neqevah), reproduce, populate the earth, and govern it as the offspring of the creator, ruling as his vice-regents and with his delegated authority.

The second creation narrative (from Gen 2.4 onwards) focuses in detail on the creation of humanity as male and female. The adam appears at first to be undifferentiated in gender; the meaning of the term is made clear when adam is formed from the dust of the adamah (2.7), brought to life by the breath of God.[2] The use of adam continues all the way to the start of verse 23; only then are the gendered terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ deployed (ish and ishshah).[3]

The narrative turns around the surprising declaration that it is not good for the adam to be alone, and the subsequent quest for a ‘suitable helper’ (2.18, 20). The term ‘helper’ (ezer) has no particular sense of superiority or inferiority; God is at times described as the ‘helper’ of Israel. The term ‘suitable for him’ (kenegdo) is unusual, and has the sense of ‘equal but opposite’; it is the kind of phrase you might use to describe the opposite bank of a river, combining both the sense of equality but difference and distinctness. The explicit sense of the narrative is that the animals are not ‘suitable’ since they are not the adam’s equal. But the equally powerful, implicit sense of the narrative is that it would not be sufficient simply to form another adam from the ground.[4] This ‘helper’ needed to be equal but opposite. There is clearly a task to be completed (subduing the earth), but there is also a deep existential recognition in the (now) man’s cry ‘Here is flesh of my flesh!’ The twin themes of similarity and difference wind their way through the story like a double helix.

The climax of this narrative is the assertion that it is ‘for this reason’ that the male-female sexual union is the basis for family life. The breaking of a previous kinship bond and the formation of a new kinship bond is precisely located in the recognition of ‘flesh of my flesh’ and the uniting in sexual union that which was separated in the creation of the woman from the adam, who in that moment became the (male) man.[5]


It is surprising that quite a number of ‘revisionist’ arguments do not explore the importance of the creation narratives in the debate.[6] One of the most recent, extensive critiques of the traditional reading is offered by James Brownson.[7] Brownson’s approach is to look beyond the ‘surface’ meaning of the text to seek the ‘moral logic’ behind it. It is not immediately obvious from Brownson’s argument, but in doing this he is, to a great degree, deciding on his conclusion before he begins the discussion. In seeking a deeper ‘moral logic’ he appears to be setting aside the possibility that the ‘moral logic’ is the very fact of humanity as binary by gender, and this reality being the basis of marriage.

Brownson’s main critique of the idea of seeing male-female complementarity in  the narrative is that commentators cannot agree exactly what the nature of that complementarity is. But this is not a compelling argument; just because we cannot explain exactly or exhaustively what an idea is does not mean it is not in the text. For example, all are agreed that being made in the ‘image of God’ is central to the creation of humanity. But, despite the clues in the text, there are many different possibilities for what this means. Is it primarily about creativity? Or procreativity? Or dominion? Or rationality? Or relationality? All of these have been suggested—but this had not made anyone think that ‘image of God’ is not important in the text.

Brownson then offers four specific objections to ‘traditional’ readings of biologically-based complementarity (pp 26–34).

1. In Gen 2.4f, adam is not a binary being, with one body but two centres of conscience, so cannot be understood to be an undifferentiated being that is differentiated in the creation of woman. Brownson appears to be taking the ‘traditionalist’ reading very literalistically here; there is no need to postulate that adam has two centres of consciousness in order to recognise that the text itself portrays adam as undifferentiated in gender until 2.20.

2.  The focus of Gen 2 is not on difference, but on the similarity of male and female; this is seen both in the rejection of the animals as ‘suitable helper’ since they are not similar enough, and in the man’s cry of recognition. But, as we have seen, the themes here focus on both similarity and difference. If difference was not an issue, God could simply have formed another adam from the dust.

3. Male and female together as the image of God would mean that single people in general, and Jesus in particular, could not by themselves be the ‘image of God’, unless Jesus was androgynous. But in fact these problems are present in biblical theology; the Old Testament does indeed appear to have little place for singleness, and Jesus’ singleness does appear to have been quite counter-cultural—it is given its theological context by the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. It is also interesting to note that Paul’s Christology does have some strikingly ‘androgynous’ elements; Christ is representative and forerunner of both male and female in the people of God just as Adam (here ungendered) is the representative of all humanity, both male and female (1 Cor 15.22; compare Romans 5).

4. The word ‘same flesh’ signifies not actual flesh but bonds of kinship, since ‘flesh’ is used elsewhere to designate relatives. This proposal appears to be based in a misunderstanding of how language works. Brownson is suggesting that because ‘flesh’ is used metaphorically in reference to family ties, it no longer has a literal sense. This is a bit like noting that in certain subcultures ‘brother’ means ‘friend’, and concluding from this that ‘brother’ therefore no longer actually means ‘male sibling.’

So Brownson’s critiques do not undermine the ‘traditional’ reading that he articulates at the start of his discussion:

The reason same-sex behaviour is portrayed negatively…is that God created man and woman to complement each other in the bond of marriage. …[M]ale and female are both similar and different, and this complementarity of similarity and difference is foundational to human identity, and to the institution of marriage. Therefore, the only appropriate place for sexual activity is the “one-flesh” union of marriage between a man and a woman.

This is clearly not all that Scripture has to say about either humanity, singleness or marriage, but it seems a fair description of the foundational role of Gen 1 and 2. A key question will be how these texts are taken up elsewhere in the canon of Scripture.


[1] For the last hundred years or so, scholars have identified four different ‘sources’ in the Pentateuch, each with different styles of expression and each with distinct theological concerns. Gen 1 is identified with the ‘priestly’ strand (P) which has a concern with order and priority. Gen 2 is identified with the ‘Yahwist’ strand (J) which focuses on the God of Israel as redeemer.

[2] So he is really an ‘earth creature.’ Perhaps we should call his name ‘Dusty.’

[3] adam occurs without the definite pronoun ‘the’ only in the second half of v 20, hence some translations interpret this as a proper name ‘Adam’, though this does not happen with again until 3.17, when the proper name continues until 5.3

[4] So there is serious exegetical/narrative point behind what is sometimes seen as a cheap quip: ‘God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’, or more precisely, not Adam and another Adam. Without this, the narrative makes no sense.

[5] It is also interesting to note that the idea here of one man united with one woman appears to have a reforming effect on subsequent narratives. The first mention of polygamy, that of Lamech in Gen 4.19, is set within the extended narrative in Gen 1 to 11 of the effects of sin rippling out to affect marital relations, sibling rivalry, shortened lifespan, corruption of society and communal rebellion against God. By the time of the NT, the idea of polygamy has been contradicted by reference back to the narrative of Gen 2.

[6] For example, the leaflet available on the LGCM website, or Steven Schuh’s article, also available online.

[7] Bible, Gender, Sexuality Eerdmans, 2013.

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43 thoughts on “Creation and sexuality”

  1. Hi Ian, time doesn’t permit a long engagement right now- and to some extent the issues you raise here are not really central to what I think is at stake in this debate – but I immediately thought that your choice of language in using the word ‘revisionist’ (and maybe the word ‘traditionalist’) give the game away – and perhaps your own bias. Such language is freighted with political meaning in the current debate, ‘revisionist’ being almost a term of abuse in some circles (the equivalent of the way shock jocks in us radio use the word ”liberal’). If this book is to shore up the historic interpretation of a Genesis in this context (and the case against SSM) all well and good, but not necessarily a scholarly enquiry; but if you want to engage with people across the divide on this matter, then different language is necessary if you want to be heard – and engaged with – by those who disagree with you

  2. Ian, thanks for this…I’m left thinking: ok, that’s all very well, but surely the Creation narratives neither support nor undermine same-sex relationships… I’m not clear that they can be used definitively against the practice of same-sex relationships. But, like many other texts…it may all depend on presuppositions…

  3. Simon, thanks, and I don’t disagree with you.

    In the introduction, (not included here) I mention the problem with these two terms, and an alternative that Andrew Goddard suggests.

    Do you have alternative suggests for the labels yourself?

    Andrew Goddard suggests the three terms ‘reasserter’ who wants to broadly uphold the traditional position; ‘reappraiser’ who wants to allow latitude, and ‘reinterpreter’ who wants to read the texts differently. I think I am trying to represent the first and the last here, though I am not quite convinced that these terms are right focussing primarily on the exegetical issues.

  4. Several minor questions first:

    1. Is there any significance in the variation between zaqar and neqevah (male and female) in the first account and ish and ishah (man and woman) in the second? Do these point to slightly different frameworks?

    2. I also love “Dusty” – on a par with “Rocky” for Peter!

    3. I realize that the term is rare, but an example of how(kenegdo)is used would bolster your statement that it “has the sense of ‘equal but opposite’; it is the kind of phrase you might use to describe the opposite bank of a river, combining both the sense of equality but difference and distinctness”. Is there actually a reference of it being used for river banks, for instance?

  5. More substantially, I think that Brownson’s points 3-4 point to problems that need to be addressed from the perspective of systematic theology.

    As you recognise, singleness is a problem in the Scriptures (at an exegetical level). The issue is – in what way is a single person complete and part of the imago dei? It seems to me that Genesis 1 can be read to suggest that it is the binary nature humanity as a whole (rather than the individual couple) that is in the image and likeness of the Creator. If so, this would suggest that it is not only in the union of sexual relationship that the image is completed, but in a wide variety of affective relationships.

    While I would see friendship as the main example of such an affective relationship, this opens up a space for the argument that Genesis 2 is dealing with the “normal” state of human sexual relations, but that it might not be the “norm” and hence “normative”.

    I agree that Brownson’s comment on “flesh” is over-literal: but that is the problem! If we read Adam’s cry not as ontological dogma but as poetry expressing the joy and recognition of an existential connection (“Here is the one who makes me whole….”), on what grounds do we say that a same-sex erotic attraction cannot correspond to this….?

    I’m aware, of course, that a “canonical reading” of the text in the light of the indisputable Scriptural opposition to same-sex acts may go some way towards providing an answer to that question…..but I also think that is an exegetical move which needs to be further translated into systematic categories.

    Maybe you (will) address these issues later in the booklet – after all, this is just the first section, and as good evangelicals we will naturally begin with exegesis!

  6. Hi Ian – I understand this Grove Booklet is simply focusing on original language and issues of interpretation – but I am not sure we can proceed merely upon this important but single track.

    There are other convincing facts and perspectives that confirm your reading.

    For most homosexuals ( and not a few heterosexuals ) anal sex may be the ultimate and most pleasurable sexual experience – but to put it crudely, the equipment doesn’t fit – and God/Mother Nature/Evolution make it clear that this part of the body is to allow waste matter to exit the body. Any Dr will state the obvious that any penetration, particularly energetic, is likely to damage the anus – and it certainly is not made for continual, regular intrusion. I was reading a report recently about the considerable likelihood of cancers arising from this activity – in later years. Stats seem to confirm this.

    Then there is the alarming statistic – that almost 98,000 people are HIV positive in the UK – and almost half from same sex activity – the vast percentage male – but these make up less than 4% of the population.

    Finally – there are very few young people in long term same-sex relationships in the UK. Most, even high profile entertainers who are in such relationships, tend to be at least 40/50s or older – another case for reflection and discovery.

    And I am sure academics/scholars could do abetter job than me – to add significant insights – confirming your ‘traditional’ – I would say progressive views. The Gay debate can neither progress or reproduce and history reveals there is – in the end – a sharp right wing reaction.

    No need to reply to this – I may have missed some-thing! Blessings.

  7. Revisionist reading: ‘The coming together of man and woman in sexual union is about companionship rather than reunification, and its meaning is primarily to do with the establishing of kinship bonds. All these can, in principle, be extended to same-sex sexual unions.’

    If this is what the ‘revisionists’ think then there is a need to define what marriage is for.

    Growing up in Cornwall, same-sex companionship was not unusual at all, particularly among women, (though also some men), probably mainly for economic reasons as ladies got older and less able to support themselves alone. No-one thought anything of it. In this context if same-sex sexual union is about companionship then that is purely a matter for themselves.

    However is ‘companionship’ what marriage is about? The Genesis accounts establish the principle that the coming together of male and female is as much about the possibility of the procreation of children in a family unit as about companionship. Marriage, as it came to be titled, was also a reflection of God’s faithful relationship with his particular human creatures, the blessing of which, if all goes well, is to replenish the stock lost through death.

    There is the sticking point. Companionship is about companionship. Marriage is about the coming together of a male and female in a unit of faithful union to further God’s own faithful creation – man and woman. Whether the married couple do that or not is beside the point, that is the principle.

    I’m not saying that same-sex unions should not exist, what people do is up to them and certainly not that there should be no recognition of such unions, legal or otherwise, but marriage as it has been received it is not.

    Oh, otherwise I love the idea of ‘Dusty’ and ‘Rocky’; perhaps Bartholomew should be called ‘Sonny’!

  8. I’ve found Sean Doherty’s story very helpful, and especially the question that brought him a fresh approach: “Did God make two genders, or four?” So he came to see gender as more fundamental than orientation, and his core identity as male rather than gay/straight. Doesn’t help if your gender is confused, though.

    I only noticed yesterday that Gen 2.19 matches 2.7; but although animals were created in the same way, they still aren’t suitable.

    Pace Brownson point 3, Paul also recommends singleness (or at least not seeking change) because of the imminent coming of the kingdom.

  9. Pronouns are tricky to translate in Gen 1:27: “God created the human (or: humanity)in his image / in the image of God he created him (it) / male and female he created them.”

    I am personally happy to use they/their/them with singular referent, as did Jane Austen. But in Gen 1:27 it would be advisable to reflect the difference between singular and plural – at the very least in a footnote.

    Gen 5:1-2, using adam without direct article but not as a name (unlike v. 3) similarly points in the direction of humanity being in the image of God, without claiming that each individual is made in the image of God. In fact, Seth is explicitly said to be made in the image of Adam. Not even Gen 9:6 requires us to speak of an individual as having been made in the image of God.

    I would not deny that the “image” language suggests a greater family resemblance between the Creator God and human beings than between the Creator God and other animals but I’d be interested to know what “other contemporary texts” you have in mind which “suggest that the central idea is of family resemblance.”

  10. The ninth century, bilingual (Aramaic/Assyrian) Tell Fakhariyah (NE Syria) inscription on a statue of a king also uses the equivalents of both tselem and demut. It does so by way of stylist variation, confirming what many readers (e.g., Calvin) long knew, that “image” (statue) and “likeness” do not refer to two distinct ideas.

    In the ancient Near Eastern it was often believed that a god’s spirit lived in any statue or image of that god, with the result that the image could function as a representative of or substitute for the god wherever it was placed. It was also customary to think of a king as the representative of a god: obviously the king ruled, and the god was the ultimate ruler, so the king must be ruling on the god’s behalf. It is therefore not surprising that these two ideas became connected and the king was spoken of as an image of God.

    “Like ancient kings who set up statues to represent their power and rule over a region, so humanity was intended to represent God’s kingdom on earth.” See R. S. Hess, “Genesis 1-2 and Recent Studies of Ancient Texts,” Science & Christian Belief 7/2 (1995): 141-149, p. 145.
    The connection between being made in God’s image and ruling the earth is of course explicitly made in Gen 1:26-27 and might also be alluded to in Psalm 8.

    Being in the image of God is directly related to having “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (v. 26). It is striking, and reassuring, that such dominion is in Genesis not given to an individual (king) but to humanity (male and female – unique in the ancient world, as far as I know).

    In any case, such dominion requires being fruitful and multiplying, establishing a human presence across the earth (v. 28), which is not something any individual can do.

  11. What about Jesus?

    Being a single, first-century Jewish male is not his sole claim to being (“made”?) in the image of God. Even if we went so far as to say that in some respects, namely as far as Genesis is concerned, only humanity as a whole is in the image of God, this would not preclude speaking of Jesus in this way. He is (the new) humanity.

    Just as he is the vine – an image throughout the OT of the people of God, not of any individual prior to Jesus.

    Just as he is the “servant of God” in many ways precisely by fulfilling the vocation given to the people of God.

    Christ is clearly “in the image of God” in a way no other human being is. This does not preclude a secondary use of “image” language applied to individual human beings (1 Cor 11:7 – men only?). The question is which comes first.

  12. Simon, to respond to your more substantive point, the aim of the booklet is not ‘to shore up the historic interpretation of a Genesis in this context’ but it is to look at the different perspectives on each of the texts, and explore whether they stack up in the light of sensible exegesis.

    From my study (which has been of both popular and academic arguments, and I hope I have found the best ones on each side), my summary statements from the two views appear to offer the two different readings. I then aim to explore them in the light of what good exegesis of the texts says.

    I don’t think the exegesis settles the pastoral question immediately, but it might frame (or re-frame) it. One of the approach from those who would like to see change in the Church is to say ‘if only we read the texts aright, we would see that either the Bible does not address our situation, or the Bible actually permits faithful, stable same-sex unions.’ My aim is to see if exegesis can support this view.

  13. David C, in one sense I agree with you, that Brownson’s points 3 and 4 need to be addressed in theology. But what is interesting is that he is making a more exegetical point, as I read him: that the image of God cannot be found in a focussed way in the marriage union of male and female, since that would undermine the idea of the image of God in the single individual. In fact, I think the text of Gen 2 does emphatically say that, and I think it does throw up exactly the problem that Brownson highlights. For this reason I added the final comment, that there is more to say, but I think Brownson’s argument about the meaning of the text is erroneous. Gender differentiation, and its unification in the marriage union, seems an important focus of the text. There is an emphatic ‘therefore…’

  14. John G: thanks for the comment, very helpful. Yes, the issue with this text is precisely whether those in union can be of the same gender, or whether they need be of opposite genders. I am not sure that Gen 2 settles this fully on its own, but, contrary to some arguments, the specific issue of gender difference seems to be quite strong in the text.

  15. Ian T: thanks. Yes, I hadn’t noticed that point about the animals being formed from the ground either, though I do comment on that point. I think Sean’s point about ‘two genders, not four’ is arguing the same point from the other angle. The text appears to be saying ‘two gender, not one.’

  16. Thomas, thanks for these comments–very helpful. I was thinking of the inscription you mention, though reading the article on the subject of ‘image and likeness’ by Carly Crouch, a colleague here at Nottingham. She agrees with you that they are not separate terms but form a parallelism. Your point about the difficulty with pronouns, and the unusual plural nature of the ‘image and likeness’ are well made and I think reinforce the point.

    On Jesus, ‘He is (the new) humanity.’ I think again Brownson misses the point that, to a certain extent, the figure of Jesus is both corporate and androgynous, whilst at the same time he is individual and male.

  17. Gerald, thanks–no, I don’t think this single track will solve anything on its own–but is an important part of the discussion. I have written in my introduction:

    ‘Something quite strange has been happening in the public debate about same sex unions. Although there has been extensive literature on the question, and specifically on the issue of how we read the biblical texts, conclusions that once could be called well established now appear either to be ignored or forgotten.’

    I guess you know Thomas Schmidt’s ‘Straight and Narrow?’?

  18. David, ‘Is there any significance in the variation between zaqar and neqevah (male and female) in the first account and ish and ishah (man and woman) in the second?’ I am not sure there is within this text, but it is important to observe this language to see how it is taken up later in the canon.

    So there is no great significance semantically, but in its reception later…

  19. Ian, by focusing on the meaning of Genesis, we’re missing the wood for the trees. The pressing question isn’t “what does it mean?” but “how should it be applied?”

    This is, as usual, really a question of biblical authority. If we can look on Genesis as just another text, it’s no more binding than the Babylonian Enuma Elish. We can read it as poetry and literature, certainly, but not as an anthropological how-to. It’s an ancient myth. Its authors, whoever they were, knew nothing of our evolutionary heritage, the science of psychology, or sexual orientation. Our affirmation of gay relationships should not be captive to ancient literature, anymore than should be our affirmation of gender equality.

    A mainline Jewish interpretation views the leaving of Eden as a metaphor for coming of age. Running with it, why not apply what we’ve learned since its authorship, and affirm gay relationships?

  20. No James, one of the pressing questions is precisely ‘What did it mean?’ because one line of the argument is that it meant something different from what ‘traditionalists’ have construed it to mean.

    I agree with you: this is a question of biblical authority. But a number of folk say it isn’t: you can read the Bible in a way which affirms same-sex unions. I am glad to see that you and I agree on this.

    I don’t think you are right in saying that that is a ‘mainline’ Jewish interpretation; careful reading of the text suggests that the text itself says the opposite.

  21. I agree that “what does it mean?” is a pressing question, but only when a framework of biblical authority is assumed.

    The debate goes around in circles because it’s not really about the text. Both camps have ulterior motives. To generalize: affirming Christians are driven by a desire to bring justice to LGBT people; traditionalists by a fear that, if they cede the pass on this, their entire framework will collapse. Since our views are shaped by those extra-biblical sources, arguing interpretation gets us nowhere. We’re at cross-purposes.

    Affirming Christians would do a lot better to stop insisting that the ancients can be dragooned to their cause, and instead question why ancient views should be given such weight. An argument made in terms that are against you is doomed to fail.

  22. Greetings Ian and thanks for this discussion
    A few thoughts if I may …
    1. I married later than some and so a significant period of my ministry was as a single man. It was quickly apparent that I had no place in the Genesis story at all unless, as, I did, I read the ‘it is not good’ as a general statement about human nature being created for community. But I was working in the evangelical tradition that, based on these stories, easily made marriage so central it was painfully excluding and devaluing. Remember those Evangelical clergy conferences always hosted by a married couple (vicar and wife) not by a team. (whether it knows it or not the New Wine leadership structure directly continues this pattern – leadership is a married couple, man named first with wife alongside. See website – but this is not in any way a comment on the quality and gifts there).

    No other patterns of human relating are on offer in these narratives at all. Not even children. So how does anyone one outside of heterosexual marriage find affirmation or blessing on their relationships of any kind?

    2. Then there is the narrative itself and particularly God’s place in it. It reads to me as a much more exploratory text than prescribing one. Even God seems to be exploring here. God has created a world that is good – but then it seems he discovers something core to it is not good after all. Is this a surprise to God? Is the act of creation an experience of learning for God (And who is God speaking to at this point – no one else exists)? He then brings this long list of creatures to adam to see if any will meet his need. Doesn’t God know? Does God really think a giraffe or mosquito might do it for adam? When the speed dating safari fails God takes an initiative. adam is put to sleep. A special creation. But it is still for him to wake, recognise and accept. Human choice is very central to this process. Whatever marriage is here is it really ‘ordained’ by God rather than chosen by adam? The focus is still on adam’s recognition and acceptance. He must decide. God cannot do this for him. What then is the place of choice then in reflecting on patterns of human relating?

    A final thought. The story is set within patriarchal assumptions of an ancient world. The woman has no choice or voice. The needs of the man are totally central. That is why Eve exists at all. He names her. How much is this narrative setting part of the revelation and thus ordained by God?

    It also seems to me that the language of partnership and the creation of Eve out of Adam’s side suggests a certain subverting of the patriarchal script in which the story is set – though this is never fully followed through. But then nor has the church for most of its history.

  23. David, thanks for your interesting comments. To take them in turn:

    1. ‘It was quickly apparent that I had no place in the Genesis story at all’ I think that is quite true, and I comment at the end of my piece that this is not all that the Bible has to say on the subject. But what Brownson does is fold back into his exegesis a theological problem–ie, because he doesn’t like what the text says, he decides that that cannot be what the text means.

    ‘No other patterns of human relating are on offer in these narratives at all.’ I think that is only true if you read it from our atomised, individualised, nuclear family perspective. Reading from another context would see this core as at the centre of extended family, and later narratives do just that, seeing other generations, ‘slaves’ and associates as part of the ‘family.’

    2. ‘It reads to me as a much more exploratory text than prescribing one.’ I agree with you, in the sense that the narrative is not describing the process by which God ‘invented’ gender, but is offering a theological account of why gender difference is there and what its significance is within human flourishing.

    ‘Whatever marriage is here is it really ‘ordained’ by God rather than chosen by adam?’ But God’s ‘ignorance’ of the failure of the animal speed-dating (nice phrase) is a literary device to give the narrative shape. This is the same kind of question as to whether God was surprised by the failure of creation to be good. The difficulty is that we are then imposing chronological and philosophical questions on a narrative shape. The real question is what is the shape and focus of the narrative—and it looks fairly strong to be in a. the phrase ‘suitable helper’ b. the existential cry and c. the ‘this is the reason that…’

    3. ‘The story is set within patriarchal assumptions of an ancient world. The woman has no choice or voice. The needs of the man are totally central. That is why Eve exists at all. He names her.’ This is an area which has been really well rehearsed: this narrative is strikingly non-patriarchal, not least in the meaning of ‘suitable helper’, and that is one of the reasons why it has a ‘reforming’ relationship with subsequent narratives. It was in 1973 that Phyllis Trible decisively demonstrated that ‘naming’ was not an act of power.

    This is really key: within the literature, many things have been well rehearsed and well established. Yet the debate about same sex unions continues often without reference to these. Loader argues that Paul’s statements relate homosexual acts to patriarchy, without a shred of textual evidence. Patriarchy is just not the issue here.

  24. Can any text have a definite meaning?

    Literary criticism has killed the author, and I’d argue that it’s justifiable homicide. Readers aren’t passive. Meaning is projected as much as it’s received; texts are negotiated with. As famously illustrated by Milton, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” authorial intent is just one perspective among many.

    A believer in patriarchy, or its rebrand, “complementarianism,” might view Genesis as establishing Adam’s dominance over Eve (and that theme is certainly credible). A feminist reading might challenge that (or might accept it, and use it to condemn the text).

    This illustrates, if nothing else, the impossibility of a text being authoritative, or having a definitive meaning. Investing a text with authority only serves to empower its interpreters.

  25. Just a point to add to “mainstream Jewish interpretation” mentioned by one commentator. I learned whilst on Sabbatical in Israel that Gen 2 “A man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife” was interpreted in a midrash as:- ‘A man shall leave his mother and father’ = “no incest” ; and ‘cleave’ = “no adultery” ; and to his wife = “no same sex intercourse”. Unfortunately I have no book reference to support this rabbinic viewpoint.

  26. James, ‘Can any text have a definite meaning?’ yes it can, otherwise you would not have communicated anything by your posting.

    ‘Literary criticism has killed the author’ No it hasn’t, otherwise we could make your post mean whatever we wanted. We have been over this quite a few times in past interactions; I think your view is sub-Christian in terms of understanding Jesus as God’s word (John 1), and I don’t think there is any reason to go over that again.

  27. Thought that riposte was coming! 😀

    Death of the author doesn’t eliminate meaning, or make all interpretations equal. All it does is stop the author’s intent from being automatically binding, as texts are independent artifacts. (Is it illegitimate to read Satan as the hero of ‘Paradise Lost’ based solely on Milton’s views?) My post may say something different that my intent: but if it does, it still has to be shown. As a practical matter, most times, we don’t bother.

    I’ve not made any comment about the Incarnation. A belief that God’s Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth is not dependent on a particular model of literary theory!

  28. Ian – prompt and incisive response as ever. Do you break for meals?

    ‘Well rehearsed’ is a phrase you use several times of points I raise. I take you to mean this has already been explored at length some time ago (1973 no less). Well yes and no from where I sit. I can claim to have read Tribble on this but you will be more conversant with wider scholarship. But in my experience the most commonly held Christian reading and understanding of these texts suggests these rehearsals have been happening out of sight somewhere. In fact it would come as quite a surprise.

  29. It’s possible to eat and blog at the same time!

    Yes, that is a phrase I use a lot, and it is the reason for writing the Grove booklet. One of the things that I think is very problematic about this whole discussion is that many people are making fairly sweeping comments about what Scripture says or doesn’t…without any reference to conversations from even only a couple of years ago. I don’t think this is a big deal for people new to this, but when it is done by church leaders and bishops I think something serious is going wrong. Trible is a good case in point; she argues her case really clearly and persuasively, yet folks in the gay debate and the debate on women often simply ignore her.

    The debates have not happened ‘out of sight’…unless you really shut your eyes. Richard Hays’ Moral Vision is a classic, and has been high profile for years.

    Theological education is not just about providing space for people to learn; it is about inducting future leaders into a theological tradition. It does look to me as though this has failed to happen to a large degree, and it is worrying for the church.

    A prime example of this is Steve Chalke’s latest hideous initiative. His questions are so naive and hopeless–it’s as if he is the first person to have thought of these things. It is the arrogance of the present moment—the past counts for nothing.

  30. James ‘All it does is stop the author’s intent from being automatically binding’.

    I wonder if you could point out a single place in all my writing, anywhere, where I appeal to the intent of the author?

  31. I thought you were doing so here, Ian!

    Fair enough if you’re not, but in that case, how do we discover a definitive meaning that wasn’t intended by the writer(s)?

  32. Hi – I’m new to your blog and found it through Fulcrum. It’s great…

    I’d like to make a different point on the topic in hand for your Grove Booklet..

    I have been recently reading Catholic reflections on this subject, most notably Pope John Paul’s ‘Theology of the Body’, having been introduced to it through the work of Christopher West. What is significant to me about this body of work is that it places ethics and behaviour within a narrative of scripture centred on the theme of UNION – union with God and with each other. This has been very fruitful for me personally and in ministry as it unifies the jigsaw of scripture, theology and doctrines.

    John Paul returns to the passage you focus on again and again and takes it as the basis of his theological reflection about God, our humanity and, of course, the meaning and purposes of relationships and marriage. In this way he argues he is following Jesus who in response to a discussion about divorce says, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female… For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” (the questioners ask), “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” and Jesus replies, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”

    In the Theology of the Body John Paul highlights Jesus’ focus on the UNION of a married couple and emphasises the way that this is how things were designed ‘from the beginning’.

    Re-reading Genesis 2 with UNION in my mind I noticed something I hadn’t seen before about the MOVEMENT in the text:

    “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be ALONE. I will make a helper suitable for him.”… So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found… The Lord God made a woman from the rib he had TAKEN OUT of the man, and he BROUGHT HER TO the man. The man said,

    (AT LAST!) “THIS is now bone MY bones
    and flesh of MY flesh;
    she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken OUT OF man.”

    For this reason a man will LEAVE his father and mother and be UNITED to his wife, and they will become ONE flesh.””

    A summary might run like this:
    Man is ALONE (one flesh)
    God TAKES OUT a rib from the MAN and makes a Woman from the rib (two flesh)
    God BRINGS Woman to the Man
    Man is delighted and recognises Woman as having been a missing part of him
    The Narrator explains this is why a Man will leave his parents and UNITE himself with his wife
    This is described as becoming ONE FLESH again.

    On reflection I am now wondering if the point the story makes (the point the author intended to make) was primarily about explaining or giving meaning to the reality that although women and men are clearly different, they exist for each other and complete each other – in other words that we are designed for union and not separation. Adam is delighted that at last he has found someone who will complete him or fulfil him. What was taken out of him can now be put back together.

    There is much more to say about the implications of how UNION governs our thinking about the meaning of marriage and other relationships but, like the the Pope, I think that our gendered bodies tell us a story not only of how God wants us to relate to one another, but also for the destiny that we are heading to – a MARRIAGE between Christ and his Body, the church, and the UNION of heaven and earth. Marriage, between a man a woman, is a perfect sign of this future union – complete, total, free and fruitful.


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