I 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. 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. 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).
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. 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.
It is surprising that quite a number of ‘revisionist’ arguments do not explore the importance of the creation narratives in the debate. One of the most recent, extensive critiques of the traditional reading is offered by James Brownson. 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.
 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.
 So he is really an ‘earth creature.’ Perhaps we should call his name ‘Dusty.’
 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
 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.
 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.
 For example, the leaflet available on the LGCM website, or Steven Schuh’s article, also available online.
 Bible, Gender, Sexuality Eerdmans, 2013.