Genesis and Gender part (i)

I am in the process of writing a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 pages! Due out later this month. I am aiming to cover Gen 1, 2, 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18, Romans 16, 1 Cor 11, 1 Cor  14, Eph 5 and 1 Tim 2.

Here is the section on Genesis 1. Thanks to colleague David Firth for input; any comments welcomed.

The opening chapters of Genesis are key to this discussion (and to many others), since they set out key issues in relationships between men and women as well as between humanity and God. These chapters are frequently cited in discussions about gender roles, not least because they are frequently cited in the New Testament in the debates there about marriage, ministry and gender relations by both Paul and Jesus.

In reading these texts, there are two important things to bear in mind:

  1. We need to read them carefully in their own right, before then going on to integrate them with New Testament perspectives. Although we might want to pay careful attention to (for instance) how Paul interprets them, we will not understand how he is reading them until we have engaged with the texts for ourselves.
  2. An important element of reading these texts is to set them in their original context of the ancient near east (‘ANE’). Scholars have long noticed the striking parallels between Genesis and other material from the period of its writing, and a significant part of the sense of these chapters arises from how they both parallel and contradict other contemporary texts.

Genesis 1.1–2.3

As commentators usually note, Gen 1 is carefully structured in a number of different ways. The accounts of each ‘day’ have a similar structure, and each of the first six ends with the refrain ‘and there was morning, and there was evening, day [number].’ God repeatedly declares the creation ‘good’, and at the climax (v 31) declares it is ‘very good.’ The created order is not the product of divine conflict, or simply for the use of the gods; its origin (and therefore is essential nature) is not of violence and destruction, but arises from the good intention of the creative power of the one true God. The structure goes further, with the first three days suggesting the forming of different aspects of the world, and the second set of three days providing the corresponding ‘filling’—the lights of day and night (days 1 and 4), the creatures of sea and sky (days 2 and 5) and the creatures of the fertile earth (days 3 and 6). There is also a steady shift from the ‘heavens’ to the ‘earth’ as the locus of action, and the final declaration of God’s completed work joining the two (2.1) in parallel to the opening statement in 1.1.[1]

The description of the sixth day is the longest of the six, and so forms a climax to the creation story. The two acts of creation on the third day (‘let the waters…’ v 9, ‘let the earth…’, v 11) are echoed in the two creative acts here (‘let the earth…’ v 24, ‘let us make…’ v 26). But the creation of humanity is distinct. The first act addresses the earth, but the second act is the only one where God appears to address himself. The important of this act is underlined by repetition; ‘let us make’ (Hebrew asa) is followed by ‘So God made…’ (bara), repeating the verb used at the beginning in 1.1.

God creates ‘humanity’ (adam) which cannot have any gendered sense, since this adam is ‘male and female’. The distinction of adam as male does not happen until after the detailed creation of the women in 2.23. In comparison with other texts from the ANE, it is striking that humanity is neither made as a tool or slave of the gods, nor simply has the likeness of the gods added, but that humanity, male and female together, bears the likeness of God in its very creation. There is language of ‘ruling’ here, but it is clear that this is not between members of humanity, but of the male and female humanity having dominion over the creatures of the earth.

So we reach the climax of the story; there are no more acts of creation, only the declaration that it is all ‘very good’, and the rest of the Sabbath day.

[1] Some commentators, such as Wenham p 6 structure even at the level of the numbers of words in different sections, in this case multiples of sevens. Although this might seem far-fetched, the question is whether the writer and readers would be alive to such possibilities.


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10 thoughts on “Genesis and Gender part (i)”

  1. Hi Ian
    This is good: I like the clear argument. You could even beef up the bit about 1:27, where the triplet is clearly intende to emphasise that both halves of humanity share the nature of God and the task of bearing authority over creation.

  2. “Both halves of humanity share the nature of God”. And in the same vein the “Fatherhood of God” incorporates characteristics that we label both “male” and “female”.

    Is the triplet a more ancient poetical style that the doublets that are the main feature of Psalms? Interesting that Jesus echoes more a triplet style in what we now know as “the Lord’s prayer”.

  3. Have you looked at Arnold’s commentary (CUP 2008) on Genesis – I found it helpful on this passage – he suggests that on the basis of archaeological and anthropological examples “At this early stage of Israelite thought, egalitarian views of the roles of men and women were God-given and unquestioned” although he laments that this would not continue (2008:60).

  4. This is really interesting, I think the issue of gender is so important in accordance with today’s society. I often come across women (and surprisingly men too!) that dismiss the idea of Christianity, and for that matter religion as a whole, due to it’s supposed subordination of women.

    I will soon be working on an essay entitled ‘Can one be a Christian and a feminist?’, so your work should be useful to me.

    Also regarding Genesis, I have recently been looking into my stance on creation/evolution. I have been researching the work of Conor Cunningham of UoN who did a documentary on the BBC: ‘Did Darwin kill God?’
    So I’ll also be interested to see how you interpret Genesis, particularly what seems to be a contradiction between chapters 1 & 2.

    I look forward to reading more 🙂

  5. Annie, thanks for the comment. [Are you reading Theology? Would be good to have a regular ‘Christians in Theology session here at St John’s…]

    Have you read the entry on Gen 2? Posted a couple of days ago. Also on Acts 18, 1 Cor 11 and 1 Cor 14, the last of which I have further updated in comments.

  6. Yes Ian I study BA Theology at Nottingham University and I go to St.Nic’s Church. You might remember we had a chat on the weekend away, possibly last year, or maybe even the year before…

    I see you’ve added more posts on the topic so I shall read those 🙂


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