Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

This is the first post in our series, One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications.  The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society.  


Perhaps no text has been as revered, debated, discussed, and misunderstood as the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 Regardless of how you interpret these stories, their effect on our culture and our psyche, particularly as they relate to our views of gender, cannot be overstated.  

The tradition of appealing to the creation narrative to make universal statements about the nature of man and woman is a longstanding one. Genesis 1 and 2 have been mined and manipulated and used as ammunition in debates about everything from science to gender roles to Christology to epidurals.  So while we have to be careful of reading too much into the text, we simply cannot talk about God and gender without addressing the famous story of Adam and Eve. 

Male and female, created in the image of God...

“So God created mankind in his own image, 
in the image of God he created them; 
male and female he created them.” 
– Genesis 1:27 

In the first creation account—Genesis 1—the author makes a point of noting that, in the beginning, both male and female are created in the image of God. Here we often make the connection that both masculine and feminine aspects of God’s creation  must therefore be reflections of God’s character, a point that isechoed throughout Scripture as God is poetically depicted as both Father and Mother, seamstress and warrior, compassionate (from the feminine rehem, for womb) and just.

But to be “created in the image of God” carries significant leadership implications as well. In the ancient Near Eastern world, kings were considered divine image-bearers, appointed representatives of God on earth. Kings would often place images of themselves, usually statues, in distant parts of their kingdoms to remind their subjects of their sovereignty over the land. So for man and woman to be God’s image-bearers in this context, means that God has entrusted both men and women with ruling the world on God’s behalf.  “Let us make humankind in our image,” God says, “according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish,...birds, cattle,...all the wild animals...every creeping thing.”

As Daniel Kirk has noted“The kind of rule God has in mind is not a ‘masculine’ rule, but a masculine plus feminine, male plus female, rule. Only this kind of shared participation in representing God’s reign to the world is capable of doing justice to the God whose image we bear.”

(Additional Resources: “Genesis 1-3” by Allison Young, The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy edited by Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothius, “Biblical Proofs for the Feminine Face of God in Scripture” by Mike Morrell, “Gender Blind” by Mimi Haddad)

What “helpmeet” really means...

“It is not good for the man to be alone. 
I will make a helper suitable for him.” 
– Genesis 2:18

In the second Creation account of Genesis, after God formed man from the dust of the earth and placed him in the garden of Eden, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (2:18). 

The phrase “helper suitable,” rendered “help meet” in the King James Version, comes from a combination of the words ezer and kenegdoFar from connoting subjugation, the Hebrew term ezer, or “helper,” is employed elsewhere in Scripture to describe God, the consummate intervener—the helper of the fatherless (Psalm 10:14), King David’s helper and deliverer (Psalm 70:5), Israel’s shield and helper (Deuteronomy 33:29). Ezer appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament—twice in reference to the first woman, three times in reference to nations to whom Israel appealed for military support, and sixteen times in reference to God as the helper of Israel. The word evokes both benevolence and strength, and is a popular name for Jewish boys, both in the Bible and in modern times. 

In Genesis 2, ezer is combined with the word kenegdo to mean something like “a helper of the same nature,” or a corresponding character. Kenegdo literally means “as in front of him,” suggesting that the ezerof Genesis 2 is Adam’s perfect match, the yin to his yang, the water to his fire—you get the idea.  Everything about this descriptor implies mutuality and harmony, and it provides us with a lovely glimpse of what a sinless relationship between a man and a woman might look like, the picture of a true partnership. This reality is reflected in Adam’s reaction to God’s creation of woman. He responds with “ishshah!” a play on words, which basically means, “Wow, this one is like me!” (Interesting note: The woman of the creation narrative is not called Eve until after the Fall.) 

Unfortunately, all the color of its original meaning is lost in many translations of ezer kenegdo. After the King James Version rendered the two words “help meet,” poet John Dryden came along and hyphenated them, describing his wife as his tireless “help-meet.” Over time, the expression bled into “helpmeet,” an independent term applied exclusively to the role of wives to their husbands, and to this day, the myth that Genesis 2 relegates wives to the status of subordinate assistants persists,  as is painfully evidenced by (complementarian) Debi Pearl’s book, Created to Be His Help Meet, which has sold more than 200,000 copies since its publication in 2004...(and which I threw across the living room a total of seven times while reading it for research.) 

“God didn’t create Adam and Eve at the same time and then tell them to work out some compromise on how they would each achieve their personal goals in a cooperative endeavor,” writes Pearl. “God gave [Eve] to Adam to be his helper, not his partner.”  According to Pearl, God set up a “chain of command,” that places women under the direct authority of their husbands. “You are not on the board of directors with an equal vote,” she says. “You have no authority to set the agenda. . . . Start thinking and acting as though your husband is the head of the company and you are his secretary.”

This popular complementarian interpretation of Genesis 2 is based on a poor translation of ezer kenegdo, one that fails massively to capture the spirit of the Hebrew text. 

(Additional resources: Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, editors Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.) 

Hierarchy happens after the Fall...

“Your desire will be for your husband, 
and he will rule over you. ” 
– Genesis 3:16

It is unclear how long our heroic pair revels in this state of divine symmetry, naked and unashamed, before everything falls apart. But at some point a villain appears, promising a better life should they defy the Creator’s single stipulation and eat from the mysterious tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They eat, and immediately feel shame. The man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, but God holds all three accountable for the act. As punishment, the serpent must slink through life on its belly in the dirt, and man must toil against stubborn, inhospitable land until his death. To woman belongs pain in childbirth and the grief of being dominated by men. 

“Your desire will be for your husband,” God tells the woman “[but] he will rule over you” (v. 16).

With ezer kenegdo properly translated, we see that there are no explicit statements revealing a hierarchal relationship between man and woman until after the event that Christians have come to call “The Fall.”  While mankind is clearly assigned dominion over plants and animals, no similar dominion had existed between man and woman.  William Webb notes that in ancient Near Eastern literature, including Scripture, “when the blessing/curse formulas assign status, they generally initiate a change in status different from what the person formally held. Applying this finding to Genesis 3:16 would suggest that the woman’s former status was not one of the man ruling over the woman. Before the Fall, they were equals; after the Fall, he rules over her.”  So it is within the context of judgment, not creation, that hierarchy and subjugation enter the Bible’s story of man and woman. Where there was once mutuality, there is subjugation. Where there was once harmony, there is a power-struggle. 

Regardless of whether one interprets the Genesis account historically or metaphorically, it is clear that the world indeed suffers from the consequences of men dominating women. Worldwide, women ages fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined. At least 3 million women and girls are enslaved in the sex trade, and a woman dies in childbirth every minute. This has been going on for a long time, and the writer of the Genesis account calls it for what it is: a tragedy, an example of our collective brokenness and our desperate need for redemption. 

The question that Christians have to answer, then, is this: Do we want to be people who perpetuate this brokenness  by insisting on the continued subjugation of women,  or do we want to be people who, however imperfectly, attempt to model the harmony of Eden and our hope of paradise restored? 

I think the answer is pretty clear. 

(Additional Resources: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn,  Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis by William J. Webb.)

A quick note about Paul and Genesis...

We will be discussing the Apostle Paul’s words about women later in the series, but it’s worth noting here that when first-century rabbis like Jesus and Paul allude to the stories of the Torah, including the creation accounts, they are not participating in “straight exegesis” as we would understand it today. Rather, their creative interpretations of the text are influenced by the hermeneutical conventions of Second Temple Judaism, which allow for quite a bit of “play” with the narrative texts. (Anyone who has spent time studyingmidrash will know exactly what I’m talking about.)

Thus, in the epistles, we encounter some rather confusing connections between the creation narrative and, for example, why the women of Corinth  must cover their heads (1Corinthians 11) and why the women at Ephesus must remain silent in church (1 Timothy 2:9-15).

Much more could be said about this, but it’s important to simply note here that, in the words of Peter Enns, “Paul does not feel bound by the original meaning of the Old Testament passage he is citing, especially as he seeks to make a vital theological point about the gospel.” Paul often uses Adam and Eve as a way of “appropriating an ancient story to address pressing concerns of the moment.” So, in other words, when Paul refers to the creation narratives, he isn’t proof texting. Rather, he is calling upon ancient, inspired, and familiar images to make a connection between the everyday and the holy.  This can make interpreting Paul a real challenge for modern readers, (1 Corinthians 11 is a real doozy), but his approach fits right in with the interpretive methods of his day. 

(Additional resources: The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns) 


So, what do you think? How have you seen the creation accounts misinterpreted and misapplied when it comes to gender? What additional observations would you add regarding Genesis 1-3? What questions linger? 


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