A reader named Kim left a long and thoughtful comment on my previous post, “What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?” This post is a response to that comment—which I’ll quote for you in a minute.
In my previous post I said:
From a literary perspective, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were not originally meant to be read sequentially. Each is a self-contained creation myth telling its own story. These two ancient creation stories were collected from two different oral traditions, written down, and placed one after the other in the Bible. Despite the valiant efforts of Biblical literalists to harmonize the two as if they were two different angles on same story, they simply don’t agree with each other in the overall order in which God created things or in the details of exactly how God created the earth and all the plants, animals, and humans that populate it.
That paragraph is a compact and simplified version of a very complicated reality. We won’t get into all the complications here. But in order to respond to Kim, we need to look more closely at the two very different creation stories contained in the first two chapters of Genesis. What we’ll find is that attempts to collapse these two stories into one story on a literal level run into serious complications and contradictions.
But as I said in the very next paragraph of my previous post:
From a symbolic and spiritual perspective, though, the two stories harmonize perfectly. They are like two different verses of the same song. The story of the seven days of creation in Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 represent two different phases of human spiritual and social development, one following after the other.
In other words, a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 doesn’t work very well. But a spiritual reading gives us great enlightenment on the human condition in general, and on the relationship between man and woman in particular.
First, let’s let Kim speak.
A Comment from a Reader
In a comment on my previous post, “What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?” a reader named Kim said:
I agree with many of the things you said. Many commenters say that men and women were EQUAL before the fall. As far as value goes, men and women were equal before the fall and after it. The fall had absolutely no bearing on a man or woman’s worth in the eyes of God. God’s eyes being one thing and men’s eyes being quite another. God established Adam’s headship authority before the fall. Several things illustrate that:
1. Adam was made first.
2. Woman came out of man, and not other way around.
3. Adam was instructed to tend garden (Gen 2:15). Adam named the animals (Gen 2:20). He was given a job and responsibility before he was given a wife.
4. Adam received instruction directly from God about not eating from tree firsthand (Gen 2:16-17). Eve hadn’t been created at that time.
5. God gave Adam the authority to name the woman. The woman didn’t name Adam (Gen 2:23).
6. After sin was committed, God questioned the man rather than the woman. (Gen 3:9)
7. Sin entered the world through Adam and not Eve. (Rom 5:12)
I’ve heard so many teachers talk about the fact that man and woman were equal before the fall. However, several things illustrate a very distinct difference in Adam’s sphere of responsibility and authority and Eve’s, and those things were established Pre-Fall. As you mentioned, Eve was created as a Helper for Adam. Helpers submit and/or yield to the needs and plans of another. Teachings that suggest Adam and Eve were equal (equal being a very humanistic word. Bible speaks of oneness more so than equality) Pre-fall fail to acknowledge the very distinct duties and authority that God gave Adam and not Eve before the fall ever came into play. These were not slight differences, but very distinct and demonstrative ones. I do agree with your interpretation of Genesis 3:16.
Unfortunately, far too many Christian men and women see a wife’s service and submission to her husband as part of her ultimate punishment (curse of Eve) rather than part of God’s original design and divine order for marriage. Unfortunately, that’s why so many men feel justified in abusing their wives, and many wives feel discouraged and believe that God doesn’t love women because He’s only out to punish them for Eve’s transgressions. The way we view the concept of submission (or anything else for that matter) as punishment or original design/ divine order will surely affect how we carry it out. Thanks for your post and time.
Some agreements and some disagreements
Thanks, Kim, for your thoughtful and detailed response.
First, a few points that I think we agree upon:
- The early chapters of Genesis do provide vital material for understanding the relationship between man and woman
- Men and women are equal in the sight of God in the sense that both are equally human, so that they are equally subject to sin, and God makes an equal offer of salvation to both.
- Men and women are equal but different, both in the sight of God and in their own natures. If there were not fundamental and distinct differences between man and woman, why would God have made two sexes instead of just one? God could have arranged for humans to reproduce asexually if there were not some deeper reason for God to create humans as male and female.
- God loves women as much as men. There is no Biblical excuse for women to be abused and mistreated. Abusing others violates God’s commandments.
I’m putting these agreements out there first because I won’t be commenting on them further in this post—and I want to agree with you that you and I do have some fine points of agreement!
Now we get to where I see things differently than what you have outlined in your comment. And I hope you will hear me out. These early stories of Genesis are precious. They are also amazingly compact and precise in their wording. We must read them very carefully to avoid making mistakes of interpretation that can easily lead us astray.
In preparing my previous post, I read several commentaries on the first three chapters of Genesis based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis story. These interpretations do distinguish between pre-Fall and post-Fall humanity. However, they fail to distinguish between the first and second creation stories—both of which take place before the Fall—as two distinct phases of the Bible story. That is precisely where a literal interpretation of the creation story in general, and of the creation of man and woman in particular, runs into problems.
Since this is such a common mistake in reading and interpreting the Bible, let’s look at it more closely.
A nitpicky point about Genesis 1 and 2
First, I should point out that when the Bible was originally written, though it did have separate books, those books were not divided into the chapters and verses we’re familiar with today. Our chapter and verse divisions were added many centuries later—and there were a number of different divisions before the present chapter and verse divisions were generally agreed upon.
Why do I bring this up?
Because unfortunately, the division between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 is three verses off.
When I say “Genesis 1” or “the first creation story,” what this really means is Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3. This is the story of the seven days of creation.
When I say “Genesis 2” or “the second creation story,” what this really means is Genesis 2:4–25. This is the story of the Garden of Eden.
How do we read Genesis 1 and 2?
Now let’s take a closer look at these two creation stories.
What we’ll find is that attempts to interpret these stories literally cause the Bible to contradict itself. That’s because these stories were never meant to be taken literally.
The original tellers of these stories were not concerned with how the physical universe was created. They were concerned with how we humans become new creations under the influence of God—similar to the Apostle Paul many centuries later when he said, “So if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: everything old has passed away” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The ancient tellers of these spiritual stories enfolded deeper wisdom within these simple creation stories. Under inspiration from God, they told stories that give us an understanding of our spiritual creation by God. (For a thumbnail sketch of this deeper meaning of the seven days of creation in Genesis 1, please scroll down to the end of the article, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?” For a slightly fuller version see the article, “Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth.”)
Problems with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the two creation stories found in the first two chapters of Genesis. I hope this will help you to understand why many Bible scholars have come to the conclusion that these are actually two different ancient creation myths that have been placed one after another in the book of Genesis. There are many other indications of this in the style and wording of the two stories that we don’t need to get into here.
I hasten to add that rather than taking away from these two chapters’ status as part of God’s inspired Word, this actually adds to their divine nature.
Literal interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2 commonly say that Genesis 2 is a more detailed account of how God created humans on the sixth day.
But this simply doesn’t work. You see, God creates many of the same things in the Genesis 2 creation story as in the Genesis 1 creation story . . . but in a different order.
In the first creation story, here are some of the things God creates, in the order in which God creates them:
- Plants and trees
- Fish and birds
- Land animals
- Humans, both male and female
But here is the order in which God creates these same things in the second creation story:
- Plants and trees
- Land animals and birds (fish are not mentioned in Genesis 2)
- Female humans as separate from male humans
In the first creation story, humans, both male and female, are created last, after everything else.
But in the second creation story, humans are created first, before trees, plants, animals, and birds. Then after all of these other things are created, the female human is formed as a separate being, so that humanity is now distinguished into male and female.
This last point becomes clearer if we read Genesis 2 in the original Hebrew. In most of this chapter the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “the man” (ha’adam) actually means “the human being” or “humankind.” Though this word sometimes refers to a male human being—especially when it is translated as the name “Adam” in Genesis 3—it is also used for humans in general, both male and female. However, in the speech given in Genesis 2:23–24, after Eve is created and humans are clearly distinguished into male and female, the Hebrew uses a different word for “man”—one that specifically means a male human being (’ish), parallel to the Hebrew word used for “woman” as a female human being (’ishah).
Back to the main point, we simply can’t lump together the two creation stories as if one were a more detailed re-telling of the last part of the other. The stories themselves don’t allow it. Here is just one example: The first creation story states very clearly that God created plants on the third day (Genesis 1:12), and humans on the sixth day (Genesis 1:26–27). But the second creation story states very clearly that God formed a human being “when no plant of the field had yet sprung up” (Genesis 2:5, emphasis added—and yes, the same Hebrew word for “plant” (’esev) is used in both chapters.)
The only way we could read Genesis 2 as being a more detailed version of the creation of humans in Genesis 1:26–27 is to ignore the very different order in which God creates things in Genesis 2 compared to the order in which God creates them in Genesis 1.
It’s not a good idea to ignore what the Bible says. Yet if we read the two stories literally, we cause the Bible to contradict itself. And if we see the Bible as God’s Word, then saying that the Bible contradicts itself is saying that God contradicts himself.
I don’t believe that God contradicts himself. So if our interpretation causes the Bible to contradict itself, then it is not God, but our human interpretation that is mistaken.
What the Bible is telling us quite clearly, then, is that these stories are not meant to be taken literally. If, instead, we read them as stories with a deeper, spiritual meaning, similar to the spiritual meanings Jesus conveyed through his parables in the New Testament, then there is no contradiction at all.
What does this say about the creation of humans?
With this in mind, let’s return to the question of the relationship of man and woman to one another as presented in the early chapters of Genesis.
But first, what do these two creation stories say about the “new creation” of humans as spiritual beings?
Common literal interpretations of the Genesis story do distinguish between humans before and after the Fall. But they fail to distinguish between humans as they are first created by God in Genesis 1 and humans as they are created in the second creation story in Genesis 2.
The order of these two creation stories in the Bible is not arbitrary. And the Bible includes two creation stories for a reason.
God did not create us only once in the beginning, and then stop creating. God creates us new each day, and even each second. In fact, if God were not continually creating us every nanosecond, we would instantly cease to exist. We are fully dependent on God for our very existence every moment of our lives.
On a more practical and understandable level, God is continually making us into a new creation every time we enter a new “chapter” of our spiritual life. Ideally we are created as new and better people over and over again as our life progresses and we devote ourselves more and more fully to accepting God’s love and following God’s teachings.
Unfortunately, sometimes we backslide. When we do, God must create us in new and somewhat lower forms of humanity. It’s not what God ideally wants for us. But when we move away from God, God does not abandon us. Instead, God adjusts our minds and spirits to face life at a lower spiritual level. This is a matter of God’s love and mercy in giving us the freedom to make our own choices—even bad ones—and learn the lessons we need to learn as a result.
If we read Genesis 1 and 2 in the light of Paul’s understanding of our being “new creations,” and understand that this happens not just once, but many times throughout our life as we move closer to or farther away from God, then we can understand better what the two different creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are all about.
A detailed explanation would make this article far too long. So here is a very short version:
Genesis 1 shows us God’s ideal of our creation into fully mature spiritual human beings. At the end of each day, everything God creates is pronounced “good.” And in Genesis 1:31, after humans have been created, it says that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (emphasis added).
Genesis 2 includes God’s first re-creation of humanity when we started falling away from God’s original “very good” plan for us. As I pointed out in my previous article, by the time woman is created out of man in the second half of Genesis 2, something is “not good”—in contrast to everything being “very good” in Genesis 1. Specifically, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
Once again, a detailed explanation of this would take more time than we have right now. The main thing to understand is that by Genesis 2:18, humans have already begun to move away from the “very good” state into which God originally created us. And then woman is created out of man in Genesis 2:21–22.
Paying attention to the “very good” of Genesis 1 and the “not good” of Genesis 2:18 is a key to understanding the different relationships of man and woman to one another in these two chapters of the Bible.
What about the relationship between man and woman?
Of course, the relationship between man and woman changed radically in Genesis 3 after the original human beings sinned against God by eating from the tree that God had commanded them not to eat from. That was when God stated that man would rule over woman.
But the relationship between man and woman had already changed before Adam and Eve sinned and were expelled from the Garden of Eden—the event that is commonly called “the Fall.” So it’s not just a matter of pre-Fall vs. post-Fall gender roles. Unless we clearly distinguish between the Genesis 1 creation story and the Genesis 2 creation story—both of which are pre-Fall—we can’t help coming to faulty conclusions about God’s original intentions for the ideal relationship between man and woman.
To sum it up briefly:
- Genesis 1 provides God’s original, ideal plan of creation for humankind.
- Genesis 2—especially from verse 18 (the “not good” verse) onward—presents God’s “new” but lower creation of humanity, which took place when we humans were not able to remain steadfast in the spiritually “very good” state into which God had originally created us.
My previous article goes into a little more detail on the relationship between man and woman contained in each of these two chapters. Here is a brief summary:
In God’s first and ideal creation of humans in Genesis 1, man and woman are created together; both are created in the image of God, and both together are commanded to have dominion over all the earth. Neither is made primary or dominant over the other. In other words, God originally created man and woman fully equal to one another, and together in their oneness.
In God’s second creation, which in its second half (after Genesis 2:18) became a concession to humans who could not remain in that original ideal state into which God had originally created us, woman is formed from man, and is made secondary to and a helper for man.
In short, when we are able to achieve and remain in the highest and most ideal spiritual state for which God created us, man and woman are distinctly different but fully equal to one another both in God’s sight and in one another’s sight.
However, when we are unable to achieve or remain in the ideal state for which God created us, we fall down to a lower state in which woman is made secondary to and a helper for man.
If through outright disobedience to God’s commandments we fall even farther away from God’s ideal, then we fall down to an even lower state in which man rules over and dominates woman.
Should we settle for less, or strive for God’s ideal?
Even if you’re with me this far you may say, “Maybe it was God’s original ideal for man and woman to be fully equal. But that’s not how things are anymore . . . so we must accept that woman is now subservient to man.”
In one sense, it’s hard to argue with that. If we are willing to settle for less than God’s ideal, then that’s exactly what we’ll get. And as I said in my previous article, if a man and a woman are both happy in a relationship in which the man rules and the woman serves him, or in a relationship in which the man is primary and the woman’s life revolves around his, who am I to argue with them? God has given us freedom to choose the level of spiritual life that we will strive for—and our choices will be reflected in our marriage relationships.
And yet . . . I believe that God’s ideal for human beings is the same today as it was when God first created us in Genesis 1 and pronounced us “very good.”
Of course, in the end it doesn’t really matter what I believe. What matters is what God has in mind. And though God has not revealed to us the full glories that are in store for us, in the final book of the Bible God has given us a very strong hint of where we are now headed.
In the book of Revelation we are told that humans will once again have access to the tree of life that Adam and Eve could have eaten from when they instead ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Revelation 22:2, as part of the description of the new Jerusalem that is coming down from God out of heaven, we read:
In the middle of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
This, I believe, is God’s promise to us that we humans will indeed be able to achieve and remain in the highest spiritual state that God has created us for, as described spiritually in the first creation story in Genesis 1, and carried into the first part of Genesis 2. And I believe that we are now living in the times prophesied spiritually in those final chapters of the book of Revelation.
Though humanity originally moved to a “not good” state in which woman was secondary to and a helper for man, and then into a state of outright evil in which woman was ruled over by man, I believe that God is now leading us back toward the “very good” state for which God originally created us.
That state is one in which man and woman are created together, both of them fully in the image of God, and both together assigned by God to take care of and have dominion over everything else that God has made. In this ideal state for which God has created us, neither the man nor the woman rules over the other or is secondary to the other. Both together form “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4–6), meaning that they are a married couple united to one another in fully equal and fully mutual love and faith as a single spiritual being.
Such couples are not ruled by each other. Together they are ruled by God alone.
This is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”