October 22, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Beginning with Genesis

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:58 pm

Adam and EveThe doctrine of creation is crucial to a number of related theological issues, and theologians have appealed to it when addressing numerous issues. Often theologians have engaged in a speculative exercise in which they distinguish between a created and a fallen world to address issues that initially might not seem directly related to the doctrine of creation. For example, theologians interested in the relation between Christian faith and politics have sometimes speculated about whether there would have been government if there had been no sin. Augustinians (and Lutherans) have tended to understand government as primarily concerned with justice, and, in particular, with restraining and punishing evildoers in a fallen world. So, they have argued, there would have been no need for government if there had been no fall. To the contrary, Thomists (and some Calvinists) have suggested rather that the purpose of government is to promote the common good and, even in an unfallen world, government would have existed. For example, even in an unfallen world, if people drove automobiles, there would need to be some way of deciding whether drivers should drive on the left or the right side of the street. How one answers this question will largely determine whether one sees the present function of government as a necessary evil, and, accordingly, limited largely to military and police functions, or, rather, whether one sees executing justice as only one of government’s functions, which would also include numerous public goods as well: highways, national parks, promoting the arts, public education, economic assistance to the poor, having a positive role in promoting a healthy economy, publicly-funded health care.

Similarly the distinction between “natural law,” “ceremonial law,” and “civil law” that one finds in theologians and theological traditions as diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, John Calvin, and the Lutheran Confessions, presupposes a distinction between the kinds of laws that are rooted in the nature of creation itself, and the laws that would exist only in a sinful world. (Thomas Aquinas argues, for example, that there would have been no private property and no need for laws against theft if there had been no sin.1) Contemporary discussions about sexuality, particularly the question of whether Christians should approve of same-sex sexual activity, ultimately must address this question of “natural law,” that is, what was God’s original intent in creating human beings as male and female, and what bearing does this have on sexual ethics?

In the area of soteriology, theologians have speculated about such things as whether the Word of God would have become incarnate even if human beings had never sinned – the Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas answered “no, while Duns Scotus answered “yes.”2 In the Reformed tradition, supralapsarians and infralapsarians disagreed about whether the doctrine of election presupposed a fallen or unfallen humanity.3

For similar reasons, the doctrine of creation is important for assessing concerns about women’s ordination. The interpretation of Genesis 1-3 has played a major role in the discussion of women’s place, not only in marriage, but in the church and culture as well. The crucial question has to do with the interpretation of Genesis 3:16b: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Is this verse a command, a curse, or a description? Is it a command that is a furthering of a subordination that was nonetheless part of God’s intention in creation, or rather a punishment or curse in response to sin, or neither part of God’s intention for creation or a curse, but simply a description of the way things are in a fallen world, and thus a departure from God’s intention in creation? To be specific, if human beings had never sinned, would women be subordinate to men? Moreover, even if subordination is only a consequence of the fall, is that subordination something willed by God or something to be overcome as much as possible?

As pointed out in a previous essay, historically many theologians have assumed that an essential subordination of women to men is rooted in an ontological inferiority rooted in creation: women are less rational, more emotional, and more subject to temptation than men.4 There have been some exceptions. In his exegesis of Genesis, Martin Luther suggested that, apart from the fall, women would not have been subordinate to men.5 John Chrysostom, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, stated that the subjection of women to men is a direct consequence of the fall:

Wherefore you see, she was not subjected as soon as she was made; nor, when He brought her to the man, did either she hear any such thing from God, nor did the man say any such word to her: he said indeed that she was “bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh” (Gen. 2:23), but of rule or subjection he nowhere made mention unto her. But when she made an ill use of her privilege and she who had been made a helper was found to be an ensnarer and ruined all, then she is justly told for the future, “thy turning shall be to thy husband.” (Gen. 3:16).6

There are a number of issues that might be addressed in a discussion of Genesis 1-3: the relation between Genesis and issues raided by modern science: the age of the earth, the evolutionary origins of humanity, the connection between the first human beings described in Genesis and the various hominds known about from the fossil record (Homo erectus, Neanderthals) and possible pre-human ancestors of humanity such as Australopithecus; questions concerning Genesis and ecology: what does it mean for human beings to “have dominion” over nature? (Gen. 1:28); questions concerning Genesis’ account of the rise of humanity and civilization and modern archaeological and historical attempts at reconstruction; the account of the rise of multiple languages and nationalities in Genesis 12 and modern linguistic theories; what to make of the Genesis account of a global flood?; the relation between the “primordial history” of the earliest chapters of Genesis and possible parallels in the mythology and folklore of other ancient Near Eastern peoples. However, this essay will focus on only one question: What does Genesis 1-3 teach about the relation between men and women? Does Genesis teach that the subordination of women that was presupposed in the ancient Near East and in all historical cultures until the rise of the modern era is part of God’s intention for humanity in creation, or, rather, is such subordination a consequence of human sin?

Genesis 1

The book of Genesis contains two different accounts of creation with different orders of events and different emphases. Modern source critics have seen this as evidence of two different sources lying behind the text. More recent readings have tended to focus on the canonical unity of the texts, noting that while each account has its own focus, they also share many of the same themes. The first account in Genesis 1 tends to be more cosmic in its focus, while the account in Genesis 2 and 3 focuses specifically on humanity.

For our purposes, the key text in the first creation account is Genesis 1:26-28:

God created ha‘adam in his image; in the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them.

The Hebrew word transliterated here as ha‘adam has a multivalence that is not captured by the standard English translations. In its broadest sense, ha’adam simply refers to “humanity” or “humankind.” However, the word is also used to refer to the first “human being” created in Genesis 2. Finally, it can also be a proper name, “Adam.” The first unambiguous use of ‘adam as a proper name (without the article) occurs in Genesis 4:24, although 4:1 is also a possibility.

English translations often translate ha’adam as “man” in Gen. 1:26, “the man” elsewhere, and “Adam” in 4:1. However, it needs to be understood that ha’adam is the generic name for “human” or “human being,” and is not equivalent to the modern English “man” meaning “male human being.” (This will be discussed further below.) Hebrew has no word for “humanity” other than ‘adam, and this was common to semitic usage before Genesis 1-3 was written. It is also important to distinguish between grammatical gender and physical sexual differences. In languages such as Greek, Latin or French, all nouns have a gender that is either male, female, or neuter, with corresponding pronouns and definite articles and adjectives. (Latin has no definite articles). Hebrew has only two genders, masculine and feminine, with no neuter, and the choice of genders for a noun is unpredictable. While Old English had gender, modern English does not, which gives English-speaking students endless headaches when first trying to make sense of a gendered language: What makes a French table (la table) “feminine?” Why does a Latin farmer (agricola) have a first declension ending (which should be female), but corresponding masculine adjectives? The point of this short discursus about grammar is to be clear that ha’adam simply means “humanity,” “humankind,” or “human being,” and, in itself, has no connotations of specifically male sexuality. (Male grammatical gender does not necessarily mean male sexuality.) For that reason, I will use some variation of “human” or “human being” as the proper translation for ha’adam in what follows rather than “man.”7

The first question that arises from the above passage is what it means for humanity to be created “in the image of God.” Classical interpreters have identified the imago dei with rationality, with a typological anticipation of Jesus Christ as the perfect image of God, or with the trinitarian persons. Modern interpretations tend to move in two directions. Beginning with Karl Barth, some have identified the imago with sexual differentiation itself based on the Hebrew parallelism between “in the image of God he created him” and “male and female he created them.”8 The image thus points to personalism, that human beings by their bodily construction as “male and female” are inherently oriented toward one another and are incomplete without community.9 More recent interpreters have tended not to follow Barth, but to focus on the specific blessing given by God in verse 28, to “be fruitful and multiply,” and to “have dominion” over the earth. The image “mirrors God to the world”; human beings are an extension of God’s governing of and care for creation.10

At the least, the creation account in Genesis 1 has the following implications:

First, there is a fundamental equality between men and women, male and female as created in the image of God. The female is created in the image of God just as much as the male, and there is no humanity apart from the distinction between man and woman; to be a human being is fundamentally to be either male or female. Men and woman are fundamentally alike as human beings, are made for each other, and are incomplete without one another.11

Second, there is a personalist dimension to the divine image. The inner-divine communication – “Let us make humanity in our image” (Gen. 1:26) – is echoed in God’s address to the human beings created in his image. Both male and female are addressed equally in God’s first speaking to them, and their task echoes divine providence over creation. God does not exercise power over creation on his own, but shares his governance of creation with human beings.12

Third, the task (or rather “blessing”) of bringing forth children and of stewardship over the earth that is given to humanity is a common task for both men and women as created in the image of God. There are no “gender roles” or gender-specific responsibilities in the passage. Men as well as women are expected to nurture children; women as well as men are expected to exercise stewardship over creation. Neither male nor female exercises power or authority over the other; both are given equal power, authority, and responsibility.13

In short, Genesis 1 describes man and woman as created equally in the image of God, and equally given a responsibility by God to exercise stewardship over creation. There is nothing in the passage to imply any gender-specific roles or any hierarchy of unequal relationships of authority between the two in the passage.

Genesis 2

While Genesis 1 describes a single creation of humanity (ha’adam), both male and female in the image of God, Genesis 2 tells the story of creation in a slightly different way, describing first the creation of a single human creature (ha’adam), and only later of the creation of a female creature, after which the two are distinguished as man (male) and woman (female). It is also in the narrative beginning with Genesis 2 that a clear distinction is made between three uses of the Hebrew ‘adam: as humanity in general, as the single human being who is created from the dust of the earth, and, finally, as the proper name “Adam,” which, again, simply means “human being.” (Adam’s name is the descriptive “Human,” much as the android in Star Trek: The Next Generation is named “Data.”) Throughout Genesis 2, ha’adam occurs with the definite article, “the human being.” The proper name ‘adam (without the article) appears first in Genesis 4.14

In Genesis 2:5, ha’adam (the human being) is created from ha’adamah (the ground). There is in Hebrew a deliberate pun that connects the human being who later cultivates the earth with the earth from which he is created.15 (This connection is deliberately echoed in the words used with imposition of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service that echo Gen. 3:19: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) Although it becomes clear in verse 23 with the creation of woman that the human being is male, at this point there is not yet any sexual differentiation implied in the text. The human being is simply ha’adamah, the “human being.” English translations frequently render this as “the man,” but if “man” is understood to mean “male human being,” it is misleading. Sexuality is not introduced into the text until the creation of woman. This does not mean that the first human being is an androgyne, as some commentators have suggested, but that sexuality does not yet exist as a reality until both sexes exist: there are no men without women, and vice versa. The best translation then, is either, “the human being,” or, as some writers have suggested, based on the pun between ha’adam and ha’adamah, the “earth creature.”16

For the first time in Genesis 2:8, something is described as being “not good.” In contrast to the repeated judgments of chapter 1 after each act of creation that “God saw that it was good,” and the statement in Genesis 1:31 at the conclusion of creation that “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good,” the reader is now told that God said: “It is not good that the human being (ha’adam) should be alone. I will make a companion (‘ezer kenegdo) corresponding to him.” The expression here translated “companion corresponding to” (‘ezer kenegdo) is misleadingly translated as “helper” in English translations. In English, “helper” implies a subordinate or inferior, an assistant. The Hebrew ‘ezer has no connotations of inferiority or subordination. There are many places in the Bible, where God is the ‘ezer to Israel or to individuals who need assistance: “Such examples leave no doubt that ‘ezer can refer to anyone who provides assistance, whatever their relationship to the one whom they aid.”17

In an attempt to find the human being a suitable companion, God first brings him the animals, each of whom the human names. This does not solve the problem, however: “But for the human being there was not found a companion corresponding to him.” (v. 20). God then puts the human to sleep and performs a bit of surgery, creating a fellow human being (the woman) out of a rib taken from the human being’s side. This is an interesting difference. Where the first human being (ha’adam) had been taken from the earth (ha’adamah), this new human being is taken not from the earth, but from the side of ha’adam. The >first >human being now functions as the earth had functioned in his own creation; a new human creature is taken from him (ha’adam) as he was taken from the earth (ha’adamah). >This new creature is thus a perfect match for him because she is taken directly from him.18

God brings this new human being to the first human being to see how he will respond. The purpose of bringing the animals to the human being, resulting in his dissatisfaction, was to accentuate his loneliness, and his need for one who is like himself. The purpose of the woman’s “help” is companionship, to end his loneliness. The woman is not a subordinate, an assistant, but someone like the man, someone “corresponding” to him.19

With the introduction of the woman, the human being finally has a companion corresponding to himself, and greets her with the exclamation: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she call be called Woman (‘issa) because she was taken out of Man (‘is).” (v. 23). Again, the focus here is on equality, not on hierarchy or subordination. This is demonstrated in the following ways.

First, it is only here that the text at last introduces sexuality. The first human being recognizes himself as “man” (‘is) and his corresponding companion as “woman” (‘issa). For the first time, the Hebrew word for “man” (male human being) is introduced rather than the generic ha’adam. The terms ‘is and ‘issa emphasize the likeness of the man and the woman. The only difference is the corresponding feminine ending for the word ‘issa. The woman is the same as the man, but a female version. Significantly, the man does not call the woman ha’adamah, the feminine version of the word ha’adam, because that word means “earth,” a word already used in describing the human being (ha’adam) as having been taken from the earth (ha’adamah). As there had earlier been a wordplay between “earth” and “human being” – the ha’adam is a human being because taken from ha’adamah – so now there is a wordplay on man and woman; the woman is a woman (‘issa) because she was taken from the man (‘is).20

Second, the cry of recognition – “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” – points to equality and companionship, not to hierarchy or subordination. The woman is one who is like the man because she is taken from his own body.21

Third, the man does not “name” the woman, but recognizes her as one like himself. Authors disagree about whether the naming of the animals in verse 20 implies power or authority over or subordination of animals to the human being.22 What is clear, however, is that the man’s recognition of the woman is not a “naming,” but an exclamation of recognition. He does not “name” the woman, but “calls” her. As Phyllis Trible points out:

The verb call by itself does not mean naming; only when joined to the noun name does it become part of a naming formula. . . . The earth creature exclaims, “This shall be called ‘issa.” The noun name is strikingly absent from the poetry. Hence, in calling the woman, the man is not establishing power over her but rejoicing in their mutuality.23

Moreover, “woman” (‘issa) is not a “name,” but simply a recognition that the woman is like the man (‘is) and so is called the same, except for the feminine ending of the noun.24

Finally, Genesis 2 ends with the classic definition of marriage that is repeated in countless wedding ceremonies: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” That the man leaves his father and mother and “holds fast to” (clings to) his wife confirms the reading of the rest of the passage that the woman was created to satisfy the man’s need for companionship. Genesis 2:24 brings back together that which God had separated by taking the woman from the human being’s side. What was two has now again become one. Significantly, the passage does not say that the woman leaves her parents to “cling to” her husband, which we might expect if the hierarchical reading were correct, but that the man leaves his parents to cling to his wife.25

Genesis 2 ends with a situation of harmony, where the woman is the “corresponding companion” to the man, where there is mutual equality between them, and there is no hint of subordination or hierarchy. In Genesis 1, God told both man and woman to fill the earth and to exercise stewardship over it. In a corresponding passage in Genesis 2:15, ha’adam is told to cultivate the earth, and the human being is commanded not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (v. 16-17) – the woman does not yet exist, so she cannot receive either command at this point – but nowhere is the man given authority over the woman; nor he is commanded to exercise authority over her or she to obey him. At the end of the passage, the two who had come to exist because God had taken the woman from the man are now “one flesh.” The unity of “one flesh” points both to equality and completeness. There is no hint of hierarchy of any kind, let alone gender-hierarchy in either Genesis 1 or 2.26

Genesis 3

If Genesis 2 describes a setting of mutuality and harmony between man and woman, Genesis 3 is about the undoing of this harmony as a result of sin. The themes of equality, mutual harmony, and companionship were introduced in Genesis 2 to prepare for what follows in Genesis 3, where the introduction of sin disrupts the original harmony of creation, and, as it were, turns everything upside down. Where there was mutuality, cooperation, and the fruitfulness of a garden, there now comes to exist competition, distrust, and conflict between the man and the woman, subordination of the woman to the man, and the struggle of both to survive a world that now produces thorns.27

Although there are numerous theological issues raised by this passage concerning the origin of suffering and evil, the doctrines of the fall and original sin, the following will focus only on those issues specifically related to hierarchical relationships between men and woman, and, specifically, on the issue of the subordination of women to men.

The first point to be noted is that subordination does appear for the first time in the texts, and it is specifically mentioned as a consequence of the fall into sin. The woman is told “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3: 16). It is significant that this is a reversal of the situation originally described in Genesis 2, where it was the man whose loneliness needed to be filled by the introduction of the woman, where the relationships between the man and the woman had been described as harmonious, and where the man had greeted the woman as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” The woman still yearns for the original unity of creation, but there is now a hierarchy of division, and, rather than living together in harmony, the man “rules over” the woman. The lost harmony occasioned by the fall into sin produces a disruption of relationships. Where human beings were originally supposed to cultivate the earth and act as stewards of God’s providential order over creation, the earth now must be cultivated with pain and hard labor. Where human beings were originally commanded to be fruitful and multiply, now the woman’s labor will also be increased, and she will bring forth children in pain. The original command to be fruitful and multiply is now more difficult. Where the human being had come from the earth, now he must till the earth with hard labor, struggling against thorns and thistles, working to make bread by “the sweat of your face,” and returning to the earth at death (Gen. 3:16-19). It is only at this point, after the first sin, that the man now gives the woman a name: “Eve” (havvah), the mother of all living (hay).28

It is significant that the judgments on the man and the woman are not curses. The snake and the ground are cursed because of humanity’s sin, but the man and woman are not.29 Neither, however, should they be understood as punishments. Instead, they simply describe the situation in which men and women find themselves in a fallen world. They represent the undoing of the harmony that existed as God’s original intention for humanity, but not a new order that – having come into existence because of sin – is supposed to be preserved. The beauty of creation has been damaged and, to some extent, destroyed by sin, but the sufferings listed in Genesis 3 are not part of God’s intention for creation, but rather its undoing. They should not be understood as God’s will for the world, or as if trying to correct them would in some way be a sin or the violation of a divine command. The use of weed-killers or fertilizer or tractors to make harvesting easier should not be understood as a sin any more than the use of medicine or pain-killers to aid in the alleviation of illness or to ease the suffering of death.30

Similarly, there is no reason to believe that the subordination of women to men described in Gen. 3:16 is anything more than a description of the sinful relations between men and women in a fallen world. The equality and harmony depicted in Genesis 1 and 2 are now depicted as having been disrupted because of human sin. Both the supremacy of the male over the woman and the subordination of the woman to the man are the consequences of shared disobedience to God’s will, but not God’s intentions for how redeemed lives should be lived. Genesis 3 does speak of a hierarchy of men over women and a subordination of women to men, but only in consequence of human sin. The writer of Genesis recognized that the patriarchal rule of the man over the woman was as much a judgment on the man as the woman.31

In short, Genesis 1 and 2 depict a relation of equality and harmony between man and woman. Both are equal partners in their humanity; both share God’s image, both are made for one another; both are stewards of God’s creation. In consequence of sin, this original harmony was broken, not only between man and woman, but also between humanity and creation. In consequence, disrupted harmony between humanity and the natural world means that human beings live out their life in a struggle of “sweat and tears” to eke out a living in a hostile environment. Broken relations between human beings means that the harmonious “one flesh” relationship intended by God for men and women in marriage is disrupted as women yearn for the restoration of an original harmony that no longer exists, and men forget the original purpose of woman as as a “suitable companion,” and instead tend rather to “rule over” women. The end result is disfunctional relationships for both men and women. In conclusion, a straightforward reading of Genesis 1-3 does not teach that the subordination of men to women is part of God’s original intention in creation; rather, Genesis teaches an essential unity and harmony between men and women with no mention of hierarchy or subordination before the introduction of sin into the world. Neither does Genesis 1-3 mention any gender-specific roles for men and women. Both men and women are commanded equally to be fruitful and multiply – of course, only “Eve,” as a woman, can give birth to children, and is thus the “mother of all living”; both men and women are commanded to exercise God’s stewardship over creation. The first mention of any subordination of women to men occurs in Genesis 3:16 when the man is said to “rule over” the woman as a consequence of sin. There is no divinely given authority in Genesis of husbands over wives or of men (in general) over women (in general) that is grounded in a creation order.

A “Complementarian” Reading of Genesis

One might think that the above reading would settle the question of whether Genesis 1-3 teaches that there is a fundamental hierarchy between men and women that is established in the very order of creation. A plain-sense reading provides no ground for a theory of inherent subordination of women to men. There is no explicit mention of hierarchy until Genesis 3:16, and it is in direct conflict with what the text says about God’s intentions for the creation of man and woman in Genesis 1 and 2. The “rule” of man over woman is portrayed as a consequence of sin, and it is a disruption of the harmony that is portrayed in Genesis 1 and 2.

In an attempt to counter a literal reading of what the texts explicitly say, complementarians respond by arguing that Genesis 1 and 2 implies a gender hierarchy based on indirect arguments. Wayne Grudem, the foremost advocate of complementarianism, lists ten such “arguments showing male headship in marriage before the fall.”32 The first seven will be addressed in turn. (The last three deal specifically with the New Testament, and will be addressed in subsequent essays.)

1. The order: Adam was created first, then Eve.

As should be clear from the above, this is a misreading of the text. “Adam,” as a proper name, does not appear until Genesis 4. “Adam” is simply the Hebrew “human being” (‘adam) used as a proper name (without the article). What Genesis indicates was created first was ha’adam, the “human being,” understood as “humankind” in Genesis 1 and as an individual human being in Genesis 2. Moreover, ha’adam is a pun that points to the human being’s creation from the earth (ha’adamah). It is not until Genesis 2:23 that sexuality first appears when both the “man” (‘is) and “woman” (‘issa) appear together.

Moreover, even if we grant that the “human being” of Genesis 2 is a male human being (not an androgyne), the order of creation has no particular significance for hierarchy. Richard Hess points out that in the Mesopotamian creation story of Atrahasis, which dates from the same culture and time as the laws of Hammurabi, and includes parallels to the Genesis references to a primeval paradise, a subsequent rebellion, and a flood, the woman is created first. Moreover, whenever men and women are mentioned, the woman is mentioned first. Nonetheless, ancient Mesopotamia was a highly patriarchal culture, even more so than ancient Israel. Hess concludes: “This indicates that the sequence of man’s and woman’s creation has no significance for implications of the society’s view of or assumption regarding hierarchy.”33 Hess suggests that the man and woman are created sequentially in Genesis 2 in order to demonstrate their mutual need for each other after the man (i.e., the “human being”) had failed to find an appropriate companion in the animals that God had brought to him. The reason for the sequenced order lies in the narrative flow of the text, not as an affirmation of hierarchy.34

2. The representation: Adam, not Eve, had a special role in representing the human race.

Here Grudem points to the New Testament parallels between Adam and Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:22 states “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” In Romans 5, Paul makes a parallel between Adam and Christ, where Christ is portrayed as a “second Adam”: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:19). Grudem suggests that, since Eve sinned first, Paul might have said that “in Eve all die.” That Paul speaks of Adam instead indicates that Adam (as male) has a representative role.

Grudem here seems to miss the point of how typology functions in Paul’s writings. Paul is quite capable of using female types to make a point. So, for example, in Galatians 4, Paul uses the female figures of Hagar and Sarah as types representing the two covenants of Sinai, the old covenant (“present Jerusalem”) and the new covenant (“Jerusalem above”). Nothing in the typology suggests that either Hagar or Sarah are “representative” because of their sex.

Similarly, nothing in the Adam/Christ typology suggests that Adam is “representative” because of his sex. Rather, it makes sense that in making a typological comparison pointing to Jesus Christ, Paul would have used the male figure of Adam to pre-figure Jesus, since Jesus was himself a male. Moreover, it also makes sense to draw a parallel between Adam (whose name “Adam” means “human being”) as the first human being through whom sin originated, and Jesus Christ as the new creation of God (the second Adam or human being) through whom sin is destroyed. Note that throughout Romans 5, Paul uses the Greek word ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos), properly translated “human being,” rather than ἀνήρ (anēr), properly translated “male human being” (or, in modern English “man”) to describe both Adam and Christ. So, “sin entered the world through one human being (δι’ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου, di henos anthrōpou) . . . and death spread to all human beings (εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους, eis pantas anthrōpous)” (verse 12); “For if the many died by the trespass of the one, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one human being Jesus Christ (τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, tou henos anthrōpou Iēsou Christou), overflow to the many!” (verse 15); “For just as through the disobedience of the one human being (οῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου, ou henos anthrōpou) the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous” (verse 19).

3. The naming of woman: Adam names Eve.

According to Grudem, just as God demonstrates his authority over creation by naming it, and Adam demonstrates his authority over the animals by naming them, so Adam demonstrates his authority over the woman by naming her.

To the contrary, as noted above, the man’s (‘is) calling of the woman (‘issa) is not a naming, but a recognition. The man simply recognizes the woman as someone like himself, a companion fitting for himself. Their equality is emphasized by the similarity in the nouns ‘is and ‘issa. Moreover, the man does not exercise authority over the woman, but recognizes her as one who relieves his loneliness.

Again, as noted above, the text does not use the “naming formula” for woman that is used in reference to the animals. The man “calls” the woman, but does not name her. “Woman” (‘issa), unlike “Eve,” is not a name, but an exclamation of recognition.

4. The naming of the human race. God named the human race “Man,” not “Woman.”

It is hard to account for this claim except as based on the ambiguity of modern English usage, leading to corresponding confusion in translations. As noted above, Hebrew makes a clear distinction between “humanity” (ha’adam), on the one hand, and “man” (‘is) and woman (‘issa) on the other. In Genesis, God does not name the human race “man” (‘is), but rather “humanity” (ha’adam). ‘adam also functions as the proper name of the first human being, but this is based on a pun reflecting the human being’s function. Adam (’adam) is the human being (ha’adam) because he is taken from the earth (ha’adamah) and cultivates it. In the same way, Eve is named for her function as the mother of all living.

In Hebrew, as in many other languages, there is a clear distinction between the generic name for human being or humanity and the more specific names that correspond to “man” (as male human being) and “woman” (as female human being). In Greek, “humanity” is ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos), male human being (man) is ἀνήρ (anēr) and female human being (woman) is γυνή (gunē). In Latin, “humanity” is homo, male human being is vir, and female human being is femina. Modern English has the peculiarity that it no longer makes these distinctions. In Old English, “humanity” was man, “male human being” was wer, “female human being was wifman. In modern English, “humanity” continued to be man, while “female human being” (wifman) became “woman.” However, wer disappeared, with the result that man came to function for both “human being” in general, but also for “male human being.” In time, “man” has come to be understood primarily to mean “male human being,” with a consequent crisis over whether English “man” can any longer function inclusively as “human being.” When modern English translations translate both the Hebrew ha’adam and ‘is as “man,” an ambiguity is created that is not in the Hebrew text.

The long and short of it is that the Hebrew of Genesis does not name the human race “man” (‘is), but rather “humanity” (ha’adam). The generic “humanity” (ha’adam) has nothing to do with Adam’s male sexuality, and the male gender of the word is a matter of grammatical gender, not human sexuality.

5. The primary accountability: God spoke to Adam first after the fall.

This argument would seem to be a simple misreading of what is going on in the literary structure of the text. God addresses the man first because he was the first one that God had told not to eat of the fruit of the tree, and he was the last one who ate. More significant is a common Hebrew literary structure. The text introduces a chiasm. As the snake, the woman, and the man are introduced in that order in Genesis chapter 3, so they are referred to in reverse order in what follows: the man is addressed, who blames the woman; the woman is addressed, who blames the snake; Finally, there is a return to the original order as, first, judgment is pronounced on the snake, then on the woman, and, last, on the man. The narrative structure of the text is thus as follows: (ABC) snake, woman, man; (CBA) man, woman, snake; (ABC) snake, woman, man.35

6. The purpose: Eve was created as a helper for Adam, not Adam as a helper for Eve.

As pointed out above, Hebrew ‘ezer does not mean a subordinate or an inferior partner, but someone who can provide genuine assistance. In the Old Testament, God is often portrayed as an ‘ezer. Moreover, the way in which the woman serves as a helper to the man is made clear. The woman (unlike the animals) relieves the man’s loneliness. She is a companion like himself, one who is fit for him. She is a female version (‘issa) of what he is (‘is). Moreover, in that the relationship between the man and the woman is one of complementarity and mutuality, the man is indeed as much a companion for the woman as she is for the man. Together they become “one flesh.” Insofar as the text portrays the man as being the one who is lonely, it is he, if anyone, who is in a position of subordination here. It is the man who needs companionship in Genesis 3, since the woman had not yet been created.

7. The conflict. The curse brought a distortion of previous roles, not the introduction of new roles.

Grudem claims here that there are three “roles” assigned to the man and woman in creation. The curse brings about pain in the area of each of these roles or “areas of particular responsibility.” The man’s “area of responsibility” is to raise food from the ground, and the ground is now cursed, and will bring forth weeds and thorns. The woman’s “area of responsibility” is the bearing of children, and she will now bring forth children in pain. The third area that the curse effects is to introduce pain and conflict into the relationship between the man and the woman. Grudem states:

Prior to their sin, they had lived in the Garden of Eden in perfect harmony, yet with a leadership role belonging to Adam as the head of his family. But after the Fall, God introduced conflict in that Eve would have an inward urging and impulse to oppose Adam, to resist Adam’s leadership (my emphasis) . . . “Your impulse, desire, will be against your husband.”

According to Grudem, Adam’s response to this aggressive attempt to resist Adam’s role will be an aggressive “rule that was forceful and at times harsh.” Grudem goes on to claim that Genesis 3:16 shows that “the Fall brought about a distortion of previous roles, not the introduction of new roles. The distortion was that Eve would now rebel against her husband’s authority and Adam would misuse that authority to rule forcefully and even harshly over Eve.”36

The argument is, of course, a classic case of the fallacy of begging the question (petitio principii). As pointed out above, there is nothing in Genesis 1 and 2 about gender-specific “roles.” Grudem attempts to introduce the complementarian notion of gender-specific roles into the text by drawing a parallel between the tasks that the man and woman fulfill in Genesis 2 and 3 and a “role” of male leadership and authority over the woman, but there is no such “role” given to the man in either Genesis 1 or 2, and Grudem’s indirect arguments to make a case for such a role fail to succeed.

Rather, what Genesis 3 introduces is not a “curse” (Grudem’s word) against the man and the woman (the snake and the ground are cursed, not the man and the woman), but a description of a breakdown in two kinds of previously harmonious relationships, those between human beings and the realm of nature, and those between the man and the woman. In the realm of nature, the man (ha’adam), who came from the earth, and who was to till the earth, will now discover that the earth will bring forth thorns, and that he will have to work by the sweat of his brow. The woman (Eve), the “mother of all living,” will now discover that her labor and childbearing will be increased (or possibly that she will bring forth children in greater pain). In the realm of relationships, where the man’s desire was for his wife – before the creation of woman, the man could find no companion suitable for him; after the creation of woman, the man will leave his parents and “cling to” his wife – now, instead, the desire of the woman is for (not “against”) her husband,37 but instead of a harmonious relationship, the man now rules over his wife, domineering her rather than living in harmony with her. The woman might well resist such domineering, but there is nothing in the text to suggest that the man exercised any kind of authority over the woman before the entrance of sin. Rather, such a domineering of man over woman is a result of the breakdown of the harmony between man and woman that existed before sin.

Woman in the Old Testament

What then of the place of women in the rest of the Old Testament, and what implications might that have today? There are two books in particular that I think address these questions helpfully.

Jewish writer Tikva Frymer-Kensky addresses a central question in her book In the Wake of the Goddesses: “what happens in the Bible to central ideas of polytheism, and to the functions and roles once played by goddesses [after Israel embraces a monotheistic religion]?”38 The tendency of many feminist critics of Judaism and Christianity has been to characterize the God of the Bible as a patriarchal male deity, but Frymer-Kensky points out that the masculinity of the biblical God has to do with “social male-gender characteristics.” God is a king, to whom male pronouns are applied, but God is not sexually male: “God is not imagined below the waist. . . . God does not behave in sexual ways.” God is Israel’s husband, but he does not express physical affection for Israel, and there is no erotic dimension to the biblical God.39

The key difference between Israel and the pagan nations is not that Israel’s God is male, but that God is One. The books of the Bible echo in many ways the cultural context of the Ancient Near East in which the Bible was written: the language and style of biblical poetry has Canaanite parallels; the wisdom literature is similar to that of Egypt or Mesopotamia; Israelite ideas about justice, society, and religion have Mesopotamian counterparts. “Ultimately, however, Israel developed a religious system essentially different from any of the great ancient Near Eastern systems, a system which proclaimed the importance of only one God and the irrelevance or nonexistence of all other divine powers. This biblical system, known only as monotheism, is the central feature of the Western religions.”40

In consequence, the One God absorbs many of the attributes of the female goddesses, but, interestingly, not all, and the way in which Israel’s God claims some of the attributes of female deities and not others, “causes major changes in the way the Bible – compared with the ancient texts – looks at humanity, society, and nature.”41 In ancient religions, nature is governed by interaction, and sometimes conflict, between different divine powers. As the single God of Israel absorbed the functions of the goddesses, this interaction between the gods disappears. The one God of Israel has sole mastery over all of nature. Since God alone is Creator and controls fertility, there is no need for human beings to attempt to engage in religious rituals to help the earth to be fertile; God has created it to be that way. Because God is the sole power who is sovereign over the universe, he can be counted on to deliver the promises he gives to Israel at Sinai.42

However, that God is the sole divine power does not mean that God is the only power in the universe. The absence of competing divine powers results in new dignity and importance for human beings. In the absence of interaction between competing god and/or goddesses, human beings are now raised to a level of partnership and interaction with the one God, and their actions, both good and evil, can influence the kinds of things that God will do.

God’s actions toward nature depend on human activity. . . . In effect, humans determine what God does, not by prayers and manipulation, but by their behavior. In this way, humanity mediates between God and nature. The ultimate responsibility for what happens to the natural world rests on the behavior of human beings towards nature, towards God, and towards each other.43

Specifically, human sin can bring judgment.

At the same time, although the biblical God absorbs all of the natural functions associated with male polytheist deities, there is one function that he does not absorb – the cultural arts associated with female goddesses. In the Bible, the cultural arts of learning, song, poetry, the arts, building cities – elsewhere associated with goddesses – are entirely a human activity. In consequence, human beings gain in significance because of the absence of goddesses.44

Another area in which the Biblical world differs from polytheism is in its portrayal of women. In pagan religions, stories about gods and goddesses provide the ideal models for how people should be related. In particular, stories about goddesses provide examples for the gendered-structured order of society. Human women are subordinate because female goddesses are subordinate to male gods. To the contrary, “[i]n the Bible, ideas about women and gender are conveyed in stories about human women.”45

In the Bible, we see a situation in which women are indeed subordinate to men in the household. In contrast, some men in the Bible have power over some other men and women; women do not have such power. This imbalance of power is not uniquely biblical, but reflects the social structures of the ancient Near East, which was a pre-industrial agricultural society: “The social system reflected in the Bible did not originate in Israel, nor is it substantially different in the Bible than elsewhere in the ancient Near East.” The pre-industrial agricultural society of the Near East was divided along gender lines; the public sphere was the sphere of men; women primarily lived and worked in the domestic sphere. The social distinctions between king and subject, master and slave, male and female, were simply assumed. The laws of the Old Testament attempt to correct abuses of power in these relationships, and they minimize the harshness of division by defining proper boundaries. However, the Bible ( i.e., what Christians call the Old Testament) never challenges this social structure. The prophets are often critical of social injustice, but they do not question the basic social system.46

Despite the recognition of the subordination of women to men in Hebrew society, it is significant that the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament does not portray women as in any way significantly different from men. Women of the Bible are portrayed within the sphere of the home, with family-oriented goals, which is hardly surprising. At the same time, “there is no real ‘woman question’ in the Bible. The biblical image of women is consistently the same as that of men. . . . This biblical idea that the desires and actions of men and women are similar is tantamount to a radically new concept of gender.”47 There are no goals that women have that are distinctively “female” goals. Women are portrayed as capable of exercising rationality, and they provide wise counsel, as do men. There is no inherent conflict between men and women as such in the Old Testament. Women are portrayed as loving and supporting their husbands. The Old Testament recognizes the subordination of women to men, but does not justify it in any way by pointing to female inferiority or duplicity. Neither are women expected to or required to acquiesce in subordination or submission. The Old Testament assumes the social structures that were common in the ancient Near East, but nowhere justifies them or considers them of divine origin.48

Frymer-Kensky finds this “essential sameness” of men and women in the Bible to be a significant contrast to other ancient cultures, both Near Eastern and Hellenistic. In contrast to pagan culture, the Bible nowhere associates inherent natural differences to men and women:

The Bible presents no characteristics of human behavior as “female” or “male,” no division of attributes between the poles of “feminine” and “masculine,” no hint of distinctions of such polarities as male agressivity – female receptivity, male innovation – female conservation, male out-thrusting – female containment . . . of any of the other polarities by which we are accustomed to think of gender distinction. As far as the Bible presents humanity, gender is a matter of biology and social roles, it is not a question of basic nature or identity.49

Frymer-Kensky suggests that this basic sameness was a direct consequence of biblical monotheism: “This view of the essential sameness of men and women is most appropriate to monotheism. There are no goddesses to represent ‘womanhood’ or a female principle in the cosmos; there is no conscious sense that there even exists a ‘feminine.’ Whenever radical monotheism came to biblical Israel, the consideration of one God influenced and underscored the biblical image of women.”50

At the same time, the “Bible’s gender-free concept of humanity contrasted sharply with the Israelite reality,” which was hierarchical, and structured along gender lines. The gender division of ancient Israel (as in other agricultural societies) originated in basic socioeconomic realities. The household was the basic unit of production, and men’s and women’s roles were determined by the biological reality that women bore and nursed children and men did not.51

A similar observation is a central theme in Carrie Miles’ book, The Redemption of Love. Miles’ approach differs from most standard discussions of men’s and women’s roles in the Bible insofar as she addresses the specifically socioeconomic factors that lie behind not only traditional pre-industrial cultures, but also the differences in those factors that have arisen because of the industrial revolution. In traditional agricultural societies, family institutions were based on the need of farmers for labor, a need primarily provided by families with many children. In traditional rural economies before the industrial revolution, most necessities of life were produced at home, and families were largely self-sustaining. Children were a more reliable source of labor than servants because the loyalty of servants is unpredictable. Without a social system to provide for retirement income, children were also a necessary support in parents’ old age. Miles relies on economist Gary S. Becker, who traces the traditional “sexual division of labor” in pre-modern cultures to the basic biological reality that women give birth to children and produce breast milk, and men do not. The need for many children to produce labor, combined with the necessity that women need to be near infants in order to feed them, meant that the kinds of work that women could do was restricted to work that could be done in a domestic setting: spinning, clothing construction, cooking, nursing the sick and the aged, being involved in household businesses. Men’s work was the work that could be done in the absence of children. Accordingly, any work that needed to be done outside the household was necessarily restricted to men – the realms of politics, war, finance. Men were the hunters, farmers, blacksmiths, traders, sailors, soldiers. One could not do these kinds of things with children in tow.52

It is this basic biologically-based division of labor that accounts for the historic subordination of women in traditional cultures. Men’s greater competitive value in the workplace arose from their ability to marry women who could produce children. That women were largely confined to the domestic sphere because of their need to be close to children limited their social effectiveness outside the home. Because of the basic biological limitations created by pregnancy and the dangers of miscarriages, jobs that were heavy, dirty, or dangerous were necessarily done by men.53

Not only children, but servants, are necessary in such a culture. “Many hands make light work,” and many hands were necessary to grow and harvest crops in a pre-industrial world without electricity or machinery, in which power was supplied mostly by the muscles of humans or animals. Accordingly, a power structure arose in which a handful exercised power and authority over the majority. Historically, patriarchy is not the rule of men over women, but the rule of some men over every one else: men, women, and servants or slaves. “In ancient history, there were only a few patriarchs, but a great many slaves . . .”54

Miles notes how closely this division of labor corresponds to the description of the fallen world given in Genesis 3:

What is remarkable about Genesis 3 is how accurately it describes the economic and in turn the social, emotional, and spiritual consequences of living in a world in which the ground is cursed. An economic analysis of the effect of scarcity on male-female behavior predicts exactly the same results as those described in Genesis 3:14-19: masculine drive for power and control, feminine subordination, and a hardening of hearts between them.55

However, apart from the basic biological difference of producing children, and the economic consequences that follow from such a division in a pre-industrial world, there is no inherent difference in the very nature of masculinity or femininity that would demand such a division of labor:

From a theoretical point of view, this historic subordination is natural, because it follows from the one absolute difference between men and women: women’s ability to bear children. But it is not innate, being instead shaped by the material, economic demands of living in an agrarian world of scarce resources.”56

It should not be surprising, then, that as the industrial revolution changed the basic economic realities by which food was produced and which made large numbers of children necessary for survival, there have been corresponding changes in the culture, including the historic gender roles. The first noticeable change took place in the numbers of children families produced. In the United States, and in Western Europe, the number of children produced by the average family has dropped from over seven to less than two. In contrast, in less economically developed countries such as those in rural Africa, large numbers of children are still the norm. Farming, which was once the occupation of most people, is now done by few, and most people now live in towns or cities where they work away from home. Many of the household tasks that used to be the role of women have now been industrialized and taken outside the home: sewing, spinning, food production, medical care. Electricity and household appliances have meant that the traditional tasks of women are less time-consuming. At the same time, as many of the household tasks done by men have been replaced by automation as well, men have been pushed more and more outside the home to find work. Servants are no longer an economic necessity, but are rather a luxury few can afford. (Middle-class households in the nineteenth century consistently used servants. In modern homes, paid help is virtually non-existent, except in the homes of the very wealthy.) The practice of sending older children away from the home for schooling means that it is no longer economically necessary for women to be confined to the home, and as women give birth to fewer children, less of their time is occupied in caring for infants and breast-feeding. Moreover, in modern industrial cultures, children are no longer an economic asset, but rather an economic cost. They are not additional sources of economic labor, but they do need to be fed and clothed until they can reach adult independence. At the same time, as fewer and fewer economic goods are produced in the home, greater financial resources (i.e, money) are needed to purchase the goods that are made outside the home.57

All of this provides both greater economic opportunities, but also greater economic motivation, for both men and women to work outside the home. In addition, the kinds of work that are now available outside the home are largely the kinds of work that both sexes can do. With some exceptions, the work that is available outside the home does not necessarily require greater strength or is more dangerous than work done inside the home. It is not surprising, then, that post-industrial women exercise more economic independence, and no longer find themselves confined to the domestic sphere: “No longer tied to the household, women are less dependent on men and suddenly not so subordinate anymore. Social change has thus made it apparent that there was nothing innate about women’s once limited role in society, church, and family.”58

At the same time, Miles recognizes that social mobility, and more economic freedom for both men and women has been accompanied by some negative consequences. Modern people not only have more social and economic freedom, enjoying the advantages of greater mobility and wealth, freedom from the precariousness of the existence of the traditional pre-industrial farmer, and more social and economic opportunities. The new post-industrial situation has also brought with it larger numbers of single people as marriage is no longer an economic necessity, but is perceived as a mixed blessing. The modern world also experiences higher divorce rates as marriage has fewer economic advantages and becomes tied almost exclusively to the emotional commitment of “being in love.” Sexual liberation has been an almost inevitable consequence of the disconnection between marriage and the economic need for children, as well as the rise of the availability of artificial birth control. When virginity no longer has an economic value, freedom of sexual expression becomes almost a cultural requirement.59

In light of these changes, Miles points out correctly that it is not the “collapse of family values” that has created the new sexual morality with its corresponding chaos. Rather, it is the disappearance of the economic factors that lay behind the social structures of the traditional pre-industrial family that have led to the “collapse of family values.” People in pre-industrial societies were not more “moral” than our contemporaries. The moral institutions of a previous era were only loosely based on “Christian principles.”60

How to respond to the new situation that has resulted from new economic circumstances? Both Frymer-Kensky and Miles point out that the negative reaction of traditionalists is unhelpful. The “conservative” message that marital problems stem from a “breakdown” in traditional gender hierarchy is unhelpful because traditional gender hierarchy was itself based on economic and social structures that no longer exist in the industrialized world, and are more and more ceasing to exist in the “developing” world.61 It is unlikely that even those who are most nostalgic for a time when men exercised authority over women, and women willingly accepted such subordination, would wish to return to the kind of pre-industrial society that produced a necessary subordination of women to men. But regardless of one’s wishes, it is not remotely likely that the social and economic changes that have created modern society with its radical changes in the social demands placed on men and women are going to be reversed.

An alternative response is to endorse the contemporary “liberal” alternative that embraces more and more “freedom” and accommodates to the new social changes. This, however, is simply to capitulate to the new social situation with all of its attending problems, including the breakdown of marriage, high divorce rates, new kinds of inequalities between men and women, sexual promiscuity, and superficial social and sexual relationships. Both Frymer-Kensky and Miles suggest a third alternative that looks back to Genesis: the biblical concept of an equality and companionship of men and women who genuinely need and are partners of one another. Frymer-Kensky writes: “The biblical concept of an essential unity of males and females makes sense in our more egalitarian world . . .”62 Miles points out that the Bible does not use fear to motivate good behavior, but instead appeals to love. The Bible tells us that God has created men and women for one another. The creation accounts of Genesis portray men and women coming together to become “one flesh”: “Ultimately, this positive message of what God intended us to be to each other when he made us both male and female is the only effective weapon we have in the battle to save marriage and the family.”63


In a series of essays concerning the ordination of women, it might seem odd to devote an entire essay to discussing the exegesis of the first three chapters of Genesis. After all, ordination to Christian ministry is mentioned nowhere in the Old Testament, and certainly not in the first chapters of Genesis. However, as noted at the beginning of this discussion, questions concerning the nature of humanity’s place in creation have been crucial for a number of theological issues. Particularly, a crucial question in disagreements about the ordination of women has been whether the historical subordination of women to men is based on some kind of essential ontological difference that is rooted in creation. As I argued in a previous essay, insofar as the question of whether women should be ordained arose at all, it was regularly assumed that women were inherently inferior to men in rationality, emotional stability, and spiritual capacity. Such differences would necessarily be rooted in creation.

In recent decades, all mainstream Christian churches have moved away from this position to affirm the ontological equality of women, and some churches have, accordingly, ceased their historical opposition to women’s ordination. Those that have continued to oppose women’s ordination have embraced new theological rationales against women’s ordination; Roman Catholics no longer speak of subordination, but root opposition to women’s ordination in sacramental theology. In contrast, Evangelical Protestant theological traditions who do not share this sacramental theology have continued to base their opposition on a theology of women’s necessary subordination to men. “Complementarians” no longer speak in terms of inferiority; however, while affirming that men and women are ontologically equal, they nonetheless affirm that different male and female “roles” are rooted in creation. These roles have surprising parallels to the historic male and female roles in pre-industrial agricultural societies. The primary “role” of men is to work in the public sphere; the primary “role” of women is that of the household. Ordained ministry is a type of work that is done in the public sphere, and, accordingly, there is a kind of logical consistency to the complementarian opposition to the ordination of women.

Complementarians insist that the subordination of women is supported by the clear teaching of Scripture, and is based on a “headship” of men over women that is grounded in creation itself. In other words, to address the question raised at the beginning of this essay, even if there had been no sin, it would still have been God’s intention that women would be subordinate to men, and so should not be ordained. To the contrary, I have argued in this essay that the “complementarian” reading is a case of eisegesis, of reading a position into the first chapters of Genesis that is simply not there. Genesis teaches that men and women were equally created in the image of God, were intended by God to be mutual companions to one another, were equally intended by God to exercise stewardship over creation, and to raise and nurture children. There are certainly “role” differences based in basic biology; only men can be fathers; only women can give birth to and provide breast milk for children. And certainly, these biological differences account for some differences in how men and women will be partners and parents even in a post-industrial age.

At the same time, while Genesis 3 recognizes the subordination of women to men, the text presents this not as part of God’s intention for humanity in creation, but as a symptom of the disharmony in human relationships that exists in a sinful world. The rest of the Old Testament certainly acknowledges the subordination of women to men that existed everywhere in pre-industrial rural societies. It does not challenge this arrangement any more than it challenges other aspects of ancient Near Eastern culture; neither, however, does the Old Testament sanction the subordination of women to men or claim that it is part of God’s intention for humanity rooted in creation. The laws of the Old Testament as well as the writings of the prophets take steps to mitigate some of the worst aspects of this inequality, and the prophets in particular speak out against injustice against women, children, the poor, and those on the bottom rungs of a hierarchical society. Significantly, the writers of the Old Testament portray women in the same ways as they portray men, as having the same motivations, and as engaging in the same kinds of actions as men. Aside from their biological role in giving birth to and being mothers of children, the Old Testament does not understand women to be inherently different from men, and so gives no theological basis for a division of “gender roles.”

With the rise of modern technology in the post-industrial world, the social structures that laid the groundwork for the traditional “roles” assumed by men and women in traditional cultures have largely ceased to exist, and more economic mobility has meant, in many ways, more equality between men and women. No longer confined by both biology and economics to the domestic sphere, many women have now taken on “roles” once reserved to men, including the practice of ordained ministry. How should those in the Christian churches respond to this? In light of a more careful reading of the first chapters of Genesis, it is clear that this is entirely in accord with what it means for both men and women to have been created “in the image of God.” God created men and women to be partners with one another, to be stewards together in order to “mirror” God’s sovereignty over the created world. God intended men and women both to be parents and both to nurture children. And, assuming this side of the New Testament, that one of the ways in which human beings can be stewards of God’s creation is to exercise ordained ministry in the Christian church, this would be a way in which both men and women can, together, respond to God’s call on their lives.

1 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.98.2 ad 3.

2 Thomas Aquinas, ST 3.1.3; John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio III, d.7, q.3; III (suppl.), d.19.

3 Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012); Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

4 “Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument ‘From Tradition’ is not the ‘Traditional” Argument’”; http://willgwitt.org/theology/concerning-womens-ordination-the-argument-from-tradition-is-not-the-traditional-argument.

5 Theo M. M. A. C. Bell, “Man is a Microcosmos: Adam and Eve in Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1535-1545),” Concordia Theological Quarterly (April 2005) 69:2, 159-184.

6 John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, vol. 12, Philip Schaff, ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), Homily 26.

7 Richard S. Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothius, eds. (DownersGrove: InterVarsity, 2004), 80.

8 Karl Barth, “Man and Woman,” Church Dogmatics Volume III The Doctrine of Creation Part 4, G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, eds. (London: T & T Clark, 1961), 116-239.

9 “Clearly, ‘male and female’ correspond structurally to ‘the image of God,’ and this formal parallelism indicates a semantic correspondence.” Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 17.

10 Terence E. Freitheim, “The Book of Genesis,” A New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press), vol. 1, 345.

11 “[M]ale and female are not opposite but harmonious sexes. . . . From the beginning, the word humankind is synonymous with the phrase ‘male and female,’ though the components of the phrase are not synonymous with each other.”Trible, 18, 19; Hess, 81; Freitheim, 345.

12 “For Man [i.e, the “human being”] to be created in the likeness of God’s image can only mean that on him, too, personhood is bestowed as the definitive characteristic of his nature. He has a share in the personhood of God; and as a being capable of self-awareness and of self-determination he is open to the divine address and capable of responsible conduct. . . . Because man and woman emerge at the same time from the hand of the Creator, and are created in the same way after God’s image, the difference between the sexes is no longer relevant to their position before God. . . . At the same time the verse does away with any justification for holding the female half of the race in contempt as inferior, or in some way closer to the animals. The relationship between man and woman is placed on the same basis as that between Man and God; their encounter as personal beings leads to a living for each other in responsible co-operation which draws its strength from their common encounter with God.” Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), vol. 2, 126-127; Freitheim, 345-346.

13 Carrie A. Miles, The Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 20; Hess, 80-81; Trible, 19.

14 Hess, 82-83.

15 Hess, 83; Trible, 77.

16 Trible, 80; Miles, 21.

17 “An ‘ezer is someone who is strong enough to render real assistance. And it is this, not as an inferior helper or a junior partner, that God said the solitary earth creature needed. The word, kenegdo . . . means ‘corresponding to him’ or ‘like him – ‘meet’ as in ‘suitable’ or ‘fitting.’ This word emphasizes ‘the common nature and essence of the two beings.’ . . . The earth creature needed a partner, someone that was of the same nature as he, someone who could fully meet the first human’s human need for companionship.” Miles, 23; Hess, 86; Trible, 90.

18 Trible, 97.

19 “This is the purpose of the woman’s ‘help’: to overcome loneliness.” Hess, 84; “According to Yahweh God, what the earth creature needs is a companion, one who is neither subordinate nor superior; one who alleviates isolation through identity.” Trible, 90.

20 Fretheim, 353; Hess, 87; Miles, 26-27.

21 “In the very act of distinguishing female from male, the earth creatures describes her as ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ . . . Accordingly, . . . the man does not depict himself as either prior to or superior to the woman. His sexual identity depends upon her even as hers depends upon them. For both of them sexuality originates in the one flesh of humanity.” Trible, 98-99

22 Hess suggests that “the text nowhere states that the man exercised authority over the animals by naming them. Rather, he classified them . . .” Hess, 88. To the contrary, Trible suggests: “Through the power of naming, the animals are subordinate to the earth creature. They become inferiors, not equals. . . . [T]he repeated emphasis on naming underscores the subordination of the animal world to the earth creature and thus demonstrates the unsuitability of the animals for humanity.” Trible, 92.

23 Trible, 99, 100. It is only in Gen. 3:20, when the man “calls his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living,” an even that takes place after the fall into sin.

24 Miles, 26.

25 Hess, 88; Alan G. Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 98.

26 Hess, 85, 94-95; Miles, 28; Trible, 103-104.

27 “These themes are introduced in order to prepare the reader for what is to come in Genesis 3, where this harmonious unity would know corruption and distortion due to humanity’s sin. A relationship that once was equally shared in a uniquely complementary design would become burdened with a struggle for authority from which the man would emerge the ruler.” Hess, 88.

28 “The result of these judgments is loss of harmony in relationships. The earth does not function in conjunction with the human. . . . The woman and man, as well, now possess a natural inclination to fight one another.” Hess, 93; Trible, 128, 133; An important but subsidiary issue is how to understand the judgment on the woman in relation to childbirth. Several recent commentators suggest that the Hebrew should be translated not as referring to pain in childbirth, but to increased effort in assisting the man in cultivating the land as well as the need to have an increased number of children: “‘I will greatly multiply your efforts and your childbearing’ . . . makes better sense of its syntax.” Hess 91; Freitheim, 363. Trible notes that the naming formula applied to animals is now applied for the first time to the woman: “Now, in effect, the man reduces the woman to the status of an animal by calling her a name.” Trible, 133. This seems to me to be reading a bit much into the text. Others simply note that the name “Eve” is connected to the woman’s function in the same way that the man’s is connected to his. Adam is ha’adam because he is taken from and tills the earth (ha’adamah). Eve (Hebrew havvah) is associated with living, alive (hay). Hess, 91.

29 Hess, 90; Trible, 196.

30 Hess, 92; Miles, 34. Significantly, there were those who resisted the use of anesthesia in childbirth when its possibility was first discovered on the grounds that this was an undermining of the divine command.

31 “In short, both unity and gender diversity are clear themes in the creation accounts. God created the woman and the man to be one in unity and love. There is neither explicit nor implicit mention of any authority or leadership role of the man over the woman, except as the sad result of their sin in the Fall and their ensuing judgments.” Hess, 94-95; Freitheim, 363; Trible, 128; Padgett, 98-99.

32 Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sisters, OR: Multonomah Press, 2004), 30 ff. It issignificant that Phyllis Trible summarizes a similar list of themes in Genesis 1-3 that are decried by feminists in particular as proclaiming male superiority and male inferiority: a male God creates man and then woman; woman comes out of man; man names woman and has power over her; woman tempts man to disobey, etc. Trible comments: “Although such specifics continue to be cited as support for traditional interpretations of male superiority and female inferiority, not one of them is altogether accurate and most of them are simply not present in the story itself.” Trible, 73.

33 Hess, 85-86.

34 Hess, 84.

35 Hess, 90.

36 Grudem, 40.

37 As in the new revised ESV translation, which seems to be influenced by Grudem’s complementarian reading; “Genesis 3:16 and the ESV”; https://claudemariottini.com/2016/10/04/genesis-316-and-the-esv.

38 Tikva Frymer-Kensky. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 5.

39 Frymer-Kensky, 189.

40 Frymer-Kensky, 83.

41 Frymer-Kensky, 5.

42 Frymer-Kensky, 86, 87, 92, 98, 99.

43 Frymer-Kensky, 105

44 “Throughout the Bible, in every aspect of biblical thought, human beings gain in prominence in – and because of – the absence of goddesses. In Israel’s philosophy of culture, humans have a greater role in the development and maintenance of the array of powers, functions, occupations and inventions that constitute civilized life than they ever did in ancient Near Eastern myth.” Frymer-Kensky, 116.

45 Frymer-Kensky, 118.

46 Frymer-Kensky, 120. Old Testament scholar Walther Eichrodt also comments on the way in which Old Testament law concerning women both reflects, but also to some extent modifies a common Near Eastern background. On the one hand, “attention should be drawn to the heightening of the moral sense in that most personal of all the spheres of morality, the relations between the sexes.” On the other, “a good deal of the mentality typical of the ancient world still remains.” Walther Eichdrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 80-82.

47 Frymer-Kensky, 121; “When we survey the biblical record of the goals and strategies of women, a startling fact emerges. There is nothing distinctively ‘female’ about the way that women are portrayed in the Bible, nothing particularly feminine about their goals or their strategies. The goals of women are the same goals held by the biblical male characters and the authors of the stories.” Frymer-Kensky, 140.

48 “The superior positions of husbands was never justified or explained in the Bible (as it was elsewhere) by claims to innate superiority or a ‘natural’ female desire to obey. Male dominance was assumed: it was part of the social order of the world that the Bible did not question. The Bible has a new religious vision, but it is not a radical social document. . . . The Bible mitigates the conditions of slavery, but never considers abolishing the institution of slavery itself. The hierarchical division between men and women was yet another social institution that biblical Israel shared with her neighbors, and did not think to question.” Frymer-Kensky, 128; “The divine declaration to Eve in Genesis 3:16 . . . does not attribute women’s subordination to any innate organic reason, nor does it require that woman act in ways that justify, support, or prolong their subordination. The Bible has no expectation that woman will be passive or submissive, no prescription that they should be so. Officially, authority and wealth resided with the men. Within the confines of this system, however, biblical women formulated their own goals and acted to achieve them.” Frymer-Kensky, 129.

49 Frymer-Kensky, 141.

50 Frymer-Kinsky, 142-143.

51 Frymer-Kensky, 143.

52 “[H]istorical differences in the power and occupation of men and woman . . . are better understood when they are seen to be based on a unique feminine characteristic: woman’s ability to bear children.” Miles, 41; Miles, 36-41.

53 Miles, 43-46.

54 Miles, 46.

55 Miles, 35

56 Miles, 54.

57 See “Love in an Age of Wealth,” Miles, 120-135. Just some of the technological changes that marked the end of the pre-industrial household included the flour mill, piped-in water, efficient stoves, improvements in transportation including the locomotive, the automobile, and the airplane, refrigeration, factory-made cloth and clothing, factory-baked bread, professional medicine and medical care, the use of kerosene, oil and electricity for heating, professional butchers.

58 Miles, 55; Frymer-Kensky also notes the consequences that the industrial revolution have created for traditional gender roles: “The economic and technological revolutions of the past few hundred years have created in the West, the material preconditions for a less gender-ordered universe . . .” Frymer-Kensky, 216.

59 Miles, 121-135.

60 “[Men and women] married, stayed married, and refrained from having sex or children outside of marriage . . . because these virtues were the material requirements of survival under the economic conditions that prevailed then. . . . The sexual revolution, rising rates of divorce, promiscuity, and out-of-wedlock births are the result, not the cause, of the breakdown of the family. Family institutions as we once knew them were based on the economic need of farmers for labor, a need most efficiently met by having many children. . . . As the material incentives and constraints that necessitated bearing children have evaporated, the institutions of family, marriage, and traditional sexual morality have all collapsed.” Miles, 13, 53.

61 Frymer-Kinsky, 216; Miles, 14.

62 Frymer-Kensky, 217.

63 Miles, 209.

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  1. You seem to imply that the only purpose for having children in Ancient Times was their economical values. The purpose of sexuality is procreation. It is at the centre of man/woman relationship and of marriage. The great commandment given in Genesis 1:22 before the fall still remains: “Be fruitful, and multiply.” The distinctive role of men and women in that regard haven’t change. It is obvious that societal changes also modified in some aspects the relationship between men and women, but the sexual differences still remain. We went to an extreme to the other: the oppression of women in Antiquity (in the Greco-Roman world) to abortion being considered freedom for women.

    Comment by David Yvinec — October 23, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

  2. David,

    I think I was fairly clear that one of the creation mandates for human beings was to “be fruitful and multiply,” and I used the word “blessing” in reference to that mandate. In my final paragraph, I state: “God intended men and women both to be parents and both to nurture children.”

    Nor did I say that the only reason that people had children in ancient times was for economic purposes. At the same time, there is a difference between having children because they are a blessing, and having children because they are an economic necessity. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the economics of having children has changed, and women have considerably more freedom than they did when families of ten or more children were common, many children did not live to adulthood, and many women died in childbirth. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

    There is such a thing as the fallacy of the false dichotomy. Again, I was fairly clear that Miles and Frymer-Kensky point to a third option for the relations between men and women that is neither the economic burden of pre-industrial agricultural cultures nor the sexual libertinism and autonomy of contemporary post-modernity. My last paragraph summarizes this nicely, I think.

    Where I clearly differ from a hierarchical reading of Genesis 1-3 is in my understanding that both parenting and creation stewardship are mandates that are given equally to men and women in Gen. 1:28. Both men and women are expected to nurture and care for children, not just women. Both men and women are expected to exercise stewardship over creation through the gifts that God has given them, both in the home and (if it is their calling) in the workplace, not just men. And, if that calling includes ordained ministry, it should not be restricted to males alone.


    Comment by William Witt — October 24, 2013 @ 1:05 am

  3. Finally finished reading this; it was a bit of a project! I must say I giggled audibly when you argued that Grudem was reading against the plain meaning of the text :)

    Comment by Rebecca — October 31, 2013 @ 12:06 am

  4. Giggling is appropriate in some theological discussion. At the least, a quiet chuckle now and then is almost mandatory.

    Comment by William Witt — October 31, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

  5. I greatly appreciate the time and effort you are putting forth in addressing this issue. I look forward to the next installment. I have been sharing with my Bishop, +Neil. I do hope that the participants in the ACNA task force are using your writing as well.

    Comment by Sterling — November 18, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

  6. William Witt,

    Thank you for writing these articles. I too look forward to future installments. I have been raised in the “traditional” evangelical tradition but have a heart for truth. I have been handed a book that promotes WO but is not well written so I had not read beyond the preface. In my research I also obtained a copy of Piper and Grudem’s book and have only read the first chapter. I’ve taken note of some of the writers you’ve cited but was wondering if you had a short list of good reads on the subject or is the absence of cogent defense the reason you are writing on the topic?

    Thank you and God bless.

    Comment by Michael Sei Davis — April 22, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

  7. Michael,

    Thanks for asking.

    Here are a handful of “go to” texts:

    Paul K. Jewett, The Ordination of Women, Eerdmans, 1980.

    Carrie Miles, The Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World. Baker, 2006.

    Alan G. Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission. Baker, 2011.

    Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothius, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. InterVarsity, 2004.

    There has been a lot written on this subject, of varying quality, but much of it is scattered in various places: commentaries, books or articles touching on specific subjects, e.g., Paul’s writings; books and articles reflecting one (“Protestant” or “Catholic”) perspective. However, to the best of my knowledge, there not a single text that brings everything together to form a single coherent argument. The closest to accomplishing that task would be the Jewett and Pierce books. The Jewett book is old, and was written before a lot of the more recent biblical exegesis. Most of the books tend to be written from a predominantly Evangelical perspective, e.g., the Discovering Biblical Equality text, which is a series of essays by Evangelical authors. Almost nothing has been written to address the Catholic arguments against women’s ordination.

    My hope is to rectify some of those weaknesses: to write a coherent series of essays that addresses the objections raised against women’s ordination by both Protestants and Catholics. I have been aware that much work has been done in this area, but I have been surprised to discover how little most non-scholars know about the work that has been done. After waiting for someone else to do this work, I finally decided that perhaps it was something that I needed to do. There is perhaps something odd about a male lay person writing a series of essays arguing in favor of women’s ordination, but “someone’s gotta do it.”

    Grace and Peace,
    Bill Witt

    Comment by William Witt — April 25, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

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