Genesis and Gender. On the Over-reading of a Biblical Text

The creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 are the subject of intense discussion regarding gender. Where Genesis 1 demonstrates the commonality between men and women – both are created in God’s image –  Genesis 2 is commonly thought to emphasise the differences, or complementarity, between men and women: the man is created from the dust of the earth where the woman is created from the side of the man; the man is created first and the woman second; the man names the woman and the woman is named by the man; the man is tasked with working the Garden and the woman with being his “helper”; and the woman is created as one “like, opposite” the man, emphasising similarity with difference. ‘Complementarians’ take some or all of these distinctions to infer a created order in which the man is designated as leader and the woman as supporter.

I believe this is an extraordinarily misguided reading of the text that over-reads incidental dimensions and fails to see the significance of the story.

When reading stories the meaning is derived from the unfolding of the plot. The plot revolves around a problem that requires solving and the story unfolds through unsatisfactory attempts at resolution that increase the tension, until a resolution is finally found. Genesis 2 fits this framework neatly. The Garden is planted, but there is no-one to work it (plot tension), a problem that is resolved by the formation of the man and his placement in the Garden. This in turn creates a new plot tension – “It is not good for the man to be alone”. As a solitary being the man is unable to fulfil the task of tilling and keeping the garden. He needs a ezer kenegedo. The term ezer is usually translated “helper”. The term itself can be used of God coming to our aid, so should not be read as implying subordination of the helper to the helped. Rather the point is that alone the man is unable to complete the task he is given, which is to work and till the garden. He needs someone to help him. What sort of helper does he need? One that is kenegedo, which appears to mean something along the lines “like but opposite to him.” Does it mean “similar but different”, “similar and one who will work across from him”, “like him in every way – as though mirroring him” or something else? Only the story will fill out the meaning.

God creates animals and brings them to the man to see if any will be suitable as a helper like but opposite to him. None are (attempted but unsuccessful resolutions of plot tension). So God sets to work and creates another human being from the side of the man.  And with her creation the plot tension is resolved. Here at last is one who, unlike the animals, is just like the man, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. Far from emphasising the difference between the man and the woman the story highlights the likeness. It is because she is like him that she is a suitable helper.

The story thus emphasises that men and women are unable to fulfil their human calling in isolation, and find in each other a creature just like them and whose very similarity enables them to enjoy a deep fellowship.

Readings that focus on the use of the word kenegedo to highlight the ways men and women are different completely miss the point of the story. They over-read the significance of a single word and miss the way the plot define the meaning. The same is true of attempts to find significance in the order of their creation or Adam’s naming of Eve. The plot simply doesn’t go there. They are no more significant to the plot than the number of rivers flowing through the garden or the colour of the trees.

Why then, 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 does Paul see significance in the order in which the man and woman were created? I am not sure he does. While this is not the place to explore those passages I think Paul’s thought is not that the order of creation is significant per se but to draw attention to the fact that men and women were created to be mutually interdependent and supportive of one another. If the women in Corinth and Ephesus were caught up in behaviour that was dishonouring to their husbands (it’s an educated guess because no-one really knows for certain) the sense is something along the lines of, “Women, just remember that you were not created in isolation. The first man was created before the first woman, and she was created to work alongside him not apart from him.” This would see Paul using the creation story in a way that fits with the plotline of Genesis 2.

Rather than using a highly contestable reading of Paul to overinterpret the creation story, does it not make sense to read the creation narratives for what they are? Men and women may well be different in many ways, but that is not the point of the Garden story.


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