Does Genesis 1:26-27 Teach That There Was No Hierarchy in the Garden?

This past week I listened to a sermon by Bruxy Cavey from the Meeting House that was first in a series of messages meant to challenge the idea that God has given men the responsibility to take up the position of primary leadership both in the church and in the home (i.e. complementarianism).  In addition to introducing the overall series, this message was also meant to offer a positive case for an egalitarian understanding of scripture. 

In this post (and there may be more!) I want to focus on one of the main points that was used to argue that the overall teaching of scripture points towards egalitarianism, namely, that Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that God’s original design for creation did not involve any role differentiation between males and females in terms of leadership.  As Bruxy says, in Genesis 1:26-27 “there is no hint of gender differentiation when it comes to issues of authority and leadership”.

While this was certainly a very short part of his message, the point he was making here is a very common argument used to support an egalitarian understanding of the overall teaching of scripture.  John G. Stackhouse Jr., for example, says:

“Many scriptural clues, therefore, indicate that egalitarians are right: God originally intended women and men to be co-equal partners in stewarding the earth, without role differentiation, and he has never rescinded that mandate.”[1]

Once again this is a reference to Genesis 1:26-27.  According to Stackhouse, Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that God’s original design for creation did not involve any role differentiation in terms of leadership.  In this post I want to argue that regardless of what position one takes on complementarianism or egalitarianism, Genesis 1:26-27 cannot be used to make the point that Bruxy and others want to make from this passage.

Response

There are basically two main points I want to make in response to this:

(1) The first main point I want to make is this: Bruxy is actually right when he says that there is “no hint of gender differentiation when it comes to issues of authority and leadership” in Genesis 1:26-27.  Genesis 1:26-27 simply says (translation mine):

“And God said, ‘Let us make human beings [אָדָם, ādām] in our image, according to our likeness.  And let them rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the domesticated animals, the wild animals, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created human beings in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”

Note that the word אָדָם (ādām) in verse 26 does not mean “a man” or “a male” and is not used as a proper noun (i.e. Adam): it simply means “human beings” or “humanity”.  This can be seen, among other things, by the fact that the verb “to rule” in verse 26 is in the third person plural (i.e. “let them rule”), which clearly points back to the word אָדָם (ādām) as the implied subject.  Verse 26 clearly teaches that human beings in general, both male and female, have equally been given the responsibility to rule over the animals God had created.  Like Bruxy points out, Genesis 1:26-27 makes no distinction between males and females in terms of leadership roles.  So far so good.

2. The second main point I want to make is this: Genesis 1:26-27 simply does not comment one way or the other about the roles that males and females are supposed to play with respect to each other in terms of leadership.  In other words, Genesis 1:26-27 can’t be used by either egalitarians or complementarians to support their positions because this simply isn’t the topic of Genesis 1:26-27. 

The main point of Genesis 1:26-27 is to differentiate human beings from their fellow creatures.  Unlike the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the domesticated animals, the wild animals, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth (notice the broad categories that are used here), human beings as a whole were created in the image of God.[2]  And because human beings were created in the image of God, God gave them the responsibility to rule over their fellow creatures.

But the emphasis in Genesis 1:26-27, as well as the parallel command in Genesis 1:28, is not on the fact that males and females have the responsibility to rule over their fellow creatures, though this is clearly a valid inference based on the fact that both males and females are created in the image of God and are included in the category of “humanity”.  The emphasis in Genesis 1:26 is clearly on humanity’s responsibility to rule over their fellow creatures: the fact that humanity consists of both male and female is clearly incidental to the main thrust of verse 26. 

This can be seen, among other things, by the fact that the categories of male and female are only mentioned after the initial statement about humanity’s responsibility to rule over their fellow creatures in verse 26.  In fact, the categories of male and female are mentioned in a completely different sentence in Hebrew and are not even the main thrust of verse 27 where they appear.  If the author wanted to emphasize the categories of male and female in verse 26, as opposed to the category of humanity in general, you would think that the categories of male and female would have been specifically mentioned in verse 26.  Again, this doesn’t mean that the categories of male and female aren’t implied in verse 26 or verse 28 – but it is clearly not the author’s emphasis. 

Now, of course, this leads to the question: why is the author’s emphasis so important?  The reason why the author’s emphasis is so important is because it shows that his main concern in this passage is not the relationship between males and females in terms of leadership: his main emphasis is on the relationship between human beings and their fellow creatures in terms of leadership.  The author actually doesn’t say anything at all about the inner workings of humanity’s leadership over its fellow creatures.  He doesn’t say anything at all about whether or not there is any hierarchy within that leadership (e.g. a General Staff might be in charge of an army but the generals still have different ranks and play different roles – bad illustration for people from the Meeting House, I know).  And he doesn’t say anything at all about differentiation of roles in other spheres of life (e.g. the responsibilities of fathers and mothers in raising children is clearly not covered under the command in verse 26).  Why is that the case?  Because Genesis 1:26-27 was never meant to address these issues.

Let me give one quick example to illustrate my point.  It could just as easily be said that there is no hint in Genesis 1:26-27 that there should be any role differentiation between children and parents when it comes to leadership and authority.  Parents and children are clearly included in the category of “humanity” and, therefore, both have the responsibility of having dominion over their fellow creatures.  While it is true that this passage doesn’t even hint at any differentiation in roles between parents and children, this doesn’t mean that the author believed that there shouldn’t be any differentiation in roles between parents and children.  This is simply not the topic of Genesis 1:26-27: Genesis 1:26-27 was meant to deal with humanity’s relationship with its fellow creatures, not the roles parents are supposed to play with respect to their children. 

While it is possible that the author of Genesis 1:26-27 may have had an egalitarian view of the relationship between males and females in terms of leadership (which, by the way, doesn’t seem very historically plausible given the patriarchal culture that the author of these verses came from – regardless of how one dates the book of Genesis), there would be no way to know whether or not he actually held this position if Genesis 1:26-27 were the only piece of evidence we had to go by.  Genesis 1:26-27 is about humanity’s relationship with its fellow creatures, not the inner workings of the relationship between males and females in terms of leadership.   

Conclusion

It should be clear that Bruxy, as well as others who make this same argument, has read way too much into the meaning of Genesis 1:26-27.  Genesis 1:26-27 simply does not say anything about the roles that males and females are supposed to have with respect to each other in terms of leadership: it was written to show that human beings, were created in the image of God and it was written to indicate that humanity as a whole is supposed to rule over their fellow creatures.  Again, the author of Genesis 1:26-27 may have had an egalitarian view of the relationship between males and females (which, again, seems historically implausible) or he may have had more of a complementarian view of the relationship between males and females (which seems far more likely).  But the reality is that Genesis 1:26-27, by itself, doesn’t actually tell us anything about the author’s views on this issue one way or the other.

Mark Steven Francois (Ph.D., The University of St. Michael’s College)


[1] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender, Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 36.

[2] I have an article in the Gospel Witness about what it means for human beings to be created in the image of God coming out soon.  Once it is out, I will post a link to it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s