In our Canadian society there may be a tendency to read the Bible’s account of the creation of humanity and find it sexist. Adam was created first and then Eve from which we might get the impression that women are secondary. If you believe that arriving later makes you secondary or worth less, then you must not have been one of the millions of people who pre-ordered or stood in line for the new iPhone 5 this past week. Often what comes next is far better than what came before. As for me, I’ll likely wait for the iPhone 9 before upgrading. But with regards to the Biblical account of creation and sexism, there is a way to look at this passage that might well surprise us, or rather bring back the original surprise.
That most cultures in ancient times (and unfortunately today too) have been sexist, there is little doubt nor any surprise. I remember well my first paper in Classical History class which was to be about the first democracy, Athens. I argued that it was hardly a democracy considering the majority of residents, women and slaves, didn’t get to vote. When we remember this tendency towards sexism in the ancient world we get a different perspective on Genesis 2. We tend to look at Bible passages from our own perspective, with our own knowledge, coming out of our own culture. It is helpful if we can get closer to the perspective of the people to whom the revelation was first given. If we assume that the book of Genesis came to be in the time of Moses, or we very safely assume it came to be anytime during the Old Testament period, we remember that the Israelites would be under the influence of the very patriarchal societies they were immersed in and surrounded by. The Israelites themselves had become a very patriarchal society. Women didn’t matter much, or as much.
Enter a revelation that at the beginning “God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27 NLT) The very first mention of humanity contains a very striking message in a patriarchal society: “You don’t have a monopoly on God’s image, lads.” And notice in the next chapter the emphasis on how the first woman is not like the animals, but is like the man:
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.” So the LORD God formed from the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and the man chose a name for each one. He gave names to all the livestock, all the birds of the sky, and all the wild animals. But still there was no helper just right for him.
So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. While the man slept, the LORD God took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the opening. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib, and he brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:18-22 NLT)
The message to a highly patriarchal society is clear; respect women as fully human. Oh, and women are your partners in fulfilling the command to reign over the earth and it’s creatures, they are not among the creatures to be ruled over (see 1:28-31). This is made even more clear by Adam’s response:
“At last!” the man exclaimed.
“This one is bone from my bone,
and flesh from my flesh!
She will be called ‘woman,’
because she was taken from ‘man.’” (Genesis 2:23 NLT)
From our perspective this may seem sexist and I’ve heard complaints of these verses being about men taking over the privilege of the first birth. But to a culture steeped in patriarchal attitudes this would come across not as a statement of man’s privilege, but woman’s equality: “bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh,” i.e. the same. This is surprising actually. We might expect a patriarchal society creating a god in its own image to say something different, or indeed to not make much of a fuss about women at all. Interestingly, the societies surrounding Israel don’t have as strong a focus on the creation of women in the their accounts of creation. In Genesis we do not have a society creating a god in its own image, we have God teaching Israel to think and be different.
This passage gives us what we might call a “theological seed”, that is, an important truth that is dropped into a time and place which will challenge the people of that time and place and point forward to a much better time and place. In this case, the Genesis passage is pulling a patriarchal society away from its misconceptions of women as inferior, and is pointing toward a society where women are known as equals and treated as equals. We see great progress in that direction in the New Testament: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 NLT) And we have seen progress since, though sometimes we have regretfully regressed.
Now you might be thinking “what are we to be thinking about the fact Eve is created to be a ‘helper’? Does this not prove that Eve just exists for Adam’s sake in a subservient role?” First, the Hebrew word for helper is often used of God helping humanity. Second, let us keep in mind that Adam was created for a purpose and with work to do. We should not jump to the conclusion that Eve is helping Adam with whatever he wants. She works alongside Adam for a higher purpose. Eve does not exist to help Adam with his agenda, rather she is helping with God’s agenda. This is subtle but significant. I daily thank my Lord for a loving wife who works alongside me as we seek to fulfill God’s God’s agenda . . . and who often helps me see the folly of my own!
So is the Bible sexist in the creation account? Quite the opposite, the Biblical account points the way toward a much better sense of equality, planting a seed that would bear much fruit. I hope that you and I have journeyed down that important path and are bearing fruit yet.