Gender, Marriage, and Human Relationships in the Creation Account

1. Context of Genesis 2:20b-25 within Genesis 1-3

Genesis 2:20b-25 is a monumentally important and foundational text at the beginning of the creation narrative.  It explores a plethora of different issues and this paper will attempt to analyze and examine a few of them.  Ranging from the nature of gender roles to the institution of marriage, the issues are wide-ranging and immediately important for the world today.

In order to more fully understand the complexities and nuances found within Genesis 2:20b-25, it is necessary to examine the context to discern the correct meaning of the particular text.  Overall, Genesis 1-3 is a composition of the creation narrative.  Genesis 1 details a cosmic view of God’s work in building the universe.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,”[1] (Genesis 1:1) serves as one of the broadest thesis statements in history.  It fantastically sets up what occurs throughout the next three chapters.  Six active days of creation in Gen. 1 culminates with God’s declaration that everything he made “was very good” (Gen. 1:31).  Chapter two, specifically beginning in verse 5, then zooms in on the creation story.  Whereas chapter 1 might be said to be the cosmic account, chapter 2 is very much its counterpart on the micro level.  God forms man from the dust (Gen. 2:7) and then commissions him to work and keep the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15).

It would be cogent to group Genesis 2:20b-25 together with vv. 18-19 because this grouping constitutes an entire paragraph in the English Standard Version.   That being said, the immediately preceding context now becomes Gen. 2:15-17 where God commands the man not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Then comes the specific passage for study, God’s creation of the female and, by implication, the ideal relationship between humans.  Genesis 3 recounts the fall.  The serpent tempts both the man and the woman to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and both the man and the woman eat of the tree.  After having their eyes opened, they hide from God.  Genesis 3 then ends with God’s curse upon the serpent, the man, and the woman and the subsequent ejection from the garden.

Hamilton, commenting on other Ancient Near Eastern sources, states, “None of Israel’s neighbors had a tradition involving a separate account of the creation of the female.”[2]  This might shed some light on how ancient Israelites would have viewed women.  Because of the uniqueness of the biblical story, Israelites would have had a view starkly different than the view of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures.  Hamilton writes of several different teachings from later Jewish traditions,[3] each differing in some way from the biblical version of the creation narrative.  An Israelite audience would have viewed the woman as complementary to the male, a view that is “unique in ancient Near Eastern texts.”[4]

2.  The Meaning of Genesis 2:20b-25

An adequate summary of the main point for this text is provided by Ross:  “God has prepared human beings, male and female, with the spiritual capacity and communal assistance to serve him and to keep his commands so that they may live and enjoy the bounty of his creation.”[5]  This seems to be a fitting description of the theme due to its all-encompassing relevance to the context in which it sits.  “God has prepared” harkens back to the creation narrative throughout the opening two chapters of the Bible; “human beings, male and female” are the crown jewel of God’s creation, created in the very “likeness” of God (Gen. 1:26).  Having established an overall theme for the passage, an analysis of some of the main issues addressed therein can take place.  This particular text brings up a wealth of theological issues that have significant bearing today.  Two of these issues will be explored here at length: 1. The respective male and female gender roles; 2. The nature of marriage.

3.  Gender Roles, Value, and the Nature of Marriage

One of the main issues that this text addresses early on is the nature of male and female gender roles.  A close examination of the text can give detailed insight into how God has designed the relationship to function under ideal circumstances.  Because the fall has not yet occurred, it can be assumed that these are the model conditions for the perfection of the relationship to be on display.  During this time sin had yet to enter into the world, and humankind walked in perfect fellowship with God.  It can be concluded then, that the account described in Genesis 2:20b-25 is the superlative example of human relationships.

What then of gender roles?  In Genesis 2:18, God declares, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”  This is an incredible announcement from God, who has declared everything as good up to this point (cf. Gen. 1:4; 1:10; 1:12; 1:18; 1:21; 1:25; 1:31).  Hamilton comments, “Everything thus far in Genesis that has been scrutinized by God has been given a positive assessment.  Every situation has come through as either good or very good.  For the first time we encounter something that is not good: man’s lack of a corresponding companion.”[6]  God, after noting the deficiency inside his creation, decides to rectify the situation by making “him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18).  It is noteworthy that man does not claim to have a problem or to be lonely in this scenario; it is God who proclaims that there is something missing, and it is God who acts to remedy the situation.  Suffice it to say that man on his own cannot fulfill all that God has tasked him with fulfilling.  He needs a “helper” in order to accomplish this.

Upon first reading, especially in modern Western culture, it seems that the word “helper” might denote a lesser role for the female.  However, there are a few reasons that this certainly cannot be the case.  First, calling the female a “helper” implies an inability on the part of the male to carry out the will of God completely.  If he needs a “helper” to help him accomplish his task, that logically implies that he is not strong enough to finish it all on his own.  Therefore, this “helper” need not be seen as inferior to the male; both male and female are meant to work together to fulfill the whole will of God.  Secondly, the Hebrew word translated “helper” cannot mean that the female “has only an associate or subordinate status”[7] because “most frequently this same word describes Yahweh’s relationship to Israel.”[8]  If God himself is referred to as the “helper” of Israel, at least in some regards, then it is logical and necessary to conclude that the word “helper” cannot mean a subordinate value or role for the female.  By definition, God could never be subordinate to anything or anyone, so a “helper” in this context cannot mean that the female is of lesser value than the male.

Genesis 2:19-20 recount God bringing animals to the man to “see what he would call them.”  It is interesting to note that after he had given all the animals names, “there was not found a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:20).  None of the animals that God had brought to Adam could adequately complement him; the fullness of what God had tasked the man with, namely “to work…and keep” the garden of Eden, could not be accomplished by Adam alone or together with any of the animals (Gen. 2:15).  So God puts the man to sleep, forms the “helper” out of his side, and then brings her to him.  “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man,” exclaims the man when he first lays eyes on the woman (Gen. 2:23).  “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” certainly indicates that the woman is of the same essence as the man, logically implying that they constitute the same value before God.  The female, even though she was formed after the man, does not have a lesser value than that of the man.  Ross explains, “The point of this jubilant cry is that the creation of humankind has reached its goal in the complementary partnership of man and woman.”[9]  Therefore, man and woman have an equal value before God though they each have unique roles to accomplish his purposes.  The male is to work and keep the garden, and the female is to supply everything he lacks in order for them to mutually fulfill the will of God in doing this.

The second major issue this text touches is that of marriage.  Verse 24 begins, “Therefore….”  This word is significant because it shows that an already-established truth, namely that both male and female are of equal value before God, is used to establish a further, more particular truth.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh,” concludes verse 24.  So because man and woman are of equal value before God, the man will leave his family and unite with his wife, the two becoming one flesh.  There is no room for ambiguity here: that the text shows marriage is  of a man and wife cannot be undervalued.  There is no evidence that it could ever be man and man or woman and woman.  The text certainly and clearly teaches that man and wife unite.  One implication from the established truth above, equal value for both male and female yet different roles for each to fill, might be that man and wife have different roles within the context of marriage.  Another implication is that marriage is meant to last for an entire lifetime, e.g., “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).  While these are just implications and not necessarily absolute truths, the rest of the Old Testament does shed further light in confirming that these implications are, in fact, true.

4.  Additional Old Testament Teachings

That marriage is to be a covenant between one man and one woman for one lifetime, as laid out in the foundational creation account in Genesis 2:20b-25, is abundantly clear throughout the Old Testament.  At the end of Genesis 2, the man and the wife are “both naked and…not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25).  This intimacy provides the reader with a nice backdrop of the covenantal relationship between the man and his wife.  That they are to have mutual and exclusive sexual relations is implied by this last verse.  Therefore, when Exodus 20:14 commands God’s people not to commit adultery it refers to any sort of sexual relations outside of marriage.  It is clear from the creation account that man and wife join together as one flesh, so adultery seemingly undermines this reality.  God has designed his creation to operate in a particular fashion, and his command to his people can be seen as loving guidance into the original intent behind marriage.

Several other passages speak of a covenantal relationship between the man and the wife.  In passing, 2 Samuel 11 and 12 recount David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent rebuke from Nathan.  God was not pleased with David’s transgressing his original design for marriage, so he sent Nathan to proclaim his displeasure.  Then Ezekiel 16:8-14 tells of God’s entry “into a covenant” with Israel followed by all of the blessings that go with that.  God declares to his people that he has entered into covenant with them, a symbol that is taken from the creation account.  The text outlines everything God has done for them in the covenant, but then it takes a turn in verse 15 when God says, “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his.”  This language is striking; God is condemning his people for breaking their covenant with him, a principle that surely began at creation and carries on into the world today.  Malachi rounds out the Old Testament teaching on the subject in chapter 2 when he says the Lord will no longer accept sacrifices from Israel because they had been faithless to the covenant of the wife of their youth.  God is so thoroughly displeased with Israel for abandoning the covenant they made that he will no longer accept what he has commanded them to do!  This reality shows the great importance of marriage to God.

Interestingly, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 outlines the “acceptable” method of divorce should it be necessary.  God has designed marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman, but the fall of man into sin destroyed the ideal conditions in which God originally ordained marriage.  No longer are man and woman naked and unashamed as they were before the fall; strife and hardship now permeate human relationships (cf. Gen. 3:16-18).  This by no means makes divorce acceptable or permissible, however, so the institution remains the same, regardless of how flawed the relationship may be.

5.  The Nature of Gender Roles Throughout the Old Testament

In the beginning, God created male and female with equal value yet distinct roles before him.  This has been shown in Genesis 2:20b-25 as well as the other texts noted above.  The female is to function as the “helper” of the male, not as a subordinate or in any way inferior to him.  He is to work and keep the creation of God and she is to supply all that he lacks.  It is of utmost importance to note that the marriage relationship is covenantal, between one man and one woman for one lifetime (i.e., “become one flesh” in Gen. 2:24).  Male and female are to unite in this covenant as one flesh, as God has designed at the very beginning of creation.  The entrance of sin into the world has not changed what God has designed here.  This text quite clearly lays out the nature of gender roles and the nature of marriage in human relationships.  God has designed all of humankind to operate in complementary roles to accomplish his will in the world.

[1] All Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[2] Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 177.

[3] Ibid., 178.

[4] Allen Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 127.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hamilton, Genesis, p 175.

[7] Hamilton, 176.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ross, Creation and Blessing, p 127.

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