The gendered differentiation in the fulfilment of the divine commission is hardly surprising, especially when we consider the tasks that lie at the heart of mankind’s vocation. Although both sexes participate in both tasks, “exercising dominion” and “being fruitful” are not tasks that equally play to male and female capabilities, but rather are tasks where sexual differentiation is usually particularly pronounced.
The Scriptures address the topic of the sexes on many occasions, but we discover its foundational treatment within the opening chapters of Genesis. This fact is itself an initial indication of just how closely entwined this subject is with the scriptural narrative more generally, and how important a theme it must be for any theology that faithfully arises from it. Therefore, the more closely we attend to Genesis 1–2, the more apparent it will be that gendered themes are subtly diffused throughout.
The Creation of Mankind in Genesis 1
Mankind’s creation is described in Genesis 1:26–31. From this account we notice a number of important points.
First, man has both singularity and plurality: man is first spoken of as a singular entity (“him”), then later as the plurality of male and female (“them”). Humanity has a number of aspects to it: humanity is akind, a race, and a multitude. As a kind, humanity is a unique species that finds its source and pattern in the original human being created in the image of God. Humanity is a race on account of its possession of generative potential as male and female and its spread and relationship to its origins through such unions. Humanity is a multitude as it realizes this potential and fills the earth.
Second, sexual difference is the one difference within humanity that is prominent in the creation narrative. Rather significantly, Genesis does not gesture toward the generic plurality of humanity. Instead, humanity’s maleness and femaleness renders us a race and establishes the primary bonds of our natural relations and the source of our given identities. We’ve been empowered as male and female to bring forth new images of God and of ourselves (cf. Genesis 5:3) and are ordered toward each other in a much deeper way than just as individual members of a “host.”
Third, there’s widespread agreement among biblical scholars that the concept of the image of God in Genesis refers to a royal office or vocation that humanity enjoys within the world, as the administrator and symbol of God’s rule. The image of God is primarily focused upon thedominion dimension of mankind’s vocation. However, the filling dimension of mankind’s vocation—to which the maleness and femaleness of humanity chiefly corresponds—is not unconnected to this, as in the third part of the parallelism “male and female” is paralleled with the “image of God” in the first two parts.
Thus, by the end of Genesis 1, there are already a number of key terms, patterns, and distinctions in play. In subsequent chapters, these are given clearer shape as they’re unpacked and developed.
Genesis 2: Differentiation in Humanity’s Creation and Vocation
Whereas Genesis 1 focuses upon the creation, commissioning, and blessing of mankind in general and undifferentiated fashion, Genesis 2 offers a more specific and differentiated view of what it means to male and female. It’s important to read Genesis 1 and 2 in close correspondence with each other for precisely this reason.
This gendered differentiation in the fulfilment of the divine commission is hardly surprising, especially when we consider the tasks that lie at the heart of mankind’s vocation. Although both sexes participate in both tasks, “exercising dominion” and “being fruitful” are not tasks that equally play to male and female capabilities, but rather are tasks where sexual differentiation is usually particularly pronounced.
In the task of exercising dominion and subduing creation, the man is advantaged by reason of the male sex’s typically greater physical strength, resilience, and willingness to expose itself to risk. He’s also advantaged on account of the greater social strength of bands of men. In the task of being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the creation, however, the most important capabilities belong to women. It’s women who bear children, who play the primary role in nurturing them, and who play the chief role in establishing the communion that lies at the heart of human society. These are differences seen across human cultures.
As G.K. Beale has argued, the Garden of Eden is a divine sanctuary and there are many clues within Genesis 2 to this fact. In verse 15, the man is placed in the Garden to cultivate and guard it, the same words that are repeatedly used to refer to the Israelites who are set apart to serve God and keep his word, or the priests who keep the service or charge of the tabernacle. God walks about in the midst of the Garden. The Garden is the site of holy food, some of which is forbidden. The man is also given a law concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which he must uphold.
One might surmise a gendered differentiation in relation to the human vocation in Genesis 1. But by Genesis 2, and certainly by the Fall of Genesis 3—in which Adam and Eve overturn God’s intended order—such a gendered differentiation becomes more explicit, not least in the fact that the priestly task chiefly falls to the man, rather than his wife.
There are a series of sharp and important contrasts between the man and his companion, the woman, in Genesis 2:
First, and perhaps most obvious, the man is created before the woman (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:7–9 and 1 Timothy 2:13).
Second, the man alone can stand for humanity as a whole. In Genesis 2, the creation of mankind isn’t the creation of an undifferentiated population of people, but the creation of an adam from the adamah (earth), followed by the later creation of a woman from the adam’s side. It’s in this particular being that the human race finds its unity. This is a point borne out in the rest of Scripture: Adam is the representative head of the old humanity. This humanity is Adamic humanity, not Adamic–Evean humanity. Mankind is particularly summed up in the man.
Third, the image of God is especially focused upon the adam. He’s the figure who peculiarly represents and symbolizes God’s dominion in the world. The adam is placed within the Garden as the light within its firmament (the lights on day four are established as rulers) and charged with upholding the divisions that God had established, performing the royal function associated with the divine imaging. Like God, in his great dominion and subduing acts of the first three days of creation, the man names and orders the creatures.
Fourth, the adam is created to be a tiller and guardian of the earth, while the woman is created to be the helper of the adam, to address the multifaceted problem of his aloneness. The sort of help that the woman is expected to provide has been a matter of considerable debate. However, it isn’t hard to discover the core of the answer. If it were for the naming of the animals, the task is already completed. If it were purely for the labor of tilling of the earth, a male helper would almost certainly be preferable. While men can undoubtedly find the companionship of women very pleasant and vice versa, beyond the first flush of young love it’s in the companionship of members of their own sex that many men and women choose to spend the majority of their time. The primary help that the woman was to provide was to assist the adam in the task of filling the earth through child-bearing, a fact that is underlined in the later judgment upon the woman. The problem of man’s aloneness is not a psychological problem of loneliness, but the fact that, without assistance, humanity’s purpose cannot be achieved.