Egalitarianism in Genesis 1-3

Recently, I’ve written several posts that either directly or semi-directly (they’re not indirect) argue for what others would likely call egalitarianism. I sometimes adopt that label. Today I will, but I usually appreciate a little more nuance than what can come from 1 of 2 options, as would most thoughtful complimentarians.

Anyhow, I first wrote It’s Not Good For Man To Be Single?. It’s a long word-vomit kind of post with the original intention of showing how “alone” in Genesis 2:18 does not mean single. However, that conversation took me into all sorts of different areas regarding egalitarianism.

I then wrote Desire, Influence, and Gender Power – A Look at Genesis 3:16. This was originally thought to be a word study of the word for “desire” in Genesis 3:16, teshuqah, because I think it’s really interesting. Of course, as you might guess from the eventual title of it, this post also took me in all sorts of directions regarding egalitarianism, as the interpretation of Genesis 3:16 is one of the load-bearing factors determining whether one is going to have more of a complimentarian or egalitarian bend.

Heading for the New Testament, I then wrote An Ethical Prescription View of Ephesians 5:22-33 where I argue how we ought to interpret and apply Paul’s power relations in the marital gender roles conversation. After that, I wrote A Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the most important section when it comes to the church gender roles debate.

Since originally writing this post, I’ve also added The Gender(s?) of Elders and Deacons, a post reflecting on the passages that appear to assume elders and deacons can only be men, The Misuse of Galatians 3:28, a passage that I think many egalitarians – and others – misinterpret, and The Weaker Vessel?, a look at what Peter was really advocating for in 1 Peter 3:7.

I also wrote several posts on Biblical interpretation in general that indirectly show egalitarian interpretations are, at least in principle, not an aberration from typical interpretive techniques. An egalitarian position does not contradict the “faith, once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)

In my posts on 1 Timothy and Ephesians, I often referenced the egalitarianism found in Genesis as a reason to prefer my view and I then linked my two Genesis posts above. However, those two posts, though still making those points, were not originally designed for how I was linking them. This post is meant to be a thorough exposition that more explicitly argues for egalitarianism in Genesis 1-3. I will then edit some of my posts to link here where it is more appropriate. Some content I will repeat, some will be new, some will be expanded, and sometimes I may just refer back to my other two posts. So here it goes!

Defining Terms

First, by egalitarianism, I mean the view that there is not a universal, inherent, or transcultural gendered power dynamic within marriage/family, formal church leadership, or liturgical leadership. Fleshing that out, it may be the case that gendered power dynamics, whether patriarchal or matriarchal, are appropriate within a given context, but my version of egalitarianism would say that it would be unjust – that is to say, not right relationship – to say there are universal, inherent, or transcultural gendered power dynamics. I don’t believe universal, inherent, or transcultural power dynamics in general provide sufficient conditions such that those dynamics are unjust, but I believe this is the case for gendered power dynamics. Furthermore, this view does not eliminate the possibility of gender roles, per se. However, typically the idea of gender roles is used in such a way as to assume gendered power dynamics. I would deny such roles exist universally, inherently, or transculturally. But, there may still be universal, inherent, or transcultural gender roles that exist without gendered power dynamics.

By complimentarianism, I simply mean the view that there are universal, inherent, or transcultural gendered power dynamics in a particular sphere, for whatever purpose or reason. The spheres that this takes place in varies across proponents of complimentarianism, and the best views, obviously, root it all in love, like the love that God the Father has for God the Son. This seems to me how the term is widely used, even though its basic meaning is simply that men and women are different and compliment each other; a hardly debatable position. For my goal of laying out an egalitarian position, this provides sufficient clarification for today.

Just now I made a comment that for something to be unjust, it is to be in a state of not right relationship. This is worth fleshing out, as well. One of my favourite scholars, Dr. Tim Mackie, provides some helpful definitions regarding justice in this lecture. Mishpat is the Hebrew word that is most often translated as justice, and it means the actions that we take to create a state of tsedeqah. Tsedeqah is often translated as “righteousness”, popularly thought to be referring to good morals, but that is only partially true. It is best captured by the idea of “right relationship”. For something to be unjust, it is simply to say it is not proper relations. If you flesh that out and research the Biblical concepts of justice and righteousness, you’ll find that they hold the concerns of secular models of justice without falling to their deficiencies. As Dr. Tim Keller says in his essay Justice in the Bible, “Only Biblical justice is comprehensive enough to address the needs of the human condition.”

Why Care?

It is important to first realize how important our interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is in this conversation (and, actually, several others). We can do this by looking at Jesus in Matthew 19:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9

There’s a few really important observations from this story. First, Jesus references Genesis 1 and 2 as his ideal. It is there that we find how Jesus thinks men and women (and everything) ought to interact in relation to one another. Second, Jesus noted that, even in the Law, there were things that were put in place because of hardness of heart. In other words, there were things in God’s word that were only there because of the reality that the world is full of sin. God’s word is to real people, after all. In this particular instance, divorce certificates were allowed to be issued because men, due to evil, were going to be murdering to get out of their marriage or casting out their wives regardless – a death sentence in that time/place – and so a certificate would prevent murder as well as allow the women to be able to regain much of the social protections afforded them in that culture via re-marriage. But the ideal was never that men divorce their wives. When the ideal hits the reality of brokenness, things need to be put in place that may not reflect God’s ideal. God does harm reduction.

From Matthew 19, I contend that if we can establish that Genesis 1-3 is egalitarian, then that is God’s foundational design and ideal. All instances of complimentarianism would therefore be, on the negative side, simply negative examples or harm reducing concessions due to hardness of heart. On the positive side, they could be appropriate contextualizations. Whichever it would be, however, it would not be God’s transcultural design. To a suggestion of complimentarianism as a universal design, then, we might say that “from the beginning it was not so.”

That said, it is extremely important that we understand Genesis 1 and 2, as well as what’s become known as “the fall” in Genesis 3, as doing so affects our lenses for interpreting the rest of the Bible (see the links in the intro for my takes). As in most things, you will likely not find any one point I make to be overwhelmingly persuasive. But, taken together, I think they make a pretty compelling cumulative case for my form of egalitarianism.

The Image of God

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Genesis 1:26-28 (NIV)

What is the image of God? This is a bigger factor in our conversation than you might realize. What is it?

Later Christian reflections on the image of God have mused that it’s rationality, or consciousness, or compassion, or intrinsic moral worth, or something of that sort. The problem is that those things don’t actually distinguish humanity from every other bit of creation. Some of those put us in an incredibly small subset of creation, but we are not alone. We have evidence that apes, elephants, crows, and dolphins, for example, carry all of those to some degree, and we are really missing the boat if we believe only humans have intrinsic moral worth, even though we ought to consider humans to be of more worth than other parts of creation (Luke 12:22-34).

There is a 100% chance the image of God has multiple meanings depending on how you’re looking at it. Though the Bible has many sub-genres that need to be read differently, its overall genre is Jewish Meditation Literature. You’re supposed to look at it over and over again. This is even more pronounced in Genesis 1-11 as humanity’s foundation story, what some scholars call the first half of the Bible. Because of that, in one sense, the image of God probably does mean those later reflections, at least in some way. It’s used to justify why you shouldn’t murder in Genesis 9, for example.

Nonetheless, I think these later Christian reflections miss something, and Dr. Tim Mackie thinks so, too. In this lecture, he suggests that older reflections have done a better job.

First, we need to look at the word for “image”, tselem. This is the same word that is sometimes translated “idol”. One of the ten commandments is not to make an idol of God! Why? Because you’re probably going to have supper with one. Idols were physical embodiments of the god in question, and God already made an idol of himself, humanity, both as a collective unit and each individual. To make another part of creation be an idol for God not only misses on who God is, but dehumanizes yourself, putting yourself under something you yourself are supposed to be. By the way, humans being physical embodiments implies that humans are organic unities, as Scot McKnight puts in his book Fasting, which has major implications on all sorts of really interesting conversations, beyond just roles and fasting.

Anyhow, a more accurate understanding of the image of God, as Dr. Mackie notes in the lecture already linked, was done by earlier thinkers simply by reading the text in context. Notice the image of God is connected to ruling.

The NIV, which I used above, does a better job here than the ESV. The ESV renders vs. 26, “…in our likeness. And let them rule…”. They separate out the thoughts, whereas the NIV puts them together, “…in our likeness, so that they may rule…” Both are possible in the Hebrew. But to translate is to interpret, and the NIV interprets better, I think. The NIV catches the chiastic structure (an A-B-A’ pattern) that centres the image of God poem around ruling. A chiasm is a common Hebrew structural device, like having a thesis sentence in English literature, designed to draw the readers attention to the centre and interpret everything in light of that key point. In other words, it’s pretty clear that the image of God is deeply connected to humanity’s role to rule over creation.

This is further verified because we know that the image of God was a phrase used by kings in the ancient near east to describe themselves. God has made the radical claim, then and now, that all of humanity is royal. The image of God is the royal task of ruling the earth as God’s physical representatives. That might make you nervous, because us humans kind of suck at our job. But, we are supposed to rule and subdue like God does, creating goodness and order and beauty, subduing chaos, so that all things can flourish. The image of what this looks like in Genesis 2 is gardening. The image of gardening as the ideal of rulership and subduing is something you should deeply ponder. Make a cup of tea, go for walk, and do that.

The image of God is something related to our inherent ontology, in some way, endowing all of humanity with equal value. But, it is also a task and authority that we live into. That’s the foundation for why Jesus was described as the true image of God (ex. 2 Cor. 4:4), the new Adam (adam in Hebrew means “human”) (ex. 1 Cor 15), and the Son of Man, which just means “a human” (ex. Dan. 7, pretty much every time Jesus refers to himself). He was the only one who really lived the human role perfectly. He was the human we all ought to be but fail to be.

How does that relate to the complimentarian/egalitarian debates? Both men and women are put on equal footing as both holding the royal role God has given us. Genesis 1, in other words, paints man and woman as having identical authority and identical roles. There is no hint of complimentarianism in Genesis 1.

Furthermore, I believe it shows that complimentarians have a greater burden of proof. They have to establish a reason for hierarchy, whereas equality is the default. I believe that can be done fairly easily with children, supervisors, or any other of the many hierarchical situations we put ourselves in, but I believe they will be hard pressed to find an inherent gender based authority difference in Genesis 1-3, as we’ll see.

In sum, the image of God presents males and females as not only having the same inherent value, but having the same inherent authority.

The Human and Their Ezer Kenegdo

Though I’m far from an expert, I’ve been able to take a few Hebrew classes. We’ve already done a bit, but from here on out, we’re going to be looking at a lot of Hebrew. Hold on to your hats.

15 The Lord God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the human, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Genesis 2:15-18 (NIV), with “man” changed to “human”

In the reference above, I changed the NIV’s “man” into the word “human”. The term, adam, means human, male or female. In Genesis 1:26 and 27 above, for example, the NIV translates adam as “mankind”. In a bygone era, “man” could refer to all of humanity. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the case in English anymore, so I have made the change. It’s not that big of a deal for what I’m going to say below, I don’t think, but I do think it’s helpful, particularly for differentiating when the Hebrew is using the term for a male human (ish, pron. “eesh”) and the general term for humanity. I also think we ought to translate the term human for adam even when it’s used as a proper name (i.e. call Adam “Human”), but that is perhaps a thought for another day.

Let me say more about adam being simply humanity or a human. The first time the word occurs in the Bible, it is Genesis 1:26 without the definite article, implying a general species term. Then the next time, one verse later, it has the definite article, referring to both males and females, so any one adam can be either male or female. After this, we see the Biblical authors use it in Genesis 2 within a wordplay, with adam being created from the adamah, meaning dirt or soil (that’s a really interesting thing to ponder I think, besides just the organic unity bit). In short, we have two primary meanings from adam in the first usages of the Bible. It’s a species term and it describes our makeup/origins. It’s not a gendered term. After God takes the side of the first human to form a second human, the two humans are referred to as ish (man) and ishah (woman). From that point forward, adam is used interchangeably with ish, taking on a male gendered nuance, while also being used as a general term for humanity.

I also want to note that adam is grammatically masculine and it doesn’t have a feminine form. Fun fact: if it did, it would be adamah. But that word is taken already, as we’ve already seen. With adam having no feminine form, Hebrew makes it so you have to use masculine pronouns. We come across this in French and other gendered languages quite often. Masculine words need masculine conjugations. The Hebrew authors simply didn’t have a choice other than using the masculine pronouns. (Interestingly, NIV translated the second line of the Genesis 1:27 poem as “them” when it was the masculine singular pronoun, usually “him”, or “it” if it’s not a living thing. In that instance, “them” is either a collective singular, or a gender neutral singular. Their translation of Genesis 1:27 has a singular “them” in the second line and a plural “them” in the third line. I think they were right to do this.)

All that to say, the human is referred to as a “him” in the passage above, but we actually don’t know that in the story; at least not yet. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to translate it that way because we do later figure out that Human is male later on. Some people interpret Human as being literally genderless prior to the creation of the woman. That might be the case, but I lean against it. Regardless, the meaning is the same. When we translate Human into being male, we get an instance of the old adage “lost in translation.” Human, at least prior to being split into male and female, isn’t meant to represent males. He may be male here, but Human represents humanity, which is part of why I think we ought to call him Human. This is how Paul uses him most often (ex. Rom. 5, 1 Cor. 15, and, actually, 1 Tim. 2). This is also confirmed in Genesis 3:1-3, where the woman says the command given to the human, before she was even around, was given to her.

Let me say it again, it’s very important to recognize that Human represents humans, not males. This is important, on one hand, because it undercuts the idea that men are the “firstborn” over women. The idea that we are even to think that the male came first at all, as already noted, is debatable. It is also debatable, if that were the case, that it would matter, since the adam was taken from the adamah. No one argues that God has placed the dirt over humans, even though it would be the same argument as claiming headship because the woman is taken from the man (on that reading). There is nothing in Genesis 1-2 that suggests the order of creation implies hierarchy (especially since the order of creation differs in Genesis 1 and 2).

But there’s more. Human representing humanity becomes clearer as we move on in the story to look at what the NIV renders “helper suitable for him.”

The word for “helper” is ezer. If you search for every instance of that word in the Bible, you’ll find that Genesis 2 is the only time the word is used, as you’d soon find out, to be describing a female human, as well as the only time it’s used remotely close to a marital context. Furthermore, the vast majority of the time, the term is used to describe God, mostly in military contexts. “Deliverer” is probably a more helpful translation. You shouldn’t think of helping with the dishes with this term. This is someone coming with a reinforcing army, delivering those they help from the clutches of death. In many of my circles, we’ve chosen to talk about an ezer as a “strong rescuer”. That captures the oomf of the word better, I think.

This makes sense in the Genesis 2:18 usage, too. The context of God saying that the human needs a helper is right after giving him instructions that, if disobeyed, will result in death. We need help because we are prone to taking from the tree of knowing good and bad. We are prone to choosing to claim ourselves the true authorities on good and bad; the ones who really know. We are prone to choosing the way of death and destruction. So, we need a strong rescue to save us from death.

The strong rescuer that the human needs is one that is “suitable for him,” as the NIV puts it. The ESV renders it “fit for him”. The NLT renders it “just right for him”. The NRSV renders it “as his partner”. In Hebrew, it’s the word kenegdo. As you can imagine from the variances above, it’s a rather tricky phrase to translate.

Hebrew works by having a root word made up of consonants, which is then modified with vowel patterns, prefixes, and suffixes to fill in the rest of the details. In this case, we have the root word neged, which means “before” in the sense of “in front of”. For example, if someone is standing before me, they are standing neged me. It then has the kaf preposition on the front. This preposition means “like” or “as”, and is written just by adding the letter kaf to the front of the word. Finally, it has the “o” ending, which is our third person masculine singular pronoun we’ve already talked about: “him” or “it” or a singular “them”. A woodenly literal translation of kenegdo could be “like before him” or “as in front of him”, or something of that nature.

Why do these different translations render it as they do, then? They do so because the image that kenegdo should bring to mind is that of a mirror. The human needs a strong rescuer that is like himself, staring him right back in the face. Because of this, the NIV, ESV, NLT, and NRSV mentioned above all give fine translations that are probably as good as we’re going to get, though the idea of the helper being “for him” has implied unhelpful things in English.

Ok, pause. What am I doing with all this? Why am I going to such great pains to show you that ezer kenegdo means “strong rescuer as a mirror image of him”? I’ve been building towards two thoughts:

(1) ezer has nothing to do with women’s roles in marriage or otherwise. In this particular story, God forms an ezer for Human that happens to be a woman, but ezer simply does not define women’s roles. It’s about saving each other from death. It is never again used to specifically refer to women and never again used in a marriage context (if you want to argue that Genesis 2 is primarily a marital context, which I don’t think it is; the animal parade was not to double check that bestiality wasn’t a good option, and the New Creation will be good, despite everyone being single (Mk. 12:25)). Moreover, in the rare occasions after this that ezer is not referring to God, it never has any hierarchical connotations. Furthermore, given that in almost every usage of the term it’s used of God, if we insist that this does define a hierarchical relationship between men and women, it would imply matriarchy. Women would be strong rescue from the top down, like God is. But I don’t think it does imply matriarchy, which is partly why I explained adam, though grammatically masculine, is not an inherently gendered term. Humans need other humans to be strong rescues from our continual choosing of death and destruction. It’s not good for us to be by ourselves. That’s the point.

(2) kenegdo is an inherently egalitarian image. It presents the ezer as one that is the same as the human, his mirror image, not above or below him, but standing equal, right in front of him. Humans need other humans.

Human’s Rib?

So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

Genesis 2:21-23 (NIV)

Genesis 1 shows that God gives both men and women the divine task and authority of being His image on earth. So far in Genesis 2, we’ve seen that Humans need each other to be ezer kenegdo‘s for one another. God presents the Human with the animals, but none of them are ezer kenegdos. So God puts the human in a special sleep and removes from him one of his tsela‘s.

We’re going to continue to nerd out on some Hebrew. tsela is the Hebrew word that is often translated as rib. This is widely known to be a mistranslation, sprung from an unhelpful-in-this-instance interpretive tradition. The word just means “side”, like one side of a building. When we take a look at other instances of this word, we find that it’s a word that’s most often connected to construction, like buildings or things like the ark of the covenant. The next time we see this word come up after Genesis 2, it’s in Exodus 25. And it is used several times from then onward in Exodus as part of the instructions for setting up the ark and tabernacle. In those instances, and most of the one’s after that too, it’s referring to a side, like a half. For example:

And he cast for it [the ark] four rings of gold for its four feet, two rings on its one side and two rings on its other side.

Exodus 37:3

In the second episode of the Bible Project’s podcast series on the Family of God, Dr. Tim Mackie says what God is doing in Genesis is taking one half of the human and making another one.

Man and woman are cut from the same cloth; two halves of the same coin. This is truly kenegdo. Everyone agrees that this is presenting a “same, but different” picture of man and woman. But I find that complimentarians seem to assume one of the differences is our inherent leadership roles. That continues to be absent from the text, and this image of being each other’s “half” resonates much better with egalitarianism. We are so alike that could be considered to have the same skin.

The “Curses” and the Naming of Eve

To the woman he [God] said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 (NIV)

After the creation of the woman, life is pretty good. But not for long. Human and the woman sin, and brokenness enters the world. God curses the serpent, and promises him that a seed of the woman will crush it’s head, though the seed will be bitten in the process.

God then pronounces the consequences on the Human and the woman. Notice that they’re not actually called curses. The serpent is cursed and the ground is cursed, but the Human and the woman are not. What God is doing here is presenting the consequences: suffering. Much has been written about suffering for many thousands of years. One thing that comes up in these writings is how suffering acts like a bitter medicine – like chemotherapy – that reveals our brokenness and draws us back to God. This is, of course, not a complete theodicy. Nonetheless, it’s been a consistent facet of any good theodicy. James says to consider suffering “pure joy” (James 1:2-4). So, God is allowing suffering to take place. But he is not condoning it as something worth striving for. We still choose to give pain killers to women in labour, and we create efficient systems to reduce hard work.

And it is within this set of pronouncements we find “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” I unpack this verse thoroughly in my previous post on Genesis 3:16. Let me summarize what I have there.

teshuqah is the Hebrew word for desire here. This type of desire carries connotations around influence. This influence has neither an inherently positive nor negative connotation. I argue it ought to be considered positive here. It is the positive desire for influence that people in close relationships, such as spouses, wish to have over one another, which was taking place prior to the fall (The ESV translation update to make it “your desire will be contrary to your husband” is incorrect I think, see here, here, here). However, this positive desire for influence is contrasted with the reality of suffering that God is saying is going to take place, “and he will rule over you.”

Like the pain in childbirth, this is presented as a description of the post-eden world, not a prescription for how we ought to behave. Suffering, as a whole, could be considered a part of God’s prescription for humanity, but it should never be a prescription in the sense that we should strive to make it happen. Not only is men’s rulership in spite of women’s desire for influence not part of God’s ideal, it is explicitly a consequence of the fall.

What’s the very first thing that happens after this? Human names the woman Eve (which means “Life”). It had to be specified in Genesis 2:19 that what the human called the animals was their names, implying that what something is called is not necessarily their name. The human calls the woman “woman” in Genesis 2, but only names her after the fall. This is significant.

In the ancient near east, naming shows power over something. The human naming the animals was an act of ruling. It was the Genesis 2 way of showing us that humanity is made in the image of God. But right after the fall, Human does exactly what God just said he’d do and treats his wife like an animal – or, in perhaps a less pejorative sense, at least miscategorizes her within creation – as if she’s someone the images of God are to rule, not an image of God herself.

Not only is there an absence of complimentarianism in Genesis 1-3, men ruling over women in spite of their desire for influence is an explicit consequence of the fall. It should not be something we set as an ideal.


Let me present some potential objections.

The best counterpoint to my points in the Image of God section that I can think up is that children are also the image of God, yet they are put into a submissive role to their parents inherently, meaning the image of God does not necessarily imply that there are not different, inherently acquired hierarchical roles. Good point, Self. Nonetheless, the categories that Genesis 1 is working with are male and female, not parents and children, and it remains that males and females are still presented as having the same authority. In other words, it shows that, minimally and all else being equal, gender is not a factor that can be used to establish any inherent role. This might not be a conclusive point, as I said in the intro, but it is important for interpreting later parts of Genesis and also joins together, like a suit of chainmail, with the other points I made. Moreover, as I said earlier, the image of God establishes a greater burden of proof on the complimentarian when they bring their positive arguments to the table.

Another proposal from complimentarians may be to suggest that the different consequences that God presents to the man and woman in Genesis 3 implies there are inherent gender roles. Prior to many modern social structures and technology, like baby formula, much of the traditional gender roles were actually necessary for survival. Being pregnant or breast feeding really did prevent women from being more “provider-types”. Men, being physically stronger and lacking the ability to nurse a child, did need to be out working hard to provide. I think this does explain some of the differences in the pronouncements. Should we keep those gender roles now that we have modern social structures and technology? I don’t know. But that’s beside the point. For there to be complimentarianism, we can’t just establish that there are different roles. You can have different roles that have no differing authority, like sweeping vs mopping for example. What the complimentarian needs to establish is that there were differing roles in relation to leadership. This is simply absent from the text.

A third objection may be to look at the Trinity, which has roles that involve power dynamics. These roles are obviously loving and good, as well as just, which is to say, they are right relationship. Furthermore, many theologians believe we “enact” the Trinity in our relationships with others, so gendered power dynamics are a way of enacting the Trinity. However, I find the most compelling accounts of the Trinity have their roles freely entered. This is a break in the comparison with gender. Furthermore, even if their roles are not freely entered, this does nothing to show that there are universal, inherent, and transcultural gendered power dynamics in Genesis 1-3, and therefore at all. Given that the roles of the Trinity were freely entered, we enact the roles of the Trinity on a regular basis when we lovingly care for those under our authority and submit to those in leadership. Even in an egalitarian marriage, a couple is almost constantly entering into times of leadership and submission with one another (something like a “honey-do list” is a minor example), so we enact the Trinity in this way. Given that the roles of the Trinity were freely entered, this is, in fact, a more accurate enactment of the Trinity than a complimentarian view, if we can truly make a comparison between human relationships and the inner life of the Trinity. I see no reason that gendered power dynamics are necessary for all this.

Likely the most important objection to address would be regarding Genesis 3:16. This very important phrase is extremely similar to Genesis 4:7

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Genesis 4:6-7

That last line is quite reminiscent, isn’t it? It’s almost exactly the same as Genesis 3:16. The argument goes that “desire” and “ruling” here are clearly negative and positive, respectively. We therefore should interpret the woman’s desire for her husband as negative, and the man’s ruling over her as positive, since the wording is pretty much identical.

Genesis is Jewish Meditation Literature. It is meant to be read circularly, meaning we’re supposed to read it over and over and over again, allowing stories to be like commentaries on one another. Genesis 4:7, therefore, is clearly designed for us to go back to Genesis 3:16 and ponder it for a bit.

Let’s break it down. Clearly the woman in Genesis 3:16 is compared to sin in Genesis 4:7. Clearly Cain is compared to Human in their rulership. That’s the comparisons being made. How are they alike?

One conclusion we could draw from that is a complimentarian view. Woman’s desire for influence in this case is evil like sin’s desire for influence. It is wrong in the sense that her desire here would be interpreted as manipulative and selfish in some way. In response, men need to rule women and sin in a similar way. As noted in my original post on Genesis 3:16 (and also these articles here, here, and here), the woman having a desire for her husband was a reality before the fall, and there’s absolutely nothing within Genesis 3:16 or its context, in my opinion, to suggest a negative view, but it is a possibility.

However, a complimentarian connection is not the only possible one we can make. Given that everything outside of Genesis 4:7 suggests the woman’s influential desire for her husband is positive, as well as everything else in Genesis 1-3 being egalitarian, it seems to me the most reasonable position for the relationship between Genesis 4:7 and Genesis 3:16 would be an egalitarian one. Given context, we should only prefer a complimentarian one if an egalitarian one is not possible.

First off, I am in agreement that Genesis 4:7 helps us clarify that there is now animosity between the man and the woman. I’m pretty sure everyone agrees on that. Complimentarians put the root of the animosity on the woman, and see the rulership as positive. It’s possible to hold a position that sees both the woman’s desire and the man’s rulership as negative, but then the justification for complimentarianism evaporates, so I won’t address that here. What’s the root of the animosity?

I think we can see how we ought to interpret this by another design pattern, the animal design pattern. The images of God are supposed to rule over the animals. The woman is compared to animals by Human naming her. Sin is also presented as a beastly animal, crouching, ready to pounce. In other words, this is another form of commentary showing how women are going to be either treated like animals or put into the animal category. Furthermore, in Genesis 4:7, God is talking to Cain, but in 3:16 he’s talking to the woman. This may seem like a minor point, but it’s not; it completely changes the purpose of God’s words. He’s telling Cain to rule in one passage, and warning the woman of being ruled, like the animals, in the other.

Here’s the point of the comparison: men are going to treat women like they ought to treat sin. Read that again. This is scary, but also an observational reality of our world. By ruling over women in spite of women’s desire, men fail to rule sin. This is awful, but also shows the brilliance of the Biblical authors connecting these design patterns. Because this interpretation is more in line with everything else, it should be our preferred interpretation of the connection between Genesis 3:16 and 4:7.

The idea that God is warning women that they will be treated like animals in a pejorative sense is hard to deny from human history and the present, but it would be wrong of me to accuse every complimentarian as treating women like animals in a pejorative sense. That’s obviously not true. Complimentarians say the authority of the man in whatever sphere we’re talking about, be it marriage or in the church or whatever, is to be sacrificial and loving, for the good of the other. The authority ought to mimic Christ’s, the foot washer. Remember also that the first image of rulership is that of gardening, which maximizes goodness and flourishing. What I’m saying – and what I think the Bible is saying through Genesis 1-3 – is that men having a universal, inherent, and transcultural authority over women is de facto placing women into the realm of animals and other parts of creation, no matter how loving and servant-hearted that authority may be lived out.

Humanity is to rule over creation as I stated in the Image of God section, and that is a good thing. I’m sure you love animals and don’t mistreat them. Sometimes, humans treat animals better than they treat humans. We all know there are fantastic and loving animal-human relations that are great, and to accuse every pet owner of mistreating their pet would be horrific!

But women are not animals! They are not in the realm of animals and other parts of creation. This is not right relationship. That is to say, it is unjust. It’s not just humans having authority over other humans that is unjust – that happens all the time on a daily basis, even when you obey traffic lights, for example – but to categorically place women as under the authority of men in whatever sphere we’re talking about in a universal, inherent, and transcultural way is to place them in the realm of the rest of creation. It is a miscategorization, and therefore it is not right relationship. The mere fact of the miscategorization, even in an otherwise perfectly loving relationship, is a problem. That is also a part of the animal design pattern, I believe.


As I’ve usually tried to say in these sorts of things before, I don’t believe power dynamics are inherently bad. The Bible is clear that power is not evil, but calls those in power to be as servants. We enter into leadership and power dynamics all time. I have a supervisor at work, for example (she’s awesome). Furthermore, Jesus submitted to the Father. Children are to submit to parents. Humans are to have character-of-God-style rule over the rest of creation. There’s all sorts of scenarios where power dynamics are good and useful, and it seems to me that it can even be appropriate, given contextual considerations, to enter into patriarchal or matriarchal dynamics (which is why I don’t completely like the label “egalitarian”).

That said, it seems to me that an inherent gender based power dynamic is an unjust power dynamic because it categorically places women into a category of creation they are not; and in the history of the world, it is hard to deny that has largely been assumed and abused by men.

I take this more-nuanced-egalatarian view because Genesis 1-3 presents an ideal of men and women having equal value, dignity, and power, and only differing roles that are either biologically necessary or, perhaps, convenient due to biology. Men and women are the same, but different. But there is no difference in inherent leadership roles or authority. In fact, men taking the rulership over women is explicitly stated as a part of our world’s suffering. Why does Paul seemingly perpetuate this in Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, and in his qualifications for elders and deacons? Check out those posts, and my other ones. But for now I’ll just say, “From the beginning, it was not so.”

Keep pondering,


8 thoughts on “Egalitarianism in Genesis 1-3

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