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The place of woman in God's creation - subordinate, equal or superior?

Some traditional interpretations of the Genesis Chapter Two creation story of man and woman emphasize Eve's secondary status in relation to Adam. But are these the only possible interpretations or indeed the only traditional interpretations? Rabbi Chai Levy pointed out that some medieval Jewish commentaries and midrash have feminist implications. On the other hand, some of the reasoning applied by commentators less favorable to women is at best flawed. We will examinine some common arguments for the subordinate status of women as allegedly implied by Scripture:

Does creation order indicate primacy?

After all, haven't we all heard that Adam, being created before Eve, necessarily has headship over her? But if we read the Genesis creation story of the world, the order of creation is as follows:

Day 1: Light

Day 2: Heaven

Day 3: Earth and Sea, Vegetation

Day 4: Sun and Moon and Stars

Day 5: Marine life and Avian life

Day 6: Land animals, lastly humans

Day 7: Rest

The order of creation progresses from inanimate matter to vegetative life to animal life. Yet despite their precedence in the creation story, vegetation and animals are not considered by those same interpreters as being superior to humans. If we insist that Adam had dominance over Eve because he came earlier in the creation order, we will have to accept the idea that plants have dominance over animals and animals in turn have supremacy over humans simply because of creation order. But the Bible states the opposite - man or humanity (some translators say 'humanity' is a more appropriate translation for the Hebrew word adam in some parts of Genesis than 'man') is given dominance over the rest of creation, despite the fact humanity was created last.

I am NOT necessarily saying that the Genesis story does not support the story of male supremacy (nor am I saying that it necessarily does). All I am saying is that precedence in creation is not necessarily the best 'tool' ( or even a good 'tool) for establishing the primacy of man over woman or the primacy of plants over humans, whatever the case may be.

Some of the same Bible commentators who believe man should rule over woman because he was created first take the exact opposite reasoning when they say man or humanity, being created last, is the most sophisticated of creation, and thus have dominance over prior creations. Following this chain of logic, the woman has to be considered the most sophisticated creation since she was created last, certainly more advanced than the man just as the man is more advanced than the animals that were created before him, and she will have lordship over man just as humans have lordship over animals. I am not claiming that that humanity is not the pinnacle of the Genesis creation story or that women are divinely ordained to dominate men. My point is that order of creation does not determine humanity's 'dominance' over the rest of the natural world any more or less than it determines woman's 'dominance' over man. There is a view that the woman might indeed be the leader of the duo, at least before the Fall, but more on that later.

Some of the Jewish rabbis quoted in the Genesis Rabbah, a commentary on Genesis dated to the 6th century, do not believe that man and woman were created at separate times. If this is the case, then we do not even need to be concerned about creation order at all. The rabbis point to the Genesis 1 creation account: "Male and female [God] created them" (Genesis 1:27), which seems to imply that man and woman came into existence at the same time. Early Jewish scholars have long grappled with the issue of how Genesis 1 seems to contradict Genesis 2, which clearly indicates a creation for woman separate in time from the creation of man.

Some have explained this by means of the Lilith myth. According to Jewish myth, Lilith was Adam's first wife, created as his equal in Genesis 1. Lilith refused to submit to Adam and left him. So God created another woman, Eve, for Adam in Genesis 2. The earliest known record of the Lilith story in Jewish legend is found in The Alphabet of Ben Sira, which was written during the 8th and 11th centuries, but the origin of the Lilith figure goes back far earlier to ancient Sumerian mythology in which she appears as a demon.1 At any rate, Rabbis Yirmeyah ben El'azar and Shmuel bar Nachman in Genesis Rabbah use an interpretation perhaps less radical than the Lilith myth to resolve the apparent contradiction between Genesis 1 and 2. The following is an excerpt from Genesis Rabbah 8:

Rabbi Yirmeyah ben El'azar said: When the Holy One, blessed be he, created the first humanity (adam), he created it an androgynous, for it is said, "Male and female created he them and called their name 'humanity' (adam)".

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman [agreed and] said: The Blessed Holiness created the first human being double-faced [with two fronts of the body], and then sawed them apart and made backs for them, a back for one and a back for the other.

In the rabbis' view, 'adam', the generic human, was created in Genesis 1 and only split into 'man' and 'woman' in Genesis 2. So in fact, 'man' and 'woman' as complementary opposites came into existence at the same time. Rashi, the famed 11th century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, also takes this view.2

Does the fact that woman was created from man indicate a subordinate status?

Not if we remember that man and the animals were created out of the earth, but yet not considered subordinate to the earth. If we consider humans to be 'higher' than the dust because humans were derived fom dust, then we will have to consider woman higher than man because she was derived from man.

Genesis 2:7

"And God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."

Genesis 2:21

"And the LORD God caused a sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof. And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman ..."

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, an Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and a United Presbyterian minister, commented on the Genesis account: "The source of the rib from the man does not indicate inherent subordination of woman to man in creation, any more than the source of the dust from the ground indicates that the man is inherently subordinate to the ground in the created order."3

Rabbi Shmuel in Genesis Rabbah has an even more 'egalitarian' interpretation of the Genesis 2 story of the creation of woman from 'man'/'human' (varies between translations). Rabbi Shmuel claims that the woman was created out of one side of adam, not his/its rib:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: The Blessed Holiness created the first human being double-faced [with two fronts of the body], and then sawed them apart and made backs for them, a back for one and a back for the other.

Other scholars objected: It is written "[God] took one of his ribs" (Genesis 1:21)! [The word understood as "rib" is tsela- see Hebrew text below]

[Rabbi Shmuel] answered: It means "one of the two sides [of the double being]". As Scripture says, "For the tsela of the Sanctuary..." - where the translation of tsela is "side".

So the Biblical narrative leaves room for the possibility that Adam, the first human with both male and female aspects, was differentiated into female Eve leaving male Adam. This suggests that both male and female aspects of 'adam' (variously translated as 'man'/'human') were created when "God said, Let us create 'adam' in our image... male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:26-27). This takes away from the argument made by some that man was created in God's image and then woman was created in man's image. This also implies that the image of God contains both both 'male' and 'female' aspects, contradicting beliefs in a 'masculine' God (which probably stems from us humans projecting our finite, limited image onto God, and by the way, some say that creating an image of God based on the image of a creature is idolatry).

Eve's role as Adam's helper and her role in the Fall

Genesis 2:18: "And the LORD God said, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a help suitable for him."

This verse has often been quoted to remind women of their status as man's sidekick, like a magician's assistant or a Batman and Robin partnership. Actually the Hebrew word "ezer" (helper) used in Genesis does not necessarily carry the connotation of secondary importance or inferiority as the English word "helper". In fact, the same word is used to describe God as the helper of Israel. In the Bible, kings come to 'help' other kings, and nations come to 'help' other nations. A helper is not necessarily less powerful or less capable than the person s/he is helping.

The serpent's choice to approach Eve, not Adam, with the suggestion of eating from the forbidden tree has been attributed by some commentators to the 'fact' that women are mentally weaker and more gullible. If this is the case, Adam does not demonstrate great intellect or will either when he goes along with Eve's decision unquestioningly.4 Others take the more neutral stance of stating that while Adam had heard God's injunction directly, the woman had not heard it firsthand. The forbidden nature of the tree did not resonate as strongly with her. Thus the serpent saw her as the more logical choice. Yet another interpretation is that the serpent recognized Eve as the one in charge - if Eve takes the lead, Adam will follow.5

It is worth noting that Eve was not explicitly subjugated to Adam until Genesis 3:16, that is, after the Fall, when God tells her, "Your husband will rule over you." This implies that before the Fall, Adam did not rule over Eve. If he did, God would have no need to pronounce this shift in Eve's relationship to Adam because there will be no change at all. Is this loss of leadership or loss of equality a punishment for Eve's disobedience to God's command? If gender inequality is indeed a punishment, does it apply only to Eve as an individual or to all her female progeny? If Christians believe that Jesus came to restore humankind to a pre-Fall relationship with God, is it possible also that men and women can be restored to a pre-Fall relationship in which Adam apparently did not bear rule over Eve?

  1. Lilith in Wikipedia
  3. Sakenfeld, The Bible and Women: Bane or Blessing?
  4. A Cultural History of the Jews
  5. Her Ways Considered

All Bible quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.