This article is available in Spanish here.
Many Christians regard the first few chapters of Genesis as fundamental to our understanding of God and his world, and our place in it. These chapters contain important information about humanity as male and female, including our purpose and our relationship to God. In this post, I look at what Genesis chapter 1 says about men and women, and what can happen if we listen more to the ancient Greeks than to the Bible.
In Genesis chapter 1, we read that God took the earth which was empty, dark, and useless and that he made it into something functional and beautiful, with the potential of being filled. One of the main themes of Genesis one is that God saw that his creation was good, and by good, he meant functional and operational.
The Creation and Commissioning of Men and Women
In Genesis 1:26-28 we read about God’s creation and his commissioning of humankind:
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion [rule] over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion [or rule] over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26-28 (NRSV)
In these few verses we see that:
- both men and women were created by God in his image and likeness;
- both men and women were blessed by God;
- both men and women were spoken to by God and given certain commands;
- to procreate;
- to have dominion over the earth;
- to rule the animals.
The following looks at these aspects and functions of humanity.
1. Men and Women are Created by God in his Image and Likeness
Many Christian theologians in the past have stated that only men are made in the image of God, or that women only bear God’s image when joined with a man. For example, Augustine (354-430), a highly influential Christian theologian, wrote:
. . . the woman together with her own husband is the image of God, so that that whole substance may be one image; but when she is referred separately to her quality of help-meet, which regards the woman herself alone, then she is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.
It’s not just the theologians of the past that have got it wrong. Just last month a woman named Nadia left a comment on my website saying that only men possess the image and glory of God, and she quoted 1 Corinthians 11:7 out of context. It is so important to read the whole passage of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and not just a few verses from the first half, because it is in the second half that Paul addresses the previous statements and makes more complete and correct statements (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:11-12). [More on this passage here. A discussion on 1 Corinthians 11:7 is here.]
There is nothing in the biblical creation accounts, or in any other part of the Bible, that supports the assumption that women bear God’s image to a lesser or different degree than men.
2. God Speaks to Men and to Women
God spoke to his image-bearers and told them both to be fruitful and multiply. Some Christians believe that God speaks primarily to men and that men are the “priests” of the home (even though there is no Bible verse which states this.) Yet we know from numerous examples in the Bible that God speaks to women, often bypassing husbands and fathers.
The Bible shows that several women, rather than men, were the first to receive and pass on certain divine commands and teaching. These women include Samson’s mother (and not his father), Abigail (and not her husband), Mary the mother of Jesus (and not Joseph.) Other women received and passed on prophetic or divine messages to men, including Rahab (to the two spies), Deborah (to the nation of Israel and to Barak the general of the army), Huldah (to men such as the High Priest Hilkiah and Josiah the king), King Lemuel’s mother (to her son the king), Anna (to all in the temple who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem), Mary Magdalene (to Jesus’ other disciples), and Philip’s daughters who, according to several early church writers, most notably Eusebius, were famous prophets. Then there is Priscilla who, with her husband Aquila, explained the “way of God” (i.e. theology), including the doctrine of Christian baptism, more accurately to Apollos. The Bible shows that God can, and does, entrust his word, with the authority it entails, to his daughters (cf. Acts 2:17-18).
3. Men and Women are Co-Creators in Reproduction
Procreation is a joint responsibility of fathers and mothers. When we try to pin more responsibility on one of the sexes, either men or women, we can end up with harmful ideas.
Heresy A: The Priority of Men in Reproduction
Before we had microscopes and modern scientific knowledge about reproduction, men were seen as primarily responsible for procreation, and both Jewish and Greek philosophers wrote about the superiority of men in procreation.
Aristotle (300s BC) said, “A woman is an infertile male; [she] is female [because she] lacks the power to concoct semen.” . . . With his repeated statements of the female’s inability to produce semen, Aristotle showed that women were necessary but far less ‘divine’ than men, since only semen carried life. Aristotle, Plato, and generations of scientists believed that semen contained miniature human beings. The belief that the males were the sole begetters of life, providing the ‘seed’, with the female providing only the ‘soil’, underscored women’s inferior status. (Cf. Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 657-666).
You may be wondering what Greek philosophy has to do with Christianity. For hundreds of years, clergy in many parts of Europe received a classical education which meant reading Classical Greek authors such as Plato. Also, the early church was set within a culture heavily influenced by Greek culture and thought. These Greek influences have left their mark on modern Christianity.
Centuries after Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas (1200s), a Christian philosopher and theologian, who also had no idea about how reproduction really worked, wrote,
. . . the active power of generation belongs to the male sex, and the passive power to the female . . . woman is defective and misbegotten for the active power in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex, while production of woman comes from defect in the active force.
According to Aquinas, when everything was working properly, a boy would be born, but if something was amiss or ailing, a girl would be born. In his flawed view, a girl was a dud, a mistake of nature, a misformed male.
In 1827, it was discovered that women produce ova (eggs) and are not merely passive incubators of the male life force; fathers and mothers are co-creators. More recently it has been discovered that mothers contribute just as much genetic material to a new child as fathers but that the sex of the child is determined by the father’s contribution. These scientific discoveries have significant sociological implications regarding the worth of women.
Heresy B: The Priority of Women in Reproduction
Since the Reformation, there has been an increased emphasis on motherhood. The Reformers’ repudiation of the teachings and customs of the Roman Catholic Church, including the celibacy of monasticism, caused some Protestant Christian theologians to start teaching that motherhood is the highest calling for women.
Even today some pastors, and even seminary professors, emphasise the mother’s role in procreation, while mostly ignoring the father’s role. Some have even made a doctrine based on one verse in the New Testament that is genuinely difficult to understand, namely 1 Timothy 2:15. For example, Jim Hamilton (an associate professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a preaching pastor at a Baptist Church in the USA) has stated that “All women must embrace their role as women by bearing children and, if they do this in faith, they will then be saved.” [I have written about Jim’s statement here: What must a woman do to be saved? And I have written about 1 Timothy 2:15 here.]
The command to multiply in Genesis 1 was given to both men and women. Yet, while many Christians state that motherhood is a high calling for women, they almost never say that fatherhood is a high calling for men. The reason for this may be because many Christians who extol the virtues of motherhood also limit women to the domestic sphere, to the home.
4. Men and Women are Co-Regents of God’s Created World
In Genesis chapter 1, God charged both men and women to rule the animals: the fish, birds, livestock and wild animals. And in Genesis chapter 2 he charged the first human (before the woman was made) to care for the garden in Eden: the land and the plants. From these passages we can see that God made people to care for his created world. He has given men and women “the rulership of creation through stewardship.”
As people made in the image of God, we are his regents. In the Ancient Near East (the setting of most of the Old Testament narratives, including the creation narrative), kings of vast empires erected images of themselves in areas where they were not physically present. These images represented “their power and rulership over far reaching areas of their empires”. As God’s image-bearers, we are representatives of God and his dominion, even though he is not ‘physically’ present.
It is important to note that, while we have been authorised to rule the animals, God does not say here that some people are given authority to rule other people.
5. Men and Women are a Part of God’s Very Good Creation
God’s creation of men and women was very good. This is in contrast to the creation stories from other societies. For example, Hesiod (c. 750-650 BC), an influential Greek poet, wrote an epic (long poem) called Theogeny in which he wrote about the creation of the first woman whom the Greeks call Pandora. She was created to trick (deceive?) the men.
Theogeny is “like the book of Genesis for the Greeks, and for the later Romans. But unlike Genesis where the creation of Eve was the loving act of the Creator, the story of Pandora’s creation was drastically different. According to Hesiod, a time existed on earth when men lived blissfully without any women. This paradise was lost when Prometheus stole fire from the Olympic gods and shared it with other men. In a vindictive fit of rage, Zeus conceived the most horrifying punishment possible. Woman was created as man’s eternal curse . . .” 
The Greek’s low view of women has permeated the church for most of its history. Yet this view is not supported by scripture. It is time to set the record straight. There is no gender hierarchy in Genesis 1 and there are no so-called gender roles in Genesis 1. Rather, each and every statement in Genesis 1:26-28 applies equally to men and to women. In Genesis 1, men and women have the same status, the same authority, and the same purpose. This passage affirms mutuality and gender equality.
 “Because this text is absolutely fundamental to all of Christian theology in general and all Christian thinking about the sexes, there is no more important text to study.” Kevin Giles (2010-06-11). Better Together: Equality in Christ (Kindle Locations 225-226).
 Augustine, On the Trinity. Book 12 7.10 (Source)
 The command to be fruitful was seen by the Jews as a sacred duty, and it is one command that humanity has actually obeyed. Some Jews in Jesus’ time, who are traditionally known as Essenes, were celibate for the sake of the kingdom of God. Interestingly, Jesus and Paul allowed singleness and celibacy for the sake of kingdom ministry. (Martha, Mary and Lazarus may have been celibate, ascetic Jews.)
 David J. Hamilton, “Daughters of Pandora” in Why not Women? Loren Cunningham and David J. Hamilton (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2000) 71-83, 80.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica First Part, Question 92, Article 1. (Source)
 In past times, women were unjustly blamed if children were not produced, or if only female children were produced. In some cultures “barren” women, or women who failed to provide a male heir, could be divorced—an unfair and cruel penalty. However, modern science shows that it is the father’s sperm that determines the sex of the child.
 Compare Jim Hamilton’s views with this faulty statement by Chrysostom, “The whole (female) sex is weak and fickle. . . Shall not women then be saved? Yes, by means of children. . . . Eve transgressed, but the whole sex shall be saved, notwithstanding, by childbearing.” Homily 9 on 1 Timothy 2:15.
 Richard Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (eds) (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 79-95, 81.
 Hess, “Equality”, 81.
 This command, to both men and women, to rule the animals is important to keep in mind in chapter two (Gen. 2:19-20). It was not just the first human being who had dominion of the animals but all subsequent humans, women as well as men.
 Hamilton, “Daughters of Pandora”, 76.
 There is also no hint of a gender hierarchy or gender roles in Genesis 2. [Articles on Genesis 2 here.]
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Excerpt of a stained glass window at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England. (Wikimedia)
Is a gender hierarchy implicit in the creation narrative in Genesis 2:4-25?
A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew)
Kenegdo: Is the woman subordinate, suitable or similar to the man?
Human (Ha’adam), Man (Ish), and Woman (Ishshah) in Genesis 2
Is motherhood the highest calling for women?
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry
The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
Aristotelian gender bias in modern depictions of fertilization
7 thoughts on “Men and Women in Genesis 1”
As always thank you for your thinking, scholarship, and writing. You are a ray of sunshine in a bleak time in the history of the church, which feels like it’s slipping backwards slowly.
Marg, this shows some good research.
You also might like Phyllis Trible’s “God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality.” Hugely insightful.
Thanks Melody and Heidi.
Phyllis Trible’s books are on my wish list.
I’m a little late posting on this, but I think it’s ironic that Aquinas’ thinking was exactly opposite of the facts. The embryo of a mammal will remain female unless the Y chromosome changes it. That’s why male humans have nipples. The default is female; it takes the male chromosome to suppress the default female characteristics and make the embryo develop male characteristics.
Of course being male doesn’t mean “something has gone wrong” — but it does mean that biologically, female is the standard and male is the deviation.
That is so interesting, Kristen.
It’s sad because Aquinas seems very sure of his views. But they were very wrong.
I learned about the idea of the “fertile field” almost 40 yrs ago when my husband and I taught Sympto-thermal Natural Family as the only Protestant instructors in the city. It constantly hits me about what confusion it must have been to the Hebrews and Greeks in Gen 3 when God said that that the seed of the serpent would be the enemy of the seed of the Woman. I often wonder if people had any idea of what God was referring to!
When Aristotle and Aquinas refer to the male seed, they’re talking about semen. When God spoke about seed in Genesis 3:15 he was speaking about offspring or descendents.