rosh hebrew beginning Genesis head headship man woman

In preparation for a recent talk that I gave on gender and creation, I read Raymond Ortlund’s essay “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship, Genesis 1-3”.[1] In his essay, Ortlund managed to use the word “headship/head” 70 times—he even included the word “headship” in the title of his essay—but he does not use the word “head” in the way it is used in Genesis chapters 1-3.

The Hebrew word for “head” is rosh (רֹאשׁ). It is a common Hebrew word and occurs hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. Rosh is used three times in Genesis 1-3, once in each chapter. This post briefly looks at how this word is actually used in the text.

Rosh as “Beginning” in Genesis 1:1

The very first word of the Bible is bereshit which consists of the word resheeth (רֵאשִׁית) with the bet preposition meaning “in”. Resheeth is derived from the word rosh which commonly means “head” but also has the meaning of “beginning” or “point of origin”, hence “in the beginning” in Genesis 1:1.

Rosh as “Source” or “Point of Origin” in Genesis 2:10

Rosh is used in the plural, rashim (רָאשִֽׁים), in Genesis 2 where it refers to “headwaters”, that is, the “sources” or “points of origin” of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:11-14. The meaning of “heads” is hidden in most English translations because they use the word “rivers” rather than the literal “heads”. The King James version, however, translates Genesis 2:10 literally: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.” (Italics added)

Considering the meanings of rosh in Genesis 1 and 2, Ronald Pierce suggests that if you want to speculate and relate “head” to man and woman in these chapters, “then it seems only fair that you take the meaning that the text gives . . . and apply that meaning to the use of “head” with man and woman. . . [that is] Adam was Eve’s point of origin.”[2] The Greek word for “head” (kephalē) can also mean “point of origin” (1 Cor. 11:3 cf. 1 Cor. 11:12).

Rosh as “Head” and “Life” in Genesis 3:15

Rosh (רֹאשׁ) is used in a more literal sense in Genesis 3 where we read that the seed of the woman will strike the snake’s “head”. We are meant to envisage the body parts of heel and head in this verse. Nevertheless, these words are also used metaphorically. This verse is not about an actual snake being physically struck on its actual head. Furthermore, a common interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is that the seed of the woman will kill the snake by mortally wounding its head. Thus it could be argued that “head” metaphorically refers to “life” in this verse.

Rosh as “Chief” and “Leader” in Hebrew

Rosh has still other meanings in Hebrew. It can mean “chief person” or “leader” in Hebrew, but rosh is not used with these meanings in Genesis 1-3. Nevertheless, Ortlund persistently argues his case about male authority while repeatedly using the terms “headship” and “head” in a way that is foreign to these chapters.

Authority and Rule in Genesis 1-3

In Genesis 1, words meaning “authority” and “rule” are used, but these words apply equally to men and to women. Both men and women have been charged by God to “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 1:28 (italics added). According to Genesis 1, men and women have the same authority.

Nowhere in chapters 1 or 2 does it say that some people are to lead or rule other people, or that some have been given extra, permanent responsibilities. After the Fall, however, as a consequence of sin, God foretells that man will rule woman (Gen. 3:16). This is not God’s best plan for humanity, however, and even here, the Hebrew word for “head” is absent.

“Head” in the Greek New Testament

In the New Testament, man is called “head” in two verses. In Ephesians 5:23, the Greek word for “head” is used as part of a head-body metaphor signifying unity in marriage: “the husband is the head (kephalē) of his wife.” In 1 Corinthians 11:3, “head” is used in the context of origins: “the man is the head (kephalē) of woman” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:12). These verses are not about men exercising leadership or authority. I have written about the meanings of kephalē in these and other New Testament verses in several articles. (See Related Articles below.)

It is important to note that unlike Hebrew and English, “head” in early Koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament) rarely meant “chief person” or “leader”. The kind of “male headship” that Ray Ortlund and others push—that all men have extra leadership responsibilities simply because they are male—is ill-conceived and absent in New Testament instructions. It should also be absent in New Creation relationships in the church and in Christian marriage. In the New Creation, ministry gifts, abilities, and responsibilities, including the ministry of leading, are not tied to one gender.


[1] Raymond C. Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship, Genesis 1-3”, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 86–104. (Ortlund’s essay can be viewed here.)
Ortlund states “My purpose in this essay is to demonstrate from Genesis 1-3 that both male–female equality and male headship, properly defined, were instituted by God at creation and remain permanent, beneficent aspects of human existence.” (p. 86) He defines “male headship” in terms of responsibility and leadership: “In the partnership of two spiritually equal human beings, man and woman, the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction.” (p. 86)
Ortlund describes women as being the spiritual equals of men, but not as equals in other senses. He writes, “. . . was Eve Adam’s equal? Yes and no. She was his spiritual equal and, unlike the animals, ‘suitable for him.’ But she was not his equal in that she was his ‘helper.'” (p. 91) Ortlund seems to think that “helper” is a synonym for “assistant” or “auxiliary”. He goes on to say, “A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God.” (p. 91) His understanding of “help” and “helper” does not take into consideration how the Hebrew word ezer (“help/helper”) is used throughout Hebrew scripture.

[2] This post was inspired by, and partly based on, Prof. Ronald Pierce’s excellent lecture on “Male and Female in Creation and Fall (Gen. 1-3)” as part of Biola University’s Theology of Gender course, recorded in 2013. See 1.15.49-1.16.35 minute marks. (Source)

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The headwaters of the San Joaquin River, California (Wikimedia)

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