For those of you just joining this discussion, I would urge you to take a look at my previous two posts on the subject: Let's talk about it and My Starting Point.
In discussions of God's will for women in his Kingdom, the first three chapters of Genesis play an important role. Yet, as a narrative passage of scripture, rather than a didactic one ("intending to teach") like the epistles, deriving absolutes from Gen 1-3 can be tricky. Observing hermeneutical practice among my fellow evangelicals, I must admit that, typically an interpreter's pre-determined view of women informs the way an interpreter reads Gen 1-3. That is to say, you can find what you want to find in the text when you're looking hard enough for it. The ideal, of course, would be to allow the truths of Gen 1-3 to inform our view of women without forcing them into any particular theological (ideological?) mold. Since, as I have said previously, pure objectivity is impossible, I will not pretend to approach it. But, I hope that what follows is a fair-as-possible and informed-as-possible response to the significant questions that arise from the first chapters of Genesis as they relate to gender roles.
In our reading of the Genesis creation narrative, it is important to keep in mind that it was most likely written as a means to distinguish the God of Israel from the gods of Egypt and other nations. (See, for example, the violent and bloody creation account of Babylon.) In contrast to other creation stories of the ancient near east, Israel’s God is one God, who created all the elements of the natural world. Whereas Israel’s neighbors worshipped the moon, the sun, the ocean, etc, Israel worshipped the one whom they believed made all of these things.
Moreover, a case can be made as well that the creation accounts did more than just challenge the gods of the ancient near east, but also the way in which men and women viewed one another in God's created order. Humankind was created “male and female,” in the "image of God" (Gen 1: 27), a reality that elevated the status of women in a way that contrasted with surrounding cultures. The revelation of man and woman’s physical kinship (“bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh,” Gen 2:23) challenged the perspective that the two were wholly disparate creatures. And, their original existence as “naked” and “unashamed” speaks to the intention of God for relational intimacy, openness, trust, and connectedness (Gen 2:25).
Is it God's purpose for women to be the subordinate "helpers" of men?
The first passage of scripture to which most complementarians turn in support of the subordination of women to men is Gen 2:18ff, where God makes for the first man, a "helper suitable for him."
Before I address the possible implications of Gen 2:18, I should note that Gen 2 must not be read divorced from Gen 1. In Genesis 1, the emphasis seems to be upon God’s ordered and rhythmic process of creation. One is struck by the rhythm and symmetry of God’s creative work, as the “formless void and darkness” is made to blossom into a thing of tremendous life, breath, movement, and beauty. In Genesis 2, the emphasis seems to be upon relationship, man and God, then man and woman. One notices the innocence of this early narrative, as man interacts with God and animals in an idyllic garden, full of life and vegetation. Man and woman had harmony with one another, with God, and with the garden until “knowledge of good and evil” changed everything.
With this in mind, therefore, what does God mean when he creates woman as a "helper" for man? The Hebrew word, ’ezer, usually translated "helper" is perhaps better rendered "companion." Although often construed as such, this term does not suggest a subordinate role. In the Bible, God is frequently described as the “helper,” the one who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, the one who meets our needs (Ps 40:17; 46:1; 70:5; 118:7; 146:5). In this context, therefore, the word seems to express the idea of an “indispensable companion.” The element of subordination cannot be substantiated from the wording in 2:18.
Some will argue, however, that the order of creation, with man first and then woman, implies subordination even if it remains unstated. The problem with this assumption is that if the order of creation implies a hierarchy, then the order of Gen 1 should lead to the belief that human beings are last in importance; but, of course, that's not the case. In fact, if the trend from Gen 1 has any application to our understanding of Gen 2, then the creation of woman last should highlight her importance, not her subordination.
Is it God's primary purpose for married women to reproduce?
Those who use Genesis 1-3 as a primary basis for gender roles typically suggest that Gen 1:28, with the command to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” is the foundational responsibility of women in God's order. In this point of view, bearing children and ruling over the earth alongside men is the primary purpose for women (in the marriage relationship, of course).
Yet, a close reading of Gen 1 reveals that the institution of marriage is not mentioned at all. Instead, the focus is upon the rhythm and order of creation, with human beings coming as the climax of the creative process. There is continuity between animals and humans as created beings (both are to “be fruitful, multiply,” and “fill the earth”), but also discontinuity between them (humans are to “subdue” the earth). Moreover, God makes a point to instruct human beings in what things are given to them and every animal for food: “every green plant.” (Meat eaters, take notice!) Marriage as an institution is not considered in a recognizable way at all. Instead, the focus is upon the human race as a whole and the purpose of the human race upon the earth in God’s good created order. For this reason, it seems that Gen 1:28 is an inappropriate basis for gender roles.
Moreover, I do not believe that the command to our first parents, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” has the weight of command to married persons today. Notice that human beings are not the only ones given the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” In v. 22 of Gen 1, the birds and creatures of the sea are told the same thing (while, curiously enough, the beasts of the land are not). This follows a pattern in God's creative process, whereby he creates something, then fills it. God creates the sky, then fills it with birds. He creates the sea, then fills it with creatures. (And now, with something like 6.6 billion humans walking around on the planet today, I think we've probably fulfilled God's instruction to "multiply" and "fill" don't you?)
The only difference between the commands to the birds and sea creatures and that to humans is the command to “rule” and “subdue.” And, that's the main point of Gen 1: human beings are God’s vice-regents on the earth. Unfortunately, the idea that pairs of humans (particularly women) must reproduce in order to be God-honoring human beings is not found in the text of Genesis.
Is it God's will that men "rule over" women?
After the sinful disobedience of our first parents in Gen 3, God pronounces his judgment as a result of their sin. First, the serpent who deceived the woman is "cursed," he is destined to crawl on his belly on the earth, and enmity is placed between him and the woman (3:14-15). Then, the woman is told that she will have increased pain in childbirth and have a subordinate status to her mate (3:16). Finally, the man is told that the ground is cursed because of him and he will harvest and work the earth with "painful toil" (notably, the same word as the word for the woman's pain in childbirth).
(As a side note, please notice that while it is common to hear people speak of women and/or men receiving a "curse" from the Fall, neither the man nor the woman are "cursed" by God. The words for curse are applied only to the serpent and the ground.)
Very often, God's pronouncement to the woman in 3:16, "your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you," is used as an argument for why women are divinely intended to have a subordinate status to men, in family, society, and church. I think that several things mitigate against this interpretation.
A literal rendering of the first part of the sentence is as follows: “and toward your husband [will be] your desire.” The sentence actually doesn't have a verb and so a future verb must be supplied (because the focus of the judgment is on the future struggle). Moreover, the precise meaning of the noun "desire" (tÿshuqah) is debated. Some interpreters conclude that it refers to sexual desire because the word is used in a romantic sense in Song 7:10. Yet, this interpretation does not fit well with the assertion "he will rule over you" and it implies that sexual desire was not apart of the original creation (even though the man and woman were told to multiply).
It is more likely that, in 3:16, God is announcing the reality of conflict and struggle between man and woman. She will desire to control him, but he will rule over her instead. The Hebrew word translated "rule over" (mashal) means more than simply a leadership position, as is often implied. Instead, mashal emphasizes powerful control, domination, or mastery. Like the curse of the serpent to crawl on his belly and the painful toil of the man in labor on the earth, the domination of the woman by the man is the unintended and unfortunate result of our first parents' disobedience.
What does all this mean? Gen 3:16 is a part of a judgment oracle in which God announces that conflict between man and woman will become the norm in human society. In no way does this mean that female subordination is the divine ideal for male-female relationships. In fact, it appears that the exact opposite is the case. Since subordination was absent from the creation accounts and Gen 3:16 is the first instance of female subordination in scripture, it is a better interpretation to conclude that male dominance and female subordination is a result of the Fall and not God's universal will for human beings. And, as we shall see, the conflict between men and women, along with the hierarchy of men over women, is one of many things that Jesus will abolish in the Kingdom of God.
Despite what is often taught and preached in many evangelical circles, it is my contention that the first chapters of Genesis do not provide support for divinely willed female subordination. In fact, Genesis 1-2 are rightly interpreted as providing opposition to any view that would see women as less than full bearers of God's image and less than full partners with men in God's world. Hierarchy enters the male-female relationship only after the entrance of sin and disobedience into the world. This leads me to conclude that female subordination is a result of the Fall and not the perfect intention of God for the world.