Interpreting the Bible: Returning to Eden

bible.jpg1. Genesis 1.

We study Genesis 1:26-28 first-

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

This passage describes God’s final creative act, occurring on the Sixth Day. What does it tell us about men and women?

1. Both are created in God’s image.
2. Both have the rule over the Creation.
3. God made man male and female.
4. Man (that is, male and female) is to be fruitful.

So far as can be told from this passage, there is no distinction between men and women. The passage deals with the authority of man (male and female) to rule God’s Creation, but does not give the male authority to rule the female. Not only is the female not declared to be inferior to the male, both are declared to be made in God’s image.

2. Genesis 2.

Genesis 2 contains a more detailed account of the creation of woman.

(Gen. 2:16-25) And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

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

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.

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 closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

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.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Now, what does this teach us about males and females?

1. The male is incomplete and inadequate by himself. It is “not good” for him to be alone. Indeed, the only creation declared “not good” is Adam-until God’s creation of Eve, completing the creation of man.

2. Neither God Himself, who walked with Adam in the Garden, nor any of the animals were helpers suitable for Adam. The lesson is that man’s helper could neither be superior (God Himself) nor inferior (an animal), but rather must be flesh of his flesh.

3. God chose to make woman out of a rib. First, this teaches us that woman and man are the same flesh. God certainly could have made woman from scratch, just as he did man. But God chose to teach a lesson by making her from the identical material as Adam-Adam himself. The Jewish rabbis have taught since before the time of Christ that God’s choice of a rib is also significant. God did not make woman from Adam’s head, as though she were to rule over him, or from his feet, as though to be in subjection to him, but from his side, to be close to him. We frequently teach this lesson in our wedding ceremonies.

Moreover, the ideal of “one flesh” is eternal as well. In the case of Adam and Eve, it means that the two were of literally identical flesh. But for us, it must mean that the husband is required by God to recognize his wife as a part of himself. He must love her as though her body were his body. He cannot treat her as an inferior or as a part of his domain.

5. Adam called Eve “woman” because she “was taken out of man.” In the Hebrew, the words for “woman” and for “man”-“adam” and “adamah”-are very similar, and Adam’s choice indicates and emphasizes the similarity between man and woman. After Eve was made, Adam referred to her as ishshah (woman or wife) and to himself as ish (man or husband) (Gen. 2:23). Again, the similarity of the names indicates their unity and similarity. In fact, Eve wasn’t called “Eve” until after the Fall (Gen. 3:20), with the new dissimilarity of the names indicating the new barrier between husbands and wives.

6. God made man before woman. Some argue that woman is subordinate to man because Adam was made before Eve. But cows and birds were made before man, and yet man (male and female) is plainly given rule over all that was created before them (Gen. 1:26). Being made second does not in and of itself indicate subordination. Rather, the lesson is that the male was incomplete-not good-until the female completed the Creation. In other words, the Creation order is from incompleteness toward increasing completeness.

7. God made woman to be a suitable helper. This concept is far too important to be passed over lightly. Many consider this verse the linchpin of their argument regarding the submission of women to men. It is, they contend, God’s designation of Eve as a helper that makes women subordinate to men for all time.

3. What Does “Helper” Really Mean?

The word translated “helper” is the Hebrew word ‘ezer. In the vast majority of cases, ‘ezer refers to God Himself. All refer to God unless otherwise noted: Exo. 18:4; Deu. 33:7,26,29; Psa. 20:2, 33:20, 70:5, 89:19 (refers to God giving David strength (help)), 115:9-11, 121:1,2,8, 146:5; Isa. 30:5 (Egypt is not a helper like God); Ezek. 12:14 (a general’s staff member); Dan. 11:34 (King of the North gives “a little help”); Hos. 13:9. Indeed, God as ‘ezer is a central element of God’s relationship with His people.

Obviously, God’s calling Eve ‘ezer does not mean that Eve is subordinate to Adam or that women are subordinate to men. On the other hand, calling Eve “helper” certainly means that Eve was Adam’s complement. She completed what was lacking in Adam. But there is no basis in the Scriptures to find subordination or a principle of male leadership in this word.

Perhaps our difficulty in interpreting ‘ezer can be better seen by noticing how we use “helper” in English. We speak of “mother’s little helper,” a “plumber’s helper,” being a “good helper.” In current English, “helper” carries the connotation of a subordinate-even a child.

Roget’s International Thesaurus 5th ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 919, lists “subordinate” as the first choice for synonyms for “helper.” The Random House Unabridged Dictionary 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, Inc., 1993) lists as synonyms of “helper” aid, assistant, supporter, backer, auxiliary, and ally. Of these, only “ally” does not connote inferiority.

Thus, if I were drowning, I’d call out, “Help!” But I wouldn’t refer to the person who rescued me as my “helper.” My rescuer truly helped me, but calling him “helper” would be too condescending-even belittling.

But these thoughts are utterly foreign to the Hebrew ‘ezer. There is no condescension in the Hebrew word at all, so that “helper” (or “help meet,” as in the King James Version) is truly a clumsy translation.

In other verses, ‘ezer is used in the sense of “rescuer” or “liberator.” The word is also used in the sense of “one who fights alongside against a common foe.” “Comrade” or “ally” would come close to the sense in many contexts. Thus, the psalmist often sings that God is Israel’s help-not a mere helper-but an ally so powerful that Israel must prevail.

“Complement” is the best translation I can come up with, as it indicates neither inferiority, superiority, or even equality and is true to the Hebrew.

Now ‘ezer does have a deeper significance. God’s declaring Eve as complement means that God gave Eve a special role in relationship to the man. She is to complete, finish, and make God’s creation of man good. Clearly, therefore, a wife may not, consistent with her God-given role, belittle her husband or injure his reputation. Neither may she act as an independent agent, free of concerns for the impact of her behavior on her husband. She must act as part of a greater whole.

4. The Curse of Eve

The subordination of women began not in Genesis 2 but in Genesis 3.

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

God tells Eve that her pain in childbearing will greatly increase. The significance of this cannot be understated. Until very recently, there was a very high death rate in childbearing. The pain of childbearing before modern antibiotics, sanitation, Cesarean sections, and such was many times greater than it is now.

God next curses the woman by causing her husband to rule over her. Notice these things–

1. This was a change. If Adam already had the rule over Eve in sinless Eden, why did God say He was doing this to her because of her sin? Thus, nothing in Genesis 1 or 2 can support an argument for male rule.

2. God states that husbands rule over wives-under His curse. He does not curse all women with being under the rule of all men.

3. God also states that the wife’s desire will be for her husband. This curse has been interpreted many different ways.

a. Some suggest that this refers to sexual desire, the idea being that the woman cannot avoid the pain of childbearing due to her sexual desires. But this makes sexual desire by a wife for a husband a curse, which is clearly not God’s plan. Moreover, Adam and Eve were commanded on the Sixth Day to be fruitful and multiply. Sex was a part of the plan from the beginning and is not a result of sin.

b. Others suggest that wives are cursed with wanting to do their husband’s will. But this suggestion fails for lack of evidence!

c. A third group suggests an interpretation based on the close similarity of the language of the curse to Genesis 4:7-

“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 master it.”

In the King James Version, this verse says that “unto thee shall be [sin’s] desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The NIV translators have paraphrased this passage to interpret “unto thee shall be his desire” to mean “it desires to have you.” Thus, in Genesis 3, the virtually identical phrasing, only a few verses away, must mean that woman’s desire for her husband is her desire to rule her husband.

God is saying that although the wife may want to rule her husband, under his curse, the husband will rule the wife. Rick R. Marrs, “In the Beginning: Male and Female (Gen 1-3)” in II Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity (Carroll D. Osburn, ed., Joplin, Mo.: College Press Publ., 1995), 30 n. 78. Although Marrs acknowledges the strength of this argument, he rejects it as it presupposes a hierarchical view of chapter 2. Ibid., 31. However, it seems that Marrs may not adequately recognize the disconnect between chapter 2 and the curse of chapter 3 caused by sin. It’s appropriate that the husband’s rule be countered by the wife’s desire for rule, as this curse then creates the antithesis of the unity described in chapter 2.

A result of Adam’s and Eve’s sin is strife in marriage. Both husbands and wives will want to be in charge, but in the ordinary case, the husband will succeed in ruling over his wife. And certainly the last several thousand years have proven this to be very true indeed.

Adam. God next curses Adam for his sin. Adam will be required to earn a living by the sweat of his brow, and the ground will produce thistles and thorns.

5. The Meaning of the Curses.

Genesis 3 is known to students of the Bible as the Fall of Man. It is the account of the first sin and marks the beginning of the separation of man from God. It is exactly this separation that Jesus died to cure. Man sinned, both male and female, and therefore death came into the world. Jesus came to earth to undo the curse. Paul explains this in Romans–

(Rom. 5:12-18) Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. …

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.

But the Fall of Man affected much more than our own mortality and our relationship with God. The entire Creation was corrupted by man’s sin.

(Rom. 8:20-23) For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

We see, therefore, that the curses pronounced in Genesis 3 are only examples of the complete corruption of the Creation. Everything decays. Nothing is permanent. All that is living will die. This corruption affects our marriages, our work, our childbearing, our relationships with God, and everything made.

(Eph. 4:22-24) You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

(1 Pet. 1:22-23) Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.

(2 Pet. 1:4) Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

The italicized word in each quoted passage is from the same Greek root as “decay” found in Romans 8:22. Because of sin, Paul says in Romans that we are in bondage to decay (or corruption, or perishability). He then says in Ephesians that we had been corrupt before our salvation, but our new self is to be like God (that is, not corrupted by sin). Peter tells us in 1 Peter that by being saved we have relinquished our perishable, fleshly nature (that is, our corrupted nature) and replaced it with an imperishable nature.

In 2 Peter he tells us that God gives each of us a part of his divine nature (the Holy Spirit, immortality) that allows us to escape the corruption of the world. But we know from Romans and 1 Corinthians that the corruption of the world came from the curse in Genesis 3, which followed the entry of sin into the world. Thus, we are instructed to escape these curses, not to impose them on one another! We are all going to keep sinning, but we are still bound to our Lord to try to stop and to rid ourselves of sin so far as it is within our abilities.

(1 Cor. 15:21-26) For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We see in 1 Corinthians that death, which came through Adam, is Christ’s enemy and will be the last enemy destroyed. Moreover, we see that Paul describes the corruption
of Creation as the enemy of God.

Therefore, we must understand that the curses pronounced in Genesis 3 are curses and not commands–far from it. They are evidence of the decay and corruption produced by sin and the frustration Creation has been subjected to while awaiting the end of time. How then can we command our women members to obey a “command” that is not a command but a description of the consequences of sin?

This argument will surely be hard for many readers to accept, but it becomes much clearer when we consider the other curses. The man is cursed to work by the sweat of his brow. Does this mean that air conditioning is a sin, because it is contrary to God’s eternal design? Are anti-perspirants wrong? Is it wrong to use herbicides and preemergents to prevent the growth of weeds? Didn’t God intend that we work the fields by hand to rid them of weeds? Must all men work in the fields? Is office work a sin? Is it a sin to use anesthesia to relieve the pain of childbearing? Or is that also part of God’s eternal plan? For that matter, why should we resist any of the world’s corruption? God corrupted it, who are we to oppose it?

I read with horror the description of the fate of Eufame MacLayne… . Eufame was a woman living in 16th century Scotland, pregnant with twins. Her labor was complicated and very painful, and during it she requested painkilling herbs to help her deliver her babies. Births had high mortality rates in those days, but Eufame and her twins were able to come out of it alive.

Unfortunately, word got out that Eufame had used painkillers. Painkillers were forbidden, said the church leaders, for it was God’s law that women suffer in childbirth. Therefore, the babies were taken from this new mother, and she was tied to a stake and burned.65

Jo-Ann Tsang (1996), quoting Gundry, P. “Why We’re Here” in Women, Authority, and the Bible (Alvera Mickelson, ed., Downers Grove, Ill.:, InterVarsity Press, 1986).

We are quite properly repelled at the thought of punishing a laboring woman for taking painkillers. We instinctively know that pain in childbirth is a curse, not a command, and a curse that we are free to overcome. But we can’t consistently reject the views of the 16th Century Scottish church and at the same time insist that Genesis 3:16 commands husbands to rule over their wives.

Adam and Eve corrupted the world, not God, and we are God’s children charged with working to undo the curse. We do this by bringing others to Jesus to escape the curse of death, by alleviating suffering, by struggling against the corruption of this world any way we can-and this certainly includes doing so within our marriages. We are compelled as Christians to work to rid our marriages of sin, including the quest for dominion over our spouse, and to rid our churches of sin as well.

At this point, many readers will wonder how this interpretation of Genesis can be reconciled with New Testament passages on the role of women. We certainly don’t believe that Paul or any other Bible author contradicts the lessons of Genesis 1, 2, and 3. But the meaning of the curses pronounced in Genesis 3 is plain. They simply are not commands, and should not be taught as commands.

If the curse of a husband’s dominion over his wife is a command, then so are the other curses, and we should deny our wives painkillers in childbirth. We can’t have it both ways. Because Genesis 3 is a curse on Creation when we study the Fall of Man, it is a curse when we study the role of women.

6. Conclusion.

I’ve perhaps spent too much space in explaining my understanding of Genesis 1-3, but the impact of these verses is far greater than just the current controversy regarding the role of women. In fact, Genesis 1 and 2 give the model for godly sexual conduct. Hence, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and homosexuality are all wrong because they violate Genesis 1 and 2-which define sinless sex-even if the premarital or homosexual sex is a very loving relationship.

Of course, Genesis 1 and 2 occurred in a sinless world and so set the pattern for husbands and wives. Hence, when the Scriptures discuss divorce, they refer to Genesis 1 and 2. And we’ve often missed the point because we’ve so often misread these important passages.

As Jesus declares in Matthew 19, God meant for husbands and wives to be one flesh, and so divorce is always a sin. However, so is the dominance of women by men or wives by husbands.

To have truly healthy marriages (and churches), we have to return to the sinless ideal of Genesis 1 and 2 and stop defending what we do and teach from Genesis 3.

One other thought. Nothing in Genesis justifies hatred of homosexuals. I mean, we should no more despise a sexually active homosexual couple than a sexually active unmarried couple. Both violate Genesis 1 and 2 and God’s will, but neither is inherently more evil than the other.

Now I strongly object to the recent efforts of many to change Western culture to accept homosexuality as equivalent to heterosexuality, but I also object to the effort to accept sex between unmarried heterosexuals as equivalent to sex between husband and wife. It’s just that we’ve already lost the culture war against “shacking up,” while the cultural battle regarding homosexuality is still being fought. But despite the fact that the media and church periodicals are pounding the battle drums on homosexuality, homosexuals remain people who are fallen and who need to be loved and brought into God’s grace.

Unfortunately, the Christian community has lost much of its credibility when we claim to love the sinner and hate the sin, as we long stood silent while homosexuals were, quite literally, brutalized, beaten, and treated as less than human. We are, however, slowly coming to a more balanced, gracious attitude. I am still touched by the reaction of a local Church of Christ when their long-time preacher, a married man, was arrested for homosexual solicitation, resulting in a much-discussed newspaper story.

The preacher resigned and, the next Sunday, came forward in the assembly to confess his sin. Virtually the entire congregation came up afterwards, showered him with hugs and love. Several members said, “You were there when my husband and I were near divorce, and we’re not about to desert you now.” Forgiveness. Love. Grace. Hope. Christianity lived as Jesus lived. The preacher remains a member of that church to this day.

It is a very sad commentary on the Churches that we have often allowed our worldliness to hold us back on cultural issues when we should have been at the forefront. We were-and remain-slow to racially integrate our churches.

During the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s, most of the Churches were segregationist in practice if not in doctrine. We reflected the Southern culture in which we lived. There were notable exceptions, going back to even pre-Civil War times, but we did not comport ourselves well on the race issue.

No one could seriously argue that we treated our black brothers and sisters as called for by the gospel and by love. And yet, Genesis 1 and 2 plainly teach that all men are children of Adam and Eve, made and loved by God.

This hardly means that we should now go running after every fashionable social issue-just that we can’t trust our culture to guide our doctrine. We have to live as strangers in a strange land and be true to our principles, even when society rejects us for doing so.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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