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So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Genesis 1:27

God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve

Jerry Falwell (and others)

Recently I’ve been involved in several discussions about gender and sexuality within Christian circles, and been struck by how often the verse quoted above comes up. It is cited sometimes as if it made the same point as the second quotation I’ve given: in other words, as if it proves that homosexual love is illicit, and that men and women should adhere to particular gender roles. I wanted to spend some time thinking about why this verse is read in this way, and the processes of interpretation which are involved.

This reading seems to be based on two assumptions. Firstly, that the creation of people as male and female is to be taken as a determining pattern. Male and female people make up a system, in this reading, whether as groups or in individual pairs. It’s the same sort of idea which lies behind complementarian view of gender within modern Christianity: a man and a woman are corresponding parts of a larger system.

Thus “male and female created He them” is interpreted as “God created people as gendered within a system in which gender is a determining characteristic of their relations to others”. This isn’t the only reading of the line, of course. It could be interpreted as meaning “male and female are both created in the image of God, and neither sex nor gender affects their relationship to that image”. Or indeed the two readings could co-exist in the same theology – both men and women were created in the same way by God, and they form part of a sexed and gendered system.

Secondly, there seems to be an assumption that the Creation narratives is symbolic or representative, in some sense, of the individual origin of every human. This assumption seems to centre on the idea that the Creation story is paradigmatic for the “creation” of all of us, so to speak, and that as God made the world in the beginning, so God makes people now. It reads Genesis as a revelation of how God creates, rather than how God created two people at one particular point at the origins of time. That, to put it crudely, it would matter if God had created Adam and Steve, rather than Adam and Eve.

These are not unreasonable assumptions to make. (I happen to disagree profoundly with one, and agree thoroughly with the other, though that’s beside the point.) But they are certainly not obvious or uncontestable assumptions. Still less are they “what the Bible says” from a literal point of view. From a literal point of view this passage is an account of the creation of people in general, which connects with the story of Adam and Eve elsewhere in Genesis.

In fact a literal reading would seem to have little to offer us when reflecting on questions of gender and sexuality. The fact that the text says God created people “male and female” is relatively inert, until we bring it into a dialogue with other statements, questions or concerns. In doing so, we imagine what questions this line was intended, or used, to answer. We speculate on what conversations it took part in, and consider which of our modern concerns it might address.

“male and female created he them” could be the answer to the question “if God created men, who created women?” In other words, “God did, no-one did any other creating.”  Or it could be the answer to “why are there men and women in the world?”; “Because God created them”. It can be taken as the answer to “does God love women as much as men?”, or “Should we wear different clothes depending on our gender?”, or “Should men marry other men?”

But it looks like an answer to those questions because those are the questions we assume it can answer. That’s not to suggest that the Biblical texts can mean absolutely anything, but simply to register the drastically different meanings which result from putting the text in dialogue with various concerns. As I suggested above, this line can support remarkably different accounts of gender and its significance in our lives, or it can be read as simply asserting that God created all people. It can be extended to establish heterosexuality as a norm, but only if a great deal of other assumptions are accepted.

I’ve stressed this aspect of interpretation, of bringing out own questions and situations to the text, because I so often see this verse cited as unambiguously “proving” that either gendered roles in society are an expression of God’s will, or that homosexual love is incompatible with God’s will. Indeed, some would claim that it doesn’t even “prove” these things, it simply states them. This seems simply wrong to me. Those conclusions may be possible, as part of a conservative theology of gender or sexuality (though I would strongly dispute both of them), but they can only be found in the verse if put into the context of such a theology. The verse itself contains no such statements.

The kind of interpretation which took this verse to be saying something about gender and sexuality in modern society would also need to rely on a symbolic, even a mythic, reading. In order to take the statement about creation people “male and female”, there needs to be a leap from reading this literally (as a description of certain events in the past) to symbolically (as an account of our own individual natures and God’s characteristic modes of action.) A literal reading would simply note that God created male people and female people, without drawing any conclusions about how they should arrange their social world or their sex lives.

I think that’s worth pointing out because of the tendency, in both Christian cultures and the wider public sphere, to assume that the most conservative position in any discussion of gender and sexuality, is the closest to the literal reading of the Bible. Liberal interpreters are often depicted by both Christian and secular observers as holding their views “in spite” of the Biblical verses.

Whether or not their conclusions are found acceptable, there can be an impression that liberal Christians have to do a lot of clever interpretation in order to sidestep the obvious meaning of the text. Whether that fancy footwork is regarded as fortunate or hypocritical, it is seen as a way of getting away from the Bible and its authority, of refusing to admit what the book says and substituting their own personal beliefs

This example demonstrates, I hope, some of the inaccuracy of this stereotype. It is the more conservative reading which relies heavily on a symbolic reading, regarding the story of the creation of male and female people (and of Adam and Eve) as instituting a metaphorical pattern which should govern social and sexual lives. The more liberal position refrains from putting the text through this specific form of symbolic interpretation. I certainly believe that metaphorical and symbolic readings are central to making sense of the Biblical texts. But it doesn’t make sense to suggest that only one group of Christians ever uses them, nor to imply that they do so because they are arrogant or unwilling to attend to the Bible.