Two Sides of Adam: Gender in Genesis 1-3

I’ve long been convinced that the ‘queer question’ in the Church today is not really about the handful of particular texts that are used to condemn homosexuality or promote the perpetuation of strict gender roles. After all, ‘Bible believing’ Christians these days find it pretty easy to dismiss the Scriptures’ clear teaching about a lot of things: about ensuring laws support the marginalized instead of propping up the wealthy, about not collecting interest on loans, and rejecting retributive violence to name three that come to mind immediately. Instead, I am convinced it has more to do with fundamental assumptions about creation: what it means to be human in the world God has made. As my professor said in the first moments of my first class in systematic theology nineteen years ago, “The real question about homosexuality is about what it says about creation.”

And so this week, as I get into this series exploring the places where queer people of faith see ourselves and our experiences in the Scriptures, I’ll be looking at just this question of what the first two chapters of Genesis really say, if anything, about gender and sex, and whether there’s room there for something other than a gender binary. Today I’ll focus on the creation of Adam and Eve and the implications this story could have about gender.

The relevant piece of Genesis begins in 1.27: And God made the human in His image In the image of God he made it Male and female he created them. The word for ‘human’ here is ‘adam, which comes down to English as this person’s name, Adam. But it literally means ‘mud-creature’ or ‘earthling,’ a play-on-words on the mud (‘adamah) from which we later learn this creature was made. What’s important here is that, whether conceived personally as ‘Adam’, or collectively as ‘humanity’, the mud creature is not gendered. It contains both the male and female, which are equally mirrors of God’s image. This primordial union of the sexes is made explicit in the second creation story in Genesis 2:

No suitable helper was found for Adam. So the LORD God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of Adam’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of Adam, and he brought her to Adam. And Adam 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.” (2.20-24)

The first overt reference to sex or gender comes after this surgical act: Adam, the mud-creature, becomes Adam, the man (’ish), and the woman (’ishah). This story is often taught these days in a way that gives priority to the male: Adam is the male Adam from the start and from this male is created the female. But we see here in the story itself that there isn’t much reason to interpret the story this way. There is no reference to gender or sex until after the woman and man are separated. In fact, the text seems to go out of its way to use the general term ‘adam before and only introduces the gendered term ‘ish afterwards. We have very good reason to interpret this, then, not as a primordial, essential masculinity but as a primordial androgyny — or in contemporary terms, we might say that Adam was non-binary, or in the expression from some Indigenous communities, two-spirit, uniting within the one person both the masculine and feminine energies.

While this interpretation has clear resonance for non-binary people of faith today (and other queer folk as well, since societies with a more fixed attitude towards gender also tend to have more restrictive attitudes towards sexuality), it is not actually a new or postmodern, politicized reading. In fact, it’s found in the Talmud and attributed to the earliest strands of rabbinic Judaism: “When [God] created the first human, he made it androgynous. That is what it means when it says ‘male and female he created them’” (Genesis Rabbah 8.1, quoted by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Wrestling with God and Men, 47). Other rabbis disagreed with this formulation, but equally envisioned Adam as being both male and female: for example, as a two-sided double-creature. As Greenberg notes, the difference between these rabbinic texts is one not of gender but of integration: Was the original Adam “a wholly integrated androgynous creature … male and female only inasmuch as it contained the totality of human capacities”? Or, was Adam “a being with two perspectives, two faces gazing in opposite directions … already in dynamic tension”? (48). And since this creature bears the image of God, we can carry this question into the nature of God too: Is the fullness of God to be found in harmonious integration of difference, or in the dynamic tension of opposites? These are delicious and fun debates, but one thing is clear: for these ancient rabbis, the gender binary is not an inherent part of human identity. And since the mud-creature is created in the image of God, then it follows that God is also beyond gender.

If the gender binary is not inherent to humanity according to the creation story, far less is patriarchy, or male priority more generally. Again, this is the clearest reading of Genesis, even though the creation stories are often used to justify the idea that maleness is the human default. This is particularly marked in our traditional English translations; the woman is said to be created from ‘one of Adam’s ribs’, which feeds into our sense of male priority, for Adam is left mostly the same before and after the surgery; he’s just missing a rib after all. But this is a misleading translation. The Hebrew word here, tsela’, can mean ‘rib’, but far more commonly means ‘side’ or ‘flank’ more generally. Instead of being Adam’s rib, the woman could just as easily be one full side of the earthling. It’s pretty clear that this is how the ancient rabbis cited above interpreted it.

Moreover, even though the story introduces gender difference here in Genesis 2, the power imbalance between the genders we call ‘patriarchy’ is not introduced until chapter 3, where it is one of the two consequences of the Fall for women: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;     with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband,     and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3.16). It’s telling that it is only after this that Adam names the woman Eve (3.20), just as Adam had earlier named the animals. It seems to be a clear inference from the story that patriarchy is part of the fallen order, not part of God’s plans for humanity. As people who believe in, and believe we are part of, the restoration of humanity in Christ, Christians should have every reason and motivation to be on the forefront of efforts to restore the balance of male and female leadership in society.

But all this being said, the separation of the male and female, even if it was not part of God’s original intention for humanity according to Genesis, does resonate with God’s general behaviour in creation. For in Genesis, God’s creative act is not one of creation-from-nothing, but creation-by-division:

… And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
(Genesis 1.3-5)

This same pattern continues throughout the narrative: light from darkness, the sky from the sea, and land from water. Later, the Law would prohibit the mixing of cloths and meat and dairy, and the mixing together of Israel’s tribes. Is there not a lesson here that God likes separation, order and keeping things in their place?

Perhaps. But, as tidy as the Creation narratives are, what we actually see in the created world is far more complicated.

Between night and day there is always dawn and dusk, between sea and land there are intertidal zones and wetlands. Among the animal world too, our conceptions and categories fall short: There are mammals that lay eggs, there are fish who bear live young, there are carnivorous plants, fish with lungs, aquatic mammals, and even flightless bats. So diverse and unexpected is the created world that the Church Fathers believed that God created everything that could possibly have been created. So, as much as our Creation narratives love straight lines of division, the fact is, in our world as it has been given to us, when we see a straight line, we know that it is a human hand at work, and not God’s. In a world like this, unless we want to claim that the platypus is a result of sin (and really, hasn’t the poor platypus suffered enough ridicule!) all we can do is to stand back in awe and wonder and proclaim: How glorious are your works, O Lord! In wisdom have you made them all!

More to the point of today’s post, there are also individual creatures that are biologically neither male nor female, or both, for entirely genetic reasons. What do we say about these creatures, human or non-human? Do we despise them as outside God’s creative will, or do we, as Jesus did with the man born blind, say that they were born as they are “that God’s works might be revealed in them”? (As an aside, while we’re looking at what we find in the created world, it should also be noted that homosexual activity has been documented in over 450 species; while this behaviour plays many different roles, in some species this can include life-long pair-bonding.) The point is, our world is an unfathomably diverse place, and our Creation narratives — as beautiful, profound, and paradigmatic as they are — touch on only the smallest sliver of that diversity. So, when it comes to human sexuality and gender identity, why shouldn’t we see these things which are givens of earthly existence as equally part of the complexity, bounty and beauty of what God has made?

God may create by separation, but God abhors a straight line, and if the created world as we experience it is any indication, God rejoices in the borders and margins between categories. As ecologists know well, the borderlands between habitats are always the most fruitful and interesting. In permaculture, this is known as ‘the edge’: “The edge — the intersection between two environments — is the most diverse place in a system, and it is where energy and materials accumulate or are transformed” (Toby Hemenway, The Permaculture City).

One may be uncomfortable by this attempt to interpret the Creation story through what we experience of Creation. But, the Scriptures tell us that we should be able to do juts this. Ironically, this is actually the point Paul is making at the end of Romans 1 in the passage so often used to condemn homosexuality: That we should be able to understand God through the created world. And our world tells us that far from being abominations contrary to God’s will, the places — and people — who don’t fit cleanly between categories are full of wonder, transformation, and life.

In light of all of this, what do our creation stories tell us about gender? Not nearly as much as many of us have been led to believe.

In the beginning, God created by dividing one thing from another, but these divisions are not clean. God may love categories, but God also loves their messy edges. And in the beginning, God created Adam, a shared humanity that carried within it both male and female. Our gender differences are not primordial, but came ‘after’ the fact — and our gender roles and hierarchies even later than that, after sin entered the picture and male and female broke faith with God and each other.

Far from excluding the experiences of queer folk, this is a story that is rich in possibility for us. Where do we fit, no matter where on the many spectrums of queer identities we may be? We fit in Adam, our primordial, non-binary ancestor created in the image of God. And we fit in the margins and edges between categories, the God-beloved rich places where the energy of transformation and possibility resides.

I’ll end today with some words by a queer theologian named Sulkiro Song, who has seen in Adam her own story:

Once upon my time before gender, before adults and older children began to correct me in the ways that I should be — what colors I should like, what toys I should play with, how to sit, why I should cover up in the presence of men, which characters I’m supposed to identify with, why I should pee sitting down, what future I should aspire for — I was adam in my own way, a one of a kind earth creature made in the image of god. (”An Aro/ace approach to adam before their encounter with the AnOther” in Beyond Worship.)