Feminist Perspectives and Gen 1:26-28 (Part 5)

Continued from Deconstruction and the Hermaneutic of Suspicion or go to Table of Contents


Underlying much of feminist biblical hermeneutics, obviously, is the issue of equality of the genders, with many feminists directly addressing the issue of “the image of God” or imago dei. This concept originates with Genesis 1:26-28, and is picked up in a few other biblical texts, most notably 1 Corinthians 11:7-8.  The problem with the imago dei from the viewpoint of feminist theology is not so much the meaning of “made in the image of God”, which has generated all manner of exceedingly complicated theological discourse since Iranaeus’ misconceptions were corrected by Augustine of Hippo[1], but rather the question of who was made in the image of God.

The question is of serious consequence. If the human made in the image of God as described in Gen 1:26-28 is not gender specific, then feminist theology and hermeneutics have a strong basis for reclaiming and re-visioning the meaning of scripture, as well correcting the under representation of women in roles of leadership in the church and theological scholarship, by “abandoning our outdated patriarchal-androcentric model of early Christian beginnings.”[2] If, however, the passage depicts man alone as made in the image of God, feminists who reject scripture as irredeemably sexist are taking the only rational approach. At risk is whether scripture can retain any semblance of authority, no matter how it is defined, for women in the pursuit of faith in a Christian context. 

Critically important is how adam and h’adam are translated. Traditionally, these words have been translated as “man” and “the man”, respectively. The early Christian church understanding, at least as implicit in Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 11:7, “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man”, is clear – the imago dei is man’s to claim.  St. Ambrose (339-397 C.E.), a Doctor of the Church, and Bishop of Milan reiterated and expounded on this attitude when he reminded believers that the manner in which woman was originally created confirmed her second class status: “Remember that God took the rib out of Adam’s body, not a part of his soul, to make her. She was not made in the image of God, like man.”[3] 

Further, Augustine of Hippo declared, “a woman apart from a man is not made in the image of God, whereas a man apart from a woman is.”[4] Much more recently, Von Rad seems to have represented the more traditional interpretation of creation when he remarked, “the Yahwist has an intimate world constructed around man (the garden, the trees, the animals, the wife), while P paces the great cosmos in all dimensions before he treats the creation of man.”[5]

The use of grammatically masculine language is problematic, however. While male nouns and pronouns used in the Bible, “man” and “he” for example, have long been understood to be inclusive when used in a communal, or even plural, sense, these same words are interpreted as masculine specific in the singular, especially when used in regard to leadership.[6]  Phyllis Trible considers adam, not as man specifically, but as human not yet differentiated into “man and woman” or “male and female”, a concept that has been adopted by many since. [7] 

Adding emphasis to this interpretation is the fact that adam never occurs in the plural, only the singular absolute. In Hebrew, as well as Greek and other ancient languages, not to mention many modern tongues, this is common for words that are collective – singular nouns that refer to groups of people or things. “Then God created the Adam in his image – in the image of God he created him – male and female he created them,” (Gen 1:27) vacillates between singular and plural pronouns for adam.  Rather than being a mistake, this use of language seems to deliberately make a point that adam is the gender inclusive “them”. God then gave lachem to them, the imperative to multiply (Gen 1:28 ) which, in the thoughts of Henriette Visser ‘T Hooft among many others, is a function of both genders.[8] 

There seems to be some confusion, or at least omission, in an understanding of creation that continues to this day. The most common reiteration of creation I have encountered in ten years of working with churches is something like:

God created heaven and earth, and all that is in them, in seven days (Gen 1:1-25). God created Adam, in God’s image, from the soil (Gen 2:7 with a quick reference back to Gen 1:26) and then created Eve from a rib taken from Adam because Adam needed a “helper” (Gen 2:18-22).

 This oversimplified rendering, not always taken literally I might add, of the Genesis creation narrative in chapters 1 and 2 seems to link very well with the thoughts of Paul and later theologians. Missing are the critical elements of 1:27 and 28. What has been passed down as normative is not the scripture narrative, but an edited version of the same. The same people who were instrumental in formulating doctrine and exhorting male hegemony within ecclesiastical structures, advocated a less than accurate rendering of creation that just happened to suit their particular outlook on the role of women. This version, then, has become currency for average churchgoers, male or female, enriching and empowering the former at the expense of the latter. The burning question of whether this was simply unfortunate, or totally reprehensible, will have to wait for a later essay. From the perspective of this essay, it is simply what happened. 

The authority or value ascribed to scripture lies in the assumption of the truth that it contains. Tradition has promulgated a truth from the creation story that belies the statements made in Gen 1:26-27. It is apparent that the tradition, or external interpretive authority, was granted higher status as truth than scripture. From this, must it be concluded that truth is relative to only the interpretive faculties of ecclesiastical hierarchies, or that truth can be ascertained outside of the dominant culture? While various meanings of imago dei have been proposed – from the mundane “virtue” of being upright to the complicated formulation of theologians that include reason, relationship, trust, fellowship, self-communication, etc[9] – I think that the hunger for truth, especially God’s truth, is a component. In this respect, feminist theology and hermeneutics, like other disciplines, seeks to determine the truth, and hence authority, of scripture for women and men. Perhaps then, men and women can live into the “image of God” – into their true God-given identities. 

Authored by the voices of a great many women, and Revs Andy Little & Jenna Zirbel. Written by Andy Little.

 Other resources:

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler, Editor. 1994. Searching the Scriptures Vol. II – a Feminist Commentary.  (London: SCM Press)

Gottwald, Norman K. 1985. The Hebrew Bible – A Socio-Literary Introduction. (Philadelphia: Fortress press.)

LaCugna, C.M., Editor. 1993. Freeing Theology – The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. (San Francisco: HarperCollins)

[1] Hunter, Rodney J. Gen Editor. 1990. Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, (Nashville: Abingdon Press)., 571 ff

[2] Fiorenza, 1986, 422.

[3] Vivian Phelips, The Churches & Modern Thought, (London: Watts & Co.), 1915, 203.

[4] Oduyoye, 5.

[5] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis – The Old Testament Library, (Translation of Das erste Buch Mose: Genesis, v. 2-4 of Das Alte Testament deutsch. Text revised on the basis of the 9th German ed., 1972.) (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press). 1972. Online version used via a paid subscription to IPreach/Cokesbury through [http://www.cokesburylibraries.com].  Emphasis added.

[6] Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. 1986. “Missionaries, Apostles, Coworkers: Romans 16 and the reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History.” Word & World Vol 6/4. (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary), 422.

[7] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1978. pp. 73ff.

[8] Moltman, 527.

[9] Hunter, 572 ff.

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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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