Man and Woman in Creation (Genesis 1 and 2)


The Scriptures address the topic of the sexes on many occasions, but we discover its foundational treatment within the opening chapters of Genesis. This fact is itself an initial indication of just how closely entwined this subject is with the scriptural narrative more generally, and how important a theme it must be for any theology that faithfully arises from it. Therefore, the more closely we attend to Genesis 1–2, the more apparent it will be that gendered themes are subtly diffused throughout.


Mankind’s creation is described in Genesis 1:26–31. From this account we notice a number of important points.

First, man has both singularity and plurality: man is first spoken of as a singular entity (“him”), then later as the plurality of male and female (“them”). Humanity has a number of aspects to it: humanity is akind, a race, and a multitude. As a kind, humanity is a unique species that finds its source and pattern in the original human being created in the image of God. Humanity is a race on account of its possession of generative potential as male and female and its spread and relationship to its origins through such unions. Humanity is a multitude as it realizes this potential and fills the earth.

Second, sexual difference is the one difference within humanity that is prominent in the creation narrative. Rather significantly, Genesis does not gesture toward the generic plurality of humanity. Instead, humanity’s maleness and femaleness renders us a race and establishes the primary bonds of our natural relations and the source of our given identities. We’ve been empowered as male and female to bring forth new images of God and of ourselves (cf. Genesis 5:3) and are ordered toward each other in a much deeper way than just as individual members of a “host.”

Third, there’s widespread agreement among biblical scholars that the concept of the image of God in Genesis refers to a royal office or vocation that humanity enjoys within the world, as the administrator and symbol of God’s rule. The image of God is primarily focused upon thedominion dimension of mankind’s vocation. However, the filling dimension of mankind’s vocation—to which the maleness and femaleness of humanity chiefly corresponds—is not unconnected to this, as in the third part of the parallelism “male and female” is paralleled with the “image of God” in the first two parts.

Thus, by the end of Genesis 1, there are already a number of key terms, patterns, and distinctions in play. In subsequent chapters, these are given clearer shape as they’re unpacked and developed.


Whereas Genesis 1 focuses upon the creation, commissioning, and blessing of mankind in general and undifferentiated fashion, Genesis 2 offers a more specific and differentiated view of what it means to male and female. It’s important to read Genesis 1 and 2 in close correspondence with each other for precisely this reason.

This gendered differentiation in the fulfilment of the divine commission is hardly surprising, especially when we consider the tasks that lie at the heart of mankind’s vocation. Although both sexes participate in both tasks, “exercising dominion” and “being fruitful” are not tasks that equally play to male and female capabilities, but rather are tasks where sexual differentiation is usually particularly pronounced.

In the task of exercising dominion and subduing creation, the man is advantaged by reason of the male sex’s typically greater physical strength, resilience, and willingness to expose itself to risk. He’s also advantaged on account of the greater social strength of bands of men. In the task of being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the creation, however, the most important capabilities belong to women. It’s women who bear children, who play the primary role in nurturing them, and who play the chief role in establishing the communion that lies at the heart of human society. These are differences seen across human cultures.

As G.K. Beale has argued, the Garden of Eden is a divine sanctuary and there are many clues within Genesis 2 to this fact. In verse 15, the man is placed in the Garden to cultivate and guard it, the same words that are repeatedly used to refer to the Israelites who are set apart to serve God and keep his word, or the priests who keep the service or charge of the tabernacle. God walks about in the midst of the Garden. The Garden is the site of holy food, some of which is forbidden. The man is also given a law concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which he must uphold.

One might surmise a gendered differentiation in relation to the human vocation in Genesis 1. But by Genesis 2, and certainly by the Fall of Genesis 3—in which Adam and Eve overturn God’s intended order—such a gendered differentiation becomes more explicit, not least in the fact that the priestly task chiefly falls to the man, rather than his wife.

There are a series of sharp and important contrasts between the man and his companion, the woman, in Genesis 2:

First, and perhaps most obvious, the man is created before the woman (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:7–9 and 1 Timothy 2:13).

Second, the man alone can stand for humanity as a whole. In Genesis 2, the creation of mankind isn’t the creation of an undifferentiated population of people, but the creation of an adam from the adamah (earth), followed by the later creation of a woman from the adam’s side. It’s in this particular being that the human race finds its unity. This is a point borne out in the rest of Scripture: Adam is the representative head of the old humanity. This humanity is Adamic humanity, not Adamic–Evean humanity. Mankind is particularly summed up in the man.

Third, the image of God is especially focused upon the adam. He’s the figure who peculiarly represents and symbolizes God’s dominion in the world. The adam is placed within the Garden as the light within its firmament (the lights on day four are established as rulers) and charged with upholding the divisions that God had established, performing the royal function associated with the divine imaging. Like God, in his great dominion and subduing acts of the first three days of creation, the man names and orders the creatures.

Fourth, the adam is created to be a tiller and guardian of the earth, while the woman is created to be the helper of the adam, to address the multifaceted problem of his aloneness. The sort of help that the woman is expected to provide has been a matter of considerable debate. However, it isn’t hard to discover the core of the answer. If it were for the naming of the animals, the task is already completed. If it were purely for the labor of tilling of the earth, a male helper would almost certainly be preferable. While men can undoubtedly find the companionship of women very pleasant and vice versa, beyond the first flush of young love it’s in the companionship of members of their own sex that many men and women choose to spend the majority of their time. The primary help that the woman was to provide was to assist the adam in the task of filling the earth through child-bearing, a fact that is underlined in the later judgment upon the woman. The problem of man’s aloneness is not a psychological problem of loneliness, but the fact that, without assistance, humanity’s purpose cannot be achieved.

Fifth, the adam was created from the dust, with God breathing into him the breath of life. The woman was created with flesh and bone from the adam’s side while he was in a deep sleep. The woman’s being derives from the man’s, the man’s being from the earth—the adamah. Adam was “formed” while the woman is “built.”

Sixth, the adam was created outside of the Garden and prior to its creation; the woman was created within it. The woman has an especial relationship to the inner world of the Garden; the adam has an especial relationship with the earth outside of the Garden. Also, unlike the woman, the adam probably witnessed God’s Garden-forming activity as part of his preparation for his own cultivation of the earth.

Seventh, the adam is given the priestly task of guarding and keeping the Garden directly by God; the woman is not. He is also given the law concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, while the woman is not. It’s the adam who will be held peculiarly responsible for the fall in the Garden. Notice also that on both occasions when God subsequently speaks of the law concerning the tree (3:11, 17), he addresses the adam in particular, speaking of it as a law both delivered to him alone and as a law concerning him most particularly and the woman only by extension. The difference between the adam and the woman here helps to explain how the woman could be deceived, while the man was not (the serpent plays off the information the woman had received first-hand in 1:29 against the formation she had received second-hand from the adam).

Eighth, the adam is given the task of naming, as a sign and preparation for his rule over the world, while the woman is not. The adam also names the woman twice (first according to her nature as “woman” in 2:23, then by her personal name “Eve” in 3:20), while she does not name him.

Finally, in Genesis 2:24, the establishment of a marriage is described asymmetrically, with the directionality of a man leaving his father and mother and joining his wife. I don’t believe this is accidental. The bonds of human relationship and communion are chiefly formed by and in women.

Later, in the Fall of humanity, there’s a breakdown in God’s established order. The adam fails to serve and keep the Garden; he fails to uphold the law concerning the tree. He allows the woman to be deceived, when it was his duty to teach and protect her. The Fall was chiefly the fall of the adam. The woman in turn fails in her calling as helper. In the paralleled judgments that follow, both the man and the woman are told that they will experience difficult labor in the fundamental area of their activity—the man in his labor upon the ground, the woman in her labor in child- bearing—and both the man and woman will be frustrated and dominated by their source . In other words, the woman will be ruled over by the man and the man will return to the ground.

The created order is disrupted—and disorder, death, and sin come into the world. However, the promise and hope of salvation is also given in the divine declaration concerning the seed of the woman and in the adam’s naming of the woman as the mother of all living. Sexual difference is variously disordered by the fall, but it’s also a means through which the disorder introduced by the Fall will be overcome.


The difference between the sexes is a central and constitutive truth about humanity, related to our being created in the image of God. Humanity has two distinct kinds: a male kind and a female kind.

Men and women are created for different primary purposes. These purposes, when pursued in unity and with mutual support, can reflect God’s own form of creative rule in the world. The man’s vocation, as described in Genesis 2, primarily corresponds to the tasks of the first three days of creation: to naming, taming, dividing, and ruling. The woman’s vocation, by contrast, principally involves filling, glorifying, generating, establishing communion, and bringing forth new life—all tasks associated with the second three days of creation. The differences between men and women aren’t merely incidental, but integral to our purpose. They’re also deeply meaningful, relating to God’s own fundamental patterns of operation. God created us to be male and female and thereby to reflect his own creative rule in his world.

These differences will unfold and expand over time, varying from culture to culture and context to context. The root differences are expressed in unique and diverse forms from culture to culture, from individual to individual. They exceed any single culture and any single individual, although each individual and culture expresses and participates in them in some particular limited form.

Men and women are formed separately and differently; there’s a correspondence between their nature and their purpose. Again: the man is formed from the earth to till the ground, to serve and rule the earth. The woman is built from the man’s side to bring life and communion through union. The biblical account is primarily descriptive, rather than proscriptive: men and women are created and equipped for different purposes and so will naturally exhibit different strengths, preferences, and behaviors. It should come as no surprise that the more fundamental reality of sexual dimorphism is accompanied by a vast range of secondary sexual differences that typically correlate with key requirements of our primary purposes.

Humanity’s varying creational vocations in Genesis don’t represent the full measure or scope of men and women’s callings—as if women only existed to bear children, and men only to be farmers. Rather, they’re the seeds from which broader callings can thematically develop. Each man and woman must find ways to bring their gendered aptitudes, capacities, and selves that God created them with to bear upon the situations he has placed them within. Although our callings’ center of gravity differs, man and woman are to work together and assist each other, each employing their particular strengths to perform humanity’s common task. Neither can fulfill their vocation alone.

In Genesis 1 and 2, the differences between men and women are chiefly focused upon their wider callings within the world, rather than upon their direct relationships with each other. The woman has to submit to the man’s leadership, not so much because he is given direct authority over her, but because his vocation is the primary and foundational one, relating to the forming that necessarily precedes the filling in God’s own creation activity. She is primarily called to fill and to glorify the structures he establishes and the world he subdues. It’s less a matter of the man having authority over the woman as the woman following the man’s lead. As the man forms, names, tames, establishes the foundations, and guards the boundaries, the woman brings life, communion, glory, and completion. Neither sex accomplishes their task alone, but must rely upon, cooperate with, and assist the other.

The differences between the sexes are also embodied differences. Possessing a womb is not something that can be detached from what it means to be a woman—nor possession of a penis from what it means to be a man. It’s not insignificant that the opening of wombs and circumcision are such central themes throughout the book: the conceiving, bearing, and raising of children are integral to the fulfilment of God’s purpose. In bringing about this purpose, the man’s phallic pride in his virility must be curbed by a sign of God’s promise and his weakness (i.e. circumcision); furthermore, the woman’s insufficiency to bear offspring must be remedied by the power of God.

Socially developed differences of gender extend out from and symbolically highlight the primary differences of our created natures and purposes. Social construction of gender is real, but it operates with the natural reality of difference between the sexes, rather than creating difference ex nihilo. The exact shape of the gendered differences between men and women varies considerably from culture to culture, yet the presence of a gender distinction between men and women is universal. Each culture has its own symbolic language of gender difference. Already within our natural bodies we see features whose purpose is not narrowly functional, but which exist for the purpose of signaling traits associated with virility or femininity to one’s own or the other sex. Hair is a good example here (e.g. long hair on women, beards on men). Most cultures take amplify and symbolize these natural differences by means of such things as clothing. Scripture highlights the importance of such social differences in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul discusses hair, and in Deuteronomy 22:5, where women who wear men’s gear and men who wear women’s robes are condemned.

Expressing sexual difference in a vast array of culturally conjugated ways can display the beauty of our particular differences. Our differences are more than merely random and unstable assortments of contrasts between two classes of persons. Far from it. Our differences are musical and meaningful, inseparably intertwined.

Recognizing this truth, most cultures celebrate sexual difference by developing gendered customs, forms, norms, and traditions. Rather than treating gender, as our culture is often inclined to, as a restrictive, stifling, and legalistic constraint, this approach welcomes sexual difference as an often liberating manifestation of meaning and beauty that resonates with the deep reality of the creation.

Genesis emphasizes not so much the difference between man and woman, but the depth and love of their one-flesh union. Men and women are different, yet those differences aren’t designed to polarize us or pit us against each other. Rather, they’re meant to be expressed in unified yet differentiated activity within the world and in our closest of bonds with each other.

It’s not about difference from each other, but difference for each other. What makes the woman unique is her capacity for complementing labor in profound union with the man. The animals are also helpers, but only the woman is a suitable counterpart for the adam in his vocation; only the woman is the spouse with whom he becomes one flesh. The differences between men and women are precisely features that make them fitting for each other.


This article is adapted from “The Music and the Meaning of Male and Female.” Used with permission from Primer Issue 03 – True to Form. Primer is Copyright © 2016 The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC). All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University in England) works for the Theopolis, Davenant, and Greystone Institutes. He participates in the Mere Fidelity and Theopolis podcasts, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.

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