Genesis 1:27 modified NIV

Male and female: Equality and order in Genesis 1:27

I’ve recently picked up the Kindle version of Kevin Giles’s book What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women (Eugene: Cascade, 2018). While I’m not in agreement with Giles on every issue, I expect to learn some things from his book. I expect to come to a greater understanding of how egalitarian exegesis works, from an influential and prolific exponent of this position. And I expect to be challenged to see areas where I and other complementarians need to change in some way: perhaps repent, or at least sharpen up. Indeed, I have learnt a number of useful things already (for more, see below).

Yet I’ve also been a little disappointed at certain points by how Giles treats his complementarian opponents. Giles’s primary conversation partners are Andreas J. and Margaret E. Köstenberger, in their book God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014). In this particular blog post, I want to discuss an accusation which Giles makes against the Köstenbergers as he begins to discuss the details of a highly significant text: Genesis 1:27. Now I have a few questions of my own about whether all the implications the Köstenbergers wish to draw from the text are justified. However, I wasn’t especially helped here by Giles’s discussion. That’s because, as Giles critiques the Köstenbergers’ approach, he doesn’t read the details of Genesis 1:27 carefully enough, and so simply ends up making a sweeping statement that his complementarian opponents’ reading is “not serious scholarship”. Yet the arguments Giles uses to make this accusation contains some significant issues of their own, including an (initial) error in reading the Hebrew. So I think the way this particular discussion has proceeded ends up hindering, rather than helping, constructive discussion about the Bible.

I thought I’d spell out the discussion here, since grappling with the issues has helped me to go back to the text, to come to a deeper understanding of what the text does and doesn’t say about men and women, and to clarify the kinds of questions that still need to be asked.

What Genesis 1:27 says

Genesis 1:27 is foundational for this discussion, not least because it is the place where “male and female” is first mentioned in Genesis. For clarity, here’s the verse (I’ve used the Revised Standard Version, marking significant words in bold and including the Hebrew + Greek):

So God created man (hā’ādām / ton anthrōpon) in his own image,
in the image of God he created him (’ōtô / auton);
male and female he created them (’ōtām / autous).

Genesis 1:27 (RSV with MT + LXX)

This is a significant verse, full of meaning, which has generated a great deal of discussion. One of the key features that commentators observe is this: there are three clauses, with a progression from singular to plural. The first two clauses speak of humanity in the singular (as “Adam”/”man” or “humanity”, then “him”), while the third clause speaks of humanity in the plural (as “male and female” and “them”). Here’s the pattern:

  1. singular humanity/man/mankind/Adam (’ādām / anthrōpon)
  2. singular him (’ōtô / auton) – NB this is masculine singular
  3. plural them (’ōtām / autous)

The third clause in this verse is very significant (and often noted), because it implies a fundamental equality between male and female. This equality is shown by the change to the plural, and the mention of “male and female” together (note also the plurality in verses 26 and 28). This equality as male and female in the image of God is supremely important for our understanding of men and women. Equality matters deeply. There is broad agreement here: nobody I’m aware of disputes this.

Yet at the same time, there’s also a progression in these verses. The three clauses are ordered from singular “Adam” to singular “him” to plural “them”. The issue in the interpretation of the verse that is relevant to this particular discussion between egalitarians and complementarians is this: what does this progression mean?

What the Köstenbergers say about Genesis 1:27

When the Köstenbergers approach Genesis 1:26–28 (pp. 28–32), they begin—quite appropriately—with a detailed discussion of the way both male and female together are created in God’s image (pp. 28–31). Then, they move on to highlight the progression that occurs in Genesis 1:27. They see it as significant that “the name for the man (ādām) in Genesis 1:26–27 (and later in 5:1–2) is the Hebrew name for the race at large” (p. 31). They provide a table with key instances of the term ādām (pp. 31–32), highlighting especially the progression from “hā-ādām” to “him” to “them” in verse 27 (p. 31). The initial point they are making here is that within the co-regency of men and women described in verses 26–28, there is also an order, a progression from a masculine singular hā’ādām, which elsewhere is the name of the man, to the plural “male and female”.

I believe they’re on to something here. That’s because, as commentators generally recognise, when we look at the verse closely, we see that it is indeed written in a way that seeks to draw out a certain progression. “The man” or “humanity” hā’ādām is first referred to with a masculine singular pronoun “him” and then with a plural pronoun “them” (i.e. male and female). This progression seems to be part of what the verse is seeking to say. If this distinction and progression were not significant at all in the verse–i.e. if the only important thing about this verse were that humanity is plural–then the second clause would be entirely redundant. So there’s something being expressed by the progression: man/humanity (clause 1) is to be conceived of firstly as singular (clause 2), then as a plurality of man and woman together (clause 3).

The Köstenbergers, then, are clearly dealing here with the text of Scripture, at a detailed level. Of course, they might possibly be wrong, but they are taking a scholarly approach to the text, reading it carefully, and drawing out implications from the contours of that text. There is a progression, and it is significant to the discourse somehow. The question, of course, is what this significance is.

The Köstenbergers see this progression and order as foreshadowing the order of creation of man and woman spelled out in chapter 2, and thereby suggesting the principle of “male headship” (p. 31), which they later describe as “leadership” (p. 33). Is this what the ordering is all about? Well, this is the point that needs to be debated and discussed. And further scholarly debate and discussion about this question would, in fact, be quite helpful.

“Not serious scholarship”: How Kevin Giles argues against the Köstenbergers

As he approaches Genesis 1:27, Giles is not particularly interested in the significance in the progression from “Adam” / masculine singular “him” to plural “them” within the verse. Rather, he regards the existence of plurality–male and female–as the primary (and seemingly only) thing that matters. For example, he writes:

The Hebrew “‘adam” [sic] in this stanza must mean “humankind” because the ‘adam is the male and the female… What Gen 1:27 teaches is that humanity is male and female. God created one species, humankind, in two sexes….

Kevin Giles, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women (Eugene: Cascade, 2018), chapter 4, “In the Beginning: Genesis 1–3”

Now of course, this is indeed the overall thrust of the verse. However, as we have seen, the Köstenbergers have noticed something else in this verse, something that exists alongside the concept of equality. They see a progression–an order–and they draw out implications from this order. Yet Giles does not really engage with their reading of the text; he simply claims that they are engaging in an “exotic complementarian interpretation”, which is “not serious scholarship” but rather “special pleading”:

In their discussion of this text the Köstenbergers begin by affirming the scholarly consensus but then at the end in one paragraph they move to the often-given exotic complementarian interpretation that here the word ‘adam means man (the male) in distinction to woman. On this view, it is from ‘adam, the man (male), emerge the male and the female. The Köstenbergers conclude this suggests “male headship.” This is not serious scholarship. It is special pleading.

Kevin Giles, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women (Eugene: Cascade, 2018), chapter 4, “In the Beginning: Genesis 1–3”

I don’t think this is fair. The progression from “the man (male)” to “the male and female” which the Köstenbergers have drawn out is based on something in the text, and it needs to be discussed and engaged with on these terms and, if necessary, refuted. It is “serious scholarship”, and it is these claims about the text that Giles should be engaging with.

I think there are a couple of related issues here.

Issue 1: It’s vital to deal closely with the text of Scripture in these discussions

There’s some history that’s worth knowing: In the original version of his book, Giles was not actually exegeting the text of Genesis 1:27 directly from the Hebrew. Rather, he was relying too much on modern English versions in which “him” is often changed to “them” (presumably because that’s how to render a collective in English). He thus completely missed the masculine singular in the second clause, mistakenly regarding it as a plural. Here is a quote from the original version of his book (screenshot here):

This verse is a threefold Hebraic poetic stanza. In the first line ‘adam is in the singular, in the second line the plural “them” appears, and in the third line the reason for the plural “them” is made plain, ‘adam is male and female.

Giles, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women (Eugene: Cascade, 2018), chapter 4, “In the Beginning: Genesis 1–3”

I pointed this error out to Giles privately, and to his credit he has admitted that he had indeed made a “bad mistake” here. In fact, he has asked his editors to correct this mistake in subsequent printings of the book. He noted in his defence that he had “2 very competent OT scholars read the chapter before publication and they both missed this error”, which he said was “understandable as like me they may have had several modern translations that give the plural in their head when they read my work”. Furthermore, he does not believe the mistake makes any material difference for his argument; he believes it is a minor error because, as he wrote to me, “I build or base absolutely nothing on how line 2 in this threefold stanza is translated. I do not appeal to line 2 for anything.”

However, while it is true that Giles himself does not build on clause 2, I think that this detail he has missed in clause 2 is substantially more important for his critique of his complementarian discussion partners than he realises. This is because the Köstenbergers whom he is critiquing are making a point about order: a progression from Adam, a “man” to “male and female”. If the masculine singular pronoun in clause 2 were not there then yes, this idea of a progression would indeed be utterly “exotic”, and Giles would be right to immediately dismiss it as “not serious scholarship”. But since the masculine singular pronoun is indeed there, the Köstenbergers’ interpretation is at least worth considering. The existence of the progression, and the interpretation based on it, needs to be dealt with, not just dismissed.

Now it might possibly be true that the Köstenbergers have made too much of the fact that Adam is the name for the man, and that the name Adam is recalled using the masculine singular pronoun “him” before it is recalled by the plural “them”. If Giles had argued carefully on the basis of the Hebrew text, he might have pointed this out. For example, he might have said “Yes, there is evidence here in the text which might imply a progression; but there are reasons why I believe it doesn’t carry any weight for the argument…” And then Giles’s readers could have evaluated his views. But he does not do this; he simply critiques the Köstenbergers’ exegesis as “exotic” and moves on. So sadly, in a discussion of a part of Scripture which Giles claims is of “supreme importance”, we don’t find a good, detailed discussion of the text in dialogue with complementarians; rather, we find a sweeping and imprecise exegesis, initially involving an error, quickly proceeding to unhelpful scholarly name-calling. This certainly doesn’t help Giles’s own cause, and it isn’t a good model for reasoned discussion about the text or the issues.

Issue 2: We need to clarify the use of words

As I read his book, Giles adopts a concept of “equality” which by its very nature excludes any notion of gender-based order. So at various points here and elsewhere in his book, Giles seems to regard it as sufficient to show that there is equality in given passages of Scripture; if he can show that there is equality, then (the assumption seems to be) he has automatically shown that there is no gender-based order, and we can all move on.

But from the point of view of critiquing complementarian exegesis, this is circular logic. It does not in itself deal with the actual point of the debate between complementarians and egalitarians: Can a real equality (which both sides affirm) co-exist with some real concept of order (which egalitarians deny but complementarians affirm)? The issue is not whether or not there is equality; the issue is whether the equality includes a concept of order. This is the precise question that needs to be discussed.

At the same time, the Köstenbers are also operating with a particular concept of order that seems to assume certain things that aren’t necessarily there in the text: i.e. “male headship” which for them primarily involves “leadership”. It may be the case, for example, that there is an order described in the text, but the implications the Köstenbergers wish to draw about their particular understanding of what this order means are incompatible with the understanding of equality in the text. Perhaps there is a real progression here, but that progression points to something other than an order of hierarchy or of authority/leadership. That is, in fact, a very important question for complementarians to consider: if there is a real kind of asymmetrical and non-reversible order between men and women that is consistent with biblical equality, what is the precise nature of that order? This would be a fruitful area for discussion. But at this point, I don’t think Giles’s argument has helped to advance this discussion.

How much do these issues matter for Giles’s book overall?

So at this point in his book, Kevin Giles’s charge of “not serious scholarship” against the Köstenbergers doesn’t seem to be advancing any discussion; rather, it shuts it down and is itself not great scholarship (especially since it initially didn’t deal closely enough with the Hebrew text).

Now I haven’t finished Giles’s book, so I’m not sure how much this discussion over Genesis 1:27 matters to the overall argument. Certainly, Giles sees Genesis 1–3 as foundational to his case. He begins the chapter by agreeing that “When it comes to the specific and sharp debate between complementarians and evangelical egalitarians, these chapters are certainly of supreme importance” and in the rest of his chapter on Genesis 1–3 keeps referring back to his understanding of Genesis 1 in order to critique the Köstenbergers’ reading of the whole of Genesis 1–3. So I might expect to see this issue resurfacing in his readings of other passages. But how significant it actually is remains to be seen. I’ll need to keep reading his book to see whether his argument here makes a material difference to his case about other Scriptures.

And I will keep reading the book, because I’m sure I’ll keep learning things from Giles’s observations, even if I’m not convinced by all his arguments. In particular, one thing I’ve already learnt from this discussion is that complementarians need to think very hard as they spell out the nature of any kind of order within man-woman complementarity that we/they affirm. And, of course, it is vitally important that whenever we engage in this debate, we do so looking closely at the text of Scripture: where possible, with our Hebrew and Greek firmly in front of us, with a careful eye to the details of God’s word, and of course prayerfully considering how we can rightly relate to one another as men and women.