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Topic: Genesis 1–3

What does the creation story teach about gender and sex?

March 22, 2018

You’ve heard the argument before. Every youth pastor in America has probably encountered it in one form or another, perhaps in the teen who quips, “But the Bible doesn’t say anything about not smoking marijuana!” And strictly speaking, the teen is right. Pick up a concordance and you’d be hard pressed to locate an entry for chapter and verse references on some of the culture’s hottest topics: “abortion,” “cloning,” “nuclear warfare.” Thus, the argument typically goes, the Bible is useless in rendering moral judgments on these issues. But, as every youth pastor in America has probably had to say, this very flat-footed view of the Scriptures can be corrected by a proper understanding of biblical theology.

Teenagers are one thing—they are still developing their prefrontal cortex, after all—but this is essentially the same argument leveled by Jay Michaelson in an article for the Daily Beast where he lambasts a newly adopted resolution on transgenderism by the Kansas Republican Party. The resolution was proposed by Eric Teetsel, director of the Kansas Family Policy Alliance. While Teetsel has ably responded to much of Michaelson’s argument elsewhere, I wish to zero in on one aspect of what Michaelson says. According to Michaelson,

“[T]he creation story says nothing about gender. Notice how the end of the [transgender] resolution talks about ‘God’s design for gender as determined by biological sex.’ Where did that come from? What chapter and verse?”

It might be news to you that “the creation story says nothing about gender.” But that could be because you are not aware of the new rules assumed by Michaelson as a foregone conclusion: the definitional chasm that has apparently opened up recently between the terms “sex” and “gender.” This chasm is crucial to understanding the current cultural conversations raging around gender and sexuality. As Michaelson explains,

“Remember, sex is not the same as gender. Definitionally, sex is about chromosomes; gender is about cultural practices. Sex is what is between our legs; gender is what is between our ears. My male sex means I can grow a beard; my male gender means it’s socially acceptable for me to do so – but not, in conservative societies, to wear high heels and makeup. Of course, there’s nothing objectively male or female about shoes and clothes; they are aspects of gender, and they are socially constructed.”

Now, there is a kernel of truth to this argument. Strictly speaking, there is a conceptual difference between biological sexual realities and cultural gender signals. But citing this definitional difference as if it supports the argument that “the creation story says nothing about gender” is misleading. Michaelson would have us believe that the biblical authors operated with the same categorical understanding of “gender” and “sex” as progressives trade in today. But it doesn’t take a PhD in biblical studies to understand that the biblical authors’ notion of “gender” and “sex” are correlated—if at all distinct.

In Genesis 1:27, the Bible says God created mankind “male” and “female.”

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

Michaelson cites this verse to say, essentially, “See, the creation story is about sex (male/female) not gender (man/woman).” To be sure, the Hebrew words for “male” (zkr) and “female” (nĕqēb) refer to humanity as a sexuated binary, with subtle etymological reference to the sexual organs that distinguish males from females. But it does not automatically follow that these words have no bearing on God’s creating humanity as “man” and “woman.”

The creation story does not end in Genesis chapter 1, but continues in chapter 2. There we read of God taking a rib out of the side of Man, Adam, and forming Woman, Eve. At the sight of Eve, Adam exclaims:

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (ish), because she was taken out of Man (sh).” (Gen 2:28)

Directly after this, the author of Genesis universalizes the principle embedded in God’s (binary) creation of man and woman and in Adam’s subsequent exclamation and, crucially, roots it in a purpose, God’s reason behind his binary creation of mankind:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:29)

Of course, here we find the very verse Jesus quotes in order to ground his definition of marriage, thus reaffirming the timeless nature of this truth that God built into the warp and woof of creation (Mt 19:5; Mark 10:7). In this way, marriage is God’s designed mode for carrying out his other stated purpose behind his creation of a binary mankind in the commission he gave in Genesis 1:28.

So even if we cede Michaelson’s definitional categories for a moment, we would still have to say that while the creation story in Genesis 1 may focus more explicitly on biological sex, the (continued) story of creation in Genesis 2 clearly speaks of God’s creation of mankind in two—and thus, necessarily, binary—corresponding genders. For in Genesis 2 we read of God creating not merely mankind as “male” and “female,” but as “man” and “woman” with relational roles (cf. 1 Cor 11:9).

When we read these narratives together, however, as they are clearly meant to be read, the inherent and therefore coherent binary in God’s creating humanity as “male/man” and “female/woman” shines forth. What is “man,” but the “male” of Genesis 1:27? And what is “woman”—woodenly, “the one from man”—but the corresponding “female”? God creates males for manhood and females for womanhood—and to rebel against this is an abomination (cf. Dt 22:5).

Far from Michaelson’s claim that the creation story says nothing about gender, instead we find gender—manhood and womanhood—actually rooted in God’s creation of the male and female sexes. The disunion between gender and sex that is popular in today’s discourse simply does not match the way the Bible speaks of men and women. Kevin DeYoung makes a similar point where he writes,

“As much as contemporary academia says otherwise, the Bible believes in the organic unity of biological sex and gender identity. This is why male and female are (uniquely) the type of pair that can reproduce (Gen. 1:282:20). It’s why homosexuality—a man lying with a man as with a woman (Lev. 18:22)—is wrong. It’s why the apostle Paul can speak of homosexual partnerships as deviating from the natural relations or natural function of male-female sexual intercourse (Rom. 1:26-27). In each instance, the argument only works if there is an assumed equivalence between the biology of sexual difference and the corresponding identities of male and female.”

It is good news that God created mankind male and female. We do not have to suffer under the existential angst of self-definition. It is God who defines us, and God has created and called us male and female, man and woman.

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