Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

Some Reflections on Genesis 1-3 and a Critique of an Egalitarian Interpretation

Richard S. Hess
May 2009

Mr. J. Ligon Duncan III’s article appeared some three years ago (accessed online May 3, 2009 at http://www.cbmw.org/Resources/Book-Reviews/Equality-with-and-without-Innocence-by-Richard-S-Hess-from-Discovering-Biblical-Equality). It was apparently the concern of the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to provide responses to each of the chapters appearing in the volume edited by Robert W. Pierce, Rebecca M. Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004). That so much labor should be expended on a single volume is itself a testament to the importance and the impact of the Pierce, Groothuis, and Fee work.

Download a copy of Equality With and Without Innocence (200kb PDF)

It is not clear why Mr. Duncan was chosen to respond to my contribution in that volume, “Equality with and without Innocence: Genesis 1–3” (pp. 79-95). As best I can tell Mr. Duncan is a theologian rather than a biblical scholar. This may explain why not once in his analysis of my essay does he choose to address any of the Hebrew arguments. Yet these arguments are critical for the strength or weakness of any interpretation of the Genesis text. Instead, Mr. Duncan chooses to emphasize his commitment to divine inspiration as defined by texts in the New Testament. Indeed, the first two pages of his article seem entirely devoted to multiple assertions and quotations of this doctrine from the New Testament. This is coupled with the second sentence of his essay where we learn that “the apostle Paul gives us the definitive, inspired, new covenant expositions and applications of this passage to the issue of male-female role relationships in the church in 1 Timothy 2-3, and in marriage and family in Ephesians 5.” Mr. Duncan does not wish to argue the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 on the merits of the text itself, but to pre-empt the Reformation tradition of grammatical-historical exegesis by an appeal to a rationalistic understanding of a surface reading of some New Testament texts. Indeed, the logic of his argument would not require going beyond his first paragraph. Genesis 1-3 cannot stand by itself but must be accepted as dependent on and ancillary to the New Testament texts. Yet this is not the logic of either the canon or the progress of divine revelation. Nor does it affirm the integrity of key biblical texts to stand on their own. Indeed, this method hearkens back to Marcion and the ancient heresy that failed to ascribe full inspiration to the whole of Scripture. Mr. Duncan “doth protest too much” in his repeated assertions of divine inspiration. They are less a consistent method that he adopts and more a cover for his interpretation of the New Testament at the expense of the Old Testament. Thus the methodology is deeply flawed from the beginning: it neither follows the historical grammatical interpretation of the full canon of Scripture as affirmed by orthodox Christian tradition, nor does it address the specific grammatical and historical interpretations of the Hebrew text on which the basis of my own essay rests. Mr. Duncan ignores the former in order to privilege his own interpretation of selected New Testament texts; and he avoids the latter, betraying neither awareness of the Hebrew text nor a grasp of the nature of my arguments.
Mr. Duncan stresses that my essay lacks “significant positive affirmation for our lives together as man and woman.” He does not mention my observations: (1) that Genesis 1:26 “anticipates the story of Genesis 2 and the harmony enjoyed by the man and the woman”; (2) that “chapter 2 explains humanity’s special relationship with God by focusing on ‘the man’ and exploring the harmonious relationships that he enjoyed with his God, his work, his world and his partner”; and (3) that chapter 3 describes the breakdown of this harmony caused by sin and yet does not see this breakdown as irreparable. Does Mr. Duncan not regard my repeated emphasis on the harmony of the relationship between the man and the woman (mentioned twelve times in the essay and twice in the footnotes) a “significant positive affirmation”? Perhaps he sees harmonious relationships as somehow negative. I do not know. However, the absence of any awareness of my emphasis on harmony leads me to suspect that a careful reading of my essay was not a focus of Mr. Duncan’s concern. Far from being “unfriendly ground for egalitarians,” Genesis 1-3 is the starting point and foundation from which all exegetical arguments regarding the nature of women, men, and their relationships should proceed.

In his fourth paragraph of his response Mr. Duncan wishes somehow to accuse me of not adhering to a belief in verbal plenary inspiration. His case rests upon my argument that the term ’adam was part of the pre-biblical language of Hebrew that was adopted and used in the Old Testament. This was the term for the human species in Hebrew, and there was no other so used. Mr. Duncan, after citing many New Testament verses on inspiration, seeks to indict me for failing to appreciate the “further theological significance” of the term as a male term that God decided to use to show the functional superiority of males over females. Yet, despite all of his assertions of divine inspiration, Mr. Duncan’s argument fails to successfully conclude anything because I never deny the theological significance of the term (something he is never able to demonstrate in his attack on my work). Rather, I deny that there is an inherent masculine intention to affirm male functional superiority in Genesis 1, in the history of the use of ’adam, and in the many other biblical occurrences of ’adam in the Bible that refer to humanity in general. This conclusion rests on a study of the biblical and extra-biblical usage of the term; something Mr. Duncan never addresses nor challenges in his critique. Instead, he assumes what he seeks to prove; a classic example of a circular argument and unfortunately a method that will recur in his essay.
Mr. Duncan argues that I am wrong to separate the gender distinction of male and female from the image of God in Gen. 1:26-28. Consistent with his concern to ignore the Old Testament in favor of the New Testament, Mr. Duncan is content to characterize me as “arbitrary” and my case as not “even adequately argued.” However, the sole basis he provides for this link of gender distinction and the image of God is Ephesians 5. Yet any reading of Ephesians 5 will fail to uncover explicit mention of the image of God. It does not appear there. Again, Mr. Duncan, in his eagerness to accuse me of violating his perception of the way things should be, is not burdened by the need to argue facts, but happily cites irrelevant texts to try to prove a point that the Bible nowhere makes. I would again assert that the importance of the social relationship of male and female is made explicit by God’s words, “Let us make ’adam in our image.” A gender distinction is not, however, demonstrated by any explicit connection with the image of God in Gen. 1:26-28.

Let us now turn to Mr. Duncan’s attack on my argument regarding Genesis 2 and the issue of the order of creation. Mr. Duncan ignores my arguments regarding the text of Genesis 2 in its ancient Near Eastern context and in terms of the actual and explicit words of Genesis 2. Predictably, the Old Testament and its interpretation are irrelevant, except as it is authoritatively analyzed by the New Testament. So Mr. Duncan does not need to study the Hebrew text or the cultural context in which it was written. For him the historical grammatical method applies only to the New Testament and, like Marcion, he can safely ignore the Old Testament. Unfortunately, even an acceptance of this position – loaded as it is with heretical tendencies and self-contradictory methods for the interpretation of Scripture in its original context – cannot rescue Mr. Duncan from an approach ridden with logical and evidentiary flaws. This is in part due to the lack of awareness of scholarly studies of the Pastoral epistles in general and 1 Timothy in particular. Rather than interacting with Evangelical egalitarian scholars who have written the finest commentaries on these texts for our generation – and here I think of I. Howard Marshall and his thorough Greek contribution in the International Critical Commentary series, and of Philip Towner and his massive study in Eerdmans’ New International Commentary on the New Testament – Mr. Duncan invents what he perceives to be objections to his arguments and then triumphantly casts aside these straw men. While such an analysis may be easy to write, it does not contribute to the search for truth but only confirms those who are already convinced. Indeed, according to Mr. Duncan the only recourse for those who would disagree with him is to mock Paul. Of course, this is neither correct nor legitimate. The complex interaction of the author of 1 Timothy with (proto-)Gnostic tendencies in the congregations of that early period in the Christian church raises questions as to how much of 1 Timothy 2 forms a quotation of those Gnostics whom the apostle may wish to refute. If this is the case, then the text need not be understood as some sort of authoritative interpretation regarding Genesis 2. It may instead be just the opposite; the reference to a position that the author does not accept and that forms part of an early heresy. It is well known that Gnosticism debased women and regarded them as sinful. So the utilization of arguments such as those found in 1 Timothy 2 would be perfectly consistent with the Gnostic tendency to misunderstand Genesis in favor of (Neo-)Platonic rationalization. Mr. Duncan exhibits no awareness of these tendencies nor of the philosophical challenges faced by the early Christian church.

Mr. Duncan does not hesitate to accuse me of ignoring 1 Timothy 2 (something I supposedly do rather “than engaging the unfriendly turf of a substantive wrestling with the implication of 1 Timothy 2”) or to accuse me of “a classic strategy of diversion.” This is odd because my responsibility was to address the question of Genesis 1-3. Only a Marcion-like approach would assume that the proper interpretation of Genesis 1-3 can only be made by studying 1 Timothy 2 rather than the text of Genesis itself. In this perspective, Genesis 1-3 cannot stand on its own but must be interpreted by the New Testament. Yet this is not the view of the apostles and the New Testament for whom the Old Testament was logically and canonically prior. All New Testament interpretations required a logical interpretation of the Old Testament first.

Even so, Mr. Duncan wishes to confirm that I must be wrong regarding my arguments on primogeniture because the Genesis accounts assume it in order to show its reversal. However, what they assume is a cultural expectation of primogeniture, not a divinely ordained one. It is God who by his choice of Isaac over Ishmael, of Jacob over Esau, of Joseph over his brothers, and of later generations, overturned the cultural expectation. The matter of primogeniture is a human cultural expectation; it is never affirmed in the biblical text. This is not a reversal of a divinely ordained institution; but of the sort of human expectations that God often delights in challenging. Mr. Duncan’s decision to address primogeniture as an assumption behind the interpretation of Genesis 2 is just that, a human assumption, very much man made. God repeatedly teaches in Genesis that this is not the way he chooses to work. In a single paragraph, Mr. Duncan here manages to exhibit heretical tendencies to devalue parts of Scripture, to accept a human cultural form as more authoritative than a biblically revealed divine equality, and to ignore my further argument that comparative creation narratives exhibit no evidence of primogeniture in their discussion of the creation order of females and males. To the contrary, these other accounts at times mention the female before the male, despite being more patriarchal in their attitudes and society than early Israel.

Mr. Duncan turns to the matter of naming objects, animals, and people. In so doing he cites part of a sentence where I argue that naming the animals is not in and of itself an explicit act of exerting authority. He ignores the very next sentence where I explain that the act of naming here serves as a means of classification rather than as a means of exerting authority. Instead, he insists that because the man and woman were given authority over animals in Genesis 1:26, then every activity that involves the man and animals must be an exercise of that authority. This of course runs into problems in chapter 3 where few would see the snake’s influence (the snake of course is an animal) on the man and woman as one of the exercise of authority by the man. Therefore, it does not logically follow that the naming of the animals in chapter 2 must be an exercise of authority over the animals just because it is subsequent to Genesis 1:26.
I do not deny that the man and woman are given authority over all creation, including the animals. I only dispute that this act of naming must be the exercise of authority. In fact, the act of naming does not prove anything. Certainly parents who name a child are authority figures in reference to that child However, the mere act of naming is nowhere in the Bible described as necessarily an exertion of authority. Clearly Isaac had no authority over the wells he dug in Genesis 26:20 and 21, because they were claimed and used by the herders of Gerar at the time that he named them. Rather, the names indicated the circumstances surrounding the wells. In Ruth 4:17 Ruth’s son is named by the women of Bethlehem, not by anyone who exercises authority over the baby. In fact, naming practices varied in ancient Israel just as they did in Genesis (and have ever since). What is consistent in Genesis 1-11 is that every person’s name, where the meaning can be determined, plays a significant role in the narratives and genealogies. It has nothing to do with who has authority over whom. See R. Hess, Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1-11 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009).

When the man names the animals in Genesis 2, he is continuing God’s act of creation in which God divided the light from the darkness, the waters above from those below, and the waters below from the dry ground. The man continues to distinguish the world and to order it by recognizing the role and function of each of the animals. As is customary in ancient Near Eastern myths where gods create parts of the world by naming them and thereby assigning them roles and functions, so in Genesis 1 God created the world by speaking and naming the sky, the waters, the dry ground, and the life that inhabited it. See John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), p. 188. The same is true of the man who, by naming the animals, recognizes their roles and functions. He no more exerts his authority over the animals in Genesis 2 than he creates them out of nothing. Only God can do this. However, the man does follow the injunction of Genesis 1:26 by continuing the work of creation and identifying the function of these creatures.

The same is true of the naming of Eve in Genesis 3:20. This cannot be understand as an exertion of authority because the “meaning” of the name is a wordplay on the root, “to live,” here in a noun derived from the Piel stem with its frequent factitive sense, “to give life.” God already identified this role for Eve in 3:16. Therefore the source of the name’s meaning and function was God, not the man. When the man “called the name of his wife Eve,” he was seconding the role God had given her. The same recognition of a role occurs when Abner calls Saul, King (1 Samuel 17:55), or when we may call the president of our country, Mr./Madam President. These are not demonstrations of authority over the one so “named.” When Mr. Duncan concludes that “Naming is an act of leadership-a point so obvious as to require no argumentation whatsoever,” he again succumbs to his own rhetoric rather than adducing any evidence.
Sadly, the rhetorical deluge continues. Having ignored the biblical, exegetical, and contextual arguments presented in my article, Mr. Duncan uses his final paragraph to insist that none exist. My presentation “is unable to generate any positive, constructive, exegetical or theological argumentation.” My discussion is “a series of undemonstrated assertions, accompanied by interesting but tangential observations with no direct, obvious (and certainly not conclusive) bearing on the debate.” I invite the interested reader to examine the articles and responses by Mr. Duncan and myself, and to decide whether this constitutes an accurate assessment. As I noted at the beginning of this response, not once in his analysis of my essay does Mr. Duncan choose to address any of the Hebrew arguments. Yet these arguments are critical for the strength or weakness of any interpretation of the Genesis text. Stating that I have not presented any arguments will not make them go away.

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