A Theology of Sex and Gender (Part 2): The Covenant with Creation and Imago Dei

A Theology of Sex and Gender (Part 2): The Covenant with Creation and Imago Dei

This is the second installment of the series, “A Theology of Sex and Gender.” You can find Part 1 here

A Christian worldview begins with God’s great act of creation. The biblical authors, and even Jesus Himself, regularly grounded their arguments in God’s creational design and order (cf. Matt. 19:4-5; 1 Tim. 2:13-14). Furthermore, since Scripture is a story, it is appropriate to start at the beginning. Therefore, we should begin in Genesis to ground our understanding of sex and gender.

Genesis 1-2 are complementary pictures of God’s creation of the world and humanity.[1] God first creates the world and then He creates humanity in His image to live in it and have dominion over it (Gen. 1:26-28). In Genesis 1-2, God establishes a covenant with creation and this creational covenant sets the agenda for the rest of the biblical story.

Man and Woman Created in the Divine Image

Creation begins with God: “In the beginning, God…” (Gen. 1:1). God made everything that exist, even though He is unmade. God’s creative act was also purposeful with a pattern of “forming” and “filling.” God forms the basic areas of creation on days 1-3 (like land, seas, etc.) and then fills them on days 4-6 (with animals, fish, etc.). Even though God’s work on days 1-5 was good, the concise description of God’s creative work in days 1-5 compared to the lengthy treatment of day 6 suggests that day 6— with the creation of humanity—is indeed the highlight or climax of Genesis 1:1-31.[2] Moreover, it is humanity, and humanity alone, which is made in God’s image.

The Image of God: Survey of Views

So what is the image of God? Theologians have debated the exact nature of God’s image for a long time. The majority view throughout church history has been that the image is some kind of “spiritual” aspect of humanity, whether the soul or man’s ability to reason or the ability to make moral judgments.[3] A more recent view argues that the image is man’s function—ruling and reigning on God’s behalf. [4] German theologian Karl Barth has argued that the image is the duality of the genders, humanity made as male and female.

Yet these common views of the image are not correct.[5] The spiritual view is largely foisted upon the text, instead of derived from the text itself.  The terms “image” and “likeness” are never used to refer to the human soul or the ability to reason or make moral judgments. In addition, the function of humanity (i.e. ruling and reigning) is a result of being made in the divine image. Furthermore, Old Testament scholar Peter Gentry writes that the “divine image is not be explained by or located in terms of the duality of the genders.”[6] If image of God was dependent on the duality of the genders, then Jesus would not be the image of God since he was only male (Col 1:15). Contrary to Barth’s view, every man and every woman is fully in the image of God. A man does not need a relationship with a woman to complete God’s image in himself and vice versa.

Therefore, the image of God must be something other than the “spiritual” aspects of a person or the purpose/function of humanity. Thankfully, the grammar of Genesis 1:26-27 can shed much light upon what the image of God actually is.

The Image of God: Grammatical Analysis. A grammatical analysis of the text reveals that a certain immaterial aspect of a person (the “soul”) is not what the divine image is. It also  shows that the teaching on the duality of gender is a feature of humanity’s creation, but not the divine image itself.

To explore the definition of the divine image, it is important to note that the normal pattern for Hebrew narrative is for each main sentence to begin with and.” Hebrew narrative usually unfolds with the typical sequence like this: “And this happened…and that happened.” When a sentence does not begin with and” in Hebrew, it marks off a digression or comment to the story.[7] In sum, sentences which do not begin with “and” Hebrew narrative are not the main ideas! They are comments, like explanatory footnotes to the story.

When analyzing Genesis 1:27-28, we find both verses have a  “main” sentence and then two “commentary” sentences. Here is a layout of the clauses:

27 And God created mankind in His image, according to His likeness.

A In the image of God He created him.

B Male and female, He created them.

28 And God said:

B’ Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

A’ Rule over the fish/birds/animals.

The overarching idea is that God creates humanity in His image (1:27) and God speaks blessing over them (1:28). Notice how the two commentary clauses under each main sentence match up in ABB’A’ sequence. The initial comment clause prepares readers for God’s commissioning of humanity to rule over fish/birds/animals (A matches up with A’). The teaching on God’s creation of humanity as “male” and “female” then prepares readers for the command to “Be fruitful and multiply” (B matches up with B’). Therefore, the duality of the genders is not the divine image but the way that humanity is intended to be fruitful and multiply. (Peter Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant, 188-189).

If the duality of genders is not the divine image, then what is?  Studying the terms “image” and “likeness” reveals the nature of being made in God’s image. The word “image” is frequently used of material objects.[8] In the Ancient Near East, kings were typically the “image” of the gods, meaning that the kings were like walking, breathing “statues” who represented the rule of the god in the world.[9] In biblical usage, the term is also connected with “ruling” over the created order as referenced in Psalm 8. So, the term “image” refers to royal status.[10] Humans are like “living statues” of God who are given royal rule over the created order. The term “likeness” speaks of humanity’s personal relationship with God. For example, there is a father-son relationship loaded into the term likeness, especially in Genesis 5:1-3.[11]

The image of God speaks primarily to what human beings are and the kind of relationships they have. Human beings are the image of God. And the image largely consists of being a royal “son” of God who is a servant-king over creation. 

So what does this mean for a biblical theology of sex and gender? It means first that all people are created in God’s image: both men and women. Men are not “incomplete” as God’s image if they are not married. The same holds true with women. What the text also shows us, however, is that the duality of the sexes prepares us to receive God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. From the very beginning, God’s aim in the creation of two sexes was for them to be united as one in order to bring forth new life (Gen 2:21-24).

This means also that “maleness” and “femaleness” are what we are. They are not specific callings on people. Being “wife” is a calling. Being a “husband” is a calling. Yet, a woman can still be female and not a wife; likewise, a man can still be male without being a husband. Genesis 1 shows that both sexes are made in God’s image and both sexes are different from each other. Biological sex, then, is a good gift from God.

All Posts in this Series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part SixPart Seven

[1] Although some scholars see a significant difference between Genesis one and Genesis two, these chapters should be seen as complementary to each rather than contradictory.

[2] Peter Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant: Humanity in the Divine Image.” SBJT 12/1 (Spring 2008), 22-23.

[3] D.J.A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man.” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968), 54-61.

[4] Ibid., 101.

[5] Peter Gentry, “The Covenant with Creation in Genesis 1-3” in Kingdom Through Covenant, 186.

[6] Ibid., 189.

[7] Duane Garrett, A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Nashville; B&H Academic, 2009), 285.

[8] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 16.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gentry, “Covenant with Creation,” 196.

[11] Ibid., 195.

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