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January 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 1 · pp. 34–36 

Hearing the Word

Equal and Different: Listening Again to Genesis 1:26-2:25

John Regehr

Perhaps in all liberation movements not all strides are forward strides. The forward strides in the current liberation of women I want to acclaim. The church should rejoice when women break out of their boxes and the church comes to benefit from their gifts. What is distressing is the stepping out of some women who cry “equality” but fight for sameness.

Listen again to the early biblical creation accounts in an effort to hear what God says about the equality of and difference between man and woman.


On the basis of the Bible’s opening statement we assert: having dominion over the earth is related to being human (“man”) rather than to being either male or female (vs. 26-27). Persons, quite apart from their sexuality, exercise dominion over the world of nature, animal or plant. It is “man,” i.e., the human being, not the male who is given dominion over the earth. The mandate to subdue the earth and have dominion over it was given to male and female equally.

Both male and female are made in the image of God (v. 27). There is nobility in being human, whether male or female. We insult our creator if we speak disparagingly of our humanity.

Karl Barth links the two key concepts of v. 27, making the complementariness of maleness and femaleness an aspect of the image of God. This highlights the relational dimension of our humanness. God too is relational. Neither male nor female has an advantage over the mate in carrying the divine imprint.


God made them male and female (v. 27). Equality is inferred but {35} in the text the difference is highlighted. They are not unequal, but they are different. To respect the difference is to respect the creator.

There is a distinct creation order (vs. 7-8). The man (the male is implied here) was created first. Paul bases his admonition for women’s silence in the church on creation chronology (1 Tim. 2:13). A sense of headship is certainly implied, especially when we include the prohibitions regarding fruit eating—prohibitions which were conveyed to the man (Gen. 2:15-17).


I used to interpret this verse in a rather traditional way: God gave man a job to do; it proved to be too much for him so God made the woman to help the man do his job better. That is not what the text says.

The heart of the text has to do with personal isolation. Man can form significant relationships with other species in the creation, certainly. A man’s best friend may be his dog or his horse. Yet some dimension of man is unfulfilled in such relationships. The text depicts man as unfulfilled with various animals, discovering their nature, and naming them in keeping with his findings. But they are all different from him in ways that make intimate communication impossible. He is human, they are not. A man may choose to live with wolves and beavers for a time, but ultimately they are not “fit for him.” Among these he has dominion; he is not a peer.

God says, “It is not good that man should be alone.” Would he have said the same thing if he had made the woman first? Futile speculation, perhaps. The larger principle is clear: human isolation is not good; persons need persons. Males have reason to pay special attention. When a woman chooses to remain single, or finally says yes to what she did not choose, she is generally able to establish relationships other than marriage which provide the personal nurturing she needs. Men seem to have more difficulty, for a man who has chosen to remain unmarried seems more prone to isolate himself and to become a recluse. Often the personality shows signs of deprivation. God does not say, “It is not good that man should be unmarried.” The concern is with isolation, and with the need to find relationships that “fit.” But it is also true that marriage fits.


The difference is not the difference that the man discovered between himself and the animals, but a difference which makes the two, man and woman, fit, a difference which enables complementariness. {36} The man does not find in the woman a replica of himself, but a fitting partner. That there is both similarity and difference is suggested in the name he gave her. He was “ish” (man); he called her “ishsha” (woman).

Yet, for all that, the first man is impressed that the woman is like him. Hence his jubilation: “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” He recognized the difference, of course, but he was more elated about the sameness which provided the basis for their relationship.

The sum of these comments is stress on equality. The man sees the woman as a peer, an equal. In marriage the two become one. They practice mutual disclosure. That is equality.

In marriage, then, as in all relationships, we rejoice in our equality as well as in our differences. Where there is sameness with equality and both are joyfully affirmed, the differences turn out to be complementary, and thus they enrich the relationship. The parallels with the New Testament church leap out, both as regards the life within a congregation as well as the denominational members of the larger body of Christ (cf. Paul in Eph. 5:32).

John Regehr is Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Christian Service at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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