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"Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My
By Phyllis A. Bird
"The examples of Genesis I and Psalm 8 alert us to two dangers in appeal to biblical statements as authority for contemporary faith. Both appear to offer general pronouncements about the nature of humankind with universal applicability. In fact, both are concerned with a very limited question-the place of humans within the created order. Both also assume male models as representative of the species."
In my first year of teaching at Perkins School of Theology, I was invited to contribute a paper to the faculty symposium, which had taken as its theme for the year "The Humanum." Starting with the Bible's first words on the subject, I produced an essay that set the course for much of my subsequent research and writing. What intrigued me initially was the use of the Latin neuter to describe an order of being known only in gendered exemplars. Is it possible, I asked, to comprehend either the individual or the species without reference to gender?1 And why do the biblical creation texts give such prominent attention to sexual differentiation? In this essay, I return to those texts, with broader reflections concerning the individual and the species.
Psalm 8, whose question in verse 4, "What are human beings?" formulates the theme for this issue, presents a view of creation that corresponds closely to that of Genesis 1.2 Both depict the visible universe as the ordered work of a single, sovereign creator, and both give particular attention to the place of humankind within that order. Both also share a common conception of that position, formulated in terms of hierarchy and rule: Humans, though creatures of earth, are distinguished by a God-like nature and dominion over all other
Phyllis Bird teaches Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She has written numerous articles on dimensions of gender and sexuality in the Bible and is author of The Bible as the Church's Book (1982).
1 "Gender" refers to the socially
constructed, and therefore variable, classification of human behaviors and
attitudes based on sex, the biological dichotomy of male and female. Because
colloquial usage equates "sex" with intercourse and because sexual distinction
typically includes a social dimension, I use "gender" inclusively to designate
both the primary biological phenomenon and the social construction.
2 I use the designations "Genesis 1" and "Genesis 2" as shorthand references for the two creation accounts contained respectively in Gen 1:1-2:4a and Gen 2:4b-25.
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creatures.3 But whereas the Priestly cosmologist employs the language of species ('adam, Gen. 1:26, 27) in speaking of humankind, the psalmist chooses terms of individual representation ('enôš//ben-'adam, Ps. 8:4 [Heb 5]).
Both texts intend to describe the species as a whole, in its generic nature; hence the psalmist's choice of 'enôš as the lead term-a relatively rare term in Hebrew with a distinctly generic sense, which may be used collectively (Isa. 24:6; 33:8; 51:7; Ps. 66:12)4 as well as designating an individual of the species. Thus, NRSV's plural rendering in Ps. 8:4 ("What are human beings?") might be justified apart from any concern for inclusive language. Yet the parallel words ben-'adam (lit. "son of humankind") indicate an individualizing representation, characteristic of the genre; the Psalm of the Individual contemplates the human condition by reference to types or classes of individuals: the wicked, the righteous, the humble, the poor, the scoffer, the enemy, the friend. Each characterization invites identification on the part of singer or hearer. It is the psalmist's own nature and place within the universe that the question considers, but a place or condition common to every member of the species ('enôš// 'adam).
The statement contains an internal tension. The basic lexical meanings of the nouns point to a generic understanding of humankind, but the grammar specifies a male. Hebrew 'enôš is a masculine noun, with no feminine counterpart, and the collective 'adam is individualized by the use of "son" to indicate a member of the class.5 The Hebrew writer or speaker cannot identify an individual without specifying gender; a choice is required between male and female that breaks the solidarity of the species. What Genesis 1:27b affirms, "male and female [God] created them" (otam, referring to adam in 27a), is undermined linguistically and historically by the consistent representation of the species with male images and masculine terms.
Literarily and canonically, the shift from collective to individual representation occurs in the transition from the first to the second creation account. Both accounts describe the species in its fundamental and essential nature but with differing terms and emphases that invite interpretation as complementary and progressive statements in a two-part narrative. Traditional interpretation treated Genesis 1-3 as a unified whole but was not able to resolve the persisting tensions between the two originally independent accounts,6 and various ways of relating the key terms were developed over the centuries, often heavily
3 See Phyllis
Bird, "'Male and Female He Created Them': Gen 1:27b in the Context of the
Priestly Account of Creation," Harvard Theological Review 74 (198 1), pp.
4 In parallelism with 'adam (Isa. 13:12; Ps. 73:5; Job 36:25) and even bene 'adam ("sons of humanity," Ps. 90:3).
5 Cf. Gen. 6:2 where "daughter" designates females of the class: benot ha 'adam "the daughters of humankind" parallel to bene ha elohim"sons of God/gods."
6 My treatment of the Genesis creation accounts assumes the traditional source critical analysis that connects each with a larger literary complex, identified respectively as "Priestly" (P) and "Yahwistic" (J). See further Bird, " 'Male and Female He Created Them,'" pp. 135-136.
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influenced by New Testament or extra-canonical works. That history of interpretation cannot be reviewed here, although it continues to exercise a powerful influence on current theology-despite its rejection or qualification by most biblical scholars.7
The second creation account is in the form of a story, which requires individual actors. The Yahwist's sexually differentiated pair represents the dimorphic species of Genesis 1, portrayed in images of the author's own social world. But the story of the primal pair is set within another story, which presents an etiology for the name and destiny of the species adam "the human" is created from 'adama "ground," to till it and to keep it (Gen. 2:7, 15) and ultimately to return to it (2:19). The personification of the species in the frame story requires gender specification, and, in keeping with ancient Hebrew social norms and linguistic conventions, "the human" (ha'adam) is portrayed as male. His maleness is not simply grammatical, however, for he is presented as a peasant cultivator, representing the typical occupation of the ancient Israelite male and signalling a division of labor and a stage of social organization with far-reaching social and political consequences.8 The Yahwist's tale brings us into the realm of concrete and particular social, economic, and cultural realities, moving us into the arena of history, where all of our questions about the nature and destiny of the human being are formulated, and must be answered.9
The storyteller of Genesis 2-3 has begun with a single representative figure, as indicated by the designation 'adam, a term which in general usage-and in its special adaptation by the Yahwist-must be understood as a term for the species.10 But although his name or title ("the human," or simply "Human") proclaims the representative intention
7 For a brief
history of the exegesis of Genesis 2-3, see Claus Westerman, Genesis 1-11: A
Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), pp. 186-190. A survey of the
history of interpretation as it relates to the question of the divine image in
male and female is offered by Kari Elisabeth Borresen, editor, Images of God
and Gender Models in Judeo-Christian Tradition (Oslo: Solum Forlag, 1991).
For modern biblical interpretation of the imago text, see Gunnlaugur A. Jonsson,
The Image of God: Genesis 1:26-28 in a Century of Old Testament Research
(Lund: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1988).
8 See M. Rosaldo, "Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview," in Women, Culture, and Society, edited by M. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974). On appropriate models for reconstructing ancient Israelite society and implications for women's status and roles, see Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 31-63.
9 History begins outside the garden, with the terms of that history set by the "events" in the garden. Those events are formulated, however, from the perspective of the Israelite author as commentary on the life he knew-and understood as the common human condition. On the character and function of the story as a whole, see Westermann, Genesis 1-11, pp. 190-196.
10 Phyllis Bird, "Genesis 1-111 as a Source for a Contemporary Theology of Sexuality," Ex Auditu, 3 (1987), p. 35. Cf. Richard S. Hess, "Splitting the Adam: The Usage of 'adam in Genesis I-V," in Studies in the Pentateuch, edited by J. A. Emerton (VTSup 41; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), pp. 1-15, who proposes that the distinctive singular usage of Genesis 2 be understood as a title. See also Westermann, Genesis 1-11, pp. 201-202.
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of the author, his singleness signals a failure in that intention; only a pair can properly represent the species, as the author clearly recognizes. The Yahwist's ingenious move to extract the woman from "the human" and thus expose the hidden sex concealed by the male specimen does not remove the linguistic asymmetry from the account,11 but it does produce a portrait of humankind in which the two sexes are essential to the action and are bound together in mutual dependence. The two are one in nature, yet distinct. Nothing happens in the story of humankind until the woman joins the man upon the stage, and, from that point on, the story can only be told as the action and interaction of man and woman-in interaction with God and the rest of creation.12
In the Yahwist's telling, it is a tragic story in which the man and woman are set against each other yet bound together by need and desire under conditions that subordinate the woman to the man. In the estrangement of the primal pair, the Yahwist presents a prototype of the estrangement that marks the human race, dividing brothers, parents and children, occupational groups, tribes, and nations. The history of the species, in the Yahwist's depiction, is a history in which difference breeds jealousy, distrust, enmity, and exploitation. Division and hierarchy mark the species, beginning with the primary dyad. But differentiation is also the precondition for community, and sexual differentiation is the basis for the primary community; it constitutes a paradigm for all differences that divide and unite. Man and woman confront one another as "other," yet as sharing a common nature, identity, and destiny. The two need each other-to survive, to perpetuate the species, and to know the full meaning of their humanness. This fundamental need for the other is expressed in the German saying, "ein Mensch ist kein Mensch" (one human is no human), a formulation that moves beyond the notion of sexual complementarity to the fundamental communal nature of human existence.
The biological pair is not the basic unit of human society, although it suffices as a minimal representation of the species. The basic social unit is the family, a unit characterized by changing relationships over time. Both the Priestly and the Yahwistic accounts of creation envision the human species in spatial and temporal extension, and both are connected, through genealogies or narrative, to a history of that extension. In Genesis 1:27, sexual differentiation is the precondition for the blessing of verse 28, on which the author's emphasis rests: "Be
11 See Phyllis
Bird, "Sexual Differentiation and Divine image in the Genesis Creation Texts,"in
Borresen, Image of God, p. 20. Cf. Phyllis Trible, God and the
Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), pp. 98 and 141, n. 17,
who argues that 'adam in his original state is to be understood as
sexually undifferentiated (though not androgynous, as earlier
12 Despite the fact that the subsequent narrative focuses on the male actors, women play an important dramatic role in the ancestral stories of Genesis, but largely vanish as political and cultic history succeeds family story. See below.
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fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." Sexual differentiation serves to insure the perpetuation of the species through procreation. The Yahwist also looks forward to the extension of the species, in identifying the woman as a "help" for the man (2:18, 20)13 and defining her primary work as childbearing (3:16; cf. 3:20). The etiology of 2:24 already assumes the family as the basic unit, from which a new unit will be initiated by a new union.
The family introduces the factor of age and generational hierarchy into the portrait of the human, and ultimately a complex network of intra- and interfamilial relationships. To be human means to grow and age and die, and to experience physical change in a social environment that assigns meanings and values to the various stages and processes of life, prescribes relationships and behavior, and defines boundaries. The Yahwist's account of origins moves us from creation into this arena of time and social relationships through the story of the "fall," but it is in the following chapters of both the Yahwistic and Priestly works that the full meaning of human existence will be spelled out. In fact, the work of interpreting the primary ontological statements extends through the entire canon14-and beyond.
In the Yahwist's account, the passage from creation to history involves a dislocation in which the original terms of existence are qualified. Life as we know it is not life as God intended it. The Yahwist's narrative of primeval disobedience and punishment, known traditionally as "the Fall," provides an account of the origin of discord
13 EIsewhere I
have stressed the psychosocial aspect of the man's need for a helper (Bird,
"Sexual Differentiation," p. 23; and "Genesis I-III," p. 38), but help in
procreation seems to lie at the base of the plot. Cf David J. A. Clines, "What
Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Irredeemably Androcentric Orientations in Genesis
1-3" in What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old
Testament (JSOTSup 94; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), pp. 34-37; and
Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 90-91.
14 Canonically, the understanding of human nature expressed or implied in the laws, wisdom literature, narratives, prophetic texts, and other genres of the Hebrew scriptures may be viewed as commentary on the creation texts. Historically and tradition-historically, however, their testimony appears as prior or independent witness. What is striking is that so little direct, or indirect, reference to the creation accounts is found prior to the exegetical traditions evidenced in New Testament and intertestamental writings. (For early Jewish and Pauline references, see Anders Hultgard, "God and Image of Woman in Early Jewish Religion," in Borresen, Image of God, pp. 35-55]; and Lone Fatum, "Image of God and Glory of Man: Women in the Pauline Congregations," Image of God, pp. 56-137. Even within the Pentateuch and Primeval History the resonances are few and limited to the Priestly writer's use of key terms and themes in structuring his account: the blessing of procreation (Gen. 8:17; 9:1; 9:7; etc.), the food provision (Gen. 9:3-4), and the divine image/likeness (Gen. 5:1, 3; 9:6). Apart from the latter references, the divine image plays no role in the Priestly writing, or any other Old Testament text. It served only to differentiate humans from other creatures, not to define qualities of humanness of consequence for history or cult. Sexual differentiation is likewise limited in the Priestly literature to its original context of use (procreation), emerging only in references to Noah's wife and son's wives (Gen. 6:18; 7:6,13; 8:15,18), where the survival of the species is at stake (the "male and female" language is repeated here also, but to define the animal pairs, 7:9), and in the pointed reference to "sons and daughters" in each generation of the genealogies of Seth (Gen. 5:6-31) and Shem (Gen. 11:10-25).
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and pain in human existence that is indispensable to biblical anthropology despite the problems it raises.15 Human beings, as the Bible portrays them, are not only exalted rulers of creation, capable of wise judgments and righteous conduct; they are also sinners-estranged from God and neighbor-and subjects of a hostile environment. Genesis 3 contains no language of "fall" or "sin," but it insists that human action lies at the root of our estrangement and pain, not hapless fate or divine will.16
The story of the primal sin is an etiology of the pain of human existence that draws on traditional myths and motifs to depict a case of disobedience in which human reason challenges divine wisdom and will. Much remains enigmatic in this spare account, but it is rich in psychological insight into the nature and occasions of sin: in portraying the attractiveness of the forbidden fruit, the rationalizing half-truths of deliberation-here externalized as debate with a wily provocateur and the dual forms of response in active contemplation and passive acceptance. The punishment, however, appears more problematic, offending our notions of justice by its terms and by its failure to fit the crime. But we misjudge the story by seeking a tight correspondence between the sin and its consequences, and we misappropriate it by absolutizing its terms and universalizing its consequences. As in other etiological tales, the connection between imputed cause and result is loose (typically restricted to a single point of contact), and the terms are dictated by the existing state that requires explanation.
The author of Genesis 3 has used a crime-and-punishment motif to
15 Genesis 3 is
the classical locus for the doctrine of "original sin" and for a view of woman
as temptress and tool of Satan, who robbed man of his theomorphic image. The
latter view depended heavily on other biblical and nonbiblical sources, and must
now be rejected as exegetically unsound as well as morally offensive. For
exposition and critique of traditional views, see Bernard P. Prusak, "Woman:
Seductive Siren and Source of Sin? Pseudepigraphical Myth and Christian
Origins," in Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian
Traditions, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1974) pp. 89-116, and the following articles from the same volume:
Ruether, "Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church,"pp.
150-183; and Eleanor Commo McLaughlin, "Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes:
Woman in Medieval Theology," pp. 213-266. See also Borresen, "God's Image, Man's
Image? Patristic Interpretation of Gen. 1, 27 and I Cor. 11, 7,"in Borresen,
Image of God, pp. 189-207, and Ruether, "Imago Dei, Christian Tradition, and
Feminist Hermeneutics," in Borresen, ibid., pp. 258-261.
The concept of original sin has seemed equally dubious to many exegetes, since the text itself does not use the language of "sin" and traditional understandings of its nature and transmission depended on biological and philosophical models that are no longer tenable (see Westermann, Genesis 1-11, pp. 275-278, for critique of the notions of "fall" and "original sin" as interpretations of Genesis 3; cf. Meyers, Discovering Eve, pp. 72-79). Thus it requires reinterpretation if it is to be retained at all. Many feminists find the notion of original sin so tainted by misogynist views of woman as source and vehicle of sin that it cannot be rehabilitated.
16 This is not the place for an assessment of the doctrine of sin as it relates to this chapter or the adequacy of the Yahwist's account as a theological interpretation of the limits of human existence. My aim is only to insist that Genesis 3 will not bear the weight that has been placed upon it and to attempt, in broad outline, to present the account on its own terms. See Westermann, Genesis 1-11, pp. 237-248 on the sources and form of the account.
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explain the basic conditions of life for male and female as he knew them. Thus the punishment, announced as judicial sentences, is related to the fundamental nature of the two sexes rather than to the act or occasion of disobedience. Painful toil will now characterize the work of each and enmity with the "source" of their life and work. The man's work of cultivation will become toilsome labor, and the ground from which he was taken and on which his work depends will produce thorns instead of fruit trees. Correspondingly, the woman's work of procreation will be characterized by painful labor, and the man from whom she was taken and on whom her work depends will now be her ruler instead of her companion.
The symmetry of this gender-differentiated portrait of life outside the garden reflects the author's attempt to hold together the notion of one-flesh nature with the recognition of fundamental biological and social distinctions of gender. But the asymmetry of the initial identification of the man with the species has affected the structure of the account and undermines the parallelism and complementarity of the sentences. The woman's dependence on the man gives a social dimension to her pain that is lacking in the man's. A hierarchy of order is introduced into the relationship of the primal pair. Mutuality is replaced by rule. Patriarchy is inaugurated-as the sign of life alienated from God. The rule of man over woman, announced in Genesis 3:16, is the Bible's first statement of hierarchy within the species,17 and it is presented as the consequence of sin.
Traditional interpretation has isolated this word from its narrative context and absolutized the woman's sentence (though not the man's) as a divine decree, but this etiology of man's rule over woman is one element-the first and paradigmatic case-in a broader account of pain and estrangement, a portrait of life that is "fallen" or "not good."18 It describes the common lot, but stands in contrast to the created order. It is not willed by God but is an accommodation to a disturbance initiated by the human pair. The etiology has identified the most elementary forms of pain-drudgery in never-ending daily toil in a hostile environment, pain in reproductive labor, and subjugation in personal and social relations-portraying them as the consequences of sin. The tragedy of most traditional interpretation is its loss of the story's own tragic tenor.
17 In its
present literary context this statement represents a dramatic progression from
the rule of adam qua species over nonhuman creation to the rule of adam
qua man over woman (using masal, however, as Psalm 8, in place of P's
rada). Later interpretation found justification in this sequence for
limiting the divine image to the male. See, e.g., Borresen, "God's image, Man's
Image?" pp. 192-194 (on Ambrosiaster).
18 The Yahwist uses neither of these terms but presents a series of stories that depict widening circles of alienation. See Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), pp. 22-23. Because God remains an actor in this history, however, the possibility of a good life remains, though on new terms. Thus the notion of a "fallen" humanity that is incapable of knowing and doing the will of God, or of a humanity that has forfeited its divine image, is alien to the Genesis accounts.
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The Genesis creation accounts are foundational for Christian anthropology because of their position within the canon, their intention to speak of what is fundamental and essential, and their use in New Testament and postcanonical tradition. They provide an inexhaustible source for theological reflection by the general nature of their statements, by the ambiguity and tension of juxtaposed accounts, and by their silences. They are also insufficient, requiring the larger canonical witness and the contributions of modern science and historical experience. And they are deformed, as well as limited, by the circumstances in which they were created and transmitted. All of these features are highlighted when attention is focused on the question of gender.
Both creation accounts make gender indispensable to their understanding of humankind by explicit attention to the sexual differentiation of the species. In striking contrast, the rest of the Bible shows scant recognition of gender as a defining or discriminating attribute.19 Only in certain cultic prescriptions and cases relating to sexual relations or the particular circumstances of women does gender appear as a significant determinant. In the great majority of texts that consider human nature and need, relationship to God, moral discrimination and ethical obligation, no distinction is made on the basis of gender. Thus Tikva Frymer-Kensky can argue that Israelite religion (or at least its biblical expression), in contrast to ancient Near Eastern polytheisms, was distinguished by a gender-free anthropology, reflecting its gender-free theology.20
There is truth, I believe, in this view of a genderless God and generic humanity, which was the common view of liberal Protestantism until the rise of the current woman's movement. The Bible, in most of its utterances, does indeed envision a humanity whose individual and corporate representatives are not defined by sex. What counts, one may argue, is the divine image that characterizes the species as a whole. The Bible's first statement concerning humankind remains the normative statement that governs all others.
But that word does not stand alone, and the portrait of a genderless God and humankind unqualified by gender is undermined by explicit and implicit domination of male models in characterizing both. Neither canonical tradition nor postcanonical interpretation were able
19 Thus, e.g.,
Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes reflect on the nature and meaning of human life
with no apparent consideration of gender. Their reflections are not gender-free,
however (see below).
20 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (New York: The Free Press, 1992), pp. 120-121, 127, 140-143. She also notes, however, that "the Bible's gender-free concept of humanity contrasted sharply with Israelite reality" and that "the gender-blindness of the biblical view of human nature ... did not provide the language and tools for a biblical self-understanding of the gendered life of ancient Israel" (p. 143).
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to eliminate gender from their portrait of humankind (or deity21), and modern science as well as experience insist that it is a critical variable. A gender-transcending anthropology can only be achieved by taking gender seriously. We must return to the full statement of Genesis 1:27, holding its dual affirmations together: "So God created humankind ... in the image of God; male and female he created them."
The problem has always been how to relate the two juxtaposed sentences to each other. Traditional interpretation took its clues from Genesis 2, harmonizing the disparate accounts by viewing the man of the Yahwist's narrative as the first and "true" 'adam, made in the divine image, and the woman as possessing the image, if at all, only in derived, and in some views deficient, form.22 Identification of the image with the male was facilitated by definitions that associated it with qualities such as mind, intellect, spiritual nature or ability to rule, which were culturally defined as male attributes. Recent exegesis has attempted to correct this conflate reading and its androcentric distortions by emphasizing the distinct language and perspectives of the two texts, and by redefining the divine image.23
The Hebrew expression "image of God" is unique to the Priestly creation account and its echoes in Genesis 5:3 and 9:6; all other uses (chiefly New Testament) are dependent on this. The expression is a special coinage in Hebrew, appropriating a royal designation from the terminology of ancient Near Eastern kingship ideology to describe humans as rulers of creation-by design as well as command. In its setting within the Priestly creation account, it does not describe a particular faculty or attribute, such as mind, spirit, erect posture, capacity for language, or communion with God.24 It does not describe a possession at all, but rather the process of creation; its effect, however, is to identify the species as God-like.25
The parallel terms "image" (selem) and "likeness" (demut) have a single meaning in combined usage and do not describe distinct
implications of the concept of divine image for imaging God must be excluded
from this essay.
22 For the earliest Jewish and Christian interpretations, see Hultgard, "God and Image of Woman in Early Jewish Religion," pp. 37-45, esp. p. 39 (on 2:7, 15-24 as a clue to 1:26-27); and Fatum, "Image of God and Glory of Man," pp. 70-80. Some interpretations influenced by Gnosticism identified the original state of humans, characterized by the divine image, as asexual and viewed sexual differentiation as a sign of the fall (Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, "Image of God and Sexual Differentiation in the Tradition of enkrateia, " in Borresen, Image of God, pp. 139-143). This view of human sexual nature as fallen was often combined with a view of male-female polarity that identified woman with fallen sexuality and man with transcendent mind. The male, in his "true" genderless state was the bearer of the image. See Gasparro, ibid.; Kari Vogt, " 'Becoming Male': A Gnostic and Early Christian Metaphor," in Borresen, Image of God, pp. 172-187; and Ruether, "Imago Dei," pp. 264-269.
23 See, e.g., Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 1-30; Bird, " 'Male and Female;' " and Jonsson, The Image of God. For an attempt to reunite the two as sources for a contemporary theology of sexuality, see Bird, "Genesis I-III," esp. pp. 139-144.
24 Westerman, Genesis 1-11, pp. 148-155; Bird, " 'Male and Female,' " pp. 139-144.
25 Westermann, Genesis 1-11, p. 155; Bird, " 'Male and Female,' " p. 138 n. 22.
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attributes.26 They qualify each other to suggest wholistic but noncorporeal resemblance and representation. The term selem is concrete, referring to resemblance of form or appearance and used commonly of a statue or other visual representation. It is qualified by the abstract noun demut, which indicates "likeness" or comparison without specification of manner or content. It guards the concept of "image" from literalizing interpretation. "Image" is essentially an "empty" term of correspondence, lacking specific content, but inviting ever new attempts to fill it in accordance with changing views of humankind and deity.
The concept of God-likeness represented by the language of divine image is fundamental to theological anthropology and an aid to the reformulation of traditional doctrine, despite its original limited and androcentric use and a tragic history of misinterpretation and misuse. Describing the species as a whole in its essential, undifferentiated nature, it stands as the primary determinant that must find expression, or recognition, in all forms of human differentiation. As a defining attribute of the species it cannot be quantified or qualified. It is not lost or effaced by sin, and it cannot be increased or diminished. It is a given, a sign of the mystery and majesty of human life itself, a sign borne by every individual of the species. To be human is to be created in the image of God, irrespective of age, condition, or character.
This notion of a common God-likeness shared by every member of the species provides a basis for Christian human rights affirmations. Every human being qua human being has a special dignity that must be respected. The test of that affirmation has always been with those who are judged deficient in God-like qualities of character or constitution: the immature, the weak, the physically deformed or disabled, the mentally handicapped, social outcasts, racial outsiders, moral reprobates, and women. Historically, the model of essential humanity in its God-likeness has been an idealized adult male, a model based on notions of divine perfection, equated with cultural ideals. Attempts to correct this distortion by adding a female model do not address the fundamental problem of this reasoning, but they do serve to highlight the inadequacy of traditional identifications.
The problem of moving from statements about humankind in general to individuals or subclasses may be illustrated by reference to sexual differentiation. Not only is it the first and only distinction
26 Bird, ibid., pp. 138-144. In the recapitulation of Genesis 1:27 in 5:1, demut alone is used, while the order of the two terms is reversed in Genesis 5:3. In 1 Corinthians 11:7, Paul draws on an exegetical tradition that read Genesis 1:26-27 in the light of Genesis 2, referring the divine image to the man alone. In place of the paired terms "image and likeness" of Genesis 1:27, however, Paul has "image and glory"(doxa, NRSV "reflection") distinguishing them when he speaks of woman's derived nature. The woman (taken from the man and thus receiving her nature from him) is the glory or reflection of the man. This tradition distinguishes the two terms of Genesis 1:27 in a hierarchical manner, reserving the image to the male. See Fatum, "Image of God and Glory of Man," pp. 70-80. Medieval interpretation continued this tradition, as exhibited in Abelard's distinction between Adam's imago and Eve's simultudo.
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recognized by both creation accounts, it is universally acknowledged, the basis for the fundamental division of labor, and invested with wide ranging cultural and religious meanings. Sex is the constitutive differentiation, observable at birth and encoded in our genes,27 essential for the survival of the species, and basic to all systems of socialization. It plays a fundamental role in the identity formation of every individual. It must consequently be regarded as an essential datum in any attempt to define the human being and the nature of humankind28- and thus provides a primary test for false notions of generic humanity.
The Priestly author, who introduced the statement of sexual differentiation into his definition of humankind, provides a prime example of the failure to integrate gender into general statements about the species. The word describing the sexual constitution of humankind is encapsulated with the blessing of fertility, which it introduces in an account formulated in terms of rule and subjugation-male metaphors drawn from male experience. The Priestly history, with few exceptions, knows only male actors, restricting the appearance of women almost exclusively to genealogical references that continue the original theme of procreation. The psalmist offers a similar male-oriented portrait of the species in Psalm 8, without recognition of sexual differentiation at all. In answer to the question, "What is a human being?" he depicts a conqueror ("all things under his feet"-v. 6).
The examples of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 alert us to two dangers in appeal to biblical statements as authority for contemporary faith. Both appear to offer general pronouncements about the nature of human-kind
biological and psychological understandings of sex reveal a much more complex
phenomenon than the dimorphic classification recognized by most societies, with
wide variation of expression and disparities between observable and genetic
indicators. Theological assessments and "common sense" views of appropriate
behavior based on a simple dichotomous view of sex are no longer adequate-but
what criteria should guide our judgment? See Bird, "Genesis I-III," p. 44.
Alongside this recognition of greater complexity in the markers and meaning of
sex as a human attribute, there is also new attention to the cognitive
consequences or correlates of sexual identity. On its implications for faith,
see James B. Ashbrook, The Brain and Belief: Faith in the Light of Brain
Research (Bristol, Indiana: Wyndham Hall, 1988), and "Different Voices,
Different Genes: 'Male and Female created God them,' " Journal of Pastoral
Care 46 (1992), pp. 174-183.
28 The fact that sexual differentiation and its procreative design are shared with other forms of life does not make it less significant as a defining category of human existence or as a theological datum. Sexual endowment, according to Genesis 1, is God's gift to humans and serves a divine purpose-as it does for other creatures. The theological importance of the link with other creatures needs emphasis, since most doctrines of the human have focused on what distinguishes humans from other species. Thus the human being has been viewed as a composite being, part flesh and part spirit, whose "true" nature is identified with a God-like soul that is separable from the body. Neither creation text supports such a view, and modern psychology and ecology press us toward a more integrated and biblical view of humans as creatures within God's marvelous creation. See Bird," Genesis I-III," p. 42.
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with universal applicability. In fact, both are concerned with a very limited question-the place of humans within the created order. Both also assume male models as representative of the species. The Yahwist's explicit-but also qualified-identification of the species with the male, and the history of interpretation that built on that equation in referring the divine image to the male in its primary or perfect representation, simply codified the common assumption that the male represents the species in its essential nature. That assumption, shared by Western cultural tradition and still deeply imbedded in our own language, laws, and minds, is now under widespread attack, but we have yet to fathom the full extent or consequences of its operation.29 Although modern feminist critique has alerted us to the dangers of androcentricism, we are often unable to recognize it and differ on strategies for countering its distortions.30
What is exhibited in the creation texts can be documented throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the Bible as a whole. In both subtle and flagrant ways, androcentric models and perspectives shape the biblical message. The most obvious examples are now well known, but attention remains focused on questions of status and rights and on the nature and degree of female subordination in ancient patriarchal societies.31 Linguistic subordination in the form of the "generic masculine" is widely recognized as a sign of social and political subordination, but it is difficult to assess. When should masculine references be treated as inclusive of women and when do they refer exclusively to men? And how is inclusive intention (insofar as this can be determined) to be conveyed to and received by the modern reader or hearer? These questions face Bible translators with problems that reach beyond translation: Who does the Bible address in its individual words and overall message, and how do those excluded or marginalized by its apparent target hear and respond to the message?32
The most serious problem, in my view, concerns the generally unnoted bias of texts that appear to speak in general terms, or may be interpreted inclusively, but are framed in terms of male experience,
29 A recently
publicized example from the United States concerns the inadequacy of medical
research based solely on male participants for analyzing and treating women's
30 See, e.g., Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp. 3-95; and Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, "Feminist Biblical Interpretation," Theology Today, 46 (1989), pp. 154-168. For my own assessment of Old Testament literature as a source for reconstructing women's as well as men's religious practice and belief, see Phyllis Bird, "The Place of Women in the Israelite Cultus," in Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank M. Cross, edited by Patrick D. Miller, Paul D. Hanson, and S. Dean McBride (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), pp. 397-419, esp. pp. 398-405.
31 Thus Meyers (Discovering Eve) is primarily concerned to correct false inferences concerning the subordination of women in early Israel based on misunderstandings of ancient patriarchy.
32 For examples of various problems involved in determining intended audience and generalizability of individual passages and collections, as well as broader theoretical discussion, see Phyllis Bird, "Translating Sexist Language as a Theological and Cultural Problem," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 42 (1988), pp. 89-95.
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needs, and perceptions. One example must suffice. The Decalogue (Exod 20:2-17), which is widely regarded as the one Old Testament text having universal applicability and continuing validity under the New Covenant is formulated in second person masculine singular forms. The masculine gender concealed in the genderless and numberless English "you"/"your" may have generic function-and intention-in this passage, but a narrower audience is revealed by the final prohibition: "You shall not covet your neighbor's ... wife" (v. 17). The rest of the neighbor's possessions also point to a male householder as the addressee, as do the other prohibitions, which are concerned to safeguard the life, marriage, property, and honor of a free adult male (slaves are also outside the circle of those addressed here). We may be right in viewing this as a statement of universal principles and extending them, with appropriate modifications, to every individual, but they retain the androcentric stamp of the patriarchal society and circle in which they were formulated.
Recognizing the male bias of texts that appear to speak inclusively is not, I believe, a final obstacle to hearing these texts as addressed to all-or identifying them as the word of God spoken to us under the conditions of past time and culture. Androcentrism is one aspect of the cultural specificity of the incarnate word, which requires constructive interpretation, not simply translation, to connect it with our own experience (we do not regularly encounter goring oxen, but we do encounter cars with defective brakes). We rightly look to inclusive intention to direct our interpretive efforts, and where that is absent we may still argue that the tradition that preserved and transmitted these texts understood them, under the conditions of a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:2; Galatians 3:26-28), to apply to all.
But the problem of biblical androcentricism runs deeper still. It is not simply a matter of skewed representations of humankind and the people of God, but of silent voices and excluded visions. It is reflected in the portrait of a male God, or the male portrait of a genderless God, and in the problem of distinguishing the two. It is raised by the question of women as shapers and transmitters of traditions and not merely as characters in men's stories and helpers in men's work. It is raised by the question of women's prayers and songs and cries and stories, women's images of God and women's rituals, of women's hidden lives in the daily round of household chores, in work (and worship?) in the company of other women.33
When we ask the question of women's experience, we begin to see how little the Bible shows us-and thus how deficient and distorted is its anthropology. If we have believed the Bible's first words about the species, which insist on the essential duality of humankind as male and female, then we will look for the female in and behind the texts as we continue through the Bible-and we will be disappointed. We will see
33 See Bird, "Place of Women," pp. 398-399, 408-410.
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women in the ancestral tales, family stories in which women have essential roles, and in sporadic appearances elsewhere-as faces in the crowd, in supporting roles, and in occasional cameo appearances. But we will see them through men's eyes, and we will not hear their voices except as transmitted and interpreted by men. How would a woman answer the psalmist's question-or formulate it? How would she describe the relationship of humans to the rest of creation or conceive of the first sin? To ask such questions is to recognize the limits of the Bible as a source for contemporary theological anthropology. Yet it remains indispensable, and is, in my view, the richest resource for Christian theological reflection.34
I have focused on the issue of gender and the deficiency of female representation in the Bible's anthropology. It is the Bible itself that alerts us to the issue and makes it a critical question. But the Bible cannot answer the question it raises-and it should not be expected to do so, at least not in a manner that will satisfy contemporary concerns. It speaks out of a patriarchal past and attempts from one side of the gender gap to comprehend human life in its totality and complexity as created and addressed by God. Can one sex, or one race, or one person, speak the truth for all? My own answer is yes and no. No one can speak for another, and male cannot speak for female. But individuals and groups can and must speak about the nature of their fundamental humanity in ways that attempt to include all members of the species. It is not enough to record only my own experience or that of my class or people. All efforts to speak about the human require an attempt to speak globally, to reach beyond individual experience, to incorporate the other into the definition that begins with self.
In a world of multiple "others," I will fail to represent them all or adequately, but this does not lessen the obligation, and the inadequacy of my formulation can only be corrected by the word of the other. We do not need to hear every voice to gain a sense of common opinion or see every exemplar to grasp the essential nature of the species. But we do need every voice and every exemplar to know the fullness of that nature formed in the image of God. Thus our answer is never complete; it is always subject to modification by new experience, and it is the diversity of representatives that tests the adequacy of the statement.
I have used the male/female distinction to represent that diversity in its simplest and most basic form, but I mean it to stand for every form of diversity in human creation. We cannot know the meaning of our common humanity without taking seriously our individual particularity, and hence diversity. We grasp our common nature through multiple acts of self-transcendence in which we confront one another as other-but in that confrontation recognize the other as "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh."
34 See Bird, The Bible as the Church's Book (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982).