A Critique

Where the recent Church of Scotland booklet needs to be challenged.

In a previous article, we indicated that our Church’s recent booklet Diverse Gender Identities and Pastoral Care should certainly help many of our elders (and members) to become aware of some of the basic issues experienced by the small percentage of the population who suffer from gender dysphoria, or who self-identify as gender-non-conforming people.

However, we also highlighted the fact that the booklet is insufficient on its own. This is the case, not least because a significant number of statements are made – some of them by those who have studied theology formally – that need to be challenged in terms of what the Bible itself teaches and what orthodox theology has taught across denominations and across the world for the past two millennia. In a further series of articles, we would hope to highlight some of our concerns. We start today ‘in the beginning’ with some of the teaching of Genesis 1 that is challenged in this booklet.

What Genesis 1:27 teaches.

In her contribution to the above-mentioned booklet (p7), Jo writes ‘when I read the two creation stories in Genesis I see that “male and female he created them.” I know that these people [i.e. ‘conservative traditional Christians’] read that as “male and separate to that female” but the Hebrew is much more ambiguous than that. Perhaps it is “male and together with that female.” It might mean that the first being was androgyne.’

However, a careful study of Genesis 1:27 in context shows that that is not a valid interpretation of the verse. There is nothing ambiguous at all about the phrase ‘male and female he created them’ in this verse, or indeed wherever the phrase ‘male and female’ appears in the rest of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. 

Genesis 1:27 reads as follows:

And God created ‘Man’ in his image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

(We have deliberately divided the sentence up into its three constituent parallel parts in order to make our comments clearer. We have also deliberately used the translation ‘Man’ at this point simply to fit with the ‘him’ of line 2.)

In each line the verb is exactly the same – ‘created’ (for those of you who enjoy grammar, a 3rd person singular); in each line also, the subject of the verb is God – (line 1) God; (line 2) he = God; and (line 3) he = God.

The object of the verb is – (line 1) ‘Man’; (line 2) ‘him’ = ‘Man’; and (line 3) ‘them’ (plural in the original Hebrew as well). The use of ‘them’ may seem strange but it highlights the fact that in this verse the Hebrew word translated as ‘Man’ is used as a collective noun for a plural humanity (consisting of ‘male and female’). Just as in English the word ‘sheep’ can refer to one sheep or collectively to a flock of sheep, so also with the Hebrew word (‘adam’) used here. Nowadays the Hebrew word would be better translated in this verse – and in much of Genesis 1 and 2 – using the collective term ‘humanity’ or ‘humankind’. What this verse shows us is that humanity was created by God and was from the beginning a plurality (the Hebrew for ‘them’ is plural), and a binary plurality at that, consisting of both ‘male and female.’ This shows that humanity, as described in Genesis 1, was not androgynous as Jo suggests.

In context, the reference to the binary phrase ‘male and female’ also prepares the way for the following verse (v 28) in which God goes on to command the blessing of abundant fertility for humanity: ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth …”’ Clearly, it is as a result of being created as a binary, ‘male and female’ plurality that humanity is able to go on to fulfil its creation mandate and fruitfully procreate in increasing numbers until it fills the earth with human beings made ‘in the image of God’.

This also appears to be a significant element in the use of the binary phrase ‘male and female’ when it makes its second appearance in Genesis 5:2, where it introduces one of the Genesis genealogies in which we see how the creation blessing and mandate was worked out in generation after generation of humanity.

A similar idea is also present in the third (multiple) occurrence of the phrase ‘male and female’ in Genesis, only this time with reference to the animal kingdom (Gen 6:19; 7:3, 9, 16). Genesis 7:3, in particular, highlights the reason for the repeated emphasis on ‘male and female’ pairs of animals entering the Ark, literally: ‘to keep seed (in the sense of offspring) alive upon the face of all the earth.’

Throughout Genesis, then, wherever the phrase ‘male and female’ is found the reference is clearly intended to be to the biological sex of humans and animals. Moreover, these are the only places in the whole of the Old Testament where the Hebrew phrase translated here as ‘male and female’ is to be found. The evidence is overwhelming – in every context in which it is found in the Hebrew Bible the binary form ‘male and female’ refers to the sexual distinctions which enable the creation blessing to be worked out, primarily for humanity, but also for the whole animal kingdom over which humanity made ‘in the image of God’ is to rule.