There are not one but two creation stories in Genesis. And they’re very different. It’s like rewinding the film, zooming in on one bit, and changing the camera angle.
Genesis 1 describes a creation where everything goes according to plan. Genesis 2 is a more intimate portrait of a world that still needs work.
The sequence is different in Genesis 2. Again the writer arranges the details a certain way to make a point, but this time it’s a different point.
In Genesis 1, humans are created last and handed a ready-made world, formed and filled to perfection. But in the Genesis 2 version, “no shrub had yet appeared and no plant had yet sprung up” when God gathered a handful of dust, breathed into it, and created a man. What’s even more interesting is the apparent reason creating Adam: “there was no one to work the ground.”
Genesis 1 describes a God powerful enough to create the universe all by himself. Genesis 2 suggests this same God creates Adam, the first man, so he can partner with God in the ongoing act of creation. God designs a world where he needs someone to work the ground. Otherwise, no shrubs. No plants.
This need for partnership and connection seems hardwired into creation itself. In Genesis 1, everything is “good.” The writer can’t stop telling us just how good it is — seven times, as if he thinks we’re in danger of forgetting. In Genesis 2, it feels like someone has slammed the brakes. Not only is there something “not good” about creation; it’s God himself who says so. And what is “not good,” according to God, is the man’s solitary state.
Adam needs a “helper.” You’d be forgiven for thinking the word suggests inferiority or subservience, but elsewhere the Bible uses the exact same Hebrew word for God (Psalm 27:9, for example).
What Adam needs is a partner, a companion, an equal — as he realizes when he says, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The word “now” could be translated “at last!” or “it’s about time!” Adam instantly recognizes that he and the woman were made for each other.
And this may be the thread that holds Genesis 1 and 2 together. Nearly everything about these stories seems different. Even God’s name changes. In Genesis 1, he is elohim, the supreme, all-powerful God. In Genesis 2, it is YHWH, the personal, covanental God who partners with people to shape and change the world. But the need for relationship is found in both stories.
In Genesis 2, creation is “not good” until Adam is no longer alone. Back in Genesis 1, we read that “God created human beings in his own image… male and female he created them.” Scholars have offered several theories on what it means to be made in God’s image. But the one I find most the most compelling is the one that says I am not made in God’s image (not completely, anyway), but that we are made in God’s image.
By myself, I am an incomplete representation of the God who made me, because I was not made to exist in a vacuum. Not according to Genesis 2, which says a state of perpetual solitude is “not good.” And not according to Genesis 1, which says, “In the image of God… he created them.”
When we seek connection, partnership, relationship with each other, that’s when we experience the divine spark that God has apparently put in us.
There’s another thing both stories reveal. In ancient times, to bear the “image” of the king or the emperor was to represent him to others, to show the king’s subjects who he was and what he was like.
As a male, I do not fully represent who God is or what he’s like. It’s only “male and female” together that, according to the text, represent the image of God.
While I plan to carry on praying to God my “Father,” the debate over whether God is essentially masculine or feminine ultimately misses the point. Without both male and female, we cannot possibly hope to understand God.
The God who is, according to Jesus, our Father is also the God who “gave birth” to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 32:18). The God who sent his Son to earth is also the God who comforts his people like a mother comforting her children (Isaiah 66:12-13). (And I won’t even tell you what some scholars think the term el shaddai, one of the Bible’s many names for God, means.)
Far from being an invitation for the PC police to purge our liturgy of masculine references and replace with them neutralizing alternatives, we are free to go on calling God our Father (which, after all, is one of the most common characterizations of God in the Bible) because this communicates something essential about who God is — but it does not communicate the whole of it. That’s why the Bible is filled with all kinds of rich imagery to help us understand God.
That’s why he made human beings male and female. Because it takes both to show the world something of who God is.