To put it politely, our society is deeply conflicted about men and women. You can see it in the debates that rage about the definition and significance of marriage; in the insistence of many feminists that the only difference between the sexes is a nearly-irrelevant matter of physical structure; in the increasingly hyper-sexualized character of our popular culture—you see things in ads these days that would have had to hide in a brown bag when I was a kid, and I’m not that old—and in a number of other ways. We see it a lot in our politics, especially in the treatment dished out recently to prominent female politicians by those who otherwise would proclaim themselves feminists and advocates of women’s equality. The agendas of our culture collide with each other, and with our own individual selfish agendas, and they all swirl around the unyielding rock of our intuition that somehow, despite what we may want to believe, men and women are different in ways that matter, that challenge how we behave and how we live.
This chaos creates terrible confusion in our culture, particularly for those whose lives are unsettled in other ways as well, because whatever some might argue, being male or female is fundamental to who each of us is as a human being. Genesis speaks powerfully into that chaos, blowing away the confusion and helping us to see ourselves more clearly. The key statement here is that God created humanity, male and female, in his image. That’s a loaded phrase—I could preach a month of sermons on it—but this morning, I just want to draw out two key points: first, this affirms that men and women are different, and second, it affirms the equality of men and women before God.
Let’s take the second point first. You might be expecting me to say that men and women are equal because both are made in the image of God, but that’s not exactly the point. You see, what Genesis tells us is that humanity as a whole was made in the image of God; the only individual human being declared by Scripture to be the image of God was Jesus Christ. As individuals, we all bear the image of God, and many if not all of the qualities that go with it; we are rational beings, we have at least some degree of free will, we speak and create in imitation of the one who spoke the word and created us, we exist in relationships with one another, and so on; but it’s collectively, as a race, as men and women together, that we are made in the image of God and charged with the great responsibility that entails, to care for the natural world and for the people around us.
It’s important to note here that there’s no emphasis on the male in Genesis 1; male and female are jointly created in the image of God, equal sharers both in all the gifts and abilities that implies and in all the responsibilities it carries with it. That changes in Genesis 2, of course, which lays out the fact that the man was created first and the woman was created out of him to be his helper; from this, many Christians whom I greatly respect argue that hierarchy between men and women is part of God’s intent for creation. For my part, though, I’m struck by the fact that sixteen of the nineteen times this word “helper” occurs in the Old Testament, it’s applied to God. I could certainly be wrong, but I don’t see any sign of planned subservience in God’s original design for creation. Rather, I tend to agree with the great Puritan commentator Matthew Henry, who observed that the woman is “not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him.”
At the same time, it’s clear from Genesis that men and women are different—women aren’t just men with a few different organs; if that were the case, it wouldn’t have been necessary for God to create both men and women. It wasn’t good for the man to be alone, but if the man were sufficient in himself to bear God’s image, then God could simply have made another man; they would have kept each other company just fine. But the man wasn’t sufficient—it’s as male and female, in that joining of differences, that we are made in the image of God. Does that mean that the creation of the woman was planned from the beginning? Yes. God already knew that the man would need the woman; it’s just that the man, being male, needed to figure that out for himself before he’d believe it. The time of men griping about women would come soon enough, but God made sure that at least the first man would get off on the right foot.
You see, when we say that God made humanity in his image, one aspect of that must be that we are relational beings—that his image is seen when we relate to one another in love, and when we work together to care for his creation—because that’s part of what it means to represent God; our ability to love one another and to live together in love reflects the love relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course, when our relationships are broken, when they’re unloving, impure, or otherwise contrary to God’s will, then they don’t reflect him very well, but that’s all of a piece with our sinfulness; and even then, it remains true that we are only able to relate to one another as we do because we are made in God’s image.
This is truest in marriage, which God instituted with the first human couple. The God who is by nature in relationship among themself created humanity in his image, male and female, in order that they might be united in marriage—a point underscored, incidentally, by the man’s declaration, “This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman has argued that this is a covenant formula, a pledge of permanent and undying loyalty and commitment; we might describe this as the first man’s wedding vows, but that isn’t strong enough, because the first readers of this text took covenant a good deal more seriously than we do. Unlike our covenant ceremonies—mostly weddings—theirs included pledges and promises along the lines of, “May I be cut to pieces if I violate this covenant.” Nowadays, we try to make breaking a covenant as painless as possible, but that wasn’t God’s idea at all.
God takes covenants, including marriage, very seriously. That’s why verse 24 offers the comment, “It is for this reason that a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”; the word translated “leave” there is often translated “forsake,” and is used elsewhere to describe Israel’s rejection of their covenant obligations to the Lord. It’s a loaded word, and the point of using it here is clear: the new husband is to set aside loyalty to parents in favor of this new loyalty, this new covenant, with his wife. In a patriarchal culture like that of Israel, in which loyalty to parents was one’s most important obligation, the statement that loyalty to one’s wife—or, reciprocally, to one’s husband—was to come first was a powerful one indeed.
What’s more, it had a powerful reason behind it, even if Israel probably didn’t get the point. For those whom God calls into marriage, it’s important to understand that marriage isn’t about personal fulfillment—that’s a benefit of marriage, not its purpose. Its twofold purpose is to be found here: first, to fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply; and second, to display the image of God. In the union of man and woman in marriage, united in relationship, potentially to have children as God wills, and especially as they seek to follow God together, we see the image of God as we cannot see it anywhere else. God created us male and female in his image; in marriage male and female are united in a relationship of love, offering us an image of God who is love, for he exists in relationship among himselves, in the love that flows between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In marriage we can see the inner reality of God mirrored in a way that nothing else can show us; this, too, is part of the purpose for which he has ordained marriage.
As such, we as Christians should take marriage very seriously. Our society really doesn’t, unfortunately, and that affects all of our thinking and attitudes to some degree, whether we realize it or not; and we need to work against that in whatever way we can. For those of us who are married, that task begins in our own marriages; for those who aren’t but would like to be, it means keeping this in mind in your dating relationships; and it also means that all of us, even the most utterly single, need to take the marriages of those around us, and especially our family, church family, and other friends, very seriously as well. We need to do everything we can to help others build and nurture strong, healthy marriages that truly embody and reflect the selfless and self-sacrificial love of God; this is part of being faithful to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and one of the ways in which we show the world his love for us.