Man is Created First
Does the fact that man is created first imply that the woman has a subordinate role to play under the man? Many believe it does. Elizabeth Cady Stanton criticizes Genesis 2, saying that Genesis 1:26-28 "dignifies woman as an important factor in the creation, equal in power and glory with man," which is in contrast to Genesis 2, which she says "makes her a mere afterthought."(1) Phyllis Trible rightly criticizes this understanding, saying that the woman in the story "is not an afterthought; she is the culmination."(2) Just as creation in Genesis 1 led up to the creation of humanity, followed by God's rest, so this narrative leads up to the creation of woman and their subsequent union. The climax of the narrative is found in the creation of woman.
Furthermore, the fact that the woman is created from the man does not imply that she is inferior to him or destined to be his subordinate. Bill Arnold observes: "As the human was formed from the dust of the ground (‘ādām from ‘ădāmâ), so woman is built from the man (‘iššâ from ‘îš)."(3) That woman was created from man does not imply that she is inferior to man anymore than the fact that man was created out of dust implies that dust is superior to man.(4) In fact, as Terence Fretheim provides, the phrase "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh"--what Adam says in response to the woman's creation (v.23)--"literally highlights mutuality and equality."(5) These words that explicitly state woman's equality with man are man's first words in all of Scripture!(6)
Finally, Adam's short poem in response to the creation of woman strengthens the argument that this creative act is the climax of this passage. In Hebrew, the poem begins and ends with zot ('this'), referring to the woman. Gordon Wenham says of this poem, "by opening the tricolon and bicolon with 'this' and then by concluding with the same word, the man's exclamation concentrates all eyes on this woman."(7)
Man Gives Her a Name
While John Bailey recognizes the profound place of woman in this narrative--saying it is "all the more extraordinary when one realizes that this is the only account of the creation of woman as such in ancient Near Eastern literature"--he makes the mistake of seeing the facts that she is called 'woman' by Adam and deemed a 'helper' as signs of a "certain subordination."(8)
While it is true that "name-giving in the ancient Orient was primarily an exercise of sovereignty,"(9) there is a difference, in Hebrew, between what one calls someone and what one names someone. Trible observes this difference. Throughout the narrative, and in other places in the Hebrew Bible, call (qārā') and name (shem) are used together and denote the command one has over the other by naming the other (see Gen. 2:19-20; 4:17, 25, 26).(10) However,‘ādām merely calls (qārā') her woman. Fretheim cleverly observes that for man to call her 'woman' does not imply his authority over her anymore than Hagar calling God "El-roi" implies that she had authority over God (Gen. 16:13).(11)
Trible reasonably suggests that the action in v.23 is the man recognizing sexuality.(12) Or, as Fretheim says, it "involves discernment regarding the nature of relationships."(13)
That being said, in chapter 3, Adam does name the woman Eve (v.20). However, Trible observes that this takes place after their sin and judgment; Adam asserts his rule over her and gives her a name when sin has entered his life (v.16).(14)
I am of the mind that the author of this passage was explaining why things were the way they were in their society. Thus, after humanity sinned against God, they assumed degraded roles. In a sense, they were downgraded to the service of that from which they were created: man would toil over the land, and woman would serve the man. First, this has to be understood as the result of sin, and not the way God created things to be. Second, given that this was the author's way of explaining why things were the way they were in his culture--men toiled over the land, and women served the men--I don't think it can be said that this is the God-given role of women that they are to fulfill today.
The Woman is a Helper
Bailey, referred to above, sees the woman's role of helper as a sign of subordination. However, this is not at all implied by the Hebrew word. Rather than suggesting any hint of inferiority, Trible recognizes that 'ezer (helper) is a relational term.(15) Furthermore, if the word did denote inferiority or subordination, we would have to explain why the majority of its uses refer to God's being a helper of humans!(16) The use of 'ezer does not imply subordinate service to the one being helped, but rather that the strength of the one being helped, Wenham provides, "is inadequate by itself" (cf. Eccl. 4:9-10).(17) Furthermore, Fretheim says of this passage that humans were created to be "social, relational beings—male and female—and thereby correspondent to the sociality of God (‘let us’; see Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:17; cf. 9:6)."(18)
Side note: Many complementarians might agree with most, maybe even all of this, and would say that their complementarian views don't put women in lesser roles. However, when one says, for example, that women should not be pastors and should not exercise authority over men in church, this puts women in a lesser role. Genesis 2 does not support such an understanding. The Hebrew word for 'helper' does not limit the role of the woman to serving the man, nor to being under his authority, nor does it deny her the right to exercise authority over him. In Genesis 2, both humans are equal and under the authority of God alone.After reviewing the creation narrative, I have found that the passage does not support complementarianism, or any view that places women in a lesser role under men. The way God intended things to be includes the equality of man and woman, partnering with God to preserve a beautiful creation and form a relational human history.
(1) Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman's Bible, Part 1 (New York: European Publishing Company, 1895), 20.
(2) Phyllis Trible, "Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread," Andover Newton Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1973): 251-252.
(3) Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), ed. Ben Witherington, III (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 61.
(4) Terence Fretheim makes the same point. See Terence E. Fretheim, "Genesis", in Vol. 1 of The New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 353.
(6) I recently heard a sermon from Brian Zahnd, in which he said that the first recorded words of man in Scripture are found in Adam's response to God's question "Where are you?" in the garden. Man says, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid" (3:10). While the sermon was beautiful, this, as we can seen, is absolutely incorrect. I like Zahnd a lot, but I'm a little surprised he made this claim again and again, since it would have been so easy to check and see that it wasn't true. On top of Adam's words when seeing woman for the first time, Eve's response to the serpent is recorded in Gen. 3:4-5, just a few verses before the verse Zahnd quoted.
(7) Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Vol. 1 of Word Biblical Commentary, eds. Bruce Metzger, David Hubbard, and Glenn Barker (Word Books, 1987), 70.
(8) John Bailey, Quoted in Trible, 251-252, n. 5.
(9) Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 81.
(10) See Trible's more elaborate explanation, p.254.
(11) See Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 60.
(12) Trible, 255.
(13) Fretheim, "Genesis," 353.
(14) Fretheim supports this understanding. See Ibid.
(15) Trible, 252.
(16) Arnold, 60.
(17) Wenham, 68.
(18) Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, 55. Trible says: "God is the helper that is superior to man; the animals are the helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man." See Trible, 252.