In response to the stirring invitation issued by Paola Bernardini to offer a theological account of the complementarity of women and men “without jeopardizing their equality,” I would like to take a close look at both the complementary relationship and equality of the sexes from a biblical perspective. To do so, I would like to begin at the beginning, as it were, with the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman.
Genesis 1:27 states: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (ESV). The word “man” translates the Hebrew “’adam”, which is not a proper noun (“Mister Adam”), but means “humanity.” “’Adam”, in fact, in verse 26 is followed by a plural verb: “let them have dominion” (ESV). Note the shift from singular (“he created him”) to plural (“he created them”), indicating that both man and woman constitute the icon of God on earth. And they can be that only together.
It is clear, then, that the whole of humanity is the image of God. The Hebrew word for “image” is zelem (eikon in Greek), which designates a statue or a picture. As such, an image is a sign that makes present someone who is otherwise absent. In ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, only the king was the image of the gods, or perhaps god himself.
Humanity — Male and Female — as God’s Icon In the World
The Genesis text extends this concept to all mankind: every human being makes God present in the world. The true icon of God is man, i.e. humanity — masculine and feminine alike. At this point we understand that humanity is both the “image” and “likeness” of God not mainly because of its dominion over creation but because of the communion between femininity and masculinity.
In the evocative symbolism of the creation story, sexual difference is deeply unified. The human being exists in two distinct but complementary ways — the “masculine” and the “feminine.”
As a matter of fact, the words “male” and “female” indicate both distinction and reciprocity.
As translated from the Hebrew zakar, “male” means “the-one-who-has-a-tip” — an allusion to the male member. Zakar, moreover, is related to zikkaron, which translates as “memorial” or “remembrance.” This is not nostalgia for the past but a mentality that considers the past actions of God — especially in terms of creation and salvation — present and immediate realities. Furthermore, this mentality is able to project these realities into the future. In its relation to zikkaron, therefore, masculinity evokes “remembering” through the gift of seed or semen to the womb of femininity. On the other hand, the Hebrew word for “female” is neqebah, which translates as “the-one-who-is-perforated” or “punctured.” The woman thus represents receptivity.
Woman: The “Helper” from God
In the second biblical creation story, God says: “I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). The word “helper” translates ezer, which indicates a particular kind of help that can be given only by God. It is often wrongly assumed that a helper is someone who is a “servant.” But the biblical meaning does not refer to this kind of help but rather to heavenly aid — the kind of help only God can give — that saves Adam from the death of solitude. Because the term “helper” is so often attributed to God, this provides a powerful sense of the elevated and essential contribution of woman as a divinely ordained “helper.” John Paul II, in his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” states that only when Adam is placed before the woman, shaped from his own body, can he express his profound and joyful wonder, recognizing “flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones” (Genesis 2:23). We can easily understand that the “help” one gives to the other is not superficial or instrumental but profound and mutual. To be fully human, then, is to be called into this interpersonal communion.
Which is to say that the fullness of being human or the fullness of being the image of God lies not only in the male or only in the female but in the communion of male and female. The fact that humanity as created both male and female is made in God’s image suggests that women and men as individuals are like God, being both rational and free. It also means that man and woman, created as a “unity of the two” in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God (cf. 1 John 4:16).
It is of more than passing interest that Adam was asleep during the creation of Eve. Man does not “manufacture” woman; she is created by God. Man does not see God at work as God creates woman; he has no awareness of, or active involvement in, her creation. Therefore, man will never be able to “possess” the woman; she will always remain something of an ineffable mystery to him. The interpretive key of the human being, therefore, is the call to accept and build a communion between the sexes that is based on mutuality and recognition of their irreducible uniqueness and complementarity.
Difference, complementarity, equality of value, and uniqueness. These, then, are the coordinates that guide us into the mystery of the man and the woman and the majesty of their communion as the icon of God in the world.