Marriage – God’s Icon in the World

Toward an Understanding of Humankind Based on the Biblical Creation Account

Christl R. Vonholdt

The Creation Account in Genesis 1

The first chapter of the Bible has a very clear linguistic and hierarchical structure similar to that of a song, with each verse based on the preceding one. The hymnic language and structure point toward a cosmic order. On the sixth day, God created both the large animals and humankind. Although God created both on this day, humankind’s unique position within the world becomes evident: The animals are categorized within the context of their habitat – water, earth, sky and sea. Nothing like this is mentioned regarding humankind. Man is uniquely independent of any biological habitat. Only humans can live both on the equator and in Alaska.1 In addition, the frequently repeated subdivision of animals “according to their kinds” (in Genesis 1 and 2) doesn’t occur in the creation account of humankind. There is only one kind of human being. This clearly repudiates any form of racism!
Moreover, the distinction of the two different sexes – “male and female” (Gen. 1:27) – is only specifically mentioned in relation to humans. In the first place, this special reference to gender identity as man and woman has nothing to do with reproduction (after all, animals also reproduce), but with the fact that they are bearers of God’s image. Reproduction is important, but is referred to later in verse 28, through a special blessing from God.

Language Creates Relationship

We can divide the creation account of humankind2 into three sections: direct speech (1:26), narrative (1:27) and direct speech (1:28-30).3 One could say that the narrative itself represents the heart of the account, surrounded by a framework. First, God proposes the creation of human beings, then he creates them, male and female, and then he blesses them, addresses them and gives them their commission. In contrast to the creation of animals, the creation of man and woman begins with God speaking to himself: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (verse 26). Creation begins with language and communication, with a relationship within God himself. God refers to himself in the plural and engages in dialogue with himself.
In addition to our capacity for history, the linguistic ability of human beings is one of the features that distinguish us from animals. Wilhelm von Humboldt once said: “Man is only man through language.” According to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the original language of mankind is found in the basic phrase “I and Thou” – or more exactly, “Thou and I”, because we first need to be addressed ourselves before we can learn to say “I”.

Nothing else conveys relationship in the way that language does. After the creation of man and woman – on the other side of the framework, as it were – God speaks of himself in the singular and talks to them directly: “I give you ...” (verse 29). Here God refers to himself in the first person, establishing a relationship with humankind.

No Androgynous Primeval Human Being4

Let us now have a closer look at the middle section of the text (verse 27):

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
Male and female he created them.5

The structure of this three-liner is that of a poem. The message is presented in a condensed form and conveyed more perfectly than any other form could hope to achieve.

Moreover, the three-liner has the same “parallelism” that we also find in the Psalms. Certain phrases which are parallel to each other – either directly or in a mirrored “X” form – are also parallel in meaning, communicating the same thing.

(So God created man) (A)
(in his own image) (B)
(in the image of God) (B)
(he created him) (A)

This mirrored parallelism A B / B A is meant to place a special emphasis on the central message: “in his own image, in the image of God”. This message is surrounded or framed by God’s creative activity: At the beginning we find “So God created man” and at the end “he created him”. This underscores that man cannot be understood in an isolated way, but rather can only be understood in relation to God. Created in God's image, humankind is meant to reflect some of this image. But who is “man”?

(in the image of God) (he created him) (A)(B)
(male and female) (he created them) (A)(B)

This parallelism is not mirrored but direct. There is a direct match between the messages of the phrases underneath each another: A B / A B. Only now do we understand who “man” is. In the last line we read the concretion “male and female”. Significantly, in the original Hebrew, the usual nouns are not used – “man and woman” (ish and isha) ¬but the adjectives: “male and female” in other words, “a male creature and a female creature” (sachar and kebah).

The parallelism and repetition give special emphasis to the small change at the end of the two lines. Here we find a change from singular to plural.

(in the image of God) (he created him)
(male and female) (he created them)

This change makes it impossible to accept a concept of primitive man as originally hermaphroditic. “Ha-adam” is not a single male-female entity that was separated at a later stage. From the very beginning, “man” (ha-adam) is two: “a male creature and a female creature.”

The preceding verse 26 prepares the reader for this ever-moving tension, which at the same time represents a unique unity. Here we read “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness. And let them rule...” Here the verb is in the plural form, although it refers to “man”, which is clearly singular in Hebrew.
In many extra-biblical myths, it is often the case that only the male human being is made in the image of God, whereas the female, for example, is made in the image of the earth. However, the Bible leaves no doubt: every individual, woman or man, is made in God’s image. And at the same time, the following holds true: Only together, as male and female, is “man” complete. This is the unique tension which cannot be resolved or eliminated. It can be compared to two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, each individual is a bearer of God’s image. On the other hand, “man” is synonymous with the unique, dialogic fellowship between man and woman.

While the transition in Genesis 1:27 from singular to plural serves to emphasize and reinforce the distinctiveness of the sexes within this unity, it also underscores the unity which remains in the midst of this distinction. Man and woman are neither in opposition to one another, nor are they identical, but rather, they are in tune with one another. The parallelism between “man” and “male and female” points to the fact that gender distinction doesn’t infer hierarchy but equality. Neither of the two is superior or has power over the other. Both – without any distinction – have been commissioned by God to have dominion over the earth (verse 28). In Genesis 2 we see that this doesn’t mean a rule of tyranny, but involves tending the garden and taking good care of it.

We can also observe this intriguing change from singular to plural in Genesis 2:24-256 and in Genesis 5:1b-2.7 Genesis 2:24, for instance, finishes with the words: “and they become one flesh”, and verse 25 starts with “Now, both of them were naked, the man and his wife...”8 Although they are “one flesh”, the repetition: “the man and his wife” makes clear that the original unity of man and woman and the original distinction between man and woman are one and the same. Unity doesn’t erase diversity, nor does diversity destroy unity.
The Catholic theologian and thinker Hans Urs von Balthasar once put it this way: “In the perfection of creation, the human being is a dual unity, two different realities, inseparable from one another, each one being the fullness of the other, and both being created for a unity immeasurable in its finality; double, though not by multiplying this one unity by two; simply two poles of one single reality, two different imaginings of one single existence... one existence in two lives, yet in no way two pieces broken from the one whole, which later be put back together again..9

“Man”, as created in God’s image, i.e. man and woman together, reflect the unity and diversity which are also characteristic features of God, intimated by God talking about himself in the plural (verse 26) and then in the singular (verse 29). The unique relatedness of male to female and female to male which results carries with it consequences for the way human beings shape the world, for relationships between the sexes, and for our social ethics.

Greek Mythology and Biblical Faith

It is currently very fashionable to believe that man was originally androgynous or hermaphroditic.10 This idea, and the resulting false notion that every person is really bisexual, both originate from Greek mythology. The philosopher Plato (born in 427 BC) passed down the myth that primeval man was a hermaphrodite, i.e. a being that united both male and female within himself. These first humans were powerful creatures, round in shape, who became competitors of the gods and who eventually started to fight against the gods. Finally, as a punishment for their pride, they were cut into two and thus weakened. Since then, the two severed parts have been seeking to become reunited. If this were true, then the male and female genders would be the result of divine punishment, and the ideal of “unity”, resulting from the reunion of the two “halves”, would be symbiotic and tensionless. The biblical view is different. Speaking with superb clarity, the Bible emphasizes that man was created male and female from the very beginning and that our gender identity is part of the goodness and quality of God's creation.

God’s Image

We are only given one „visual aid“ to help us understand the full meaning of “man” being created in God's image, namely: the male creature and the female creature together. The male-female distinction does not describe God, for the vivid language of the account is extremely careful to preserve the complete otherness of God. But we often need graphic illustrations to gain access to the invisible. We need the visible in order to more easily trust the invisible. A children's book says: “God is the love in our mother's kiss and the warm, firm hug of our father.” How many of us, however, have transferred their negative father image to God? The Hebrew prophet Hosea uses the love between husband and wife as a visual aid to illustrate God's (invisible) unshakeable faithfulness to mankind.

If we allow this visual element – “man” in God’s image: man and woman together – to be lost by denying the uniqueness of the male-female bond, how will the following generations be able to find God, the perfect original behind the image?

This is the most profound reason why homosexual behavior is rejected so unequivocally both in the Old and New Testaments: Homosexual behavior blurs the contours of the “reflection of the perfect original” so that it can no longer be discerned. As soon as we make heterosexual marriage a mere “option” among a variety of sexual lifestyles by granting homosexual lifestyles a similar status to that of marriage, we violate the concept of “man” as seen in the creation account and, in doing so, we obscure God's image on earth.

Relating Beyond Oneself to Another

Only human beings have the unique ability to continually want to grow beyond themselves, to reach out to what they are not – in other words, to transcend themselves. According to the Bible, being human is synonymous with the urge to transcend oneself and to relate to another person and thus to someone that one is not.11 Created “in God's image”, each person points beyond themselves: the man to the woman, the woman to man, and both together to God.

The urge to transcend oneself and to relate to another person is inherent to our humanness. But whether we point to the God of the Bible (Yahweh) in our relationships or to some idol is dependent upon whether the image reflected is true or not. According to Genesis 1, the earthly image that points to the original divine image is the male creature and female creature together. Jean Vanier, founder of the international Arche movement, therefore refers to marriage between man and woman as “God's icon” on earth, in other words, as the correct “reflection of the perfect, original image”. In the Old Testament, all other false images are described as idols. When today’s theologians dismiss the biblical prohibition of a homosexual lifestyle by pointing out that these restrictions referred merely to idol worship, then one can respond that homosexual behavior has always been and still remains “idol worship” in a comprehensive, anthropological sense since it does not reflect the true, original image: Homosexual relationships (and here I am not referring to the individual who experiences homosexual feelings), in which either the male or female element is missing, are not a “reflection of the perfect original”.

Sexuality as the Creative Energy in Relationship

Sexuality is the creative element energizing our lives and relationships, empowering us to reach out beyond ourselves to the opposite sex. Our physical body is the visible expression of this pointing toward the other gender. Our body reminds us: You do not represent the whole. There is something outside of yourself which you are longing for.
It wasn’t until the post-modern age that a theoretical social concept of humankind emerged which attempted to dissociate sexuality and identity from our physical body and, as a result, from our gender identity as male or female. It is as if the new gender theories view sexuality as something suspended in mid-air, allowing us to do with it as we please, inventing new sexes: homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender persons, fluid gender identities, etc. However, those who propagate the idea of human beings existing beyond the framework of concrete, embodied gender identity, deprive us of the essential human boundary which enables us to transcend ourselves in creative tension – the woman reaching out to the man, the man to the woman, and both together to God. Even so – our gender identity, given to us by the creative will of God, cannot be eradicated. It can only be deeply wounded.

The Creation of Man and Woman in Genesis 2

The standard Hebrew words for “man” and “woman” occur for the first time in Genesis 2: ish and isha. These words also occur in Genesis 2:24, a passage about marriage. The creation account in Genesis 1 starts (1:1) and finishes (2:4a) with heaven, while the account in Genesis 2 starts with the earth (2:4b). It is about the earth, about God’s commission of humankind to cultivate the land and tend the garden, so that it remains filled with love. It is about humankind's calling to cultivate both nature and relationships, about humankind’s relationship to the world and to God and about the relationship between man and woman. Genesis 2 ends with a fundamental biblical statement about marriage. In verse 24 we read: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh.”12 Jesus specifically repeats and affirms this passage in Matthew 19.
The curious thing is that the man doesn’t leave his father and mother in order to establish his own family. No, the only reason he leaves them is because of his special, unique relationship to the woman, in order that they may become “one flesh“! In Ephesians (5:31-32) this relationship is referred to as the great “mystery”. Thus, the marriage between man and woman is awarded highest priority among all family bonds, relationships and collectives. This precedence of monogamous marriage is affirmed in the New Testament, where it is compared to the unique groom-bride relationship between Christ and the Church.

Genesis 2 is about relationship and the essential factors which go to make up relationships. Once again, language plays a major part. Upon meeting the woman for the first time, man expresses his joy and enthusiasm. And something else is mentioned which plays an important role in our relationships and our humanity: boundaries.
Again, God addresses man directly. However, here his words are accompanied by a demarcation: “you must not” (verse 17). Man needs to learn to respect God even before he names the animals, gains knowledge and exercises dominion over the world. But God sets a limit. Why?
Friedrich Weinreb explains the passage as follows: “Everything belongs to you [says God], you can take everything. But please don't take this one thing. Immediately the question arises: why is it excluded, why not this one thing? In the ancient stories of wisdom we read that if everything were straightforward, there could be no relationship. Everything would be no more than a mechanical procedure. Why would we then need humankind?”13

The setting of limits and the toleration of tension are vital elements of relationships. Another boundary is set in verse 24, which says: “...a man will leave his father and mother.” How many marriages have broken up because one of the two partners did not set any boundaries for his or her parents, who continually interfered with the marriage!

It is Not Good for Man to be Alone

The statement “And God saw that it was good” appears six times in Genesis 1. The seventh time, after the creation of humankind, (seven being the number representing perfection) we read: “And behold, it was very good” (verse 31). It was “very good” that God had created man and woman. In contrast, we read in Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that man should be alone.”

Dennis Prager interprets this passage when he writes:
“Now, presumably, in order to solve the problem of man’s aloneness, God could have made another man, or even a community of men. But instead God solved man’s aloneness by creating one other person, a woman – not a man, not a few women, not a community of men and women. Man’s solitude was not a function of his not being with other people; it was a function of his being without a woman.14

Therefore, Genesis 2:18 ends with God’s statement: “I will make him a helper fit for him”15 or, in other words, “who corresponds to him” (Hebrew: “kenägedo”). The word “ezer”, which is translated here as “help” or “helper”, is not the normal word used for help in the Bible, but appears in the Old Testament almost exclusively in connection with God’s help – for example, in the Psalms, where we read “God is my help”, or “God, come and be my help.” The additional phrase, “fit for him (corresponding to him)” which illuminates this special word for helper is all the more significant. This additional phrase emphasizes the equality of both human beings. Neither is the better human.
Perhaps divine help can also be understood in this way, as help given to us in order that we may be God’s image-bearers on earth.

The reader might expect this “helper” to be introduced in the next sentence. Instead, we first find an account of man‘s responsible, independent action in naming the animals. A tension filled with expectation is created for the reader, which finds its climax in the statement: “But no helper suitable for the man was found for him.” Man’s creative activity, as well as the power and responsibility he is given, do not ease his loneliness.

In what follows, man remains completely passive. God alone acts. He allows man to fall into a deep sleep, putting him under some kind of divine general anesthetic.16 Then God inflicts a wound on him (2:21 b). Perhaps we can interpret this as a deep longing for a person of the opposite sex which God places within us. God doesn’t form the woman out of the soil – as he previously did with the man – but from one of the man's ribs, as if to emphasize yet again that both are made from the same “cloth”. The woman is not taken from out of the man. Instead, God takes the “raw materials” which he uses to create her. Like a bride's father giving away his daughter, God then leads the woman toward the man. And how does the man respond? He is exuberant and expresses himself poetically:

This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called 'woman' ,
for she was taken out of man. (verse 23)

The Hebrew words ish (man) and isha (woman) represent a kind of play on words which points out once again the unique sense of belonging and harmony which exists despite the clear differences found in man and woman.
In the moment when man and woman meet, the poem emphasizes their similarity, indeed, the equality of the two, not their differences, anatomical or otherwise. They belong together in a unique way.
A Jewish commentator adds: “The teachers of the Talmud conclude from the creation account that humankind first earns these names in the coming together of male and female: Man (i[j]sch) and woman (ischa[h]) have both something in common and something different in their names. In both names, we find the Hebrew word for fire (esch), in the letters Alef (pronounced either as i and e, respectively) and Schin. In addition to esch, each name contains a letter from God’s name (without vowels: jh), which is activated, so to speak, in the union of man and woman. If man and woman work together, cooperating as helper and counterpart for the other, then God’s name (jah) is with them. If they go separate ways and don’t work together, they will both be consumed as if by fire.”17

Male and Female

God designed the woman from a component of the human body, the “rib”. In other words, masculinity and femininity can be found in every human being. Biology and medicine tell us that male and female hormones are present in the organisms of both sexes, albeit in very different amounts. Heinrich Spaemann comments: “What it means to us is that both are contained in every human being. In each person there is the one who receives, who waits, who listens, who understands the facts, and there is the one who is active, who draws his conclusions from the facts, who cuts down forests and who turns deserts into springs of water, as the Bible tells us. These two sides need to be present in every human being… However, the two sides are manifested differently in men and women.18

If we had nothing of the other sex within us, we would face one another as though we were complete aliens.
Psychotherapist Jeffrey Satinover describes the unique mutual relatedness and complementarity of woman and man and the unity of the feminine and masculine within each individual as a dance: “In God’s loving will for our lives, the dance is ordered between us and within us. When, in our brokenness, we halt it within us... it stops as well between us. To be truly men and truly women – masculine men and feminine women – the divinely ordered dance must once again resume, at the cost of fire. (…) One of the chief characteristics of psychological and spiritual dis-ease (sic.), is thus precisely the falling apart – both within and between – of man and woman: masculinity aggregating itself together in soul and society; femininity aggregating itself together in soul and society like the single-gender anti-sex leagues of Orwell's hideous vision in 1984. The result is falsely masculine (or feminine) men; falsely feminine (or masculine) women; everywhere, within and between, broken vows and betrothals.19

Man and Woman

The Hebrew word for “man” (ish) in the sense of “male person” occurs for the first time in Genesis 2:23, at the end of Adam’s song of exultation. Up until this point, the reference has only been to ha-adam, “human being”. By identifying his woman – or wife – man finds his own identity. Yes, it is through his encounter with the woman that he discovers his purpose as a man.
Together, they both appear: The man's existence leads to the woman's existence, and the woman's existence leads to the identities of both the man and the woman.20 But at the same time, there is also a third element: the love relationship between them. How else could the poem in verse 23 come to exist? How else could the man forget himself and burst into praise about the woman, if love wasn’t present? How else could he understand that she is “bone of my bones” and “flesh of my flesh”? Without love he would only distance himself from her. However, the man's poem is about reaching out to the other, to the “you”, as a necessary condition for love and fellowship.

Reciprocity is the Bridge to the Whole

In our present age of individualism it is said that “the elementary, original desire of all love is probably the desire for one’s own self.”21 The biblical message, however, is a different one: The prerequisite for love is the ability to be enthusiastic about the “thou”, in other words, the other. The fundamental biblical promise regarding marriage (Genesis 2:24) comes immediately after the man’s joyful shout in response to the other gender. Eugen Rosenstock-Hussey writes:
“Marriage can only be consummated if the husband and wife refrain from stubbornly holding fast to their own viewpoints. If the two people insist on having their own way, they will either get divorced, or the marriage will never take place in the first place. Marriage means that my well-being becomes your aim, and your well-being becomes my aim. Complementarity doesn’t start until each of us becomes aware of the other person, our relational “antipode”. I need to look at what you are doing, and you need to look at what I am doing. […] Every whole demands that each constituent part is willing to lay down its own way and start to admire the other. [...] We need to like each other, approve of each other, and love and admire each other. Reciprocity is the bridge to the whole. If we stare directly at the whole, we achieve nothing. But we can enter into fellowship if we choose to release our focus from ourselves.”22
“To release our focus from ourselves” – in the context of gender identity, this means looking away from one’s own gender. But in a more general sense, this is also true for all communities. Likewise, a new pact both between man and woman and between generations will only be attainable within our society when all those involved are willing to let go of their focus on themselves and of the battle to secure their own advantage.

Marriage – A Peace Agreement

The question we face today is: What is marriage? Which model counts? The Bible’s answer to the question is very clear: Marriage is a publicly declared, unique sexual fellowship between man and woman, based upon the uniqueness of the two genders and their potential ability as well as their inherent need to complement one another. The fellowship of marriage between man and woman in which sexual faithfulness is practiced is the only model which visibly reminds us of the faithful covenant which God made with his creation. Throughout the Bible, the metaphor of man and wife is used to describe this covenant.
In German, the word for marriage (Ehe) has the same linguistic roots as the middle high German „eija“, which is used to describe a peaceful place within a community.
The foundation for marriage has always been rooted in public law, and never just regulated by private contract. In German, the words for marriage, law, true and eternity (Ehe, Gesetz, echt, Ewigkeit) all come from the same root word. Today, marriage vows have become almost incomprehensible to us because we‘ve come to see them only in private terms.
We have practically forgotten that marriage is the main link between the genders, man and woman, and thus, at the same time, between generations. It is through marriage that life is rooted and organized within the context of generations. And it is only through this bond between generations that grandparents and grandchildren, past and future, receive their tangible definition and humankind finds his place within history.
Many marriages fail. Human beings cannot achieve complete peace. And yet, of all the possibilities which exist, marriage is able to achieve the greatest level of peace between man and woman and, in turn, between different generations. Not only is the procreation of biological children one of the results of successful married life, but an additional achievement is passed down to the next generation: the pact of peace between the genders. This peace agreement between man and woman – if it succeeds – will significantly influence the world view of our children and the generations to come.23


1. See Wolfgang Philipp: Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die Summe der Anthropologie, Heidelberg 1959, p. 122.

2. Genesis 1:26-30.

3. See: Phyllis Trible: God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1978.

4. I am grateful for the important insights which I received for the following section from Phyllis Trible’s book: God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1978.

5. The New International Version

6. The New Jerusalem Bible: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh.“

7. The New Jerusalem Bible: “…he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them. He blessed them and gave them the name Man, when they were created.”

8. This is reflected even more strongly in the original Hebrew, where the last word in verse 24 is „one“ and the first word in verse 25 is “both”.

9. Hans Urs von Balthasar (Editors: Kehl, M. and W. Löser): In der Fülle des Glaubens – Hans Urs von Balthasar Lesebuch, Freiburg 1980, p. 78.

10. Androgynous = male and female simultaneously; half male and half female.

11. See also W. Philipp, loc. cit., p. 140 f.

12. The New Jerusalem Bible.

13. Friedrich Weinreb: Die Wurzeln der Aggression, Weiler 1980, p. 7.

14. Dennis Prager: Why Judaism Rejected Homosexuality, NARTH Bulletin Dec. 1996, p. 29-31.

15. The Revised Standard Version.

16. See also Robert Alter: The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York 1983.

17. Rachel Monika Herweg: Die jüdische Mutter, Darmstadt 1995, p. 9.

18. Heinrich Spaemann: Vom wiedergefundenen Vater; in: OJC-Freundesbrief, Reichelsheim, 1993/4, p. 133.

19. Jeffrey Satinover: The True Masculine and the True Feminine: Are These the Same as Jung’s Anima and Animus?, Engl. and German in: Bulletin of the DIJG, No. 4, Autumn 2002

20. See also Trible loc. cit.

21. Barbara Gissrau: Die Sehnsucht der Frau nach der Frau, Stuttgart 1993, p. 172.

22. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy: Soziologie I, Stuttgart 1956, p. 117.

23. With regard to the last two paragraphs, see Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy: loc. cit., particularly p. 257.

Copyright: 2010 DIJG