I sat with my friend and fellow scholar, Akanisi Tarabe, in my Fijian living room. Ms. Tarabe, a sociologist by training and a powerful Methodist laywoman by upbringing, was the wife of one of my faculty colleagues at Davuilevu Theological College. She had given our family kind and careful guidance as we negotiated our relocation to the Fiji Islands as Global Ministries mission partners three years prior. We had been asked by The Christian Network Talanoa – a local, ecumenical group advocating against gender violence – to do a Bible study for women leaders in the church. In Fiji, it is estimated that 2 in 3 women have experienced some sort of gender-based violence in their lifetime (UNWOMEN Global Database of Violence Against Women, http://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/en/countries/oceania/fiji). In response, The Talanoa Network focused its efforts on combatting silence and complicity in Christian congregations.
Our given topic was Genesis 1.
I knew why the leaders had picked the chapter. They were interested in the powerful affirmation of Genesis 1:27 – that both men and women were created in the image of God. Every period of Christian history has had its own take on this “image of God” language – reflecting back the values of the age (i.e. reason, freedom, relationality) in the shape of the Godhead. A slippery business. But honestly, I was tempted to do the same. In a room where women were looking for biblical resources to combat violence, some progressive projection seemed preferable to the little I knew of this verse’s historical connotation.
In the Near-Eastern context, the “image” or “likeness” of God was the king. The verse’s political connotations are clarified by the sentences that follow. Words like “dominion” and “rule,” “fill” and “subdue” describe this “image of God” in discomfiting ways. I had read Sallie McFague’s feminist critique of these verses in Models of God (Fortress Press, 1987). In her view, this “dominion” language was part of patriarchy’s DNA. I knew Lynn White’s ecological critique of these passages’ use as a Christian apology for abuse of the earth (“Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 [10 March, 1967):1203-1207). And I had lived in the Pacific long enough to know that the word “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 sounded very unlike the relational ways that Fijians talked about their relationship to the land. If Genesis 1:27 was about identity, Genesis 1:28 was about power – a power that seemed dangerous. Frankly, I wanted to ignore the entire issue.
I suppose I was afraid that this passage of scripture would not be of value in Pacific women’s struggle for justice, safety and voice. I was afraid it would be the opposite of a liberating word. Or perhaps, harder to admit, I was trying to protect my own relationship with these scriptures by glossing over the parts that made me nervous.
I am so glad Akanisi was in the room that day.
“Jerusha,” she said, “I see your concern. But there is no way for us to avoid talking about power – not on a bible study about violence.” And of course, she was right. We had to ask what biblical “dominion” looked like in Genesis 1 and how it compared with the way we thought about the term. If we were representatives of God, how did God use power in this chapter?
In his book The Liberating Image (Baker Publishing, 2005), J. Richard Middleton underlines the long-acknowledged similarities between this passage with the Babylonian creation account. But he also points out significant differences. In the Enuma Elish, violence is the source of creation, not words. Humans are created as laborers and slaves – not God’s representatives on earth. Creation is used as an object – rather than blessed as good. In the Babylonian account, the world is passive. But in the Genesis story, the world has agency. The sun and moon also “rule” (v. 16) and the earth “brings forth vegetation” (v. 12). One begins to see the outlines of what Walter Brueggemann describes as the “radical protest” of the chapter against an imperial view of world (Genesis, WJK Press, 1982). There is a creative Power in this chapter that makes space for response and shared responsibility. There is a creative Power that invites life into existence.
I say this not to sweep important critiques of this chapter away, but to acknowledge that, in talking about a shared dominion between men, women and the world itself, the Pacific women in our Bible study began wondering about local models of power-sharing. What did such a claim mean for local decision-making in villages and in families? How would the world look if dominion was shared in the ways that Genesis 1 described?
Perhaps the most significant insight of our Bible study came when I mentioned that, in the Enuma Elish, the world was created from the splitting open of a woman’s body by a member of her family. All of a sudden, the issue of domestic violence was very near. If this chapter was a response to that story, one woman reasoned, that means that domestic violence is a central concern of scripture. The very first chapter of our Bible rewrites a story of gender violence with a story where men and women share the honor of being God’s representatives together.
When women have been in abusive power relationships, one can begin to think that power itself is violent. But Genesis 1 testifies to the hope that power can be used for life, relationship and goodness. Power can be power for others and with others. For the Pacific women in our study, this was a liberating word, and it left them with a question: How could we create a world safe for all of creation to share our power together?
The Rev. Dr. Jerusha Matsen Neal is an Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School. She recently served as Academic Dean of Davuilevu Theological College (Fiji Islands) and Global Ministries missionary of the United Methodist Church. This article grew out of a Bible study on Genesis 1 that Neal conducted with South Pacific women leaders organizing to combat gender based violence in the region.