Savi Hensman

Did God make snails? Diversity in creation

By Savi Hensman
March 2, 2015

In debates about gender and sexuality, particularly the role of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people in church and society, the beginning of the Hebrew Bible is often quoted. Some Christians believe this clearly rules out same-sex relationships and emphasises distinct roles based on sex at birth. But it can be interpreted in different ways. Indeed the first chapters of Genesis, in the light of the Bible as a whole as well as through observation and reason, could be read as recognising and rejoicing in the diversity of living beings.

In the beginning

The opening chapters of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, have fascinated readers for thousands of years.

Today they are often read by Christians as largely symbolic: while the world did indeed arise from God’s loving creativity, the precise sequence of scientific and historical events is not the focus. For instance in the creation account from Genesis 1.1, plants are created before humans, while in the second story in Genesis 2 humans before plants.

However, what readers might understand these narratives to symbolise, especially with regard to sexuality and gender identity, is hotly disputed.

This is in part because they were written in ancient Hebrew thousands of years ago, in a civilisation remote from our own, and probably drew on even older oral traditions. These chapters are also read in the framework of different belief systems: Jewish and Christian approaches for instance may differ.

In addition, the cosmic scope and poetic quality which gives these narratives such power – and variety of ways in which people perceive and relate to God, who is at the heart of it – increase the ambiguity. Perhaps, most of all, readers approach these and other biblical stories in the light of social and personal expectations and experiences.

It may be useful to take another look at contrasting interpretations in the light of other biblical passages and modern knowledge, and examine how Christians today might draw on these ancient stories in understanding gender and sexuality.

Abundant life and the image of God

The first creation story can be read as emphasising reproduction and sexual difference. God creates “plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” When sea creatures and birds are created, God blesses them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply,” after which land animals are formed. The author repeatedly affirms, “God saw that it was good.”

Then humans are created: God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...’

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blesses the humans and tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God attends to the need of all these creatures for food, giving them plants to eat. Then “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” and rests.

Yet, even as the narrative celebrates the diversity and abundance of life on earth, perhaps even more remarkably it highlights what human have in common. All are made in the image of God and are interconnected with other creatures, who also benefit from the generosity of the Creator.

This was in stark contrast to the creation myths of surrounding nations, including Babylon. There, a murderous power-struggle among gods was the backdrop to creation, while in Genesis the ‘us’ who creates humankind (later sometimes regarded by Christians as pointing towards the Trinity) is peaceful and promotes harmony. Admittedly sometimes the passage has been used to justify ruthless misuse of the earth and other creatures by humans, yet this has resulted from failure to follow the lead of a Creator whose dominion involves taking responsibility for others’ wellbeing. Responsible stewardship is called for, not a smash-and-grab attitude.

In Babylonian mythology, the subordinate gods were set to work but rebelled, so humans were created to carry out manual labour, serving as well as worshipping the gods. This and other empires were deeply hierarchical, with the king – sometimes portrayed as being in the image of a god – at the top and peasants and slaves at the bottom.

In contrast, in the Genesis account, all humans are made in God’s image, nor are most made simply to be exploited. Even today, if taken seriously, this is a startlingly radical notion. Christian belief takes this even further, with God working as a carpenter in an outpost of another empire, then facing the death of a criminal before rising again and ushering in a new way of being.

Even more is known today about the complexity and wonder of nature and the capabilities of our own species, when allowed to develop and flourish.

It is now known that many types of creatures cannot be neatly divided into two sexes. For instance most snails – which play an important role in various ecosystems (even if they can occasionally be a nuisance to gardeners) – are hermaphrodites, with both male and female reproductive organs. Many species of coral are hermaphroditic too. Coral reefs enable numerous other species to breed and eat, protect coastal areas from storm damage and in other ways contribute to wellbeing: it is estimated that half a billion people are reliant on these.

Some might wish to claim that this must be a consequence of the Fall, that depiction in Genesis 3 of the fact that the universe is not entirely as it should be. Certainly nature at its cruellest is far removed from the idyllic scenes at the beginning of the book, where there is no violence. But I think the onus is on anyone wedded to the notion that animals should always be straightforwardly male or female to make the case that such useful and (at least in the case of coral) beautiful creatures are not part of God’s good creation.

It has also become apparent that, in numerous species of land animals and birds, same-sex sexual behaviour is not uncommon, nor is engagement in behaviour characteristic of the opposite sex. This may at first seem puzzling from an evolutionary perspective but there seem to be various benefits which go beyond the individual. Examples include a male penguin couple in a Kent zoo caring for a chick abandoned by its biological parents, and female bonobos having sex to promote bonding and reduce the risk of aggression during intergroup encounters.

Of course ethical guidance for people cannot be derived directly from the behaviour of other kinds of animals. However it is important to note that – from early times – surviving and thriving has involved far more than having as many babies as possible. A childless person with the skills to identify which plants were safe to eat, heal the sick or negotiate with another clan and thus avoid war might contribute more to collective welfare than even the most fecund man or woman, while romantic or erotic relationships might serve a range of purposes. It is possible that communities in which a minority of people was different from most others in sexual orientation, biological sex or gender identity possessed certain advantages.

Today, thanks largely to modern medicine and disease prevention measures, humankind has indeed multiplied and filled the earth, to the point that responsible stewardship may not be properly exercised and the survival of some species is imperilled. While it is vital that some people continue to bear children, there is no compelling reason for everyone to do so, especially if this frees up more time for such tasks as the care of sick and frail older people, fostering and adoption, tackling mass poverty and the risk of war using weapons of mass destruction.

The New Testament adds a further dimension, inviting readers to be part of a new kind of ‘family’ not based on blood ties but setting an example of compassion, justice and generosity. Almost everyone was expected to marry in the culture described in the Hebrew Bible and eunuchs were outsiders, as made clear in Lev 21.20 and Deut 23.1. To quote the latter, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Yet Jesus remains unmarried and affirms eunuchs, however these are understood.

There is no reason to suppose that people who are intersex, transgender or disinclined or unable to conceive are any less made in God’s image or part of God’s good creation than anyone else.

Loving companionship

In the second account, in Genesis 2, God creates the first human from dust, breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, and sets him to till and care for the earth in the garden of Eden, full of beauty and fruit good to east. God recognises that it is “not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him."

Jesus later refers to this passage in his teaching on marriage (e.g. Matthew 19.3-5). Some believe that, taken together with Genesis 1, it emphasises male-female complementarity, the notion that men and women are essentially different and this is at the heart of marriage and society.

Yet other read the account as emphasising divine respect for human autonomy, as well as deep concern for wellbeing. The beasts and birds are brought, one by one, and the human names them, but finds none of them suitable to be his partner.

Then God creates a second human from the rib (or side) of the first, so that the androgynous being becomes male and female. The reaction is one of delight at the meeting of a profound need: the companion is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”.

Yet this is not as prescriptive as it may seem. If God had decided that it was not good for humans to be alone, and there were only one way to fix the problem – marrying a member of the opposite sex – celibacy would be ruled out. This is clearly not the case in the New Testament and Christian tradition, in which many have entered into religious communities offering a different kind of family life.

This does not necessarily mean that same-sex partnerships are also an acceptable way of being not alone, but the notion of a divinely-ordained one-size-fits-all pattern is not supported by the passage when read in a wider context.

For a small but significant minority, meeting a person of the same sex can bring the same sense of delighted recognition which heterosexual marriage, at best, brings, as well as involving the same challenge to overcome selfishness and grow spiritually through faithful self-giving love. Unlike most of the Babylonian gods, to whom ordinary people are merely a means to an end, God is not indifferent to human need and suffering and is acutely aware of each person, different but equally treasured.

Diversity and sexuality

In the rest of the Bible, even when humans betray God’s trust, are expelled from the garden of delight and find themselves at odds with one another and other living beings, God does not abandon them. Life on earth falls short of its full potential, but through prophets and sages people are recalled to a better way; and in Christ there is hope of renewal and transformation for creation as a whole.

In a world not yet fully redeemed, human relationships – including the most intimate – are all too often tainted by power imbalances, egotism, greed and cruelty. This applies whether people are male, female or a combination of both, and attracted to the same or opposite sex, both sexes or neither.

Yet Genesis 1-2 perhaps offers a vision of diversity in which God delights and at the same time a radical challenge to all societies which refuse to acknowledge that all people, whatever their ancestry or identity, are made in God’s image. The invitation to join in protecting the environment, justly sharing the earth’s abundance and filling the world with compassion and peace is not only for a select few.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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