Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

“Head” and “Headship” in Genesis 1-3

Head and Headship in Genesis 1-3

In preparation for a recent talk that I gave on gender and creation, I read Raymond Ortlund’s essay “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship, Genesis 1-3”.[1] In his essay, Ortlund managed to use the word “headship/head” 70 times—he even included the word “headship” in the title of his essay—but he does not use the word “head” in the way it is used in Genesis chapters 1-3.

The Hebrew word for “head” is rosh (רֹאשׁ). It is a common Hebrew word and occurs hundreds of times in the Old Testament. Rosh is used three times in Genesis 1-3, once in each chapter. This post briefly looks at how this word is actually used in the text.

Rosh as “Beginning” in Genesis 1:1

The very first word of the Bible is bereshit which consists of the word resheeth (רֵאשִׁית) with the bet preposition meaning “in”. Resheeth is derived from the word rosh which commonly means “head” but also has the meaning of “beginning” or “point of origin”, hence “in the beginning” in Genesis 1:1.

Rosh as “Source” in Genesis 2:10

Ro’sh is used in the plural, rashim (רָאשִֽׁים), in Genesis 2 where it refers to four “headwaters”, that is, the “sources” or “points of origin”, of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:11-14. The underlying Hebrew word for “heads” is not clear in most English translations because they use the word “rivers” rather than the literal “heads”. The King James version, however, translates Genesis 2:10 literally: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.”

Considering the meanings of rosh in Genesis 1 and 2, Ronald Pierce suggests that if you want to speculate and relate “head” to man and woman in these chapters, “then it seems only fair that you take the meaning that the text gives . . . and apply that meaning to the use of “head” with man and woman. . . [that is] Adam was Eve’s point of origin.”[2] The Greek word for “head” (kephalē) can also mean “point of origin” (1 Cor. 11:3 cf. 1 Cor. 11:12).

Rosh as “Head” in Genesis 3:15

Rosh (רֹאשׁ) is used in a more literal sense in Genesis 3 where we read that the seed of the woman will strike the snake’s “head”. We are meant to envisage the body parts of heel and head in this verse. Nevertheless, these words are also used metaphorically. This verse is not about an actual snake being physically struck on his actual head. Furthermore, a common interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is that the seed of the woman will kill the snake by striking its head. Thus it could be argued that “head” metaphorically refers to “life” in this verse.

Rosh as “Chief” and “Leader” in Hebrew

Rosh has still other meanings in Hebrew. It can mean “chief person” and “leader” in Hebrew, but it is not used with these meanings in Genesis 1-3. These chapters nowhere state that God intended for the first man to be the “head”, as in “leader” of the first woman. Nevertheless, Ortlund persistently argues his case while repeatedly using the terms “headship” and “head” in a way that is foreign to these chapters.

Ortlund’s essay would have been more relevant if he had used the same language, along with the same meanings, that we find in the text, rather than import misunderstood concepts from outside of Genesis 1-3.

Authority and Rule in Genesis 1-3

In Genesis 1, words meaning “authority” and “rule” are used, but these words apply equally to men and women: both men and women have been charged by God to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion [or rule] over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” Genesis 1:28 (italics added). Men and women share this authority and leadership jointly.

Nowhere in chapters 1 or 2 does it say that some people are to lead or rule other people, or that some have been given extra, permanent responsibilities. After the Fall, however, as a consequence of sin, God foretells that man will rule woman (Gen. 3:16). But this is not God’s best plan for humanity, and the Hebrew word for “head” is absent here.

“Head” in the Greek New Testament

In the New Testament, man is called “head” in two verses. In Ephesians 5:23, in the context of unity in marriage, it says that “the husband is the head (kephalē) of his wife.” In 1 Corinthians 11:3, in the context of origins, it says that “the man is the head (kephalē) of woman” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:12). I have written about the meanings of kephalē in these and other New Testament verses in several articles. (See Related Articles below.)

It is important to note that unlike Hebrew and English, “head” in early Koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament) rarely meant “chief person” or “leader”. The kind of “male headship” that Ray Ortlund and others push—that men have extra leadership responsibilities simply because they are male—is ill-conceived and absent in New Testament instructions. It should also be absent in New Creation relationships. In God’s kingdom, and in the world at large, leadership functions, abilities, and responsibilities are not tied to one gender.


[1] Raymond C. Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship, Genesis 1-3”, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991) 86–104. (Ortlund’s essay can be viewed here.)
Ortlund states “My purpose in this essay is to demonstrate from Genesis 1-3 that both male–female equality and male headship, properly defined, were instituted by God at creation and remain permanent, beneficent aspects of human existence.” (p.86) He defines “male headship” in terms of responsibility and leadership: “In the partnership of two spiritually equal human beings, man and woman, the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction.” (p.86)
Ortlund describes women as being the spiritual equals of men, but not as equals in other senses. He writes, ” . . . was Eve Adam’s equal? Yes and no. She was his spiritual equal and, unlike the animals, ‘suitable for him.’ But she was not his equal in that she was his ‘helper.'” (p.91) Ortlund seems to think that “helper” is a synonym for “assistant” or “auxiliary”. He goes on to say, “A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God.” (p.91) His understanding of “help” and “helper” does not take into consideration how the Hebrew word ezer (“help/helper”) is used throughout scripture.

[2] This post was inspired by, and partly based on, Prof. Ronald Pierce’s excellent lecture on “Male and Female in Creation and Fall (Gen. 1-3)” as part of Biola University’s Theology of Gender course, recorded in 2013. See 1.15.49-1.16.35 minute marks. (Source)

Related Articles

(Part 1) Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
(Part 2) Kephalē and “Proto-Gnosticism” in Paul’s Letters
The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell
Who is the head? 
Various articles on Gender in Genesis 1-3
Freebies for Students of the New Testament

Posted October 1st, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Gender in Genesis 1-3, , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

11 comments on ““Head” and “Headship” in Genesis 1-3

  1. judy says:

    Yes, as I said earlier, the meaning of “head” is further clarified when you consider that

    a) The “head of Christ is God” in the context of
    b) “Christ thought it not robbery to be equal with God”…who
    is His head.

    If Christ is equal with God, His head, one cannot say the meaning of ‘headship’ is inequality in any way. One cannot say ‘headship’ is authority either in this context, since the Bible is pretty clear that the three persons of the Trinity are equal to one another. This was a wonderful eureka moment I received at my kitchen table one morning while glancing at a tract on the second verse from Philippians 2:6, and it is unquestionably clear and logical…I challenge any Complementarians to disprove this point.

    I think this is why there is a new movement on to redefine the Trinity as not being co-equal, one with another, and this attempt to bring hierarchy into the Godhead seems to me to be heresy and a distasteful manipulation of the scriptures in order to protect an ungodly human tradition.

    • Marg says:

      It’s sad that some Christians are obsessed with who has and who hasn’t got authority (rather than being concerned with simple service) that they miss what Paul is really saying when he uses the word “head”: unity, not hierarchy.

      • Nancy says:

        So many people act like “male headship and wifely submission” is crucial to salvation, even to the point of wives submitting to their husbands in heaven. I feel sorry for the women in relationships with men who believe that, as well as for women who believe it.

        Jesus rent the veil.

      • judy says:

        Exactly. I believed this for 30 years…what a smothering.

  2. Thank you for this very well written piece. It was/is an encouragement to me.

  3. Lucy says:

    As always Marg, your articles are logical and precise, based on the actual meaning of words instead of what people want them to be. I still find it confusing and sad that so many men and women take the Curse literally as God’s plan for relationships — that God WANTS men to rule women! It’s a curse, and the curse is all the more painful because it’s been claimed as a blessing. Thanks so much for your writing.

    • judy says:

      Patriarchy has been a curse for the whole world…yes, even for the men who have locked themselves into a closed room where they isolate themselves from the love of women by their self-deception. The ongoing determination to rule only gets them farther and farther from the relationships with women they would probably prefer if they knew how to have them.

      If they only knew that their sense of entitlement causes women to shut them out emotionally. I see it over and over. I have warned a family member that he is cutting off his nose to spite his face when he rolls over his wife’s ego like an ox…he doesn’t seem to get it, that she will sooner or later be cutting him off relationally while (hopefully) remaining faithful physically (she won’t be able to help how she feels and that will seal their fate)…what a sad tale of ongoing patriarchy. No wonder marriages like this don’t work out well.

  4. Marg says:

    Hi Tricia and Lucy,

    I’m glad this info was useful and encouraging for you. 🙂

  5. I heard about a book called “What Paul Really Said About Women” by John Temple Brisow”. Although I never read the books I’ve read some excerpts from the book especially in relation to the word “head” and it’s Greek and Hebrew translations “Kephale” and “ro’sh”. It’s quite an interesting take and makes so much more sense then the “leader” meaning of the word. Anyway loved your post once agan. God Bless.

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