Body Matters in Genesis image

Body Matters in Genesis


Your body matters. That’s something I expect most readers of Think already know. There has been a surge of interest in the theology of the body in recent years, and for good reason: the prominence of various body-related topics in contemporary western culture has highlighted the need for us to think more deeply about bodies and what it means to be human.

Many of us will have reflected on the goodness of our bodies; that as the creation of a good creator they can speak to us both about how we should live (ethics) and who we are (identity). And that they are core to what it means to be human, not secondary or irrelevant.

Recently I’ve been struck by this again in the creation accounts. Obviously I’ve been aware before that in Genesis 1 God declares all creation good and then very good after the creation of humans. That would include human bodies and so our bodies are clearly good. But I’d never before noticed quite how strongly the creation accounts of Genesis stress the centrality of our bodies. Both of them seem to imply that bodies are central to what it means to be human.

In Genesis 1, the first thing we are told about humans is that we are created in the image of God. The second is that we are created male and female (Genesis 1:27). What does it mean to be male or female? They are terms that speak of bodily forms – the way our bodies are structured to play one of two roles in reproduction. This is why the statement that we are created male and female is immediately followed by the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ (Genesis 1:28). Male and female mean nothing apart from bodies.

This means the second thing we are told about humans in Scripture – and so presumably a fairly important thing – is that we are embodied. Bodies, according to Genesis 1, are central to what it means to be human. They are central to who we are.

In Genesis 2, it is striking that God first creates Adam’s body and then breathes life into him (Genesis 2:7). There is no Adam before the first body is created. The first human is not a disembodied being for whom a body is created, as if the body is just a container to hold our true self or a tool through which we can interact with the physical world. The body comes first. It is central to what it means to be human.

Aware of this, I’ve been trying to be more careful of the language I use about our bodies and their relationship with our true self. We often use language that implies our bodies are separate to who we really are: ‘Your body is a gift from God’, implying that the core you exists separately to, or even prior to, your body such that that this you can receive a gift from God.

On one level this is obviously overthinking things (I’m good at that!). I don’t think this statement, or others like it, is completely inaccurate or inappropriate.1 It’s a statement trying to communicate things that are true and important. But in a contemporary context – both cultural and Christian – where the body is so often devalued and seen as separate to our true self, there may be value in thinking very carefully about the language we use.

So what can we say? I’m increasingly talking about us being created as bodies rather than being given a body as a gift, and as being bodies rather than having them (‘You don’t have a body. You are a body.’)

I can already hear the responses. Has Andrew become a monist, believing we’re are only bodies and nothing else? No. I am a convicted dichotomist – we have a body and a soul/spirit (two words for the same thing; see Isaiah 26:9; Luke 1:46-47). I think that’s pretty clear in Scripture (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:7; Matthew 10:28). But those two parts are meant to be united. So while an ontological dichotomist (there are two parts to our being), I am a functional monist (those two parts are designed to work together as one).

That the union and interworking of body and soul is God’s good intention can be seen from the problem of death. The problem of death isn’t that it’s the end of existence – because it isn’t. The problem with death is that it’s the (temporary) end of embodied existence. At death, body and soul are torn apart awaiting reunion at the resurrection (Genesis 35:18; Acts 7:59; 2 Corinthians 5:8).

Do the sorts of phrases I’m proposing run the risk of suggesting that our bodies are prior to our souls? Maybe. And that’s something I probably wouldn’t want to affirm. (I don’t think the creation of Adam in Genesis 2 can be used here as he could easily be an exceptional case!) But aware of the complexities of communication and the reality that we often have to make do with phrases that have some weaknesses, I think the statement ‘You are a body’ leans to the side indicated by Scripture. Our bodies are central, perhaps even primary, in who we are.

In a time when both secular culture and popular Christian thinking have a tendency to undervalue the body and to overvalue the internal or non-physical (whether that’s called ‘true self’ or ‘soul’), I think it’s better to use the imperfect language that might help us to correct our imbalance. I’m trying it out at least.

Your body matters. And so does the language you use about your and other bodies.


  • 1. Arguably, Paul uses language that could also be read as separating body and true self in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. That shows us that such language isn’t completely wrong or inappropriate. But Paul is clearly using the language of ‘your body’ for a very deliberate purpose in that passage (showing how utterly inappropriate sexual immorality is for a Christian) and that has no doubt shaped his use of language.

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