< October 04, 2009 >

Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24

 

The book of Genesis begins with two different but complementary stories of God's creation of the world.

Two Creation Stories and Two Portrayals of God
In Genesis 1, God is portrayed as speaking from afar, bringing order out of chaos in a well planned and carefully structured progression of six days of creation. God repeatedly pronounces the results of the six days of creation as "good" and the whole creation in the end as "very good" (Genesis 1:31). God creates humans as a simultaneous community, male and female, both fully in the image of God. Genesis 1 teaches us that God's intentions for creation will come to fruition in accord with God's will and desire.

When we turn to the second creation story in Gen 2:4b-25, the portrait of God is somewhat different. God gets "down and dirty" with creation, forming the human (adam) from the land or clay (adamah). God performs CPR on the newly formed lump of clay, breathing into the dirt-creature's nostrils "the breath of life." Like the crazed doctor who brings to life the lifeless Frankenstein in the film Young Frankenstein, we can imagine God exclaiming, "He's alive! He's alive!"

The image of the garden of Eden as a laboratory with God as the chief scientist engaging in trial-and-error experiments captures something of the spirit of God's portrayal in Genesis 2. Although God will finally and assuredly have God's way with the world (Genesis 1), God will also encounter unexpected challenges and try new solutions in a give-and-take in interaction with creation and its creatures (so Genesis 2).

Being Lonely: Not Good!
In Genesis 1, God had repeatedly said that everything was "good." In Genesis 2, God surveys his emerging horticultural experiment in Eden and senses something is "not good." God observes, "It's not good that the man should be alone" (2:18). God's discovery highlights what is fundamental to human nature and human flourishing: humans are social creatures who thrive in close and intimate relationships with others. Thus, God resolves to make for the single human "a helper [Hebrew: ezer] as his partner." A "helper" in the Old Testament is not a subordinate but one who may be an equal or sometimes even a superior to the one who is being helped. In fact, God is often called a "helper" to humans in need (Psalm 10:14; 54:4).

God's first experimental attempt to resolve this deficit of community is to create an array of wild animals, birds, and domestic animals as possible soul mates for the human. God marches the colorful parade of diverse wild life before the human and invites him to give names to the various creatures (2:18-20). Elephant, condor, dog, cat, kangaroo, what have you. The act of naming in the ancient world was a means of defining and shaping the character and essence of the one named. By naming the animals, the human participates with God as a co-creation, but sadly this first experiment does not work. The animals are interesting, but none of the animals fully resolves the ache and void of human loneliness.

The Second Experiment: Success at Last!
So God embarks on another experiment. God assumes the role of chief surgeon and anesthetizes the man into a deep sleep. This new attempt at finding a "helper as his partner" will not involve human co-creation this time. It will all be God's doing, a gift from God alone. God surgically removes a rib from the man's side and lovingly shapes the rib into a second human being who is "like" the man but also "opposite" him, like two puzzle pieces that fit together. The animal-as-full-partner experiment had been a bust, but this time God gets it oh so right! The man awakes and instantly recognizes the fulfillment of his deep longing in the eyes of the new "other," the woman.

For the first time in Scripture, the human speaks in the elevated language of poetic verse as a sign of the ecstasy and joy that accompanies this discovery:
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called Woman [Hebrew ishshah]
for out of Man [Hebrew ish] this one was taken.

"At last," the search is over. The imagery of being "bone of my bones" and "flesh of my flesh" speaks of a bond between the man and woman so strong that to sever it would be as if to rip out a physical part of one's own body. The man's lyric response is the Bible's first example of love poetry but not its last. The Bible's other great celebration of human love and passion is the Old Testament book, the Song of Songs, a commentary and sequel to Genesis 2.

Love as a Fragile Gift
This marital bond is so intimate that the two "become one flesh"--naked, open to one another, vulnerable, trusting, passionate, loving, and "not ashamed" (2:24-25). This union of two lonely human beings yearning for community and finding it in one another is the great climax of the second creation story.

Unfortunately, the happy union is quickly strained and marred as the narrative suddenly and unexpectedly descends into the story of Adam and Eve's disobedience and expulsion from the garden of Eden in Genesis 3. Mutual trust, partnership, support, freedom from shame, and equality of relationship are all threatened by human disobedience in Genesis 3. The Gospel lesson for this Sunday in Mark 10:2-16 takes up the issue of divorce, the severing of this relationship of a man and a woman in the real world of human pain and pleasure, the knowledge of good and evil, faithfulness and sin.

The reality and the mystery of human love is that sometimes it endures and sometimes it does not. Genesis 2 reminds us of God's original intention and desire for humans--to find in at least one other person a bond of love that runs so deeply and so intimately that we never feel alone.