Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It could very well be that the familiarity of this passage breeds contempt, or at least, a desire to investigate the other lectionary texts for this Sunday!

October 7, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24

It could very well be that the familiarity of this passage breeds contempt, or at least, a desire to investigate the other lectionary texts for this Sunday!

Or, perhaps the content seems too narrowly focused to the topic of marriage. With different marriage amendments passing in different states in America, perhaps these conversations feel worn out, or even contentious. Yet though this text has obviously been used to discuss marriage (after all, in the gospel reading for the day Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce), it is about more than that — it is a text which tells all people who God is, and what it means to be God’s people.

God is the first actor in this pericope: the selection begins with God. And God is the evaluator, assessing the created world. Surprisingly — amidst all the goodness of creation in the previous chapter (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) — God evaluates as not good that the human should be alone. Though many English translations express this as “it is not good that the man should be alone,” the Hebrew here is not the masculine ʾish, but the gender inclusive ʾadam. Immediately following the statement about the situation, that it is not good, God responds by declaring what God will do to make things right: make for him a helper, as one next to him (2:18). As Phyllis Trible says, “God the evaluator is God the rectifier.”1

The description of the one God will make may be another reason to avoid this text, especially when “helper” is understood as someone inferior, or a lesser partner in an enterprise. Indeed, the meaning of a word follows the way it is used, which is bad news for this text because “helper” is often used colloquially to refer to a less significant participant. Of course, most of us have heard that ʿezer is used in the Hebrew most often to refer to God (e.g. Psalm 121:2), and it connotes assistance from a superior. That this is tempered by “as one next to him,” or kĕnegdô, suggests that the overall image is mutuality and equality. However, we ought to be wary of using this text to prescribe gender roles, and the larger context suggests that the person described is someone who will alleviate the isolation — the aloneness — through connection. 

After God’s pronouncement in 2:18, God forms other creatures from the “ground,” or ʾadamah (2:19). The linguistic parallels between this and 2:7 would lead us to believe that these creatures are corresponding to the human. God brings them to the human to see what he will name them, but amidst all the beasts, all the birds of the air and the living ones of the field (2:20), he cannot find a suitable helper. Certain English translations, like the KJV, translate the last clause of 2:20 passively, “there was not found,” but the Hebrew is active. However, the identity of the subject who cannot find a helper is vague, with some interesting possibilities — if the “he” refers to the human, it gives Adam a lot of agency, freedom and responsibility to find a partner. If it refers to God, it suggests that God is like a scientist who is testing out hypotheses to see what works best, and that God — powerful creator of all — could not find a helper for the human amidst all the other creatures.

However, immediately following, and without any conversation, God causes a “deep sleep” to fall on the human. The word is somewhat unusual, occurring only a handful of times throughout the Old Testament, either divinely sanctioned, or revelatory in some sense (e.g. Genesis 15:12). Perhaps with some humor — or at the very least, without any surprise — the text then tells us that the human slept. God the anesthesiologist then acts as a surgeon, taking one of the human’s ribs and then closing up the flesh. Then God makes, or “builds,” a woman, whom he brings to the man. Thus, God is also an architect, designing the woman from the rib, and then a matchmaker.2

The woman is not yet given a personal name, but is called woman, which both relates to the man (he is the ʾish, she is the ʾishah), and differentiates her from him. The pericope concludes with the formula about “leaving and cleaving,” which again is quite well known. But it is helpful to note that it is the man who is identified with his parents, and the woman stands alone, a contrast with certain wedding practices! Moreover, in this final verse, procreation is not part of the picture. The two become one flesh, but they are not “fruitful” yet, which may suggest that a sexual intimacy is valued in and of itself, and not only as a means to reproduction.  Thus, while this text begins with loneliness, it ends with intimate companionship. And the one who facilitates that companionship is God, acting in various roles and various ways throughout the text to bring about such a change.

1Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, p. 89.
2Ibid., 93.