The text we’re studying for Sunday, September 23 is Genesis 2:18-25 and Genesis 4:1-2. In keeping with our emphasis on creation this quarter, our curriculum identifies this as “God creates the family.” We can talk about that. We’re looking at the narrative of God’s specific creation of “the man” and “the woman,” and then at the conception and birth of the first two children. Here are my notes on the text – not many at all, possibly because I’m more aware than usual of how much people could, and have, said about this text. [In other words, I’m not only not even scratching the surface, I’m really only glancing at the surface. From a distance.]
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The Biblical context for this story – we might want to say this part of the story – is the ongoing creation of the heavens and the earth, and their inhabitants. We can consider once again, if we want to, how the description of the process in Genesis 1 connects with, relates to, or frames the description in Genesis 2. I would note, however, that in the Bible as we have it Genesis 1 is included in the context.
Most of us are familiar enough with the Biblical narrative to know that the story doesn’t end here, but is going to wind up in grim territory shortly – Genesis 3, and the rest of Genesis 4. We’ll have to savor the happy moments in the text while we can, because they will be fleeting. And we’ve already had the spooky foreshadowing music in Genesis 2:16 & 17, when YHWH God warns the adam about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not to eat from it, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Ominous.
Still, it seems to me that the main context for our study is the 2500 years or so of Bible reading that precedes us. Some of our texts are a lot less … subject to the gravitational pull of prior readings than this one is. This might not be the text that is most like that in the Bible, but I’d bet it’s in the top 10.
One indication of this gravitational pull is that one member of our class [Ahem. You know who you are.] couldn’t wait for this week and wanted to get on to the subject of the meaning of the word “helper” last week already. [As if we didn’t have enough on our hands last week with “contradictions in the Biblical narrative??!” and “dominion” and “the Trinity in the Old Testament????!!” and all that.] But we are doing all things decently and in order, and dealing with one can of creeping things that creep upon the earth at a time.
So. We will need to work harder than usual to distinguish the everything we bring to the text from our world of experience, which is a lot, from everything that’s packed into the text from … its origins, which is a lot, as usual. [I would also note that we don’t get to blame “feminism” for there being “a lot” on our side. At least not exclusively. Gender, or “the battle of the sexes” – which is language people used to use when I was growing up, and that might be a commentary in its own right – has been a big and contentious topic for longer than feminism has existed, and it has influenced the way people have been reading this text clear along. Possibly even the way people wrote the text.]
CLOSER READING: It is worth including vv15-17 in our reading.
The man in vv15-23 (emphasized by repetition; 10 times in these verses) is ha-adam, the same word that is translated “humankind” back in Gen. 1:26 & 27. So we have that prior indication that it is a gender-inclusive term. Narratively, however, in this text ha-adam will also be used explicitly as a contrast term for “woman” in v 22. Ha-adam is the speaker in v23. At that point, the text switches to the words ish and ishah, the explicitly gender-differentiated words in this language, for the speeches in vv23-25.
Tricky translation decisions, then, must be made. I found a cool-looking pretty new book in doing a little background research for these notes that addresses some of those at length: Helen Kraus on Gender Issues in Ancient and Reformation Translations of Genesis 1-4.
“It is not good that the man should be alone.” The first clause in YHWH God’s speech. As our pastor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, this the first time since the opening of the whole story back in Genesis 1:1 that God has called anything “not good.” What is not good is for the man or human to be “separate, apart, by himself.” We can give some thought to what this means in its context. At this point in this narrative, the human is the only living creature besides plants. So “alone” here is closer to Mark Watney on the planet Mars than it is to Robinson Crusoe on the desert island. And let’s not forget that Mark Watney had at least been raised by other humans.
“I will make him a helper as his partner.” NRSV. JPS has “a fitting helper.” KJV has “a help meet,” which is a bit archaic for us, so we would need to be reminded that “meet” in its own context meant something like “suitable” or “worthy” or “corresponding to” – we might want to get the idea of perfectly designed for the purpose implied in the first clause – which purpose we will still need to talk about, but which has something to do with the badness of aloneness [isolation, separation, and the absence of any possibility of interaction with someone on your own level, as opposed to someone beyond your comprehension, namely YHWH God]. The thing people always say about the underlying Hebrew word that is translated here as “partner” is that it’s notoriously difficult to translate. Elsewhere in Scripture, however, it seems to carry, most of the time, the sense of being present and visible; in less fraught contexts it gets translated “before” or “in front of” or “in the presence of” or “opposite.” It would be wrong to translate it “face to face” because there are other Hebrew terms that mean that, but it seems that it might not be entirely wrong for us to think of what we mean by that phrase here.
helper shows up in Scripture elsewhere; the next place that is not in this story is Exodus 18:4 [Moses names his second son Eliezer, because “the God of my father was my help and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”], then Deuteronomy 33:7 [Moses blesses Judah “O YHWH, … be a help against his adversaries], then the next place that is not referring to God in Deuteronomy is Psalm 20:2 [“May [YHWH] send you help from the sanctuary”] and then the next place that is not about God in Psalms is Isaiah 30:5, in which Pharaoh is not going to be a help to the “rebellious children” who ought to be getting help from God. So, we get the idea, I hope. This is not about Little Debbie helping Mommy in the kitchen. If anything, it’s more like Mulan having Shang’s back. Although, at this point, there’s not that much to have Shang’s back against. Also, no swords. Yet.
So … now there is an episode of God forming animals of the field and birds of the air out of the ground and bringing them to the human (vv19-20). From a narrative perspective, this sounds a lot like trial and error. I’m not saying we need to revise our theology at this point, just pointing out that the narrative does not support our notion of God’s omniscience right at this point. But maybe God is kidding around. God does that sometimes.
deep sleep The same kind of “deep sleep” that Abraham falls into in Genesis 15:12 when God prophesies to him about his descendents and their captivity in Egypt, for instance. This kind of sleep is not always a good thing (see Isaiah 29:10), but it generally seems to be a divine thing. I read once that the rabbis commented that the sleep was a good idea, because it would not have been good for Adam to have seen the woman “under construction.”
rib is also translated in other contexts [for instance, in all the places it shows up in the design of the tabernacle, and the places it shows up in the description of Solomon’s Temple] as “side.” We’ve probably all seen that meme, eh?
woman repeats 4 times, v22, 23, 24, 25. The word translated “wife” in 24 & 25 is the same word. Another one of those translation issues. [A book I read a long time ago pointed out that the earliest Christian readers did not read Genesis 2:23-25 as a marriage ceremony. The issue for the early Christian readers was to get the marriage into the text, because marriage was not held in highest esteem by the earliest Christian readers. Another reminder that part of the significant context for our reading is us. The book might have been Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Genesis 1-11; or, maybe not … it was a long time ago.]
It might be worth asking who the man’s father and mother are at this (v24) point, or whether v24 is an explanatory side note for the benefit of the reader outside the text. Most commentaries point out that v24 has a very clear, we might even say explicit, sexual and procreative sense. Which, considering the immediate commentary in v25, seems to be just fine with the Bible.
Despite the intervention of chapter 3, which we’re leaving for another time, this works out in Genesis 4:1-2 as [we suppose] planned.
There’s a whole library of analytic texts, commentaries, etc., on this one chapter of the Bible. More evidence that it matters to us humans, as if we needed more. I am no expert on that library. But here are three resources I have found helpful at various times:
Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender is a great resource.
Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality provides what I still think of as the “go to” text for thinking about the history of reception of the text (p. 73); besides which, it’s a classic.