Monday, October 15, 2012

Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh: Genesis 2:18-24

Note: This sermon was originally given at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship on October 7, 2012.

In Genesis 2 we find ourselves in the garden, surrounded by lush green growing things, a flowing river that divides and flows out in four directions to other lands God has made. God is here, with Adam, this person God made and breathed God’s own breath into so as to give the creature life. The work of creation is nearly finished – but not quite. This creature God has made – Adam, a human creature, a creature that is like God – is alone. God, being a communal God, says that unlike everything else that has been pronounced good in Genesis 1, this aloneness is not good. God will make Adam a helper. A partner.

God makes animals of every kind – cattle, birds of the air, animals of the field – but none of these are quite what God is looking for. These creatures are not like Adam.

As I dwelt on this text this week, I found myself wondering why many of the preachers and teachers I’ve heard speak about Genesis 2 in the past are so quick to dwell on the word “helper” and to assume “help” implies hierarchy. What first strikes me when I read this passage is partnership – God creates two creatures who are suited to help one another precisely because they are like. They share some creaturely core – the breath of God, the imago dei. The animals, beautiful and strong and useful though they are, are not like Adam – they are not suitable partners for the human.

Doing a little academic sleuthing confirmed my hunch about the word used for “helper,” in Genesis, also – Phyllis Trible notes that it’s a relational term, not one which specifies position or inferiority. She puts this quite succinctly after discussing various uses of the term, when she writes, “God is the helper superior to man; the animals are helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man.” If God helps us, there’s something a bit off about the assumption that the helper is subject to the one helped.

And so, returning to our narrative, God puts Adam to sleep. Adam is passive in the creation of Eve. He’s knocked out cold, and exercises no control over bringing her into existence. He is not a participant, a spectator, or a consultant. Eve is God’s creation. And so, Eve, like Adam, owes her existence to God alone. Both Adam and Eve are created from fragile materials – dust, a rib – and in both cases those materials depend upon God’s careful shaping of those raw materials into human creatures.

In seminary, I half jokingly wore a button on my backpack that said, “You can have your rib back” as a tongue in cheek response to classmates who might question women’s place in a divinity school classroom, but in truth even the rib doesn’t imply inferiority. On the contrary, Trible attributes solidarity and equality to the very rib so often used as justification for patriarchy.

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called woman, for out of man this one was taken.

Trible reflects on this as follows:

“The pun proclaims both the similarity and the differentiation of female and male. Before this [the text has] used only the generic term 'adham...Only with the specific creation of woman ('ishshah) occurs the first specific term for man as male ('ish). In other words, sexuality is simultaneous for woman and man...Man as male does not precede woman as female but happens concurrently with her.”

So here we have a passage that affirms the creation of human creatures as interdependent – helpers and partners, who live in mutuality and discovery.

I think that’s beautiful. And so not the world that we live in most days.

Still, in some ways, as I prepared this week, this passage felt like an odd choice to preach to our congregation. Here is a community in which I see many different ways of being together, male and female, modeled in the people around me. The creativity and mutuality of your lives is encouraging to me. I continue to learn from the ways you compose your lives, your marriages, and your families. We’re not particularly patriarchal around here.

And yet I think this passage – insofar as it speaks of the creation of all humanity – speaks beyond the context of the individual couples it is often applied to. The common misreadings I’ve alluded to aren’t simply a result of reading hierarchy into a text where there is none; the misreading also comes from reading the passage as applicable to one man, and one woman, rather than to all human creatures in our lives together.

I’ve been intrigued by the dialogue happening recently in some pretty mainsteam news outlets about the state of women in the world. There’s a lot of talk about “The War on Women,” and articles about “The End of Men,” and “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” have been posted and reposted all over the internet. As I have read these various pieces – agreeing with parts of some, and parts of others, it’s struck me that we often risk completely missing the real problem.

The problem is that the conversation in our wider society assumes hierarchy. In order for women to “win,” men have to “lose.” Improvement for some ultimately means suffering for others. Our existence as gendered people is inevitably wrapped up in a power struggle.

Unfortunately, our moral imaginations as church folks seem to be formed more by this way of seeing the world than by the God who created us to help one another.

This summer, while I was doing research at the Kierkegaard Library in Minnesota, I got in an argument with a group of young men about male headship. The five guys I found myself sitting around a table with wanted to convince me, the token feminist at Kierkegaard Camp, that male headship was fine in theory because in practice women are usually in control of their families and their husbands. The old saying that “Man is the head, but women is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants to,” comes to mind. This wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation with other Christians, and I am sure it won’t be the last.

Simply put, something is deeply wrong when this is our best vision of a so-called egalitarian world. Do we really think this is God’s best for us? In this picture, rather than mutual helpers, or partnership, we imagine marriage as a power struggle, and spouses as manipulative and scheming. One partner inevitably dominates the other in his or her attempts to control the relationship.

That’s not what we see prescribed in Genesis 2, and it’s not the trajectory I see in the rest of scripture, either, though we can read plenty of examples of how humans fail time and again.

I feel confident stating that Christian marriage is not about domination. I feel equally confident saying that our lives together as Christians – as gendered human beings in the world – are not meant to be about domination, either.

Rather than reading into Genesis a social structure that affirms our own fallen attempts to manipulate hierarchies to our own advantage, we might rather hear in this passage a call to repent of the many ways we grasp at power we were never meant to have.

In our lives together, one-on-one in friendships, and marriages, and in our wider communities, these same dynamics are at work. Do we play the power game? In our jobs, in church life, in our families, do we use our positions and particularities to get our own way? Or do we seek to affirm different relationships – relationships of neighborly love, of partnership, of helping? Relationships mediated by the God who created us all from fragile materials and gave us to one another not to lord over each other but because we need one another? Because truly, it is not good for us to be alone.

Today is World Communion Sunday, and as such we come to a table that has no place for our hierarchies. It does have room for all of the particularities of our flesh and bone, though, for all of the pain of broken relationships. This is as true for us here in Chapel Hill as it is for churches all over the world sharing this meal today – those who we are united with in this common practice, as we proclaim that Christ has reconciled us to God, calling us to be companions and servants as we seek to do God’s work in the world.

Adam says of Eve, this is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh; Jesus says to us, this is my body, that is for you. We come to this table, together, equal before God – equally broken and in need of grace, equally gifted with God’s redeeming love.