Genesis lesson 4

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 4 – Adam and Eve (Genesis 2) Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; originally aired on October 9, 2005

Introduction:               Today we turn our attention to Genesis 2, one of the most intriguing and controversial chapters in the Bible. Many of us grew up with the story of the Garden of Eden. I remember the felt-board we had in Sunday School with cut-out figures of Adam and Eve. Even then it struck me as a bit odd that they were always standing behind waist-high bushes. Now it strikes me as a bit odd that Adam and Eve are almost always depicted as white-skinned people with modern haircuts. One has to wonder why, especially since the story is set in Iraq, but we tend to project ourselves onto biblical stories; and thus Adam and Eve become nice suburban parents. It can be hard to read the Bible with fresh eyes when we have all of those early images implanted, but let’s take a closer look.

            It is also hard to read the Bible as it is because we tend to get obsessed over questions that the original stories just don’t address. In the Middle Ages one of the burning questions of biblical scholars was whether Adam and Eve had navels since they didn’t have parents. Today the pointless debate is whether the story of Adam and Eve belongs in a biology class. That debate diminishes science and scripture both. Let’s step back from our childhood Sunday School classes, from medieval theology, and even from debates over school curriculum and just look at the story that has come down to us through the centuries.

J-Source:        One of the first things you probably noticed in reading is that the style of this story is quite different from the first chapter of Genesis. That was a majestic hymn of creation originally sung by the priests of Israel. Genesis 2 is a story. Adam and Eve sounds like a story told by a wise man or woman sitting by the campfire. It has characters, dialog, and dramatic flow. If you close your eyes, you can probably picture the storyteller giving this story year after year, much like the troubadours who sang the sagas in former times.

            Many scholars believe that the story of Adam and Eve was part of a long narrative that served as the national epic of Judah before it was skillfully incorporated into the book of Genesis. Scholars call this long narrative “J,” and many people consider J to be the work of a literary and theological genius who reworked traditional tales in profound ways. The literary scholar Harold Blum even wrote a book on J, despite the fact that scholars still disagree over whether such a book ever existed.

            One of the reasons for proposing that there was a book of J is that some of the passages of Genesis refer to God as elohim, as we saw last week with Genesis 1. Other passages consistently call God by the name he revealed to Moses: YHWH (probably pronounced yah-whey). Years ago scholars thought this was pronounced Jehovah. In most English translations of the Bible the name YHWH appears as LORD in capital letters, which indicates that the translator put in a word which is not in the original text. LORD is used because pious Jews would not say the sacred name YHWH for fear of taking it in vain. They said adonai, or lord, instead. Modern translators adopted that same practice, but LORD is in all capitals. Many scholars see the YHWH verses in Genesis as originating in the J source.

God:    Regardless of the origin of this passage, most readers recognize that the style and tone of the second chapter of Genesis is quite different from the opening chapter. In the first chapter of Genesis, God is like Captain Picard on Star Trek. He says, “Make it so,” and it happens. In the second chapter, God becomes a gardener, planting trees in a garden. He is a potter making things from clay. He is herdsman bringing animals before the man. In short, God in Genesis 2 and 3 is literally a down-to-earth character moving within his creation. The technical term for portraying God with human characteristics is anthropomorphism, which is Greek for “in the form of a human being.” We portray God and other things in human form all the time; we just don’t always call it be anthropomorphic. The truth is that it is difficult for us to understand God without being anthropomorphic.

            But to be honest, the image of God in Genesis 2 really bothered Jewish and Christian thinkers for centuries. Throughout the Bible, we are told that it is wrong to make images of God, or to worship created things, or to limit God to human qualities. If God is infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and eternal, how could he be walking around a garden and playing in the clay?

Ancient theologians, like Philo of Alexandria and Augustine, argued that Genesis 1 gives the true picture of God as the majestic transcendent creator. This agreed with many strands of ancient Greek philosophy which had turned away from the myths to a more rational view of God and nature. Influenced by Greek philosophy, ancient Christian and Jewish theologians taught that Genesis 2 is speaking metaphorically. The anthropomorphic description of God is metaphor rather than a literal portrayal of God. Calvin called this part of God’s condescension to human understanding.

Literal or Metaphorical:        Even today there are very few biblical literalists who read Genesis 2 and 3 absolutely literally. They do not believe that God was literally “walking in the garden in the cool of the evening,” for instance. It is certainly good theology to distinguish between God and our metaphorical descriptions of God, but we don’t want to lose the beauty and drama of the biblical story. God is very much a participant in the drama of Adam and Eve. One of the reasons we know and love this story is because God is portrayed in such human terms. But once you acknowledge that the portrayal of God in this story is a metaphor, then there is no reason not to view the whole story as a metaphor. When we do so we find that this is a very rich and profound discussion about human life and happiness.

            We lose much of the meaning of the story when we try to make it a historical account of the origin of the species. Remember that this was originally written for a bronze-age culture. If we get hung up on the question of whether Genesis 2 is a factual account, then we will lose the truths the story is trying to communicate, just like we could get a misleading understanding of God if we used these verses to declare that God has hands and feet.

A Second Creation Story:      When we read Genesis 2 in its own right, we get a different image of creation than we had in Genesis 1. The opening line “In the day that the Lord God created the earth and the heaven” is the beginning of a new creation story. There are many reasons for thinking that this is a new story rather than just a continuation of the first. For one thing, the order of creation is quite different in Genesis 2 from Genesis 1. In the first story we saw that humans were made after plants and animals, but in this story the human being is made before plants and apparently before animals. Also, the world was a watery chaos in Genesis 1, but is dry in Genesis 2.

Unlike the first story, the second creation account refers to a specific location. Four rivers are mentioned, but only two are identifiable today: the Tigris and Euphrates. These rivers are still in the news, and it is clear that the story is placed in the Middle East. One river flows around the land of Cush, which was the Hebrew word for Egypt, making some believe that it might be the Nile, but other scholars think it is referring to a region of ancient Babylon. In any case, it has proven impossible to make the geography of Genesis 2 fit what we know of the ancient world. Most likely these rivers are just elements in a story, not points on a compass. In any case, the story is set in Mesopotamia. Unless, of course, you are Mormon, then it is in Missouri.

Breathe of Life:         Genesis 2 is mainly about human beings, and it is interesting that their creation is different from the first story. Last week we saw that male and female were created together, but in this story the man is created before the woman. This raises the question of why are there two differing accounts side by side. I think this is a wonderful example of how the final author of Genesis used his sources with great respect. It also demonstrates to me, at least, that there stories were never meant to be taken as factual accounts.

            According to the story, God makes Adam out of the clay. The King James’ translation of dust is not accurate here. God took wet earth and molded it into a human being and then blew his own breathe into the lungs to awaken the human. Throughout the Bible, by the way, life is defined as breath. That which breathes is alive. To be pro-life in Biblical terms is to be positive toward breathing things. After God gives the breath of life to the human he has formed out of the earth, he plants a garden in a place named Eden, which means “lush.” And he takes Adam, the Earthling, and puts him in the new Garden.

Eden and Work:         Contrary to popular ideas about the garden of Eden, this was not a playground. The story states clearly that the human was to till the ground and care for the garden. Labor is not viewed here as a burden placed on humans because of sin; it is part of the original plan for human life. It is to be a joy and pleasure. This is a message we’ve generally rejected in the modern world. The message we receive each day is that work is toil and trouble instead of being meaningful and enjoyable.

We think it odd if someone leaves happily for work on Monday morning, and many employers go out of their way to make labor oppressive. Our Moravian ancestors rejected this way of thinking, in part because of the witness of Genesis. In the old Moravian villages like Salem (now Winston-Salem), there was almost no unemployment because labor was something worthwhile. I picture Adam, like the old Moravians, singing while he worked in the garden.

Alone in Paradise:      But there was something not good about life in the garden. The earthling, Adam, was alone. And so God made animals for the man. If you try to take Genesis 1 and 2 both literally, you run into all kinds of problems with this verse since the animals in Genesis 2 were made after the man. Read separately and metaphorically, though, we get an important message from each story.

Here Adam is the one who names the animals. God makes them, but he lets the human have the divine power of naming them. In other words, we share in God’s creative work. But no animal was a suitable partner for Adam. The rabbis had very fanciful explanations for why this was the case, but the general agreement was that a man needs a woman and not an animal. The rabbis also recognized the difficulties of relating Genesis 2 with Genesis 1:27, where male and female were created at the same time.

This is why the Jewish legend of Lilith was born. Some of the rabbis taught that Adam’s first wife, in Genesis 1, was named Lilith, but Lilith believed that she was the equal of Adam and refused to be obedient to him. When Adam complained to God about his difficult wife, God banished her from Eden and she became a demon who eats children. If you’ve ever wondered by Frazier Crane’s wife on TV was named Lilith, that’s why. After Lilith was exiled, God created Eve. That legend demonstrates that people have gone to great lengths to make Genesis 1 and 2 go together!

Men and Women:      I find it interesting that many people use Genesis 1 to say that what was created last was best, meaning humans, but they do not use that same reasoning in looking at Genesis 2. If we say that what’s made last is best, then we have to say that the pinnacle of creation is not man but woman. This idea has appeared on several emails and bumper stickers: Adam was a rough draft.

All joking aside, it is impossible to avoid gender issues when discussing Genesis 2 and 3. This is in part because of the nature of the story itself, but it is also because of how this story has been used for 2000 years to define women as subordinate to men. People have read much into this text that is not there as a way to oppress women. This clouds our reading and thinking. There is a long history of people looking to the Holy Book to justify domination and oppression of others rather than letting the Scripture challenge our selfishness and sinfulness. That is most apparent in our reading of Genesis.          

            I think it is best to read each story in its own right, and when we do, we are struck by the poignancy of the phrase, “it is not good that the man should be alone.” So the LORD God decides to make a partner suitable for the man. The word helper here is interesting. Elsewhere in the Bible God is called a helper for humans using the same Hebrew word. It is not a word of submission, like assistant or underling, but refers to someone who can be helpful and active. The old King James word “helpmeet” is often misused. It means a helper who is meet, meaning suitable, for the man. Clearly the woman in this story was to be a helper and companion, someone to share the work and joy of the man. A helpmeet is a partner, not an appendage.

Adam’s Rib:   Now we come to the fun part of the text. The lonely Earthling falls asleep and God reaches into his side and pulls out a rib in order to make a woman. You will sometimes read that men have one fewer rib than women, but that’s not true. Men and women normally have 12 pairs of ribs, although it is not uncommon for individuals to have an uneven number. But that is the wrong kind of question to ask of a text like this. We’ve already seen the rabbis and early church theologians recognized that this account of the creation of Eve is metaphorical. So let’s look at it as a story rather than trying to make biological assumptions.

            For over two thousand years Jewish and Christian scholars have asked why it was the rib of Adam that was taken to make his companion instead of another of the body. The most likely explanation is that it is because the ribs protect the heart and inner organs. Eve was made from the inner-most self of Adam rather than an extremity. Their partnership was to be one of intimacy and devotion. It was to produce life and joy. The woman is portrayed as the Great Mother, but she is not like one of the pagan gods. She is a woman, human just like the man.

            This story of Adam’s rib provides a nice symmetry that is sometimes ignored. Man is born of woman but the first woman was born of man. In essence, Eve was birthed from the side of Adam. She is called flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, just as children partake in the flesh and bone of their mothers. The Bible is often condemned as a sexist book, and yet one of the opening chapters of the Bible portrays man in rather feminine terms. Next week we’ll see that Eve also has some very masculine qualities. I’ll leave you to ponder this further.

            The story of the creation of Adam and Eve ends with an affirmation of marriage and sexuality. Though many Christians through the ages have tried to mute or even alter the meaning of Genesis 2, it is fundamentally a rousing affirmation of the fact that a man and woman leave their homes and form a new relationship with each other that is so intimate they may be called one flesh. Sexuality was part of the original blessing in the garden; the man and woman were naked and without shame. Shame only enters into the story of humankind in chapter 3.

            In our next lesson we’ll discuss in detail Genesis 3 and the story of the snake. For now though, let’s leave Adam and Eve happy and working together in the Garden. Let’s leave them free and without shame as they delight in the world that God has made. May this story of original blessing and mutual devotion offer us guidance as look for peace and happiness in our lives as the sons and daughters of the earth.

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