This is our second week in a yearlong series following Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking. If you haven’t yet gotten a copy of this, I hope that you will. If you are looking for something to help you with your own regular habit of Bible reading and prayer, this is a great resource. We’ll be talking about the texts in worship each week, and – spoiler alert – we’re also starting small groups this fall. More about that later.
Last Sunday we read the story of creation from Genesis 1, in which God brings light from darkness and beauty from chaos simply by speaking it into existence, and everything is good, good, very good.
Sometime this week I hope that you took time to read Genesis 2, which is also a creation story, but a different one from Genesis 1. Last week I quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in saying that “Science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts things together to see what they mean.” Science takes things apart to see how they work, but religion puts things together to see what they mean. That’s from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. If we take these two stories apart to see how they work, all we’re going to see is that they are different stories. For some of us that’s confusing or frustrating and for some of us, it makes want to say “I told you so.” Ultimately, we’re just going to argue about it, which is not helpful. So let’s not try to do science here. Let’s not take these stories apart. Let’s do religion. Let’s put them together to see what they mean. In order to do that this morning, I’m going to read a little and then talk a little and then read a little more, instead of reading it all in one time. So will you open your hearts and minds to the word and wisdom of God, beginning right where we stopped last week, in Genesis chapter 2 beginning in verse 4.
“This is the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed an earthling from the earth of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life, and the earthling became a living being.”
Isn’t that what your Bible says? Probably not. And while there is nothing wrong with any of your translations, you can absolutely trust them, there are some other options, some nuances, that are hard to bring out and as you heard, read a little awkwardly in English. One nuance that I think very important is this: there is an option to read this first human as not male, not female and also not male. I didn’t come up with this; the ancient rabbis and lots of other Bible scholars teach this.
Stay with me now; the word “man” is the Hebrew word “adam,” or Adam, and the word for “earth” is “adamah.” This word “adam” is the word that is always used for humanity in general, just like sometimes in English, people say “man or men” when they really mean “everyone.” God makes an adam from the adamah. God makes a human from the humus. God makes an earthling from the earth. It is possible to read this creature as a prototype of humanity, a creature that is essentially human but undifferentiated by sex or gender (which are different). The way that Hebrew is constructed, the pronoun is singular and male but that’s because like in English Hebrew has no singular personal pronoun that is ungendered. We are starting to use “they” as a singular personal ungendered pronoun, and I think that we are being totally faithful to the text if we read “they” here. God forms an earthling from the earth and breathes into their nostrils the breath of life.
I’ll give you a minute with that.
When we put this story together with the story from chapter 1, we see that God is both transcendent and immanent. God is both big and out there and far away and creating with just a word, and God is in the dirt, working with God’s hands (with their hands?), like a potter, to form an earthling from the earth and breathing God’s own breath Spirit wind into the earthling so that they live. God is both transcendent and immanent. Let’s continue, picking up in verse 8:
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there God put the Earthling God had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
The Lord God took the Earthling and put them in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the Earthling, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Now that God has made an Earthling to care for the earth, the earth begins to have plants that need to be cared for. When we put this together with chapter 1, we see two things. First is that humans are created to be in a healthy and symbiotic relationship with the earth. No plants until there’s a human to care for them, and that care yields plant food for the human. Without the human, the plants don’t thrive. Without plants, the human doesn’t survive. This relationship is also in the first story. Humans are not in an adversarial relationship with the earth; we are created to live in harmony and in balance. And friends right now things are out of balance.
The second thing we see is the two trees. The tree of life, which the human is allowed to eat from, which as we’ll see next week, allows the human to live indefinitely. And also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When we put this together with the first story, we see that the Bible isn’t interested in answering our question about where evil comes from. The first story had chaos already existing, which God ordered by a word. This story in chapter 2 apparently has evil present somewhere, but the humans exist first in a state of innocence, and God does not want them to lose that innocence. Friends, as people who live in the US in the 21st century, we are obsessed with the “why” question. Something bad happens and we want to know why. Why do bad things happen? Why is there evil? Why?! And right here at the beginning of the story, there’s no answer. It just is. Here’s what I think: I think that God knows that there is no answer to “why” that would really satisfy us. When something bad happens, there is no rationale, no “why” that would ever actually make it better for us. Ours is not to know. Ours is to trust. Let’s keep reading, verse 18:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the Earthling to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for them.”
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. God brought them to the Earthling to see what they would name the animals; and whatever the Earthling called each living creature, that was its name. So the Earthling gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
But for the Earthling no suitable helper was found.
I love this part of the story, for so many reasons. 1) It’s not good for the human to be alone. Loneliness is not good. That’s not what we are made for. Even the introverts need people. Not many people, but somebody. That’s a whole sermon right there. Relationships matter.
2) The earthling names the animals and evaluates whether that animal is the partner the earthling needs. It’s so great. Such a fun story to tell little kids. Can’t you just see it? “Aaaaaardvark. … Nope! … Orangutan … Nope! … Hippopotamus … Nope! … Tarantula … Nope!” But for the earthling, none of these are right. They are also made from the earth, but they’re not what the Earthling needs.
3) And here is something really important. What kind of a partner does the earthling need? This translations says a “suitable helper.” Which is fine. But kind of weak. That word “helper” is elsewhere used for God and salvation. And “suitable” can also mean “before” or “in the presence of” or “opposite to.” Much trouble has been made in the world by reading that a male God made primarily a male human and then a second-class female secretary housekeeper. Let’s not do that. We don’t have to. This prototype human doesn’t need an assistant. They need a partner, who can rescue them, who can help because they are opposite in skills or temperament, equal in every way, but different. And that does not exist in the animal kingdom. For that, we need another earthling. Let’s finish the story, picking up in verse 21:
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the earthling, and they slept; then God took one of the earthling’s ribs and closed up its place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the Earthling, and he brought her to the Earthling. Then the Earthling said,
“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.”
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Only after the female human is created does the story begin to use the word that always means specifically human male. Now, does this text say exactly specifically what I would like it to say? It does not. I cannot make a perfect case for what I want using these words? But you know what? Neither can people who want to use this text to say that God has ordained heteronormativity and blessed only people who fit easily into a gender binary and are in heterosexual relationships. There’s too much ambiguity here. No one who reads this 100% honestly gets exactly what they want. Which is why we absolutely have to be gracious with people who read it differently. And why we can absolutely read it in a way that supports what we feel is consistent with the character of God that is revealed to us throughout the rest of the scripture. I really do think this story supports the idea that God originally created one non-sexually-specific earthling, that it wasn’t good for that one earthling to be alone, and so God divided and differentiated that one earthling into two who had the combined ability to create more like them. Pretty radical for Genesis 2, huh?
Finally, when we put this story together with the story from Chapter 1, what might it mean? I think that when we put together the ideas that humans are created in God’s image (that’s chapter 1) and that it’s not good for humans to be alone, what it could mean is that one image of God in the world is not sufficient. A single image-bearer of God is not enough. Which is why it can be unhealthy for a congregation to only see one particular image of Jesus. If we only ever see Jesus looking in one way, our brains naturally start to assume that everyone who looks like that is somehow more like God that people who look different from that.
And so I am incredibly proud to announce to you that we are going to transcend and include this single image of Jesus in this church. Many progressive churches that have a White Jesus in their stained glass windows are doing something to cover up that image or change it. We don’t think that’s the right move for us. What’s more in line with our values is to keep this one and add to it. So, we have a small team of people who have embarked on the project of turning the walls of the narthex into a gallery of images of Jesus that are not primarily White. The working title is “Faces of Jesus” and the goal is to choose 8 to 12 images that depict the full course of Jesus’ life. We want these images to be culturally contextualized and created by artists from the cultures that are represented. Because a single image of God is not sufficient.
Next week we will explore the story that is known as The Fall, or the beginning of sin. Throughout this series, we will keep putting stories together to see what they mean. It’s OK that the first and second chapters of Genesis have different stories. Because we need both of them. We need to know that God is both sovereign over all and right next to us. We need to remember that we are created to live in harmony with the world around us, with the plant and the animals. We need to remember that god is trustworthy even when we can’t make sense of why bad things happen. We need to remember that it’s not good for us to be alone; we need relationships. We need to remember that all faithful relationships can be blessed by God, that all humans are created in God’s image, not just White men. All of this goodness comes to us from the Word of God, which is for all people. Thanks be to God. Amen.