Text: Genesis 2: 18-25
Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, whom many of us had the privilege of hearing last week, says that today’s Hebrew Bible story is “an exceedingly marginal text” in terms of how the rest of the Bible regards it. In other words, sometimes a Bible story or saying seems well known by the rest of the Bible. Not this story. The story of the Moses leading the children of Israel from Egypt is mentioned often and throughout the Bible. But today’s story from Genesis, which any child can retell, is rarely mentioned elsewhere in scripture. However, Brueggemann claims that “no text in Genesis (or likely in the entire Bible) has been more . . . misunderstood” (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1982, 41).
Dr. Brueggemann is referring to the entire second creation myth from chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, which includes not only the creation of Adam and Eve, our focus today, but also the forbidden fruit, the snake, and the expulsion from the Garden. Can you imagine in what ways popular culture often misinterprets this text? (Responses from the congregation included: Woman was made second so she’s inferior. Woman is responsible for original sin because she tempted Adam to disobey. The snake is Satan. Human beings brought sin into a perfect world and all their progeny must pay the price. God instated marriage as a covenant only between male and female.)
Brueggemann and others insist this is not a story about the origin of evil, as traditionally understood. Instead, this beautiful Judeo-Christian myth is packed with insight about, among other things, the human vocation. I see it suggesting what we are called to do in this world.
To appreciate today’s story, let me begin by making a few comparisons to the account of a perfect, well-ordered creation in Genesis 1. In that story each of God’s creative acts is followed by the refrain: “God saw that it was good.”
In contrast, the creation account we read today recognizes problems in paradise. God says in this story, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” God declared some things “not good.”
While the creation narrative in Genesis 1 emphasizes completion, the version in Genesis 2-3 exposes the incompletion of, if not disappointment with, creation. The second creation story charges humanity with the ongoing work of creation and creation care.
Genesis 1 says animals were created before humans, with humans being the pinnacle of creation. That version ends with a “tah dah!” At last humans enter Eden and all is complete and now “very good.” In Genesis 2, however, God creates adam—which some translate as the earthling—before the animals. God then realizes that the human one needs a partner. So God creates animal after animal in hopes of supplying Adam with a partner. Picture a zoological version of speed dating as Adam meets with all the animals, one by one. Or consider this procession of animals being copied in a story a few chapters later as Noah supervises an animal procession in anticipation of the destruction of creation. Creation is not secure. It’s not even fully created.
Adam’s parade of animals does not produce an equal partner for Adam. Neither the cat nor the parrot nor the zebra nor hippopotamus nor earthworm fits the glass slipper Adam holds out. Adam remains lonely. And that is the human predicament.
This afternoon we’ll see a parade of pets in our Blessing of the Animals service, and they’ll remind us of the special bond we have with animals. Many of us have a tender place in our hearts for the nonhuman members of our families. At times we might even believe our dogs and cats are better company than humans. Sometimes. So we can cut God some slack for trying out the apes and alligators on Adam. If you’re smiling at the silliness of this plot point, I think you’re in good company. I think the ancients found this story humorous, too. I think humor was intended as we imagine what if Adam had settled . . . for the squid or hyena. And humor helps us face the reality that we are disconnected from our fellow humans.
You see, all was not well even in Eden. And God didn’t solve the problem. God invested Adam with the responsibility for solving it. God gave humanity our very first and perhaps most fundamental task: naming.* After God made other creatures, God gave Adam the prerogative to name them. Naming—seeing individuality—is humanity’s first vocation. To name who we are. To name the other as distinct from self. To name as a way of recognizing the other. That’s necessary before we can be fully human and can partner with and relate to another with self-awareness and other-awareness. That’s why “Say Her Name” became a call to address police violence against black women whose deaths were seemingly unacknowledged as a pattern. Women like Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey and Kayla Moore are individuals who need to be named if we’re to face the problem.
Early in each human life there is no self-differentiation. An infant does not distinguish herself from her mother. It takes many months before a child recognizes herself as separate from the mother. For the baby, the self at first is the whole world. To mature, humans need to be able to classify, contrast, distinguish. Adam was a creature who recognized he was different from the other creatures. The world soon became either human (the main category) or nonhuman (the other main category) and those categories later were broken down further. Naming sorts us. And millions of Adams and Eves later, we are still naming one another.
So here is a story about the early psychological and cognitive process of knowing we are distinct, of naming those creatures who are not us, and the responsibility that demands. But the story continues in order to also reveal our next human task—because Adam did not find an equal partner among the barracudas and butterflies. Adam needed both distinct identity—and deep connection.
Enter Eve. The story says God put Adam to sleep. Maybe Adam dreamed of her. Or dreamed her up. From Adam’s own bones God created her. The earthling needed not only to recognize what was different from him—but also to connect with what was like him and close to him and intimate with him.
And here is Eden’s tension. Here’s what the Tree of Knowledge eventually teaches us: we are unique and so alone in this world full of OTHERS with no one else who fully understands us. And we are viscerally, biologically, spiritually connected to ALL others—and a few others in especially deep ways.
This is the paradox that we continue to live into. Even as the Church. We as the Church name others—other cultures, other religions. We name ourselves—Christian—and then we go further. We name ourselves United Church of Christ. We name ourselves Progressive Christians. We name ourselves an Open and Affirming Church in the United Church of Christ. We named ourselves Open Table.
We name others: Fundamentalists. Literalists. Conservatives.
But World Communion Sunday reminds us every year the importance of knowing and continuing to refine our own identity while also continuing to reach out to differing souls and cultures. Union (a word inside communion) requires knowing self while embracing other. World Communion Sunday suggests we can start with our closet religious relatives—other Christians. After all, if we can’t get along with those closest to us, how are we going to love the stranger?
Mature spirituality challenges us to a life of both/and. As does this story. It’s not either appreciating difference or seeking commonality. As I tried to say last Sunday through the Gospel text: We can treasure and preserve our distinctiveness while seeking the common good and living into the truth that despite the names we have given to people and things, we are all connected, all in communion. We are all earthlings.
Free us, God of Infinite Names and Limitless Love, to name rightly and love boundlessly. Amen
* I was going to assert that naming is a distinctly human capacity until I heard a “Radio Lab” broadcast on Saturday that explains how dolphins have distinct names they give to one another, names expressed in their squeaks and chirps. Is it language? Here’s the link to that interesting story: http://www.radiolab.org/story/hello-podmash/