For those using the Revised Common Lectionary, the readings are Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25, Revelation 4 and Luke 8.22-25. The gospel reading is very short, and is set alongside two other significant readings that it might be odd to by-pass. I therefore share two reflections I have written on Genesis 2, and two on Revelation 4. The comments on Genesis 2 come from my Grove booklets on Women and Authority: the key biblical texts and Same-sex Unions, the titles reflecting the two key areas where the text of Genesis 2 has become most disputed.
Although there are differences in the order of events with Genesis 1.1–2.3, it seems that we are intended to take these two passages as parallels, reading each in light of the other. That is, their differences are an important means for directing us on how to interpret each one. For example, humans are given authority to ‘subdue’ the earth and ‘have dominion’ over all living creatures (1.28). We could read this as a blanket right to take all we want from creation, except that in 2.15 we read that the adam was placed in the Garden to ‘tend it and keep it.’ These are verbs of protection and nurture, and so we see that subduing is achieved through positive care. Conversely, if we only had Genesis 2.15, we might think that humans have only a lowly role—as gardener and nothing more—when in fact we have dominion over creation. These two accounts, though different in many ways, inform our understanding of what it means to be human and how we relate to the rest of creation.
Where Genesis 1.27 has adam as male and female from the outset, this is not the case with Genesis 2.4–25. Here, we have the adam formed by Yahweh God from the dust and placed in the garden. But it is only in light of the announcement that ‘it is not good for the adam to be alone’ (2.18) that we clearly have a movement towards a distinction between male and female. Because of this it has been argued that the adam here is not gendered until we have male and female in 2.21–24. Although this is an intriguing possibility, it is more likely that this narrative considers the adam as male, so that the woman is created as his companion.
That the human created from the dust is male from the outset is probable when we consider how the companion is described as a ‘helper suitable for him,’ (though this is not conclusive since adam is a masculine noun). It is vital to pay careful attention to each word of this phrase if we are to understand the relationship between male and female here. What we will see is that even though there is an order of creation where the female is created later, there is no hierarchy as a result of this. Instead, there is a fundamental equality between male and female in creation.
The woman is described as a ‘helper’ (ezer) for the man. In English, ‘helper’ often means something like ‘assistant,’ someone of lesser status. Helpers might be important, but more often than not this is only because there is someone else who is more important with whom they are associated. But the Hebrew noun occurs some twenty times in the Old Testament, and in thirteen of these it describes God in relation to his people, frequently in terms of his ability to save them. Thus, for example, while pleading for urgent action, the psalmist addresses Yahweh and says ‘You are my help (ezer) and my deliverer’ (Ps 70.5). The poet here recognizes that Yahweh is greater because it is Yahweh who can deliver, not the psalmist. So it is clear that the woman is not assigned a lower status because she is called a ‘helper.’
Given that Yahweh is greater than his people, might this suggest the woman’s superiority over the man? Is she greater than him? This is where attention to the other part of the phrase is important. The woman is a helper ‘suitable for him.’ ‘Suitable’ renders a unique term in the Old Testament that is made up of two prepositions; the first most commonly means ‘like,’ whilst the second means something like ‘opposite’ or ‘in front of.’ The compound here suggests that the woman is different from the adam and yet goes with him. She is not greater than him but in some way complements and completes him, much as two banks of a river are equal and opposite. Thus the NET version of the Bible translates this phrase: ‘I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him.’ In creation, neither is greater than the other, but where Genesis 1 emphasizes their equal regency over creation, Genesis 2 emphasizes their distinctiveness. Together, both chapters point to equality in creation.
Against this, it might be argued that the adam’s earlier naming of the animals emphasizes his authority over them (2.19–20), and that when God brings the woman to him (at which point we can truly speak of man and woman) he also names her (2.23). However, there is an important distinction between the two events. The man grants each animal a name, using a naming formula ‘its name shall be called…’ and none of these is a suitable helper. But in 2.23, instead of granting the woman a name, he recognizes who she is as ‘woman,’ as one taken from ‘man’; the Hebrew phrase is quite different: ‘of this one it will be said “woman.”’
My discussion in the second booklet builds on these observations, and explores James Brownson’s re-reading of the text:
The second creation narrative (from Gen 2.4 onwards) focuses in detail on the creation of humanity as male and female. Feminist commentators (such as Phyllis Trible) have argued that the ’adam appears at rst to be undi erentiated in gender and so continues the sense from Gen 1.27 of ‘human’ rather than ‘man.’4 The significance of the term is made clear when ’adam is formed from the dust of the adamah (2.7), brought to life by the breath of God. The use of ’adam continues all the way to the start of verse 23; only then are the clearly gendered terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ deployed (ish and ishshah).
The narrative turns around the surprising declaration that it is not good for the ’adam to be alone, and the subsequent quest for a ‘suitable helper’ (2.18, 20). The term ‘helper’ (ezer) has no particular sense of superiority or inferiority; God is at times described as the ‘helper’ of Israel. The term ‘suitable for him’ (kenegdo) is unusual, and has the sense of ‘equal but opposite’; it is the kind of phrase you might use to describe the opposite bank of a river, combining both the sense of equality but di erence and distinctness. The explicit sense of the narrative is that the animals are not ‘suitable’ since they are not the ’adam’s equal. But the equally powerful, implicit sense of the narrative is that it would not be sufficient simply to form another ’adam from the ground. This ‘helper’ needed to be equal but opposite. There is clearly a task to be completed (subduing the earth and receiving God’s blessing in being fruitful and multiplying [1.28]) but there is also a deep existential recognition in the (now) man’s cry ‘Here is flesh of my flesh!’ The twin themes of similarity and difference wind their way through the story like a double helix.
The climax of this narrative is the assertion that it is ‘for this reason’ that the male-female sexual union is the basis for family life. The breaking of a pre-vious kinship bond and the formation of a new kinship bond are precisely located in the recognition of ‘flesh of my flesh’ and the uniting in sexual union that which was separated in the creation of the woman from the ’adam, who in that moment became the (male) man. It is also interesting to note that the idea here of one man united with one woman is later deployed as a reforming lter in the interpretation of subsequent narratives.8 By the time of the NT, the permissibility of polygamy has been ruled out by reference back to the narrative of Genesis 2.
Against some traditionalist readings, it is important to note that the narrative is not describing the process by which God ‘invented’ gender, but is offering a theological account of why gender difference is there and what is its significance within human flourishing…
(There follows an exploration of James Brownson’s critique of this reading.)
Brownson’s critiques do not undermine the traditional reading that he articulates at the start of his discussion:
The reason same-sex behaviour is portrayed negatively…is that God created man and woman to complement each other in the bond of marriage…[M]ale and female are both similar and different, and this complementarity of similarity and difference is foundational to human identity, and to the institution of marriage. Therefore, the only appropriate place for sexual activity is the ‘one-flesh’ union of marriage between a man and a woman.
This is clearly not all that Scripture has to say about either humanity, singleness or marriage, but it seems a fair description of the foundational role of Gen 1 and 2. A key question will be how these texts are taken up elsewhere in the canon of Scripture—not least because this text on its own does not deliver what some ‘traditionalist’ readings would like in defining gender roles and explicitly prohibiting same-sex activity. Our interpretive approach to the creation narrative will need to be shaped by the way these texts were understood and interpreted by later writers both within and outside Scripture.
(For more detail on this discussion, see the Grove booklet Same-Sex Unions: the key biblical texts.)
On Revelation 4, I wrote this for Scripture Union’s Encounter with God.
Worshipping our Creator
At this point in Revelation it feels that we are leaving earthly realities behind and going on an otherworldly journey. For modern readers, we are leaving the familiar and historical and entering a strange world of thrones, elders, beasts and angels. It is a world full of life, colour and noise, overwhelming our senses. Pause for a moment and imagine the sights, sounds and sensations of this worship scene. What can you hear? What do you see? What do you feel?
For John’s readers however, this is the blending of two familiar worlds. First, the world of the Old Testament. The trumpet that announced temple worship calls John (v 1). The same Spirit which lifted Ezekiel to see the one on the throne (Ezek 1:26-28) does the same for John too (v 2). Jewels from Genesis 2 (v 3) accompany the rainbow from Genesis 9, the story of the flood. The thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai draw him to the seven torches of Zechariah 4 (v 5) and the sea of glass from Solomon’s temple (v 6, cf 1 Kings 7:23). This is an encounter with the God who made the world, who longs to see its restoration, and who travelled the long journey of redemption with his people.
But this reality is intertwined with another – the world of the Roman Empire and the worship of its Emperor. Here city elders dress in white, bow down to their august ruler, casting their crowns and hailing him with choruses. But, says John, it is the creator God who deserves this honour, and not any human ruler (vs 9-11). If anyone makes a claim to be the source of peace and prosperity, they are usurping God’s rightful praise, setting themselves up against him. God is the source of all power and majesty, and so all praise rightly belongs to him.
And in my IVP commentary on Revelation I offered this theological reflection:
John here offers a dazzling vision of God which pushes the boundaries of human imagination in its metaphorical description. John’s own language reflects this; in contrast with what has come before, he now repeatedly reaches for ‘as’ and ‘was like’ and ‘had the appearance of.’ As elsewhere in Scripture, literal description of God is not possible; God is unknowable even though he has graciously revealed himself to us. Even John’s grammar appears to reflect this; the throne itself is described without using finite verbs, and all in the nominative case, but when John turns to the things around the throne, he moves into the accusative case. Even if some features of this heavenly scene can be described as objects that John can see and apprehend, the throne and the one seated there are not objects to be perceived and analysed.
Yet within this kaleidoscope of language, two threads are clearly woven into the visionary fabric. The first – the warp threads which give structure – is the Old Testament theology of God as the supreme creator and the source of all there is. We see this in the image of the rainbow and in the living creatures, as well as the acclamations of worship; Revelation stands in continuity with the scriptural understanding of God as creator and the repeated re-emergence of that theme in the life of his people and their encounters with God in the different stages of their pilgrimage. This transforms not only our understanding of God, but also our understanding of the world. It is neither an accident of self-generation to be trivialized, nor a resource to be exploited, but an expression of the creative love of God which continually points to it source. And if God is creator of the world, he is also the creator of his own people, and so they owe him not only glory and honour but also gratitude and allegiance.
The second thread – the weft, woven in out of the warp threads – is the imagery of imperial obeisance. Whatever honours and acclaim are given to those with human power – whether it is the wearing of white, the prostration, the casting of crowns, the cry of ‘worthy’ – they really belong to God, since the power that is being recognized is power that is God’s power which he shares. Jesus’ words to Pilate ‘You have no power except what has been given to you from above’ (John 19:11) are, refracted through this visionary lens, spoken to all human power. Power that demands allegiance over against or ahead of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is speaking a lie and based on deceit; if we are tempted to believe it, we need our eyes opened to the true source of all things. God alone is worthy of our unceasing praise, our unswerving loyalty and our profound gratitude.
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