August 14th, 2017

Adam needs an ally who is his opposite.

Genesis 2:18-25


You talkin’ to me?

My wife Linda and I enjoy movies, but try to be discerning about films we rent or see in the theater. (There’s not much these days in the theater.) Thus the movie I’m about to quote is one we never actually saw, even though some critics said it was one of the best ever made. Taxi Driver came out in 1976, when we were still in college. It’s the story of 26-year-old Vietnam Vet played by Robert DeNiro. He witnesses first hand corruption and prostitution on the streets of New York where he works as a cabbie.

In the most memorable scene, DeNiro is at home alone, looking in a mirror, practicing what he will do when confronted by a bad guy. He draws his gun from his olive drab sleeve, stares down the bad guy, and says, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who… else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.”

That line came to mind this week as I prepared for this sermon on the first marriage in the Bible. It seems to me that it’s easy to think the Holy Spirit’s not “talkin’ to me” in this text. If this congregation is representative of statistical America, about half the people in the room are not married. Singles may be thinking, “This passage’s not talkin’ to me. It’s about married people.”

The half who are married might also read this text with a yawn. “I got this one already. It’s not good to be alone. Leave all others and hold on to your spouse. Got it. This is a message to single people to find someone. God’s not talkin’ to me here.”

If you’ll ask the Holy Spirit today, “You talkin’ to me?” he’ll say yes.


Ish and Ishah

We began our sermons on Beginnings last week with a sermon on Genesis 1. As we come to Genesis 2, we find some content overlap that has puzzled and intrigued Bible readers and scholars. We have here a second account of the creation of the world. Why do we need two versions of the same story back to back? There are some similarities between the two accounts, but also enough differences that it’s fairly common for someone to say Genesis 1 and 2 are downright contradictory.

Moses and whoever did the final editing of Genesis were not stupid. They knew these two accounts covered the same ground, and also knew they were different. If you believe, as I do, that all Scripture is God-breathed, then the Holy Spirit himself knew there was something different he wanted to say about origins than what he said in chapter 1. Yes, he’s talkin’ to you.

The second creation story includes the creation of the heavens and the earth, only this time it’s all done in one “day” (4, ESV) instead of seven. (This is another argument that the word “day” does not always refer to a 24-hour period.) The account then quickly zooms in to the climactic moment of creation, when God “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (7). God creates a garden for the first man’s home, including all sorts of vegetation, animals, and abundant fresh water. Two trees are particularly noted, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We’ll discuss them more when we come to chapter 3.

So we have a garden, appropriately nicknamed “Paradise,” and a man. From here we’ll go verse-by-verse through the end of the chapter.

18: Now the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him. The first thing we notice is that throughout this second account of creation we combine the word for “God” used in chapter 1 (Elohim), the all-encompassing, all-powerful Creator, with “LORD” (Yahweh), the personal name for God. This chapter is about man not just being created by God, but in relationship to God.

We are startled to hear God say, “It is not good….” In chapter one the phrase, “And God saw that it was (very) good” occurs six times. It’s not that God created deficiency; he was still in process. He could have used that phrase at any point in chapter one. “I’ve created light and darkness, but it is not good without sun and moon,” or, “I created water and sky, but it is not good without fish and birds.” Everything God made was good as he completed it, but it’s not good until he’s done.

Then comes the phrase that has been misread, misapplied, and misused: “I will make a helper suitable for him.” Somewhere along the line you have probably heard the term “helpmate” as a synonym for wife. You may have been taught, or may have assumed, that the word came from the Bible. It doesn’t. It came into use in the late 17th century in a very male-dominated society as a corruption of the King James translation of Genesis 2:18, “I will make a help meet for him.” “Meet” is an old English word that means “suitable.” Thus the NIV (and others), “a helper suitable for him.”

But even that doesn’t do the phrase justice. There are two Hebrew words involved here. The one translated “help” is used elsewhere in the Bible of either an inferior or superior, or even an equal. It’s often used in military situations. When Joshua was conquering Canaan, one of the kings said to his neighbor, “Come up and help me” (Joshua 10:4). That’s the same root word. It can be used of helping neighbors or family. It’s often used of God helping his people. A good translation is “ally,” as in, “Let’s help each other face this enemy.”

The second word is rare in Hebrew, so it’s harder to define. The word translated “meet” in the King James or “suitable” in the NIV conveys the idea of contrast. God’s not going to make another Adam. He’s going to make someone opposite him, facing him, complementary to him. This ally will not be his clone, but something different. The army and the navy come to mind. They’re on the same side, but contrast deeply.

Thus my sermon title: “Side by Side, Face to Face.” Together, but different. Allied, but opposite. God says he will make for Adam a complementary ally.

19a:  Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air. Note he created Adam the same way. Humans are very different from every other creature, but it’s humbling that we come from the same dirt.

19b-20:  He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air, and all the beasts of the field. This seems like it’s irrelevant to Adam’s need for a contrasting ally, but we’ll see the connection in a moment. This is Genesis 2’s parallel to Genesis 1’s emphasis that man is created in God’s image to rule over other living creatures. To complete this task, Adam has to observe, to think, to decide, and to speak – all uniquely human capabilities. He doesn’t name them “elephant” or “dog” or “centipede.” He ponders their characteristics: “Big,” “Friendly,” “Creeping.” They don’t name Adam because they can’t. He names them.

20b:  But for Adam no suitable helper was found. This explains why the animals were being brought to Adam. It wasn’t an exercise in taxonomy. Nor was he training the animals to come when they were called by name. God was showing him that none of them could be his complementary ally. Surrounded by animals he was still “alone.”

21:  So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. This is the world’s first surgery, complete with anesthesia. The word “rib” is probably a poor translation. This word is never used of anatomy in the rest of the Bible. It means “side,” so in any case it doesn’t mean a single bone. God took one side of him and for the purpose of building a woman.

22:  Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib (or side) he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. If you argue that being formed from man makes her somehow inferior to him, then Adam is inferior to the dust from which God formed him. God makes her and brings her to him, like the father of the bride escorting his daughter. Notice in the text how many active verbs are used with the LORD God – he said, he formed, he brought, he caused, he took, he closed, he made, he brought.

23:  The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘Woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” The little word “now” is probably too mild. I like the New Living Translation, “At last!” or even the Message, “Finally!” This is an exclamation. For the first time, man sees woman, unclothed, in all her glory. But don’t oversexualize the scene. He has seen all the other creatures God has made and none of them could stand side by side, face to face with him. One almost gets the idea that the exercise was discouraging to Adam, that perhaps he would find one that was a good fit.

The word for “man” changes in this verse. Most of the time in this passage, it’s ha’adam in Hebrew, which can be translated either “the man” or as a proper name, Adam. The NIV switches back and forth. Here it starts with that name, “The man (or Adam) said,” but when Adam sees her he exclaims, “She shall be called ishah (female man), for she was taken from ish (male man). She’s a she-me. Finally! I have someone I can talk with, reason with, work with. He’s yet to discover all the ways her femininity will be a foil to him, but he loves the fact that she is not exactly like him but she complements him. And don’t think he’s naming her like he did the animals to show his superiority over her. He’s not naming her, not yet. He’s describing her.

24:  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. We’re not sure if God spoke this, Adam spoke it, or Moses was adding a comment. We just know this is the first biblical commentary on marriage. Don’t get too hung up on why the man leaves and not the woman. Don’t worry about the fact that Adam didn’t have a father and mother to leave. (And please don’t spend a lot of time on whether Adam had a belly button.) Marriage requires, as the traditional vows say, “forsaking all others” and clinging to the one partner.

25:  The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. This is a bridge to next week’s story, so let’s just leave this with the reminder that in Genesis 2 we are still in an innocent world, where shame does not create barriers.

Yes, to you

So, have I lost you? Are you out there thinking, “You talkin’ to me?” Yes, to you.

I could be wrong, but my hunch is that the fifty percent of you who are married are thinking, “He’s not talking to me. I know it’s not good to be alone. That’s why I’m married. No message for me here.”

On the other hand, those who are not married may be thinking, “Why did I come to church today? This is a message about marriage for married people. He’s not talking to me.”

That would be a grave mistake. Whatever your situation, the Holy Spirit is talking to you in this text. This passage is not just about the first marriage, it’s about the first marriage in Paradise. It’s about the only perfect marriage in history, and even that didn’t last long. Unless you’re married and sinless, there’s an ideal here you have not reached. The ideal here is not just one man and one woman staying together for life; it’s complementary allies perfectly completing each other all the time. How many want to raise your hands and say that’s you? So what might he be saying to you?

  • To the happily married, there’s a warning against pride and idolatry. This is my category, happily married, so I’ll start here. It’s too easy to think, “I’ve done it right,” and look condescendingly on those who struggle in their marriage or who are divorced or never married or gay. Remember how in this text Yahweh takes the active role – he spoke, he formed, he brought. I have to continually see Linda and our marriage as a gift of his grace, not what I’ve accomplished. And I must not idolize her. As much as I love her, she’s not the provider of my happiness or significance. As one family at Catawba Hospital is seeing right now, there’s no guarantee of how much time we have.
  • To the unhappily married, there’s a word about the permanence of marriage in God’s design. Our culture has made it far too easy to back out for any reason. People give up too soon. Marriage has its ups and downs. There are biblical reasons for divorce and remarriage, but we tend to go there just because the present is unhappy. My pastoral counsel, no matter the cause of the unhappiness – even adultery, abandonment, or abuse – is not to act impulsively to end the marriage. That’s not to say you shouldn’t protect yourself, especially in the case of abuse, but give God time and room to work. Even when your spouse says, “I’m done,” don’t believe it. Not yet. Lean into God, get counsel for your own pain, and wait for him.
  • To the separated and divorced, there’s cause here for deep self-examination. The most consistent problem that leads people to remarry the wrong person – again – is the failure to be honest about why the marriage failed, on your end. Such a deep level of bitterness rises up as a person says, or thinks, “If my partner had only done this or not done that, we could have made it.” The reflection rarely goes to, “Lord, what do you want to teach me about me?” In what areas of my brokenness do you want to work?
  • To the sexually active outside of marriage, both straight and gay, Genesis 2 holds up the biblical standard of sexuality – fidelity within heterosexual marriage or celibacy. We live in a culture where sex is considered not only a need but a right, where private behavior is considered nobody else’s business. And while I believe the church can and must be a place where anyone is lovingly accepted into community no matter what they have done or even are doing, it should also be a place where every one of us should place every part of our lives under the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit, repent of that which displeases him, and allow him to remake us.
  • To the unmarried, including those divorced, widowed, and never married, this passage addresses discontent, for that too is part of the fall. Even though God himself says, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” remember that even before sin enters the world, Adam is for a season (we’re not told how long) by himself in the garden, busying himself with tending the garden and ruling over the animals. It was God who said it wasn’t good, but Adam was apparently blissfully unaware of his singleness. You can seek and find joy and meaning alone while you wait for God in his time and way to bring you a partner, if he chooses to do so out of grace.

One overarching principle dominates this passage. This text is not about marriage, but about community. It’s not there to teach us that it’s necessary or even ideal to be married. The only perfect life ever lived on the planet was Jesus, and he never married. The Apostle Paul and others who have followed Jesus deeply not only lived lives of single-hearted devotion to the Lord, but taught it as a better way.

The essential principle in this passage is not only about community, that it’s not good to be alone, but about the kind of community we need. God says Adam needs an ally who is his opposite. She will be side by side but face to face. She is like him, but different. She needs to be able to connect with him, but to challenge him.

Who is in your close circle of friends and influences who consistently corrects you, challenges you, provokes you, questions you? The news out of Charlottesville yesterday reminds us of the deep danger of limiting my community to those who share my blind spots. If white supremacists are only influenced by other white supremacists, the behavior becomes normalized, even honorable, in their own minds. In our culture where we value freedom of association, we have abused that right by limiting our communities to the likeminded and our influences to those who think like us. That goes for our media choices, political parties, neighborhoods, our churches, our classes and groups within the church.

You need people, Genesis 2 teaches us, but you especially need people who don’t think like you, don’t act like you, don’t look like you. Even in a pre-fall world, that’s what God gave to Adam – an ally who was his opposite. In a sinful world, how much more we need that kind of community. Yes, I’m talkin’ to you. Amen.

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