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Flesh of my Flesh: Genesis 2

November 22, 2010

In this essay I am going to look at Genesis 2 starting at verse 4. The first few verses of Chapter 2 have been covered already as they belong with the first chapter. Chapter 3 begins with “now the serpent” and introduces a new narrative section, marking Genesis 2:4-25 as a unit in the text. What’s more, this unit involves the sort of shifts that suggest it was at some point told as its own story. For instance, Genesis 1 routinely refers to God as God. Genesis 2:4-25 calls Him Yahweh God, translated “the Lord God” in most English Bibles. (However, “the Lord God” is an inconsistent term and is also used in many translations for a Hebrew phrase that actually means “the lord Yahweh” where “lord” is synonymous with “master”.) Genesis 2 also uses some terminology in creation that I think Genesis 1 deliberately avoids. While one can string Genesis 1 and 2 together in chronological sequence I won’t be doing that. It seems to me that Genesis 2 retains elements (like God’s name) that indicate it was once told as its own story (a story that included Genesis 3) and it deserves to be read that way at least once.

As in Genesis 1 I intend to ignore a number of mechanistic problems. I will not attempt to reconcile the different orders of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, nor will I develop a meteorological theory of Genesis 2:5-6. The first problem, at least, should have been obvious to the first person to write both stories on the same scroll and yet we have no attempt in the text to reconcile the problem. I intend to continue in that grand tradition.

Genesis 2:4 marks the break between the first and second sections of Genesis clearly. It summarizes what is about to happen and is immediately followed by some scene-setting in verses 5-6. Importantly, the world is ready for plants but lacks them. It’s been watered but there are no agriculturalists and (somehow) therefore no plants. That’s a comment on the purpose of humans and the world to file away for later.

In verse 7 we run across several words worth commenting on. First is “formed”( יצר). This is a notable word because it’s one I think Genesis 1 deliberates skips. Where Genesis 1 stresses that God creates (ברא) by speaking, most Near Eastern legends have gods creating the world and humans from pre-existing materials. Forming people from the ground is stock material (Atrahasis, Enki and Nimmah, and to some extent Enuma Elish, although here the starting material is not ground but god-flesh) and the words are those that one uses for making pottery. Genesis 2 doesn’t seem to worry nearly as much about avoiding these conventions.

The word “man” also deserves comment. As noted in my discussion of the second half of Genesis 1 there are two words for “man”, one of which stresses man’s humanness and the other of which stresses man’s maleness. The first word (אדם) does mean “a man” in some situations but it is also the usual word to use when referring to mankind. It is the word used here which eventually becomes the proper name of the man, Adam. The manner in which the man is made alive is also worth commenting on. On one hand this isn’t surprising. The man becomes alive, a living soul, because the soul of life is breathed into him. Simultaneously, the word translated “soul” (נפש) is derived from a root word involving breathing which makes the method of delivery rather obvious. On the other hand most Near Eastern creation myths have blood in this role. It’s perhaps notable that this makes these myths consistently more violent than Genesis 2.

Genesis 2:8-9 is mostly scene-setting again. However, these verses are also important because again humanity is at the center of things. The Garden of Eden is an honest-to-goodness garden. The word used (גן) refers to the sort of walled gardens found associated with palaces. This is no idle point – the plants are explicitly described as being the sort of plants that one would want in a garden. The Garden of Eden is a designed human paradise, not a national park.

The trees of knowledge and life, however, are scene-setting. There are a huge number of questions that could be asked about the apparently catastrophic decision to place these trees here in Eden. Genesis 2 addresses none of them. The trees are necessary for the next act of the story which places them in the category of things most likely to come out of left field in the first four chapters of Genesis. There are certainly valid theological questions about why God gives us the freedom to do evil but Genesis 2 doesn’t stop to ponder any, so I won’t either.

The rivers in verses 10-14 are, frankly, the sort of thing I’d like to skip. They’re rivers. There are two characters so far, God and the man (who I will avoid calling “Adam” until he takes that name, thank you very much), and neither is going to become more fully fleshed out to a modern reader because we identify some rivers. But part of what I promised was that my way of reading this story made sense out of things (including, as above, why some things don’t make sense). There’s still a problem, though: nobody really has a clue where the rivers Pishon and Gihon are. Gihon should be in southern Egypt unless Cush is really Kish in which case it would be in modern-day Iraq. The Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, Book 1, 1:3) identifies the Pishon with the Ganges and the Gihon with the Nile. This may represent an early tradition or it may equally well represent Josephus’ own late heterodox Jewish faith. It’s also flatly impossible for these four rivers to have the same source without radically altering their courses. The second hypothesis is that the Pishon and Gihon are rivers of little note in the same area as the Tigris and Euphrates. In the first case the rivers that flow out of Eden are the rivers that feed some of the largest civilizations the Near East knew of (the Near East started trading with India before the period of Abraham). In the second case these are simply the rivers that feed the cradle of civilization and all the ancient cities of the Near East. Again, by the time of the patriarchs many of these cities were granted special political privileges on account of their ancient status. Either way this gives Eden a special status: out of Eden flow the rivers that water civilization. The impact of this is probably lessened for those of us that don’t lift the gates to irrigate our fields every morning.

Genesis 2:15 serves to restate the purpose of both man and Eden. Eden is a garden, man is to be the gardener. This makes sense out of the earlier comment that there were no plants because there was no man and is an important point to bear in mind for Chapter 3 and the curse. Verse 16 sets up another important point for Chapter 3: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not to be eaten from. Again, we should avoid being too mechanistic here. The warning has a clear narrative purpose. In reality, saying, “You will surely die,” to a being who has never seen anything die is probably not particularly effective. However, the story stops making sense once you question the intelligibility of the warning and so we should understand the man as having grasped the same dire warning as we did.

In verse 18 we hit what I think of as the meat of Genesis 2. The prior material sets up the story that stretches through Genesis 3 but by Genesis 2:18 we have entered a story that will be complete by the end of Genesis 2. This story is also used to back an idea called “creational headship”, the idea that here, in Genesis 2:18-24, God creates woman as a being under the headship of man. Unfortunately, that reading is as close to backwards as one can get.

We start with the words of Genesis 2:18, specifically the word “helper”. This seems, at first glance, a perfectly decent translation of the word “ezer” (עזר) which is drawn from, and nearly identical to, the verb “to help”. However, English uses “helper” in a way that does not exactly correspond to “one who helps”. For instance, this summer I had several undergraduates helping with my research. They were my helpers. At the same time I had a friend who is a carpenter help me with a woodworking project that I had managed to mess up. He was not my helper but my benefactor. The difference? I was the boss of the undergraduates who helped me but I was not my friend’s boss. If anything he was mine since he had the skills and tools I lacked. In translating “ezer” as “helper” we have indicated a lower status for the woman, one that is not true to the Hebrew. In fact, the Hebrew probably goes in the opposite direction (much like “benefactor” in English, where the benefactor is more powerful than the benefacted). There are twenty-one uses of עזר in the Bible, nineteen outside of Genesis 2. Sixteen of these uses refer to God. God is clearly not the hired help.

The thesis statement of Genesis 2:18 is that “it is not good for the man to be alone”. What he needs is someone to help him out – someone who is like himself. (The phrase in question is “כנגדו”. The first letter (כ) means “as” or “like”, נגד normally means “before” or “opposite”, and ו signals ownership of the noun by “him”. “As his beforeness/oppositeness” is not English. “As if he were in front of himself” is more understandable and is probably the closest one can get to the Hebrew and still make sense. “As himself”, though, is perfectly acceptable and less convoluted.) Verses 19-20 deal with this theme. The man needs someone like himself so he goes through all the terrestrial animals and birds examining and naming them. One might ask why the fish were skipped. Because the point was to teach the reader and the man that these are not what the man needs. This might seem obvious, but we live in a culture where few of us live off our livestock and I would hope none of us have ever bought a wife. The line between women and livestock is a little bit blurry for the first readers of this story and this story aims to correct that.

Since the beasts and birds were insufficient God causes the man to fall into a deep sleep. The sleep here is תרדמה (“tardemah”) and people who fall into תרדמה rarely do so on their own and frequently see visions. This is an uncanny sleep, not just a deep one. While the man is in his supernatural trance God removes “one from his sides” (צלע) and then heals the place up. Maybe these are ribs, since ribs are in your side and there’s an Aramaic cognate (עלע) that seems to mean “ribs” in Daniel’s vision of the second beast in Daniel 7:5, but the word used is “side” everywhere else in the Bible. It’s possible that the man is being split in half and the woman is not made from a rib but a filet. This may not seem like it matters but, honestly, having the woman made from a sizable section of the man fits better with the intent to make “one like himself”. Like, say, one made from the half of himself he’s now missing. In either case God presents the woman he has made from the man’s missing parts to the man who recognizes her, jubilantly, as “Bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh.” He calls her ishah (אשה), man (ish, אש) with a feminine noun ending, which, again, stresses that this is a human like him. The section ends with an authorial comment that this is why a man will leave his family for his wife and become one flesh with her. (I will skip over discussing verse 25 which sets the scene for Chapter 3 and will be addressed there.)

It’s quite possible at this point that you have no idea why I would claim that creational headship is nearly the opposite of what this passage actually says. So far it would appear that I’ve leaned heavily on the exact meaning of “ezer” and that’s pretty much it. At worst it would appear that this passage is neutral. I’m glad for this. It means you are not deeply misogynistic. For a reader in the Bronze or Iron Age, though, this story should be shocking. First, these readers all know that women are not the same as men. They are something lesser. They are, if you’re a certain flavor of Greek, what happens when a child fails to get enough essence of humanity. If you’re a Hebrew you refer to marriage with the same words you use to discuss the sale of slaves, cattle, and woven baskets. The idea that women are described as completing men is ridiculous. Women are weaker, incompetent, and need men. Men are strong, capable, and self-sufficient. This is not a text to let your second wife, the sixteen year old that you bought for a couple head of cattle, read. She might get ideas. She might think she’s people.

This points out something else. After all, women are good for something. That’s why you buy them young and pretty. But there’s no mention of sex or children here. Trust me, there’s a lot of ways to say “have sex” in Hebrew (and, like our culture, most of them are appropriated from other perfectly good words that mean something different without the wink and the nudge) and “become one flesh” isn’t one of them. Children, and the first euphemism for sex, appear in the story after the fall. Apparently the man feels a deep need for a woman but it has nothing to do with his “manly needs”. He needs relationship.

Finally, who leaves their family? It’s not men in this culture, it’s women. They become part of the man’s household. This does make a man the head of a new family (while still under his father’s patriarchal authority over the clan) but it’s an odd thing to emphasize unless your target is men who regard their wives as slaves, not family.

This story is shocking. I cannot stress this enough. It jumps out of a broader society where women were so distinctly lesser that the legal penalties for killing a woman were less than those for a man. It’s something to choke on for those who think the Old Testament has no ethical injunctions, or merely reflects its culture. When this story gets translated into Greek several hundred years before Jesus it seems to lose some of its edges – and no wonder, when the scribes who translated it were probably waking up in the morning to pray some early variant of the famous, “Lord, thank you for not making me a Gentile or a woman.”

Genesis 2 is about how women are people, too. Genesis 2 is about how men need women in a way that can’t be bought or taken at the point of a sword. Genesis 2 is about how Adam cried himself to sleep at night until the glorious day that God took something away from him and made it into someone else. Genesis 2 isn’t about “creational headship”. Genesis 2 is about a world in which headship is a meaningless word because nobody feels a need to boss anyone else around. Genesis 2 has something to say, and it wants to say it to the teenager in the back there, with the black eye her thirty-five year old husband gave her for burning dinner. It wants to say that “ishah” isn’t another way to say “livestock” or “baby machine” but, rather, “bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh”.


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