Deploying Genesis 2:18-24 as a resource for an expanded ethics of sexuality

By Gerald O. West, School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics & Ujamaa Centre – University of KwaZulu-Natal

Introduction

Working from within queer theory (as charted by scholars such as Marcella Althaus-Reid), I use this post to probe the “indecent detail” of this text from Genesis to deconstruct hetero-patriarchal textual traditions. This essay is both a study in the method of identifying examples of such “indecent detail,” and a study in how the deployment of these examples in biblical texts might offer practical resources, through Contextual Bible Study, for communities of faith who are struggling with sexual identity questions. Such a project intersects liberation and queer hermeneutics. It can hold promise for communities that understand the need to move beyond the violence of hetero-patriarchal limitations, and also provide important food for thought for humanitarians who work with both religious and sexually vulnerable communities within as well as outside of Africa.

Indecent narrative shape

In his book, A question of truth: Christianity and homosexuality, Gareth Moore asks an indecent question: “What, then”, asks Moore, “can we legitimately get out of the plain meaning of this text [Genesis 2]” for the purposes of an “appropriate Christian attitude towards homosexual relationships”?1 With this question in view, Moore then pays particular attention to how the narrative develops. The transition from verse 18 to 19 is somewhat odd, given the “end of the story”. For as Moore recognises, “It is in an attempt to make this help that God sets about creating the animals. It is they whom he makes first as project partners for the man, not the woman; the woman is created only when all the animals have been tried and have failed”.2 What we have here, Moore argues, is “the picture of God improvising: he tries one thing, then another, the camel then the snake, trying to find the appropriate partner for the man; but he does not succeed”.3

That God does not insist on any of the animals as an appropriate partner for ‘the man’ leads Moore to a significant conclusion: “Success does not depend on God’s reaction”. This is Moore’s major argument, namely, “When God brings the newly created animals to Adam to see what he will call them [and in the process discern whether any of them are an appropriate fit], he [God] submits them for his [‘Adam’s’] judgement. It is because Adam does not react to each one positively as a prospective life partner that God goes off and makes the next one”.4

“This point is”, continues Moore, “strikingly confirmed in what follows, when God makes Eve for Adam”.5 “This time”, Moore continues, “God is successful. But he [God] is not the judge of his success; Adam is”.6 As before, with the animals, God grants ‘Adam’ the right to form a judgement about the appropriateness of what God has made. “It is quite explicitly Adam’s reaction that signals the success of the attempt. It is because he reacts positively to Eve, because he receives her with joy, that we know the quest for a partner has reached a successful conclusion”.7

Biblical scholars will find Moore’s acceptance of the language of typical English translations problematic, but I have retained Moore’s formulations precisely because they demonstrate that even if we work with the lack of precision of this kind of English translation we are still confronted with the clarity of the narrative logic Moore identifies. This is the text that our churches have before them. There is nothing, in other words, in Moore’s interpretation of the narrative shape that is beyond an ordinary reader of Genesis 2. So why then has the (indecent) narrative shape of Genesis 2 not been noted more regularly, for it is clear that the narrative shape gives emphasis to decisive recognition of and choices made by ha-adam (the ‘earth-creature’ God has made).

Indecent resources for community Bible study

God, according to Genesis 2, recognised the aloneness of ha-adam and so created sexuality, granting the sexual creature God had created the right to recognise and choose its appropriate sexual companion and partner. Among the tasks of the socially engaged biblical scholars working with poor and marginalised sectors is to find ways of offering this kind of detail, in the form of questions that facilitate a slower and more careful re-reading of a particular scriptural text.8 A Contextual Bible Study that is being constructed using the indecent detail of Genesis 2 has taken the following preliminary form:

  1. Listen to Genesis 2:18-23. What is this text about?
  2. Re-read Genesis 2:7 in as many different translations as you have in your small groups. How do your different translations translate this verse? Focus on the words used for the Hebrew ha-adam (‘the man’, ‘the human’, ‘the earth creature’, ‘Adam’ etc.)?

In Genesis 2:7 there is a play on words in the Hebrew: God creates an earth/ground creature (ha-adam) from the earth/ground (ha-adamah). So a good translation might be ‘earth-creature’ or ‘ground-creature’:

7 And Yahweh God formed ha-adam (the earth-creature) of dust from ha-adamah (the earth)

and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life

and ha-adam became a living being.

  • Do you think this translation is useful for your church and community?

 

  1. Re-read Genesis 2:18-20 in your small groups, using this translation:

And Yahweh God said,

18 “It is not good for ha-adam to be alone;

I will make for it a companion corresponding to it”.

19 And Yahweh God formed from ha-adamah

every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens

and brought each to ha-adam to see what it would call each one.

20 And whatever ha-adam called each living being,

that was the name.

And ha-adam called the names of all domestic animals

and the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field.

But as for ha-adam, it did not find a companion corresponding to itself.

  • What is the relationship between verse 18 and verse 19?
  • Who decides what the animals names are?
  • Who also decides whether there is any among the animals that might be an appropriate partner?
  1. Re-read Genesis 2:21-23 in your small groups, using this translation:

21 And Yahweh God caused a deep sleep to fall upon ha-adam

and, while it slept, took one of its ribs

and closed up flesh at that spot.

22 And Yahweh God built the rib

which Yahweh God took from ha-adam into woman (ishshah)

and brought her to ha-adam.

23 And ha-adam said:

This, finally, is bone of my bone

and flesh of my flesh.

This shall be called woman (ishshah)

because from man (ish) was taken this.

  • Having tried the animals, what does God next do to find a partner for the earth-creature?
  • Who decides that this new creature made from the body of the earth-creature is now the appropriate partner?
  1. Re-read the whole text again, Genesis 2:18-23.

There are two emphases in this story. First, there is an emphasis on the human ‘finding’ or recognising its appropriate partner. It is the human creature who recognises its partner, using poetry to say: “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh”. Second, there is an emphasis on the gender and sexual identity of the two creatures made from the one creature (ha-adam): a man (ish) and a woman (ishshah).

  • Why have our churches made the second emphasis (the product) the main emphasis of the church’s theology on sexuality?
  • What would change if our churches placed an emphasis on the first emphasis )(the process), recognising that God gives us as humans the right to identity an appropriate sexual partner?
  1. Read Genesis 2:24, using this translation.

24 Therefore, a man (ish) leaves his father and this mother

and cleaves to his woman (ishshah)

and they become one flesh.

Verse 24, which we have not yet read, suggests that the story has a third emphasis, an emphasis on sex. In biblical cultures it is the woman who would leave her family and move to the man’s family in marriage. But here it is the man who leaves his family!

So the story is not about marriage, but about the power of love, sexuality, and sex. Such is the power of love, sexuality, and sex, the story seems to be saying, that a man might even leave his family in order to be with his chosen partner.

  • How can we help our churches to take sexuality and sex seriously?
  • How can we help our churches to understand that sexuality and sex is a God given gift?
  • How can we help our churches to recognise that God grants us the right to identify our sexual partner?

This form of Contextual Bible Study (CBS) raises a number of distinctive challenges. First, this CBS requires the use of translations not already present in local communities and churches. This English re-translation and any similar local language re-translations would need to be accepted by the participants as working translations for the purposes of this CBS. Second, the CBS uses more ‘input’ than a typical CBS, given the provision of critical detail (both literary and socio-historical) not ordinarily available in local communities and churches. Participants would need to trust this input and accept it as part of the resources of the CBS. And third, the CBS ventures into taboo terrain, asking participants to tread where churches do not take them. In my experience, these challenges are in a descending order of difficulty. I do not think delving into the indecent is a significant problem, provided the Bible leads the way, which I have argued it does.

Bibliography

Moore, Gareth. A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality.  London: Continuum, 2003.

West, Gerald O. “Deploying the Literary Detail of a Biblical Text (2 Samuel 13:1-22) in Search of Redemptive Masculinities.” In Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J.A. Clines, edited by James K. Aitken, Jeremy M.S. Clines and Christl M. Maier, 297-312. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.

Endnotes

  1. Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality (London: Continuum, 2003), 139.
  2. Moore, A Question of Truth, 139.
  3. Moore, A Question of Truth, 139.
  4. Moore, A Question of Truth, 140.
  5. Moore, A Question of Truth, 140.
  6. Moore, A Question of Truth, 140.
  7. Moore, A Question of Truth, 140.
  8. See for example Gerald O. West, “Deploying the Literary Detail of a Biblical Text (2 Samuel 13:1-22) in Search of Redemptive Masculinities,” in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J.A. Clines, ed. James K. Aitken, Jeremy M.S. Clines, and Christl M. Maier (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013).

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