Sunday, September 10, 2023

Sermon: “Rewriting Creation”, Genesis 2.4-9, 15-24 (September 10, 2023)

We’ve been bopping around the Bible throughout summer months, with adventures in Isaiah, 2 Peter, the Wisdom Literature, and Deuteronomy, but today, we’re jumping back into year two of the Narrative Lectionary. The point of this lectionary, as you may recall, is to read through Scripture more like a story, which means we’re headed back to the beginning. Back to the origins of God’s people in Genesis.

But not quite the VERY beginning. You’ll notice we’re not starting this year with the FIRST chapter of Genesis. This isn’t for any sort of nefarious reason; we’ll get the chance to read Genesis 1 in year 4 of the lectionary cycle. But this is a good opportunity for us to remember that, while the Narrative Lectionary does its best to present Scripture as a single, integrated account, that’s not, in fact, what the Bible actually is – ESPECIALLY in Genesis, and that goes double for the first 10 chapters or so of the book. The Bible is an anthology of texts from countless authors spanning thousands of years of history, many of which existed as oral traditions for centuries even before that.

Right off the bat, we have two separate accounts of creation that conflict with one another. In chapter 1, all human beings are created at the same time and after everything else, while in chapter 2, they’re created individually and before any other living thing. The first story is written as poetry while the second is written as narrative prose. The first exclusively calls God “Elohim”, while the second prefers to emphasize the Lord’s proper name, “YHWH”. In the first, God does all the talking, while in the second, humanity gets chatty. These are clearly two very different accounts of creation that developed independently before finally winding up as neighbors in Genesis.

All this is to say that it’s okay for us to struggle with scripture, because scripture often struggles with itself. Which is, frankly, a good thing because I really struggle with this second creation account, personally. This passage has historically been used to justify horrific misogyny and homophobia, claiming these attitudes to be ordained by God – and as you might imagine, I’m not cool with that. But unfortunately, the text itself, taken at face value, doesn’t do much to disabuse people of this conclusion. It’s a tough one to tackle with all the historical baggage it comes with.

But as I was begrudgingly reading through the text this week, it stirred within me a memory that felt almost as ancient as the stories found in Genesis, buried deep in the recesses of my brain. The way the passage concludes, by explaining, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife,” reminded me of a long-forgotten unit on African folklore from all the way back in elementary school. I remember funny stories about Anansi, the trickster spider, and an assortment of other anthropomorphic animals. Many of these tales were obviously meant to teach morals, but the ones I enjoyed the most were the ones that provided a creative explanation about some small aspect of how the world works. Stories like, “Why the dog barks”, “Why the antelope lives in the bush”, and “Why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears.”

Whether or not this particular type of story is meant to be taken as fact (which isn’t for me to say) they’re generally more observational than judgmental in nature. Some of the characters in these tales might make questionable choices, but the stories themselves never make any assertions about morality – they don’t say, “This is the way things SHOULD be,” just, “This is how things ARE.” Their only objective is to offer some context for the kinds of things that everyone knows to be true, but nobody necessarily has an answer as to why.

Lest we carelessly label such stories “primitive” or “fanciful”, I should note that this sort of folklore isn’t exclusive to African cultures. Many different peoples, from the ancient Greeks to Native Americans all across North America, have similar stories. Judeo-Christian cultures have their share, too. There’s a legend about why dogs’ noses are wet and cold (because a quick-thinking dog saved Noah’s ark by using its nose to plug a hole in the side), and in fact, there’s a well-respected genre of scriptural interpretation, called “Midrash”, that, in the words of Rev. Dr. Vanessa Lovelace, “not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on…the words left unsaid by each line.”[1] Midrash steps in to help answer questions that scripture itself doesn’t directly address.

If these sorts of stories can be found across human cultures AND religions – including our own – then wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume, given all the different types of literature found in the Bible, that scripture itself could contain examples of this genre, too? Once this thought occurred to me, it completely changed my approach to this text. Genesis 2 has troubling implications when read as the PARADIGM for human relationships, but what if it’s read as an EXPLANATION for why human relationships seem to follow this pattern? What we find in chapter 2 doesn’t necessarily sound to me like something that God would want for us…but it sure does sound like the sort of situation that humanity would create for itself.

God wants “the human” (whom we traditionally call Adam) to be happy, so God decides to create wild animals and birds from the soil to keep him company. We know that everything God creates is good, so any of these creatures would have been a perfectly fine companion for the human. But this story is NOT about what God wants at all, but about what ADAM wants, and Adam isn’t satisfied with any of these beings that are made from the same stuff that he is. Only once God presents Adam with a creature made from HIS flesh, HIS essence, is Adam satisfied – and he says as much.

Think about that. GOD isn’t the one who declares “the woman” (or Eve) to be the perfect companion; ADAM is. And to him, her perfection isn’t because of her personality or her intelligence or even just the fact that she can have a conversation with him; he declares her “the one” because she’s reliant on him for her being. Given the choice, Adam decided that he couldn’t be happy unless his companion was an extension of himself. And this is why, the story concludes, people leave their families to enter into co-dependent relationships with one another (you know, in not so many words).

God gives us free will in choosing and forming our relationships – romantic and otherwise. And too often, we settle for unbalanced relationships with people who either fawn over us or lord over us. Regardless of the genders or specific relationships involved, these are unhealthy patterns of behavior. Have you ever had a friend who somehow always makes you feel “not good enough”? Or an employee whose constant praise comes across as disingenuous? Or a family member who won’t let you forget that they’re more educated than you? Or a neighbor who’s always trying to “keep up with the Joneses” – the Joneses being you? Or – be honest – have YOU ever been any of these people? These sorts of relationships are toxic and unhealthy, and yet – as this story observes – it seems to be a common way that humans relate.

But the story also hints that this isn’t what God wants for us. Just before discovering exactly how ego-driven human beings can be, God says, “I will make [the person] him A HELPER that is perfect for him.” The Hebrew word translated as “helper” here is the same word used to describe GOD throughout many of the psalms: “Trust in the Lord! He is your helper and your shield!” Although the English word “helper” tends to have the connotation of “assistant” or “apprentice”, that’s certainly not what the psalmist meant! In contrast, this Hebrew word means something closer to “one who provides succor” or even “deliverer.” So God didn’t want to give Adam a pet or a servant, but someone who could provide strength and aid – a true partner. Eve may have been the companion that Adam WANTED (and vice versa, for that matter), but not the one that God wanted for HIM. God wants all of our relationships to be with people who can bring out the best in us, and us in them.

Now, spoiler alert, but things don’t end up going well for Adam and Eve. They mess up, blame each other, and are subsequently exiled from paradise. And yet we want to emulate this relationship? That doesn’t seem like the best choice. Think about what’s lost when we assume that this story is about “the way things should be”. We lose our chance to live in paradise. We lose the opportunity for a partner who supports us and inspires us to be a better version of ourselves. We lose out on relationships that are life-giving and kindom-building. When we understand this story as “the way things should be,” then there’s no reason for us to change, and we remain lost to our sin.

But when we understand this story instead as more of a folktale, explaining rather than instructing, we can find a new way forward. Rather than following the poor example of this first Adam, we can instead look to the one that many theologians (including the Apostle Paul) call “the NEW Adam”: Jesus Christ. In his resurrection, Christ rewrites this second story of creation, destroying the power that sin has held over us from our beginning – not just the sin of disobedience, but the sin of choosing to be in wrong relationship with one another. Christ rewrites “the way things are” and offers us the chance to live “the way things ACTUALLY should be”.

In freeing us from the inevitability of our relational sin, Jesus has handed us a pen. We get to rewrite creation alongside God. We get to cultivate, practice, and pursue holy relationships with one another. We get to work our way back to an Edenic existence, not as creatures who care only about ourselves, but this time as true partners. We get to call out those who idolize toxic patterns of relationship, especially within the Church, so that no one has to feel “less than” ever again. We get to learn the right lessons from this story – whether we believe it to be factual or more ambiguously “true” – and determine to do better.

Ancient ways of thinking are hard to change, just as ancient stories are hard to tell differently. But all things are possible with God, and God isn’t done writing yet. The end of our story is yet to be, and we get to have a hand in telling it. What do you imagine it will ultimately look like, this rewritten creation, this new beginning? Scripture has already told us: it will look like paradise. So let’s start rewriting. Amen.


[1] Lovelace, Vanessa (September 11, 2018). "Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, written by Wilda C. Gafney". Horizons in Biblical Theology. Volume 40 (Issue 2): pages 212–215.

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