“To attempt to remove the nature of the covenant from the possibility of procreation distorts not simply the meaning of this passage, but creates a division between the word of promise and the physical reality that at every point Scripture overcomes. If this is right, then I would suggest there is more at stake in the gay marriage debates than simply “who gets in” to this particular union.”
And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Of the passages relating to sexuality in the Bible, few are as evocative or as central as this one from Genesis. While it has functioned as something of a trump card for theological opponents of gay marriage, in recent years advocates of gay marriage have begun to contest the importance of bodily differences for the meaning of the passage. To put the question forthrightly, is the meaning of this passage about “biology” or about a covenant, which would locate the meaning of marriage in the faithfulness of the partners regardless of their sex?
There are two observations about the passage that I wish to make straightaway: first, it is interesting that while the command to procreate is given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28, it is missing here. I say it’s interesting, not that it means that this passage has nothing to do with procreation: it is tempting to pit the two creation accounts against each other, but they are complementary accounts of the same realities. What is commanded in the first account has some bearing, it seems to me, on how we should read the second. I may return to this later on.
Second, Adam is male and Eve is female. Is that too obvious? Does anyone dispute this? It’s tempting when reading a text like this to overlook very basic facts, or to treat them as irrelevant for the meaning of the passage: but if we are to understand what happens in the drama, we have to at least know who it is happening to. There are some readings of Genesis 2 that treat Adam as androgynous up to the point where Eve shows up, as the gendered terms for ‘male’ and ‘female’ are only used from that point on. I don’t think such readings are right, but they also don’t matter much for our purposes here. At the very least, Adam’s maleness and Eve’s femaleness are the presupposition for everything else that happens after she appears.
I wondered whether that might be too obvious. But not all that is obvious is easy to understand, and may even be harder to defend: stones would fall from buildings long before Newton discovered gravity. The bodyliness of Adam and Eve may not be on the surface of the text, but it must unquestionably be at the surface of their experience of each other: of what encounter between two persons is the dialogue the only, or even the most important part? In the naked meeting of a man and woman, it is what is left unsaid that is perhaps the most interesting part. They doubtlessly meet each other as more than bodies: they meet as man and woman, as subjects of their own actions. But they are not less than bodies, either: appealing to a category of ‘otherness’ and ignoring their somatic structure introduces a division between the subject of the person and our visibility in the world, between the soul of the person and the body which he indwells, between our personal presence and the place which radiates it. We can speak abstractly about “difference,” but does not the term apply within the encounter between male and female bodies? Is not the recognition that the body before me is unlike my own in certain respects a necessary part of my response to it? Not only that the body before me is not my own, as important as that is, but that it is not like my own?
I say all this only to set up a response to James Brownson’s argument that Adam emphasizes Eve’s similarity to him, not her bodily difference. As he puts it, “The focus is not so much on complementarity but on shared identity, nature, and experience between the man and woman against the rest of the creation…The primary movement in the text is not from unity to differentiation, but from the isolation of an individual to the deep blessing of shared kinship and community.” Somewhat paradoxically, while Brownson wants to dig down to the “moral logic” of the text, he prefers to stay “on the surface” of it here in Genesis, where he sees the “discovery of sameness, not difference.” But surfaces presuppose depths, and if Adam encounters sameness he seems to do so only as a delightful surprise, as a joyful recognition that despite the bodily differences Eve is like him.
Even if we concede to Brownson the emphasis on sameness, then, it still doesn’t deliver the results he wants. But that may be granting too much: I made this argument in my review at Themelios, and Wesley Hill pointed out Ian Paul’s helpful reading of this passage. Paul writes:
[Genesis 2] 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 difference 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), 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.
To be fair, Brownson notes in a footnote that the kenegdo “certainly allows for the notion of difference as well,” but contends that “this aspect of difference remains undeveloped in the remainder of the passage.” Be that as it may, it is not clear that it needs textual development; if the differences between male and female are the presupposition for discovering our identity and our sameness, as I have argued above, then there is no reason for such differences to be further developed…and every reason for sameness to come to the fore.