Genesis 2: A Storyteller at Work

May 11, 1997


Genesis 2: A Storyteller at Work

If you are one of our welcome visitors, or you were not here last Sunday, it will help to know that this is the second in a series of sermons based on the first 11 chapters of Genesis , a section of the Bible rich in what is often referred to in commentaries as Hebrew mythology — not history, which begins with the story of Abraham in Chapter 12, but extraordinary stories heavily indebted to the much older myths of Babylonian religion. The Hebrew people had two ways of knowing these ancient stories: first, because it was from Babylon that their founding father, Abraham, had migrated; and second, because these stories had spread into parts of the Near East where the Hebrew people would create their own culture.
When what we call the Old Testament was put together, centuries after the Hebrew migration I have just mentioned, two different stories of creation had already been circulating for such a long time in Israel that they were both kept. We looked at the first one last week: a carefully structured hymn of praise, full of repeated formulas, tightly woven and elegantly expressed. The second creation story is not like that at all. It is folklorish rather than formal, it has a distinctly different vocabulary, a different order of events, a different name for God, and a different way of talking about God. It is much more loosely constructed than the first, starting out and then stopping to wander around a bit as it gives us details totally missing from the other story: like the garden called Eden (the word means “delight”), and an odd digression about four rivers, and two magical trees, and a bizarre but charming story of how the world’s first woman was made from a rib.
It begins in most English translation In the day….but the Hebrew phrase means literally, On the day….and that’s important because while the first creation story occupies seven days, this one speaks of a single day in which God makes everything: first earth and sky, then a man, then vegetation, then birds and animals, and finally a woman. Here is the opening sentence, minus the first of several long, rambling digressions: “On the day when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens…..the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.”
In the first creation story God creates humankind (that is, male and female together) with no hint of how it’s done. In this much more pictorial story God first shapes a single male form out of clay, as a potter might do, and then blows life into it. This author, who is fond of punning or word-play, now gives us the first of many: the Hebrew words for man and clay sound very much alike: adam and adamah. I suppose the closest we could come to recreating that pun in English would be to say that God created the Earthling from the Earth — out of the adamah came the adam. The sombre little linguistic joke is based on a view held in Babylonian and Egyptian culture long before this writer was born, that since our bodies eventually turn to dust, they must have been made of it. Students of comparative religions know that human beings have been depicted as made of many things, but one of the favorites is earth or clay. In the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, the hero (Enkidu) is molded of clay by a goddess (Aruru). In Egyptian folklore, the potter god shapes humans out of clay on his wheel, and the goddess Hathor animates these clay figurines by holding an object symbolizing life to their mouths and noses. A Greek myth credits Prometheus with having formed the first human out of clay.
As God next plants a garden for this male being, we enter a world of symbols. It’s called the Garden of Eden, or Bliss, but the word for it is not Hebrew. It is a word borrowed from the ancient past where it was used to suggest a kind of utopian park or paradise. The idea that humanity once lived in a Golden Age in a paradise of perfect health and peace and plenty, is found in a great many cultures. (Add, if wish: The Sumerians spoke of Dilmun, paradise of the gods in the East, in which was neither illness nor death, and from which issued all the fertilizing streams of earth: a motif you will meet in a moment a we go on with the Genesis story of a garden). The fact that this garden is planted “in the east” probably hints at the birthplace of each day’s sun and its lifegiving power, and also at the Hebrew concept of the East as remote and mysterious. All sorts of things in the story suggest that it is poetry and not history, but there have always been those who read it literally and wondered just where the fabled Garden actually was. Some, believe it or not, actually went looking for it.
I had occasion over a couple of years when I was doing dissertation research to read at least a hundred travel narratives published in 19th century England. I was fascinated by the number of references to English explorers who set off to locate the Garden and bring back descriptions of it. It all sounds more like something that would have happened in the Middle Ages, and I find it odd that only 150 years ago there were people taking off on a serious search for Eden — an expedition on a par with those that set out to locate Noah’s ark.
So, the author of this story tells us, there is the paradisal park with all sorts of lovely fruit trees and a couple of special ones described as the tree of life and the tree of knowledge — motifs, by the way, which once again are straight out of ancient mythology. In the religious legends of Babylon, where Abraham grew up, an epic hero named Gilgamesh finds a plant that will make him immortal but it is stolen away from him by — guess what — a serpent. In next week’s chapter of Genesis it will also be a serpent that separates humanity from the chance to be immortal.
One of the fascinating things about this second creation story is that the author is quite wiloling to go off on a tangent. He pauses now in his narrative to tell us how a kind of huge spring waters the Garden of Eden and then splits into four branches flowing out to what he considered the four corners of the known historical world. He gets so carried away with this primitive geography that he digresses to talk about how one of the rivers flows through a land where there is gold. And if that does not sufficiently impress us, he has more: “The gold of that land,” he says, “is excellent.” Caught up in these pleasant musings he takes still more time to tell us that there is also fine resin and onyx stone in that unidentified country. I don’t know how this strikes the rest of you, but I find this digression one of the oddest things in the whole Bible. Here is a man giving us his version of our own creation, which is about as important a topic as we can imagine, and almost immediately going off on a tangent to talk about four rivers, two of which we cannot even identify, plus another odd digression in which he pauses to talk about the riches to be found in a land watered by one of the rivers. Trying to figure out exactly what he’s doing is hopeless. As one of the greatest of all Genesis scholars says, after trying to make sense of it: “This is a primitive geography done by someone who was not personally familiar with any of it. We may be 180 degrees wrong in our replotting of it, just as he may have been 180 degrees wrong in plotting it in the first place.”
Once he’s finished with his mythology of how the world owes its life to four great rivers that all come flowing out of the Garden of Eden, he gets back to what interests us more: the creation of other living things. God decides, he says, that it is not good for the man he made to be alone and that it will now be necessary to make him a suitable “companion.” If this were history you might wonder why God would not have known this from the beginning, but as poetry such logic is irrelevant. The next step is really strange, and often overlooked by those who read quickly. To provide the man with a companion God starts making all sorts of birds and animals. Someone says, “Well, surely God knew that wouldn’t work” — and of course the people who heard it long ago by campfires knew it — but this is a story and by telling it this way the author shows us our proper relationship to the animal world. It’s close — they are living creatures like us — but they are not the same. This author would never agree with the saying, “The more I see of people, the better I like my dog.” For him, the man’s loneliness can only be filled by something more complex, and more intimate, in a full two-way relationship.
But the author wants to describe how God reached that decision. He has God go to work creating all sorts of animals and birds, and bringing them before the man, but [and this is a direct quote] “none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.” In the words of the great Old Testament scholar, Father John McKenzie, “the myth treats the animals as failed efforts to produce another creature like man.” So, after this series of amusing “false starts,” we arrive at Plan B, which the author, of course, has had in mind all along. God puts the still lonely man to sleep, removes one of his ribs, shapes that rib into a creature quite unlike all those others that hadn’t worked, and presents her to the man. The reaction this time is ecstatic. At last! the man cries out, this one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. The Living Bible captures the flavor of the Hebrew text by having Adam exclaim, “This is it!”
That it should have been a “rib” that was chosen for the raw material of woman is probably due to a wordplay that has been lost in Hebrew. In what seems to have been an ancient Babylonian prototype of this story, the word for “rib” and the word for “life” are both represented by the same symbol in their cuneiform or wedge-shaped writing, and in our story the woman made from a rib will soon be given a name that means “the mother of all life.”
Among people who read the rib surgery as a literal event, there have been some interesting debates. I was teaching Paradise Lost one day at the University when we came to the section where Milton’s poetry describes the creation of woman from a rib. I mentioned that despite the loss of that rib, men have always had the same number of ribs as women, and that literal-minded readers have explained this by saying that God gave the first man an extra rib so that when one was removed he would have the right number. When the class laughed at the absurdity of such logic, a very bright black girl held up her hand and said, “But men do have one less rib than women.” When I asked, in total amazement, how she knew this, she said her father was a preacher and he had told her. I suggested gently that while not all theories are demonstrable, this one was, and that all she had to do to know the truth was find a skinny boy and start counting.
The whole episode has a certain charm, especially if you are not reading it literally, but for those who have done so through the centuries, this story — and the woman’s role in the temptation scene which follows — have produced a view of women as both subordinate and subservient. Because, read literally, the story has seemed to some to present woman as a kind of afterthought. She is made, not as an original, constituent part of creation, but to satisfy the needs of God’s original creature. And just as the other creatures had been presented to Adam, so this one also is “brought” to Adam — not Adam to her, notice, but she to Adam, so that he may give or withold his approval.
There are, of course, feminist scholars who put a very different spin on the story in an attempt to rescue it from any implication that the Biblical author saw women as second-class citizens. They observe, for example, that woman is made last, and must therefore be the crowning achievement of creation — on a humorous level, that God goofed the first time but got it right on the second. Or that the woman is actually superior to the man, because she is made out of a living thing, whereas the man was is made of earth. Or — because this revisionism has no end — that since the writer has her made from a rib, what he really means to say is that she came from the man’s side to walk beside him as an equal, rather than from his foot to be subservient — an idea I would certainly love to embrace, but one which I think the ancient author could not possibly have had in mind.
Despite my dismay over the role given women in this and other stories in the Bible, I find those interpretations strained and unconvincing, an attempt to make the text say what we would like it to say. It’s much more realistic simply to admit that the Bible is full of male chauvinism — precisely what one would expect from male authors in a patriarchal society — and then be glad that we’ve moved toward more equality. One excellent Bible scholar doubts that this male propaganda was ever fully successful, pointing out that “the legends were made by men for male consumption” and finding “no evidence that any woman believed them.” I tend to think that many women did believe what their religion taught them, and that even those who doubted were harmed by its power over their lives. I’m sure some of them found ways of equalizing the situation, but often at great psychic cost, having to coax and wheedle, tease or seduce or beg with tears.
The author of this story probably felt it should compliment women to hear that only they, among all living things, were felt to be adequate partners and helpers to men. He is well aware, after all, of an attraction so powerful that, as he puts it, “a man is willing to leave his father and mother to be with his wife in a unity so close and intimate they are said to be one flesh. The rib story, in fact, is probably the author’s way of saying that woman is part of man, completes creation, and therefore answers the question: Why are men and women drawn so powerfully to each other? This story suggests an answer: They who were once one seek to reunite.
Only one verse now remains in this version of creation, and it is obviously meant to stress the total and idyllic innocence of the first pair in their paradise. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and yet they felt no shame.” That they were perfectly at ease without clothing is the author’s way of describing an idyllic world where they both have the innocence of children. It is also, of course, what the creative writing professor calls a “plant,” a way of preparing a reader for something that will happen later when the two of them, in their disobedience, will discover shame. And so that you may have one more example of the delight in linguistic cleverness that characterizes so much of the Bible, the author indulges in still another pun. The Hebrew word for nakedness is arummim . The serpent who will soon rob them of this innocence is called arum , which means sly or cunning. His arum will expose their arummim . The play on similar sound with different meaning is the kind of pun we make by saying, , “They went and told the sexton, and the sexton tolled the bell.” One of the great joys of Biblical research is finding out how much more sophisticated and humorous the Old Testament is than it appears to be in English.
The great scholar Augustine had this Bible story in mind, among others, when he said, “When I read literally, I am slain spiritually” — an elegant way of saying, “I have to read such things as poetry, or faith is impossible for me.” It was pointless for all those pilgrims to make long trips in search of the Garden of Eden, because it was never a real place in some far corner of the world. It was created to symbolize how favored we are in the sight of God, and the naivete we know before we enter into knowledge and must leave the Garden of innocence forever. So next week, Crime and Punishment — otherwise known as the tale of the forbidden fruit, the talking snake, and the fall from grace that propelled us out of Paradise and into history.

We were written into these ancient stories, Eternal God. Help
us know how to find ourselves as we hear them, we ask through
Christ our Lord. Amen.