I’m staring the summer season with a series of sermons looking at Women, God and the Bible. One of the few benefits of this pandemic is that it has focused our attention in ways that our “normal” life does not. Systemic racism, patriarchy, white privilege, inequality of health care access and delivery, gun violence – we have known these strains run through our culture. And I’d like to say we oppose them. But mostly, we’ve been able to ignore them. This last year has made it harder to pretend. The pandemic and the convergence of political and racial crisis have revealed what lies beneath the surface, beneath the myth of America the beautiful. It has given us a chance, again, to change, to open our eyes and see the world anew.
As you likely know, I watch British murder mysteries – cozies, as they’re called, where the sex and violence occur out of view, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and detection is the point, not excitement or suspense. One of these amateur detectives is Father Brown. In an episode, the police Inspector is trying to question a woman about the death of her husband, who was the Mayor. He says, “Mrs. Mayor,”… but she breaks in asking if he’d like to hear her husband’s favorite joke: “A young boy and his father go out for a ride one day. There’s an accident and the car goes off a cliff. The boy is rushed to the hospital where the surgeon, who almost collapses from shock, says, “That’s my son on the operating table.”
The Inspector looks confused and says, “That’s not funny. It doesn’t even make sense.”
Father Brown interprets, “The surgeon was a woman.”
The Inspector looks annoyed. ‘Mrs Mayor’ looks down.
The assumptions we make, the gut reactions we have to gender roles convicts each of us. I think that’s fair to say. Judeo-Christian teaching, the Church, has, perhaps more than any other influence, formed the patriarchal system we are still struggling with. I hope to look at several biblical women in an effort to open our eyes, to rethink, reimagine what we read there, and look beyond the surface not only to see how it affects us or relates to our lives, but also how a new view might expand our image of God.
We are limited by language. In not being able to read ancient Hebrew or Greek we have to rely on translations – which are interpretations. To peal back a layer I want to go through today’s reading slowly. The same Hebrew word can often be translated several ways into English – the choices that have been made have been made by men. Intentionally or not, these translations have created even more patriarchy than the original text. Two important ones for today are adam and ishah. As I’ve said in other sermons, adam means the earth’s soil. Ha-adam in a literal translation means the earthling. It has grammatical gender, but not inherent biological gender. It’s like Spanish: la mesa = the table in English is an it, but in Spanish the table is a she. So it is with adam – the soil is a masculine noun, not necessarily a male. It can be a generic term for a mortal, or a human being. Isha is the word for woman and for wife. Why, I wonder is the woman called a wife in this story? It’s the same word in Hebrew that one sentence is Adam’s wife and in the next is the woman, spoken to by the snake. Wives in the culture of Israel were possessions. Men had control over them. I suspect that’s the reason. This prototypical woman, this life source Eve, this human who listened to what the serpent said needed to be controlled.
Genesis 1:27, in the afternoon of day 6: So God created [ha-adam] in his own image, in the image of God he created, male and female he created them.
In the Bible’s first story, there is complete equality of males and females from God’s perspective. Females and males both bear the image of God and are both made from earth.
Chapter two’s version is an older tradition. 2: 7The Lord God formed ha-adam from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and ha-adam became a living being.
15The Lord God placed ha-adam in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it. 16Then the Lord God commanded ha-adam, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, 17but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”
Then God decides it’s not good for ha-adam to be alone. “I will make a helper” and God tries out animals to be this companion. The experiment serves to populate the world with living creatures but doesn’t quite meet God’s intentions. So back to the drawing board. Some medieval Jewish commentaries felt that the original human was androgynous. And since no other created animal form was a fit companion, God eventually chose to divide the earthling into two gendered beings.
God performs surgery removing one “side” to form a second person.
In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells a very similar story of how human beings originally were androgynous creatures with two faces, and four arms and legs. Threatened by the power of these humans, Zeus decided to weaken them by cutting them in two. These two halves were miserable, continuously longing for its other half.
The Hebrew word is translated as ‘rib’ only in this one instance. In all other uses the word refers to the side of a ship or hillside or mostly, as the side of building elements in the construction of the temple. That seems like a very evocative connection to Eve, but my point is that the English word ‘rib’ is not very well supported. It makes so much more sense for it to be ha-adam’s side – bone of bone and flesh of flesh. To be fully partnered. Equal mates. It’s a beautiful image of our human need for love and companionship and the longing to get back to the wholeness of our original self. Love calls together the separated halves of our original nature; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wounds of human loss. Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ of a whole…and we seek that half that matches us.
Adam could do quite well without a rib. And a rib is not much of my being. But a side… ? The beauty of this interpretation is that it opens up the idea the “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” going beyond what traditionally has been described as the love between a man and a woman. Partners and companions, completed wholes, can and do come in all shapes and forms.
25The ish [man] and isha were both naked, but they were not ashamed. Naked children, perfect in their lack of self-awareness; naive, unburdened, unbiased, innocent.
3 1Now the serpent was more [crafty, shrewd, or sensible are the translators choices for this word] than any of the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Is it really true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree of the orchard’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard; 3but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, ‘You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, [this is her embellishment of the law] or else you will die.’” 4The serpent said to the woman, “Surely you will not die, 5for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.”
6When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to the man who was with her, and he ate it. 7Then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
So, now we’ve gotten to it. The snake and the woman and forbidden fruit. Look at the expression on Eve’s face in the painting, and at Adam’s passivity. Who are you going to blame for this? Is it equal responsibility?
Again, close reading could dispel some misinformation.
First, it is not an apple – not explicitly an apple no matter what the felt boards of our childhood Sunday School or Children’s Bible pictures show. But think of Snow White. Who do you suppose the evil stepmother who tempts poor innocent Snow White with a polished, poisoned apple is modeled after? Well, it’s not Eve! But of course it is – and a really bad reading of the text, which has subconsciously perpetuated the idea that this female prototype is devious and the cause of sin.
Second, did the serpent deceive the woman? Not a bit. What he said is actually true, though not exactly what God told Adam. God might have had the bigger consequence in mind, but didn’t explain the reason. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.” The serpent, being sensible and crafty, said, “Surely you will not die, 5for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.”
The serpent spoke the truth, if not the whole truth. The fruit did not cause death. It wasn’t poisoned which an innocent understanding of the prohibition might assume. It was forbidden because – well why, do you think? Why did God not want his creatures to have eyes that see? Why did God not want them to know the difference between good and evil, for their right hand to know what their left hand was doing? Why was Eden to be a place of perennial innocence and moral ignorance? How would that have worked long term?
Well, it would mean that humans would have much more in common with the creatures – with cattle, and birds of the air, and every animal of the field and forest. Nature is a-moral, operating on drives, instincts, the abilities and attributes of each species. There is a balance, that web of life that humans have pretty much fouled up for the detriment of all. It’s interesting that the original vocational plan was for humans to have dominion over all other creatures. But by the time God clothes Adam and Eve and sends them out, their vocations are limited to self preservation. Adam to work hard tending and tilling earth that will mostly provide thickets and thorns, Eve to work hard and be pregnant, providing sustenance for her expanding family.
So, maybe Eve spoiled the chance of that peaceable kingdom. It might have been an easier world, one with fewer extinctions and more equality – but maybe it was necessary.
As far as we know, gazelles and otters and hummingbirds are not made in God’s image. That seems to come with our creative prefrontal cortex that was given free will, and curiosity, and imagination. Maybe in Eden, the human creatures would not have been able to grow into the image designed for them, but would have remained as children, incomplete, passive like Adam.
In these earliest Hebrew stories, we discover that Yahweh God is on learning curve, too. Experimenting, adapting, learning about and from his glorious creatures. The woman was not an animal. She was curious. She was interested. She observed that the fruit was good for food, was attractive, and was desirable for making one wise. She took some of it and ate it and she shared it with the man who was with her the whole time and said nothing. And their eyes opened, and they knew that they were naked, vulnerable, disobedient, shamed by their new understanding, visible through and through.
The woman isn’t called Eve until they leave the garden. Adam chooses it because it means life, and she alone has the capacity to bear and bring forth more earthlings.
And the man knew Eve, the woman, and she conceived and bore Cain and said, “I have created a man with Yahweh.” And she again bore – this time his brother Abel.”
The word for “create” used here is the same as the word used in the Bible for the creative power of God. Women in the Bible are said to “bear children,” not “create a man”; and creating a man “with” God puts female creative power right alongside that of God. It’s a statement of incredible strength and standing.
Eve’s creative force also may help us reclaim a female image for God that was banned in Israel’s history. Ashera, the female consort of Yahweh was a thing for centuries of early Hebrew scriptural tradition. But it was dangerous as a holdover from pagan fertility cults and a threat to monotheism. As a result, the God who comes to us as rock, fortress, shepherd, king, flame, light is not described in female guise. What does it say when the church has limited images, names and pronouns of God to those exclusively male? What does that do to our understanding and imagination for God – all of us, not only females. When female is seen as second class or as too dangerous to develop as characters in their own right – when the power of creation is subverted into sinful activity? What is the social consequence of that?
I started with that riddle from Father Brown. I didn’t get the answer until Father Brown told me. I am just as wound up in patriarchy as you might be. The danger is that we’re so used to it, that we promote and perpetuate the system with our conditioned behavior that we despise with our rational brains and hearts. As with racism, it is deeply embedded into our cultural, social, historical, and educational ethos. And it is going to take more than a few weeks of sermons to help us see it for what it is: a limitation not only on women and men, but a dismissal of God – of the half of God who brought forth women in her divine image.
I’m still holding out hope for Mother Hen Lutheran Church.