August 28- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

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August 28, 2022                                           Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-24                                   The Federated Church, UCC


     I am, as I’ve mentioned before, a big fan of palindromes. As you may know, palindromes are words spelled the same way forwards as backwards. I notice them on my watch—like “8:28:28”—and especially today on 8/28! And I notice them in words. “Level,” “civic,” “radar,” “kayak,” “refer.” Palindromes also come in sentences, like “Was it a car or a cat I saw?” or “Do geese see God?” The first palindromic sentence I ever learned, though, was, “Madam, I’m Adam.”

     Adam is a somewhat inscrutable biblical personage. This Adam is the lead character in the second biblical story of creation. The first story is Genesis 1 (1:1-2:4a), and oddly, that first chapter was written centuries after the story in Genesis 2. Before we explore this second story more, it’s worth noting that the fact that there are two stories of creation one right after the other, and the fact that they are extremely different from each other, is the easiest way to demonstrate that the Bible is not to be taken literally. These stories aren’t science, they aren’t history, they’re not documentaries. They’re theology. They’re works of art. They’re mythical, imaginative, evocative stories about God and the depths of human life, and we eviscerate them of their power and beauty if we try to contort them into science or history or factual accounts.

     So we’re focused this morning on the second creation story (though the one that was written first), the story that features Adam. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the most well-known story in the Hebrew scriptures. Almost everyone has some sense of Adam and Eve being the first human beings. They may have heard that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, and that the two of them eventually blow it big time and, as a result, they choose to hide their private parts behind fig leaves. This is the way they’re so often caricatured in cartoons and on marginally amusing greeting cards. Along the way, we’ve lost the sense of what makes these two primordial human beings special and holy. So today, we’re going to try to listen a little more closely to the story and see what treasures it holds for us. Let’s try to forget what we think we know about the story this morning and pay attention to the way the story actually unfolds. As we do, we may find riches of which we had not dreamt. And we may do so by popping a few of the illusions that have predominated about this story in the popular imagination.

     And I have to say that I have been heavily influenced in my understanding of this story by a remarkable chapter in a book of Phyllis Trible’s in which, over the course of some 70 pages, she unpacks many of the riches that lie at the heart of the story (see God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 72-143). Of all the things I read in seminary some forty years ago, this may be the single chapter that made the biggest impression on me. It simply opened my eyes to things I had never seen before, things that upended the common misperceptions we have about this story. Sermons come in many forms. This is something of a teaching sermon, and it will invite of us a kind of sustained focus that may be a bit different from other sermons you’ve heard.

     So let’s look at a few of the story’s features. My hope is that this may give us all a fresh perspective on a tale that, because of its caricatures, may have grown stale over the years. And if you would like to refer to your Bible this morning, you can turn to it in your blue pew version. It will be on the second page of the Bible, chapter 2 of Genesis. We’re simply going to observe several of the story’s details and listen for ways they may open up fresh vistas on a narrative that has much with which to nourish us.

     Let’s begin with verse 7. This is the way we heard it today: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” One of the keys to hearing this story afresh is to spend a little time with that word “man”—“the Lord God formed man.” The Hebrew word that’s so often used in this story to refer to that first human being is what gets translated in English as “man.” Adam is the Hebrew word—exactly our word “Adam”: “the Lord God formed adam.”

     So in the popular imagination, “Adam,” the man, gets created first. And the truth is that’s not what the story says. The Hebrew word adam doesn’t mean “man.” It doesn’t mean “male human being.” In Hebrew, as in a number of languages, nouns have what’s called grammatical gender. The words themselves are male, female, or neuter, but what those words refer to has no gender at all. If you know French, the foreign language I know best, you may remember that “livre,” “book,” is masculine and “table,” “table,” is feminine. This is not because books are inherently masculine and tables feminine. It’s simply a literary convention.

     So adam is grammatically masculine. At this point in the story, though, the adam has no physical gender at all. What the story says is that the adam is given life from the adamah, which means “earth.” Adam comes from the same root as adamah. Adam—this first human life—is made from adamah—the very earth that is our substance and our home. So the adam that’s created simply means “earth creature.” Adam is a creature made from the dust of the ground, the adamah. And strikingly, this being has no gender at all, because sexuality has not yet been created.

     We spend time on this issue because the nearly universal assumption people make about this story is that the man is created first, before the woman. Not so. All that we’re told is that an earth creature is made by God, a creature that, as yet, has no specified gender.

     Let’s move now to v. 18: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the earth creature should be alone; I will make it a helper for a partner.” If you ask anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with this story what it says, they will probably tell you that the man is created first, that he needs a helper, and that then woman is created to be that helper. In the popular imagination, in other words, the story is thought to say the man is first and primary and the woman is a secondary offshoot, and indeed a helper to what is assumed to be this more important gender.

     Think about the meaning of the word “helper.” If I tell you that I’m a carpenter and I need a helper for me to accomplish a project, it’s clear who’s in charge: I am. Same with a chef or cook: if I say I need a helper, it’s obvious that I’m the creative one in charge. The helper, then, is the assistant. I have the principal role, the helper has the secondary role. For us, that’s what a helper is.

     So once again we go to the Hebrew to see what’s really going on. In Hebrew, as it turns out, the word “helper” is ezer. The word ezer means something much more like “companion” or “partner.” An ezer is in no way secondary or derivative or less important. In fact, the word ezer is used most often in the Hebrew scriptures about God. God is the ezer, the partner, the companion, of the people of Israel, and indeed of all of us. If God is the ezer, it would be fatuous to conclude that ezers were somehow less-than, somehow secondary.

     The fact that this earth creature is evidently lonely means that a worthy partner needs to be created, a partner who has, indeed, the best qualities of God. This new partner-creature will in no way be subservient, but will, in truth, be entirely the equal: adam—earth creature—paired with ezer—companion. And as of yet, still no gender for either one. In the story up to this point, says the Bible scholar Phyllis Trible, the word adam “designated one creature who was sexually undifferentiated (neither male nor female nor a combination of both). [Only a]fter God operates on this earth creature to produce a companion, [does] its identity becomes sexual” (p. 98).

     So now, in v. 23, once this second being is brought to life, the two earth creatures are designated in a different way. No longer in this episode is the first creature called adam. Now, the creature made from the rib is called issa, meaning “woman,” and, playing on that same Hebrew root, the creature whose rib has been removed is called is, designating the man. Issa and is come into being. And now finally we have gender, we have sexual distinction—not as adam, but as is and issa.

     All of which may sound overly academic to some of you, and I get that. We spend all this time on these matters, though, as a way of reminding ourselves that the popular way of understanding this story is significantly off the mark in a number of ways. Far from undergirding male dominance and female subservience, this story subverts that ancient and persistent sin, and reminds us that both of those first two creatures are created with a sense of wholeness, and that they are made to be equally valued and gifted and magnificent partners in life on this precious planet. In a world in which men still outrank and out-earn women, in which power and worth are, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, accorded more readily to men, the heart of this biblical creation story deserves to be heard again and again: In God’s world, two stunning creatures are given life so they might be partners and companions.

     All this nevertheless leaves us with some persistent and gnawing questions still to be explored. To sum up: what we have seen this morning is that the story of the first earth creatures gives no warrant for the remotest sort of sexism that sees men as having priority and as having power over women. Instead, we see two earth creatures created together, neither as a “helper” for a superior other, but both as partners and companions for each other on the sometimes arduous journey of life. This is a story of divine grace instilling relationship and mutual interdependency as central to the venture of living.

     At the same time, though, recent years have put before us new issues, issues of both sexual orientation and gender identity that force us to ask new questions of the story we’ve been exploring this morning. Let’s take the matter of sexual orientation first. The marriage vows of earlier generations tell us that it’s a man and a woman who “become one flesh” in marriage. What does that mean for women who love other women and men who love other men? Are their partnerships somehow less-than. Remember the anti-gay bumper sticker slogan about marriage, that “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Is this story of the two earth creatures who are eventually named Adam and Eve an explicit endorsement of only heterosexual marriage?

     The short answer from my and our vantage point is no. What this story points to is a fullness of embodied experience, and a breadth and richness to human sexuality. Far from prescribing a single, exclusive way for human beings to pair up, it seems to me in this story that partnership is what’s at the core The story is telling us that we were made not to be alone, that we were created to accompany each other on this fragile and beautiful and transitory journey of life. This story does not in any way dictate how that pairing should occur. It simply imaginatively lifts up the glory and wonder of human partnership, however and in whatever shape that companioning happens. The Bible is never shy about establishing rules. If, in this foundational story, it intended to set down an inviolable law to proscribe same-sex relationships, it would unquestionably have done so. It would have said clearly, “Sorry, this is only for relationships that feature a woman and a man.” Dictating the specific gender make-up of such couplings, though, is a zillion miles from the central concern of this story, which is simply to affirm the mysterious wonder of what it is to be blessed with a partner who fills life out and makes of it something sublimely rich. That’s what the story does. Same-sex, opposite sex, non-binary relationships: it doesn’t matter. The only question worth asking is: are our relationships life-enhancing? Do they make of life something more than our lives would otherwise be? If so, they are gifts of God.

     So that’s one lingering question about this remarkable story. It concerns sexual orientation, which is the question of to whom we are attracted. Or, to put it another way: whom do I go to bed with? The other question is one of gender identity, the question for which might be: whom do I go to bed as? If the last few years have taught many of us one thing, it’s this: gender identity is nowhere near as clear-cut as we once thought it was. When I was growing up, the assumption was that you were either a boy or a girl, a man or a woman. The two sexes, or we might better say genders, were entirely distinct from each other, each with its own set of pre-determined characteristics. As a popular book from decades ago put it, “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” And those two gender identities—male and female—were the only possibilities.

     What we are learning now, though—and it has stretched us in ways we may not have imagined—is that gender distinctions are much fuzzier than we may ever have thought. What’s coming to be much more well-understood is that we all exist on a continuum of gender identity. There aren’t just two opposite poles of gender identity, with each of us being clearly only one or the other. Not only that, but the bodies we have been born into may not match the way our brains see ourselves. You may have been born with a girl’s body but see yourself as a boy. Or you were born into a boy’s body and know yourself to be a girl. And it’s not our genitals that tell us what our gender is. It’s our brain.

     A year ago, in the summer of 2021, my sister-in-law, Emilie, a high-school English teacher, told me that, of the 1200 or so students in her school, eighty had, over the summer, changed the pronouns they chose for themselves. For those of us who grew up with clear compartments for the two genders, this has been a radical shift. There has been a virtual explosion in the number of people whose body tells them they are one gender and whose mind tells them they are another. Not only that, but countless people now see themselves as non-binary. They understand themselves as being neither clearly a boy nor clearly a girl, but as residing instead somewhere on a gender spectrum in which they may identify in themselves traits of either or both or neither.

     This shift is striking and undeniable and almost certainly permanent. And as we listen for the nuances of today’s biblical story, we are invited to ask ourselves questions about what that story has to say to a world in which traditional categories of gender have been thrown into the blender and melded together in previously unimaginable ways. Is such gender fluidity a countermanding of the Genesis story? Or is it rather the case that something else entirely is going on in that story, that it in no way intends to dictate hard and fast gender identities?

     My sense, once again, is that, just as the story doesn’t mandate the dynamics of sexual attraction, neither does it dictate how we are to understand our own gender identity. The story, once again, is about God’s valuing of human life. And it’s about the magnificence of a divinely ordained world in which people are given the radiant gift of each other. The good news of God is not that we have been straitjacketed in some rule-bound way to conform to some arbitrary dictates about gender. The good news of God is that we have been given each other. And in whatever guise our partnerships take shape, they are good and precious gifts of God. So as we encounter Adam and Eve this morning, let us celebrate those partnerships in all their glorious variety and give thanks for the richness and joy of this special thing we know as human companionship. Thanks be to God!