Genesis 1 is concerned with the power of words to shape environments (where else could a story, a sense-making collection of words, begin?). In Genesis 2, God rolls up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty. If there is a Creation Story in Genesis, perhaps this is it. Although even this story is not so much concerned with how God created human beings, as with what it means to be human. With the human condition.
But first, God rests – and all creation with him. That is to say, everything is in harmony with everything else – not, nothing is doing anything. Only under such conditions will life flourish – and it does, effortlessly. All is as it should be.
Within this world, a world that has gone through cataclysmic upheaval followed by the release of life that cannot be quenched by destruction, God plants a garden, and within the garden establishes two particular trees. One relates to life, the other to the knowledge of good and evil. These two trees stand in testament to what has happened and to God’s response. According to the story, the fruit of every tree has been given by God to be food for all the animals and birds.
A river flows out from the cradle of life, to water the garden. This river divides to form four new rivers, each of which represents early human ‘civilisations’ or organised societies. The river is more than a geographical observation.
In this context we hear about the origins of the human. According to the story that is unfolding, we are made from the dust of the ground. Earthlings. This is incredibly significant. Already in the stories being told, we have heard about dry land. The land was overwhelmed by water, by chaos, by the different elements of creation breaking-out of their God-allotted place in the order of things. The earth was completely saturated by water. And then it was drawn out again. Restored.
The earthling, then, is made from God’s action to set creation free – the very role the earthling was set free to carry on. Everything necessary to sustain the earthling has been provided. But God instructs this creature not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why would God do that? What is implied is that such knowledge will be too much, at least for now, for the one creature appointed to set creation free to bear. For now it is enough that it is nourished by the tree of life.
Liberals believe that human beings are fundamentally good, but trapped in corrupt systems from which they must be set free. Conservatives believe that human beings are fundamentally bad (at least post events that will take place in the next chapter), and need paternal figures who create good systems to constrain them. Both are partially right; and both miss more than they comprehend.
According to the story that is unfolding, human beings are, of their essential nature, composed of material that has been created, overwhelmed by chaos, and set free again. We are, by our essential nature, liable to be overwhelmed again, and yet we are enlivened by God for the very purpose of continual restoration of whatever may be encroached upon.
That is what it means to be human.
The story goes on to reveal what human relationships are meant to look like. It starts with an earthling – the adam – which is neither male nor female. And God decides that the creature needs a helper as a partner. We think of a helper as subordinate, and we think of adam as male (the male will take the name Adam), and so we assume that the story is telling us that women are subordinate to men. The earliest surviving words used to tell this story at this point don’t allow that possibility. They paint the picture of a corresponding deliverer or warrior. Corresponding – as in the two banks of one river – implies that whatever the new creature is – a deliverer, or warrior; the same term, which we often translate ‘helper’, will be used of God before the story is done – the adam already is.
This earthling is subsequently torn in two by God (don’t think a delicate operation involving the removal of one rib), to make two parts that fit together – just as when I break a Communion wafer in two, I can hold the two halves together and they fit.
Far from a story that places women in subordination to men, the story creates male and female in the same action (as already revealed in chapter 1) and places them side-by-side as warriors who will fight, together. The nature of their fight has already been told us: to fight to set creation free.