Let the Scriptures Speak
Male and Female
Now God said: “It is not good for
the human to be alone.
I will make him a helper corresponding to him.”
(Gospel, trans. Everett Fox, 1995)
Think of that moment when Annie Sullivan thrust Helen Keller's hand under the outpouring of the water pump, and then fingered the letters W-A-T-E-R on her palm, and the young blind and deaf women, for the first time in her life, discovered what words were about. Her heart leapt at the discovery of language and the joy of naming. Or recall the last time you watched the delight of an eighteen-month-old child darting about the house pointing to objects and proclaiming their names: “door,” “Ziggy” (the house cat), “TV,” “rug,” “nose,” “table,” “apple.”
Whatever abilities other animals may have for relating to their environment (and there are some uncanny instincts out there), as far as we can figure, only human beings name things. Only we have the full gift of language. The author of the first reading from Genesis 2 celebrates that wonder.
The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him. So the Lord God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name. The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be a helper suited to the man. (First Reading).
Some writers, under the rubric of deep ecology, lament this image of human sovereignty among the creatures. They find here one of the roots of Western industrial society's abuse of nature. They see here a dangerous anthropocentrism, distracting us from the biocentrism that the future of life on planet Earth demands. The tenth-century BCE author of this narrative was not, of course, addressing our ecological concerns. Were he/she around, however, to learn our jargon and comment on our discourse, we might hear something like this:
This story is about neither bio- nor anthropocentrism; it is about Geocentrism. It is about the relationship among creatures that stems from our relationship with the Creator. And, yes, the story does put humanity at the top—‘life’s pride and cared-for crown’ as Hopkins describes us—but it also shows us embedded in a creaturely network that gives no license for exploitation (read chapter one). But this is only a setup for what follows. Read on!
We do read on, and come to the part about the creation of a woman from one of the man's ribs. This strikes another sour note in some contemporary ears. Indeed, “Adam's Rib” is sometimes used ironically by feminist groups as the name for their club. Once more, we appear to be confronted by an embarrassing image of male domination, the woman fashioned from a small part of the man. A mere addendum. But again, one can hear the ancient author objecting:
Please attend to the plot of the story! The other creatures were not enough for the Human (ha adam). Ha adam needs an equal, a real companion made of the same stuff. I tried to put it in the language—ishsha (“woman”) is made from isha (“her man”)—but you haven't managed to get my pun into your English. This is a story about how men and women were made for each other, not about who's got the power. The rib business is also a way of celebrating how the marital union—becoming ‘one flesh’—is a kind of recovery of a union that was meant to be from the beginning of humanity's creation.
The words of Jesus in this Sunday's Gospel pick up on the language from Genesis. The Pharisees, perhaps already aware of Jesus' challenging teaching about the permanence of the marriage covenant, ask him to comment on the divorce statute in Deuteronomy:
When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent [erwath dabar], and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house. ... (Deut 24:1-4)
The vagueness of the phrase “something indecent” as grounds for divorce had led some authorities to include reasons as frivolous as poor cooking.
Understood in this context, Jesus' response can be heard as a defense of the women who suffered from this lenient interpretation of that law. He affirms the vision of the male/female relationship expressed in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 and then confronts this abuse of women: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” Jesus' vision of marriage as a permanent covenant commitment comes not as a new stricture but as an affirmation of a relationship built into the original blessing of creation.
Dennis Hamm, SJ