‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’…. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’
These verses and the rest of the passage from Genesis from which they are taken are foundational to the Judaeo-Christian tradition but are also among the most controversial and dangerous passages in Scripture!
I am sure there are some of you in this church today who wince at the implication of this passage. Reading it through 21st century eyes it does appear to suggest that women are derivative of and so lesser than men. It seems to be all about the man and when re read that passage we bring our own context to it.
And that context is one that has changed radically over 2000 years and indeed at an accelerated rate over the last couple of years with the rise of the ‘Me Too’ movement which has created space for women to name the casual and repetitive abuse inflicted on women by men in what is still a very patriarchal society and world.
That is all too obvious when you listen to the vitriol directed at Dr Christine Blasey Ford by those who refuse to take seriously the issue of sexual abuse in the context of the current Supreme Court appointment procedure in the US – Whether Judge Kavanaugh is guilty or not, the treatment of Dr Ford in some circles shows a deep seated misogyny in the highest echelons of political life
There are so many ways in which we consciously or unconsciously denigrate women – Its not just about sexual harassment & assault in the work place or even rape but also the continuing objectification of women in media and in the extreme form in the world of increasingly pervasive pornography where our young people are learning about sexuality in a very distorted and unrealistic context where women especially are subject to being treated as mere commodities.
And then there is that often hidden world of domestic violence which in my ministry I have had my eyes opened to on more occasions than I could have ever imagined.
And finally look at the levels of fatal violence towards women by men – this past summer especially within the greater
area has been exceptionally grim in that respect. Dublin
All of these abuses from the mildest to the most extreme spring from the one source and that is the denigration of the status of women – making them lesser persons and at its extreme non-persons.
That is not the Christian teaching and nor is it the way of Jesus who again and again defied the culture of the day in treating women as equals. He was never afraid to converse with women – he spoke to women with tenderness and respect and on occasion he was not beyond chastising his disciples while acknowledging the wisdom and faith of women over and above his male disciples.
Remember the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet from Luke 7:
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown.
Clearly Jesus did not consider women inferior and yet the Church has through its history often treated women exceptionally badly and in some cases still does. And it could be argued that that passage from Genesis is part of the reason and part of the problem.
It is also an obstacle for some people – women and men – in coming to faith and so it a passage we need to look at and take ownership of.
We can’t just read this passage on a Sunday morning and say nothing about it – I have done so previously but things have changed and once you become aware of a problem you can’t ignore it!
If someone who has perhaps been in an abusive relationship or been experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace came into our church today (maybe such a person is here) and hears that passage – what do they hear? Do they find comfort or is it rubbing salt in their open wounds?
Those are the kind of questions we have to ask and the questions that arise when we treat a text that was written likely 2600 years ago during the Babylonian exile as contemporary social science and history.
Genesis is both poetic and full of rich symbolism and meaning but we ironically textually abuse it when we read it as a contemporary text.
The first question we must ask ourselves is what is the context and the answer is Creation and the interrelationships of the various members of Creation with one another and God, so it fundamentally not about power but about relationship. The only power involved is in God’s hands. God saw all that he had made and it was very good.
The Jesuit scholar Dennis Hamm who is emphatic that this passage is not about the hierarchy of men over women says this:
Please attend to the plot of the story! The other creatures were not enough for the Human - Adam needs an equal, a real companion made of the same stuff…..
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.
We are so literalist and simplistic in our reading of Scripture that we miss the richness of the figurative and symbolic language of Genesis that was never meant to be read literally and we impoverish ourselves and distort our faith when we do so.
Considering the position that Jesus took in his relationships and meetings with women of all backgrounds this seems to me a better way to read this difficult scripture and one which might help us to reclaim the real tradition of our faith.
A tradition which is not about the power struggle between women and men but rather mutual need and mutual dependence where both can flourish and grow.
If we accept that women and men are truly equal in God’s eyes and that both together express the fullness of humanity then not only is the abuse of women blasphemous but it is also undermining of the dignity of men as it is of woman. Every one of us here, male or female was nurtured in our mother’s womb and an essential part of our humanity comes from that early and formative experience of pure love, the first relationship of our human lives.
So back to Genesis – These are our Scriptures, they are our story and we are responsible for the way in which they are presented to the world – When they become an excuse for the oppression of any group within humanity and we do nothing then we too are tainted with that distortion.
I will finish with an extract from the Christian Aid Report: ‘Of the same flesh: Exploring a theology of Gender’ (2014)
It said this:
‘Christians believe that our being made ‘male and female’ is a gift of God, and should be experienced as joy for humankind. When gender becomes a weapon of oppression then something is badly wrong.’
Something is badly wrong and we are part of the solution.