Image of God, VII: Not Good
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;
I will make him a helper as his partner.’ —Genesis 2:18
There are two versions of the creation story at the very beginning of our Bible. We looked at the first one last week, and you probably noticed instantly how different the second creation story is from the first.
The second creation story from Genesis 2 which I just read is actually the older of the two, about 400 years older, so maybe you noticed that it is simpler, more innocent, guileless, a little naive, less sophisticated perhaps, but more charming perhaps thereby.
I would describe the first creation story—the younger, newer one, from last week—as magisterial. In that story God has a plan and executes that plan with remarkable precision. In the first creation story God is a crack mechanical engineer, a snappy molecular physicist, an astrophysicist, a geologist, a hydrologist, a zoologist, a vulcanologist exploding undersea mountains in the South Pacific to create a tropical paradise. Sure, it took a billion years and every hundred or thousand years those mountains explode inconveniently to this day, but still...
It is God Godself who provides the final inspection. God looks over God’s work and says, “That’s good.” Six times for the six days of creation. First draft: Perfect.
In the second creation story, God is not so much an engineer as an artist. God experiments. If you’re in a creative business, you know that your first effort is unlikely to please your client. It’s just a first draft, and you’ll likely have to come up with multiple drafts. If you’re an architect, or an account manager at an ad agency, or an interior designer, or a portrait artist, the client will likely have some suggestions about what the final product will look like. So it’s back to the drawing board, back to the creative department, back to graphic design, back to the CAD System, back to the unfinished canvas.
And so with God in the second creation story: God makes a man and landscapes the barren desert with a verdant garden for him. It looks great. Everything seems to be in place. Once again it’s God Godself who makes the final inspection, but this time creation doesn’t pass inspection. Something’s wrong, says God. Not good, says God. Very unlike the first creation story where everything is very good. Six times: very good.
Here the assessment is Not Good. And what’s Not Good is that the man is all alone. One of the baddest, most Not Good features of earthly life for any creature human or otherwise is loneliness. It’s not good for the man to be alone.
So God goes back to the drawing board and concocts this whole leaping, flying, diving, burrowing, swarming zoo and parades the whole menagerie past the man to see what the man will call all of them, and so Adam’s first job is taxonomist—naming all the creatures and placing them in kingdoms, phyla, genus, species.
But it’s still Not Good. Something’s still wrong. The man is still lonely: a whole swarming zoo of fur, feather, and fins, but these cannot mitigate the man’s loneliness. One writer said, “I often marvel at the bonds of companionship and devotion human beings can form with animals. Animals will never betray us or deceive us or treat us cruelly. But neither can they share a good book, a good laugh, or a good cry....When a friend’s beloved dog dies, we say, in kindness, “So sorry. Will you get another?” You don’t say that when your friend loses her husband. “So sorry. Will you get another?”
So God goes back to the drawing board a second time. And this time God gets it right. God comes up with God’s magnum opus. God makes the woman: not from the man’s head to command him, nor from his feet to obey him but from his side, to companion him.
And do you know what were the first human words ever spoken on earth, according to Genesis? This is so beautiful; this is so touching. The first words ever spoken on earth are, “This at last is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones.” This time it’s not God who evaluates the fittingness of creation, but the man. The first words spoken on earth are the man’s stunned, delighted exultation that he finally has a helper fit for him.
These stories from Genesis are etiologies. Do you know what an etiology is? Etiology is the study of causes or origins. An etiological story tries to explain why the world is the way it is. For instance, why are there seven days in a week? Because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Why do snakes crawl on their bellies? Because God cursed the serpent for defrauding Adam and Eve. Why does childbirth hurt so much? Punishment for human sin. Why do farmers and shepherds hate each other so much down the ages? Because Cain the first farmer killed his brother Abel, the first shepherd.
The second creation story is partly an etiological answer to the question, Why marriage? Why in almost every age in almost every culture in almost every far corner of the earth do human beings couple up in monogamous pairs? Why monogamy?
The Bible’s answer is: “Because God knows that loneliness is not good and created men and women for each other from a common origin.” Because loneliness is one of the baddest, most Not Good things about earthly life.
I read the most wonderful book a while back. It’s called Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon, who’d earlier won a National Book Award for The Noonday Demon. Far from the Tree is about children who, well, fall far from the tree. For example, Mr. Solomon writes about deaf children of hearing parents, or vice versa. He writes about dwarf children of normal-size parents, or vice versa. There’s a chapter about autistic children, and Mr. Solomon says that the loneliness of some severely afflicted autistic children is so intense it hurts to look at them.
One young man cannot speak, but sometimes the need to communicate what’s inside him is so intense that all he can do is flail his arms and legs. His mother says, “The older he gets, the harder it is. He’ll never get married, have kids, become a grandfather, buy a house. All those normal things we do in adult life give texture to our lives. But for him, there is nothing to see, nothing to look forward to, all the way out to the horizon.”
Another mother says of her 13-year-old autistic son, “If he were deaf, I would learn to sign. But there’s no way for me to learn his language because he doesn’t know it himself.” Profound isolation is just one of the saddest, baddest, meanest, least good things on this earth.
But God has given us to each other. So why do we inhabit the earth in coupling pairs? It’s for more than procreation. We’re more than business partners. Indeed, it does take at least two to raise a thriving, happy child; it does take at least two to hunt and gather, to scavenge for calories, to carve shelter out of the wilderness and keep it clean and warm, to chop firewood; it does take at least two to defend your domicile against wild beasts or hostile tribes, but it’s more than that.
We couple up for companionship, for friendship. Robert Louis Stevenson says that “marriage is a sort of friendship recognized by the police.” Yes? We couple up to be understood and to understand, to share our deepest dreams and our highest hopes and our loudest laughter and our funniest stories and our most copious tears and the things we’re most afraid of or that keep us awake at night.
Now, to be honest, a sermon like this applies to fewer and fewer Americans. According to some recent surveys, for the first time in memory, single adult Americans outnumber married adult Americans. Young people are delaying marriage till they’re older. Some eschew the institution altogether and never marry though they may be coupled up. Divorce rates are dropping but still high, almost 50%. The population is getting older so there are many widows and widowers.
So maybe you’re gay and don’t need someone of the opposite sex to be a helper fit for you. Maybe you’re not coupled up and never were and never want to be. You still need a helper fit for you. Someone who is your person, or your people, a significant other, or others, someone whose loneliness you were placed on this earth to mitigate. So this text is God’s word for you today too. Think of your person. How can you be a fit helper?
Before I marry a couple I make them talk to me for about five hours, not about the wedding but about the marriage. Sometimes I ask them, “So why is she the one?” “Why did you choose him?” She doesn’t tell me, “Because he went to Harvard Law; I’ll be rich.” He doesn’t tell me “Look at her; our babies will be beautiful.”
One young woman said to me, “No one has ever gotten me like he does, and I’m not easy; I’m a little odd, a little different. He understands me better than I understand myself. When I want to understand myself, I don’t look inside; I ask him. He makes me feel heard; he makes me feel seen; his affection carves out a space for me to exist in this crowded, chaotic world.”
That’s what’s so sad about our shabby sexual behavior in this #MeToo world. We’re here to extinguish our mutual loneliness, the saddest, baddest, meanest reality on earth. Instead so many bad actors just amplify the loneliness many times over.
Can you imagine how lonely a young and innocent and powerless person feels when someone bigger, stronger, richer, more powerful, and more trusted violates a physical boundary or makes crude and aggressive overtures? “Who will believe me if I tell them what happened? I barely believe it myself.” Larry Nasser, almost a benevolent deity in the world of gymnastics, sentenced 332 young women to solitary confinement for years and years on end.
When Mira Sorvino reported Harvey Weinstein’s improprieties to the Human Resources Department at Miramax, the HR people were shocked. Not at Mr. Weinstein—they’d heard it all before, a hundred times, literally a hundred times—but at Ms. Sorvino, shocked that she had the audacity to tattle on him. “It’s his company,” they told her. “Leave if you don’t like it.”
That’s why such misbehavior is so evil and so lethal; it isolates; it exacerbates the sprawling global aggregate of loneliness which already uglifies the world like an over-packed landfill.
Well, so what, right? Probably none of us are as crude and gross as the 100 famous men who have lost their jobs and their families and in some cases their freedom since November. But many of us are self-centered and entitled and aggressive in getting what we want.
So maybe there are some graduating seniors here this morning who will be off to university in the fall. Go ahead. Have fun. Have a blast. Learn a lot. Launch your climb to summa cum laude. Forge fast friendships. Make many valuable connections. Be a loud and crazy football fan at every home game. Win many lacrosse matches. Join a choir; you’ll kill the audition because Lisa taught you to sing. Fall in love, at least once, or many times if necessary.
But never, ever use another human being as a tool for the attainment of your purposes and pleasures. Not the cute coed from Philosophy 151, nor the frat brother you haze, nor the lab partner whose work you’re tempted to steal nor the professor you cheat to get a better grade, because there are no human tools. As Professor Lewis puts it, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, the holiest object presented to your senses is your neighbor.”
So if you have your person, if you have a helper fit for you—husband, wife, significant other, brother, sister, parent, child, friend, colleague, soulmate—honor her always as the precious treasure she is, and thank her—now and then, at least once in a while—for walking the twisting, rutted path of life with you. And pray a prayer of thanks to God for thrusting all of us into each other’s arms from the very beginning, because the days are hard, and the nights are long, and life can be lonely, and it’s best if we get through it together.
Slightly adapted from Naomi Rosenblatt, Wrestling with Angels: What the First Family of Genesis Teaches Us About Our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships (New York: Delacorte Press, 1995), 27–28.
Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (New York: Scribner, 2012), pp. 241-242.
Quoted by Annie Dillard in The Maytrees: A Novel (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), p. 9.
C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory & Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan, 1949), 17–19.