Saturday, May 14, 2011

Adam and Ezer

I sometimes indulge in the relatively sick pleasure of "playing with Scripture." I picked up this habit from Peter Rollins, an Irish theologian who does it quite a bit better than I do in his books The Fidelity of Betrayal and The Orthodox Heretic (his other books are focused on other things). Anyway, even Peter Rollins is only one in a tradition of playing with Scripture that is perhaps best described by Robert Farrar Capon in his trilogy on the parables of Jesus, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment:

My commitment to Scripture as the inspired Word of God–as a sacred deck of cards, not one of which may be discarded and not one of whose spots may be altered or ignored–in no way inhibits me from playing with Scripture. . . . We were meant first of all to spend huge amounts of time in the attic just poring over it and trying all of it on for size. And were were meant, above all, to invite the world up into the attic to play dress-up with us. We are supposed to be kids, you see: ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes.’ You can’t get more encouragement than that for holy horsing around.
This week I ran across some writing by British import and missions trainer Jo Saxton that inspired some further holy horsing around on my part. Jo was writing about the translation issues associated with the biblical story of the creation of Eve, the first woman. Here's a common translation of how the story begins.

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Many people have suggested that the language of "helper suitable" has contributed to the long history of the subjugation of women. Women aren't treated as "equal partners" in a male-female relationship (personal or professional) but are praised for "helping" men. Women are not valuable in and of themselves but only insofar as their are "suitable" for some man. That sort of thing. They may be right; I'd be a horrible editor indeed if I didn't think the words we choose matter. In any case, this translation is problematic even without speculation about its political implications, because the Hebrew being translated evokes much more than "helpfulness." Here's Jo's take on the language behind the translation:

The word translated helper or helpmeet is EZER. We discover that it appears many times in the OT, but the vast majority of those times EZER describes God, as he is delivering and rescuing (helping) His people. It’s a word conveying power and strength, a word with military connotations. . . . Then the Knegedu “suitable” bit. The phrase means facing, corresponding to, like it. . . . The EZER is not wrapped up and consumed in someone else’s story. The Ezer stands in bold partnership separate and equal, eyeball to eyeball. EZER is also a verb meaning to protect, surround, defend, cherish.
So it appears that what God thought of the first woman and what history has made of her have little in common. We might say that God's impression of woman is from Mars, and history's impression of woman is from Venus. (We might say that, but we would be incredibly cheesy if we did.)

So why the big mixup? It might be because God didn't name the woman; Adam did, because while making stuff was God's job, naming stuff was Adam's.

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for the man no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took part of the man's side and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
We learn later that Adam further names the woman "Eve," which probably meant "living," "because she would become the mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20).

It strikes me that Adam may have gotten Eve's name wrong; if God had named her, God might have called her "Ezer." Adam picked a name based on how, not why, the woman was made. If he had given the matter a bit more thought, the story--and maybe even all of history--might be just a little different.

***

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a powerful person like him to rescue him from alone-ness.”

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But none of the birds and the wild animals proved capable of rescuing the man from alone-ness. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took part of the man's side and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a person from the part he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘Ezer,’
for by her I shall never be alone.”
***
The passage goes on to extrapolate forward and explain how this story makes sense of current cultural realities. "That is why," the Bible tells us, "a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh." Such a notion has fallen on hard times in the recent past; U2's song "Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World" aims at empowering women, but they manage to throw men under the bus as they do so. "A woman needs a man," Bono sings, "like a fish needs a bicycle." This lyric was an homage to Irina Dunn, an Australian educator credited with the line.

I was paraphrasing from a phrase I read in a philosophical text I was reading for my Honours year in English Literature and Language in 1970. It was 'A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle'. My inspiration arose from being involved in the renascent women's movement at the time, and from being a bit if [sic] a smart-arse.
Often Eve gets blamed for humanity's fall into sin; after all, the serpent wooed her, and she strong-armed Adam into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But that again is a relatively careless reading of the Scriptures, and in any case I think the impulse behind the fall from grace was a particularly human one, not a specifically feminine one. Women don't need men; men don't need God--these are assertions of arrogance. In the earliest pages of the Bible, the only person who seems capable of recognizing real need, and of addressing it in real ways, is God:

"It is not good for the man to be alone." . . . So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. . . . God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

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