We have previously discussed the book of Genesis and how it is we can come to read this book (Genesis: The Book of Life). Here let us consider together what Genesis teaches about human relationships and about love, again, as rooted in the revelation of The Lord Jesus Christ. In the last century the champions of the women’s rights movements have typically taken this, and other biblical texts, as their proverbial punching bag. Finding in this text every root and seed of oppression and the basis for the flawed relationships of our age. Therefore the Genesis account has become a much maligned topic with many moderns seeing misogyny or oppression in the most fundamental of human relationships. However, what we find may surprise us if we look closely. Let us first consider the account in Genesis 1,
“And God said, Let us make man (anthropos) according to our image and likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the flying creatures of heaven, and over the cattle and all the earth, and over all the reptiles that creep on the earth. And God made man (anthropos), according to the image of God he made him, male and female he made them. And God blessed them, saying, Increase and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the seas and flying creatures of heaven, and all the cattle and all the earth, and all the reptiles that creep on the earth. And God said, Behold I have given to you every seed-bearing herb sowing seed which is upon all the earth, and every tree which has in itself the fruit of seed that is sown, to you it shall be for food… And God saw all the things that he had made, and, behold, they were very good.” Genesis 1.26-31
There are some key elements we should draw out of the text we have just read. In Genesis 1, it is ‘anthropos’ or ‘human being’ who is the one created in the image and likeness of God. The male and female together constitute the same humanity which is itself made in the image and likeness of God. Subsequently we move onto the second chapter of Genesis where Adam is created by God and has the Spirit breathed into him, after which he becomes ‘a living soul’ (Gen 2.7). As we continue to read the second chapter we encounter a deeply profound statement made by God but one which we may not fully understand,
“The Lord God said: It is not good that the man should be alone, let us make for him a help suitable to him.” Gen 2.18
This seemingly insignificant short tract probably passes over us with very little notice. But this little passage is so loaded with meaning if only we consider what has come prior. In the first chapter of Genesis we have all probably become accustomed to the pattern of the text which reads something like, “God created…… and it was good”. How vastly different this text is! This is the first thing in all of creation that is in fact deemed to be “not good”. The creation of the man, when considered only as an isolated monad, is not deemed to be ‘good’. In the first passage, quoted above, the male and female created together is actually deemed to be ‘very good’ meanwhile the isolated man’s state is deemed to be ‘not good’. This is pointed out by St. Ambrose of Milan who says,
“Without woman, then, man receives no praise; it is in woman that he is praised!” St. Ambrose of Milan, On Paradise XVIII.22 (PL 14.314)
We should note that it is God Who says this; we have no insight (yet) as to what the man, Adam, is thinking. We do not know if he is lonely (he has God for company) or if he even realizes that the state he is in is ‘not good’. So what then is the solution to this? God has said that a helper should be created who is suitable and like the man. If we peer closely into the text then we may be confused as this is not actually what happens next. In fact the next verses read,
“And God formed yet farther out of the earth all the wild beasts of the field, and all the birds of the sky, and he brought them to Adam, to see what he would call them, and whatever Adam called any living creature, that was the name of it. And Adam gave names to all the cattle and to all the birds of the sky, and to all the wild beasts of the field, but for Adam there was not found a help like to himself.” Genesis 2.19-20.
Again, this is probably a text we have read so often that it does not shock us nearly as much as it likely should. The text tell us that ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’ (which is a statement made from the Divine side, we know nothing of Adam’s ‘thoughts’ at this point). Then the Divine response is to make animals? Was it God Who perhaps thought that Adam would come across a horse or cow or other creature and think that this was the one whom his [Adam] soul sought after (Cf. Song of Songs 3.3)? Or was this maybe to teach Adam (and therefore all of us with him) about his own need? Was this to create a longing within Adam for one like him?
Perhaps the best indication of this is Adam’s statement after the creation of Eve from the rib of man,
“And Adam said, This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of her husband” Gen 2.23
This, at last, is bone of my bone, he says. Finally one has come who is like unto him! The Jewish Rabbis would comment on these verses saying that Adam, seeing that the animals came in pairs (male and female) would notice that he did not have a mate as they did. St. John Chrysostom would comment saying,
“You remember in what was mentioned before that after Sacred Scripture said, ‘Let us make him a helpmate like himself,’ it immediately taught us about the creation of wild beasts, reptiles and all the irrational animals… So that we at this stage might be in a position to know that all those creatures, despite the ministering role they play and the assistance they give human beings in their labours, are nonetheless irrational and in great measure inferior to him-just in case we might think it was about them that God said, ‘Let us make a helpmate for him.’ You see, although they are helpful and make a very useful contribution to the service of human beings, they are nonetheless irrational.”
And a little later,
“‘For Adam, however, there proved to be no helpmate of his kind,’ as if blessed Moses were teaching us saying these words that, while all these animals were created and received from Adam the assignment of names, nevertheless none of them proved to be adequate for helping him. Accordingly he wants to teach us about the formation of the being about to be brought forth and the fact that this being due for creation is the one he was speaking about. ‘Let us make him a helpmate like himself,’ meaning of his kind, with the same properties, in no way inferior to him. Hence his words, ‘For Adam, however, there proved to be no helpmate of his kind,’ by which this blessed author shows us that whatever usefulness these irrational animals bring to our service, the help provided for Adam by woman is different and immeasurably superior.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 15 on Genesis, Tract 4-5.
St. John Chrysostom, in giving the above explanation, actually prefaces it saying that he believed these facts to be ‘obvious’ but that he would explain for those who may have missed these elements in the Scripture. Woman is not inferior to the man, in fact it is man who stands in need of her. St. John Chrysostom returns to this idea in this same homily quoting St. Paul who says that ‘woman was created for man and not man for the woman.’ He comments on this describing the woman,
“Capable both of speaking and of providing much comfort to man by a sharing of her being. For it was for the consolation of this man that this woman was created. Hence St. Paul says, ‘man was not created for woman, but woman for man (1 Cor 11.9).’” Ibid
This isolated monad, this enclosed man with no other like him stood in need of the woman. Adam must slowly learn this by seeing and naming all of the animals and their own mates.
Now we turn to considering the question of why the human being is in need of another, why man or woman needs the other. To what end do they need each other? In the first chapter of Genesis we read that the human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is created male and female. While there is nothing in God which approximates the human distinction of ‘male’ and ‘female’, is there something in our sexed existence that approximates what it is to live as God? If we think back to the previous post on Genesis (linked at the top of this article), we see that God is vastly different from the gods of the pagans. God selflessly creates the human being for no gain of His own and bestows upon them His own Spirit. He is the one Who pours Himself out that we might be filled.
“For God is good, or rather the source of all goodness, and one who is good grudges nothing, so that grudging nothing its existence, he made all things through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Among these things, of all things upon the earth he had mercy upon the human race, and seeing that by the principle of its own coming into being it would not be able to endure eternally, he granted them a further gift, creating human beings not simply like all the irrational animals upon the earth but making them according to his own image (cf. Gen 1.27), giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that having, as it were, shadows of the Word and being made rational, they might be able to abide in blessedness, living the true life which is really that of the holy ones in paradise.” St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, 3.
The Lord would say the same when calling us to live by the standard that God Himself exists in,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you! Pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust. And so, if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5.43-48.
This selfless love is the love of God as seen even in the Genesis account but also the standard to which we are called. St. John tells us, “God is love (1 John 4.8.)” and thus we can see selfless love as perhaps constituting the Divine image and likeness. Much as God creates the human being with no reward in return, we too are to love one another selflessly, with no reward in return. This love is the love which will be learnt and worked out on the human plane through the medium of marriage. Marriage, where the one learns to say no to him- or herself and to live for the other, is the forum, the battleground, for Christian ascesis (ascesis meaning exercises and training ground but as appropriated by the New Testament authors and fathers of the church for asceticism or spiritual growth) and perfection. The undermining of the purpose of human marriage is ushered in by sin as evidenced by the conversation between Adam, Eve and God in Genesis 3,
“And Adam answered: The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate.” Genesis 3.13
Adam’s response to God’s question about his eating of the fruit of the tree is responded to with a displacement of responsibility. Instead of looking to one another in love, Eve has become, ‘The woman YOU gave to be with me’ instead of the aforementioned ‘This AT LAST is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’.
The fathers of the church see this unity and this bond of love communicated by the Genesis text. This was to serve supposed as the guiding force in Christian marriages. St. John Chrysostom says about the union of man and woman,
“Can you see now how close this union is, and how God providentially created it from a single nature? He permitted Adam to marry Eve, who was more than sister or daughter; she was his own flesh! God caused the entire human race to proceed from this one point of origin. He did not, on the one hand, fashion woman independently from man; otherwise man would think of her as essentially different from himself. Nor did He enable woman to bear children without man; if this were the case she would be self-sufficient. Instead, just as the branches of a tree proceed from a single trunk, He made the one man Adam to be the origin of all mankind, both male and female, and made it impossible for men and women to be self-sufficient… A man should love his spouse as much as he loves himself, not merely because they share the same nature; no, the obligation is far greater, because there are no longer two bodies, but one . . . husband and wife are one body in the same way as Christ and the Father are one.” Homily 20 on Ephesians 5.22-33, St. John Chrysostom as in Chrysostom, Saint John. On marriage and family life. No. 7. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986.
Man and woman are providentially created with a need for each other and a lack of self-sufficiency so as to emphasize their union. Eve is taken from Adam’s rib, that which encloses the heart (which represents for the Jews the center for thoughts and emotion) so that the single human (Anthropos) may realize a complete and total union when brought together as husband and wife. St. John Chrysostom has even went so far as to say that the union between is as that of The Father and The Son. The unity of the Triune God is the basis and foundation for the unity in Christian marriage. In the same homily quote above, St. John Chrysostom will again emphasize that the coming forth from the side of man is an interpretative key to understanding the marriage bond,
“From the beginning God has been revealed as the fashioner, by His providence, of this union (syzygias) of man and woman, and He has spoken of the two as one: “male and female He created them” [Gen. 1:27] and “there is neither male nor female” [Gal. 3:28]. There is never such intimacy between a man and a man as there is between husband and wife, if they are united as they ought to be…. For truly, truly this love is stronger than any tyranny; other desires may be strong, but this one alone never fades. This love (eros) is deeply planted within our nature. Unnoticed by us, it attracts the bodies of men and women to each other, because in the beginning woman came forth from man, and now from man and woman both men and women proceed.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily XX on Ephesians
For the fathers of the church the Genesis account of the creation and especially the formation of man and woman is a narrative of human love and the bond uniting them. Marriage, as we have said, is the forum within which one learns to say ‘no’ to the self and ‘yes’ to the other. Therefore marriage can in fact be said to be an arena of salvation. It should not be surprising then that it is within this selfless bond of love of marriage that childbearing happens. In this arena of marriage, one learns to say no the self and yes to the other and in caring for children one must say no to the self and yes to the other. A baby is utterly helpless if not for the love and care of those parents taking care of it. A baby does not consider how little his/her parents have slept when it needs its next feed or another diaper change or when it simply wants to be swaddled and rocked back and forth. This aptitude for willing self-sacrifice and the total care of another seems to be supplied, in a way, by God’s grace to those who have children. Despite all the demands of caring for children, for many it does not seem burdensome to live no longer to oneself and only for one’s children. We should note that man and woman are given the blessing to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1 as well. This arena of self-sacrifice extends to the whole family including the introduction of children. For this reason, St. Basil the Great can say about the creation of woman,
“For the Creator needed to produce a being who was naturally tender, so that she might nourish her little children readily through loving kindness. For if the woman were severe, she would not take the wailing infant in her arms to embrace it in her bosom, nor would she neglect her own nourishment and instead offer her breast to feed the nursing child. On the contrary, even now a mother’s heartfelt compassion not infrequently chases away sleep from her eyelids when the small infant starts to fuss. Therefore… the female was created with a tender nature, a being full of tenderness and loving kindness.” Homily delivered in Lakizois, 8
With regards to the abundant support given to a man by his wife St. John Chrysostom says,
“The wife, after all, is given by way of assistance so that the husband, strengthened by her support, may succeed in withstanding assaults against him. You see, if she is discreet and restrained, not only will she provide her husband with comfort from their association, but in all other respects as well she will give evidence of her great usefulness, rendering everything light and easy for him, not allowing him to find difficulty either in external matters or indeed in the problems that daily arise at home. Instead, like a skilled pilot she will transform for him the storm of his spirit into calm by means of her particular wisdom, and by the understanding she shows she will provide him with deep comfort.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 38 on Genesis as in Chrysostom, Saint John. Homilies on Genesis 18–45 (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 82). Vol. 82. CUA Press, 2001.
Again St. John Chrysostom hearkens back to the man who stands in need of his wife. Despite the modern notion that the early church was misogynistic, we see a clear recognition of the talents and gifts of woman and of the women who lived at the time and in our time now. It was likely by his observations of marriages that St. John Chrysostom could make these comments. In like manner he comments to the husbands that they are to care for and love their wives commenting on St. Paul’s injunction,
“Wives, be obedient to your own husbands as [you are] to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church, being himself the savior of the body. As the Church is subject to Christ, wives should likewise be subject to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5.25).” Ephesians 5.22-23.
St. John Chrysostom will comment,
“Do you want your wife to be obedient to you, as the Church is to Christ? Then be responsible for the same providential care of her, as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse. Even though you undergo all this, you will never have done any thing equal to what Christ has done. You are sacrificing yourself for someone to whom you are already joined, but He offered Himself up for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way, then, as He honoured her by putting at His feet one who turned her back on Him, who hated, rejected, and disdained Him, as He accomplished this not with threats, or violence, or terror, or anything else like that, but through His untiring love; so also you should behave toward your wife. Even if you see her belittling you, or despising and mocking you, still you will be able to subject her to yourself, through affection, kindness, and your great regard for her. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife… One’s partner for life, the mother of one’s children, the source of one’s every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience. What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he lives with his wife as if she were a slave, and not with a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church…. Your wife is God’s creation. If you reproach her, you are not condemning her but Him who made her. What can the woman do about it? If your wife is beautiful, don’t praise her for it. Praise, hatred, and even love based on outward beauty come from impure souls. Seek beauty of soul, and imitate the Bridegroom of the Church…. “Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (v. 28). What does this mean? He is using a much stronger image and illustration now, much closer and plainer, and much more demanding. Some might not be convinced by his previous illustration, saying, “After all, He was Christ, and Christ is God—naturally He would sacrifice Himself.” Paul’s method is different now; he says, “husbands should love their wives”—because such love is an obligation, not a favour—“as their own bodies.” Why? “For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (v. 29). That is, he takes particular care of it. How is she his flesh? Listen: “This at last is bone of my bones,” said Adam, “and flesh of my flesh!” and also, “They become one flesh. (Gen 2.24)” So he nourishes and cherishes his own flesh, “as Christ does the Church” (v. 29).” St. John Chrysostom, Homily XX on Eph 5.22-33.
Thus we see some of the beauty communicated to us about human love and marriage in the first few chapters of Genesis. God prepares the human being to understand the need for another. This need arises from the true purpose of human existence to live in the image and likeness of God and to come to union with God through it. Marriage becomes the arena within which one can learn to deny oneself for the sake of the other. This then becomes the natural context for the raising of children who ultimately must subsist on the self-sacrificial love of their parents. In pursuing this life we come to grow ever more in the image and likeness of God whose defining trait is love as told to us by St. John the Evangelist. This selfless life turns upside down because of the entry of sin. The experience of our gendered existence now typically manifests itself as a desire to satisfy our own passions and desires despite what we have seen in the Scriptures as the true purpose of human unity and sexuality. Let us look to Genesis and see how God has given us our life as male and female that we may come to fulfill the Divine Image and Likeness.
I read this and your previous post on Genesis this morning and was very moved. It is so true that “it is not good for a man to be alone”. And you quote such inspiring passages about marriage and love. Thank you for this must have been a labour to produce.
God bless you for taking the time to go through it. The holy fathers have given us a vast deposit of their wisdom and insight into these matters. I hope simply to be able to share a fraction of this with others so that we may recover that ancient wisdom which we are not all too interested in today.
Glory to God and thank you for reading, dear one
I read this post again this morning and was very moved. Our age is so wrong about self-suffiency. We are created to relate and to love. Best wishes, Michael