Not long ago, I sat down and did a slow reading of Genesis 1 and 2. Despite how well I would have said I knew the creation story, only as an adult did I realize that the entire order of creation is different in chapter 2 than it is in chapter 1. (Seriously, that’s not a joke. Go look.) My guess would be that this is because as a child I memorized the days of creation from chapter 1 and no one ever talked about that part of chapter 2.
Despite gaining that knowledge over the recent years, I would have still claimed to know the story well. And yet, when I sat down only a week ago, reading slowly, I noticed two things that I hadn’t before. I think I need to stop claiming that I know anything well.
I have heard people teach about the theme of separation in Genesis 1: day and night, light and darkness, earth and water, etc. It’s a story of binaries, opposites. Then frequently, man and woman are included in that list. The idea would be that as earth and water are different, so man and woman are different too. The problem is that the text presents man and woman as similar, corresponding. The separation is between animals and humans. In Genesis 1, God made all the animals and then shifted gears to make another type of creature in God’s own image. Being made in God’s image both separates humanity from the animals and joins women and men. In fact, after making humanity, God commissioned them to “be fruitful and multiple and fill” just as God commissioned the animals (compare Genesis 1:22 with the opening of 1:28). But then, he gives humanity a separate calling as well: rule creation. Humanity was to steward God’s project; they were created to be God’s partners (see also Genesis 2:15). Humanity is to represent God; the animals are not. There is no separation made between woman and man in this story.
In Genesis 2 we see a similar theme but a different order. (Go read it, slowly!) A man is created and God announces that it’s not good for man to be alone. He cannot steward God’s creation by himself. He certainly can’t be fruitful and multiply. He needs a partner for this work. So then God makes all the animals and parades them in front of the man so he can name them. In the process, we are shown that nothing in the animal world corresponds to man. They are separated. There was a great difference. But when woman is brought to man, he announces “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” This sameness is why they can bond and be one flesh. (We’ll leave the repercussions of man leaving father and mother in a patriarchal culture where exactly the opposite happened for another time.) The emphasis is sameness, partnership, mutuality. The separation is not between man and woman but between humanity and the animals.
This actually is a big deal. We cannot act as though men and women are foreign to each other. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is opposite the story of the Bible. Yes, there are biological differences, but even with those, women and men are more alike than different. The point of this story is sameness, how they correspond to each other, how they are commissioned to the same work. This awareness (or lack of) affects our stories about marriage and partnership and gender and how the church operates as brother and sister. This could even put a stop to our “women. who can know them?” jokes.
Seeing sameness in this passage is important. What’s also important is that we approach Scripture with humility and curiosity. We need to come wondering, asking questions, paying attention instead of assuming that we already know what it says or what it means. Sometimes the meaning is unclear; multiple options seem possible from what we read in the text. This is on purpose. We are supposed to consider all the possibilities and what they could mean. We should return to it over and over. Reading Scripture requires reading with humility. God knows all; we do not. We come to learn, not to reinforce our own ideas.
Maturity in faith is a slow process. I’ve been reading the Bible since I was twelve and I still frequently find things that it seems I have literally never read, though my eyes have certainly seen the words. I process stories differently than I did at twelve, make connections I have never considered even a year ago, and will do the same thing each time I return to a passage. We don’t arrive. We are always learning and growing and reshaping what we believe and how we live in response to that. Humility seems to be the only acceptable posture.
Reading in community is a lesson in humility. Other people will notice things that I skim over (check out this short video that I watched in my class on biblical interpretation) and I need their perspectives. I need to be shaped by others and not simply my own experience. We don’t come to the Bible as a blank slate; we are already formed, expecting to have our own bias’ affirmed. The way I read the Bible is different because I’ve read Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black, Justo Gonzalez’ Santa Biblia, Jen Wilkin’s Women of the Word. I am not an island. I cannot interpret the Bible well by myself.
We need to practice coming to Scripture humbly. We need to come again and again. We need to come as a community.
Sometimes we just need to slow down while we’re reading.