In previous posts I have been thinking about striking moments early in Genesis that have to do with male and female—familiar moments with little-noticed features that are striking once you see them. Here is another one: the commandment not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is addressed to Adam before his wife has been created (Gen. 2:16f). First the word of God comes to the man, and then God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). So why is the man alone the first time God speaks to a human being?
I take this as a clue for understanding another striking moment, which I was concerned with in the previous post : when we first hear of “male and female” in Genesis, it is in connection with the creation of humanity. Why is it that the obvious sexual differentiation among the beasts seems to be passed over? It’s as if “male and female” has not arrived at its full meaning until we come to “the man and his wife” (which is the phrase repeatedly used to designate the first two human beings in Genesis, rather than “Adam and Eve”).
Male and female is the second great duality in creation, after heaven and earth. In each case, the wholeness and perfection of creation requires both elements in the duality—first one then the other, for the good of both. For the one is not good without the other. This is what I want to call the biblical logic of otherness. It is an asymmetrical logic, where the one is not equivalent or interchangeable with the other. The one comes first, then the other. It is asymmetrical, yet it is also reciprocal: the one is for the good of the other, but the same one is not good without the other.
So in the first great duality, heaven is the source of blessings for the earth. Good gifts come from above: rain and sun, and hence seedtime and harvest, without which there would be no life on earth. The energy that makes the plants to grow and thus gives the animals their food descends from the sun. You don’t need modern theories about chlorophyll to see this: Every farmer who watches crops growing as the sun rises higher in the sky each day in the spring knows it. The light of heaven is literally life-giving. Yet God does not see heaven as good without the earth (the striking omission on the second day of creation, which I was concerned with in my first post ).
This logic of otherness—first one then the other, the one for the good of the other, the one that is not good without the other—is found again in the duality of sex, male and female, the two who become one flesh, through which the blessing of procreation is fulfilled: “be fruitful and multiply.” Through this blessing God gives his creatures power to bring new beings into being. For only God is the Creator, calling into being those things which are not (Rom. 4:17), yet by the power of his blessing we can be pro-creators, those who carry forth the work of creation by bringing into being new beings like ourselves, in our own image, as Genesis says of Adam’s son (Gen. 5:3). But for that we must have the logic of otherness: male and female, the one and the other who are good for one another.
The logic of otherness only becomes really clear in human sexuality. I take it that is why Genesis does not speak of “male and female” until God creates human beings. It is with the human male and female that the one meets the other as other , not simply fulfilling the generic purpose of procreation “after their kind,” as Genesis puts it. It is in humanity that sexual difference gives us one who confronts the other face to face, the one speaking and the other hearing, both together made in the image of God who speaks and hears.
So God speaks and man hears. But it is not good until the man has a helper fit for him, an other like him who can hear him speak. She will have to hear the word of God from him rather than directly from God. And this is good: for without this speaking and hearing the blessing of male and female is not complete. Human beings can not only speak; they can hear the word of God. And they can not only hear the word of God but speak it to one another. In this speaking and hearing the human creation is perfected, brought to completion as the image of God.
And then comes a third, the serpent, to test how well the man has spoken and the woman has heard. The serpent asks her what God has said, because she has heard it only from her husband. The serpent is probing: How well have the two of them together kept the word of God—and how well will they keep it? At issue is the goodness of creation: whether male and female, the one and the other, shall really be good for one another in their union.
It turns out the story of how creation is perfected in goodness will be delayed, for it has in fact just begun.