Without a doubt, the beginning of the Bible is the most controversial text in Western culture. Despite the controversies, it seems as if most people haven’t actually looked at Genesis 1 and 2 very carefully. For instance, there seems to be something already in existence at the beginning of Genesis 1: “the deep” and “the waters” are presumed to exist before Creation happens. So the Bible doesn’t portray God creating ex nihilo, and that’s true whether hundreds of years of tradition likes it or not.
Also oft-surprising is that Genesis 1 and 2 contain two modes of creation by God: if you read through the two chapters as a narrative, God first creates everything by decree and then creates everything by building up reality from the clay of Eden. And in both of these modes, the creation culminates in the creation of the human pairing — and even more, in the explicit charge to have sex!
To make that argument, I need to back up a second and clear some smoke.
If you check, the first creation account seems to go past the end of Genesis 1 up to Genesis 2:3. Despite this bleed-over, the first account is sometimes called “Genesis 1″ and the second account is sometimes called “Genesis 2″, leading to a bit of slop and confusion about where “Genesis 1″ ends. While I know there’s a good reason for that alternative numbering, I am sticking to the canonical numbering used in the Christian Bible: when I say “Genesis 1″ here, I mean very precisely the first chapter of Genesis.
Genesis 1 begins with God in the dark, and the world hidden beneath a sheet of water in that darkness. God’s breath moves over that sheet of water, and He whispers, “Let there be light.” But the world can’t see the light when it appears — it is blurry, mixed with the darkness. God separates the light and the darkness and then separates the sheet of water, revealing the dry land beneath it. Through God’s words alone, the life potential within that dry land is called forth. Through God’s words alone, the lesser and greater lights are hung in the sky, the sea explodes with sea monsters and living creatures, and then the dry land is populated with all the varieties of animals.
Then, in the climax of Genesis 1, God creates humanity — “male and female he created them.” The first words that He gives to humanity are a charge to have sex, and in no uncertain terms: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth”. Now, the sex there is intertwined with the idea of procreation — sex and bearing children are simply indivisible concepts. While we contemporary readers may want to address these ideas separately, we need to realize we’re in a unique historical situation: pervasive, safe, and reliable birth control is a purely 20th century concept, and so it’s only recently that we have the luxury of divorcing sex and bearing children. Since the ancient Hebrews didn’t have the pill and weren’t too keen on homosexuality, the idea of sex is tied up with having babies — but for all those caveats, the sex is still definitely there, and it is how the story of creation ends.
Genesis 2 (as the Bible counts it) begins with God at rest. The world has been created with seeds resting in the ground, but there had never been water nor anyone to work the ground. God calls forth a stream to water the ground, and forms The Human to work the ground. God breathes the very breath of life into the face of The Human, and The Human comes to life. God plants The Human in the Garden of Eden, with every plant that is beautiful to see and delicious to eat. But The Human is alone, and while all the rest of creation may have been declared good by God, here God says, “It is not good that The Human should be alone.” With every physical need taken care of, with all the most beautiful and delicious plants, with all the animals of the world, with every comfort and power second only to God Himself, The Human is still alone, and that is not good. And so God causes The Human to sleep, and splits The Human in two, into man and woman.
The man apparently won the wishbone contest and inherited the identity of The Human. When the man awakes, he sees the woman, and then we get the first recorded human quote — an exclamation of long-awaited love: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” Even having been split in two, The Human is ecstatic at having a partner to touch, and to relate to in a very present, physical way. We are then told: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” Here we have another mode of God’s creation culminating in a praise of the human creative power in sex. This time, the praise is based on the innate need for each of us to be near another physically, to be touched in love and to join back together to become one flesh. Here at the headwaters of the Bible, we find an acknowledgment of the loneliness that defines our existence and a story explaining why that loneliness is assuaged through joining ourselves physically with another: in a real sense, we are seeking the half of our body that is missing.
Now, the next words we hear from the man are in Genesis 3, and they’re him blaming the woman for giving him the forbidden fruit: even the Bible seems cynical about marriage. These words from the man escalate the chain of events that end with misery and pain being introduced into the world. So it’s true that Creation isn’t all roses — but this Valentine’s day, let’s have a Genesis 2 kind of night and leave Genesis 3 for another time.
NOTE: Thanks to Terence Fretheim’s “God and World in the Old Testament” for inspiring this post.