The Lo-Tov of Being Alone

downloadThe phrase that’s come to dominate the push for same-sex marriage is a welcome one. It’s “Love Wins.” It’s a good phrase, with roots in the Old Testament, and it’s a big part of how we hear Jesus and the Apostle Paul. It means that the central Bible commandments are love commandments. It means that two consenting adults who love each other should have the opportunity to marry.

Here’s another meme I’d like to see circulating. No one should have to be alone. OK, I admit, this doesn’t have the panache of “Love Wins,” but at least this answers a principle argument made by many opponents of same-sex marriage. This argument is that the Bible requires marriage to be between one man and one woman. In many cases, this argument is based on Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24 is important to Jews because it’s in our Torah. The verse is important to Christians for this same reason, and also because Jesus repeats it:

Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘G-d made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what G-d has joined together, let no one separate.” [emphasis added]

So there you have it: the Bible says that men go out and “cleave” to women, or “join” women, or “unite” with women. Many read this passage as G-d’s divine, exclusive plan for marriage. I do NOT read the passage this way, and I have a lot of reasons for reading the way I do, but for this post, I’ll only describe one of them. But first, an aside:

We are trying to look at the Bible and same-sex marriage in an interfaith way. This means that certain arguments that are persuasive in church and synagogue don’t work here. For example: some Jews and Christians regard their respective traditions as the authoritative way to read the Bible … but of course, these two traditions do not agree. I often find it interesting to interject Jewish traditional sources into the discussion here, but I don’t expect these sources to be authoritative for most of my readers. Some Christians read the Old Testament as “fulfilled” by the New Testament, or believe that the Old Testament should be understood in light of the New (one site recommends that “The Old Testament will make better sense if you read the New Testament first”), or that the New Testament supersedes the Old, or that the New Testament “is G-d will for us today” (while the Old Testament is “what was intended for the Jews”). Naturally, these interpretative approaches aren’t going to persuade most Jews participating in the discussion here—and they won’t be persuasive for a number of Christians as well.

So here, we focus principally on ways to read the Bible that should work well for both Jews and Christians. For example, in prior posts we’ve looked closely at the Hebrew of Old Testament passages like Leviticus 20:13. We’re all interested in understanding the original languages of the Bible, and how these languages have been translated.

Another good interfaith Bible-reading technique is to read passages in context. There are many contexts of interest to us: historical, cultural, cross-cultural and the like. But possibly the easiest and most accessible Bible context is to read Bible passages together with surrounding Bible text. Many of us are routinely subjected to prooftexting: the technique where one side of an argument throws isolated Bible verses at the other. This doesn’t increase understanding or lead to dialogue. Better is to ask: from where does the passage arise? To what situation does the passage speak?

Genesis 2:24 is a good text to read in context. It practically BEGS to be read this way, as it begins (depending on the translation) with the word “Therefore,” or the phrase “That is why,” “This explains why” or “For this reason.” This is a signal that there’s something important we need to know contained in earlier text.

So … what did happen before Genesis 2:24? Well … starting with Genesis 2:7, G-d creates the first person from the dust of the ground. G-d creates a garden in Eden, puts the person there, and proceeds to cause trees to grow and rivers to flow in the garden. G-d then warns the human not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Let’s pause for a moment while we consider this first human. While Adam is going to live out life as a man, it’s not clear that Adam was initially created that way. There are medieval Jewish commentators who thought that Adam was created as both male and female, as an androgyne. It is interesting, that until Eve is created a few verses from now, Adam is not referred to as an ish, the Hebrew word for “man.” Instead, Adam is Adam, often translated as “man” in the sense of “mankind” (“human being” would be a better translation today), though some suggest the translation “earthling” (Adam having been created from the adamah, the earth). In any event, the text does not yet mention any women on the earth. The Bible text never explains why G-d would have initially created humanity in this way.

The story goes on, with G-d making one of the most unusual pronouncements you’ll ever see in the Bible:

It is not good that the Adam be alone.

We have encountered this passage so often, it may have lost some of its meaning. Let’s look at this statement closely. The first thing to note is my translation. You may remember this verse the way I do, as “it is not good that man be alone,” but the Hebrew most certainly refers to “the” human (ha-adam). Strictly speaking, G-d is not making a statement about the human condition! G-d is simply talking about this human, the one and only human so far. Nor is G-d’s statement necessarily gendered. G-d is not necessarily commenting on men being without women. Remember, we’re not sure about Adam’s gender at this point. We simply have one person, alone.

We should also pause and ask, if it’s not good for the human to be alone, then why did G-d create the human this way in the first place? The text does not supply us with an answer, but that hasn’t stopped commentators from finding meaning here. One common interpretation is this: G-d wanted the first human to experience loneliness, so that s/he would appreciate Eve once Eve arrived on the scene.

But for me, the most remarkable thing about G-d’s pronouncement is G-d’s admission that the creation of the first human is (to this point) “not good.” The Hebrew here is direct: lo-tov, a hyphenation of “no” (or not) and “good.” Those words should come as a slap in the face. Read these words not as a detached philosophical pronouncement, but as a blunt, anguished divine exclamation that creation has gone off the rails. No good. These words stand in stark contrast to what we find in Genesis 1. There, creation is affirmed to be good, over and over again, beginning with G-d’s creation of heaven and earth. The text assures us that G-d looked upon creation and “saw that it was good.” The Hebrew pronouncement is ki-tov, again hyphenated, with tov meaning “good” and ki meaning something like “indeed it is.” Ki-tov gets repeated; creation of plant life is ki-tov, creation of sun and moon is ki-tov, creation of animal life is ki-tov. When creation is complete in Genesis 1, G-d reviews it all, “and behold it was very good.”

So we should read it as shocking to see G-d contemplate the first person in Genesis 2, and conclude lo-tov instead of ki-tov. After all, we humans often assume pride of place in creation. But the text says otherwise: the creation of pond slime and dry rot is ki-tov, but the creation of humanity is (so far) lo-tov. Something must have gone very, very wrong. How could G-d have created us lo-tov? Indeed, how could G-d create anything that is lo-tov? And what, exactly, is it about the Adam that is lo-tov?

At least, the text provides an answer to this last question: what is lo-tov is that the Adam is alone.

A G-d-created lo tov simply cannot be allowed to continue! G-d concludes that the Adam needs ezer k’negdo, variously translated as “a helper corresponding to him,” or “a helper suitable to him,” or “a help meet for him.” I like the translation “suitable help,” because that’s about the only thing to “help” explain the bizarre scene that follows! Having concluded that the Adam needs ezer k’negdo, G-d proceeds to parade before Adam “every beast of the field and every bird of the sky.” The Adam names them all, but the text informs us that Adam did not find among them an ezer k’negdo. How strange! Are we to believe that G-d truly proposed that Adam consider sparrows and leopards as help meets?

We shake our heads in wonder and move on. G-d then performs surgery on the Adam, putting him into a deep sleep and forming a woman from one of his ribs (most Jewish commentators say that Eve was formed from Adam’s “side”). With this act, G-d completes creation, and remedies the awful situation of lo-tov. Arguably, this makes woman G-d’s most singular and important creation! This was confirmed by the famous 19th century Modern Orthodox Jewish sage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “The completion of the good was not Man but Woman”:

And this Woman is to be ezer k’negdo … And ezer k’negdo certainly expresses no idea of subordination, but rather complete equality, and on a footing of equal independence. Woman stands to Man k’negdo, parallel, on one line, at his side.

The Adam is so overwhelmed by Eve that he bursts into poetry—the first piece of poetry in the Bible:

This one at last

Is bone of my bones

And flesh of my flesh.

This one shall be called woman (isha),

For from man (ish) was she taken.

Isn’t it interesting? Adam does not speak here of what makes Eve different from him. There’s no statement from Adam here about complementary function: she’ll reap while I sow, or gather while I hunt, or wash while I dry. No. What strikes Adam at this ki-tov moment is that he has at last found someone like him. “Bone of my bone,” “flesh of my flesh”—isn’t this something that a man might say to the man he marries? Or that a woman might say to the woman she marries?

At the conclusion of this poem, we reach Genesis 2:24, where “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” We’ve seen Adam alone, Adam before the animal parade, Adam in surgery, Adam creating poetry. We can now address what the Genesis 2:24 “Therefore” is for. And the answer is …

… well, the answer is not entirely clear. Let’s discuss! This is a complicated business. If the Bible had meant to simply communicate that marriage is between one man and one woman, then the Bible might have clearly so stated. For that matter, the Bible might have made things easier for us if it had somewhere included an express same-sex marriage affirmation. Instead, we have complications, such as an animal parade, and divine surgery. It is as if the Bible cares less about setting up rules, and more about getting us talking.

For me, Genesis 2:24 in context comes down to lo-tov and ki-tov. Many of us will experience Adam’s lo-tov loneliness, and “therefore” seek the ki-tov of a mate. The mate Adam welcomed with poetry was a woman, but I don’t read the text to require (or even state) that the mate we seek must be opposite-sex. The text says that our mate should be k’negdo, someone “suitable” and “corresponding” for us. How could someone who is same-sex attracted possibly find a k’negdo mate of the opposite sex? Once two people fall in love, how could anyone else possibly be k’negdo for them?

For me, this point is driven across by the other word G-d uses to describe the Adam’s mate: ezer, meaning “help.” This is not a sex word. Rabbi Hirsch confirms that ezer k’negdo:“contains not the slightest reference to any sexual relationship.” In no sense does ezer k’negdo mean “someone that Adam could make babies with.” If G-d had simply meant to provide the Adam with a partner for procreation, then presumably the Bible would have used a different phrase to describe Eve. Again, I see nothing in the text to suggest that ezer can only come to us from a different gender.

This leaves me with what feels like bitter irony: some religious people who love and revere the Bible insist on celibacy for those who are same-sex attracted. In order to uphold an idea I don’t find in the first two chapters of Genesis—that marriage must be between men and women—these Bible believers would sentence LGBTQ folk to the G-d-proclaimed lo-tov of being alone. Adam had to endure being alone for a short while, perhaps less than a day, but even a few hours of being alone was lo-tov. Imagine the lo-tov of being required to be alone for a lifetime. How could such a requirement be Biblical?

  • Marie Hartung

    I suspect that the assumption by some that Adam, taken as a literal male name, was born first is also the “proof” that men are superior to women. Otherwise, Eve would have been born first. But in partial jest, Eve would have done much better being alone.

    It’s really too bad that the story doesn’t go: And on the first day God created an interconnected community

    Imagine how different our world might be if he/she/whatever had?

    • Marie, it’s a mystery how we ever got the idea of “male superiority” from the idea that a male was created first and a female second. By that same logic, a pre-season football game is “superior” to the Super Bowl! As for Eve being better off alone … well … no one ever asked her. Nor does Genesis 2:24 indicate that the woman being “cleaved” to there is happy about it! I don’t think we hear directly about female desire for males until Genesis 3:16, where it is presented as a curse. The Bible doesn’t neatly conform to what we might wish it said.

      Great comment about community! What difference do you think it would have made if the Bible reported the creation on the sixth day of a village instead of an Adam? It is a complex matter in the Bible: do we relate to G-d and creation as individuals, or as members of a group? Clearly, both kinds of relationship are present, and there are tensions between the two. But I think it is an important statement: each of us has an individual relationship with the eternal, the cosmos, the one-ness, or whatever word or idea you might like to express that “thing” which transcends ordinary, material reality. We don’t need a church or synagogue, a priest or a rabbi, a ritual or talisman, to stand between us and that eternal-ness. But it’s also the case that we can experience this transcending “thing” in new and powerful ways within community. Indeed, religion at its best helps build community. How sad that we so often experience religion trying to destroy the communities we love!

  • Carolyn

    It is interesting to me how exceedingly difficult it is to approach scripture and one’s religion without the bias of prior teachings and beliefs.

    • Carolyn, I don’t think it’s possible to do much of anything without bias. We have no choice but to bring who we are to what we do. I also think that our bias is in a continual, dynamic process of change, as it both shapes our experience and is the product of that experience. But I agree: what is exceedingly difficult is to consciously challenge the bias of prior teaching and belief. It is one reason that I try to read Bible here in the ways I do, to help myself and anyone so inclined to see the Bible in different ways, and to disturb my (and our) comfort level.

      I am presently reading Genesis 2:24 very closely, and what I’m seeing there disturbs me. I don’t know what to make of it. I am wondering if Genesis 2:24 intends to criticize what it observes there, the process of “leaving and cleaving.” For certain, the Hebrew words used for “leaving” and “cleaving” ARE often used in disturbing ways elsewhere in the Old Testament. I am thinking, do I pursue this to wherever it leads? Do I risk offending my audience by painting a beloved verse, 2:24, in a negative light? Do I just let this one go?

      • Carolyn

        Oh goodness gracious. That’s a dilema.
        I can see where readers might say, He’s gone too far! He is just picking things apart because he can!
        I’m sure there are a lot of disgruntled Americans who wish we could go back to to happy discovery and settlement myths of Columbus and the Puritans. It made teaching Thanksgiving and the Founding Fathers so much more comfortable and easy!
        I remember the discomforts I sometimes felt when I was a biblical innerantist. If you couldn’t reconcile it, you avoided thinking about it. (The trouble with being a natural skeptic was that a lot was hard to reconcile) Now I more welcome the discomforts. Because truth is more important.