Princeton University Religious Life

Crowned with Glory and Honor

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
October 4, 2015
Genesis 2: 18-24; Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2.5-12

There are, as you may know, two very different accounts of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis.  The first is the beautiful, liturgical language that we know so well of the six days, or stages, of creation: “and there was evening and there was morning, the third day.” In that version of creation human beings are created in one act, in the image of God, “male and female” says the text.  A second account of creation begins in the middle of the fourth verse of chapter 2.  In it, there is one day in which God creates, including a human being that is, according to the original Hebrew, undifferentiated by sex.  It is simply “ ’adam”, the human, made from dirt,          “’adamah.”  In the English language we have created a male first name from the Hebrew: Adam.  We’ve also translated the Genesis text to say that the original human being is male, but that’s not true to the text itself.  What God does create is an undifferentiated, all-purpose human being.

Then, we read, God decides that the human being should not be alone.  God creates many more creatures, and lets the human being name (that is, define) them all.  But they aren’t the human’s equal, and they aren’t able to relate to the human being in a close way, only in a superficial (if affectionate) way.  Clearly, more must be done.  So God chooses not to create another human being out of clay, but to subdivide the human that exists.  In that way only can humanity have deepest, truest companionship.  Our English translation says that God removes a rib from ‘adam, but the Hebrew says that God used a whole side of the human’s body.  It wasn’t a negligible little piece of the first human that created a second; the first human was divided into two, now differentiated parts.  ‘Adam did not become Adam until ‘adam simultaneously became Eve.  Now, finally, there are two separate beings, and neither one is called ‘adam.  They are now ish and ishah: man and woman. 

I imagine we’ve all grown up with interpretations of this text that see women as helpers to men – a helper is what the text says that God wanted for the original human being.  I grew up being taught this at church, with the firm understanding that women are the subsidiaries of men, subordinates, assistants, intended to serve the people who really matter, who are male.  This, again, is not what the Hebrew text proclaims.  The word for helper is ‘ezer, and its use in the Bible outside of this verse is in reference to God: God is the helper of persons and communities in peril, facing challenges.  The Hebrew meaning of the word is for an entity that is a superior to the person being helped.  A sign of that person’s inferiority is that they need help.  For those who want to insist that women were created after men rather than in the same act, and to claim women’s inferiority because of it, we need to remind them that the original man was someone whom God decided needed a superior in order to help him get things right!

But let’s stay away from that argument if we can, because it is also not what is contained in scripture.  Just as the Genesis text does not argue for the primacy or leadership or greater value of males, it doesn’t argue for the superiority of females.  It tells an origins story of radical equality and mutuality.  No human being is valued by God more highly than any other – not by gender (including the infinite ways that humans today are articulating their own), not by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual identity, wealth, poverty.  We are all that first elemental human being, now subdivided through histories and generations and migrations into limitless expressions – all beautiful, all priceless, all beloved of God, all ‘adam

And so a text that has so often been interpreted as justification for subordination, legal discrimination, and so much private violence (and public) actually justifies none of that.  In God’s good universe, nothing could.  The text does testify to God’s intention for so many wonderful inheritances and practices for the new human family.  I’ve mentioned mutuality and equality.  We derive from one body; we are the same being; how can we create hierarchies among us?  Centuries after the Genesis texts were written the Apostle Paul would use the imagery of humanity as one body – now the body of Christ – to counter the hierarchies that the Corinthian and other early communities were devising.  Our Genesis text also shows us God’s affirmation – and creation – of community.  God says that it is “not good” for the human being to be alone, and so God creates the pantheon of animals – and later, humans – for us to be surrounded by.  Solitude can be wonderful and empowering, but loneliness hurts.  It’s very different.  By calling us to live in communities of so many kinds, God calls us to accountability, a responsibility, for one another.  God calls us to notice one another, to care for one another, to ensure the welfare of one another.  God calls us to learn from one another, to teach one another out of what we know, and to join with one another in building up whatever is our shared space, our society.  No matter how much solitude we enjoy, we are to be intentional about participating in community.  And community includes, as we see in our texts, the animals and natural world around us.  We are to be in community with them, not exploit them.

And we see too in our Genesis text that God gives us the gift of intimacy with others and calls us to engage in it.  These verses come before those with the mandate to be fruitful and multiply; they are simply about the goodness of intimate human companionship for its own sake, the gift of God of deepest closeness, fulfillment, love, and care.  We are to enjoy the profoundest expression of human partnership, entirely free (as we read) from shame. 

And our text shows us God’s radical intention for us – and directive to us – to be helpers to one another.  The helper role is not one that God assigns to any specific group in society – certainly not to women, to slaves or servants, to the poorer persons in society or those living with discrimination.  We are all to be helpers to any person who needs it.  We have that agency at every moment.  We have that freedom.  God is always our helper, but God also expects us to follow that divine example.  God does not control us like puppets on a string.  We live out our agency and autonomy, and when we hit a challenging stretch and need a hand, another person can give it to us, just as we commit ourselves to being wide awake and aware of the needs and challenges of those around us, so that we can do the holy work of being a helper wherever help is needed. 

In the verses that follow our text from Genesis, the human beings give in to the temptation of their curiosity and eat the forbidden fruit.  They are expelled from the Garden of Eden and we, their progeny, continue to live with such challenges, such sin.  We human beings earned our own eviction through our disobedience, and don’t we continue in that – shooting one another in our schools, turning our backs on the poor and hungry, creating hierarchies of human value that make us more powerful and wealthy at the expense of others.  As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, even as we continue our disobedience, our salvation has been secured for us by Christ through his radical obedience to God.  He is often called “the new Adam” – let us say, the new ‘adam.  He saves us from our sin, even as we continue to sin.  The Letter to the Hebrews calls him, “the exact imprint of God’s very being,” while in Genesis we read that all humans are “the image of God” – imago deiI think there’s a difference there – Christ alone is exactly like God, for they and the Holy Spirit form the Trinity.  And yet our Hebrews passage affirms the holiness of humanity and our similarity to Christ.  It is Psalm 8 that is quoted, and that describes humans as “crowned with glory and honor” by the Creator.  The letter then says the same of Christ – “crowned with glory and honor” because of “the suffering of death”.  In spite of our sin, we do remain crowned with glory and honor.  Even our constant disobedience does not remove the beauty, the holiness, in which we were all created.  Christ our brother, “the pioneer of our salvation”, goes out ahead of us, but never stops being essentially like us.  We are, alike, crowned with glory and honor. 

And so that is how we must treat all people – as crowned with glory and honor.  They are thus crowned by the God who created them in the same act as us, and they are redeemed by the Christ who has purchased our very own salvation.  Formed out of clay, we, the human family, are glorious and honorable to God, as we should be to all others, for no matter how much we sin, the glory placed in us by our Creator never fades.

            Amen!

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