It Is Not Good To Be Alone – Male and Female
Who are We?
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Many people assume that the Bible treats women like something slightly above donkeys. But is this rather harsh assessment of the Bible really correct? Are we guilty of judging a book, not by its cover, but by its age? Might it be true that if we could somehow take ourselves back to the time and place of the Bible that we would find it expressing not only contemporary truths but truths that may speak out across the ages? Let us examine a particular selection with a particular goal to see which side of this debate is correct. The selection is the origins of the woman and her situation both before and after the fall. The goal is to discover a Biblical understanding of the male-female relationship.
‘And Hashem God said: It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make for him a helper who is his equal. And Hashem God formed from the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and whatever the man called it as a living being would be its name. And the man called names to all of the animals and to the birds of the heavens and to all the beasts of the field, but for himself, the man did not find a helper who was his equal. And Hashem God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep and he slept; and He took one of his sides and closed the flesh underneath. And Hashem God built the side that He took from the man into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And the man said: This time it is a bone of my bones, and flesh from my flesh, this one shall be called ‘woman’ because she was taken from man. Therefore, a man shall leave his mother and father and fuse with his wife and they shall be one body. And the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.’ (2:18-25)
After the woman is seduced by the snake and eats the fated fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, she gives to her husband and he eats. When confronted with her guilt, she blames it on the snake. God, after punishing the snake in some mysterious way, then turns to the woman, ‘And to the woman He said: I will greatly increase your pain and/of pregnancy – in pain you will bear children and to your husband shall be your desire, but he shall rule over you’. (3:16)
Aside from the general matter of the origins of the woman, there are several important details here that shouldn't be overlooked. Why was it necessary to ‘build’ her to begin with, if she had already been created with the man back in the first chapter? Second, what does it mean for her to be ‘built’, as opposed to created, made, or formed? Finally, her ‘punishment’ includes both physical and emotional components. Is the emotional really a punishment? Is desiring her husband such a terrible thing? And what’s with that business of him ruling over her? Is the Bible really that blatantly chauvinistic?
We have to look a little closer at these verses. Let’s being with, ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’. This statement is utterly remarkable for its simplicity and for its complexity. What could be simpler – we need companionship, we need to love and to be loved. But what could be more complex than the give and take of a friendship or the ups and downs of a loving relationship? In spite of this ambivalence, the Torah has the Creator of human beings draw this observation. Did God just realize this now? Why didn’t God think of this problem earlier when He was creating man in His image?
This one is easy to answer. God of course knew about this problem. God had already made/created both males and females. Nothing new was made with the ‘building’ of the female just as nothing new was made with the ‘formation’ of man (2:7) or the ‘formation’ of animals (2:19). These verbs are not confusing instances of a ‘second creation story’ as the Bible critics would have us believe. They are the metaphorical ways the Torah describes the hand of God manipulating things behind the scenes. Man had been made/created, but had not been ‘shaped’ into the physical/intellectual being who could appreciate the life-giving properties of rain and learn to work and protect the Garden of Eden that the earth is. Similarly, the animals had already been made/created in the distant past of the first chapter of Genesis. But they hadn’t been shaped into potential companions of man in his task of working and protecting the earth.
The woman, also, had already been created/made. She had even been ‘shaped’ along with the man. So what was missing? The missing element was the man realizing that in spite of his technological prowess and his creative genius, and even with his being created in the image of God, he was still alone. God’s expressing this revelation is the Torah’s way of saying that deep inside the man it was also realized. It is difficult to know when this profound thought first arises in the human mind, but it hits us all at one time or another. We sense that we need someone else to be there with us, fighting our battles along with us, and holding our hand when we crave reassurance. This realization is perhaps the most important insight that a human being gains in the course of a lifetime – it is not good to be alone.
The Genesis metaphor of the man falling asleep and losing one of his sides is one of the most poignant in all Scripture. We have to lose something if we truly want to not be alone. Something has to be sacrificed, to be taken, if we wish to gain the priceless gift of a true companion. Part of this sacrifice can be made openly in the fully conscious state. But there is always a part of it that must be taken subconsciously – we are not even fully aware of what we are giving up to gain a dear friend or a loving spouse. Perhaps it is better that way. If we were fully aware of this sacrifice we might be hopelessly reluctant to make it. But sacrifice it is. It is a piece of our very selves that must be taken if we truly hope to gain the love and trust of another.
Once the sacrifice is made, once that piece is taken, the image of that ‘other’ can be ‘built’. It is not a change in the other person that solves the problem of aloneness. It is the building up of the need for that other person in the still subconscious mind of the one who is alone. This is the essential step in the process. That other person must be desired to the point of desperation, imagined in the depths of the mind, and adored beyond all else – if they are to be loved. The litmus test of true companionship, of a loving relationship with an equal, is if each person realizes that the other person actually possesses a little bit of them. ‘Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, this one shall be called woman, because she was taken from man.’
The Torah’s description of the physical act of coupling is nothing short of breathtaking. ‘And the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed’. Sex is physical and lustful; it is frequently selfish and even violent. All too often it descends to the level of pornography. But it is also beautiful and unique in the way that two people can truly become one. When sex is given and received as an expression of love and devotion, there is no shame. For two people who truly love each, sharing nakedness is a gift from God.
We now proceed to the situation after the woman is seduced by the snake, eats the fruit, and gives to her husband who also eats. What if she hadn’t tried to convince him to share her guilt and he didn’t eat? What would their relationship be? It would be unequal. Instead of the promised ‘helper who was his equal’, he might have still had a helper, but she certainly would not be his equal. One would have carried the guilt of disobeying God and all its consequences and the other would be free of that guilt. This inequality was avoided by a joint decision of the man and the woman. Each paid a price.
The price the woman paid is spelled out in the single verse in which God tells her fate - pain in pregnancy and birth, a longing for her husband, and him believing he has control over her. We shall leave aside the physical component of this 'punishment' and focus on the psychological – she shall long for her husband but he shall control her. Is it really such a terrible thing to long for her husband? It certainly is if the longing isn't reciprocated. Because she convinced him to share her fate he will not feel about her the way that she feels about him. She would forever be subject to unrequited longing for another. If she had been warned in advance that this would be her fate perhaps she never would have eaten to begin with. But this kind of 20-20 hindsight is not a luxury that we have been granted. The woman paid a big price for her mistake. Is this somehow the fate of all women?
Gazing in the Mirror
God told the woman her unfortunate fate, which was at best a mixed blessing. There is no getting around the fact that the Bible lays this burden on her and upon all women. Or is there? The man didn’t seem all that troubled by what his wife did to him. The verse following the ‘curses’ states, ‘And the man named his wife Hava (Eve), for she was the mother of all life’ (3:20). What is the significance of this name? Is this somehow a compensation for her diminished status in his eyes? Perhaps the man understood, that after all was said and done, after all she did and after all he did, that his wife still played a role in his life that could not be replaced or dismissed. She was the mother of all life.
The word Hava is etymologically related to the word hayim, which means life. This was the true fate of the woman. No matter what Eve did, and no matter how cruel a fate God dished out to her and her heirs, the man was able to see beyond this fate and realize that his wife was a life giver – something that he could never be. They might not have equal tasks in life, and men would frequently see women as subservient to them, but at the end of the day he recognized that she was still his equal. He had his tasks and his fate, and she had her tasks and her fate. Her task, and her fate, was to give life, to be a mother. If this meant subservience, as it all too often did, women through the ages were able to bear their burden with dignity and grace. If it meant pain and risk of life to bring life into the world, women accepted this also. If it meant longing for her husband even when he didn’t long for her, so be it.
But the ideal was always something else. The fate of the man is forever bound with the fate of women. He would have to work the ground and sweat to eat bread and return to the ground when his time came to die. But he would also have a helper who, if he so desired, could be his equal. It was all a matter of how he saw her. If she was nothing more than a producer of sons who could be treated like an animal and cast off when no longer needed, that would be exactly what he would get. But if he could follow in the footsteps of his illustrious ancestor, Adam, he could write out a different fate for his relationship with his wife. He could recognize that she is Hava – mother of life.
Gender roles have changed so much in the past several decades that it is nearly impossible to come to terms with the Biblical view. But who is to say that we, in our sophisticated modern culture, are really correct? Could the Bible still be saying something essential to the modern man and woman?
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