John Richardson on Genesis 2:18

THEN THE LORD GOD SAID, `It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ (Genesis 2:18)

In the present ferment about homosexuality, it is perhaps useful to return to the biblical starting point of human sexuality in order to check our bearings.

Technically, of course, the story begins not in Gen 2:18 but in 1:11, for sexuality, as any biologist will tell us, is a shared feature of plants as well as animals. This `common’ aspect of sexuality is further underlined by God’s blessing on the reproduction of sea creatures and birds in 1:22 – a blessing not conferred on the land animals separately, but repeated for the man and woman as it were representatively, in 1:28. Thus at one level our sexuality is simply a God-given way of producing quantity with variety amongst the creatures he has made.

But of course, there is more to it than that. Gen 1:27 hints (though no more than that) at some correspondence between human sexual differentiation and the divine image. And then 2:18 introduces the first sense of insufficiency into an otherwise unblemished picture: something is not good – cf. the seven pronouncements of `good’ in 1:1-2:3. And what is `not good’ is that the man should be alone.

We are not told why it is `not good’. We are certainly not told that the man is lonely. However, the nature of the `not good’ can be inferred by the solution God himself proposes: `I will make a helper fit for him’. Intriguingly, the word for `helper’ is almost invariably used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to the help which God supplies: `Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob’ (Psa 146:5). And this help strengthens and delivers the recipient: `May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion!’ (Psa 20:2).

Presumably it is this notion of `strengthening’ which lies behind the parade of the animals – the usual augmenters of human strength in the ancient world. Yet their strength is not what the man needs (2:20) -and therefore, of course, neither is that of another man! What is needed, by God’s own verdict, is a helper ke-neged (literally `as opposite to’) the man – a mirror-image, but not a clone.

And this help is found in the woman. She is welcomed with the cry `At last!’ And yet, as the text suggests, she is an unexpected surprise. She does not strengthen the man by providing `more of the same’ but by providing `something of the different’. It is what he hasn’t got, and she has, that supplies what is `not good’ for him. Moreover, as 2:24-25 makes clear, this strengthening is given and received in the context of marriage as a socio-sexual relationship.

However, as many observers have noticed, the statement in 2:24 that `a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife’ overturns the apparent conventions of Middle Eastern marriage. Is it perhaps because the commitment a man must take to a woman (in order to receive from her what only she can give) requires a `counter-cultural’ decision on his part? His friendship for another man, or his love for a pet animal, does not require him to give up part of himself in this way.

And, of course, we do not forget that this whole concept is finally explicated by the Apostle Paul as referring to God’s relationship in Christ with his redeemed people in the Church. Here, surely, in conjunction with the whole biblical theme of the `divine husband’, we glimpse `in a glass, darkly’ how the human male and female image God. To ignore all this in the clamour for `same-sex relationships’ is to misunderstand sex, relationships and God himself.

John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London