OVER THE PAST YEAR, I preached a sermon series on the Torah’s seven days of creation at First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, NY. In this series I lifted up the images of natural beauty and ecological abundance in this passionate text—a text that is too often claimed by (and ceded to) hardline creationists and climate change deniers. Far from the conservative politics that such voices promote, I see the Genesis text as a call for human humility and environmental stewardship. It highlights the gorgeous and fragile gift we have been given in our planet earth, celebrates its diversity, and casts humans as merely one thread in its living web. My interpretations in this series are partly my own midrash and partly the insights of traditional commentators. The following article is adapted from a sermon I delivered on the creation of humans. This is part 2 of the article on the sixth day of creation, begun in the fall, 2016 issue of Tikkun.
READING THE GENESIS seven days of creation from a human perspective, the Friday afternoon is really where the action is. This is when God makes the first earthling. The Hebrew word for it is adam, which comes from the word adamah, and means “earth.” God makes an earth creature. And the way it’s described is downright strange: “Then God said, ‘Let us make an earthling in our image, according to our likeness.’” Us?! To whom is God referring? And if there’s more than one, why is it “image” and “likeness” instead of “images” and “likenesses?” There has been something suspiciously plural-ish about this God from the start. The Hebrew name for God used throughout this story is Elohim. “Im” is a plural ending, analogous to adding an –s to the end of an English word. But when Elohim is the subject of a verb in this story, the verb is always in the singular. And now the plot thickens and we have the very first time that Elohim refers to itself. And Elohim calls itself, “us.” Perhaps this is the author’s way of expressing through creative grammar a God that is both many and one.
The early Hebrews weren’t the only ones with this idea—it’s actually a much older and much later concept as well. Trinitarian Christianity teaches the mystery of one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And a thousand years before Genesis was written, early Hindus were writing scriptures that described a plurality of gods and a profusion of life all emanating from one universal life force. They write, “Just as the seven colors exist within one ray of light, so too the various Hindu Gods exist within the Supreme, as names of its different qualities.” Statues of Hindu gods are often explosions of life forms, with human and animal parts, three heads and multiple arms, each hand holding a different symbolic object. They burst outward, reaching to express the radical diversity of God. They’re trying to capture in three-dimensional art something that lives in so many more dimensions as to be unimaginable. And it’s all one.
Language, art, and religious expression are always inadequate. The artists and clergy among us are acutely aware of this. Sometimes our representations feel feeble in their efforts to convey the subtlety and diversity and magnificence of reality. But we try anyway. Perhaps God refers to Godself as “us” in the text in the same way that some gender-queer people ask to be referred to as “they”—to try to convey a layered, plural identity that does not conform neatly to a single category. It’s awkward, but it’s the best that words can do, and so it’s worth doing. This is what we see here in this next piece of the Genesis text—a religious narrative trying to describe something infinite and indescribable in a way that people can grasp.
After we hear about God for the first time as “us,” the text continues: “So God created the earthling in God’s image, in the image of God, God created him; male and female God created them.” So in one sense God is singular and creates one male earthling in his image; and in another sense, God is plural and creates male and female earthlings in their image. This is not science; it’s theology. To create humans in the image of a plural God, humans have to also be plural. For male and female humans to both be made in the image of God, God must be both male and female. And perhaps much more than that. Perhaps we are meant to receive a picture of a God who is multifaceted, multidimensional, both many and one and of a human world that mirrors that diversity.
We know today that the world is even more complicated than the world of binaries suggested by a straight translation of the Genesis text. We know that the male-female binary is overly simplistic. While most bodies fit into those two categories, a significant minority doesn’t. We humans impose binaries on what are really continua. We do this with gender and, of course, we do it with skin color. The Genesis story doesn’t mention skin color. Maybe this is because the author didn’t know anyone with different skin color, just like the author probably didn’t know of anyone who wasn’t male or female. Or maybe it was because skin color was not seen as a structural difference between humans. Modern research has shown that from a physiological perspective, race has no meaning, but we have taken the beautiful, subtle continuum of shades of brown that we humans come in, and imposed the artificial binary of black and white. We have piled all our cultural baggage onto what are inherently neutral variances in human bodies. And every time we’ve done this throughout history, it has resulted in one form or another of violence.
What was the author of Genesis thinking in setting the stage for these kinds of false dualisms? And why the confusion of grammar and gender and singular and plural? If the text was supposed to teach of a plural God, why didn’t it just come out and say that? Because this text was written by a human being. Probably a man. He was trying to synthesize multiple streams of oral histories and he was probably deeply conflicted. On one hand, he lived in a patriarchal society that was probably even less enlightened on gender issues than we are today. On the other hand, it seems clear that this writer was a visionary and had wisdom and insights well beyond his place and time. The idea of a plural, all-encompassing God with male and female dimensions creating men and women together in its own image must have been so radical for that place and time as to be virtually unthinkable. One can imagine the author struggling internally between everything he had been raised to believe and this sweeping, mystical vision of a kaleidoscopic God mirrored by creation. He struggled to feel the edges of his own spiritual confinement. What we have passed down to us is a written record of that struggle. It’s almost as if the author wrote, “God created him . . . I mean them.”
The author went as far as he possibly could. But there were still binaries and the writer’s God—Elohim—was still a masculine gendered God. He couldn’t quite get himself to go all the way. But we can. We can take the author’s vision a step further because there’s a long Jewish hermeneutical tradition of extrapolating and extending the trajectory of the text. We can fill in things that aren’t stated explicitly, as long as they are in keeping with the spirit of the whole. So where it says, “male and female God created them,” it may also mean, “other sexes and genders God created them” and “all shades of brown God created them” and “all sizes and body shapes God created them” and “with all kinds of different abilities God created them” and “as different kinds of makers and as different kinds of lovers and with different kinds of understanding God created them. And with different laughs and different gifts and with different footprints and different voices God created them.” All in the divine image.
The spectacular multiplicity of both God and human in this text can be a resource and a balm for a nation that is hurting these days. In a time of oppression and violence against women, people of color, and marginalized communities, this text offers a spiritual vision of universal embrace. It lifts up diversity as creative genius on the part of a constitutionally diverse God. The religious right, and the conservative politics that loosely track it, offer a more constricting concept—a God cast as male, a savior cast as white, and a corresponding default human who is also male and white. Spiritual progressives hold a vision, upheld by this text, that God and humanity are so much more than that. If only we could all break free of the ways our hearts and minds today are still limited, the ways in which we still believe the false binaries, and the ways we reduce the infinite reality to cheap substitutes, we would find not only “tolerance,” but awe of one another. Truly if we could double-click on another human being, the entire universe would open up. And then maybe we could walk around seeing the divine in everybody.
If there’s one thing that scientific and biblical accounts of creation agree on, it’s that the universe is diverse. It’s a fabulous spraying outward, exploding from a single point, made of all the same elements, but manifesting in generous expansiveness. All the wild variety of the world is a reflection of its cosmic origins. We are made in the image of the universe as a whole: what religion can do that science cannot is to call it “good.” The creation story celebrates the radical diversity of life from start to finish. From an undifferentiated, formless and void watery darkness, each day the world gets more and more articulated, rich, detailed, and alive. Each step in the process, each evolution, is embraced by the divine. Each new manifestation is deemed good. Each is loved and accepted. Nothing is rejected; nothing is cast out of the budding universe. This love, this acceptance, this giddy joy at the dawn of the technicolor universe is the living heart of the creation story.
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 3:67-68