So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:21-25)
The Genesis 2 account of how God created the first human woman from the first human has been used variously to support among other things, ideas of gender, heterosexual marriage and natural law notions of the proper relationship between males and females. In the New Testament though we find a very different interpretation and use of the text by St Paul. Paul sees the Genesis text as referring to the great mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church. St Paul like many of the early Christian biblical interpreters saw in the Old Testament not history or literal legal prescriptions, but that the texts pointed beyond those things to Christ. Jesus Himself said that Moses (who in ancient thinking was the author of the Torah or Pentateuch) wrote about Him, Jesus (John 5:46; see also Luke 24:27, 44-45). So, St Paul says of Genesis 2:24 –
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:25-33)
St Paul does get from the Genesis 2 text that husbands should love their wives and wives should respect their husbands. He doesn’t deny that message, but he believes the text is far more interested in the great mystery of Christ and the Church. That’s how he interprets Genesis 2:21-25. And even though St Paul reads the text to refer to Christ, he allows the text to also have a lesser important meaning (He uses this lesser meaning in his argument in 1 Corinthians 11:7-12). So if today we focus on Genesis 2 as mostly meaning natural law or heterosexual marriage, we are focusing only on what St Paul says is the lesser meaning of the text and we are missing its most important meaning – a reference to Christ.
St Methodius writing in the late 3rd Century or early 4th Century (d. 311AD) is very struck by St Paul’s use of the Genesis text.
Yet, while everything else seems rightly spoken, one thing, my friend, distresses and troubles me, considering that that wise and most spiritual man–I mean Paul–would not vainly refer to Christ and the Church the union of the first man and woman, if the Scripture meant nothing higher than what is conveyed by the mere words and the history; for if we are to take the Scripture as a bare representation wholly referring to the union of man and woman, for what reason should the apostle, calling these things to remembrance, and guiding us, as I opine, into the way of the Spirit, allegorize the history of Adam and Eve as having a reference to Christ and the Church?
Basically, what St Methodius realizes is that if the meaning of the Genesis 2 text is mostly about the marriage of a man and a woman, St Paul wouldn’t need to allegorize it. St Paul highlights the great mystery in the text because that is what the divine purpose of the text is. St Paul isn’t adding something that is not there, but rather is pointing out what we might miss in the text if we are too focused on reading the text literally. St Paul wants us to understand the significance of Genesis 2 for Christians – the text isn’t mostly about human marriage and reproduction, rather it is about the Messiah and the Church. Methodius continues:
For the passage in Genesis reads thus: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” But the apostle considering this passage, by no means, as I said, intends to take it according to its mere natural sense, as referring to the union of man and woman, as you do; for you, explaining the passage in too natural a sense, laid down that the Spirit is speaking only of conception and births; that the bone taken from the bones was made another man, and that living creatures coming together swell like trees at the time of conception.
St Methodius is actually confronting and contradicting someone who reads the text literally telling them they are missing the point – the meaning and intention – of Genesis, of Moses, of the Old Testament by reading the text literally. Methodius does not think the Scriptures are intended just to give us a sex education class or a class on child birth as he sees that as beneath the dignity of Holy Writ. We don’t need Scripture to tell us about things we can learn from nature. Scripture is a revelation from God about God – that is what we need to open our eyes to see. The Bible is not a physiology text for it is a spiritual and sacred writing trying to lift our minds and hearts beyond the physical to the divine. He would want to know why we want to read the text according to the flesh when God has enabled us to understand it according to the spirit. Methodius presses his point by reading what St Paul says:
But he, more spiritually referring the passage to Christ, thus teaches: “He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church: for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Kindle Location 575-590)
None of this means that biology or the physical body is of no spiritual importance. God created us with bodies, with sexual organs and identities, capable of biological reproduction. We have to learn how to connect our physical bodies with the spiritual in the same way we have to learn how to connect the literal text with its spiritual meaning. The Bible doesn’t always do this – but God has created us with the capacity to discern the spiritual message of the written word, to harvest the spiritual fruits of Scripture, to retrieve the treasures of the Bible, to fathom the depths of the Word of God.
Unfortunately, sometimes we abandon the road to the heavens to satisfy our fleshly interests. We move in the opposite direction from St Paul in reading the texts of the Old Testament. And the end result is that we find ourselves entangled in earthly things or with a worldly point of view.