The Gift of the Bride
The Gift of the Bride
Chapter 1 of Genesis gave us a biblical overview of Creation. It lifts us, not only out of the cosmos, but out of time itself so that we can see that Creation from God’s perspective. The Creation in terms of God building a temple for himself. We see him lay the foundations and then build the walls and the roof; we see him filling the temple with the implements of worship; and finally we see him create human beings—both male and female—to serve as his priests in his temple.
Then we moved into Chapter 2. That’s where the story begins, and the biblical text zooms back into space and time. Again, we see the earth in its uncreated, chaotic, and unpurposeful state. There’s land, but there’s no life. And so Genesis again paints a beautiful picture of God’s creative work for us. It shows us God as if he were a man. He stoops to the earth, gathers a handful of dust, shapes it into the first man, and then gives him life by breathing his own breath into the little clay figure. The man, adam, was created from the earth, adama. Again, this isn’t a materialistic or scientific account of creation. The point isn’t to describe our substantial makeup, but to underscore humanity’s connection with the earth, with the physical Creation, and to point to God himself as our source of life. We may bear God’s image, but we are not gods; we’re creatures. We’re mortal, but so long as we trust our Creator, he will sustain our life.
With the newly formed man in one hand, God then created a garden with the other—a special place where all of the man’s need were provided for, a place where he could walk and talk with God, a place where he could do his divinely appointed work. The garden was the temple in miniature; the place where God provided and the man served as his priest and lived in intimate relationship with his Creator. The Tree of Life was there and so long as the man was obedient to God—so long as he trusted God and stayed away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—he could eat of the Tree of Life and live by perfect faith before the throne of God.
We might expect the story to break at this point so that God could look on his handiwork and declare it to be good—maybe even very good. But, in fact, in the next verse we see just the opposite. Look at verse 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.”
Human beings experience true goodness as God sees our needs and provides. As good as the Creation was and as much as God had provided a perfect home for the man, there was still a need—a big need. In the Hebrew God’s statement is emphatic. Normally you’d expect the Hebrew literally to say that something is “lacking in goodness”, but here the text is clear; this situation isn’t just lacking in goodness, it’s just plain “not good”. In other words, it’s bad for the man to be alone. It’s as if we’ve been watching a movie. God’s been working to create perfection. The scene is peaceful and idyllic…and then suddenly the director shouts, “Cut!” and everything comes to a sudden stop. “This isn’t good!” he says. Something’s missing.
And all the women nod and say, “Of course! You can’t leave a man alone. He needs a wife or he’ll ruin everything. At the very least, he’ll never find his car keys and he’ll never have clean socks!” When we men are honest we know it’s true. It’s bad for us to be alone. I met Veronica while I was working on my master’s thesis, which was a study in the book of Sirach. Jesus ben Sira, the Second Century Jewish sage, was full of wisdom and as I was preparing to get married some of his words stuck with me:
He who acquires a wife gets his best possession,
a helper fit for him and a pillar of support.
Where there is no fence, the property will be plundered;
and where there is no wife, a man will wander about and sigh. (Sirach 36:24-25 RSV)
God knew this already. And so seeing the man’s need, he provides for his need perfectly. But in good story-telling fashion, he doesn’t do it instantly. He wants the man to appreciate his provision when it comes. You and I know already that what the man needs is a woman, a wife. So did the people who heard this story when it was told around campfires thousands of years ago. There’s some humour here, but it teaches us how well God cares for us and how perfectly he meets our needs. Look now at verses 19 and 20. The man needs a helper—he needs a wife—but God look what God does for him first:
Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.
Poor Adam. He needed a wife and God brought him sparrows and spiders, horses and oxen, lions and tigers, dogs and cats. It’s not that God expected the man to find his helper amongst all these animals, but God did want the man to appreciate the real helper when he did finally bring her to the man. As an aside, this gives us an opportunity to see the man exercising dominion over Creation. Giving names to the animals is an act of dominion. We still see this in our culture today. Naming something is a way of leaving our mark or expressing our ownership. My neighbour moved here from the Queen Charlottes and corrected me when I used that name. It’s “Haida Gwaii” now. British explorers named the islands after Queen Charlotte as a way of exercising their dominion over them. Now, as we recognise that the native population there had dominion first, the government has allowed them to rename the islands. Naming something shows our dominion over it and that’s what the man does here with the animals.
But what was the man looking for? That takes us back to his need for a “fit helper”. What does that mean? First, the Hebrew word doesn’t just refer to a helper. This kind of helper is under the authority of the one being helped. In that sense, the animals could be fit helpers. The man certainly has dominion or authority over them and we see that as he names them. And yet as the animals file past the man, none of them stands out as a fit helper. “Sure,” he says, “I get tired walking around the garden; I could probably ride the horse.” And, “That dog looks pretty friendly; I bet he’d be a great pet.” But none was a truly “fit helper”.
What’s interesting is that this word “helper” is used nineteen times in the Old Testament and sixteen of those times it refers to God as a helper. The helper God had in mind for the man was a real helper. Not just someone to pull his plow, carry him across the garden, or warm his feet at night, but someone with whom he could live in relationship. None of the animals could do that. And his need isn’t for a simple “helper”; it’s for a fit helper. This helper needs to be equal and adequate. More and more the criteria point to another bearer of God’s divine image. The animals all had the breath of life in them, but none of them bore God’s image. And so in the second half of verse 20 we read:
But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.
Karl Barth wrote that one of the most important facets of our bearing the image of God is that we live in relationship with our fellow human beings and especially so as male and female. God is never alone. He exists as a Trinity; as three in one. And within that Trinity of persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—exists perfect love. To fully bear God’s image human beings need to experience and live in relationship with other image-bearers.
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 that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:21-22)
God knew what he was going to do all along, but to help the man to appreciate his goodness he “played dumb”. He paraded all the animals past him as if expecting the man to find his helper in the line-up, but what he was really doing was showing Adam how short the animals all fell of the mark—how none of them was truly a “fit helper”. Imagine how much greater Adam’s appreciation was for Eve after having seen the horse or the dog or the platypus as alternatives! Before providing a fit helper, God first showed him all the unsuitable alternatives.
Was Adam disappointed? Maybe. And yet we have to remember that to live in the garden was to live in a state of trust in God—Adam’s faith was perfect. Assuming he was even conscious of the need for a mate, I think he’d have been living in hopeful anticipation of the creature that God would bring him next.
And so God puts Adam to sleep and from one of his ribs he finally creates a fit helper, from the man he creates woman. Again, just as the imagery of God creating the man from the dust isn’t meant to be a materialistic account, neither is this. That God creates woman from man establishes relationship between the sexes. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:28:
Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Matthew Henry may have summed it up the best in his famous commentary on this passage that the woman is “not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.” The man and the woman were literally one flesh and that image illustrates the bond that we find in marriage: everything that affects one also affects the other; anything that hurts one also hurts the other.
So the man finally has a fit helper. Just like him, she bears God’s image. She helps him by honouring his vocation as God’s priest; she lives in faith just as he does; and she too lives in obedience to God’s command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The man is to have priority over her, to rule over her, but they’re both mutually dependent on each other. The man was created first and the woman created to help him, not the other way around, and yet the Hebrew word that described the woman’s calling describes a high vocation. She’s not the man’s servant; she’s not his slave. Again, remember that the word that describes her as his “helper” is used nineteen times in the Old Testament and sixteen of them describe God. Her calling is a high calling because it’s a calling given by God and because to live out that calling is to actively bear the image of God. Remember, even though the man and woman have different roles, they stand with equal dignity before God as his image bearers. The man was made from the dust as the crown of Creation, but the woman was made from man—she is dust refined—to crown the man himself.
Look at verse 23. The only words the Bible hands down to us from before the Fall are Adam’s response when God created the woman and presented her to him. Untouched by envy or by a desire to dominate and control her, Adam celebrates her closeness to himself:
“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.”
As we read the rest of the Old Testament what we see reinforced is women’s equality in being and dignity with men. One example in particular stands out. Think of Hagar. She was Sarah’s maid and when Sarah became jealous of her she harangued Abraham into casting her out of their home and their camp. As Hagar and her son, Ishmael, were dying of thirst in the wilderness God came to her. And he addressed her, “Hagar, servant of Sarai…” (Genesis 16:8). We have thousands of ancient near eastern texts, but this is the only one in which a god or his messenger grants dignity to a woman by calling her by name.
The Old Testament, especially the book of Proverbs, teaches us that women have equality in parenting. Proverbs 1:8 warns sons, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” Throughout both the Old and New Testaments we see women gifted by the Spirit, especially with prophecy. God speaks through both men and women. And throughout the Bible we see men and women coming before God in worship and in prayer on an equal footing.
And yet the roles of men and women differ. The man’s headship isn’t the result of the Fall. It’s part of the family as established by God in the beginning. St. Paul explained to the Corinthians that the man is head over his wife just as God is head over Christ and to make his point he took them here, to Genesis 2, and explained that woman was created for man, not man for woman. For that reason God calls both men and women to serve him, he gifts both men and women equally for service, but in his kingdom—in his Church and in the family—he calls only men to positions of governing authority as priests and bishops in the Church and in the family he places the husband in the position of authority.
We often chafe at this reality, but we do so because of the Fall—because we no longer trust God for what is good and instead, we try to find good and define it for ourselves. As a result our marriages fall apart. Husbands fail to lead and to care for their wives; wives fail to submit to their husbands. Our marriages end up in a viciously turning downward spiral. Instead St. Paul, taking us back to what God created in beginning, urges us in Ephesians 5:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
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, so 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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:22-28)
Notice how Paul draws together the way in which we as husbands and wives are to relate to each other with the way in which Christ relates to the Church. Part of our bearing the image of God is living in relationship with each other in a way that models the loving relationships that exist within the Trinity, but marriage also points us to the loving relationship of the Saviour to his Bride. As much as failing to live out God’s model for marriage leads to a marital nosedive, when we do relate to each other as God created us, our marriages soar. Husband, if you love, cherish, and care for your wife the way Christ loves and cares for his Church, God has wired her to respond by submitting to your loving headship. And wife, if you lovingly submit to your husband as the Church submits to Christ, God has wired your husband to respond by loving and cherishing you. This is how God made us. We reject it all because in our sin we think we know better. Brothers and sisters, we need to trust God and trust that he knows what’s best for us.
Now, in verses 24 and 25 we read the story’s epilogue:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Adam and Eve are the archetype for godly marriage. Not only does the story show us the roles of men and women within marriage and family, it reminds us that marriage itself is divinely instituted by God. It was God who declared that it was not good for the man to be alone, it was God who created the woman, and it was God who brought the woman to the man. It’s through marriage that a man and a woman are united as “one flesh”. This is the core of what defines the family. Children should be the natural result, but the family itself exists in this bond, this “one flesh”, whether children come or not. Verse 24 also shows the husband making his wife his focus. As much as the wife leaves her family too, God here places the emphasis on the man leaving his parents, joining with his new wife, making her his focus, and the two of them creating a new family.
Brothers and sisters, let me conclude by saying that marriage points us back to God. He didn’t institute marriage arbitrarily. He designed marriage to point us back to himself and to show us his love for us. A marriage is a covenant and the history of redemption is all about God establishing a covenant with his people—establishing a covenant with us because he loves us and wants to restore us to himself. If you read through the Old Testament, especially the prophets, you’ll see God drawing on the imagery of marriage to describe his relationship with his people. The book of Hosea does this especially as God used the broken marriage of Hosea and his prostitute wife to illustrate his own covenant with Israel. In the end God promises that one day he will restore the relationship. No longer will God’s people—no longer will we—prostitute ourselves to false gods, no longer will we turn our backs on God’s faithful provision, no longer will we reject his headship and authority, but on that day our hearts will be made anew and God will bring us, his people, back into loving relationship with him. Dear friends, that’s what Jesus did as he stretched out his arms on the Cross.
This is why much of the Church has historically seen marriage as sacramental. A sacrament is a visible sign and seal of an inward and spiritual grace. Not only is the marriage ceremony an outward and visible sign of the new relationship between husband and wife, but marriage itself is a sacramental sign that points to the lovingkindness of God and his commitment to us, to his people. The Church—the people of God, his covenant community—is the bride of Christ. God intended for our earthly marriages to teach us how to share love and grace with one another and how to submit to Christ, our head. Verse 25 notes that in that first marriage, the man and the woman were both naked and unashamed. Their nakedness is an image of openness and trust in marriage and it is this openness and trust in marriage that illustrates for us the openness and trust we ought to share with God—openness and trust broken because of our sin.
As we come to the Table this morning, know that here God offers us himself. Jesus loved his Bride, his Church, so much that he was willing to die as a sacrifice for her sins. He saw our need and he met it perfectly. When human beings sinned, we were cast from the temple and the way to the Tree of Life was barred to us. But, brothers and sisters, through Jesus Christ the way is open again. Here he gives us a foretaste of that great marriage banquet that awaits us in heaven on that day when our salvation is consummated and Christ brings us back to the temple, back to the garden. Here he gives us a foretaste of the Tree of Life. He is the one who perfectly knows what we need and he is the one who will perfectly provide. In response, let us submit to him in loving obedience, faithfully trusting in his promise.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we confess that our faith is often very small. We know your promises and that you know what is best for us, and yet we still so often trust in ourselves. We take your role on ourselves and we stumble into sin. Strengthen our faith that we might grow in obedience more each day as our trust in your provision grows. We pray especially today for those who are married, for the grace to live our marriages based on the model you established in Creation, that as your people we might model to the world Christ’s love for the Church and the Church’s loving submission to her Saviour. Let us be a light in the darkness, Lord. Let the world see Jesus Christ through us. We ask this in his name. Amen.