Sacramental Words

By David Ney

When we hear the Scriptures there are certain words and names that catch our ears. As I receive today’s Old Testament reading according to the NRSV, I have to confess that for me they are Adam and Eve, man and woman, bones and flesh, father and mother, leave and cling.

Perhaps this is because these words have everything to do with sex. If you were to accuse me along these lines I would perhaps be guilty as charged. But these words and names interest me for other reasons. They interest me because they have become intensely contested. They are words and names that we suddenly struggle to define, even though they define us.

A while back we learned in our New Testament reading that while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things” (Acts 18:12-15). So he drove them off.

Gallio asks the Jews to settle the matter because he sees that it depends upon the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. It concerns questions, he says, about “words and names.” Here we are have that literary trope our high school English teachers loved to talk about: dramatic irony. Gallio speaks truer than he knows. He is unaware of the full significance of his words, though as Christians it should be apparent to us.

When Christians argue about creation and evolution, they don’t just argue about the fossil record. They argue about Genesis chapter one, and other relevant texts. And when they argue about the definition of marriage, they don’t just argue about the experiences of family members and foes. They argue about Genesis chapter two and other relevant texts. Because they know that it is not for Gallio, or some other pagan, to be a judge of such things. Because it is a matter of words and names.

For Christians, it must be a matter of words and names. This is how Christopher Seitz puts it:

God does not exist in some sort of sublime mystery above or behind the language used about him, but is reliably and truthfully revealed in the totality of what the two testaments of Scripture say about him. These testaments do not give us, then, human projection from below, but statements from inside a complex but privileged revelation of God to Israel and in Christ to the Church and world.

The identity of the Christian God, and the identity of created things, I might add, are found in the words and the names. That’s why, having spoken to his people, God commanded: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 11:18-20).

This command seems quite distant from us, maybe even irrelevant. But you are, after all, studying Hebrew. And getting that third cup of coffee over Hebrew. And burning the midnight oil over Hebrew. And you have that glazed-over look of newly minted parents over Hebrew.

Why are you studying Hebrew? And getting that third cup of coffee over Hebrew, and burning the midnight oil over Hebrew, and sporting that glazed-over look over Hebrew? Because believing the Bible means tending to words and names: In their original autographs, certainly, as well as in other ancient languages and other vernaculars, whether Ethiopic, Latin, French, or Chinese. The person who knows Ethiopic, Latin, French, or Chinese scriptural words and names has tapped into the privileged revelation of God. God is not to be found above and behind the words and names, but in and among them.

The data we receive from other sources, whether archeology, biology, sociology, psychology, or the media, this is all interesting, but it is data that does not stand on its own. It is data that is in search of an authoritative interpretation, which it finds it in the words and names of Scripture, because they are God’s, even though they are also ours. And so when we come to any question that troubles our hearts and our minds, like the question of the definition of marriage, we do not look above or behind the text. We look to and into the words and names.

The very first thing that confronts us in Genesis chapter one is the word that goes out from God’s mouth will not return to him empty, but will accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11). This word is prior to creation and is the basis of creation. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And in this way everything was created that has been created, including male and female. In Genesis 1, God doesn’t say, “Hmm. I guess I’ll create something,” and then go about creating it. God’s speaking and his creating are one and the same.

This seems to change, though, when we come to Genesis 2. In Genesis 2:18, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And then the creating act follows afterward in verses 21 and 22: “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he 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.”

Here it seems that God’s speaking and his creating are two different things. But we might ask ourselves, would it have been possible for God to say, “I will make a helper suitable for him,” and then later decide not to, or forget to do it? No! God may or may not be able to change his mind. But he cannot change his word. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the word of the Lord stands forever.

In Genesis 1 God creates male and female by his word, through his word. What we have in Genesis 2 is not merely a parallel account, but something more like a midrash: a more detailed description of the way God creates male and female by his word, through his word. In chapter one, God’s word is, as Bruce Waltke puts it, “irresistible and creative,” and it does not cease to be so as we turn the page from chapter one to chapter two.

The difference is that the carpet which is wrapped up tightly in Genesis 1 is rolled out for us to behold in Genesis 2. The narrative is drawn out to give us more details, and because of this it gives us more words. These individual words, which we are given in Genesis 2 — Adam, Eve, man, woman, bones, flesh, father, mother, leave, cling — are enclosed within the prior word that comes from the mouth of God in Genesis 1:27, when God speaks man and woman into existence. They are words God speaks into existence as he creates and orders his world.

Whether we are married or not, we all find ourselves within the one word through the scriptural words of Genesis 2 — Adam, Eve, man, woman, bones, father, mother, flesh, leave, cling. They are the tentacles that God uses to reach out and grab hold of us, “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matt. 23:37). What powerful words they are! God speaks them into existence, and by speaking them into existence, he speaks us into existence too.

Eve gets the name Eve and so becomes the mother of all the living with the help of these other words, Adam, Man, woman, bones, flesh, father, mother, leave, cling, of course. Some people now reject these words as antiquated vestiges of patriarchal culture, since they are the basis of the Christian claim that marriage is heterosexual and therefore procreative. But they are the words without which there would be no history, no human civilization, no us. They are words that constitute us and draw us back to the source. They are the ropes that bind all of us to our maker by reminding us that it is in him that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Scriptural words are sacramental. As they are spoken, the Word of God is somehow carried along with and administered through them, which is why we call Scripture the Word of God. Thus the Old Testament prophets are said to not merely speak their own words, but the very words of God. And the Fathers insisted that Mary conceived through her ear. Gabriel, as God’s messenger, spoke the word of God, and Mary heard it, received it, and was impregnated by it.

John’s gospel begins by stating that this Word through whom God creates the world is the same Word through whom God redeems the world. This was already evident, though, as early as Genesis 3. In Genesis 3, the serpent is consigned to having his head crushed by Eve’s offspring, whom we believe to be Jesus, the Son of Man.

This same Jesus, Luke 3 tells us, can trace his ancestry back through Zerubabbel, back through David, back through Judah, back through Abraham, back through Noah, all the way back to the words we are given in Genesis 2.

Adam, Eve, Man, woman, bones, flesh, father, mother, leave, cling — God gives us these words and in and through these words he gives us Jesus Christ. They are irresistible and creative words and they are the words through which God redeems humankind through his Son. In other words, salvation history and procreative marriage are intrinsically and intractably bound to one another. This is why the Church has long celebrated procreative marriage as a sacrament.

Yet the words we are given in Genesis 2 suffer the effects of Genesis 3. As our New Testament reading today amply confirms, they are battered and tattered from then on in; we receive them in ourselves in this battered and tattered state and we partake in them as words that have been subject to the fall and to human sin. Single, married, widowed, divorced: are all complicit in the battering and the tattering of the words of Genesis 2. And so when we look at the intense battering and tattering they are now enduring, pointing fingers is not appropriate.

The words of Genesis 2 are battered and tattered words, but we must not give up on them. For they are words God intends to redeem. Take that word bones, for instance. Bone of my bones, Adam says. Bones are subject to decay, and become dry bones. And yet they are the bones that God promises to revivify through his animating Spirit. So when your friends on social media or your government tells you that you aren’t allowed to use these words, say them anyway! For your friends on social media, and your government, do not do so innocently.

The best way to obscure the bond that ties us to God is to try to reconstitute the world using words of our devising. In Genesis 2 all the animals are paraded before Adam, and in being named they are identified as something other than the helper that he needs. The only one able to stand opposite and equal to him is the woman, and it is in being thus named that her unique identity as woman is established.

Adam, Eve, man, woman, bones, flesh, father, mother, leave, cling — these words and names are bound to the very order of things, and they always will be, whether we admit it or not. They are sacred words because God has bonded them to creation and creation to them. And what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.

What then, of these other words: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, or their accompanying gender-neutral pronouns which we are supposed to celebrate on International Pronoun day on October 17: fae, ey, pir, they, ve, xe, ze? In Canada you can suddenly find yourself thrown in front of a human rights tribunal simply for failing to use these words.

These are words that we are going to need to engage and wrestle with, whether we like it or not. But the first thing we must say about them is that they are words of our own devising that create a world of our own devising. Their value is therefore limited. It is not clear that they have the capacity to endure.

If we are to find these words and names in Scripture, I suspect we will find them subsequent to the fall in the battering and tattering of the words Adam, Eve, man, woman, bones, flesh, father, mother, leave, cling. Part of our job, then, is to gently help our family members and friends who take these other words for granted return to the language of Scripture.

Our job is to help them see that their lives can yet be found in the words and names of Genesis 2 and other Scriptures, since scriptural words are pregnant with Christian hope. Thank of words such as image of God and barren, and as Wes Hill has argued, through the scriptural figures of washing and waiting.

It is always a matter of scriptural words and names. Because scriptural words and names reveal who we really are and who God really is. The words and names of Genesis 2 constitute us all into a single human family and bind us to our maker as creatures made in the image of God. If they have failed to properly do so, the blame must be ours rather than God’s, for they are the words through which God intends to redeem the world as the first Adam makes way for the second Adam.

The words and names of Genesis 2 are also pregnant with the gospel of peace: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal. 4:4-5).

That is why we must fix the words — Adam, Eve, man, woman, bones, flesh, father, mother, leave, cling — in our hearts and minds; that is why we must tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on our foreheads.

That is why we must teach them to our children, talk about them when we sit at home and when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we get up. That is why we must write them on the doorframes of our houses and on our gates. As Paul puts it, let marriage be honored by all. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of Church history at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.


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