There’s been a wonderful programme on the BBC recently called ‘Secrets of the Museum’ – where we’ve been taken behind the scenes at the V&A. We’ve had everything from Lucian Freud etchings to a Shirley Bassey catsuit. And one week they showed a small wax figure made by Michaelangelo.
It seems that Michaelangelo made a large number of models in wax, clay and terracotta in preparation for his paintings and sculptures. Most of these were destroyed by the artist himself – but this particular wax figure of a man was saved by Giorgio Vasari, a friend and admirer of Michaelangelo. The intended marble sculpture was to be life size or larger but the model, made around 500 years ago of a reddish-brown wax, is just a few inches tall.
In the clip on TV, they were inspecting it for signs of damage due to its age and with the wax being very sensitive to temperature and humidity. As the curator was inspecting it with a magnifying glass, she suddenly discovered a fingerprint – presumably Michaelangelo’s – on the bottom, the buttocks, of the male figure. In that moment it became more than just a model of wax. Centuries after he had last handled it, we had something of the artist too. A closeness, a connection, an intimacy. His fingerprint on his creation.
God gets stuck in
In today’s reading we have part of the second creation narrative. In the first version, in Genesis 1, we have God saying it and it happens and it’s good and it’s orderly. Everything is as it should be.
In this second creation story we have God getting stuck in. God with stained hands and dirty fingernails. And things are OK, but not quite as good as they might be. This time God doesn’t speak from a distance and it happens. This time God gets out the old work clothes, sleeves are rolled-up and an earthling, a human, gets handmade from the earth, from mud.
God’s hands appear again in our Psalm for today: ‘When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers’. (8:4)
The author of Genesis 2 has fun with words. Earth in Biblical Hebrew is Adamah. The word Adam in Hebrew literally means ‘red’ and outside of the bible, Adamah means ‘red earth’ or ‘red clay’. So, God makes a human from red clay. Like Michaelangelo with his red wax model – I wonder if God left fingerprints somewhere on Adam too.
Then God did something Michaelangelo would probably have liked to have done but didn’t do and couldn’t do. God leaned in and breathed life into the figure. And it’s such a well-known passage that we don’t really hear the words anymore. Let me read them to you, slightly tweaked. ‘Then the Lord God formed me from the dust of the ground, and breathed into my nostrils the breath of life; and I became a living being’. As the eyes of the human fluttered into life the first thing they see is the face of God….
The human was both made from Adamah and inhabited it. We sometimes call the earth the environment – but that word is somehow too remote and scientific. The earth is home. But more than that, it is us. We’re made from it and we live in it. We’re inextricably tied to it.
Not so good
The story goes on with the Lord God ‘making to grow from the ground’ – from the same stuff as us – ‘every tree that is pleasant and good for food’. Then we hear about the tree of life, which also appears in other creation narratives. But our author is then unique in having a tree of the knowledge of good and evil too.
And then we come to today’s passage where God realises it’s not so good. The human is alone. God decides that a partner is needed. Just as God did with the human and the plants, the Lord God makes all the animals of the field and all the birds of the air out of the Adamah. Presumably God breathed life into them too.
Then, I imagine the author of Genesis 2 with a smile on his or her face, as they describe how the animals and the birds are brought to the human one by one, like some sort of speed dating, for each to be given a name and for a partner to be chosen. The naming signifies a control and dominion by the human – and whilst names are found there still isn’t a ‘significant other’.
Was God non-plussed that the human wasn’t happy with all the choices on offer – or was God thinking ahead to what was going to happen next and making sure that, if any complaints were made to management, other options had been made available first?
Because when they run out of animals and birds, God decides to anaesthetise the human to perform an operation. Rather than forming woman from a mud pie, this time God builds woman from something already living, with spirit within it. God doesn’t have to breathe into woman because God’s breath is already there. The woman is unique since everything else in creation – the human, the plants, the animals and the birds are all formed from the earth, from Adamah.
There is now another play on words. The word for man in Hebrew is ish. That word first appears when the woman ishah is made. The operation performed by God created both ishand ishah at the same time. Both owing their origin to this divine surgery.
And this time the woman isn’t presented for naming. So, this time no dominion or control is implied. The man simply recognises what she is. What was named amongst the animals and the birds is exactly what was not fit to mend the solitude of the human. As Nietzsche suggested, what we find words for is that which we cannot hold in our hearts. Woman was held in man’s heart, bone of bone, flesh of flesh, and he could not find a name for her.
Our NRSV translation says God was looking for a ‘helper’ for the human. The King James version has it as: ‘I will make him an help meet for him’ (2:18). Sometimes we talk of the ‘hired help’ don’t we – but the Hebrew word for help here implies so much more than that.
The same word for help is used elsewhere to describe what God, Yahweh, does in divine relationship to us. Psalm 115:9 ‘O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield’.Psalm 121:2 ‘My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth’. So, at the very least, God is making a correspondent being – for the man and the woman to be ‘equal to’ or ‘alongside’ each other. Or, as someone once said, when God made Adam, she was only practising.
Our final verses show us an intimacy. The allotted verses for today started with aloneness and they end with companionship, with God very active in bringing about the change. They were naked but not ashamed. Each vulnerable in the presence of the other. In the view of author Phyllis Trible, the Song of Songs is a great illustration of what the love story in Genesis 2 should have been or could have been if it hadn’t all gone horribly wrong with that damned serpent.
Because then in Genesis 3 comes that snake and more fun with words because the Hebrew word used for ‘naked’ means smooth – and the serpent is described as smoother-tongued than any wild creature. ‘arom in Hebrew means naked; ‘arum in Hebrew means sly. The man and the woman know naked but do not know sly. The snake knows nothing else.
But that’s for another week.
Smooth and naked
So, how do you like your God? Ordered and awesome like in Genesis 1 – a place for everything and everything in its place? Or one who gets involved in the stuff of life, like in Genesis 2? A God who moulds and shapes, who builds and fabricates, who brings people together?
And you may be slightly uncomfortable about giving human characteristics to a divine being. Of dirty hands and fingerprints That we’re dumbing God down somehow to help us understand better. Perhaps that’s so.
But then God did just that in Jesus. The all-powerful God became completely vulnerable to others as a smooth, naked, human baby. He became a refugee, grew-up, ate fish, drank wine, told stories, got into arguments, wept, was betrayed, beaten up and crucified – then wonderfully resurrected. All so that we could better understand, be reconciled, be in relationship.
And you know, those hands that flung stars into space and surrendered to cruel nails left their fingerprints on you too. If you just look closely enough. Amen
‘God’s fingerprints’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St James Heywood on October 3rd 2021. It was based on Genesis 2:18-24.
- Bloom & Rosenberg (1990). The Book of J. New York: Grove Weidenfeld
- Trible, P. (1978). God and the rhetoric of sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press