Eden's Adam as an Antidote for Toxic Masculinity
We stand in a time, unlike any in our recent history, were the question of masculinity and what it means to be a man is under enormous scrutiny. For some, this is just another culture war, another place where thin-waisted liberals are attempting to intrude on centuries-old social roles which have well-served humanity. For others, it is a long-overdue upheaval, where secretly, they wouldn’t begrudge a little matriarchy to balance out the millennia of the opposite. For some, a little emasculation and marginalization of young boys is a necessary evil for the poisons of toxic masculinity to be twisted out of the genetic line.
But most of us—I believe—are caught somewhere in-between. Most of us recognize that many habits of the past are overdue a reformation. We are quite hopeful that the ass-grabbing Mad Men days are over (or at least the social acceptance of them may be) and we are expectant that women will increasingly find parity in compensation, power, and recognition. And many of us seek to be contributors to that cause.
And yet, we also find that in a time where the virtues of femininity are increasingly recognized (though still not enough), the virtues of masculinity—a truer, less culturally concocted masculinity—are failing to make headlines. We wonder, what has come of our young men? When so many are reticent to commit, lost in virtualized violence in video games or pornography? As young men rise to positions of influence (or at least the brink of them) they are patently aware that so much of what was modeled for them in the past is latently or acutely harmful… but where do they begin to find a different way?
And our greatest feminists are looking for durable, humble and collaborative male partners who will meet them in both strength and weakness, power and vulnerability, hope and despair. We are entering an age where no one wants to be someone else’s better half. We want to each play our perfectly attuned part in a greater whole.
Go Back to Go Forward
I’ve been digging deep in the original text of Genesis—the Bible’s Origin story—since late last year. It has been an incredibly insightful and moving work, as layers of cultural assumption and (arguably) toxic theology are stripped away, to let this winsome and strange story of magic, monsters and mankind speak in its original voice. I am not a Hebrew (the original language) nor an Ancient Near East (the original setting) scholar, but I have attempted, with piles of books and research, to surround myself with them. To find my way back. Not to what they believed about Genesis in 5th century Catholic Italy, or 11th Century England or even 17th Century Germany—the theological source from which much of Protestantism finds its home—but to a nomad people in the desert. To Moses telling these stories to his recently enslaved countrymen: a people who all they knew of themselves was slavery and death, and the wonderful story of beginnings which gave them a purpose and a name.
As you probably know, near the center of this story is a man named Adam, living in a region called Eden, doing a job in a garden at the center of that region. I find in Adam, in the way he was envisioned by the writer and storyteller who first popularized him thousands of years ago, a different kind of masculinity. One that is dynamically foreign to both extremes of the tension in which we live. Given the absence of a clarifying masculine vision in our time, I thought this may be the perfect opportunity to go back in order to go forward.
Adam’s World: A Place for God, A Purpose for Humans
The Genesis story makes no effort explain the materials of how the world was made. It is rich in metaphor and symbolism from its day, and in borrowing these incredible metaphors instead shows us why the world was made: It was made for God.
God opens the cosmos as a temple, a resting place for Godself, and like any temple in the Ancient Near East (ANE) assigns temple workers to keep the boundaries, establish the practices of faithful hope, and open up space for others to see and experience God. In every religion of the time other than Israel, temples were a place to appease the god and earn his/her favor. Not so in Eden. The cosmic temple which has Eden’s garden as its epicenter is not the home of a capricious God waiting for a servant corps of do-gooders or producers. Eden’s Humanity enters the world with incredible purpose, but not as you might assume.
Genesis 1 takes the format of a temple inauguration ceremony, seven days of preparation for God to take God’s place, with humanity holding the center of the temple, where the image of God would dwell. In every other contemporary religion, the image of god would have been an idol or a least a king. But not so in Israel. In Israel the image of God is humanity. This statement at the end of Genesis 1 is deeply political in nature. It means that slaves and kings, paupers and princesses are all in unison the image of this strange counter-cultural God.
God creates a world in which God can dwell and purposes humans to turn the house into a home. This is how the original hearers heard the story. Not as a story of science or history, but as a story of purpose, empowerment and meaning: You are no longer slaves to kings: you are priests: the caretakers of God’s home.
Adam, the First High Priest
We have much baggage around this idea of priest (speaking of confused masculinity), so, let me address that head on. None of our modern frames apply: religious person, moral teacher, professional Christian, or pedophile. The ancient view of priest was a beautiful one, unconstrained by the social damage that has been done to it. A priest was a space-maker, a holder-of-hope and a cultivator of connection between God and people. The intersection of humans with each other and with God was always meant to be embodied by faith, hope and love. A priest was the caretaker of that space.
In the metaphors of Genesis, that space where faith, hope and love can flourish is envisioned as a garden (in the ancient world more like a botanic garden merged with a zoo), and the first named person to be its caretaker is a guy named Adam.
Adam, in Hebrew, literally means “The Man,” so I’m hopeful that we can extract a bit of uncontaminated testosterone from his story, a masculinity not toxic but healthful for his ancient world, and for ours. While there is a litany of truths to be extracted from the Genesis story, I find a few most instructive for our question of what it means to “Be a Man”.
- Adam Alone is a Bit of an Animal. Ok, so don’t take this too far, but its right there in the text. When God breathes life into Adam he becomes a “living soul” which is the same title given to the animals and fish in Genesis 1. Genesis 2 parallels a similar ANE creation story called the Enuma Elish, and in both stories the singular male is drawn out from life with the animals by the creation of the female. Now, we can imagine all kinds of sitcom applications for this, but a deeper one is also available: Full humanity, where we are functioning most in the image of God, is a dual-gendered job.
- Adam’s Job is Priestly, Not Productive. The Garden setting throws us off. We think that men are made to work and provide and such. But the image of men as a slave to their labor is a result of the Fall, not the job Adam is originally assigned. Adam’s job, when understood closer to the original language, is to represent God in the world and to keep the creative juices flowing. Eden is placed at the source of the Four Rivers, each flowing to the Four Corners of the world, a symbol of God’s provision for humanity. Adam’s job is to take care of something that is already alive and functional and beautiful, not to make something out of nothing and prove his worth. Masculinity, then, likely has something more to do with holding space for beauty and growth, then it does in brute force or measurably productivity.
- Adam is Not Up to the Task Alone. Many people translate Genesis 2:18 in their minds as “it is not good for man to be lonely. But that is a mischaracterization. Adam has been given the priestly task of holding space for God’s beauty, goodness and truth to cascade to the four corners of the world, and not long after getting the assignment, the text makes clear: this is not a one-man job. In fact, we find out it’s not a man job at all. It’s a human job, requiring the partnership (the world “help” in the text is almost always ascribed to something God provides, so it’s in no way diminutive) of two equal genders to get the job done. The man enters a trance, has a vision of two sides of humanity, and out of that vision realizes that the woman is essential to the work of creative purpose.
- Adam’s Primary Draw to Eve is Purposeful, Not Sexual. Adam’s post-vision realization that God has assigned the task of priestly caretaking to both genders puts purpose at the center of his existence, not sex. Because nearly every Christian wedding you ever went to uses Genesis 2:24 has a euphemism for sex, we easily jump to the sad conclusion that Eve gets created, and marriage with her to create a God-ordained way for Adam to work out his horniness. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. “One flesh” is a vision of shared mortality and shared cause. And the leaving of Father and Mother is a reminder that where and how we are born is not our purpose: we are all bigger than where we begin. For Masculinity to find its purpose, it must set out in partnership, and in gender-full union make new space for beauty and creativity to flourish.
- Vulnerability is Essential to Masculine Wholeness. The vision for human wholeness in Genesis comes in two images: shameless nudity and walking with God. Because we already know that sex is not the point, we begin to see that the nudity without embarrassment shows Adam (and Eve) in a position of real vulnerability (both physical and emotional) as a sign that they are living fully in Eden’s environs. The masculine heart is most alive and most itself when it is not guarded by the toxicity we have come to call manhood. Free from his (later) obsessions with work and sex, Adam is fully alive and unguarded—as he is meant to be. Safe with his partner and safe with his God, walking through the Garden of their purposeful life.
He is The Man
I love this vision of The Man. A piece of him is pulled toward his animalistic brain stem: fight or flight, sexual conquest, genetic procreation at any cost. But he is awakened by God to a higher calling. He is surrounded by beauty and possibility, by a world already alive in all its verdant hope. His job is not to make a world for himself, but to tend to a world already provided. While he may want to stay home and hold the fort, protect the familiar and exploit his opportunities, he recognizes that he is only half of the story. His partner, Eve, is where the life is. (That is the Hebrew meaning of her name after all.) She, with him, transcends the symbolism and momentary ecstasy of intercourse to see something bigger: a union of difference. An alliance that transcends its origins to caretake a world full of life and beauty. To reach to those heights, The Man can waste no energy self-protecting, or performing, or managing his image. His image is secure, he, like the woman, was made to look like God.
This is the gender story of Genesis. This is the reason why we need each other so badly. Not to get married and have sex and have babies (although that’s not so bad either), but because the world is destined to be God’s home. And God, a Trinity of persons, is a union of difference. Masculinity, in its purest form is an unguarded piece of hope. A part of a story that needs its other parts but must not be left behind either. A part of the story that finds its most clear vision in Jesus, a man whose highest purpose was to lay down his life for His enemies and his friends.