Divorce is one of the sad realities of our world. There are very few families that have not been touched by the heartache of separation and divorce. I suspect that my immediate family where my parents and my four siblings are all in multi-decade first marriages makes us rather unusual.
The reality is that making a life-long commitment in a relationship that is healthy and fruitful for all involved is always immensely difficult. It becomes even more challenging when there is a public dimension to the marriage. The award-winning TV drama The Crown reminds us of the political sensitivity of divorce with Charles and Diana in the royal family during the 1990s.
The lectionary cuts out the first line of Mark chapter 10, which tells us that the Pharisees come and ask this question of Jesus in the region of Judea around the Jordan – the area where John the Baptist was doing his ministry. What happened to him? He ended up in prison and finally lost his head because he dared to criticise Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife. That is why they are testing him. They are trying to trap him and get him arrested at the very moment when he is beginning his journey to Jerusalem and the disciples are finally understanding that he is the true Messiah and what this means.
Jesus agrees that when people have hard hearts, then the original intention that God has for us needs to be modified. What you get is not the ideal, but the second-best reality.
So Jesus points us back to the original ideal of marriage that we heard in our first reading from Genesis 2. When they are back in the house, away from the Pharisees, he speaks more about the particular situation of Herod’s marriage. Since he was addressing one marriage, in prudence we should have been way more careful in deriving more general principles from this one instance. Jesus also reminds us that children are often devastated by marriage break-down and the seemingly hard line that he takes is in part to protect the truly weak and vulnerable from harm.
So, what is the ideal? Genesis 2:18 says that it is not good for the human to be alone, so God promises to make an ‘ezer kenegdo for him – a “helper as his partner.” Elsewhere this word ‘ezer is used to describe God as the indispensable other, the deliverer for God’s people.
A more complete translation of this verse would read something like:
It is not good for the human to be solitary. I will make oneGenesis 2:18
who can deliver him from his inability to fulfill the divine
commission alone, one who mirrors him.
Just as the Adam was fashioned from the soil, so God begins to fashion all the wild beasts and birds of the sky. None of these is intended as an ‘ezer kenegdo. God is inviting the human into his role as sharing responsibility for creation, calling it and naming it to become what it is made to be.
We are told God causes a deep sleep to fall on the human – tardemah. The word is used to demonstrate the inability of the partners of God from providing their own help – such as Abraham in Genesis 15 (the covenant with the animal halves) or Daniel having his visions of God’s kingdom.
tardemah is also used when people are acting against God, to prevent them messing things up even more – like Jonah in the boat, or Saul and his soldiers who are placed in a deep sleep to prevent them killing David. God takes the initiative to prevent the human from attempting to create his own help / ‘ezer.
Finally, we are told that God takes a tsela from the side of the man while he is in the tardemah. Unfortunately, this common Hebrew word is translated here as ‘rib’. In the other 41 occurrences across the Hebrew Bible, it is translated as ‘side’. All the other occurrences are architectural in a sacred context – the building of the tabernacle or the temple. It is the same here:
And [God] took one from [the human’s] sides,Genesis 2:21
and he closed flesh in its place, and he built the side… into a woman.
God essentially cuts Adam in half and builds the woman from his side. You cannot get a stronger and clearer statement that the two sexes are meant for each other as equal and complementary. Imagine how the world may have developed if our biblical theology had been more truly built on the radical sexual equality that should be its basis.
We cannot image God into the world when we are alone and isolated. We need each other to call and invite creation more deeply into the worship of God. One of the most beautiful ways of doing this is through the sacred intimacy of the marriage covenant. Marriage will never be easy, so let us bring all those who are married to this Eucharist and commit to interceding for them.