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Words that give an inner reading

· Male and female from Genesis to the New Testament ·

Our relationship with the Scriptures is not over when we read them. In a symmetrical manner, the Scriptures themselves have as their aim to “read” their reader, to disclose to him his own self and to plunge him into a movement of conversion, when he accepts to place himself under their authority. At the same time it becomes obvious to us that the force of the text’s meaning is directly proportional to the questions it asks its reader. To release the Revelation that it carries, the text needs to be opened by a grounded reader. By this we mean a reader who exists as an individual, rooted in the reality of his or her condition and time. We mean, too, a reader who has sufficient trust to believe that the Scriptures are not detracted from by all the questions and objections that our ceaselessly changing contemporary cultures may subject them to.

Filippo Brunello, “The Garden of Eden”

In our Western societies today the field of anthropology is concerned with important discussions and revisions that seem to undermine the biblical representations. There are impassioned debates about the sexual identity of the human condition. The generalized drift of the points of reference shakes this reality in a very particular way. It would be regrettable to feel only anxiety in the face of the dangers this situation entails. In questioning the identity of the sexes, our time enables us to shed light on an area which many societies carefully keep in the dark. They allow us to identify better an essentialism that encloses men and women in an asymmetry, clearly playing to the detriment of the latter. And by measuring better the multifaceted and immemorial violence that oppresses women, our times open up the prospect of progress towards greater justice. At the same time however, it very soon appears that the answers people claim to give to denounced disorders give rise to new and fearful dangers. In particular, might there not be a new form of violence, devious and extreme, in confusing the difference between men and women or even in claiming to abolish it? In order to heal the wounds that affect the relationship between the sexes, are we perhaps obliged to declare that the difference between them is merely an artificial cultural product, and that it thus can and must be surmounted? What resources should be activated to overcome the anthropological scepticism that prevents us from continuing to believe in the happy and enduring coming together of a man and a woman?

These are among the many questions we may put today when we come face to face with the biblical text. It is not merely a matter of seeking in it protection against the stormy seas or walls of fire, against developments that we consider dangerous. A more just objective would be, it seems to us, to transform the questions of the moment into a trampoline in order to acquire truths we have not yet heeded in the biblical Scriptures. In other words it is necessary to accept to believe that the current upheavals potentially have the power to raise new heights at the heart of the biblical revelation. In an exemplary manner, to our mind, the man-woman question resounds in the Bible with a richness of meaning that we have not yet fully evaluated, but that can, precisely, develop in the present context. The brief reflections that follow are intended to give body to this conviction.

The question is evidently highly topical, given that in various ways our cultures tend to wipe out frontiers, to replace them with a continuity between the world of matter and the world of the living, and then, in the latter world, between the different modalities of the living person. This happens with the polemics that today contest the idea that there is an essential division between the human condition and the animal condition. But it also happens with the prospects opened up by biochemistry or the robotics of Promethean ambition. There is no doubt that the pregnancy of the scientific spirit in post-modernity is a factor in such developments, if it is true that what characterizes science is precisely the transformation of what it describes, going beyond the register of the individual, and hence wiping out differences. However such a confusion of frontiers obviously ipso facto amounts to a confusion and loss of identity, including the division that structures humanity in the face to face encounter of the male and the female.

The biblical Scriptures indisputably oppose this logic; but were we truly able to become aware of them before psychoanalysis put us on our guard against the fundamental role of separation or, conversely, before the widespread rejection of differences forced us to question the text with greater attention? Today we can see more clearly that creation and separation are in eminent solidarity, as Paul Beauchamp, the great French biblicist, was already demonstrating in the his commentary on the first chapter of Genesis. On this basis a biblical logic becomes clear that is deeply reserved as regards the attribution of pre-eminence to amalgamation which tends to confuse and blur things. The conviction which is found at the beginning of so many aspects of biblical legislation, is that amalgamation is lethal. Eliminating frontiers leads to the original chaos, it unravels creation. This is an important truth that must serve as a compass in today’s debates: a difference is needed, a swerve as it were, if relationships are to be able to spring up.

Nevertheless at the same time the biblical text acknowledges that the world of relationships which engender the creative acts of separation is a world destined to live through the testing of the relationship. Indeed, encountering the other positively and happily is necessarily a challenge. The text of Genesis orchestrates this situation with extreme finesse, starting with the account of the transgression, causing the conflicts or perversions that arise between a man and a woman, between brothers and sisters and, over a long period, between human communities to be paraded before us.

Limiting ourselves to the man-woman relationship, a particularly eloquent subtlety can be noticed in our times in which there is an idea in circulation that men or women only become such through the imposition of cultural stereotypes or even, as some people joke, through a decision that could henceforth be a personal matter for each individual. The biblical text gives support to neither of these perspectives but in any case involves a highly suggestive opening. Let us in fact remember that the first chapter of Genesis solemnly evokes God’s creation of humanity “in his own image”. But it does so in a verse (Gen 1:27) whose text does not yet include the words “man and woman”. It is solely concerned with “male and female”. Thus one must read on until the second account of creation and the mysterious surgical operation which, in mythological language, causes a man and a woman to come into being, explicitly designated as such (Gen 2:22). Without coopting the biblical text to the side of theories that are foreign to it, we shall agree that it is not without interest to see Scripture taking its distance from rigid essentialism so as to suggest the reality of an elaboration of identities. In this way it appears clear that the differences between the sexes presented in the first creation narrative are merely a preliminary condition, while awaiting the content of humanity that will make the man and the women unique among the living.

Similarly, we should point out the incompleteness that characterizes the first face to face encounter of the human couple presented in the second chapter of Genesis: the word that arises at this moment does not yet succeed in containing within it the reciprocity of a true dialogue. For this very reason it has been possible to characterize the encounter of the man and the woman according to Genesis as an “ethical project” (André Wénin) which God entrusts to them so that together they may be the “image” and “likeness” of the One who has created them. Simultaneously the Genesis narrative verifies that truth which has become familiar to us: in other words that we are truly two only in the presence of a third. In our case it is necessary that the scenario of creation should maintain and explain here the reference to the Creator that exists between man and woman, so that their encounter may enter into his justice. It must be emphasized that all this is said without dogmatism, far from the rigidity of a speculative reasoning. The implementation of certain important founding principles of a biblical anthropology is done through a flexible narrative discourse that maintains a margin of enigma and the unsaid. If human reality is in the image of the Deus absconditus, how could its identity not incorporate a part of the mystery impossible to suppress?

Of course Jesus comes into the world in male flesh; no human being can escape the law that requires that a person be either a man or a woman. However, by so doing he neither reveals God as a male nor places the male part of humanity in a position of dominating authority, nor does he put an end to the anthropological difference on which our humanity is founded. Basically he comes to engender, as his one to one conversation partner, that reconstituted humanity which is the Church made up of men and of women, to which the Gospel, astonishingly, gives a series of women figures as references and models.

Such are Martha and Mary, the widow who puts all she has into the temple treasury, the woman in the Johannine account who anoints Jesus’ feet before the Passion, or again, the women who remain alone at the foot of the Cross when everyone else has departed and who were to be the first to run to the tomb. Another example is Mary Magdalene, called to be an apostle to the Apostles. Lastly – a greater sign than any other – is the Virgin Mary, in whom was revealed the overwhelming cooperation between God and humanity at the beginning of the work of salvation. These are as many realities to scrutinize and accept so as to find the paths of justness – and also justice – in the relationship between the sexes which remains a current task of the Church.

Anne-Marie Pelletier




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 22, 2020