Lector's Notes on the wedding reading from Genesis, chapter 2

What the lector should know about the wedding reading from the Book of Genesis, chapter 2

First of all, which reading is it? How do you find it in the book? At a Catholic wedding, there are two possible readings from the Hebrew Scripture's (Old Testament's) Book of Genesis. In the lectionary (the large ceremonial book you'll be reading from), this passage has index numbers [801] atop the page, and 2 over the reading itself.

What's this page going to do for you? Regular lectors like to know the historical background of the Bible readings they proclaim in church. Learning this helps make sense of the passage and its sometimes puzzling statements. It tells them what the Biblical writer and the original readers were taking for granted, things we may not take for granted 2,000 or 3,000 years later. Regular lectors like to know how our Jewish and Christian ancestors found God's help and guidance in their struggles. Lectors believe God continues to be faithful, and that they can help contemporary people find God's guidance and strength through intelligent proclamation of stories and teachings that have stood the test of time. Good lectors view their part of the service as a help to the preacher, whose job it is to bring it all together in a way that lets people see the truth clearly, apply it to their current situation, and make a hopeful choice to love God and their neighbors. Some of those good things should happen among at least some of the people who will be hearing you read this passage. This page will help you do that with confidence, intellectual honesty, and charity.

Who wrote this and for whom? Genesis has several sources that were pulled together at a later time. Each source was composed when the people of God needed to deal with a particular challenge. The final composition tells us some things about a still later challenge. This is not irreverent or a dismissal of the divine inspiration of the Bible. It just reflects a mature understanding of how God subtly, progressively reveals what the people need to know. For concrete evidence of this, compare the chapter you'll be reading from, Genesis 2, and the preceding chapter. Genesis 1 begins with the familiar seven-day story of creation; on day six, "God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." And that's all that Genesis 1 says about the sexes. That description of creation continues through Genesis 2:4a. At verse 4b, another creation account begins simply, "At the time when Yahweh God made earth and heaven, ..." In this section, God has a different name, Yahweh. God shapes man from the soil and breathes life into his nostrils, in verse 7 of chapter 2. In these and other details, the difference between chapters 1 and 2 show us that the ancients had at least two sources. Their respect for each suggested they append one to the other in the most logical way possible, but that respect also kept them from doing the serious editing and harmonizing that we would do today.

In the ancient Middle East where this story was composed, marriages were arranged between families in small villages, or within an extended family that might comprise an entire village. Discord within a marriage always rippled outward, straining social ties in larger groups where smaller groups had to get along. They lived in hard, dangerous times, with no real alternatives to the "togetherness" that the environment imposed on them. They could not afford to take chances with marriages, jealousy, infidelity or the dishonor that a failed marriage might bring to the families that had arranged it. Describing humanity's first marriage as one arranged by none other than Yahweh God was a powerful endorsement of the necessary status quo.

That's no fun! What's this got to do with a modern wedding? All the above seems much less romantic than will be everyone's feelings at the wedding coming up. But in its larger context, it's very touching. For one thing, it reflects the ancients' belief that God really wanted them to succeed, to prevail and form a healthy community against the odds.

Its position in the book of Genesis also reveals something very positive about three desires, the desire of woman and man for each other, God's love for us, and the desire of men and women for God. The details are in the whimsical detail of God parading before the solitary man all kinds of wild animals, hoping one will relieve his loneliness. This is a portrait of a God who is really trying hard to make this fellow happy. The man, seeming almost ungrateful, finds each unsuitable, so God raises the stakes.

This review that doesn't get satisfying until the very end has an echo in Genesis, chapter 1. There God also works in step-by-step fashion, one day after another. Each evening, God says the creation is "good." But it's only after creating humankind, in the divine image, male and female, on day six, that God finds things "very good." Then God rests.

The religious genius who paired these two stories (from different sources, you will remember) was telling us something profound about God's love of the human race. God was no more satisfied with light, darkness, moon and stars, oceans, forests or animals, as breathtaking as they can be, than the lonely Adam was satisfied with all the animals he could name. Not until he saw someone built up from his own rib was the man able to say "At last!" Not until God had created us "in the divine image" could God pronounce things "very good" and take the rest of the week off. The implications, put a few different ways:

  • Our sexual desires, as unruly as they can be, are good, have their origin in God's plan, and indeed resemble and reveal God's love of us.
  • We're made for God's delight no less than sexy men and women delight each other.
  • God has a passion for us no less driven than a lonely man's passion for the woman of his choice.
  • God wants to be loved by us just like a man wants to be loved by a desirable woman, and vice versa.
  • There's a reciprocal desire in us to know God that can be as powerful as our sexual desires; it's the origin of religion.
  • We can know God in our passionate embrace of a beloved spouse.

Now how should you read this aloud? Tell it like a story your listeners have never heard before. (That's a challenge; they've heard it at many weddings. But you are the lector better prepared than anyone who has told them this story yet.) A story always has a problem. In good stories you cannot foresee the solution. Indeed, in the best stories, one doesn't know if there will be a solution at all. In this story, the problem is strange to us. We don't remember humanity before there were billions of us, most paired up. We've never seen a man with absolutely no potential partners. That's why the Lord's first attempt at a solution is so charming. When you report that the Lord tried to pair this man with "various wild animals and various birds," you should make that sound whimsical. Be more matter-of-fact when you say that the man gave names to them all. Then pause. Pause as if no one knows what's next, as if you want a listener to break the silence and ask, "Well, did he find a suitable partner or not? Come on, tell us!"

The plot thickens as the Lord is driven to try a more radical approach. Say the words "deep sleep" dramatically. Think about how bizarre is the image of taking a rib from a sleeping person. And building the rib into another person? Whoa, that's even more strange. Recite these verses with a sense of wonder, as if you hardly believe something so weird was possible or necessary.

Now if you've worked on whimsy and wonder, the right intonation of this story's happy ending will take care of itself. So will the triumphant "moral of the story" in the last sentence. But even if you don't try to sound whimsical and wonder-struck, speak the sentences of the passage slowly. For a reminder of how to speak slowly, just think of the last wedding you attended. Remember how the inexperienced lector, probably a cousin of the bride or groom, recited this passage at the speed of a tobacco auctioneer. Don't even come close to that pace.

If you would like to know more:

In most English translations of this passage, a specific word in the Hebrew original is rendered "the man." See this page for a very interesting discussion of the text and a fascinating argument for calling the man something else. The author, Diedrik A. Nelson (he goes by "Dan Nelson"), is a retired Lutheran (ELCA) teacher and pastor who wrote essays for an ecumenical study group about all the Scripture passages that their churches read over three years of Sunday services.

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Last update: January 6, 2011