Romans (Part 07) – Cravings of the Heart: Sexual Impurity (1:22–25)
In studying an epistle such as Romans, in which Paul offers so much intricate explanation of the multi-faceted diamond of the gospel, it is easy in our concentration of one facet to forget the contextual arrangement of the whole. Often interpretations can skew because we see nothing but the verses—that one facet—directly in view. Ensuring we keep the facet we study in right relation to the whole gem (the greater context) requires a constant reiteration of where Paul began his line of logic and of his purposeful path. Paul is explaining the gospel—in fact, the whole of redemption’s organization. He just delivered his summary of the gospel (1:16–17) and began its unfolding in verse 18. But by verse 24 and on, if not careful, we may let his purpose slip through our fingers to be lost in our struggle to harmonize his continued discussion with current cultural pressures.
Paul’s discussion began with the need for redemption—the need for the gospel. The need was there because humankind—God’s image bearers—had broken the covenant of life that God had set up with them. The covenant of life was simple—God gave life (relationship with him) for his and our pleasure in that relationship through his obligated commitment of providing truth, goodness, and beauty in loving care. We received life (relationship with him) through our trusting acceptance of his loving care as the source for the truth, goodness, and beauty our souls craved to be satisfied. That summary of the covenant of life wraps up the full scope of the covenant: purpose, benefits, and obligations. Of course, the breaking of the covenant of life resulted in death (i.e., as the loss of life—the loss of relationship with him—the eternal separation from him).
Since Paul’s discussion is about the gospel—the restoration of relationship through righteousness—it makes sense that his discussion begins, not with relationship intact, but rather with the brokenness of the covenant of life—with the condition in which humankind found itself in need of that restoration. And so it is that Paul begins by speaking of the wrath of God—the punishment being executed—on a world that shrouds God’s care as it sets out in search of satisfaction in itself. And that was Paul’s conclusion in verses 22 and 23.
The result of this sin attitude of humankind was to have God turn away. Of course, God did not turn away completely at the moment of sin or any sin. God’s nature is always of mercy and love for the working of restitution—reconciliation—redemption—restoration, that is, until that point when hopelessness is reached. What we see after the fall, therefore, is the turning aside of God from his exquisite care in relationship by withdrawing his loving hand—what Paul describes as a delivering of corrupted humankind to our own lusts. That delivery may be understood as a giving over or giving up the full care for them (us) as we in sinful pursuit seek TGB for ourselves from a corrupted and false source.
The phrase Paul uses—“God delivered them over”—is found in verses 24, 26, and 28. However, I don’t think we have three parallel sections of results from God delivering them over. It appears that the first occurrence in verse 24 begins a summary (concluded in verse 25) that Paul then breaks up into two aspects discussed in the other sections: verses 26–27 and 28–33.
Notice how Paul begins his summary in verse 24. He says that humankind is given over to the cravings of their hearts. And the first thing Paul mentions of this craving is sexual impurity. How did he get there? There are plenty of sins; pride, for one, seems at the heart of most. Other sins include lying, stealing, cheating—even the Ten Commandments doesn’t start off with a sex sin. Adultery is buried down at number seven. So what leads Paul to start talking about sex?
Let’s back up to take a fuller, more encompassing view. Remember Paul’s topic is the gospel (restoration of fallen creation to original purpose). By necessity, there is a correlation in the discussion of Romans 1 with what Moses had discussed in Genesis 1–2. In Genesis 1–2, we see creation; in Romans 1, we see gospel. In Genesis 1–2, we see relationship established; in Romans 1, we see relationship restored. It is immediately after Genesis 1–2 (in Genesis 3) that we see the fall—the destruction of the created relationship. And it is in that fall where Paul begins his discussion of that condition resulting from the fall (Romans 1:18–3:20). Following that discussion of condition, Paul begins his discussion of restoration (Romans 3:21 and following). If we chart this outline, it may look like the following:
Now, something else is highlighted in the Genesis 1–2-creation account. In the relationship that God sets up among humans, he highlights his own Trinitarian multiple-in-one configuration by establishing the multiple-in-one structure of human relationship (1:26–27). He highlights this idea using the image of sexual relations. Let’s step through this understanding carefully to realize the full scope.
In Genesis 2:18 we read, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper as his complement.” That seems to be a straightforward statement, and it is. But is this straightforward statement given here to us in English by the translators—according to their understanding of the passage—actually what God and Moses in the Hebrew intended? In this case, I believe that something was actually lost in the translation. The first issue has to do with the translation giving us “the man.”
The Hebrew word adam and the Hebrew name Adam are referenced by Strong in his concordance as H120 and H121, respectively. H120 is first found in chapter 1 in both verses 26 and 27 as God creates. And there we understand the word neither as a proper name nor even as a male human. The Hebrew adam means simply human or humankind. We do find it later to be used as a proper name of the male human, but in its generic, common use, it means human.
Why is that important? When we read Genesis 2:18 with the translation the man, we don’t think nondescriptly of a human, but rather of a male. Thus, when God said it was not good for the man to be alone, we interpret that as it is not good for a male to be alone. But that is not the thrust of the passage. To understand the thrust correctly, we must recognize that God is saying, “It is not good for the human to be alone.”
God, therefore, proposes a solution. His solution is to make a help for the human, and this leads to our second misunderstanding of the verse. Our problem in interpretation comes from already knowing the end of the story and therefore infusing into our translations preconceived ideas based on the end. We know God is about to make a woman. We know men and women usually get together in marriage. So we presuppose the problem is that a male by himself is lonely and not fulfilled unless he has a female to help out. That kind of interpretation (plus the difficulty in understanding the King James “help meet” has led to the thinking that God wanted to create an assistant for men—a helpmeet that is weaker and can handle routine matters of food preparation and cleaning so that the male can deal with the more important matters of life.
Of course, we, in our pride of modern understanding, recognized that the King James “a help meet for him” means a help suitable [NIV] or fit [ESV] for him. But while suitable and fit both explain the KJV meet better, the real question should be whether they explain the Hebrew accurately. The Hebrew neged does not really speak of suitability or fitness but rather of presence or view. In other words, a better translation may speak of a help “in his presence” or “before his face” or “in his sight.”
Furthermore, the “help” is not that of a subordinate assistant. The Hebrew ezer does speak of help, but it is a help given to one who from weakness or vulnerability cannot accomplish what is needed for himself or herself. The word is used about 21 times in the OT, twice in this passage. Sixteen of the other 19 times, the word is used of God as the help. God is certainly no subordinate assistant. Those verses speak of God being our help when we cannot help ourselves.
In our Genesis 2 passage, then, we have God proposing to create someone who is able to help when the human cannot accomplish something alone.
Again, we may immediately fall into the wrong path of thinking if we jump to the end and declare that God recognized the male could not do everything alone so he made a woman for those things the male could not do. While it is a step in the right direction, that statement still presupposes that God sees deficiencies in the male that he wants to correct. But that’s not the thrust of the passage.
Another wrong path would be to disregard the woman God created, thinking simply another human could satisfy the requirement. After all, Genesis 2:18 does not really mention that the help must be different in any way, does it? Couldn’t God have satisfied the problem of 2:18 by simply creating more males?
The answer to that last question is no. But we need to look even more carefully at the presumption of the verse-18 problem and solution in conjunction with the verse 23:b realization by Adam that the woman was precisely the answer required.
Genesis 2:23b reads, “This one will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken from man.” In this statement, we have no inherent difficulty of trying to understand whether adam the human, Adam the person or adam the male is intended. There is no difficulty because the Hebrew word adam does not appear in this statement. Here we have mentioned ishshah (female) and iysh (male).
Notice carefully here that the woman or female is taken from (or better, removed from) the male. The rib idea confuses the picture. God does not take a bone of a male and fashion it into a female. What actually is intended is that God took a side (Hebrew tsela) of the human to become the separate female human, leaving behind the male human. So Genesis 2:23b is better translated more literally as “This one will be called ‘female,’ because she was removed (or separated) from the male.”
The implication is that this one human with both male and female characteristics was not good as one being alone. The Hebrew connotation of being alone (bad) is one part separated from other parts. Thus, God saw fit to make this one being into two beings, but they would be two beings that could help (ezer) each other, specifically supporting the other in that which the other lacked or was more vulnerable. Why do this? Why was this better? It was better because it imaged both the structure of relationship inherent in the Trinity—the three in one—and it imaged the relationship of God with humankind—the multiple (two parties), one of whom was more vulnerable, to be united in one relationship.
In this understanding—and only in this understanding—do we have reason for God’s creation of two sexes. The sexes were not mere whimsical fancy for the sake of variation. God created males and females for image purposes—an image in one sense of the Trinitarian relationship and an image in another sense of the God-and-humankind relationship. And by that imaging, we humans are to see how relationship with each other works—the same way as it works with God and us: the one who is more capable in whatever respect must express God’s truth, goodness, and beauty for the care of the one more vulnerable.
Notice the steps to this imaging that God points out in Genesis 2: (1) the proclamation of one substance in 2:23a, (2) the differentiation of the two sexes involved in 2:23b, (3) the uniting of the two in one in the becoming one flesh in 2:24—a euphemism for sex. So we have sameness imaged by the substance (“bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”), difference imaged by the two sexes (“called ‘female’ for she was taken from male”), and then put back together in oneness imaged by sex (‘become one flesh”).
Alike to this picture is the New Testament focus on the oneness of unity together and in Christ (as in Romans 12). But the New Testament also uses that same imagery of marriage to picture this oneness (e.g., Ephesians 5 and Revelation 21). It is in this picture—this image—of multiple in one—the sexual relationship in marriage—that (1) God jealousy guards and protects by condemning as sin all conduct altering that established picture and (2) God uses to picture all right relationships. It then makes absolute sense for Paul to claim, upon the breakdown of relationship he has discussed in Romans 1, a breakdown of the image of relationship—the purity of male-female sex in marriage. And so Paul does call out this breakdown in sexual impurity—a breakdown of the relationship image—as the first mark of bodily degradation after God gives them up to the cravings of their hearts. We may add this to the chart.
Verse 25 presents the second overall aspect resulting from God’s giving them over: they exchange the truth of God for a lie. Paul already hinted of this breakdown. In looking to creation as the source for TGB, we worship (glorify and are thankful toward) creation itself as verse 25 states. Here again is a link to Genesis 1, this time in chapter 3. Eve believed the lie of the serpent for glorification of self. Adam believed the lie that he would be more satisfied in truth, goodness, and beauty from his relationship with Eve than he would from God. So both of them believed lies—technically different but ultimately the same: the lies both exalted creation above God.