After an affair and public divorce, Sandra Tsing Loh published an essay in The Atlantic titled “The Weaker Sex,” claiming that the new household economics have made today’s women “unwifeable.” Because the modern woman has achieved a new level of financial independence (in nearly 40 percent of marriages today, wives out-earn their husbands), Tsing Loh says they don’t need men as they once did. But there’s a rueful sound in Tsing Loh’s voice, especially when she describes the existential crisis of opening the refrigerator door:
Day by day in our frenetic, chaotic modern homes, how many of us become inexplicably unglued, suddenly losing our equilibrium in a disproportionate vale of anguish, as we open our refrigerator door ... and confront the spillage from the leaking Ziploc bag or the microwave-deformed GladWare that forever will not close. On the one hand, these are a simple technical malfunction; on the other, they are another small but precise omen pointing to a world without the deep domestic comforts—and care, and arts—not of our mothers (many of whom were in a transitional leaving-home-to-go-work generation) but of our grandmothers. No one is taking care of us! No one!
The “technical malfunction” of the GladWare and the absence of anyone to clean up the spill of the leaky Ziploc bag isn’t tantamount to nuclear proliferation, but the encroaching chaos of sticky refrigerator shelves points to a palpable, ominous absence. Tsing Loh laments a world without housekeeping. No one is taking care of us!
Tsing Loh admits that her professionally work-weary world differs substantially from the domestic world of her grandmothers. In her grandmothers’ era, someone had been tasked with the spit and polish of life. Meals were made from scratch; they were served hot. While there is certainly no sense in Tsing Loh’s essay that she pines for the 1950s, the recognition of what’s missing today—at home—unwittingly dampens her 21st-century self-congratulations.
In her book Home Comforts, Cheryl Mendelson attempts to rekindle the emotional, social value of housekeeping. Acknowledging the complicated relationship modern women have with domesticity, she opens her book with a confession: “I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep house.”
“An off-and-on lawyer and professor in public, in private I launder and clean, cook from the hip, and devote serious time and energy to a domestic routine not so different from the one that defined my grandmothers as ‘housewives,’” writes Mendelson.
The “intelligence” behind a well-kept house isn’t fastidiousness, argues Mendelson, and hospitality cannot be measured in culinary skill. Most of all, a homemaker must love guests: “Empathy is the form of intelligence that creates the feeling of home.”
God as homemaker
In Genesis 1–2, God makes a home for his people. From the primeval wilderness and wasteland God begets beauty and form, building the grand house called Earth. God’s creative acts are not simply intended for the sake of aesthetic but as joyful preparation for God’s children, who arrive at the threshold of the world on the sixth day. For while God deserved a universe befitting only himself, though he could have rightfully created galaxies whose only purpose was to showcase his glory, he created an oxygenated world—because it suited us.
The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth days in Genesis 1 are a literary crescendo recording the flurry of God’s purposeful hospitality. God murmurs multiple times, “It is good,” illustrating that he is pleased with his housework. On day one, the light and darkness are good (v. 4); on day three, the dry land, the seas, and the vegetation are good (vv. 10, 12); on day four, the sun, moon, and stars are good (v. 18); on day five, the taxonomy of animals is good (v. 21); on the sixth day, the creatures bearing the image of God, along with all that God has made, are very good (v. 31). However, on day two, when God separates the waters and creates the sky, he remains strangely mute (vv. 6–8). Only in this instance does God refrain from commending his work as good.
“The reason,” writes John Sailhamer, in his commentary on Genesis, “is that on that day nothing was created or made that was, in fact, ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’ for humanity. . . . The land was still ‘formless;’ it was not yet a place where a human being could dwell.” According to Sailhamer, “good,” as measure of God’s approbation, was not a generic comment on the earth’s form; it was a particular commendation of the habitability of the earth as a warm, dry place. In other words, creation was only good insofar as it could be home to humanity.
In Genesis 2 a second version of the creation narrative begins, and our beginnings are viewed from a different angle. In Genesis 1 humanity is set against the larger cosmological backdrop of “the heavens and the earth.” In Genesis 2 the camera focuses more narrowly, and the first humans are “placed” somewhere particular—in a garden (v. 8). As Andy Crouch observes, Genesis 1 paints “creation in its totality,” Genesis 2, the “immediate neighborhood.” There is important textual emphasis on the word put in Genesis 2:8 and 15. This word speaks to God’s intentional hospitality in his creative acts—and his world as “home.”
The first time the word is used in verse 8 it signifies the most common use of put. Much like we put our shoes in the closet (or should put our shoes in the closet), God put Adam in a garden. In verse 15, however, the Hebrew word has more significant meaning. As Sailhamer notes, it is a word that can represent God’s “rest” or “safety.” As examples of other uses, God “put” Lot outside the city before he rained sulfur and fire on Sodom (Gen 19:16 NASB); God “put” the Israelites in the Promised Land as a gift of “rest” (Deut 3:20; 12:10; 25:19). Used in this way, the word signals the sheltering love of God and his paternal impulse to protect and provide for his children. God put Adam and Eve in the garden much like a mother swaddles her newborn baby and puts the child in the cradle. You’re safe, she shushes.
God had a clear purpose for putting humanity in a garden beyond mere enjoyment of the scenery. As Genesis 2:15 indicates, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” God did not make a home for his children and leave them to idleness. Rather, he commissioned them with priestly work. Although translations have, from the second century B.C., rendered “to work and to take care of” as actions related to the care of the garden, some (like Sailhamer) argue that it is better translated, “to worship and obey.” As if in keeping with this translation, verses 16 and 17 outline the specific commandment God gives to Adam: He may eat of every tree of the garden but one. Humanity’s first home was built on the principles of God’s generosity—but this must not be confused with God’s permissiveness. Home had one important rule, which God expected his children to heed. As the text makes clear, God did not forbid his children the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for reasons of caprice. Rather, his forbiddance was an expression of his goodness—another occasion of paternal protection: “When you eat from it, you will certainly die.”
What’s clear from Genesis 1–2 is that God had readied a world for welcome. Homemaking, as a word to describe God’s labor on behalf of humanity, conveys the sense of God’s mindfulness toward the man and the woman he greets at the door. The Creation stories of Genesis 1–2 affirm our first improbable gift of grace: divine hospitality. The home that God made wasn’t his greatest ambition; the guests were.
Opening the refrigerators in our homes today, we are thrown into sudden panic. The GladWare leaks, and the shelves are sticky. But the good news of Genesis—and the great news of the gospel—is that someone is indeed taking care. The primordial Homemaker is an adoptive Father, and his empathetic homemaking will last throughout eternity.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Keeping Place and Teach Us to Want. She and her family live in Toronto. Adapted from Keeping Place by Jen Pollock Michel. Copyright © 2017 by Jen Pollock Michel. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.