Lent 1 – Genesis 2:15–17, 3:1–7
Today we get to tackle a wonderful and complex story of voices and choices that has been spectacularly misinterpreted over the years. I’ll start by stating categorically that this is not a historical story of the first two humans. Anyone who tries to make you believe that is wilfully trying to mislead you or is woefully misinformed. That being said, it is a profoundly true story – it is an archetypal story about all humans. You and I are Adam and Eve. It’s our story.
Jewish and Christian scholars have analyzed this for millennia and the utterly overwhelming consensus is that the story was crafted, probably during the Babylonian Exile, to try to give a Jewish answer to the questions that humanity invariably asks about its origins – How did we get here? What’s our relationship with the Sacred or the Holy? Why do things work the way they do? Genesis tackles those questions.
It may shock you that I think the biggest problem people have with this story isn’t that they take it literally it’s that they don’t take it literally enough! I don’t mean historically, or factually – again, it’s pure fiction, always was, always will be – I mean literarily. People have tended to read it poorly. All sorts of nasty business has been based on the story of Adam and Eve, and all sorts of terrible theology has come from weak and fundamentally flawed interpretations – because people haven’t read it literally enough, or closely enough.
Problems with our environment, gender inequality, shame in sexuality, and guilt- and fear-based religion all have their theological seeds in mis-readings of this short passage. Let’s see if we can clear some of this stuff up.
Genesis 1 is the story of how God creates the world and populates it with flora and fauna and a single human male – Adam, whose name means ‘of the earth, of the soil’. Humanity is given dominion over the earth – out of which humanity came, which sounds completely in sync with evolution to me. In Genesis 2 God places the man in a garden and gives him a vocation, permission, and a prohibition.
The vocation is to till and keep the land – to work with the raw materials, supposedly for our good, for our flourishing, and to “keep” the garden. “Keep” here means to guard it, to protect it, to be a good steward of it. We are in relationship with the earth because we are of the earth, and it is our vocation to guard the earth.
The permission is that Adam can have and do pretty much anything he wants. He has complete freedom to enjoy the garden. God’s starting point in relationship with humanity is freedom and permissiveness. And then there’s a prohibition. Adam can do anything and eat of any tree he wants except for one. God has put a limit on the human’s freedom. Seems fair, after all, it’s not our garden!!! And we’re all aware of what happens when humans don’t have limits on them. Imagine your kids growing up with no limits. Nightmare!
Remember, this isn’t Adam’s story; it’s our story – yours and mine. God has “placed us in a garden” and given a vocation – to be in relationship with our environment and to guard, protect, and steward it – we have permission to do pretty much whatever we want – and we have limits, because God is God and we are not. If humanity had learned that lesson better the world wouldn’t be in as bad a shape as it currently is. We didn’t read Genesis carefully enough! God is apparently an environmentalist!
The Lectionary leaves out verses 18-24. I need to say a couple things about it. This is the part where Eve is made from Adam’s rib. Again, not history, but really important to learn from. God spent the first chapter saying “it was good” about all the things God created, and here for the first time God says something is not good. “It is not good for the human to be alone.” So God creates a “helper” for the man.
Here’s the trouble. That’s the wrong word! Well, it’s the right word but in English it has a very different meaning. A “helper” in English is a secondary person, an assistant – but not in Hebrew! The one who can “help” you is an empowered one who has something (power, ability, knowledge) that you do not have and need. A “helper” is actually a strong and valued partner – a companion who fits and complements you with necessary strengths and capacities. Did you catch that? Genesis actually teaches that the man and the woman were created to be equal! God is not just an environmentalist, God is also a feminist! – and again, we haven’t read Genesis closely enough or yesterday wouldn’t have needed to be International Women’s Day.
Chapter 2 ends with the statement that the man and the woman were naked and were not ashamed. Nakedness is not shameful. You get the sense here that if Adam and Eve had just listened to God they could have frolicked around Eden in their birthday suits having a grand time. But God’s voice is not the one they listened to. And when you don’t listen to God’s voice trouble happens.
Next we meet the serpent. What a crappy ride this poor serpent has gotten over the years. First, this is not Satan or the devil; it’s just a serpent, a snake…that can apparently talk. One wonders if all the animals could talk? Anyway, the serpent is said to be crafty, but the Hebrew word also means shrewd, prudent, wise – a desirable thing if used well, a dangerous thing if used for ill.
The serpent and Eve discuss what God said about the trees. If you read carefully you’ll see that Eve actually answers differently than what God said to Adam a few verses prior to this – before Eve was created! Think that through. How did Eve even know what God had permitted or prohibited? Well, either God told her too, or Adam told her – and either she heard it differently or Adam changed it in the retelling – because while Adam was told not to eat of the one tree Eve said they weren’t even supposed to touch it. The moral of this is if you’re going to listen to God or messengers of God you’d better listen carefully!
Now, did this supposedly horrible serpent actually do anything wrong? Did he lie? Did he force Eve to eat? No! All he did was tell the truth – “you won’t die if you eat it.” And she didn’t….or did she? Hmm….
Here’s another curiosity: if the tree held the knowledge of good and evil then before they ate it how could they have judged whether they should eat it or not? They must have already had some sense of good and evil – right and wrong. Or maybe it means something else? Maybe the knowledge of good and evil is a kind of code for being a mature human and losing your childlike innocence?
Maybe instead of calling it the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil it should be called the Tree of Adulthood.
Play that idea through. Eve listens to a voice other than God’s and makes a conscious choice to do something. She is exerting her free will. Maybe Adam and Eve are like teenagers? Maybe this is her version dying her hair purple or getting a tattoo! She chooses to listen to a voice and makes a choice – but she doesn’t fully understand the consequences. That sounds a lot like growing up to me.
Now get this. Then she gives some fruit to Adam and he eats. Again, if you read the text literally you realize that Adam was there all along! He heard the whole exchange with the serpent. Adam wasn’t tricked by Eve who was earlier tricked by the serpent. Adam and Eve heard God’s voice, ignored it, heard the serpent’s voice and trusted it, and made their choice.
Ok, now stay with me. Here’s the big part. When I say the name Eve what do you think of? Probably something along the lines of “Eve was tricked and made Adam eat the forbidden fruit so she is to blame for the fall of humanity from God’s good graces.”
There’s just one problem with that – it’s totally wrong!
We’ve already seen that she wasn’t tricked and that Adam was right there so she didn’t force him to eat – but we can also see that this so-called “fall” of humanity is probably better described as a growing up, a maturing.
What’s the first thing they realized after they’d eaten? It’s that they were naked – so they covered up with fig leaves – which I’m told are really scratchy! Little kids look at other little kids and don’t see anything sexual – but once one matures one notices sexuality.
That’s probably the first big indicator that you’re growing up. It isn’t that you existentially understand the nature of good and evil – it’s that you start to feel aroused. When the scene started they were naked and were not ashamed – and now they’re self-conscious about their nakedness. It isn’t that their nakedness is shameful; it’s just that they’ve woken up to it.
So did they die when they ignored, turned off, or disobeyed God’s voice? Yes and no. Not physically, but certainly they’ve died to their childlike innocence and now have to face the world “reborn” as adults. The man has to scratch out a living, the woman will feel pain in childbirth – these are the realities of grown up life.
Christians have called this scene the fall of humanity since Augustine coined the unfortunate term “original sin” back in the 4th century – as in thanks to their not listening to God’s voice and making a choice to disobey they stained all of humanity and permanently put us in God’s bad books. I’m suggesting that it wasn’t even a fall, and that God originally blessed humanity but humanity seems to invariably turn away from time to time. Augustine was right that we all do it, but wrong that it’s because God has punished us. God loves us; we’re just too dumb to listen and embrace that love.
Now here’s a question that may bake your brain. If their transgression was really just growing up, which is a totally natural and necessary thing for humans, then maybe God has actually not been angry with us for all of eternity – and if that’s true then all our guilt and fear based religious baggage has been for nothing. Oh how different Christianity might have been if we hadn’t gotten that one so wrong.
Could Adam and Eve have stayed in the garden forever in blissful innocence? I don’t think so – which means that their eating of the fruit was not an “if” but a “when”. But then staying in Eden is not what the story was ever about in the first place. And the story isn’t about how evil entered the world and the fall of humanity either;
it’s about voices and choices. We are constantly bombarded with voices and choices. Our task is to sort out which ones to listen to and follow.
This story says that if you listen to God’s voice and make your choices based on that that you get to stay in close proximity with God. Listen to the very next verse after the passage we heard:
Genesis 3:8 “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”
God comes strolling through the garden and can’t find them. God can’t find them! They’ve turned away. They’ve chosen separation. God calls out “where are you?” It’s plaintive, sad, worried. But humans make choices that God can’t understand. Walter Brueggemann insightfully says of this scene, “It is rather a story about the struggle God has in responding to the facts of human life.”
God gave the garden, gave a vocation, gave permission to do anything they wanted with one small limitation – and the humans choose to push the limitation. Isn’t that us? Isn’t that you? This is a profoundly real and true story! It explains our relationship with the environment. It explains our relationship with God. It explains how men and women are equal.
And it explains that when humans trust voices other than God’s we tend to make choices that pull us away from God. The gospel lesson for today is about Jesus’ temptations during his 40 days in the wilderness. As you may recall he steadfastly listened to God’s voice through it all, and he was able to make better choices because of it.
What voices influence your choices? Whose knowledge or wisdom do you ground your decisions in? Whose voice will guide you in your life? Lent is a journey that draws us ever closer to Jerusalem and Jesus’ ultimate choices. You know whose voice he’ll listen to.
On your Lenten journey may God’s voice ring clear and true and inspire your choices this season and beyond.