Eden with Fresh Eyes, Genesis 2-3, Lent 1-A, 3/9/14
A few years ago the Sistine Chapel was closed while Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling were cleaned. Those paintings, including the iconic creation of Adam with God reaching out to impart the spark of life, are among the most famous in the world, and scholars assumed they knew what they would find. But centuries of candle smoke and pollution had deposited layers of grime on the paintings and when that was removed the colors popped out with a vibrancy which few had expected. Sometimes we discover something similar when we come to a familiar biblical story. Centuries of interpretation can make it hard to see the basic story and its intention.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes this of today’s first lesson, “No text in Genesis (or likely in the entire Bible) has been more used, interpreted, or misunderstood than this text. This applies to careless popular theology, as well as the doctrine of the church.”
If I were to ask you to identify today’s lesson from Genesis I suspect many of you would say this is the story of the “fall.” You might say it’s about original sin or how death came into the world. A few would say it illustrates the danger of sexuality and feminine wiles. Like the smoke in the Sistine Chapel, centuries of reading have colored how we read this story. Certain influential interpretations, most notably by the apostle Paul and St. Augustine have trained us to see the disobedience of Adam and Eve as the historical source of sin in the world—even if there is a piece of us that finds it hard to believe that one act long ago rigidly determines our fate. Unfortunately, some interpretations, driven more by cultural bias than faith, have been blatantly anti-female. This story has been used to justify all manner of persecution of women and create a general fear of our sexual selves.
We don’t have time for a detailed look at the history of how this text has been read and why certain interpretations are so powerful. But this morning I want us to pretend we have not heard this story many times before. Let’s assume we don’t already know what it means. If we look with fresh eyes I think we’ll discover that this story is not really about how our fate was sealed long ago. Rather, it suggests how God intends us to live in the world and what happens when we turn our backs on that intention for us and the rest of creation.
The reading of this text often gets bogged down in debate over whether or not it describes an historical event which you could locate on a timeline. But the answer to that question is not particularly important or helpful. The most important question is not, “Did this actually happen in time and space?” but “How is this our story, one which we act out every day?”
The story begins in harmony and simplicity. God places the couple in the garden and tells them in effect, “I’m giving you a wonderful home—enjoy. Everything you need is here. I love you and I want you to be happy. Just two things: First, I need you take care of garden. Second, one tree has poison fruit. Leave that one alone; trust me on this. Other than that go for it, this is my gift to you.”
Notice a few things. Genesis says that the world in which we have been placed is one of abundance and we are supposed to enjoy it. So there is no justification for Christians regarding the physical world as anything but a wonder and delight.
The title of Alice Walker’s wonderful novel The Color Purple comes from a line spoken by one of the characters. Shug, a blues singer with a gift of affirming life despite its hard edges observes, “I think it cheeses God off [She actually uses an earthier word] when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.” The writer of Genesis would agree with that sentiment, if not necessarily the language. The world is to be cherished, savored, and received with thanksgiving. When we refuse to rejoice in the world with all its wonder, we throw God’s gift back in his face.
But with the gift comes a commission. One way to translate God’s command is that we are to “serve and protect” this world in which we are placed. God invites humanity into a relationship of incredible trust. Like giving your teenage son the keys to the new Corvette; there is risk in giving that kind of freedom and power to one who may abuse it. It goes without saying that humanity has often run the car too hard and wrapped it around many a tree. But despite that God persists in trusting us with a beautiful creation and making us partners in its management.
There is one other element to God’s intention for us in the world—prohibition—the couple is told to avoid one tree. There are some things which are not meet, right, and salutary for us. In all honesty nobody really knows exactly to what the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” refers. There are no other references to that tree in scripture.
Perhaps that’s just the point. There is no explanation, no justification for the command, just an invitation to trust God’s care and wisdom. To put it differently, perhaps the prohibition is a reminder that there are limits to human freedom, that we are finally creatures rather than the Creator and thus, we do well to live with a certain humility before the wonder of the world.
Delight in the creation, responsibility to care for it, and humility before its mystery, these are the things which ideally characterize our relationship to the world, according to Genesis. This is what God intends and harmony results when we trust God’s faithfulness and honor our three-fold calling.
But then comes Act 2 in our story. The snake sidles up to Eve and plants a germ of distrust and confusion in her mind. Some identify the snake with the devil; it may or may not be. The point is that the snake presents an alternative to trusting God. He subtly suggests that God does not have Adam and Eve’s best interests at heart. “Can you really trust the big guy,” he says. “Do whatever you want, there won’t be any real consequences; God is just trying to control you. All that talk about dying, that’s just a ‘boogie man under the bed’ story to scare you.”
And so Adam and Eve eat; they vote with their jaws—“God is not trustworthy,” they decide. “We better look out for ourselves because no one else will.” They are so much defiant as afraid. If you want to talk about original sin, literally about the origin of all that is broken in our world, forget about sex, focus on fear. Most of the evil we see is rooted in anxiety. We are afraid there will not be enough for all, so we grasp with a tight, greedy fist and refuse to share our abundance. We feel vulnerable so we strike out in violence and exploitation, lest someone hurt us first. The moment we cease to trust God’s care, the governing rule of life becomes, “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
The deep insight of this story is that such fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The narrative would be funny if it weren’t so filled with pathos. Confronted by their disobedience, what do Adam and Even do? They look for a scapegoat. Eve says,“The snake made me do it.” Adam is even more desperate, “That woman that you gave me, Lord, she’s the cause of all this.” He tries to blame both Even and God for the mess. Ceasing to trust God, we find it impossible to trust one another. If I believe that God’s love will never let me go, I can dare to take some risks in dealing with you. But if I am sure that I and I alone know what is best and that the only one looking out for me is me—then you better believe I am playing it close to the vest.
There is one final piece of the Adam and Eve story which we often miss, but in some ways I think it may be the most important element of all. After Adam and Eve make a hash of it and have to face the consequences of their disobedience, symbolized by their shame at being naked, The text says, “The lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”
Do you see the point? This is not a fashion note from the first red carpet; this is a sign of God’s faithfulness, even when his creatures betray his trust. The surprising thing about this story is not Adam and Eve’s disobedience; that is painfully easy to understand. No, the amazing thing is that God continues to care; God does not bail on them. There are consequences for the unhappy couple; they lose the harmony of Eden. But the care continues. The rest of the Bible is an account of how God keeps on renewing the invitation, keeps on calling us to begin again.
I am aware that this one of the heaviest sermons I have preached in awhile. My only defense is that this is a weighty story which I think we often misunderstand. Forgive me if I have crossed the mark from serious to tedious. But if you remember nothing else from this sermon remember this: The story of Adam and Eve did not happen thousands of years ago; it happens everyday. This is not merely the story of two unfortunate souls, it is our story.
- God still calls us to be stewards of creation and we still decide we can use and abuse this world however we choose.
- God still calls us to trust that there is abundance enough for all, and we still fear that there isn’t.
- God still calls us to walk with a certain humility before they mystery of life, and we still resist any claims on our freedom and autonomy.
- We live out this story every day and the consequences are as painful for us as for that first couple—a planet that groans under the weight of pollution, nations ever poised for war, searching souls who long for love and find merely lust, hearts desperate for enduring meaning and yet fearing to trust the path which God offers.
Despite all that, God keeps clothing our nakedness with his love, keeps walking with us in our struggle, keeps inviting us to start again. This Lent let us give thanks for God’s faithfulness and resolve to write a more faithful story with our lives.