Have we really heard this story?

a sermon on Genesis 2:15-25, 3:1-7

I

want to focus tonight on the story we heard read from the book of Genesis; the story of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden. Here’s a close approximation of what is often assumed to be going on in this ancient text. In the beginning, God created a paradise garden in which he placed Adam, the first man. There is only one rule in that garden—that Adam not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—but otherwise it is idyllic. The animals are created, yet the man is still without a true companion, so God forms a woman from one of Adam’s ribs. This apparently does work well for Adam, though there is often some assumption that the woman is secondary or even second-rate. As a weaker version of Adam, she is far more vulnerable to the temptation of Satan, who appears here as a serpent or snake.  She falls for the serpent’s promise that by eating the fruit the humans will gain immortality, so she runs off and gets Adam, who gives in to her insistence that they should eat the forbidden fruit. At the moment they do so, paradise is effectively ended, and they “fall” into shame over their sexual bodies and desires. As soon as God confronts them with their act of eating the forbidden fruit, they and the whole of humanity with them will be launched into a non-Edenic life of hard work, corrupted sexual desire, and death. And it is mostly Eve’s fault.

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Now, add to this the oftentimes-thorny question of the relationship between the science of human origins and the biblical narratives, and things become even more tangled. If to this I say that these texts were not written to be taken as scientific or historical accounts in the way that the modern world understands science and history, some will immediately assume that I’m suggesting we write it all off as naïve and primitive mythology. Yet this story isn’t myth either. If you think of the Greco-Roman myths you learned in school, or of the mythological systems of any number of cultures, what you find are stories in which the real action all takes place in the realm of the gods, perhaps involving semi-human magical characters. When there are humans in the picture, it is generally because some god or other has fallen in love with a human woman or has become angered with the actions of a human man. For the most part, human beings are bit players, and they’d be best to run for cover when a god shows up.

That is simply not the case with even the most ancient of the stories in the biblical tradition. Here, in fact, the humans are placed front and centre, and given real freedom and real responsibility. If any character is at risk, it might actually be God, because in the biblical story God actually entrusts the human creature with something real. And it is not “once upon a time, long, long ago” stuff, here. The truth that is revealed in the story of Adam and Eve is actually our story, our truth, and our challenge. Watch.

The Lord places the man—the adam—in the garden to till the earth—the adama. This is no labour-free all-inclusive paradise resort, for from the first the adam is about tilling and tending the adama. The human is a partner in the shaping of Eden.

But this creature should not be the only one to dwell in the garden, and so God creates the birds and the animals. Here again, the adam is not a passive recipient, for he is entrusted with the crucial role of naming the other creatures. For that ancient people, naming was no small matter, as a name was actually part of what formed the reality; “and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”

Yet still, the adam is without a true partner, and so now the Lord places him into a sleep, removes a rib and fashions from it another human person. When the adam is wakened, he responds in poetry… and what better, for someone who is clearly falling in love…

‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’

We can catch a bit of the word-play even in English, but in Hebrew it is even deeper, with the word for man being ’iyš (eesh), and for woman ’iššâ, (eesha). Say it: ’iyš… ’iššâ… As my friend Walter Deller loves to observe, the wordplay is one of sound. The words, “differ only by the small sound the jaw makes when it drops with a gasp of recognition and surprise.” These are not pre-erotic or asexual people; their meeting is one of delight. And Adam’s love poem is then followed in the text by the observation that, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” No, there is an eroticism in this garden, and one which is pictured as not fragmented or distorted or marked by shame: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” They were at home in their bodies.

Now, enter the serpent. This is an enigmatic character, very often identified with the Satan of the New Testament. Yet all that Genesis will tell us is that “the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” And yes, this creature is crafty, and if Adam is the first poet, the serpent is the first theologian. As Brueggemann observes, the serpent is the first character in the bible to talk about God rather than to or with God, and so chooses theology over obedience. That is always a dangerous move.

The serpent tempts them—not just her, for the man is right there with her the whole time (3:6)—that if they taste that fruit they “will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And so they give in and they taste, and as soon as they have, it all changes. Not because God has come to punish them, and not because the fruit of that tree had magical properties, but because they had thrown the very nature of their intended lives out of balance.  The force of this whole narrative, argues Brueggemann, is this:

“Human beings before God are characterized by vocation, permission, and prohibition. The primary human task is to find a way to hold the three facets of divine purpose together. Any two of them without the third is surely to pervert life.”

We don’t do well without freedom in our lives, because that becomes oppressive and soul-stifling. We don’t do well without having to do some work, and to have a sense of vocation, because without that we tend to feel purposeless or worthless. And we really don’t do well without limits and boundaries, making decisions in a vacuum without reference to anyone or anything other than our self. We get idolatrous and self-absorbed frighteningly fast.

This is a story about us. It really is. And it is also a story about Jesus, and why his time in the wilderness was so important. Unlike Adam and Eve in their garden, after 40 days in the desert, Jesus is right out on the edge both geographically and emotionally. And he is met by a tempter, though this time there is no ambiguity as to who it is. It is the devil, the adversary, the Satan. The temptation, though, is really the same, namely to disregard whatever claims or limits or boundaries God might be placing, and to take another way. But no. Three times, no. “Get away from me, you Satan.” No, no, no. And because Jesus lived the whole of his life in the light of that refusal to be unbalanced by self-centeredness, he has rewritten the script for us.

Jamie Howison

One Response to Have we really heard this story?

  1. Byron says:

    Wonderful Jamie.
    As the church I attend follows the same year as St. Bens, I find it most interesting and stimulating to A/B the two insights from the pulpit.

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