Creator God, we trust in your perennial goodness and grace. And with thanksgiving, we open our hearts to your particular words of goodness and grace to us this day. In all of the complexities of life, in times of joy and in times of struggle, may we turn to you and embrace the love and life you bring. Amen.
Today, we continue our new summer sermon series, Getting Your Story Straight, in which we are reflecting on many of the important stories of the Bible that have helped shape both the Jewish and Christian faith traditions. Last week, our children’s choir did a wonderful job of bringing to life the story of David and Goliath.
And today, we are returning to the creation stories of Genesis. A couple of weeks ago, Pastor Dave preached on the beautiful and poetic creation story from Genesis chapter one. And now, he’s skipped town and left me to deal with the messier story of Adam and Eve. 🙂
Actually, I’m happy to have this opportunity because the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has had a lasting impact on both our culture and on the theological development of both Judaism and Christianity. And it set the stage for much of what follows in the book of Genesis.
What we find in these first few chapters of Genesis is fascinating because we really have two creation stories that have been stitched together. Many scholars make the case that there were a couple of different traditions or dominate perspectives within the broader Jewish tradition that produced these stories and then brought them together into what we now find in Genesis. And the story of Adam and Eve is likely the earlier tradition, pre-dating the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century CE and the story of the six days of creation that emerged around that time.
And there are some interesting differences between these two tales. The first story of creation is a poem filled with imagery in which the Creator creates order out of chaos, creates spaces and fills them with life in all its forms, culminating in human beings, male and female, made in God’s own image. It’s rhythmic with its repeated refrains: “God saw that it was good;” “there was evening and there was morning…”
The second story is much more of a plot-driven story with conflict, drama, and characters who interact (including that crafty talking snake). And I think it’s worth reflecting on this story as a whole. So, here’s a synopsis to refresh your memory:
God has created the heavens and the earth, but there aren’t any plants or animals yet. God needs someone to till the soil. So, out of the soil, God creates the first human and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. And the Hebrew here is wonderful! Out of the adamah (the earth), God creates the adam (the human). From earth, God creates the earthling. From the humus, God creates the human. And Adam doesn’t become a proper name for him until a little later on in the story.
So then, God plants a garden in Eden in the east. And from the earth God grows a wondrous assortment of trees to delight and feed, along with two special trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And there is a river that flows through it to water the vegetation.
God puts the adam into the garden to till it and care for it. And God tells him, “eat whatever you want, except don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you’ll die.”
Then God thinks, my little earthling seems kind of lonely. He needs a partner, a helper. So, God starts creating all the animals of the earth and birds of the sky. And God brings them to the human to name. But none of them are the partner, the helper, he needs. Personally, I love to imagine how Adam might have named our beloved pets. “Let’s call this one dog – it loves to play, it’s loyal and always follows me around.” “Let’s call this one cat – it likes to have its ears scratched – sometimes… when it feels like it.” “They’re both great! Really wonderful, God, good job! But I don’t think they’ll be much help with the gardening. Dog just wants to chase squirrel. And cat just wants to lay in the sun.”
The animals are great, but not the partner the human needs. So, God puts him to sleep and from his side, his rib, creates another human. God closes him up, wakes him up, and brings this new creation to him. And Adam responds, “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” She’s fantastic in his eyes. She’s like him. She’s the partner he needs. And for a brief time, they live blissfully together in their garden paradise.
That is, until that snake shows up and the part of the story we heard unfolds. And we don’t know the snake’s motivation (if it had one). Is it just curious to see what will really happen if the humans eat the forbidden fruit? Does it want to get the humans out of the way so it can be in charge of the garden? Who knows! We should note, however, that it isn’t until much later on that the snake was first interpreted as the devil. For earlier interpreters of this story, the snake was seen as a tempter, a bit devious and manipulative, but not necessarily evil nor a symbol for any kind of ultimate source of evil.
So, of course, they eat the fruit. We wouldn’t really have a story if they didn’t. And, by the way, apples weren’t prevalent in the Mediterranean until later on. So, that image of Eve holding an apple that we all have in our heads is a product of a later Latin translation of the Bible and the interpretive imagination of medieval Europeans. That’s fine, but ancient Israelites probably imagined a pomegranate, a fig, or another common fruit of their culture.
And when they eat, their eyes “were opened,” the text tells us. And the first thing they notice is that they are naked. And, though this evidently wasn’t a problem before, now they need clothes. So, they make themselves some fig leaf undies.
That evening, God comes walking through the garden and confronts them. It’s their knowledge of their nudity that clues God into the fact that they ate the forbidden fruit. And so, when confronted, Adam blames Eve (which is not entirely fair because he was with her the whole time; Eve didn’t trick him, lie to him, or use her feminine wiles to seduce him; she just gave him the fruit). And Eve blames the snake for his trick (which is fair because the snake did trick her, but Eve also made her own choice).
And all of them are punished as a result. The snake must slither on its belly… which makes me wonder if it was supposed to have legs before this point – like a lizard maybe? Eve will have painful childbirth and be ruled over by her husband. Adam will have to work hard and contend with thorns and thistles as he seeks to grow edible crops.
And any potential humans had for immortality is now off the table as well. Instead, they are expelled from the garden and blocked from the tree of life. So, they didn’t drop dead the day they ate the forbidden fruit, but they became mortal.
For the ancient people who first claimed this story for themselves, it answered a lot of those basic existential questions: Why are we mortal? Why is life so hard sometimes? Why is there pain and suffering?
And it’s worth mentioning that this story is best read as descriptive rather than prescriptive (to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite biblical scholars, Amy-Jill Levine). This story helped a people make sense of the world and life as it was for them. But that doesn’t mean we should take it as a model for how life necessarily should be or use it as an excuse for inaction on things that we could make better in our world. For example, to use Eve’s punishment in this story as an excuse for patriarchy and misogyny is a misuse of the text that has been far too common in the history of our culture.
Like most humans do at one point or another, ancient Israelites looked at the world around them and pondered the paradoxical reality in which they lived. They saw the goodness, beauty, delight, and joy of God’s good creation and their place in it. And they also saw the struggles, suffering, violence, and unfairness of life. “Why is it so? Life is beautiful! But why are things so out of whack sometimes? How did we get here? Was there ever a perfect state of harmony and balance with nature, with God? Could there ever be?” I think they wondered all this and more.
They also recognized the freedom in the created order, in nature and in themselves. They recognized their own freedom of choice, their own freedom of will. The humans in this story are not puppets or robots. They are capable of making their own choices. And people knew then, as we do now, that those choices have consequences – both good and bad.
And so, they also pondered what happens when people push the boundaries God has set. This is the first time in the biblical narrative that human beings disobey God’s instructions, but it won’t be the last. In fact, things get pretty bad pretty quickly. Adam and Eve have children, Cain and Abel. And then Cain kills Abel. It’s the first act of violence in this unfolding saga. And by the time we get to chapter six, things are so bad that God floods the earth and starts over with only Noah and his family.
The good news, of course, is that God ultimately doesn’t abandon the human cause. And, after Noah, vows never to bring such destruction upon humanity again. Instead, God shows up outside of the Garden of Eden (in the real world that is both fraught with human mistakes and rife with human potential) and time and time again calls people back into relationship, back into covenant. In love, God pursues God’s people over and over again. That is the big narrative arc of the biblical text.
I think that’s good news we need to hear again and again, especially when we feel stuck, especially when the world feels stuck. We can’t give up the faith. We can’t give up hope. We can’t give up the human cause either.
I think that the crux of this story is that moment when Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened. They have gained broader knowledge of good and evil. They see that life is more complex than they knew.
And perhaps their awareness of their own nudity is both literal and metaphorical. Yes, they are now a little embarrassed and want to put on clothes. But perhaps they are also now aware of their own vulnerability, their fragility, and eventually their mortality.
Interpreters have long noted that in many ways this is a sort of coming-of-age story. Adam and Eve used to run around the garden free, naked, and uninhibited like animals or toddlers. But now, things are more complicated. In gaining knowledge of good and evil, there is also a loss of that blissful innocence of childhood. In that way, this is a story we all embody as we grow up. It’s part of life. As we grow into adulthood, as we gain more life experience and learn more about the world and the human condition, our perspective broadens.
Commentators have also noted that this this story is about the beginning of civilization. As we move beyond God’s creation of the natural world and out of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s story sets the stage for the shaping of society. And civilization, culture, society brings with it a new level of complexity. The building of families, communities, nations involve much more complicated human relationships. And we see those complex relationships emerge as the story of Genesis continues to unfold.
And finally, I think the story of Adam and Eve leaves us with some questions to ponder that are as relevant now as they were for our Israelite ancestors in faith; questions with both individual and collective dimensions.
What shall we do with our free will? How do we approach the choices we have in this life? How do we listen for God’s leading and call? What are the boundaries, commitments, and core values that help shape our discernment and decision-making? How will we take responsibility for the decisions we make?
What shall we do with our mortal life? What are our priorities, our dreams, our deepest hopes? What legacy do we hope to leave for the next generation?
And how shall we care for the earth from which we came? One of the truths this story affirms is that we are formed from the earth, we belong to the earth, and to the earth we will return. We are all connected and have a common ancestry. Human beings are not separate from the natural world, but we tend to forget that. Human beings are charged with care of the earth, but we often fail to prioritize the earth’s needs over our own ambition and desires. How might we do better?
In all things, let us not forget that we are all adam, brought forth from adamah, given life and breath from our Creator who gives us freedom to live and love, and continues to pursue us with love all along the way.
May that good news guide your life, my fellow earthlings. Amen.