This is the second sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17; 3:1-24
We are going to do a Bible Study much like I remember preachers doing when I was growing up. Like those “olden times,” this will be easier if you have the text in front of you. So: Did you bring your Bible like I told you to? If not, do you want a hard copy? Joanna can pass them out. Or, you can go to biblegateway.com and type in the scripture reference exactly as it appears in the order of worship.
While you’re doing that, I’m going to give a bit of introduction to our story for today. Last Sunday, we began the story of the Bible with the story of the creation of the world. In that story, we learned of a world created not from an act of horrific violence — as in the Babylonian creation story — but through the intentional creativity of God. Our world was created good; it is not intrinsically violent or evil. The God who created this world is both transcendent — that is, independent of the creation — but also immanent, a deity who desires relationship with us and who is very present in this world. And, last, we said that we are created in the image of this Creator, which means that we, too, are powerful, creative and made for mutual relationship.
So far, so good, right? Wah, wah, wah. Our story from today, which follows directly on the heels of that story, is traditionally called the fall of humanity, in which we fall from this state of goodness and harmony into alienation and brokenness. Every religious tradition has some way of explaining why so much is not right in the world — and this is our story. So let’s dive in. Pass around mics from time to time for reading…
2:8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there God put the man whom God had formed.
Eden means pleasure or delight; the “garden of Eden” could be translated as “paradise of pleasure.”
The Hebrew word for “man” here — adam — is from the Hebrew word adamah, which means ground or earth. So the “man” here could be translated as “dirt creature.” And, indeed, the man was created from the clay of the ground.
2:9 Out of the ground — out of the adamah — the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
The garden here isn’t really a garden where we plant seeds and crops grow and we harvest them than like the “garden” that hunter-gatherers experience — a world where fruit grows on trees and bushes and is gathered, not grown. The man — adam — has two tasks in this garden, to till and to keep it. One commentator said that a better translation of the words “to till and keep” would be “to serve and protect” the garden. The translation “till and keep” actually reflects the agricultural bias of the Bible’s first English interpreters. “Serve and protect” connote something different — to serve sounds like we are working as a partner with creation not as a controller of it. And to protect something means to keep it in the state it’s already in — like the water protectors at Standing Rock trying to protect the good water there from being defiled. There is some labor asked for here from the man but nothing as demanding as tilling the soil would imply.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now, things are getting spicy. Notice that God’s command here is both expansive and restrictive. You can freely eat of every tree except one. There is abundance and freedom but there is a limit. (We don’t really like limits, do we?) The man can not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The phrase “good and evil” is actually an idiom in Hebrew that means “everything.” It’s similar to our idiom “lock, stock and barrel,” which also means everything — “they bought everything at the garage sale, lock stock and barrel.” So, the human is not allowed to eat of the tree of the knowledge of everything. God, “who is the possessor of the ‘knowledge of everything’ wants to be certain that God’s created creatures do not seek such vast and ultimately divine knowledge.” (See link above.) And if the humans do eat of that tree, God says, they will die on that day.
3: 1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
Enter the snake. Nothing good ever happens when the snake comes into the picture, which is true in many stories from ancient cultures. This is a crafty snake, clever. The Hebrew word for “clever” (arum) is actually a pun on the word “naked” (arumim) that is used to describe the man and the woman in a part of this story we didn’t read. As one scholar said: “Somehow the cleverness of the snake will confront the nakedness of the human creatures. One translator captures the pun nicely by saying ‘The man and the woman were nude, and the snake was shrewd.’” (See link above.) Let’s also be clear that this snake is a “wild animal,” part of God’s creation. This snake is not Satan — which the snake has often been portrayed as in later interpretations. The snake, rather, is an “externalization of an inward struggle” within the humans. Because here’s the thing: God made us in God’s own image — which means we are powerful and creative, which means we have free will. We have choice; we are not robots. We can choose to go beyond the limits God has set.
At first the woman resists: 3:2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”
Note that the woman actually intensifies the restriction God placed on the fruit of this tree — God never said don’t touch it, only don’t eat it. Commentators wonder why she did this. Is she trying so hard not to eat the fruit that she actually intensifies the restriction to not even touching it — like a kid who is tempted to touch the hot stove and so doesn’t even look at it, for fear that he’ll give in to that temptation. It could also be that the woman was so anxious about dying that she was giving the tree a really wide berth. Like I’m not going to even touch that fruit. It’s scary.
4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
See how subtly the snake has taken what was a command, a hard limit, and made it into an option. “You’re not going to die; you’re actually going to experience renewed life! This tree is literally an eye-opening experience; it’ll blow your mind! You’ll be like God and know everything (i.e. good and evil).”
6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
The woman can not resist this good food, this delightful food, this desire to be wise. And she eats the fruit and gives some to her husband, who was obviously quietly standing there the whole time. Note that there is no trickery in how this all went down. The snake didn’t seduce the woman anymore than she seduced the man. The snake goads them to exercise their free will, to blow past the limits God has put in place, and they decide to do it.
And notice that the snake doesn’t lie. In fact, the man and woman don’t die after eating the fruit. They’re not struck down by lightning or something. And their eyes were opened, like the snake promised.
And what they see is that they are naked. For ancient hearers, to be naked was to be ashamed, exposed. So, they sew fig leaves for themselves to cover themselves up. One commentator said that this “fig leaf” detail would have made ancient people hearing the story around the campfire laugh. Why? Because fig leafs are like sandpaper. To empirically prove this, I went out to my fig tree and got a fig leaf, and you are welcome to try on the fig leaf later. You wouldn’t want this down there! What this fig leaf represents, however, is that the consequence of pushing the limits, of trying to be like God, is that the humans become ashamed of their natural state of being — to the point that they grab the first thing they can find to cover up. They become alienated from themselves; they have a broken relationship with themselves. The broken relationships are going to continue to stack up as our story continues.
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. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
So, clearly, another consequence of their limit-pushing is that the humans are now alienated from their Creator. They hide from God’s presence. It’s a poignant scene — in the cool of the day, as some translations put it, God comes looking for them, just wanting to hang out. But the man and woman are now afraid of God because of their nakedness, their shame. When God asks them point blank if they ate of the tree, the man immediately says “The woman made me do it.” Even worse, actually. The man says, “The woman who you gave to be with me made me do it.” It’s not just the woman’s fault, it’s God’s fault too. And who does the woman blame? The only thing left — the snake. “I was tricked,” Eve says. We know she wasn’t. She made a decision to eat.
What follows after this is God pronouncing the consequences of that decision upon the serpent, the woman and the man. These consequences provide causal explanations for present-day realities: why snakes slither across the ground and why people don’t like them; the toil of agriculture; the pain of childbearing; the reality of patriarchy. None of these consequences were intended at creation, and I think they should not really even be understood as punishments inflicted by God. Rather, there is a moral order built into creation — “human beings can be what God intended only if they are not totally autonomous, only if there is an acceptance of God-given limits.” When that moral order is violated, God does not have to introduce judgment from the outside; God announces that the “natural consequences” of that violation of the moral order. (Insights from here.) And so…
14 The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Here we see a lowering of the status of the snake, who was once upright and now has to slither on the ground, and also a breaking of relationship between humans and animals.
16 To the woman God said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” 17 And to the man God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
So, the man and woman do not die as a result of eating this fruit — we don’t know why God dials back the consequence, but this won’t be the last time that happens in these stories. Instead, the man and woman go from being, as Brian McLaren says, “hunter-gatherers in a beautiful garden to agriculturalists who must struggle with thorns and thistles to produce food by the sweat of their brow, entering into the harsh realities of marital and family struggle in a harsher world” (from his book A New Kind of Christianity). In fact, many scholars see this consequence as illustrating the transition between the world of the hunter gatherers and the world of the farmer — a transition humans would have have undergone not long before this story or even during the time this story was being formed in oral tradition.
For over 99% of the roughly 2 million years that hominids have walked the earth, agriculture was either unknown or refused. (From Wesley Howard-Brooks’ book Come Out, My People!) That’s because farming is actually a harder way of life than hunting and gathering, requiring backbreaking labor. When God says, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” this is like a curse. No longer will humans simply pluck their food from the tree and pop it in their mouth. Now, they have to carefully tend and nurse acres of small seedlings into life; now the have to spend backbreaking hours weeding thorns and thistles; now they have to worry that the rains won’t come or that pests will ruin the crops; now they have to harvest the wheat and process it and make it into loaves of bread they heat in hot ovens that themselves require the labor of finding fuel — then and only then will they be able to eat.
In addition, women in agricultural societies need to have more babies to produce the crop of workers needed to farm enough food, and more babies results in more death, since childbearing for most of human history has been the number one cause of death for women. In addition, since the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago, most societies have been patriarchal, male-dominated. We don’t exactly know why agricultural societies are patriarchal while hunter-gatherer ones tend not to be, but it is the case. This story reflects that reality too. Agriculture may have been a major step in our human evolution, but it’s one that came at a great price — a price these consequences reflect. In all of this, we see a further breaking of the relationship between humans and creation and between humans and each other.
20 The man named his wife Eve (which means life-giver), because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
22 Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 God drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden God placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
In the end, because the humans have become like God, knowing everything, they must not also become immortal by eating from the Tree of Life. Then, they truly would be God. So, they are exiled from the paradise of pleasure called the Garden of Eden so that they can’t eat of that fruit also. If the humans can’t be trusted to obey the limits God has put in place, they they will be put in a position where they can’t be tempted. But the price is leaving paradise.
And thus ends our story, although the consequences of these broken relationships with God, ourselves, creation and each other are going to continue to snowball in stories that follow. And it all began with this decision by woman and man to attempt to be more than the human creatures they were created to be, to gain qualities not intended for human possession — in short, to seek to be like God. As one bible scholar put it, this story “is about the constant human propensity to abuse the intimate, open but vulnerable relationships established by God in creation. The true freedom of humans in the Eden story lies not in unbounded freedom to choose at will from all that is available or possible in creation. Rather, (true freedom) is to be found as one enters the fragile, intimate relationships of God’s creation with due respect for all life and creation. It is to live within the God-given limits of that intimacy.”
We didn’t die when we ate of the tree of the knowledge of everything. Not on that day. But in an age of climate change and ocean acidification and nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence — there are now multiple threats to our life as a species that seem the direct consequence of that choice to be god-like, to exceed our limits as human creatures, to place ourselves outside the intimate web of creation and try to remake it in our own image. The story speaks even more to us today, if we have but ears to hear. May it be so.