(based in large part on the exegesis of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann)
In an earlier sermon I shared with you the consensus of Old Testament scholars that these opening chapters of Genesis represent centuries of tradition. We now know that the final form of these chapters crystallized during the period of the Exile—that time when Israel was held captive in faraway Babylon after the capital Jerusalem and temple had been destroyed, the ruling house of David came to an end, and the land had been incorporated into the Babylonian Empire which stretched from the Tigris/Euphrates valley to the land of Egypt. In future sermons we will address how these traditions spoke to that crisis. But today we want to follow a different track.
Most scholars believe that although these opening chapters crystallized in their present form during or after the Exile and were used to speak to that turbulent era, the traditions have a prior history in which they were relevant to other times, crises, and opportunities. The Adam and Eve story is thought by some to have spoken to the early monarchy of Israel—in particular, the reign of Solomon. This was the time when a royal consciousness emerged in Israel—a time of prosperity and empire management, of armies and merchants, of international diplomacy and far-reaching trade–in other words, a time when a king and a nation had to grapple with the reality of their newly achieved power and freedom. Never before and never again would Israel be as powerful, wealthy, and autonomous as she was during the reign of Solomon. The question was, “How could Israel in general and Solomon in particular cope with the power and freedom they now enjoyed?”
The Adam and Eve story may have been used to speak to this royal consciousness of Israel. Both Solomon and the people of Israel were asking questions about their identity and destiny: “Who are we? Why are we? And where do we go from here?” And in the form of a story, an unknown author or authors sought to tell Solomon and Israel what their human destiny really was under God. And the following is what the story said to the king and his people.
Adam/humankind is placed in a garden—a garden is to be the context for human community. First, Adam is given a vocation. Adam is to cultivate and keep the garden. We are to be nurturers of what God has created. We are to be caretakers, protectors, and preservers. That is our vocation. That is what it means to be created by God and placed on this earth as human beings. We are to care for, nurture, preserve, protect, and watch over God’s creation and our fellow humans. We are not free to destroy creation, abuse the earth, mismanage nature, or be negligent toward God’s creatures. We are to cultivate and keep, like a skilled gardener cares for her beloved garden.
We know how well, or we should say how poorly, Solomon cared for his realm. His disastrous policies and arrogant misuse of power wrecked Israel beyond repair. And how well have we cared for the garden in which God has placed us? Do we understand that primary to our vocation—fundamental to our calling before God as human beings is our caretaking of the earth and one another? Will we leave God’s creation better off or even as good as it was when we inherited it once the time comes to pass the garden on to our children? In our frenzy to make more, have more, and do more, are we guided by the vocation given to Adam by the Lord God? Do we understand that more important than how much money we make, how large our GNP will be, how great our quarterly profits are, must be the condition of our planet and the welfare of our fellow humans? Do we have any inkling that much of the spiritual poverty, ethical confusion, and lack of meaning in our society is rooted in the abandoning of this fundamental vocation? The Adam and Eve story would have us know that our destiny is to care for God’s creation. And we understand, perhaps better now than even those originally telling this story, that without fulfilling this primary vocation, we shall have no destiny. We are to cultivate and keep—to nurture and care for God’s creation. Any abandonment, forgetting, or distortion of that basic vocation will mar us body and soul.
Secondly, we notice that Adam is given permission. That is the second aspect of our destiny as human beings. Adam is told that he can eat from any tree in the garden but one. With one single exception, everything is permitted. Most sermons on Genesis 2-3 focus on the prohibition: “You shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat of it you shall die.” Very little attention is given to the permission. And that says more about our nature than about the nature of the text before us. Most people have an understanding of God which would assume that what Genesis 2 said was this: “You may eat from only one tree. All the others are denied you. You know the drill—the straight and narrow—a diet of only one fruit for you. Get used to it. That’s the way it must be.”
But that’s not what Genesis says. Every tree but one is permitted. God is on the side of life, joy, creativity, possibility, and fulfillment. God is no party-pooper—no tyrant just waiting to catch us in a mistake—no kill-joy imposing unbearable or bland restrictions. God said to Adam, “It’s all yours. Everything but one is yours. Now go for it—enjoy it—live it up—celebrate—be in ecstasy!” Did Adam eat from every tree of the garden? We are not told, but I doubt it. Do we? Do we fulfill our potential as God’s unique, irreplaceable creatures? Do we embrace life with a healthy gusto? Do we seek day by day to hug it so hard it gasps? In our attempt to obey the one prohibition, do we so under-live that it may be said that when many of us die, we shall die without ever having lived? Why do we assume the sin of under-living is not as great as the sin of over-living? Is it possible that many of us walk down paths of sin and unrighteousness not because we have exhausted all that is permitted but because we are too afraid to embrace the fullness of life God has set before us? Perhaps that fear and squandering of our potential are the roots of much anxiety, resentment and jealousy in our world today.
We know that Solomon and his kind in their attempts to manage, possess, and control never explored all they were permitted by God. For the sake of the measly royal trinkets they held so tightly in their hands, they closed their eyes to the manifold paths they could have travelled as God’s free children. And what of us? Do we really know all that is permitted us as children of God and fellow heirs of Christ? Or do we prefer to play it safe living a monotonous existence in God’s many splendored creation. If so, what a waste! And what a sin! Put simply, much more is permitted than denied with the Living God. And that is some good news the church must hear, embrace, and share with a world whose dominant vision of the Almighty is that of a party-pooper if not a condemning tyrant.
And finally, as part of our destiny, we are given a boundary. “The fruit of one tree you must not eat,” God says to Adam. We are free under God and before God but never apart from God. Because we are created in God’s image, our identities and destinies are inextricably connected with our Maker. Solomon in his arrogant use of power assumed that he was autonomously free—answerable to no one, not even God. And he and his kingdom learned through bitter civil war and international defeat that autonomous freedom is an illusion.
We too are prone to pursue autonomous freedom. Our society is full of people who believe they are answerable to no one—people who do not realize that we are made in such a way as to give ourselves over to something or someone. We must have something to orient our lives—to give us a sense of identity and purpose—something to pull together our thoughts, feelings, experiences and aspirations so that we know who we are. We can choose some cause or some person, but in time we discover the idolatrous limitations such allegiances place on our lives. No person or cause is capable of giving us an identity and purpose and at the same time allowing us the freedom we have, created in God’s image, to fulfill our potential. The best person and the most worthy cause can take us only so far. But what if we give ourselves to God? What if we offer our ultimate trust and allegiance to the One who made us, understands us, and is committed to our fulfillment as free children created in the divine image? What if the One to whom we offer ourselves keeps giving ourselves back to us with unlimited horizons for growth, joy, and destiny? What if the One who made us has a universe of possibilities which will never exhaust our potential?
You see, what really is at issue in this ancient story is the matter of trust. Can Adam and Eve trust God to seek their welfare? Is God on their side? Is God capable and desirous of fulfilling their greatest needs and deepest dreams? Can God be trusted? Or should Adam and Eve look to themselves as they violate the boundary meant not to restrict but to guide, protect, and enrich?
The story is well known—better known than any of us would like to admit. Adam and Eve chose to pursue autonomous freedom. They chose to trust themselves rather than the God who made and blessed them. And when they crossed that boundary intended for their welfare, they became anxious, afraid, and alienated. As Jesus reminds us in his teaching about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, anxiety is the price we pay for a lack of trust in God.
So, we come to the end of our story—the boundary of verse 17 is violated—the permission of verse 16 is perverted—the vocation of verse 15 is forgotten and neglected. Nothing more is said about cultivating and keeping the garden. As Brueggemann says, there is no more energy for that kind of care when the focus is on autonomous freedom and the accompanying anxiety and fear that go with such foolishness. And so, Adam and Eve (and remember who Adam and Eve are—they are you and I) now live, in Steinbeck’s marvelous phrase, “east of Eden” with an abandoned vocation, a perverted sense of permission, and a violated boundary. Rather than walking with our God in the cool of the evening in trust and communion, we anxiously try it our own way, and in the process violate ourselves, our world, our fellow humans, and our God.
So, is this where the story ends? Is there any hope? The New Testament continues the story and announces the Good News that there is a New Adam—a fresh beginning in Jesus Christ (Paul calls Jesus the “New Adam” in his letter to the Romans). One of the most neglected aspects of the New Testament is how it understands Jesus as the answer to the human dilemma depicted in the Adam and Eve story. We are told by Paul that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto God’s own self” and that we now have been given the ministry of reconciliation—that the reconciliation of all creation (all things on earth and in heaven) is the work of Christ and a ministry we share with him in his name. And so, in Christ we recover our vocation to tend and to keep—to be God’s agents of blessing and healing. And the entire creation is to be the recipient of this grace.
And what about our freedom? Once again Paul says in Galatians, the Magna Carter of Christian living, that in Christ we are free—free to call God “Abba/Papa.” We are no longer slaves, even to the idolatrous allegiances we have made in the past. We are children of God, and if children, then heirs—fellow heirs with Christ as we explore our freedom to live in and by the Spirit.
And what about the boundary? Put simply the boundary of Christian living is this: We are to love God with all we have and all we are and to love our fellow humans as we love ourselves. And in that trusting communion, anxiety and fear, confusion and frustration will melt away as we discover our destiny in God’s blessed community.
And so, by God’s grace we need no longer dwell east of Eden. That is not our final dwelling place. With Christ (the New Adam, the new representative of God’s new humanity), we can embrace the vocation of cultivating and keeping, the permission of living in the Spirit as free children of God, and the boundary of love. But—and this is the crucial requirement for us to recover our intended identities and destiny—we must follow Jesus as the new Adam if we are ever to find our way out of that far country east of Eden. There is absolutely no substitute for discipleship. And any church which offers an easier way has abandoned the gospel and her Lord.
It’s interesting that the Bible begins and ends with a garden–Eden in Genesis and paradise within the Holy City in Revelation. As we saw in the previous sermon, the word “paradise” is an old Persian word meaning “garden.” So, Revelation looks to the restoration of the garden. The Bible also begins and ends with the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life, guarded by the cherubim at the end of the Adam and Eve story, reappears in Revelation. And the fruit of the Tree of Life is for the healing of the nations. And even now as we follow the New Adam—and follow we must—we can catch a scent of the blossoming of that tree as we and creation journey home.