At the beginning of this sermon series I suggested that we could better understand and interpret the opening chapters of Genesis if we realized that these traditions are primarily stories—ancient stories which have profound wisdom to impart regarding God, humankind, and creation. They are not historical and scientific accounts of the origins of the universe or of human beings. They are stories with profound theological insight.
This is clearly seen if we look carefully and with open minds to the Adam and Eve story. As we have said, “Adam” means humankind. This is a story about us—all of us. We are Adam. Once we understand this, we realize there is no conflict between the Bible and science. The Bible is not a science book—it is a book of faith. And with these stories, which must not be taken literally, historically, or as scientifically true, the Bible teaches us much wisdom. Science today understands that life on this planet, including human life, came about through some evolutionary process. Scholars who specialize in the evolution of humankind tell us about early proto-types of humans such as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. We know that animals such as dinosaurs and mammals evolved long before any human creature walked on this earth. We do not have to take the Adam and Eve story as literal science and history to be true to the Bible because the Bible itself understands these chapters as a story based on ancient traditions.
But no matter how many times this is said, people in the church still ask questions like “Where was Eden? What was the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? How can a serpent talk? Did Eve really come from Adam’s rib? Where is Eden today, and are there still cherubim guarding the Tree of life? Where did Cain get his wife? Did Adam have a belly button?” (You didn’t see that last one coming, did you?) Again, let me say that once we realize that these chapters are stories and not literal, historical, and scientific accounts of something that actually happened at the dawn of creation, we are free from having to find answers to such questions. And more importantly, we are free to see what profound wisdom these stories possess.
There are hints all through Genesis 3 that this is a story and not an account of some real event in the past. There is a serpent which talks and is craftier than any other creature. Now how many of you have ever seen a snake that could talk? And we cannot say that this is really Satan in the disguise of a serpent because the text clearly says that the snake is a creature. And part of the snake’s punishment in the story is that it will no longer be able to walk but will instead crawl upon its belly. This part of the story may reflect an ancient tradition as to why snakes slither on the ground instead of walking like other animals, but as we now have it, this is just part of a story that we should know better than to take literally.
We also have the mention of the Tree of Life. This too is an ancient symbol in the Near East. In the Book of Proverbs, it is used as a symbol for that which enriches and blesses life. But its purpose in our story is marginal at best.
And what about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? How many of you have seen a pine tree? An oak tree? A maple tree? A peach tree? A Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? The very name tells us that we are not talking about a literal tree—the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a symbol/a metaphor. We could go on and on with examples of parts of the story which reveal that it is just that—a story. But I want us to move on to the message intended by the story.
You will remember what we said in our last sermon on Genesis 2. We are told that God formed a garden in Eden and placed Adam in that garden to cultivate and keep it. So, Adam is given a vocation. Adam is also given permission to eat from any tree in the garden but one. Thirdly, Adam is given a boundary meant not to oppress and deny, but to protect and preserve, to guide and enhance life. Adam may eat from any tree of the garden but the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the day he eats from that tree, he will die. And finally, Adam is given Eve as a partner. Adam and Eve are naked but not ashamed. They are sexual partners with no sense of guilt.
But in chapter 3 this beautiful age of innocence comes to an end. Tempted by a serpent, Adam and Eve question God’s command. They even question God’s integrity. God gave the boundary for their own good, but at the suggestion of the serpent Adam and Eve begin to doubt God’s motives. “God does not want us to eat from this tree because if we do eat from it, we will become like God. God does not want us to have what God has. God is selfish, conniving, and stingy.” So, they eat from the tree and their eyes are open, but they do not become like God. Instead, they become ashamed, guilt-ridden and alienated. In a pathetic attempt to hide their condition, they try to cover themselves with fig leaves. They hide from one another, and they hide from God. When God comes to walk with them in the cool of the day, they hide in the bushes. When they are confronted with what they have done, they try to pin the blame on someone else—Eve on the serpent and Adam on Eve (or on God, for Adam said that “the woman you gave me gave me the fruit and I ate”). And God now confirms what has already happened. Adam and Eve through their disobedience have become alienated from themselves, each other, God, and the rest of creation. And God banishes them from the garden to the far country in the east.
Now what is this ancient story trying to say? We could spend hours looking at all aspects of this story and the message intended, but today I want us to center on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Obviously, this is a symbol/a metaphor. But what does it mean? Let me use an analogy which we all can understand. We are born into this world innocent. Babies, infants, and toddlers are innocent. They don’t understand much about good and evil. No one today would accuse an infant of sin, evil, and unrighteousness. But guess what? Infants grow into children and children grow into adolescents and adolescents grow into adults. And all along the way they face trials, temptations, choices, and decisions. As much as we want to protect them from the world, we know that as they grow, they will become their own persons and must live by their own choices. And every child will grow into an adult who will make mistakes and who will do foolish things. That is part of growing up. And we can’t stop them from making their mistakes and losing their innocence. There is a big, wide world out there and each person must find his or her way in that world. That is a reality of life. It’s one of the hard lessons of life. But if we truly love our children, we must let them make their choices, learn from their mistakes, and suffer the consequences. We cannot arrest their development. We cannot keep them in the precious, innocent state of infancy. If we could do that, it would be for our benefit, not theirs. They would be little more than our play dolls and could never become free, creative, loving, and responsible human beings.
In a similar way (remember, this is an analogy) God placed us in a world where there are many choices, and many of those choices become temptations which, when pursued, rob life rather than enhance it. But only in such a world could there be freedom and creativity, authentic love and mature responsibility. Once we have the freedom to choose, we can choose good or evil. Those choices are before us, available for the picking, so to speak. Now how many of us have always chosen the good? How many of us have always chosen wisely? How many of us have had to learn the hard way and have endured the painful consequences of a freedom that has been foolishly and selfishly pursued? How many of us find ourselves alienated from ourselves, each other, creation, and God because of our prideful, greedy, fearful, and stubborn choices? And how many of us because of the way we have chosen to live life have trouble trusting others, God, and even ourselves? And how many of us live in fear? If you have trouble coming up with your answer, let me give you the biblical answer: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We are all Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve (read “You and I”) said to God when God came to walk with them that they were afraid, naked, and ashamed. And it all started when they made choices based on the suspicion that God could not be trusted. They crossed the boundary meant for their own good, survival, and enhancement and found themselves banished from their original blessing.
You see, we are Adam and Eve. We were born in innocence, but we were also born into a world with temptation, choices, and freedom. That explains the role of the serpent and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in our story. If we take these parts of the story literally, then we could ask why God would allow the serpent to tempt Eve or why even put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden in the first place. But once we realize that these are symbolic of the world we are all born into and reflect the freedom we are given by God to choose, we get the point.
Now does that mean that we are without blame? That we are off the hook? Of course not. Is a child who grows into a man and then chooses a life of violence, greed, and bigotry responsible for his actions? Of course, he is. We are all responsible for the choices we make. The point is that we are all born into a world where we are tempted to make foolish and sometimes evil choices. Once we enter this world, we are surrounded by other human beings who present us with options, examples, and choices. Sometimes we make wise and good choices, but every one of us, without a single exception, has chosen at some time to eat from that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Now God could have made us in such a way that we were incapable of sin, but to do so, God would have had to make us without free will and thus incapable of love. In a real sense what happened in Eden was inevitable, just like bad choices are inevitable in our lives. But the story teaches us a valuable lesson. It is not saying that the option we should choose is ignorance as opposed to knowledge. It is saying that we must choose knowledge with trust in God. We must grow in ways that deepen our faith and trust in God rather than in ways which alienate us from God, each other, ourselves, and creation. Knowledge accompanied by trust in God is wisdom. There is a profound difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is “know how.” And today we have plenty of “know how.” Wisdom is knowing how to use knowledge in ways which are life affirming—in ways (as Genesis would put it) that fulfill our vocation to care and keep the earth and each other. Wisdom in the Bible is all about a basic trust in God and a willingness to be guided by God’s will as we use our knowledge.
Adam and Eve’s basic problem was not that they became intelligent and morally aware. Their problem was that as they grew and became aware of their surroundings and choices, they chose not to trust God. They chose to go it alone—to look after number one—to cross a boundary which was meant for their and the earth’s blessing. And it is that choice (which has been repeated over and over again throughout human history) that has been the source of so much pain, misery, destruction, and waste.
You will remember that we said in a previous sermon that the Garden of Eden story may have been intended at some point in its history to speak to the royal consciousness of Israel—to that time when Solomon was king, when Israel was at its greatest expanse as an empire, when wealth, trade, and knowledge were abundant. What will Solomon and Israel do with this opportunity? How will they use their “know-how”? To bless or to curse? With a deepening trust in God or through an arrogant faith in their own ability?
And the same question can be asked about us. How do we use our “know-how”? Are we guided by a wisdom which seeks to bless others and creation? Do we have any inkling as to how dangerous knowledge without wisdom can truly be in our kind of world? Has our ethical and spiritual development kept up with our advances in knowledge, technology, and know-how? (Consider the examples of nuclear weapons; the Gulf oil spill; genetic engineering; and the greatest threat humanity has ever faced—the climate crisis.)
We tend to look at the Adam and Eve story as an event which happened in the past—an event involving two actual people whose choices forever wrecked human chances to have joyful, loving, and free lives. We call it “the Fall.” In our next sermon we will look at the concepts of Fall and Original Sin. But today I want us to realize that this story is not so much telling us about something in the past which could have been prevented. It’s telling us the way things are for all of us. The Garden of Eden exists only in the sense that we know deep down that we could have all made choices which enhanced life, reflected a deep trust in God, and respected the boundaries meant for our own well-being. The closest any of us has ever been to living in the Garden of Eden is when we were in our infancy and childhood—a time when we were innocent and, yes, naïve. The Adam and Eve story picks up where we all live—east of Eden. That is our existential condition. We make choices which alienate us from God, ourselves, others, and creation. But the good news of this story is that God chooses to work with us just like we work with our kids when they mess up. God’s grace is seen in the fact that the day Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, they do not die. God’s grace is seen in the clothing of Adam and Eve to help them deal with their shame. And God’s grace is seen in the guarding of the Tree of Life until the time comes when we are capable of coping with the blessings such fruit can bestow.
What we see in this story is a pattern which will be repeated over and over again in Genesis: first, humans sin; then there are consequences; but God has the final word—and it is always a word of grace. God provides a way forward regardless of how foolish our choices are. God decides in these opening chapters not to abandon creation or humankind to its folly. We may live east of Eden, but the God of Adam and Eve and the God of our Lord Jesus Christ accompanies us into that far country with choices of God’s own—choices which give us and creation hope and joy.