YEAR A: LENT 1
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
The story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3 has become one of the ‘classic’ stories in the Christian tradition. It is commonly referred to as the story of the ‘Fall’ and is seen to explain the origin of human sin. In the story, humankind ‘falls’ from a state of grace and blessing in an ideal world to the state of sinful creature in a world beset by hardship and wickedness. This ‘fallen’ state is then considered to be passed from generation to generation, and is that from which we are redeemed in Jesus.
Genesis 2-3 is a story about the ‘origin’ of sin, and as such it is an appropriate reading for the beginning of Lent when we examine ourselves in preparation for Easter. However, Genesis 2-3 is not a story about the ‘origin’ of sin in the way that has been assumed in much of Christian tradition. It is not about the ‘when’ of sin but about the ‘why’ and ‘how’. It does not speak about a point in time when sin entered the world, as much as about how it enters. In addition, many things have been read into the story which it does not support, such as the close association of the woman with sin, and the connection of the serpent with Satan.
The reading set for today (Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7) is only a portion of the larger story of Eden (Gen 2:4-3:24) and can only be understood in that larger context. Nevertheless, it gets at the heart of the story. In the midst of this garden which the Lord has planted and into which the human creature has been placed, there is a tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) from which the Lord has commanded the human not to eat, for ‘in the day that you eat of it you shall die’ (2:17). Chapter 3 opens by introducing a wild creature, the serpent, which exhibits the qualities animals only have in myths and fairytales, namely being able to speak and reason. He questions the woman (see 2:18-24) about what God had said regarding the trees. Her answer, while a little fuller than God’s initial statement, conveys the gist of the divine command, emphasising that death is the result of disobedience. The serpent challenges this, suggesting that wisdom is to be gained from the tree. Not only is the life of the couple at stake in the story, so too is the divine reputation. We know how it works out. The tree is desirable, in both its beauty and its fruit, and the woman and man eat but they do not die. Rather they gain ‘wisdom’ of a funny kind: they discover their nakedness which they hurriedly try to cover. While this aspect of the story was about shame for its ancient hearers, we ought not to miss the humour in it as modern readers.
One thing to note is that the garden, which the Lord plants, is not a place especially prepared for human occupation; ‘paradise’ as it has been called. Rather, this garden possesses all the qualities of a place where gods reside in ancient myths. It is a place of abundant fertility, with supernatural trees of great beauty offering divine gifts (wisdom and life; 2:9). There is a subterranean source of life-giving water which feeds the whole earth (2:6, 10-14). It is the place where the Lord resides and takes rest (3:8) and where, in the presence of other divine creatures (the cherubim and flaming sword in 3:24, and the ‘us’ referred to in 3:22), the Lord makes decrees affecting the destiny of the world (3:16-19). The Garden of Eden is not intended to be a human ‘paradise’, but is actually the garden of God into which humans are placed by the one who is its chief resident (cf. Ezek 28:1-19).
The story is about the human propensity to transgress the relationship established between God and humans, to want to be more than the human creatures they are created to be. It is not so much about a ‘fall’, as about hubris, the attempt to be more than what one is, to gain qualities not intended for human possession; in short, to seek to be like God. The end of the story confirms this. Even the Lord God acknowledges that humans having eaten from the tree of knowledge ‘have become like one of us knowing good and evil’ (3:22). The result of this transgression is alienation in every direction: the woman and the man from each other, the humans from the ground, and the humans from the Lord God. The intimacy that was the hallmark of the garden, has been broken. While in the telling of the story there is an element of the beginning of sin, it is more 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 unbound freedom to choose at will from all that is available or possible in creation. Rather, it 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 limits of that intimacy; limits which have been set by God.
Thus, the story of Eden is well suited to be connected with Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). There the question is not about Jesus’ moral actions, but about who he is as a faithful servant before God.
Of course, the story of Eden is not without its twists and turns, and in a subtle way the writers want to say to us that this kind of faithful living in the presence of God is not an easy thing. Many questions remain. Why did God forbid eating from the tree but made it desirable and beautiful and left it where it was bound to cause trouble? And who was right about the tree, God or the serpent, after all, the couple did not die on the day they ate its fruit as the Lord said they would? Many have tried to ‘explain’ this anomaly one way or another: the death referred to is ‘spiritual’ or metaphorical, or they note that the couple do eventually die so God did not mean ‘in the day’ literally when it was said (cf. 2:17). Such questions cannot be answered to everyone’s satisfaction as thousands of biblical scholars have demonstrated in their lengthy writings on this text. It may well be that part of what this text has to tell us is to be found in the complexity and confusion in the story rather than in our agreement over solutions to its puzzles. Could it be that the writers want to say that as we struggle with faithfulness in our relationships with God, each other, and creation, and especially as we struggle with who we are as human beings, we will find that our perception of God and God’s calling upon our lives is not always clear and free of puzzles and contradictions? Is that part of the vulnerability of our relationship with God? After all, we should note that in his struggles with similar questions, Jesus is challenged by the devil not with wicked and dark thoughts, but with words from Scripture. Their tussle in the wilderness was no simple tit for tat, throwing empty Bible verses at each other. It was a vigorous struggle for Jesus, who sought to understand the word of God in his calling and the nature of his intimate relationship with God.
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