“Genesis” means “beginning,” as in the very first words of the bible: “In the beginning, when God made the heavens and the earth…” All the stories in Genesis are stories of beginnings. They are all stories about firsts. The first moments of God creating. The first stars in the sky. The first waters to run across the earth. The first animals to inhabit dry land and birds to fly through the air. The first people. All the stories of Genesis are stories of firsts.
Today, on the first Sunday in Lent, it seems appropriate that we have a story that contains a number of these firsts: The first people. The first commandments given by God to those people. The first temptation. The first sin. And the first people to live in the consequences of that sin.
When our passage begins, only the “human” exists. The word used in the Hebrew, “Adam,” later becomes the proper name for the first man. But “Adam’s” original meaning is earth-creature, groundling, one formed from the earth, from the “Adamah.” When we meet the first human creature, we cannot assume it is either male or female. All we know is that it’s human. The surgery which assigns sex to the earth-creature, and results in the creation of male and female, occurs offstage for us this morning, in the eerie tale told at the end of chapter two. The lectionary skips over that part.
“Adam,” the earth-creature, is given a task. Really, a commandment. When God gives you a job—I think we all know it’s a commandment. God’s first commandment is contained in the first sentence of our reading: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it” [Genesis 2:15]. The first commandment is that the human should care for the earth that God has created, “Adam” should care for the “Adamah”. The garden is God’s creation, this beautiful and lush garden paradise, and the human, also God’s creation, is to care for it, to till it and keep it. This is humanity’s first assignment. This is the first commandment.
The second commandment is a curious one, and it’s the one that leads to all the trouble. God selects one tree from among all those in the garden and places a boundary around it by telling the earth-creature, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 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” [Genesis 2:16-17].
There is something in this story that begs the question, “Why?” Why would God not want the earth-creature to know good and evil? Is God being an over-protective parent? Is it because humankind is still in its infancy? Remember, this commandment being given when the earth creature is in, at the least, a pre-adolescent stage of development—one can’t have an awareness, for example, of the opposite sex if no such thing exists. Living in a paradise where all your needs are met and there is no reason for conflict would seem to preclude an awareness of evil, but also of good—if good is all you’ve ever known, how can you see it for what it is, except by contrast? For whatever reasons the Creator has in mind, it is God’s choice, at this moment, to shield the earth-creature from that particular knowledge.
By the time chapter three commences, we no longer have an undifferentiated earth creature, but a man and a woman—neither of them named, neither of them ashamed, both still in that strangely pre-adolescent state. And immediately a new character is introduced: the serpent. The serpent is described as the craftiest of all the wild animals God has created, and we immediately see why: the serpent is placed in the role of Tempter. And his first temptation is brilliant: he asks a question to which he already knows the answer, and it’s one that is designed to confuse, to interrupt the logic of what God actually said. The serpent asks the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” [Genesis 3:1b]. Very clever. Because, of course, that’s not what God said at all.
And the clever question plants a little seed of doubt in the woman. We can tell, because of how she responds. She says, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 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’” [Genesis 3:2b-3]. The woman misquotes God. God never said that they shouldn’t touch the tree. But the woman reveals her anxiety by doing what the Rabbis call ‘placing a fence around the Torah.’ That’s what you do when, in order to avoid a particular sin, you avoid other activities that are related to that sin—what has been called “the near occasion of sin.” The woman, by adding the prohibition on touching the fruit—which God never said—shows that the Tempter is getting to her, just a little bit.
Then the Tempter tries another strategy. He applies reason, and imputes a somewhat sinister motivation to God’s commandment. The Tempter tries to get between the woman and God by making her doubt that God has her best interests at heart. The serpent says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” [Genesis 3:4b-5]. Very, very clever. The tempter essentially asks the question, Does God really have our best interests at heart?
One of the things it’s important to remember about Genesis is that, by its very nature, it is a book that contains some very early understandings of God. Much of Genesis is written by an author who has God behaving downright humanly—just after our passage ends, we are told that God is walking around the garden at the time of the evening breeze, presumably because God’s warm and wants to cool off! God is highly anthropomorphized, that is to say, God is given human characteristics. What the serpent says to the woman, to our ears, sounds outrageous. Of course God has our best interests at heart. What nonsense! But that would not be such a given for the earliest storytellers. With a history of capricious gods who often are quite antagonistic towards humans, the possibility that God might be a kind of trickster would not be unheard of.
The words have an effect on the woman. And, in something that is fairly unusual for biblical literature, we are given a full description of the reasoning the woman uses to make her decision. “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” [Genesis 3:6].
The woman is a philosopher. She is an ethicist. She has an artist’s eye! She sees that the tree is good for food, she sees that it is beautiful, and she sees that it will give her wisdom. The woman wants all of these things, and so she eats the fruit. And she gives some to her husband, who gobbles it up without a word of question or protest.
The man and the woman feel the consequences of their action immediately. Their eyes are opened. They see that things have changed. They see that they are naked. And, for the first time, it occurs to them that clothes might be a good idea. But they don’t die. At least, not yet. Scholars are divided. Does the fact that the man and the woman don’t die immediately, as God had told them they would, indicate that the serpent’s reading of God’s motives was correct? That God didn’t want them to be wise, and so tried to scare them away from the tree with what amounted to a fib? Or, are we to understand that now they will die, whereas before, they would have lived forever, in their garden paradise, never knowing their nakedness, never knowing evil, but also, never knowing good?
The traditional Jewish interpretation of this tale sees it as a coming-of-age story, one in which humanity moves out of childhood and into adulthood—which includes, always, a knowledge, if not an understanding, of good and evil and their place in the world. Some have speculated that this may have originated as a folk tale, told to young women on the threshold of adulthood. In fact, some feminist scholars have even celebrated the action of disobedience to a command to stay in ignorance. One writes,
When [the woman] bit into the [fruit], she gave us the world as we know the world: beautiful, flawed, dangerous, full of being… Even the alienation from God we feel as a direct consequence of her fall makes us beholden to her: the intense desire for God, never satisfied, arises from our separation from him. In our desire—this desire that makes us perfectly human—is contained our celebration and our rejoicing. The mingling, melding, braiding of good and mischief in every human soul—the fusion of good and bad in intent and in art—is what makes us recognizable (and delicious) to one another; without it—without the genetically transmitted knowledge of good and evil that [the woman’s] act of radical curiosity sowed in our marrow—we should have no need of one another… of a one and perfect Other… [The woman’s] legacy to us is the imperative to desire. Babies and poems are born in travail of this desire, her great gift to the lovable world.[i]
Lest this sound like an entirely outrageous concept—the idea that we should be grateful for the sin of the first woman and man—none other than Saint Augustine said precisely the same thing. “O felix culpa,” he said, “O happy fault that merited… so great a Redeemer,” meaning, of course, Jesus Christ. Each Advent and Christmastide choirs sing that very sentiment in the medieval carol, “Adam Lay Ybounden,” whose last line is, “Blessed be the time that apple taken was/ therefore, we might sing, Deo Gracias.” Thanks be to God!
Sin has found its way into our lives. There is no doubt. We can either thank or curse the first ones for that. The aftermath of the first sin is the loss of paradise: the loss of a perfect world where there is no hunger, no pain, and no knowledge of good and evil. But the aftermath of the first sin is also the understanding of what it is to desire and what it is to create. Who knows? Perhaps the loss of paradise was God’s intention for us all along; after all, it is only through the “happy fall” that humanity comes to have need for a Savior. “The intense desire for God, never satisfied, arises from our separation from him.” Perhaps we were born to be prodigals, so that we would know in our bones the joy of coming home. Deo Gracias! Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “A Meditation on Eve,” in Out of the Garden: Women writers on the Bible, Celina Spiegel and Christina Buchmann, eds. (Ballantine Books, 1995).