Text: Genesis 2:4b-8, 15-17, 3:1-8
Today, as we kick off the fall, we are also starting a new year with the Narrative Lectionary – a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that follows the narrative – the storyline - of the Bible. We will start in Genesis and look at key Old Testament stories through the fall up until Advent. After Christmas, we will read continuously through one gospel up until Easter - this year it’s the gospel of Luke. After Easter we will look at stories of the early church through Pentecost. And then it’s anybody’s guess what happens after that. I mean, things have not exactly been going according to plan over these past months, anyway. But generally, that is where we are heading.
Our scripture today is as good a place as any to begin this trek through the Biblical story. It is one of those formative, key stories in the Bible. It gets some big ideas, big concepts, big issues right out there from the very first pages of scripture. Creation, humanity, community, sin, grace – it’s all there.
Genesis chapter 1 is the more familiar story of creation. God creates the world in seven days, beginning with the heavens and the earth. Each day God creates a portion of creation and then pronounces what has been created as good. Finally, God creates human beings, male and female, in God’s image, and God says that it is very good.
In chapter 2, we have another telling of the creation story, a much more earthy version (pun intended). God creates the human being from the dust of the ground and breathes life into the human. It is a play on words in Hebrew – God made adam (human) from the adamah (the fertile soil). As close as we could get in English is to say that God made a human from the humus.
The human is placed in the garden to till and keep it. The English translation understates the relationship of the human to the garden. Rather than just “till,” the meaning is closer to “serve.” And to “keep” the garden really has a connotation of watching over, protecting. The Psalm says “the Lord will watch over your going out and coming in from this day on and forevermore.” The same word is used here.
There is a deep connection to the land that we find in this story. I was talking to someone recently who had moved here from California and she commented on how there is a connection to the land, almost a reverence for the land that is felt here that she had not noticed so much in other places. That may be true. Many of you grew up on farms or are involved in farming and agriculture. Many of you take great joy in gardening and flowers and landscaping and caring for the land. From the very beginning, there has been this human connection to the land and a call to care for it, to serve the land and protect the land. We are tied to the land and according to this scripture, we were formed from the land. Which, if you think about in a purely biological systems way, is actually true. The elements in our bodies were formed in the stars and come from the soil of the earth. We are not just formed from dust, we are formed from stardust, literally. It’s amazing.
So the human is created from soil and breath. God breathes life into the human, and there is a vocation – a calling – to serve and watch over the garden. There is also a limitation. The human can eat of every tree in the garden. Imagine acres and acres of fruit trees and fruit-bearing plants. Apples and oranges and peaches and pears. Mangos and bananas and coconuts. Apricots, plums, cherries, pecans, walnuts, almonds, avocados. Throw in all of the vegetables and berries and grains. We are talking about an incredible gift. God said, you may freely eat of any tree in the garden.
But there was also limitation. The human was not to eat from one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In the ensuing verses, the woman is created from adam. Adam really does not carry a gendered meaning – it just means human. God takes the rib and forms the woman, who is called Eve, which means “life,” and adam at this point become the proper name for the man, Adam.
So you have a man and a woman who are living in this beautiful garden. They are to care for the garden and to keep and protect the garden, and they may eat from a regular smorgasbord of offerings, save for one thing.
If you are told there is just one thing you cannot do, one thing that is off limits, what do you tend to focus on? If a child is taken to a toy store and told that they can choose any toy in the whole place except for that shiny bicycle over there, what is the one thing they are going to want?
Our instinct is to strive to attain that which we don’t yet have. And if there is anything we don’t like, it is somebody placing limits on us. In the pandemic, that is half of what the mask debate is about, right?
The man and woman seemed to do wonderfully in this beautiful garden – for a while. But then one day, the woman is approached by the serpent. The serpent asks, “Did God say you can’t eat from any tree in the garden?” The woman replied that she and the man could eat from any tree except for the one in the middle of the garden – they weren’t to even touch it or they would die. God had not actually said that, but apparently, just to be on the safe side, the man and woman had added the part about even touching the tree.
The serpent said, “Of course you won’t die – God knows that your eyes will be open and you will know good and evil. You will be like God.
Interestingly, the woman saw that it was good. She apparently already knew good. The woman and the man saw that it was good, it looked delicious, it would make them wise, and so they ate. And when they ate, their eyes were open and they knew they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths.
Then, they heard God walking in the garden, around the time of the evening breeze. And because of the guilt and shame they felt, they hid.
What the woman and the man came to know after eating the fruit was vulnerability. They hid from God just as they were in a sense hiding from one another. When they are found out, they turn to blaming. The man blamed the woman – she gave me the fruit. The woman blamed the serpent – he tricked me.
Now, people have done all kinds of things with this text. There are those who have argued that women cannot be ordained ministers because Eve was the first to take a bite of the apple. If you read this story and that is the meaning you get from it, I would seriously worry about you.
There are those theologians who have used this passage to argue for a doctrine of Original Sin – that sin entered the human race by the action of the man and woman in the garden, and since then there has been almost a herditary passing on of sin. The man and woman’s action in the garden is called The Fall. Before the fall, humanity was capable of living sin-free, but no longer. There was a little ditty popularized by the Puritans that said, “In Adam’s fall, we sin all.” Don’t you love that?
I think that is also perhaps a little too much reading into the story – a little too ambitious. Again, I don’t think this is the main point to be gained from this story.
To me, this is a kind of universal story about all of us, about the choices that we make, about the nature of temptation, about our striving for more, about the nature of shame.
The NFL season has started and so maybe it is time for an annual quote from the great coach Vince Lombardi. He famously said, in a comment that is etched in the American psyche, “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.” The comment spun out of control, like a viral tweet, and Lombardi came to regret it. “I wish I’d never said the damn thing,” he said shortly before his death. “I meant the effort… I meant having a goal… I surely didn’t mean to crush human values.”
But that attitude, that drive to succeed and to get what you want at all costs is deeply rooted in our culture. It is also the kind of thing that our scripture warns about. Crossing the boundaries of what is good and helpful and healthy both for ourselves and for others can come with a price. Breaking faith with God, breaking faith with others comes with a cost.
The man and woman wanted to be like God. They were not the only ones. Adam and Eve went on to have three children, three boys. Abel was blessed, seemed to do everything well, managed to get everything he wanted. Abel never seemed to make a mistake, except one. One day, he went for a walk with his brother.
Cain had a much more difficult time of it. He wanted everything that Abel had. He resented his brother and came to the point where he thought if he could just get rid of Abel, his problems would be solved. And so he did - but life did not get better. He spent the rest of his life wandering the earth, carrying a load of guilt for murdering his brother.
The treachery and murder in their family compounded the guilt and shame Adam and Eve felt. And they saw the continuing cycle of blaming and wanting more. They could see it in their third son, Seth, and his children. And their children and their children. Generation after generation, always striving, always wanting more. And when they got more, they would still want more. They would steal and cheat and lie and fight wars, nation against nation.
And if it that didn’t work out, they could always find someone to blame. The government. The school. The administrators and bureaucrats. They could blame the church. Blame the TV set. Blame their families, their neighbors, their bosses. Blame their enemies.
This episode is not just Adam and Eve’s story; it is also our story. It is about choices that we all make.
The comedian Ron White put it this way: “They told me I had the right to remain silent… I may have had the right, but I didn’t have the ability.” Knowledge alone is not enough. Falling short is part of the human story.
In the end, the man and the woman did not die, not on that day. But there was a death, in a sense. Innocence died, trust died, and the closeness they had felt to God and to one another would never completely be recovered.
At the root of it all, this is a story about relationships – between humans and the land, relationships between individuals, between men and women, between us and God. In all of those relationships, there can be brokenness. We know this; we have experienced all of this. But in this formative story, we also see God’s grace.
Grace in the fact that even as there were consequences for their actions – the man and woman left behind the garden and had to travel east of Eden - God was with them, caring for them, providing for them. Grace in that while the knowledge we gain does not necessarily lead to wisdom, it does increase our ability to do good, our ability to bring about justice and righteousness and healing.
And grace in the fact that just as the man and woman had choices, so do we. We have freedom. We have the ability to live in God’s grace, to take up the vocation of serving and keeping God’s people and God’s world – or not. And when we have fallen short, we have the ability to start again, to mend broken relationships, to return to God. And as we will find as we continue this journey through scriptures, God never gives up on us. Amen.