Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Please imagine with me the ancient people of faith who heard the stories we now call the Bible, who heard these stories around fires and in tents as they traveled, who taught these stories to their children and grandchildren.
Please imagine with me the ways these stories provided for the ancient people of faith not only an introduction to their ancestors but instruction in the faith and not only that but an entire framework from which to understand life. Generation after generation, these stories were passed down to give meaning to the lives of the people of God and to quite simply provide information about why some things are the way they are. These stories are captured for us in writing in what is now a bound book you can purchase in any bookstore or find in any library in the US, the Bible.
Today’s first scripture reading is one of the oldest stories of the Bible. It is one of those stories that was undoubtedly passed down from generation to generation for many years before someone ever wrote it down. It is the story of how the first people God created made a mistake. In Genesis chapter 2, we find the second creation story, where God creates the world in one day, where Adam, adam, is made from the dust of the earth. His name is a play on words for the Hebrew word for soil is adama. And not only does God create Adam, God creates a garden in which Adam lives with animals of many varieties. God gives Adam a purpose: to till and keep the garden. And God also gives Adam one rule: that he may not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Fast forward to the time after God creates a partner for Adam. She is not yet named, but we find out later that her name will be Eve which means in Hebrew the mother of all living things. Eve becomes acquainted with the craftiest of the animals, the serpent, who talks! Just noting, we have a talking animal here. The serpent calls into question God’s rule about not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And Eve sees that the tree from which she is not supposed to eat is good for food, a delight to the eyes, and could make one wise. So she eats from the tree, and she gives some fruit to Adam as well. In eating, Eve and Adam see themselves as they are for the first time. Embarrassed, they cover themselves with fig leaves, and in the continuation of the story which we don’t read today, there are consequences for their choice—just as there are consequences for all of our choices.
This is a fairly simple story about two people who are given a purpose in life: to till and keep the garden and who are given but one rule: to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While we aren’t given much detail about whether or not they fulfilled their purpose, we know for certain that they made a mistake and did the one thing God told them not to do.
While this is a simple story, as people of faith have told this story from perhaps even its earliest tellings around fires and in tents through today, we have layered meaning upon this story, layer upon layer of meaning. And this story has become for Christians a story not about two people who made a mistake but about two people through whose actions sin entered the world. From ancient days, a case has been made against women because Eve was the one who ate from the tree first, a case that has added insult to the injury of already-present patriarchy and misogyny. Not only have women been blamed for the entrance of sin into the world because of this story, the serpent has widely and inaccurately personified evil incarnate. As much as I am terrified of snakes, poor serpent. At least among European and North American Christians in the last 1800 years, we have had a fascinating relationship to this story. There are parts we have taken literally—such as the detail of Eve and Adam being the first people ever to live on Earth and the part about Eve, and thus women, being responsible for bringing sin into the world. But note that “sin” is not the part we take literally since “sin” isn’t discussed. There are details we have added—such as the detail of Eve eating an apple—even though scripture does not stipulate what kind of “fruit” she ate. There are theological concepts we have layered upon this story—concepts like sin, evil, the devil, punishment, fall, all words that do not appear anywhere in the vicinity of this story. There are parts of this story we have failed to see—such as the humor of a talking and reasoning animal who engages Eve in conversation!
Among Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other mainline Christian perspectives, biblical scholarship agrees that Genesis chapters one through eleven are all prehistory, that is, stories about things that happened prior to the advent of written language. All of the stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are seen, therefore, not as stories meant to be taken literally but ancient stories that helped the most ancient people of faith make sense of their world. These stories are powerful—the stories of creation and the flood, the story of the Tower of Babel and of Cain and Abel, and these stories form the basis of our faith. AND these stories are myths. Myths, by definition, are stories usually involving supernatural beings that explain a natural or social phenomenon or tell the history of a people. Myths are not untrue; they certainly contain truth. But myths are not historically accurate accounts of world events.
So what is the truth of this story of Eve and Adam and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Here is a story that sets the stage for the rest of human history. But we cannot tell this story without telling the one before it, the story where God creates the heavens and the earth and calls all that God has made good and humans in particular “very good.” We cannot tell this story without telling the story where God walks with Adam in the garden in the cool of the evening, a walk that reveals God’s close and tender relationship with Adam and thus with us. We cannot tell this story without telling it all—including the part where God gives Adam a purpose: of tilling and keeping the garden because God trusted him—and thus us—enough to care for God’s beloved creation. We can tell this story about a mistake that two mythic people made in the context of all these other stories, and from all these stories, we learn that to be human is to be known and loved and trusted by God and that to be human is to also make mistakes, to err, to sometimes intentionally choose those very things God declares off limits.
So, there you have it, at risk of making too simple an important foundational story: we are human, and at times we will succumb to the crafty stories of others. We will fall down. We will make mistakes. But regardless of our mistakes, our stumbling, our misplaced trust in talking, reasoning serpents, God knows us, loves us, and trusts us. Thanks be to God! Amen.