Monthly Archives: September 2007


I will be away at a conference next week in Germany. It is being held in honor of the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Unity of the Brethren (the Moravian Church). That’s 60 years before Luther’s 95 Theses by the way. The Unity was the first “free church” to break away from Rome, having established an independent episcopacy in 1467. It was also the first church to reject the idea of a “state church”, and to top it all off, the Brethren were pacifists. My paper is on the theology of the Brethren and how this may have impacted the community led by Zinzendorf.


Genesis: Lesson 10: The Flood, according to J

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 10: The Flood, according to J (Genesis 6-8). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Nov. 27, 2005

Cultural Literacy:      This week we are turning our attention to the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis chapters 6-8. This is such a familiar stories that it has become a part of our cultural literacy. Just last week the cover of the New Yorker magazine pictured pairs of animals dressed as New Yorkers holding umbrellas waiting for the ferry in the rain. Some of you may remember the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons. The math series used Noah’s Ark to teach how to multiple by two. There was even a Broadway musical titled Two by Two about the ark. One of the songs has Noah’s children raising questions about their father’s sanity as he builds a boat when there is no rain. Even Bill Cosby took up the story of Noah. According to Cosby, when Noah had doubts about building the ark, God asked him “How long can you tread water?” And finally there was the teacher who asked her class who Joan of Arc was. One student replied, Noah’s wife. In short, this is a very familiar story. I think most Americans know the basic outline: God tells Noah to build a boat because there is a flood coming. Noah takes two of every kind of animal on the boat and they are saved. Today we’re going to look a little closer at the story.

Complex Story:          The first thing to be aware of is that the recorded story of the flood is longer and more complicated than you probably remember from Sunday School. A lot of people find the story rather hard to read. This is in part because it doesn’t focus on the things we might expect. One of the reason comedians and playwrights create such funny dialog between God and Noah is that the Bible gives no conversation between them. No one speaks in the story but God. This silence has allowed preachers for centuries to invent dialog. We picture Noah’s wife and neighbors saying, “You’re building a what?” There is a lot of room for imagination with the Noah story because so much is left unsaid.

            Instead we have information on the size of the ark, the length of the flood, numbers of animals, and the chronology. We also discover that there are repetitions in the story and some confusion in the chronology. Noah puts the animals on board four times, so we know that’s important. But it is not clear if the flood lasted forty days and forty nights, or 150 days, or 365 days. One of the great trick questions is how many of each kind of animal did Noah take on the ark? Most of us say two, but in Genesis 7:3 Noah brings on board 7 pairs of the clean animals. This interest in chronologies, clean and unclean animals, and the dimensions of the ark indicates that this story was preserved by the priests and scribes of Israel.

            The repetitions and discrepancies, though, indicate that the story as we have it in Genesis is actually a blending of at least two different accounts of the flood. Scholars attribute some of the verses in chapters 6-8 to the J source that we’ve talked about before. The rest are from the P or priestly source. There may even be a third source. The final author of Genesis wove these sources together because the story of the flood was so important. It communicates important aspects of faith and morality. For this lesson, I will be using the flood story from the J materials in Genesis rather than all of Genesis 6-8. Consider it an excerpt of the story.

Ancient Flood Stories            The story of Noah and the ark is not the only flood story from the ancient world. The Babylonians, Sumerians, and other ancient people told of a great flood that wiped out most life on earth. The most famous of these stories is found in the Gilgamesh Epic. In 1873 George Smith discovered tablets written around 2000 BC that told the story of the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh who was seeking for the secret of immortality. It includes a long and vivid account of a deluge sent by the gods because they were angry at humans. Gilgamesh’s ancestor Utnapishtim used the lumber from his house to build a boat and took on board every kind of animal so that life would be preserved. After the deluge, he offered sacrifices to the gods. They hungrily ate the incense of the sacrifice, and they rewarded Utnapisphtim with immortality.

            Archaeologists also discovered shorter versions of the flood story that are far older than the time of Moses. The common elements in the ancient stories are: a flood covered the known world; a righteous man was warned to build a large boat; and a boat preserved all of the land animals. Some scholars have seen these ancient stories as evidence that the flood story in Genesis is literally true, but the evidence is not convincing. It is interesting that all of the ancient deluge stories come from one part of the world, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which we call Mesopotamia.

            The great evangelist George Whitefield was rumored to be able to move crowds to tears just by how he said Mesopotamia. I can’t do that. But it was in Mesopotamia, now modern day Iraq, that the Israelites lived in exile after the destruction of the Temple. It was most likely that during the exile that they learned the ancient myth of Gilgamesh. The Canaanites, Assyrians, and Egyptians did not have such stories of a great flood. That ancient story became a means of revelation for the Jews in exile, and it continues to be a source of revelation for us today.

            It is interesting that some of the accounts of the ancient flood identify Ur as the city where the big boat was built. Ur, as we shall see, was the hometown of Abraham. There is geological evidence that there was a catastrophic flood in ancient Ur over 5000 years ago. There were major floods at other cities mentioned in ancient deluge stories. We can’t go into all of the research on ancient floods this morning, but what the evidence points to is that there was at least one flood in ancient Mesopotamia that was so devastating that it became part of the folklore and literature of ancient Babylon. We have to remember that in ancient times, the “whole world” was a lot smaller than today. Just like our World Series involves only a few cities in North America, the whole world in ancient times meant the world they knew about.

            The modern science of geology began in the 19th century in part because a number of European scientists wanted to prove that the story of Noah and the ark were historically factual. Scientists went all over the world looking for a layer of silt that covered the whole earth 5000 years ago, but they didn’t find it. There were many floods, some of them mind-boggling large, but no universal flood. In the 1830s Charles Lyell published his research into the geological history of the earth, and he concluded that the earth was far older than people had previously imagined. For much of the 19th century scientists, preachers, and journalists engaged in a vigorous and rancorous debate over the Biblical deluge, but the final result is that there is no physical record of a world-wide flood like the one described in Genesis 6-8.

            But there remain people who are dedicated to finding evidence that Noah once built an ark that held every animal on earth. In the 1960s James Whitcomb and Henry Morris published a book entitled The Genesis Flood. Whitcomb and Morris tried to prove that it was possible for all the animals to fit on a ship smaller than Groves Stadium. It is a complicated book, but it is not convincing. Even if one assumes that all of the species of animals that live in the artic, tropics, and temperate zones at one time lived within walking distance of ancient Ur, it is hard to fit them all on one boat and carry enough food for a year. No, the story of Noah’s ark is not literally true in terms of history. In fact, the effort to convince people that it is factual it all its details has given more fuel to atheists and opponents of the Bible than support for people of faith, as a quick review of the Internet shows.

            The most we could claim, based on the geological and historical evidence, is that there was a devastating flood in Mesopotamia. A heroic man and wife built a large boat and carried many animals to safety. The story of that deluge and rescue of the animals was the basis for the Babylonian myths and the flood stories in Genesis. What is important for us is not the history of the flood; it is the meaning of this story in Genesis and in our lives today. We don’t need to find geological or archaeological evidence for Noah and the flood to find meaning and insight in this biblical story. The story of Noah helps us interpret the fundamental story of creation and redemption. It is a story of judgment and the hope for salvation. It is a story of exile and restoration. It is also a story about our ethical obligations to the earth and all its inhabitants.

Judgment:                   When we look at the story in detail, we see that both the J and P versions agree on the basic details. The deluge begins with God’s judgment. God saw that humans had filled the earth with evil and violence. Notice that the problem was not “sin;” it was evil and violence. According to Genesis, the problem with humans is that we choose to kill, destroy, and maim what God has made. We harbor hatred in our hearts. “Every inclination of our hearts is only evil continually.”

            I find it interesting that the story of Noah does not place the blame for evil on Satan or the devil. No, Genesis puts the blame on humans. We are the ones who like to cause pain. We are the ones who solve problems with guns and bombs rather than justice and reason. All we need to do is watch TV to see how accurate this Genesis account is. Violence is everywhere in our society: violence as entertainment; violence as a solution to all problems. Violence is justified. Violence is celebrated. Hatred is endorsed and rewarded at the highest levels of our society. But God rejects this sort of society.

God’s Sorrow :           There is a very important verse in the Noah story that is often overlooked: “God was pained in his heart.” The NRSV is a bit too delicate in translating this verse saying “it grieved him to his heart.” The Hebrew is much stronger. God was in anguish as he watched the evil of humans. He deeply regretted that he had made them at all. Though we don’t want to think about God feeling pain, deep down we understand this. We know what this pain of God is like. We feel compassion for the innocent who suffer. We feel anger at those who cause suffering. We are also ashamed that another human being could torture someone. We see the pictures and we suffer. God suffers with us.

            Here is where the story of Noah differs so significantly from the story of Utnapishtim and other tales from ancient Babylon. In those myths and legends the gods were angry at humans because humans had neglected their duty to serve the gods. They were not offering the required sacrifices. Genesis is much different. God was not grieved because humans didn’t go to church, or pray, or sacrifice, or perform their ritual duties. God was sorrowful because humans were wicked and cruel and violent. Churches tend to forget this. Too often we tell people that God is more concerned with matters of piety than matters of justice. Too often we turn the story of Noah into the Gilgamesh Epic, missing the whole point. God was in anguish because humans are violent and cruel and unjust, and Noah found favor because he was righteous. The flood story tells us that world suffers because of human evil. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this connection between the wickedness of humans and the destruction of the earth in his portrayal of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Evil corrupts, tortures, and destroys all that is green and good in the world. According to Genesis, this was what led to the deluge.

Starting Over:            The J account in particular portrays God in human terms, and I think that we can empathize with God in this story. Have you ever wanted to just wipe the slate clean and start over? If only we could rid the world of human evil and make everything all right. If only we could just wash it all away and make the world clean and fresh. This is the part of the imagery of the Noah story. The rains come to clean away corruption and evil. In early Christianity the story of Noah was used in the ritual of baptism. Baptism washes away sin like the flood washed the earth.

            There is more to the imagery here than a good bath though. Especially in the priestly (P) version of the story, the flood is a reversal of creation. Several weeks ago we discussed the priestly story of creation when God separated the waters above from the waters below. Dry land appeared as God held the waters back. Here in the Noah story God allows the waters to flow back over the earth. The heavens open letting the waters down. Other waters flow up from the deep. Land disappears under the watery chaos. In other words, creation is undone by human violence and the earth is cleaned by the waters. This is a frightening story, especially for those who lived between the rivers. The creator unmakes his creation because he is ashamed of what humans have done. We don’t like this image of God as the one who creates and destroys, but it is vital to the story.

The Ark:         Of course the story begins with the flood, but it doesn’t end there. The LORD warned Noah in order to save him. All we know about Noah is that he was a righteous man who found favor in God’s sight. We can deduce that this meant they he did not participate in the violence of his age. God chose him as the one who would preserve creation because he valued creation. He saw himself and others as the living images of God. Noah listens to God’s warning and he builds a large boat about 450 feet long. The priestly version of the story is very interested in the type of wood and dimensions of the ship, but the focal point of the story is that Noah listened to God’s warning. Noah took action long before the rains started falling.

            It is very interesting that the story of Noah is told without reference to miracles. God speaks to Noah, just as he did to Adam. And God sends a big flood, but Noah wasn’t saved by miracles. Noah was saved because he took action. He believed and he acted wisely. Belief alone was not enough. Nor was action along enough. Faith and action go together here; faith and wisdom.

Conclusion:                 Compare the story of Noah in Genesis with more recent history. We just had a devastating flood in the Mississippi Delta. If the government had listened to the warnings about the levees the way Noah listened to God, much of the flooding could have been prevented. Wouldn’t it be great if we had practical people like Noah in charge of FEMA and other agencies? It’s too late to start sawing lumber for the ark if it’s already started raining. I think it is time for Christians to remember that faith includes good government, good planning, and wise decision-making. Faith means trusting in God’s promises and seeking to do God’s will.

Genesis: Lesson 9: Civilization

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 9: Civilization (Genesis 4-5). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Nov. 13, 2005

Introduction:   November 13 is a date that reminds us that our ancestors had courage, because that day marked a significant change in the Moravian Church. On November 13, 1741 it was announced to all of the Moravian congregations in the world that Jesus Christ had been officially elected Chief Elder of the church. November 13 is a special reminder to Moravians that our church stands under the protection, guidance, and judgment of Christ. We try very hard not to confuse our human institutions and structures of authority with the rule of Christ. It is because we believe that Christ is our Chief Elder that we can be a progressive church that steps out in ministry to a suffering world. Our Ground of the Unity expresses this so beautifully when it states that the Moravian Church “awaits the appearing of Jesus Christ, goes forward to meet its Lord with joy, and prays to be found ready when he comes.” We look to the future.

The Mark of Cain:                 Today we are continuing in our in-depth study of the book of Genesis. Last week we looked at the first murder in the Bible in terms of religious violence as well as family violence. In chapel this past week at the Wake Forest University Divinity School, we remembered victims and survivors of family violence. We read aloud the names of 57 persons in North Carolina who were killed last year by members of their own families. The story of Cain and Abel is a contemporary story.

            This week we are looking at what happened to Cain after he murdered his brother. Last week we discussed the fact that Cain feared death. He knew what humans are capable of because he had done the unthinkable. Cain lived in remorse, restlessness, and fear. He deserved death because he had taken the life of his brother. But the LORD put a mark on Cain. This mark was not to identify Cain as an outlaw or murdered; it was to place him under the LORD’s direct protection. This has often been misinterpreted. The mark of Cain is the mark of protection, a sign that no one should harm him even though he had killed his brother. God had mercy on the murderer. According to Genesis, the first murder was not punished by death. Someone in our discussion last week noted that there may be a lesson in this story for Christians today. If God had mercy on Cain, perhaps our legal system should err on the side of mercy rather than vengeance. I’ll leave you to ponder the ethics of capital punishment, but you should be aware that throughout Scripture there are stories where we expect death and discover life instead. From the redemption of Cain to the resurrection of Lazarus, the story of God’s work is the story of life.

            But the mercy of the LORD is sometimes hard. Cain would not be killed, but he would be an exile. Cain lived as many of us live; an alien in the world struggling to survive in spite of remorse, guilt, and shame. Cain, like too many of us, distorted his world and relationships so badly that he could no longer live in peace. But he was still a human being, loved by God. He still had the image of God and still had divine gifts. Cain married a woman and lived east of Eden.

Genealogies:              In chapters four and five of Genesis, we have the first genealogies of the Bibles. The genealogies are not the most interesting parts of Scripture, I admit. I’ve never heard a sermon preached on the genealogy of Cain, nor do many people find meaning in these verses. People who have to read these names aloud in church are not fond of the genealogies either. So we tend to skip these passages, but they tell us something important. East of Eden Cain began a new life. Creation continued. The human race survived murder and the destruction of the first family.

            In the King James Version it says that Cain “knew” his wife, which always confused me as a child. I figured you really ought to know your own wife since you had to live with her. Modern translators are a bit more forthright in saying that Cain lay with his wife and she got pregnant, but I kind of miss the old descriptive euphemism. There is an intimacy to the word “knowing” that is lost in modern translations. Perhaps our relationships today would be strengthened if we rediscovered the ability to know our spouses in more than one way.

            The point of the story, though, is that Cain had children. We see that the descendents of Cain included Lamech, who had two wives. I hate to be the one to inform you that contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not a strong supporter of monogamy. Many Old Testament figures had more than one wife, sometimes at the same time. Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, was quite accurate on this point, but that does not mean that modern Christians should embrace polygamy. As St. Augustine pointed out 1500 years ago, the fact that polygamy was once permitted and is now forbidden indicates that morality changes and develops. This is a point often lost in modern political debates. But let us return to the genealogies.

Civilization and Redemption:                        The wives of Lamech are the first women named in the Bible after Eve, but the focus is on their children. Jabal was the father of nomadic herdsmen. Jubal was the father of music. Tubal or Tubal-Cain was the father of metal workers. And a daughter is named, Naamah, which means “pleasant” or “lovely.” Agriculture, music, manufacturing, and beauty. Arts and industry; beauty and production. Earlier in the text we saw that Cain built a city and named it for Enoch. Other translations read that Enoch built a city and named it for himself. Either way, according to Genesis, the first city was built after the first murder. The children of Lamech are symbolic of the fruits of the city that Cain built. Cain and his descendents created civilization itself. What do we make of this?

            We could interpret the connection between Cain and the city as an indictment of civilization itself. This could be saying that all cities are built on violence and murder. We can certainly understand that a writer suffering in exile in Babylon might have a very negative view of cities and be nostalgic for the simple life of Eden. Many modern people have also felt this way. Many Europeans were attracted to the New World and to the Pacific Islands by the prospect of Eden. They longed for simplicity, but they ended up creating cities. Many of those cities were built on the murder of native peoples. Even today people like to move to the mountains or to Montana, away from the noise and crime of the cities, but they end up bringing the pollution and crime into the wilderness with them. It could be that the author of Genesis was anticipating modern philosophers, like Nietzsche, who claim that civilization is inherently violent. This little statement in Genesis could be like cry of a character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail shouting out, “Help! I’m being repressed. Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”

            But I’m not sure that is the right approach to this brief text. It does not appear that the author is condemning agriculture, music, manufacturing, or beauty. It may be that this story is showing that even though the murderer Cain was condemned to restlessness and anxiety, he still played a vital role in the creation of human society. Too often we overlook the fact that the Cain story is a story of mercy and redemption as well as a story of justice and condemnation. Cain was able to create something good and useful out of his life, and his descendents carried on the creative activity of God. We are the beneficiaries of the redemption of Cain. Much of what we love about life can be traced to the descendents of Cain. In Genesis the human story begins in pride and violence, but God does not give up on people. Where there is sin, there is also hope for redemption and progress.

Lamech:          Sigmund Freud claimed that civilization is the process of channeling human desires and longings into constructive avenues. Civilization keeps us from falling into a cycle of pillage and rampage, such as we have witnessed in Paris in recent weeks. But we know that civilization does not eliminate violence and crime, obviously. Despite redemption, violence lies in wait throughout the Bible.

            In Genesis 4, Cain’s descendent Lamech brags about killing a man who wounded him. Lamech is avenged seventy-seven times. This may be a statement on the escalation of violence. Whenever we enact revenge, we increase the level of violence. Lamech killed someone who wounded him. When reading Lamech’s macho boast, Christians should remember the words of our Lord and Savior. How many times are we to forgive our brother or sister, Jesus was asked. Seven times? No seventy times seven times. The great rabbi rejected Lamech’s boast and turned it into an accusation. Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela applied this principle in South Africa.

Genealogy of Seth:                Adam and Eve had a third son, named Seth. This is important to remember if you do the New York Times Crossword. Chapter 5 of Genesis is primarily from the priestly materials, which scholars call “P” rather than the “J” narrative that we have been reading. The priestly materials are rather dry and filled with numbers. The priestly source is not interested in story, and thus it is less interesting to us. But there are important things in this priestly genealogy. For one thing, many of the names are repeated from the genealogy of Cain. Most scholars think that both genealogies come from the same original source but were remembered in different ways. More importantly, the genealogy of Adam begins with a repetition of the statement that God created humankind in his image, male and female. Genesis 5 emphasizes that human sexuality continues the creative activity of God and is therefore blessed. Adam, it says, had a son “in his own likeness, in his own image,” and he named him Seth. Creation continues.

            Another interesting point is that ten generations are listed in Genesis 5. Ten is an important number in the Bible. We no longer place much weight on the mystical aspects of numbers, but it was important in biblical times. Numbers have power. Priests were the ancient number crunchers. Ten is a special number of completeness, which we still honor in our decimal system. The ten generations from Adam to Noah indicates a completed age. The generations are not to be taken literally as an account of human history. This passage is primarily a way to connect the story of creation to the story of the flood. Ten generations is an age of the world.

Life-spans:                 The Babylonians had the similar idea that there were ten generations before the great flood, but in the Babylonian myths the life spans of the ancients were ridiculously long. In one myth, the ten generations before the flood lasted 432,000 years, in another only 241,000 years. The time before the flood in Babylonian folklore was the age of demigods. Seen in this context, the ages of Adam and his descendents in Genesis are rather short. None lived over 1000 years.

            The total period of time before the flood varies in different ancient versions of Genesis (Masoretic, Samaritan, LXX), but the average is about 1600 years from Adam to the flood. I don’t think this is literal history. It is an exaggerated account of life in the distant past, the antediluvian period. Though the Hebrew account of this “dreamtime” is more believable than that of the Babylonians and other ancient peoples, it is still far beyond natural human life spans. It is the Bible’s way of telling us that these early stories are archetypal rather than historical.

            There is something I find interesting about this chronology though. You may know that Archbishop Ussher in the 17th century did a chronology of the Old Testament and determined that God created the earth in 4004 BC. On October 23 to be precise. The official calendar of Orthodox Jews today begins with creation, which they understand to have been about 6000 years ago. In terms of natural history, this biblical chronology is only off by about 4 billion years, but in terms of human civilization, it is surprisingly close. According to archaeologists, human civilization began about 10,000 years ago, but it began in earnest in the Middle East about 6000 BC. We can read the chronologies in Genesis 5 as a simplified version of the history of civilization.

Enoch:             Another interesting thing in the genealogy of Genesis 5 is Enoch. He is the seventh generation. Seven is the biblical number of perfection: seven days in the week, seven planets, etc. Seven is the divine number. Plus, Enoch lived 365 years, which is perhaps symbolic of the solar year. Unfortunately, we no longer know why Enoch is identified in such symbolic fashion. The text says is that he walked with God, just as Noah did. Whatever significance Enoch had for the biblical author has been lost to us. Centuries later, Enoch became a major figure in prophetic and mystical literature. He appears in several places in the Bible as a person who taken by God and who was taught the mysteries of God, but we do not know what he learned.

Nephilim:        The account of the antediluvian period ends with one of the most cryptic stories in the entire Bible. Genesis 6:1-4 tells of the “sons of God” who saw that the daughters of men were beautiful. They took them as their wives and had children with them. These were the Nephilim, the heroes and warriors of renown. No one quite knows what to do with this story since it is so unlike anything else in the Bible, and I’m not sure I do either. We don’t have time to go into this in any detail, but I do want you to notice this little story. You are unlikely ever to hear a sermon on this passage, even from pastors who claim that they preach the whole Bible and take every word as revelation.

            Jewish scholars for centuries have seen this as a reference to angels. Christian theologians expanded this into the story of the fall of Lucifer and his followers. The Nephilim, which might mean “fallen ones,” would thus refer to fallen angels. Modern religion scholars speculate that this passage is a holdover from an ancient time when the Hebrews were polytheistic. The sons of God would then be like the gods of mythology. This passage does sound like Greek and Babylonian mythology where ancient heroes, like Herakles, were demigods. Other commentators through the centuries have interpreted the Nephilim as giants and monsters that were born to women who had seduced the angels. For many readers, this story is a prelude to the flood account. Madeleine L’Engel incorporates this creatively in her novel Many Waters, by the way.

            All I can say is that this passage is evidence that the Bible is not a simple and straightforward book. I think this story of the Nephilim was part of the literature of the ancient world that the writer included in his account of the world before the flood. Perhaps it has no further meaning than that, but it is interesting to ponder this cryptic tale.

Conclusion:                 The genealogies of Genesis 4 and 5 take us from the story of Cain, a murderer and founder of civilization, to the story of the flood. In two weeks we’ll begin a discussion of Noah, but we have something special for next week. As we conclude the story of Adam, Eve, and their children, let us contemplate the message of this week’s study. God showed mercy, and Cain responded by helping create civilization. Like Cain, we have all harmed those we love. Like Cain, we have been redeemed. The question for us is how will we move forward? Will we dwell in the past and wallow in our guilt and shame? Or will we create a better future for ourselves, our children, and our world? Will our religion help us to progress as a civilization or hinder us?

Genesis: Lesson 8: Religion and Violence

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 8: Religion and Violence (Genesis 4). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Nov. 6, 2005

Introduction: Monday, October 31 was Reformation Day. It was on October 31 that a young theologian nailed ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, calling for a public debate on the sale of indulgences. As a theologian, Luther wanted free and open discussion of church doctrine. As a pastor, he wanted the church and state to stop using the threat of divine punishment to abuse, oppress, and pillage the people. This week I showed my religion class at Wake Forest the film Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes. Watching Alfred Molinos as the indulgence seller Tetzel in the movie is rather chilling. In our day we still have people who use religion merely to enrich themselves and stir up dissent. We Moravians should not forget that our church was founded on the witness of the reformer Jan Hus, who tried to free the gospel from the corruptions of money.

Dialog and Tension in Interpretation:                      It is appropriate that we remember Luther’s effort to reform the church this week because our study of the book of Genesis brings us to the first story in the Bible specifically about religion. Genesis 4 is the familiar story of Cain and Abel. Though it is very short, it raises profound questions about human nature, divine justice, and human society outside of paradise. Genesis 4 is the story of families and civilization itself, with all of the pain and conflict we experience. Those who don’t read the Bible often make the false assumption that the Bible is a simple book of morality rather than a book filled with dramatic tension and competing voices. Even the worship of God is fraught with conflict.

            This is more than just a story that mothers tell their children to try to keep them from killing annoying younger siblings. In reading through Bill Moyers’ book Genesis: A Living Conversation (Doubleday, 1996) last week, I was struck by how many pages are devoted to this one chapter. Many of the issues discussed by the scholars and artists in Moyers’ book remind me of the questions we raised many years ago in my Sunday School classes at Hope Moravian church. Somehow the answers given in our quarterly were not satisfying to us. We wrestled with this story, and I still wrestle with it. I learned a lot in that church, and I am grateful that I grew up in a congregation that allowed us to think and ask questions.

Overview:                   Before reading the story, I have a couple of comments about its origin and placement in the Scripture. You may recall from an earlier lesson that the “J” source was (theoretically) a narrative of Israel’s history in which the name for the LORD is used from the beginning. We see that clearly in Genesis 4 where Eve is the first person to speak the name of the Lord. The story of Adam, Eve, and their offspring is part of the “J” material, and I have finally been persuaded that the “J” material in Genesis was written during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile. One reason for dating it so late is that it one of the recurring themes of “J” is exile.

            Genesis 4 begins with Adam and Eve in exile from Eden, just as the writer of “J” had experienced exile in Babylon. In these stories in Genesis we glimpse the struggle that the theologians and priests of Judah faced in trying to make sense of their expulsion from the Promised Land and the destruction of the Temple. The burning questions of the day were whether the LORD is just, why do the innocent suffer, and is there hope for redemption for those in exile. The story of Cain and Abel is a metaphorical story that addresses such questions. But it goes beyond just the experience of the kingdom of Judah to universal human experience.

            As you read Genesis 4, listen to the conflicts within the story. Please note that Stephen Mitchell’s translation (the translation used in the class) omits some verses, so if you are following along with your Bibles, we’re skipping some parts.

The Family of Adam:             The story opens with the birth of Cain, which is the first human birth in the Bible. Eve declares that she has created a human being, like the LORD did. The name “Cain” is related to the word for produced or acquired, and Eve’s statement is a pun on Adam’s earlier statement that the woman was brought out of the man. Eve claims her role as a co-creator with God. In this sense, she has become like God because she can give life, with God’s help.

            Eve was less pleased, apparently, with her second son since she named him Abel, which means futile. The storyteller knows that Abel is going to have a short life. He is like the grass of the field, soon to wither and be cast away. Abel does not even get to speak in this text. It is hard for us today to come to grips with the fact that before modern times, most people born on this earth did not live past their tenth year. In the past, parents could expect to bury more than half of their children, many of them before the age of one year. Futility is a brutally honest name for a child.

            In this story, of course, the death of the child is not caused by disease or accident, but by murder. This story sets up the repeated biblical theme of conflict between older and younger siblings. The oldest son is preferred by the parents and society, but somehow it is always the youngest son who is specially blessed by God.

Sacrifices:                   Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. A century ago, scholars were convinced that this was a very ancient story that represented the conflict between the nomadic shepherding tribes of Israel and the settled agricultural societies of Canaan and Egypt. The Chosen People kept flocks, like Abel, but their enemies had large farms and complex societies. Read this way, Genesis 4 becomes a story of the conflict between the Israelites and the Canaanites, but modern scholars generally see this as reading a way too much into the story. This is a story about people, not nations.

            Religion plays a major role in the story though. Cain is the first character in the Bible to engage in religious activities by offering a sacrifice to the LORD. We aren’t told why Cain thought this was a good idea, but it was consistent with Israelite practice. He was offering the first fruits of the harvest, which was later called the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. It is unlikely that Cain’s offering was unacceptable simply because it was fruits and vegetables. Abel also offered the first fruits of his “crop,” namely the fat portions the first born lamb of the spring. This would correspond to the Passover festival. After killing the lamb, you burned off the fat as an offering to God, who “ate” the smoke. Animal sacrifice in the ancient world was much like a modern barbeque.

Rejection:                   Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices to the LORD, but the LORD did not accept Cain’s offering. The story does not tell how Cain knew that his gift was rejected, nor does it tell us why God rejected it. This is the part of the story that offends many readers. We know that it is unfair that one gift is approved and the other rejected. We want an answer from God for what he has done here. Is this justice? But the Bible gives no reply. This is part of the mystery of life and of faith. We don’t have answers to all of our questions.

            People have speculated about these questions for centuries. The general theory is that Cain gave his gift with insincere intentions. It wasn’t the gift, it was the attitude. Others have seen this story as one of the many stories of testing and temptation. God rejected the gift in order to test Cain, just as later in Genesis God tests Abraham. Either may be true, but I think the reason for the rejection probably doesn’t matter to the story. What is important is what comes after Cain was rejected: Cain was depressed.

            The LORD asks Cain why he is angry and depressed. We can only imagine Cain’s response. Do we have the words to explain what it feels like to be rejected by someone we hoped to please? Do we even understand why it makes us sad to see another person loved and praised instead of us? How do we say to a parent or to God, “I want all of your love. I want you to love me and only me.” Cain shares a lot in common with another older brother, one Jesus spoke of in Luke 15. In families, as in our religion, we are afraid that we will lose something if someone else is loved too.

            What is most important to the story is not why God rejected Cain’s gift, but how Cain responds. Will his anger destroy him? In verses omitted by Mitchell, God warns Cain that he must master sin before he is consumed by it, but Cain does not heed the warning. Instead he invites his brother for a walk. When he has him alone, he kills him.

Fratricide:                   We are so familiar with this story that we often miss the horror of this simple statement. According to Genesis, there was murder from the very beginning of the human family. Murder in families is particularly horrifying because families are supposed to be based on love and trust. Families are where you should be allowed to be vulnerable; where you are protected. Families are dedicated to raising the next generation, and they are entrusted with the task of teaching morality. Cain was able to murder his brother precisely because his brother trusted him. It is chilling, but it is true.

            The Bible acknowledges one of the most painful facts about human society. Despite our claims to the contrary, families are not always safe places. Much of the crime and violence committed in American society is committed within families. Beatings, rape, and other forms of abuse are all too common in our homes. When there is a murder, police have to suspect family members because so many murders follow the pattern of Cain and Abel. Throughout history society has condemned the murder of family members in the strongest possible terms, but such violence is so common that the Bible has fratricide at the very beginning.

            Innocent Abel was killed by his brother, his older brother, who should have protected him. Innocent Abel was killed, just as innocent brothers, sisters, children, and parents are killed each day in America. Innocent Abel was killed, just as innocent children are killed in the fog of every war, no matter how just. Innocent Abel was killed, just as innocent Jews were led into the gas chambers, just as innocent Cambodians were led to the killing fields, just as innocent Tutsis were butchered by their Hutus brothers and sisters.

Violence and Religion:                      If we take the Bible seriously, we must acknowledge that every murder is fratricide, because we are children of the one God. Every act of violence, no matter the cause, tears the fabric of the entire human family. Every victim of violence is our sister, our brother, our child, our parent. This is the reality of the world today: the innocent do indeed suffer at the hands of the angry, the jealous, the greedy, and the frightened. Innocent Abel was killed because Cain was jealous.

            Isn’t it interesting that the first story of murder in the Bible is connected with religion? We do not know the mind of God or why Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable, but we do know that the mind of Cain was distorted by jealousy, by the desire to be honored by God at the expense of his brother. We do know that religious conflict continues to lead men and women to murder the innocent, and even to kill themselves in their zeal to murder others in the name of God.

            John Amos Comenius noted this fact in his call for the reformation of the church. He wrote: “Therefore we should discontinue the religion of Cain, which offers its accomplished works to God without humble faith in His compassion, and is jealous of the grace of God to man, and establishes sects, and starts persecutions because of disagreement in religion, and causes bloodshed, and seeks earth instead of heaven. We should install the religion of Abel, humble faith, active charity, and hope directed towards heaven and eternity.” (Panorthosia, 201)

Where is your Brother?                     If Cain thought that murder was the solution to his problem, he was wrong. The LORD comes looking for Abel and asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” Cain, unlike Adam, does not confess to God what he has done. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks like a sarcastic teen-ager.

            Of course, the answer is yes. Yes, family should look after family. Yes, a brother should protect and care for his brother. But then again, the answer is also “no.” Cain was not his brother’s keeper. Cain polluted the ground with human blood. Here is the great perversity of Cain’s actions. Had he been his brother’s keeper, he would have known the joy of the Lord. Instead, his actions have destroyed all that he thought he loved and valued. Even the ground cries out against Cain.

            Think how the ground must cry out to the Lord today. Think of all the innocent blood shed on this earth, shed by those who were supposed to be their brothers’ keepers, their sisters’ keepers. Think of all the blood shed by those who claimed they loved Christ but hated their brother or sister. Think of the lives lost because we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters dying from lack of food, medicine, and justice. What will you say when the LORD asks you, “Where is your brother, and where is your sister?”

Cain’s Punishment:                What was the result of Cain’s decisions and his actions? Did his gift become more acceptable to the LORD because his brother was not competing with him? Did Cain’s jealousy and anger bring him fulfillment, happiness, and peace?

            No. He became a restless wanderer on the earth. His alienation is such that no land can be home. He will dwell in the land of Nod, which means restlessness. Like modern humans who build great cities but cannot find a home in them, Cain is left in restlessness, anxiety, and discontent. His exile is complete, but he brought it on himself.

            Cain drops the sarcasm and cries to the LORD that his punishment is too severe. Some translators render this phrase as “my iniquity is too heavy.” It may be that Cain is remorseful; that he has become aware of the reality of his sin. You may know this remorse. You did something, perhaps out of passion or anger. You were not thinking clearly, perhaps. But you made a decision. You crossed a line that should not be crossed, and then you realized the full consequences of your action. Someone you loved no longer loved you. Someone who trusted you will never trust again. Your relationships were torn and people suffered because of you.

            It may be more than you can bear. Remorse is the greatest punishment. You are left without protection in a hostile world. There is no rest. Cain fears that others will do to him exactly what he did to his younger brother. He now knows what others are capable of, and he lives in fear.  This part of the story reminds us that we should not get too tied up trying to read these stories in Genesis literally. Who does Cain fear? There’s no point in working too hard to figure out where the other people came from. Genesis 4 is not a story about how the earth was populated; it is about murder and alienation. It is about sin, fear, and death. Don’t worry so much about where Cain found a wife. Just stick to the inner meaning of the story, and then you may discover that this story about fratricide is your story too. It is the story of the human race. It is the story of religious violence, family violence, jealousy, and sin. It is a story of injustice and justice.

Looking Ahead:         More so than Eve, Cain deserved the punishment promised by God in the garden. But once again, God had mercy where we expect punishment. In the next lesson we’ll explore the story of Cain.

Reflections on 9/11

Originally broadcast on September 11, 2005 

      It is appropriate that this day comes around the time of the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, and the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur are a time to reflect on your sins and mistakes in order to make amends to those whom you have harmed in the previous year. The goal of Yom Kippur is not to wallow in guilt, but to be reconciled to those you have cheated, insulted, abused, ignored, or otherwise treated as less than the living image of God on earth. 9/11 may serve as such a day of reflection and reconciliation for all Americans. It is a sobering day to contemplate the reality of evil, tragedy, and loss. It is also a day to remember courage, fortitude, prudence, justice, faith, love, and hope.

Extraordinary Time

We all have memories of 9/11. I was the chaplain of Salem Academy and College at the time and was teaching a course on Western Religious Traditions that met at 9 a.m. When class was over a colleague told me the news he had heard on the way to work. Like many people, I didn’t believe it at first. I went to my office and turned on the radio to hear the news that the towers had collapsed. Symbols of the economic and engineering might of America had fallen. Countless hundreds were dead. A handful of terrorists inspired by a hate-filled theology of war and revenge had used our own technology against us.

            We gathered the students to tell them the news and reassure them that they were safe, and we made extra sure that our international students were cared for. One of my clear memories of 9/11 is that in the midst of crisis, people showed their true mettle. Locally and nationally there were some who failed the test of leadership, but there were thousands more who responded heroically and sacrificially to the tragedy.

            The evening of 9/11 we held a candlelight vigil on Salem Square. Over a hundred students gathered to hold a light as a sign of hope in the midst of their own fear and grief. I was reminded of the candlelight vigils held in Leipzig in 1989 which lit the flame that brought down the Berlin wall. I was reminded of the candles that we light each Christmas to light the flame of Christ’s love in every heart. In a moment of hopelessness, the simple act of lighting a candle gave witness to our conviction that there would be a better day.

            I had no words of mine to say to those students, so I turned to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. In the liturgy for Compline I found this prayer, “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your sake. Amen.” It is a prayer that we can repeat this September for those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Working, watching, weeping

The week of 9/11 was a time when millions worked, and watched, and wept. Despite the tragedy, I was never so proud of my fellow human beings who sacrificed themselves in service to others. It was not just fire-fighters and police who were trained to do so, but ordinary citizens who leaped in to help. One of my favorite stories from New York was that masseuses spent days working on the bodies of the rescuers to keep them going. One cellist played for fire-fighters during their breaks for days – until his fingers were too raw to play. The fire-fighters were so grateful for his soothing presence, they made him an honorary member of the company.

            My brother-in-law walked several miles home to Brooklyn, and all along the way people gave the crowds water and ice cream as if it were the marathon. Pastors, priests, and counselors worked with all ages to help them deal with what they had seen and experienced. I will never forget the late Peter Jennings manning his post throughout the ordeal. And the greatest story of sacrifice and heroism by far were the passengers on the fourth plane who gave up their own lives to keep that plane from becoming a weapon. Strangers cried with one another. People held hands to comfort each other, even as they leaped from the flaming buildings. Phone operators prayed with people who knew that the end of life had come. I know that you cried for people you did not know and sent relief to those who could not say thank you.

Extraordinary Time

            I spoke to many groups on campus and around the city the week of 9/11. It just so happened that I was scheduled to be the guest preacher at Unity Moravian the following Sunday. My theme was going to be on Ordinary Time, the season of the church year which we are in now. I was going to say that the Christian life is not about dramatic moments of conversion and martyrdom, but the day to day joys or sorrows we know. I had to write a different sermon, which was based on what I had been saying to the students at Salem all week. Never was I more grateful for our Moravian Book of Worship. The intercessions in times of crisis reminded us of our deepest values in the midst of confusion and fear. As we have seen this past week in Louisiana, crisis merely reveals who you truly are. It is the daily habits of life that make us heroes or cowards, people of faith or people of violence in times of crisis.

            This morning I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts from that time as we reflect on what has happened in the last four years. What follows is quoted from my sermon that Sunday. On Tuesday, Sept. 11: “We discovered just how far men of hate will go in expressing their wrath.  We also found how far some will go in acts of courage and valor.  There were those who were willing to die in order to bring destruction on others.  There were also those who willingly gave up their own lives to prevent the deaths of others.  Still others died while trying to rescue the victims of the attack.  There were also those whose courage failed themselves and others.  In between the hatred and the heroism were millions who watched and prayed and wept.  As individuals and as a nation we are no longer in ordinary time.

            President Bush declared a day of prayer for all Americans, but even before there was an official call for prayer, people across this country and throughout the world have been in prayer, both privately and in large gatherings and vigils.  I walked into the chapel at Salem College to see housekeepers, groundskeepers and students bowed in prayer together.  These events have touched us all, from the young to the old.  My two-year does not know what has happened, but she has been desperate to see me often every day.  Somehow she knows that our world has changed and in her own way, she is afraid for me and her family.  Somehow she, too has felt the loss of innocence that we as a nation are experiencing.


            And here we are this Sunday, so different from any other Sunday that we have known.  Here we are gathered in prayer, hoping for comfort and guidance.  Here we are singing in the midst of tragedy.  It is appropriate that we are here to sing and pray.  There are times when there are no words that express what we feel, but music speaks to us and through us to bring the healing that we need.  In the vigils I have been in here in Winston-Salem and have witnessed around the country, I have noticed that there is a strong desire to sing.  I believe that is in part because music expresses our deepest emotions, but even more so because we must join together in order to sing.  Our many voices, with our many pitches, all somehow unite in sentiments that are harmonious and true and beautiful even in the midst of our greatest nightmares.  You may remember a few years ago when the city of Sarajevo was being slowly reduced to rubble by terrorists of a different kind.  Every day at noon, one man sat in the center of the square and played his cello in the midst of the fighting.  Why?  It was his way of saying that even in the midst of barbarism and senseless hatred, there is hope for civilization.  His music carried the hopes of an entire world that the forces of evil would not prevail.

            I remember a winter’s night years ago when we were driving to North Carolina in the midst of an ice storm.  It was treacherous but there was no where safe to stop, so on we drove, slowly and carefully.  My wife sang to keep our infant daughter calm – over two hours of Moravian hymns, if you can believe it.  She sang every hymn she knew until she was too hoarse to sing.  The songs were for the baby, but they gave me the courage and calmness to continue driving over the dangerous roads.  So, today we sing in order to keep up our courage.  There is no safe place to stop; we must continue on the road ahead even though it leads to a future that is so different from what we had planned.  So we sing and we pray and, yes, we cry together.


            Like many of you, I was unaware of the events unfolding in New York on Tuesday morning.  I arrived at work before the first plane struck the Trade Center and I was in class when the towers fell.  A colleague told me the news right after my class.  One of my first thoughts was how meaningless that class had been.  Suddenly what had seemed of vital importance for students to know at 8:30 a.m. seemed meaningless at 10:30 a.m.  My normal world was shattered as if it were an illusion.  Priorities were rearranged and there was a new sense of what is vital as opposed to what is trivial.  My experience is just a pale reflection of the experience of the tens of thousands of people who have to adjust to life without a spouse, a parent, or a child.  We pray for them.

            You also have suffered.  I have talked to dozens, perhaps a hundred people during the last week, and I have heard their anguish and our anguish.  We feel anger, fear, confusion, grief, and even despair, but I can assure you that you are not alone; we are not alone.  We are all heartsick and frightened, and yes, angry, each in our own way.  Be aware, also, that the world shares our feelings. 

            Hundreds, perhaps over a thousand of the victims from Tuesday’s attack were not Americans.  They were Japanese, British, German, Korean, Brazilian, and the list goes on.  I received an email from a friend in Germany who expressed her grief and told me that the entire country had stopped work for five full minutes to show support.  200,000 people marched in Berlin alone to show the world that they are grieving with us. 

            It was not just America that was attacked on Tuesday.  The whole world and everything we hold sacred about human life was attacked.  Our greatest ideals and aspirations were assaulted, and now the whole world is being asked to unite just as I ask you to unite in sharing your sorrows and drawing courage from each other.


            Gradually, though, things will return to normal, and once again we will know what a great blessing ordinariness is.  In fact, we may learn to take even greater joy in the ordinary goodness that surrounds us: the laughter of children, friendship, and family.  Now more than ever, take the time to tell those you love that you do love them and care for them.  Now more than ever, let your own better self have priority over your life.  Now more than ever, listen to your friends, open your arms to new friends, and open your heart to the world around you.  Now more than ever, sing and pray and work for what is right and just and good.  Now more than ever, recognize what is truly important.  Now more than ever we need to remember that our true treasure is not clothes, homes, money, and food.  Our true treasure lies in God. 

            Tuesday’s attacks demonstrated dramatically the uncomfortable truth that we are asked to follow Jesus through a dangerous and uncertain world.  We need to remember that our only security lies in God, and that each day we should be prepared to meet our creator.  We also need to remember what Moravians in the past did in the face of unspeakable horror, such as the slaughter of an entire mission outpost.  They prayed and rededicated themselves to reaching out to those who had attacked them.  In their own way, they asked “What would Jesus do?” and the answer was clear.  Jesus would reach out in love.


            At this time in particular, we need to remember that the three major Western religions all share a common heritage.  All call for us to live a higher righteousness that respects all people.  Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike are offering the anguish of their souls to the Creator and praying that God will help us bring good out of this evil.  We are all praying for mercy and for strength for the journey that lies ahead.  Let us also remember in our prayers, the teaching of a Jewish rabbi, whom Muslims regard as a prophet, and whom we Christians follow as Lord and master.  “Do not return evil with evil.”  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  As Paul of Tarsus reminds us, “We cannot overcome evil with evil, but only with good.”  May we all rededicate our lives to doing good in this dangerous and uncertain world.  Each person has a choice in life.  We can build or destroy.  We have seen the path of destruction.  I hope that we will build and will continue building until the master returns.”

Four Years Later

It is now four years later, and I wonder how we have measured up as a nation and as people of faith. My biggest fear on 9/11 was not that there would be more terrorist attacks. As long as there are ideologies of hate and as long as weapons are readily available in every neighborhood, there will be terrorist attacks. Terrorism is `a virus that assumes new forms with each generation as hatred finds new tools for destruction. No, it was not terrorism I feared most. It was the possibility that cynical people would use the tragedy of 9/11 to pursue an unrighteous agenda of violence, oppression, and greed. My fear was that the quest for political power and personal profit would corrupt the goodwill and heroism of all Americans. I was afraid that we would turn away from honest self-reflection about our place in this world and our actions. I was afraid that we would respond to 9/11 with fear rather than faith, and that we would ignore the Bible’s instruction to rely on God rather than swords and spears. My fear was that people would remove their wristbands that said “What would Jesus Do?” because they did not like the answer to the question.

            My fear was that our country would make enemies rather than friends in the world, and that Americans would be divided from one another. My fear on 9/11 was that religion would become a tool for damning those who are different from us and a justification for hating others. My fear was not the threat of violence. Christians have always had the courage to face the hatred of the world. My fear was that Christians would deny their faith in Jesus without even knowing they were doing so. My hope on this 9/11 is that we look at ourselves, our faith, and our actions so that in ordinary times and extraordinary times we may live as Jesus has called us to live. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Music and Theology Event


            Wake Forest University presents “The Story of Job: A Theodicy in Jazz and Spoken Word” at 7 p.m., Sept. 20, 2007 in Wait Chapel.  The program was written by The Rev. Kelly Carpenter of Green Street Church in Winston-Salem.

            The Book of Job blends a sophisticated theology with rich poetry, filled with humor, satire, sorrow and rage.  Carpenter says he loves the Book of Job “because it gives us permission to ask difficult questions, the kind of questions whose answers can only be flickering candles in the dark, walking to the border of our human knowledge.”

Carpenter found that jazz, as a musical form that explores the full range of human emotions, best expresses the nature of the story.  The music will be performed by Karen Kendrick on piano, John Wilson on percussion, Josh Tillman on trumpet, Matt Kendrick on bass and Sam Owens on saxophone. 

Carpenter will present the poetry.  He hopes the audience members will see themselves “reflected back in the voices of the characters, and enter the mystery and genius of the Book of Job.”

The performance is free and open to the public.

Genesis Lesson 7: Expulsion

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 7: Expulsion (Genesis 3). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Oct. 30, 2005

Introduction:   Welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I managed to take the children to Trade Street for the annual Halloween festivities in Winston-Salem. I think that one of the most brilliant things the Christian Church did was to turn the old Celtic festival of Samhain into All Hallows Eve. What better way to teach people that there is no such thing as witches and ghosts than to let kids dress up and have fun? It is a shame that this has become such a controversy in churches today. I think it is also important that we recall that November 1 is All Saints Day in the Christian calendar. It is good that we remember all the saints who from their labors rest, especially those whom we knew in life. Rather than worrying about ghoulies and ghosties, let us celebrate those who are in the more immediate presence of their Savior. 

Death and Genesis:   It is natural that our thoughts turn to death at this time of the year as the leaves begin to turn colors and fall to the ground. It is thus appropriate that our study of the book of Genesis this week brings us to a contemplation of mortality. Last week we focused our attention on Eve and the loss of innocence. After we went off the air, we had a lively discussion on the issue of responsibility for sin in Genesis 3. We had no final answer, but members of the class did point out that the LORD himself played a role in the eating of the forbidden fruit since he planted the tree in the garden. Some in the class raised the possibility that the knowledge of good and evil was a necessary condition for humans to develop and to grow into the image of God.

I have read this story for years and it always gives me much to think about. One thing that has struck me this year is how important it is that we recognize the role of freedom of choice in this passage. I think that Augustine, Calvin, and Luther were wrong in claiming that only Adam and Eve had free choice. They argued that once sin entered into the world, all humans are bound to sin and cannot choose goodness. In other words, the will is bound to sin. But I don’t read that in this account in Genesis. I think this story of the tree is a story about the choices that we all face. Though we tend to sin, we have choices in our lives that are very important. And as we continue reading, we see that Adam and Eve had choices even after they ate the fruit.

Where are You?         I ended last week by stating the one of the most poignant questions in the Bible is when the LORD asks Adam, “Where are you?”  Though there are different ways of interpreting the man and woman’s actions in the eating of the fruit, the consequences of their choices were soon evident. Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened and they realized for the first time that they were naked. They sewed together fig leaves to cover themselves. In essence, they hid from each other and hid from themselves. Rather than their actions leading them into greater intimacy and community, they discovered the depth of their alienation and became strangers in the world. Shame triumphed over freedom in this case. And then they heard the sound of the LORD as he was walking in the Garden.

            Remember what we said earlier about the author of this story depicting God in very human terms. Even readers who claim to be biblical literalists don’t take this verse literally. They see it as metaphorical language that God was walking in the Garden, but for some reason they insist on viewing the tree of knowledge of good and evil as a literal tree rather than seeing the whole story as metaphor. But for the moment, let’s leave aside discussions of factuality and historicity and enter into the story as we have it, suspending disbelief. Personally I really like the image of God walking in the cool of the day. It is a lovely image of divine nature. We can assume from the story that this was not the first time that the LORD went for a stroll in this garden he planted for the man, but this time something is wrong. The man and his wife have hidden from God.

            In our modern day we are accustomed to stories in which a character loses faith in God, shouting up to the sky: “Where are you?” This may even be a question that you have asked in the dark watches of the night when nothing seems right with your world. “Where are you?” we ask of the heavens, fearing that we may actually receive an answer. But the question in Genesis 3 is not “Where is God?” God is. God’s existence is not called into question in the Bible; it is the existence and purpose of humans that is a problem. In Genesis 3 it is the LORD who comes seeking, calling out to the man, “Where are you? Where are you?”

            We can look at this in many ways. We can empathize with the parental God who goes seeking for a child who is afraid of getting caught. The LORD here is like a mother looking under the sink or in the basement for the child who is afraid of punishment. She calls out fearful for the welfare of the missing child. She is also afraid of her own anger that has so frightened someone she loves. Or we may sense in this question the question that sometimes tugs at our hearts when we look at a wife or husband after years of marriage: “Where are you?” “Who are you?” Maybe you know what it is like to live with someone who has hidden his or her thoughts and feelings so well that you no longer know for sure who you are living with. God is the one wondering what has happened.

            The relationship of the humans and their creator has changed dramatically, and the atmosphere is filled with fear rather than love. The man has hidden from the one being in the universe that knows him completely. Suddenly it is no longer comfortable to be seen or to be known. You may remember what it was like when you no longer wanted your parents to see you even though they had once bathed and clothed you. Things are different as you grow older. Things were different in Eden, too.

Inquest and Blame:    So God held an inquest, or a family meeting, if you prefer. I have no doubt that the LORD said those words every man fears: “Adam, we need to talk.” God asked a pointed question that indicated that he already knew what had happened: “Have you eaten from the tree?” Have you gained the knowledge and awareness that destroyed your innocence and happiness? Have you become like God in discerning good and evil? Do you see your spouse as a stranger rather than your other self? Have you seized your freedom only to lose your sense of belonging in this world? There is a lot of impact behind one little question.

            Adam, to his credit, does not lie to God. He admitted that he ate the fruit. Actually, he admitted that the woman gave him the fruit and practically forced it down his unwilling throat – and he reminds the LORD that he was the one who gave him the woman in the first place. “So, sure I ate it,” he says, “but it wasn’t my fault.” Thus began the continuing human drama of avoiding responsibility. This is still an important part of our daily news, isn’t it?  Yes, I take full responsibility for any mistakes that may have occurred, but I’m not going to name any of those mistakes. Yes, I take full responsibility for what has happened, but I’m going to keep my job. Yes, we are willing to settle this lawsuit and give the plaintive money for her suffering, but we admit no wrong-doing. Yes, I was wrong. I was too trusting of my employees, of other officials, of others who really did wrong.

You could add to the list of the ways we act just like Adam today. I did it, but it wasn’t my fault! If only I wasn’t poor; if only I wasn’t rich; if only I had better parents; if only my parents hadn’t been so strict; if only I didn’t love too much or too little; if only God had made the world different! It isn’t my fault.

And Eve is no better. Adam blames her, so she blames the snake, claiming she was deceived and seduced. The poor snake doesn’t get a chance to shift the blame. Last week we talked about this story as a story of loss of innocence, of entering into adult freedom and responsibility. Here we see that Adam and Eve have a long way to go to reach maturity. They accepted freedom in eating of the tree, but they haven’t accepted responsibility for their actions.

The burning desire to be like God suddenly disappears when they stand before God and have to explain their actions. They wanted to live like adults but still hoped to be judged like children.  But once you cross the bridge you cannot go back. Responsibility is theirs whether they want it or not.

Punishments:              Here we come to the part of the story that many people really don’t like. Interpreters have debated for centuries whether God hands down punishments here or whether he is just describing the consequences of Adam and Eve’s actions. It is interesting that the word curse is used twice. God tells the snake that he is cursed because of what he has done. He and all of his descendents will crawl on their bellies, eating dust, and suffering from the wrath of humans. That’s quite a curse – much worse than what awaits Adam and Eve, I think.

And God says that the ground is cursed because of what Adam did. For centuries Christian theologians have seen this as an explanation for why the world that was called “good” in Genesis 1 is now such a difficult and dangerous place. Nature is under a curse, and humans no longer live in harmony in it. This means that sin has cosmic ramifications. Even if we do not believe that nature was corrupted by human sin, this passage still has great relevance. We know all too well what cursed ground looks like. Visit Copper Hill, Tennessee and you will see cursed ground: miles of wasteland caused by copper smelting. Visit areas of West Virginia where mountainsides have washed away from strip mining. Visit Nagasaki or the Aral Sea and you will see the lasting results of human sin. Watch as the glaciers melt in Europe and America. Think back to the Dust Bowl. Cursed is the ground. You can decide if this verse is talking about a curse imposed by God or one that humans themselves impose of the earth we have been given.

Human Life:               Humans suffer in this account, but curiously the word cursed is not used for Adam and Eve even though some women refer to their monthly “curse.” God tells the woman that she will experience great pains in giving birth. This is one of those curious points of the story that reminds us that we cannot read it too literally. It is hard to see how God could increase her pains if she has never given birth before. Some early commentators speculated that Adam and Eve had had children without pain before eating of the fruit, but that is reading a lot into the text. No, I think we have to leave this as a description of reality rather than a change in nature. Women suffer more than other mammals in childbirth because an infant’s brain is too big for the woman’s body.  It is an ordeal to give birth, and it is very dangerous. Before the 20th century, childbirth was the leading cause of death for women. Some Christian sects have used the pain of childbirth and the idea of a curse placed on women as evidence that sex and procreation are evil. But despite the pain and danger of childbirth, the text indicates that women will still yearn for husbands. They will fall in love, get married, and have children. At times, this too may seem like a curse, but it may also be a blessing.

The phrase “and he shall rule over you” has occasioned a great deal of opposition in recent decades as women have sought to exercise their full human rights. If male religious leaders had not placed such weight on this sentence as a justification of the oppression of women, perhaps feminists would not be so opposed to this Genesis text. But we must live in the world we have and not the one we desire. All I can offer to the discussion is that the concept of rule here is like dominion in chapter 1. It does not mean to oppress or abuse; it means to care for and protect. Since the woman has to endure the hardship of childbirth, the husband must provide for and protect her. We may reject this idea today, just as we may choose to use an epidural to block the pain of childbirth, but we shouldn’t just reject the Bible because it reflects an earlier period of human development.

Adam’s world also changed in ways he did not expect. He always had to work in the garden, but now he has to labor for his food. Sweat and toil will be the sum of his days, and even in his work he cannot forget that he is one step from death. He is a creature of dust and will return to the dust. Even today, labor is a leading cause of death among men, is it not? Part of Christian redemption should be restoring labor to its proper role as a blessing for humans rather than a curse.

Life Beyond the Garden:       The man and the woman do not protest their fate. Instead, it is only now in the story that Eve is named. No longer is she just woman – being taken from a man. Now she is Eve – the mother of all living. Based on the prohibition that God gave originally, we would expect that the punishment would be instant death; but instead of death there is life. It is not just that Adam and Eve live – Adam recognizes that Eve will be the great mother. They will bring life out of death.

Though there will be blood, sweat, toil, and tears, life will triumph. They will not be immortal, but they will be human. And God himself clothed Adam and Eve. This was another act of mercy on God’s part. They leave paradise with protection and with hope for a new world.

Expulsion:       That new world is outside the garden though. The true cost of their new wisdom was expulsion from paradise and separation from the LORD their maker. Cherubim and a flaming sword bar the path back to innocence. This remains our story. We cannot return to our innocence, we cannot go back to our childhoods. Have you ever looked at old pictures and asked yourself, “Where are you?” Where is the bright-eyed child of promise who felt safe in the world?  It is hard to face the fact that we all have been pushed out of the garden. It is easy to give in to the seductions of nostalgia, to think that we can recover our innocence rather than face our responsibilities. But we are like Adam and Eve. We give birth in the midst of pain and suffering, in longing and desire. We may glance back at paradise, but the way is barred. We must move forward, with our hearts longing for a better place. We must take on our responsibilities in faith and learn to love in this world.

Genesis Lesson 6 – Eve

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 6: Eve (Genesis 3). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on October 23, 2005 

Introduction:   In the last lesson we focused in on the serpent as the tempter. Let’s look closer at the character of Eve in this story. Eve has been the object of much attention through the centuries, and her name has been used to sell a wide variety of products for women. She has been praised and vilified, defended and rejected.

The story of Eve in the Bible is very short, but the interpretation of Eve has been a litmus test for society’s view of women for over two millennia. For instance, in the 5th century Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, barred the Byzantine Empress Pulcharia from standing behind the altar beside the priests, like the emperor did. He shouted that she was unworthy because she was the daughter of Eve, the mother of all sin and evil. As such, she could not stand in the holy of holies. Pulcharia replied that she was also the daughter of Mary who brought the Redeemer into the world.

And since she was empress, she also exiled Nestorius and declared him a heretic. But she lost the war. Women are still not allowed behind the altar in Orthodox Churches, nor can they be priests. This is just one dramatic example of the fact that Eve has often been the subject of political and social debate. It is remarkably easy to let our fears and prejudices cloud our reading of the Bible.

A New Look at Eve:  Many people assume they know ‘all about Eve,” as a movie title suggests, but there is always need for a fresh look at old topics. In the story we first meet Eve walking naked and without shame in the garden. She encounters a snake who asks her a question about God’s commandments, and she answers. It is interesting that she does not simply quote what God said to Adam, she adds to it. “Do not even touch the tree” is not in the original prohibition. It could be that Adam exaggerated when he told Eve the rules laid down by the LORD, but it is more likely that it was Eve herself who expanded the prohibition.

            The Old Testament scholar Phyllis Tribble in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality points out that this shows that Eve is thinking.[1] In fact, she could be considered a rabbi since the rabbis examined the biblical laws and expanded them. They called this putting a fence around the Torah so that people would not accidentally transgress. Parents do this all the time. You don’t want children to play in the street, so you give them a boundary in the yard many feet from the street. We do it politically when we establish a buffer zone between warring nations.  Eve’s version of God’s prohibition included a buffer zone. Don’t eat; don’t even touch. She was thinking about God’s words.

            In short, Eve is a thinker, and there are some commentators who see Eve as the first theologian because she engages in rational discussion with the serpent on the meaning of God’s commandments. She is the first interpreter of the Torah, but she is also the first to violate the divine law. The snake engages her mind by raising questions, and she responds intelligently.

Some rabbis and theologians have even argued that the snake tempted Eve instead of Adam because Adam was too stupid to be persuaded by the snake’s arguments. Certainly Adam in this account is no theologian or rocket scientist. Eve has to have her resistance worn down; Adam doesn’t even protest when Eve offers him the fruit.

Wisdom:         The snake offers Eve divine wisdom, and when she saw that the “fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom,” she took it and ate it. Adam just did as he was told. Now, if we simply take the straight-forward meaning of this verse rather than over-interpreting, we see that Eve took the forbidden fruit to satisfy her bodily desire of hunger, her spiritual desire for beauty, and her mental desire for wisdom. Mind, spirit, and body were all involved in her choice. It was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom. Normally we would praise what Eve has done; she acted out of the fullness of human nature.

In fact, the early Christian Gnostics saw Eve as a heroine, as the one who understood the value of wisdom and beauty. The church rejected that view, recognizing that Eve was punished by God for her actions rather than praised. Even so, Eve is such a strong character, so different from social stereotypes of women, that some have speculated that her story was first told by women before it was included in the Bible.

For centuries, people have recognized that the story of Eve is similar to both the myths of Pandora and Promethius. Her curiosity brought knowledge to the human race but also unleashed many ills. It is no surprise that some early Christian theologians identified the sin of Eve with the Greek idea of hubris or pride. In seeking to be more than a mere human, she stumbled and fell. Her fall began before she ever ate, but her fall also brought wisdom to the human race.

Theology and the Fall:           It is a little uncomfortable talking about Eve as the first theologian when your title is Theologian in Residence, but Genesis 3 should encourage us all to self-reflection. Zinzendorf was suspicious of theologians’ desire to question and debate scripture, arguing that Satan has always been a theologian. The issue here is not theology itself, and it is not the desire to understand our faith and the will of God.

The issue is whether we use our minds to live in harmony with what God has intended or seek ways to advance our own desires without concern for consequences. Theology, like all human endeavors, can lead to harm. Theologians are just as prone as scientists to the seductions of the mind. When theological questioning becomes a tool to undermine faith, love, and hope rather than strengthen them, then problems arise.

            The seducer turns her away from Eve’s original blessing of living in obedience and harmony with God’s will by offering her the potential of being like God herself. Eve lost her sense that she lived in a network of relationships, including a relationship with the creator. In many ways, Eve is a tragic heroine, the mother of the race who first learned a bitter lesson about good and evil. By seeking to become like God, she actually became fully human. In Luther’s words she became, like us, “a lost and undone human creature.”

Moral Discernment:  In looking at the story of Eve and Adam, it is helpful to contemplate the significance of the tree in the midst of the garden. It is not the Tree of Knowledge, as it has often been described. It is the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which is actually one of the definitions of wisdom. Wisdom is more than intelligence or knowledge; it is also the ability to discern what is good and bad, prudent and foolish, harmful and helpful. Wisdom involves actions as much as intellect and it is one of the most important characters for adults to have. History is filled with stories of brilliant people with bold ideas who were ultimately shown to be fools. The snake offered Eve wisdom, which she desired.

            Here we come to one of the most troubling parts of this story. This is part of what keeps the story of Adam and Eve from being nothing more than one of Aesop’s fables with a tidy moral. Fables generally end with a simplistic sense of right and wrong, good and bad, often summed up in a memorable statement. “Always look before you leap.”

We can’t do that with the story of Adam and Eve, can we? Would the moral be, “Never eat from trees in the middle of the garden,” or “Never talk to snakes?” It is like saying that the moral of World War I is, “Never assassinate archdukes named Ferdinand,” as it says in the Limony Snicket books. In contrast, the story of Adam and Eve draws us into the depths of the human dilemma of innocence and wisdom, opening up many avenues of contemplation. It shows us in story form the complexities of moral decision-making and the tragedy of human existence.

It is recognized in the Bible that moral discernment comes with age. Though there is no set age for reaching maturity, there comes a point in every person’s life when you no longer “think as a child and act as a child.” You become accountable for your actions, your decisions, and your judgments—even when there is no written law to guide you. In Judaism, this passage into adult responsibility for following the laws of God is called the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For most Christian churches, it is called confirmation. Before you reach the age of accountability, your actions are judged differently.

            We do not arrest toddlers for shoplifting; we teach them not to shoplift. We also take steps to prevent them from harming themselves and others until they develop the wisdom to do so on their own. Innocence does not mean that someone has not done something wrong. It means that someone does not know what wrong is. It is interesting that the word for “sin” is not used in the Genesis 3 account. Eve was innocent until she ate of the fruit. Like many tribal peoples today, Eve and Adam had no concept of sin at the beginning. They were naked without shame, just like children.

Open Eyes:     If we take the Genesis text seriously instead of reading our theology into it, we see that the climax of the story is when Eve eats. “Then her eyes were opened.” Perhaps she was wrong to listen to the snake, to yield to temptation. Perhaps she was wrong to desire the fruit at all, just as Augustine taught. But the text merely tells us that it was the moment of eating that opened her eyes, and then she became aware of good and evil. It might be that she became aware because she had just done evil, but we aren’t told that. Just that her eyes were opened. She is wiser, but perhaps sadder. I am reminded that the charlatan salesman in The Music Man sings about his desire to meet ‘the sadder but wiser girl.”

            I may be taking the wrong approach to this text. Certainly it is not the standard interpretation, but it is curious that elsewhere in the Old Testament it is clear that the Law was given by God so that his people would know good from evil. Except for the writings of Paul, the Bible always praises the law. Sin is defined in the Bible in terms of obedience and rebellion to the commandments of God. With that in mind, one should expect that a story of the eating from of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would be a good story, a story of the people of God learning what God knows about right and wrong.

            But it doesn’t turn out that way, does it? The LORD warned Adam not to eat of the tree, and there are painful consequences as a result. With knowledge of good and evil comes pain and suffering, not the joy of the LORD. The Law was a gift of God, but as Paul points out, the Law may also lead us into sin and alienation from God. We can only rebel when we know what the commandments are.

It is illuminating that the first thing that Eve and Adam see when their eyes were opened is that they are naked. They immediately cover their bodies, hiding from one another. To quote the great philosopher Lewis Grizzard, Adam and Eve went from being naked to being “nekkid.” Naked means you ain’t got no clothes on; nekkid means you ain’t got no clothes on and you’re up to something.

            But the text does not indicate that lust entered the world when they ate of the forbidden fruit. It was shame that first appeared, and clothes are the symbol of that shame. We need to be aware that shame is primarily a social phenomenon. There are things you do in private that you would be ashamed to do in front of someone, and that is how it should be.

There have been groups through the centuries who sought to reverse the fall by living as Adam and Eve. The Shakers did this with celibate communities. The Adamites in Moravia and Bohemia did it by getting rid of their clothes without adopting celibacy. That was frowned upon violently by the other Hussites.

Today we suffer from the opposite problem. Judging from popular entertainment and politics, it appears that we have lost both shame and innocence. Today we may have reached the point where we are so unable to discern good and bad that we no longer know when to be ashamed of our actions, judgments, and words.

            The truth is that ritual nudity and other ways of ignoring shame do not bring back the innocence we seek. Ignoring the wisdom gained from the tree or pretending we don’t know better does not return us to paradise. The point of the story of Adam and Eve is that there are some bridges that you can only cross once. Shame comes with the loss of innocence and is an unexpected byproduct of wisdom. Last week I noted that the snake did not say anything untrue to Eve, but he deceived her none the less. He did not tell her the truth about shame and the grief that comes with loss of innocence. Seducers tell you of the pleasure but not the consequences of crossing certain bridges.

A True Story:             People ask me if I believe that the story of the garden of Eden is true. I say that it is most certainly true. In fact, it is too true to be factual. It is not a story about our distant ancestors; it is our story. It is the story of each of us as we mature and lose our innocence. We don’t lose them in a single moment, but in a serious of moments. We eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil many times.

The story of Eden is the bittersweet story of having our eyes opened and at the same time recognizing our nakedness in the world. It is the story of how we lose our original sense of harmony and belonging in the world that we knew as infants held in loving arms. We become aliens in the garden, strangers to our families, and even strangers to our own bodies. We gain wisdom, but with wisdom come shame and loss. And we hide ourselves from God when we hear him walking in our garden in the cool of the day. “Where are you?” God asks Adam and Eve. It is one of the most poignant questions in Scripture. This story is remarkably rich. It is a description of who we are rather than who our parents were.

[1] Phyllis Tribble, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978). See also Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).