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.