The way it was meant to be:
Today, we come to the last in our series on the creation stories in Genesis, which I have been calling, “The way it was meant to be,” but this is a story meant to explain why things are not the way they were meant to be; this story explains why things are the way they are. It is the story of the Fall of Man, and the beginning of sin.
And this story illustrates some of the pitfalls of biblical interpretation that I have alluded to before, but not really dwelt upon. For what are we to make of this story? How are we to approach it? The Book of Genesis – and especially these stories I’ve been preaching on – is a minefield for biblical critics: a no-man’s land with barbed wire and machine guns commanding the approaches. And set in two different trenches on either side of that minefield are two great systems of biblical criticism.
The first system was born in Germany in the late 1800s, in the universities there. The discovery and translation and restoration of many ancient texts had been all the rage in academia for a while now, and scholars longed to apply what they were learning to the Bible. Standing in their way were the Protestant pastors of Germany, who ever since the Reformation had been saying, “The Bible says . . .” to end every argument.
The scholars were tired of this constant appeal to authority. They wanted to free the Bible from its official interpreters. So they began to ask, Who wrote this? Where did he get this from? And they came up with many theories. The dominant one described the first five books of the Bible as a patchwork of competing versions stitched together very late under the kings of Judah. In addition to treating the Bible to rather rough handling, the scholars assumed from the get-go that anything supernatural in the text was made up after the fact. They were utterly hostile to any suggestion that miracle or prophecy could be real, or reliably reported.
This approach – the Modernist approach – came to dominate biblical studies, both Protestant and Catholic. Which didn’t bother Catholics too much, since they looked to Tradition and apostolic authority to interpret the biblical texts. But to Protestants, who had placed their trust in the Bible as the supreme guide to the revelation of God, it was a direct challenge.
The response to Modernism came to be called Fundamentalism – an insistence on several fundamental truths revealed in the Bible. But in order to maintain those truths, one had to uphold the trustworthiness of the Bible, in general. The most rigid system of thought amongst the Fundamentalists came to be called Biblical Literalism. And in response to Darwin’s theory of evolution, these are the guys who came up with what we call Young Earth Creationism. They were committed to defending every last statement in the Bible as literally, scientifically, true, no matter what. Because – in their view – if even the slightest error existed in the Bible, the whole Bible’s claim to reveal God’s way of salvation would be called into question.
Now, even as the Modernists will not allow even the tiniest of miracles in their interpretation of the text, so the Fundamentalists will not allow even the smallest of metaphors to take the place of what seemed to them the literal meaning of the text. These hidden biases have caused both Modernism and Fundamentalism to hold some bizarre positions. And when it comes to this story, the two camps tell widely divergent tales.
The Modernists will point out that the characters in the story are all stock figures in the religious texts and artwork of ancient, pagan religions.
The serpent was often seen as a divine figure, interchangeable with the divine wind or breath of God. Serpents also figure prominently as guardians of sacred places, especially in the service of the Great Goddess.
The woman in such pagan portrayals is the Great Goddess herself. In story and art, she is often paired with a mortal man, who is a hero or prince. In ancient times the hero or prince would be given an apple – the fruit of immortality – just before he was sacrificed to the goddess; later, after human sacrifice fell out of fashion, these images and rituals were re-told as stories about the man giving some kind of apple to the woman. In the story of the Judgment of Paris, e.g., the prince of Troy is seen giving an apple “for the fairest” to Aphrodite, much to the chagrin of Hera and Athena.
These stock figures even appear in the New Testament, when Paul is explaining the gospel in Athens, and the local religious and philosophical leaders discuss his teaching. “Who is this ragpicker?” asked some. “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities,” someone answered, “because he preached unto them Jesus and the Resurrection." We miss the force of that unless we realize that “Resurrection” – anastasia in Greek - is also a woman’s name. The philosophers thought Paul was telling the story of Jesus and Anastasia, and were comparing it to similar stories they knew: Attis and Cybele; Actaeon and Artemis; Baal and Ashtoreth.
So, the modernists looked at this and said, See, it’s just the same story, only the Bible got it all wrong: a poor, garbled second-hand version at best. To which the Fundamentalists replied that every last word of this dialogue was spoken in just this way by these people in a specific spot in the Near East called Eden, as if they were sure there’d been a stenographer on the scene taking it all down in shorthand.
Well, there is another way to understand these stories, another approach to the integrity of the Bible, that is neither Modernist nor Fundamentalist. I think we should allow ourselves to believe that a true tradition is being handed down here, not merely made up, but a great deal of literary art has been applied to it. This is not history as Leopold von Ranke would have written it. This is not intended to be wie es eigentlich gewesen – "the way it actually happened" - as if proven from primary sources and properly footnoted.
Let me suggest to you that what the biblical writer is doing here is taking the common vocabulary of ancient religion – the stock figures that everyone knew – to tell a story about who God is, and what his relationship to us is, and how our first parents fell into sin and why we all start out there now.
First of all, he demotes all the characters, leaving only God in the place of God.
The serpent is not a divine figure, nor a guardian of sacred spaces. He's not even a fallen angel. He’s just a beast, a critter – and an intruder at that.
And the woman is not a goddess, just a vain and conniving person who thinks that God’s omnipotence means he knows all the really good stuff, and she wants to be “in the know.”
Nor is the man hero or prince; he’s a chump, a weak-willed poster boy for your mother’s exasperated question, “And if all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff, too?” (Of course we would. We’ve been doing stupid stuff so that somebody else wouldn't think we're a wuss since Adam.)
And the apple is not the means of immortality – that would be the tree of life that they never get to – it’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil .
They want to know good and evil, just like God does. But God knows good and evil by simple intelligence. He doesn’t have to make evil in order to know what it would be. But we poor, limited creatures know mostly by experience. So in taking something good - the fruit of knowledge - in a wrong way, they experience good as evil.
And now they know what good and evil are. God made them "very good," but they have done evil, so now they experience themselves as evil. It changes everything they know. They experience their perfectly good bodies as something evil, and their shame makes them afraid – especially of God. Which means they even experience God as evil, too – as someone to be avoided. So they try to hide from God, but, of course, they can’t. They would probably like to hide from themselves, too, but that would be just as futile – as some of us know all too well.
Our first parents – the first human beings to understand who God is and how he is to be served, find themselves unable to do the job. Just like us. How many of you have begun a diet in order to lose weight, with everything planned out, day by day and meal by meal for the next 12 weeks – and then eaten the whole first day's chow in one sitting? You made out the diet; why can’t you follow it?
The same thing goes with rules about right and wrong. No matter how simple we make the rules, no matter how easy – even when we make up our own rules and hold ourselves only to the standard we set for ourselves – we can’t make it 48 hrs without breaking one of the rules we ourselves decreed.
I think there’s something brilliant in the Great Prohibition here: “thou shalt not eat of the fruit of the tree” and all that. All the rules of right and wrong, all the moral codes and rules of behavior and even the welter of regulations on how to approach God, are boiled down into ONE. SIMPLE. RULE.
You have everything else in the world to eat. Don’t eat THIS.And they can’t stop themselves. They talk themselves into it. They discover their broken nature as a consequence of breaking it.
And what does God do? Well, he exiles them from the garden, but that’s kind of automatic. They did that to themselves, I think. For the garden would cease to be the special place it was as soon as they knew themselves to no longer be the special people they were. That’s how sin works: it poisons everything.
But God doesn’t just pitch them out. First, he clothes them. And it costs him something to do it, too, for he kills one of his own animals in order to do it. Then he tells them how to survive in a hard world.
He condemns the serpent (who we know is really the devil), and foretells his destruction.
And in the promise to the woman, that her seed will bruise the serpent’s head, despite the serpent bruising his heel, this ancient writer predicts that the good God will vindicate himself by delivering his wayward children – somehow - the method of which was only revealed centuries later, on the cross and at the empty tomb. And so, the people for whom the writer wrote this story were encouraged to trust in the Lord, even when they didn’t know how God would save them – to believe in his goodness, and put no trust in their own goodness.
This is a story about grace as much as judgment. Or perhaps, we should say, about the God in whom grace and judgment are two sides of the same love for his creation, and for the persons he invites into a relationship with himself. So, approaching the story this way, what do we learn from it?
This is a very different kind of God from all the gods and goddesses worshiped in the ancient world. This is a God who is good, even to those who are not. And even though rules are important, we know going in that we are never going to be able to keep them well enough to merit God’s approval, so we do our best and trust him for the rest. We make no excuses. We place ourselves completely in his hands. For only by this kind of faith can we please him.
When we offer our brokenness to him, we find that he restores us and makes us fit for his service - not because we have done well, but because he has. The good we reach for, the good we do manage to do, we only do by his strength, not by ours. And as we experience his goodness, we come to a true knowledge of good and evil, and the ancient curse is redeemed. For in his forgiveness, we finally can even look upon ourselves and know the goodness that he sees in the work of his hands. And we don’t have to be ashamed or afraid any more.
To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.