The first two chapters of Genesis tell of the glories of God creating the world. Chapter three is a tragedy.
Or maybe it’s a coming of age story. Or maybe it’s both. Maybe it sounds like a tragedy to us because we mourn the loss of those carefree days before we grew up, just as the first humans must have mourned their loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden.
Most often you’ll hear what happens here described as “the Fall.” But it’s more than if you merely tripped on a tree root and took a fall while walking in the yard. This is “the Fall,” with a capital F. It’s usually called “the Fall of Man,” meaning “the Fall of Humanity.” Women are included, it’s not just men, though women usually get blamed for it.
“In Adam’s fall we sinned all.” That’s what the New England Primer of 1777 says. There may be some truth in that, or maybe it’s just bad poetry expressing theology that’s not much better. Let’s try to scrape off a few centuries of theological barnacles so maybe we can look at the story with fresh eyes.
The man and the woman – they have no names yet – live in what can only be called Paradise. They have been placed in this garden to till it and keep it. They labor six out of seven days and rest on the seventh day, as commanded by their creator. And their labor is rewarded with an abundance of good food.
Conditions are ideal, and all forms of life flourish to their fullest. Later generations will invent a word to describe this idyllic state of life. The word is shalom.
In this state of shalom, all creatures live in right relationship with one another and with God. As one commentator says, the environment of Eden is “so ecologically ideal that in no instance does life feed off the taking of life. Animals eat grass, not each other.” Humans, too, are vegetarian. (Paul Borgman, Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard, 27)
No living being has to die for another to survive. Every living creature that is animated by the breath of life from God respects the life of all other creatures that are animated by the breath of life from God.
The two humans, so obviously made for each other, are naked and feel no shame. They have no secrets from each other. They are innocent lovers. Yes – lovers.
Some early Christian commentators – and some still today – maintain that sex is shameful and evil, so the man and the woman could never have had sexual relations at this point in their relationship. Sex had to come after the Fall, they say, because sex is sinful. I think that attitude is hogwash, and it is not supported by this or any other biblical text.
The man and the woman have nothing to be ashamed of, and they are lovers. They feel no shame in their nakedness not because they feel no sexual desire for each other but because their desire has not been corrupted by sin. Yes, that will come later, after the Fall, as it were. But now their desire is healthy and good.
It’s natural for us to interpret this story in light of our own stories, and our own attitudes toward sex. We can’t help but do that, because part of what this story trying to do is explain our story. It explains, for example, that when a man and a woman come together, they become “one flesh.” Not literally, of course, but they are so close sometimes that they feel as if they were one.
In this story, they once were one, of course. Before God separated them as male and female, they were what the narrator simply calls “the human.” God concluded that it was not good for the human to be alone.
We should all remember that. All of us go through periods of aloneness and loneliness; times when we feel disconnected from others and unable to relate to them. As long as these are relatively brief occasions, they can be healthy, because they remind us how valuable connection with others is to our total well-being.
Long-term, though, it is not good for any of us to be alone. I’m an introvert. Where extroverts need time with people to re-energize, I need occasional time away from people to re-energize. But after awhile even introverts know that they need the company of others. Long-term, I am not my best friend. Too much time alone leads to self-destruction.
Remember the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
“Two are better than one … For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11)
Having once been together as one, maybe the primordial duo yearns for their original oneness. Maybe they can say to each other, “You complete me,” as if each lacked something that only the other could provide. Or maybe it’s not a lack of something to receive from the other, but rather something each wants to give to the other.
God created humans in God’s own image and likeness. Did God do this out of a desire to be revered by humans? Or did God do it out of a desire to expand the sphere of God’s love to include humans? Didn’t God create simply and freely out of love?
It wasn’t good for the human to be alone because the human needed someone to stand opposite him and be his partner. So God separated man and woman to stand against each other and with each other as partners and as lovers.
Is it so hard to accept that they are lovers? Is it so hard to imagine that they are in love with each other and in love with life itself? For their love surely extends beyond just the two of them. Not only do they get along great with each other and with all other of God’s creatures, they also get along great with God. God shows up early in the evenings, when it’s breezy and cool, and they go for walks in the garden, and they talk. They talk easily, for their relationship is open and easy.
What do they talk about? Well, what would you talk about on a long walk with God? Would you pepper God with questions about why things aren’t perfect in your world? Would you ask God all the “why” questions you could think of? “Why are there wasps? What were you thinking when you created them?” Or would you just open your mind and spirit to God and together discover where a conversation without an agenda might lead? Some people still do that today, by the way. It’s called contemplative prayer.
For the man and the woman, each day ends with a walk with God in the cool of the evening. Each day is a beautiful day in the neighborhood that God created and called Eden.
But the seeds of trouble have been planted. In the center of the garden is a certain tree.
Before God separated them into man and woman, God told them: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
If you’re a stickler for annoying details, you’ll see a discrepancy here. In the great hymn of creation from Genesis 1, God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”
But this version of the story comes from a different hand, and the editors who set these two stories side by side are not bothered by discrepancies in detail. Whatever God may have said before, in that other story, God now says, in this story, “Don’t eat from this tree. Do it, and you’ll die.”
Well, what do the man and the woman know of death? Have they seen any animal die, of any cause, even old age? Having little or no first-hand experience of death, they have no understanding of what death is. They are so innocent in so many ways. They are so naïve in so many ways. They are about to grow up fast.
Each of us has a coming of age story. One day, I am a child, an adolescent. The next thing I know, I’m a grownup, an adult. Maybe I could see the change coming from a long distance. Maybe it took a full season for me to feel the full ramifications of it. Or maybe it just happened, all at once, in one event that was both wrenching and exhilarating, horrible and wonderful at the same time.
Everybody loves a good coming of age story. They are among the most popular stories of all. Think of such movies as “The Lion King” and the Harry Potter adventures, such TV series as “Happy Days” and “That ‘70s Show,” such novels as Catcher in the Rye and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
We relate to these stories because we’ve all been there. We’ve gone through some of the same agonies. We’ve known some of the same triumphs. These stories may be about others, but at the same time they’re also about each of us.
That’s one reason the story of these two lovers in paradise engages us so much. We know that we’re part of their story. This story is out story, too. Maybe it happens just this way in each of our lives. Or maybe it happens in other, similar, ways with the same effect. Whatever the chain of events, we see ourselves in it.
Well, why can’t they eat from this one tree? What’s wrong with it? Why does God forbid it? As we’ll see in next week’s installment of the story, they both eat from it, willingly, knowingly, standing side by side. Having never known temptation before, not even knowing what temptation is, they are easy prey for a tempter. The results are tragic.
Some years ago, a writer named Judith Viorst wrote a book called Necessary Losses. It’s about the losses every person encounters while growing to maturity and how, as painful as they are, each of these losses is necessary if we are to achieve maturity.
Was what happened at this tree in the Garden of Eden a necessary loss? Did it have to happen so that humans could advance in knowledge and in their relationship with God? Do they have to lose their innocence before they can grow up?
I have a pill bottle that I got from my pharmacist. It has a special screw-on cap that works two ways. One way is child resistant. To unlock the cap, you have to push down a tab with the thumb of one hand while you unscrew the top with your other hand. It’s tricky enough for an adult. It’s unlikely a child could do it. But flip the cap over, and it simply screws on and off the bottle with little effort. Any child could do it, it’s so easy.
The Tree of Knowledge did not have a child-proof cap. I wonder why it didn’t. I think that if I were God, and I didn’t want people messing with that tree, I’d put something like a child-proof cap on it, or a big fence or something. But God didn’t do that. Were the man and the woman set up for a fall? Did God make it so easy to disobey that they almost had to do it? Was it necessary for them to disobey so they would grow up?
I raise that question not necessarily because I think that’s the case, but because it’s one of the many possibilities that this story raises, one of the many intriguing things that make it as relevant today as when it was first told many hundreds of years ago.
Today we’ve set the scene. Next week we’ll see the story play out. It starts, amusingly enough, with a talking snake. Does that catch your attention? It catches the attention of the man and the woman, too. And once they’re hooked, they’re easy prey for the catch.
“Partners” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Oct. 6, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 33:6-9, Genesis 2:16-17, 3:1.