We have reached the point in the Genesis narrative that is usually called “the Fall,” with a capital “F,” meaning that this is a major event in human history.
If it was such a big deal, you’d think that the rest of the Old Testament would constantly point back to it and say: “This is where everything went wrong.” But the remainder of the Old Testament never directly refers to it. Maybe that’s because its significance is simply assumed. Or maybe it’s thought that the story is so powerful that it needs no explanation.
That is the general way of scripture. Scripture teaches through story, not through the recitation of points of doctrine. And this is a powerful story.
Certainly by the time we get to the New Testament, the event related here is considered a pivotal point in the drama of salvation. It’s commonly thought that this is what Jesus came to reverse. Writing to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul says: “In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22, CEB) For Paul, Jesus is the Second Adam who corrects what the First Adam got wrong.
Strictly speaking, according to our story, he’s not Adam yet. He’s still “the man,” and Eve is still “the woman.” But since we all know this as the story of Adam and Eve, and it’s cumbersome to keep calling them “the man” and “the woman,” from now on we’ll call them Adam and Eve.
Their story is fairly simple and straightforward, but it has been complicated by centuries of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and abuse. It begins: “Now the serpent was more cunning than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.”
We commonly think that this was no mere snake but Satan, the devil, the father of lies, in the guise of a snake. A couple of passages in the New Testament suggest this, and some early Christian theologians say that it is so. Over the years, an elaborate mythology has grown up about fallen angels and one in particular named Lucifer, who is said to have led a heavenly revolt against God. None of this is remotely biblical, though the Bible is often cited as the basis of it. *
What’s at stake is responsibility for the existence of evil. If this is just an ordinary, garden-variety snake, we have to explain why it’s trying to trick Adam and Eve. What’s its motive? But if the snake is actually Satan in disguise, it’s easy to say that, as usual, he’s just up to no good.
In some people’s minds, this shifts the blame from the humans to Satan. But if Satan is a fallen angel, he also is part of God’s creation, and shifting the blame to him tells us nothing about the origin of evil. Most importantly, it does not get God off the hook for creating a world in which evil exists. So the origin of evil remains a mystery.
Ultimately, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, we must realize that “It is not the purpose of the Bible to give information about the origin of evil,” but rather “to witness to the character of evil.” (Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 65)
In its witness to the character of evil, our story says nothing about fallen angels or Satan or Lucifer. The text clearly identifies the snake as one of the wild animals that God created. We can’t quite call it an ordinary snake, though. Two things about it stand out. One, it’s especially cunning. Two, it can talk.
Perhaps the novelty of a snake talking is why Eve is not alarmed but appears to be charmed when the snake begins to speak. You might imagine her saying to Adam, “O look, it’s a talking snake.” Adam is there, by the way. The snake doesn’t speak to Eve alone. You can’t see it in the English translations, but when the snake speaks, the “you” in Hebrew is always plural. The snake is speaking to both Adam and Eve. Though he says nothing, Adam is standing there the whole time.
The snake begins with an apparently innocent question: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
I say that’s an “apparently” innocent question because it’s not innocent at all. It’s a carefully constructed lie that subtly calls the character of God into question. In fact, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of all trees in the garden except one. They shouldn’t even touch that one, Eve says.
God never said anything about touching the tree. Eve adds that part. Probably she does not intend to misrepresent what God said. Rather, she wants to intensify the command, to put a fence around the tree to keep them from coming any closer to it, lest they eat from it and die.
But the snake has now lured Eve into a trap that she could never have imagined was even there. “You will not die,” he says, “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
What do Adam and Eve know of good and evil? No more than they know of death. How do you discern good from evil? How can you know which is which? You learn in two ways: through personal experience, or through the experience of others distilled in an elusive thing we call wisdom.
They have limited experience. As for wisdom, the testimony throughout the Bible is clear: true wisdom comes from God alone. But the snake tells them that eating from this tree will give them wisdom without God. They will become like God, in that they will know what is good and what is evil. They will acquire wisdom on their own.
Like a finely cut diamond, this story has many facets. Let’s look at a few of them.
First, there is the command of God, “Don’t eat from this tree.”
We all want to do what we’re told not to do. Ever tell a child “no”? I remember when our daughters was maybe a year and a half old. She went to her mother and made a request. Her mother said “no.” She immediately trotted across the room to where I was sitting and made the same request to me. It apparently did not occur to her that I might have overheard her talking to her mom. It also apparently did not occur to her that I also might say “no.” When I did, she went away in a huff.
Nobody likes to be told “no.” Animals don’t like it any more than humans do. Your dog doesn’t like to be told “no.” He may obey, but he doesn’t like the word “no.” Your cat, who is less likely to obey, doesn’t like it either. Neither do other domesticated animals or livestock. They may obey, but be careful when you turn your back on them.
God gives every living creature a great amount of freedom. Animals are limited by their instincts, which are hard-wired in them. But they also enjoy the freedom to want and to choose. God gave us all freedom, and we all enjoy it. We all say, “I want what I want, even if I’ve been told ‘no.’ ”
Giving us such freedom was, and is, risky for God. First, God risks disobedience. God wants what is best for us, so a command from God will be for our good. When we disobey, it is likely to get us into trouble that we could have avoided.
Secondly, but probably more importantly, God risks loss of relationship. When we disobey, we distance ourselves from God. The more often we disobey, the more embarrassing our situation becomes, and the more distance we want to put between ourselves and God, and the more trouble we get into that we could have avoided if we had just obeyed in the first place.
But God will not control us. God will not micromanage our lives. God grants us self-will and the freedom to pursue it. In so doing, surely God knows that we are sometimes going to exercise that self-will and freedom in ways that God judges as unwise. But God is willing to take that risk, because if we do not have freedom, we cannot love.
We can love only if we have the freedom not to love. So if we are going to live with God in any sort of loving relationship, it has to be a free relationship. We have to be free to not love God or ourselves or our neighbors. The Bible’s consistent witness is not only that God loves us but that God also desires our love. But God cannot and will not compel it, because love that is compelled is not love at all.
Just as we cannot love without the freedom not to love, we cannot obey without the freedom not to obey. What keeps us from not obeying is trust based on love. We trust that God loves us. Therefore, we trust that God knows what is best for us. Therefore, we obey God’s command.
What we have here in this story is a failure to trust. Trust is perhaps the central issue of our relationship with God. I’m not talking about faith, which is usually interpreted only in terms of head knowledge and intellectual assent to certain propositions. I’m talking about trust; the kind that means putting your life on the line in a crucial moment because you are certain that God will act in a positive way on your behalf.
Remember the book “The Shack,” which became a movie? What’s the central issue for Mack, the main character? It’s trust. Does he or does he not trust God? Reread the stories of your favorite Bible heroes and heroines, and rethink them through the lens of trust. Trust is always the core issue in their walk with God. Trust is always the core issue in all our lives.
What we have here is a failure to trust. Adam and Eve are curious. They want knowledge. The snake insinuates that God doesn’t want them to have it. God’s “no” then becomes a challenge. If God won’t let them have what they seek, they will get it another way. They will eat from the forbidden tree and acquire knowledge on their own.
The snake’s lie is that God does not want them to be wise. God surely does want them to acquire wisdom. But they must learn that true wisdom can be acquired only from God. Any other source will be polluted. That’s why there’s no child-proof cap on the tree, no impregnable fence keeping them away from it. God wants them to eat from that tree, but only when God has prepared them for the experience. And they’re not ready.
Naïve, innocent, gullible – call them what you want. Lacking wisdom, they make a poor choice. They seek wisdom not from God but from a tree. However, note carefully that our story never calls their act sinful. The word “sin” does not appear until chapter 4 of Genesis, and we’re still in chapter 3.
What they do may be sin. Or it may be simply an innocent mistake. It may be a necessary mistake. It may be something they have to do to grow up as human beings.
However you describe their motives, the fruit of the tree looks healthy and attractive, so
Eve plucks some and eats, and she gives some to Adam, who is standing right by her, and he eats, too. And the eyes of both of them are opened. And their world is never the same again. Their new world is our world, the world we inherit from them, a world in which we all experience good and evil first-hand.
This is not a story of something that happened to two people a long time ago. This is a story of something that happens to each of us in our lifetimes. We want something, and we reach out to take it, because we want it, and before we know it, this small act of rebellion has become a full-fledged insurrection. It’s now a way of being, a way of standing in opposition against God, against others, and even against our very selves.
The snake was right about one thing. After disobeying God, Adam and Eve don’t die – at least not physically. They do die to their previous innocent and naïve understanding of the world. And they do die spiritually, to some extent, because, as we’ll see, their act has profound effects on all their relationships. The simple intimacy they once had with God, with each other and with all other creatures is now gone.
That intimacy is gone because there are some things that you can see but you can’t un-see, things that you can say that you can’t un-say, and things that you can do that you can’t un-do.
They fail to trust God. They disobey a command. They eat from the forbidden tree. And their eyes are opened to a new reality. It’s not a better reality. But it’s our reality, too. It’s where we all live. It’s a reality we cannot escape on their own. But God is faithful to us even when we are not faithful to God. To that and related things we will turn next week.
* In the King James Version, Isaiah 14.12 refers to the fallen king of Babylon as “Lucifer, son of the morning star,” who is “fallen from heaven” and “cut down to the ground.” In the imaginations of some interpreters, the passage is connected to Luke 10:18, where Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” The name “Lucifer” is derived from the Latin Vulgate translation of “day star,” or Venus. The passage in Isaiah is about the king of Babylon, who has fallen from a great height. It is not about an angel named Lucifer who fell from God’s grace. There is no need to link this passage and Jesus’ saying in Luke.
“Deception” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Oct. 13, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 146.1-10, Genesis 3:1-7a.