In the Garden of Eden, the fruit of one tree was forbidden, and Adam and Eve ate it in defiance of God’s command. In popular imagination, they ate an apple. Since ancient times, though, many interpreters have thought it must have been a fig, because once they saw shame in their nakedness, they made loincloths for themselves out of fig leaves.
A little irony there, right? They clothe themselves with leaves from the tree whose fruit has opened their eyes to their need for clothing.
Well, it doesn’t matter what kind of fruit it was. What matters is that they were forbidden to eat it, and they ate it anyway. This moment is usually described as “the Fall,” with a capital “F,” meaning the single act that caused all of humanity to fall from a state of God’s grace into a state of sin, or rebellion against God.
I prefer to think of it as “the stumble.” It was a mistake, yes – a fundamental failure to trust. But I think “the Fall” comes not when they initially fail to trust God but when they seal the deal by trying to cover it up.
They have been naked and unashamed. They have lived in Paradise in a state of innocence. Then they encounter a talking snake who subtly casts doubt on God’s trustworthiness and convinces them that they should seek wisdom not from God but from a source forbidden by God.
Our narrator explains what happens with characteristic directness. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”
They sought the knowledge of good and evil, and in one moment, they got it. It must have been like trying to drink water from a firehose, as the saying goes. The experience is overwhelming and shattering. They know immediately that everything in their world has changed radically.
Once innocent lovers, they now see each other differently. They can’t be sure yet what it is, but something is wrong. They have to cover themselves. They have to hide from each other. Once one, they no longer feel close. They feel separate and alone. An immense gulf has opened between them.
It gets worse. They hear God walking in the garden in the coolness of the evening. They hide. They don’t want God to see them in their degraded state.
I wonder what sound God makes walking in the garden. Is it like a soft and gentle breeze? Or is it like a booming, powerful stamping? Some translators think what they hear is not the sound of God walking, but the sound of God’s voice while God is walking. What is God saying while walking? Could it be that God is humming – perhaps humming the tune of creation? Whatever noise God makes, they once would have welcomed it. Now they dread it and hide.
God calls out. “Where are you?” It’s not that God doesn’t know. God knows. But God must ask.
At least the man answers honestly. “I heard you coming, and I hid because I’m afraid because I’m naked.” Actually, he’s no longer naked because he’s now wearing a loincloth made of fig leaves. But he feels naked. He feels vulnerable.
He feels guilty, too. He’s done wrong, and he knows it. This sudden knowledge of good and evil weighs on him. The sudden awareness that he has not done good but instead has done evil burdens him heavily.
He feels shame, too – for the first time ever. He is no longer comfortable in his own skin. He does not like the person he has become. Not only has he done wrong. He is wrong. It’s an awful feeling, and both he and the woman must be crushed by it. They are not who they were only moments before, and they hate what they have become.
Ever done something like that? Ever had a choice between right and wrong and you consciously chose the wrong, and now you feel terrible about it, and you feel even more terrible knowing that’s there’s nothing you can do to change what you’ve done?
You can’t go back to the moment and make a different choice. You get no do-overs, no mulligans, no second chances to get it right the first time. You had your moment, and you blew it.
Ever done something like that? Of course, you have. That’s the human condition. We’ve all been there. We’ve all done it. What’s worse, we’ve not been there only once. We’ve been there many times. We keep doing it over and over.
I have a choice – and I do the wrong thing. I have a choice – and I do the wrong thing. What’s the matter with me? That’s part of what this story explains, and explains in dramatic fashion that can be so much more clear and transparent than all the dogmatic statements we could make to explain it. Try as we might to do the right thing, each of us and all of us keep doing the wrong thing.
The Apostle Paul was familiar with this phenomenon. He says, “I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.” (Romans 7:19, CEB) “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24, NRSV)
It’s not me who does these evil things, Paul concludes. It’s sin living within me. (Romans 7.17) Though our story never calls it sin, that’s the weight that Adam and Eve now feel. They’re not who they were just moments before. They’re different now, and they hate the difference. And they hate being found out. They hate feeling naked before their beloved God whom they have betrayed.
God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” Again, God knows. Nobody told them. They figured it out on their own. But God must ask, to hold them accountable. “Have you eaten from the tree I told you not to eat from?”
It’s time for true confession. But that’s not what they do. Instead, they play the blame game. It’s the first time they’ve done it. It must sound pretty clever to them. We do it all the time, of course. We do it almost automatically, without even thinking what we’re doing.
Adam first: “The woman you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
Good job, Adam. Blame her. You may have been standing there the whole time, saying not one word while Eve was tricked by the snake, but it’s all her fault. When she first brought the fruit to her lips, you could have said something, but you didn’t. You could have reached out and stopped her, but you didn’t.
No, it’s all her fault – “and, if you member, God, you’re the one who gave her to me, so it’s not like you’re totally innocent here either. You should have warned me that she’d get me into trouble. I’m just a blameless bystander. Blame her, not me.”
You can be sure that God does not buy it, but God follows along for the moment. God asks Eve, “What have you done?” And she again passes the buck. “The snake tricked me, and I ate.”
You might imagine at this point the snake shrugging sheepishly. “Who, me? True, I egged her on, but she didn’t have to do it, did she? She could have chosen differently. She could have chosen the right rather than the wrong. But she didn’t. Not my fault.”
God appears to think differently. God pronounces a curse on the snake. “Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”
That’s apparently meant as an explanation of why snakes slither on their bellies rather than walk or crawl. Then comes an explanation of why humans and snakes don’t get along so well. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
As scary as they can be, we have a lingering fascination with snakes. Because it can shed its skin and emerge renewed, the serpent has long been a symbol of transformation and rebirth. Snakes have such ability; humans do not. We must find rebirth by other means, through the grace of God.
Some interpreters see here a reference to a future time when God’s Messiah will crush Satan under his feet. But there is no talk in this narrative about Satan or a fallen angel. This is a common garden snake God is dealing with, and apparently dealing with harshly.
Now God turns to the woman. There is no mention of a curse here. Rather, God announces consequences. It’s as if God is saying, now that you know the difference between good and bad, you are going to experience more of the bad than you would have before.
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing,” God says. “In pain you shall bring forth children.” About such pain I cannot personally testify, but I have been told by many women that it is the worst pain they have ever endured, and it’s redeemed only by the birth of a beloved child.
Three’s an old joke about why men don’t bear children. If they did, there would be only one child in each family, because no man would ever go through that pain more than once. From ancient days to today, childbirth is dangerous, and many women die trying to bring new life into the world.
The next consequence that God announces is one of the most misinterpreted and misunderstood texts in the Bible. God tells the woman: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Indeed, the first thing the man does after this scene is give the woman a name. He calls her Eve. By naming her, he claims authority over her.
But male dominance is not God’s will. God gave humans dominion over the animals, not over each other. Patriarchy is not part of the design of the universe. Nor is any other kind of subjugation. All forms of hegemony are a consequence of sin. As Jesus said, that’s the way of the world, but it’s not my way; it’s not God’s way.” (Matthew 20.25-28) Like the pain of childbirth, it’s not a good thing. It’s an evil to be endured, opposed and destroyed.
Just as God uttered no curse on the woman, God utters no curse on the man. Instead, God curses the ground because of what the man has done. “In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat until you return to the ground from which I made you, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Literally, I’m told, the Hebrew here refers not actually to the sweat of your brow but to sweat so heavy it drips off your nose.
Note, please, that work itself is not a curse from God. Rather, the difficulty and near futility of some work is what God announces as a consequence for sin. The man and the woman worked in the garden before the Fall, and their burden was light. Work becomes a heavy burden only after the Fall, as a consequence of sin.
God’s good creation suffers as well. It truly is the innocent bystander here. Yet it is cursed to be less productive than it could be until finally the curse of sin is destroyed. All creation waits with eager longing for this day, Paul says in his letter to the Romans. Creation has been subjected to futility all these years, and it groans as if in labor until the day it will be set free from bondage. (Romans 8.19-24)
Sometimes we call this story the fall of humanity from grace. And yet, for all that they have disobeyed and now will suffer the consequences of their disobedience, God has not abandoned them. They are still covered by God’s grace. Two signs are obvious.
First, God dispenses with those flimsy loincloths made of leaves. God makes garments of skin for them. Does this mean that an animal had to die for their sin? Perhaps. Surely it won’t be the last time.
Second, God drives them out of the Garden of Eden. It remains a protected paradise, and they don’t belong in it anymore. In the center of the garden, not far from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is another tree. This is the Tree of Life. If they were to eat from this tree, they might become immortal.
God will not allow that. God does not want them to live forever in their degraded state. So it’s another sign of grace that God keeps them away from that tree.
The tree appears again in the book of Revelation, when God brings heaven down to earth. It grows in the center of the New Jerusalem, and every month it produces 12 kinds of fruit for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:2)
The tree also appears in the gospels, in a distressing disguise. Symbolically, the Tree of Life is the cross on which Jesus dies. On the cross, Jesus dies for all the sins of all people for all time. Jesus’ death brings us new life. Jesus’ death reverses the effect of the Fall. Jesus’ death frees creation from the futility of sin and destroys death itself.
As for that Garden in Eden, if it once was a real place geographically, nobody has ever been able to pinpoint that place. Genesis itself provides maddeningly imprecise directions for finding it. Presumably, it’s long gone, covered by the sands of history.
But it’s still there, isn’t it? It’s still there as a longing for wholeness, a longing for the good life that once was that we have never quite tasted, the life where God reigns, and you can go for walks with God in the cool of the evening, and all is shalom, all is peace, all is right with the world. It’s a life that Jesus can restore to us all – and will.
“Fallout” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Oct. 20, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 89:1,8-15, Genesis 3:6-24.