Sunday 1 March 2020
The First Sunday in Lent
The story from Genesis is really weird. I know it’s a very familiar story, the story of Adam and Eve. It’s one of the best known stories in the bible. It might be the most familiar story in the bible. But that doesn’t keep it from being really weird. We’ve heard the story so many times, and we’ve been told so many times what it’s supposed to mean that we don’t usually notice. But if you take time to notice the details, it is very strange. And it really doesn’t square very well with our usual understandings of God.
The first thing to notice is that the story of Adam and Eve is not the same story as the six days of creation in Genesis 1. They are completely separate and incompatible stories of how God created the universe. The bible actually has several different creation stories, and they don’t agree with each other, but it is quite interesting that it starts off in Genesis 1-3 with two different stories of creation that don’t match. Genesis 1 is the six days of creation. God speaks and creation takes shape. First God separates light and darkness, then God separates ocean and sky, then ocean and land. Then God makes plants. Then God makes the sun and moon and stars. Then God makes fish and birds. Then God makes all the land animals and finally humans, “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” Finally, God takes a day to rest, observing the first Sabbath.
But then in Genesis 2:4, a completely new story of creation starts. And it happens totally differently. God starts by making earth and sky. Then, before there are any plants or animals of any kind, God creates Adam from the earth. Adam is the Hebrew word for human, and the word for earth is adamah. It’s not until after Adam is created that God starts planting a garden, including the two trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God tells Adam not to eat from those trees, but Eve still hasn’t been created yet. Then God starts making animals, trying to make something that will be a good helper for Adam, but none of them are right. Finally, God breaks Adam into two parts. The larger part is called ish, or man. The smaller part becomes ishah, or woman. Adam and Eve.
The two stories are completely different. God uses different methods for creating things, and God creates them in a different order. The two stories don’t even agree about the name of God. It’s two different stories, from two different places, from two different time periods, that eventually got collected together and placed side by side here at the beginning of Genesis. That’s not the main point I want to make about the creation story this morning. That’s not what makes the Adam and Eve story weird. But it’s important to know that these are two different stories, and that many of us have gone for years reading through Genesis without noticing.
But let’s move on to the story of Adam and Eve. Even though it appears second, it’s the older of the two stories. It comes to us from a time before monotheism, a time before people believed there was just one God. They thought that their God, Yahweh, the Lord God, was the greatest of the gods, but they thought that there were other gods around as well. That will become important later in the story.
In the passage we have from today, God has already created Adam, but no other land animals. He shows Adam the two trees at the center of the Garden of Eden—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We might call it the tree of morality. If you eat from the tree, you know the difference between right and wrong. And God tells Adam not to eat from that tree. God says that if he eats from it, he will immediately die.
So let’s stop right there. That is really strange. Why would God not want humans to know the difference between good and evil? Isn’t that kind of the main thing that God is supposed to be about? Isn’t a huge amount of the Bible taken up with God trying to encourage us to do good and to avoid evil, to choose what is right over what is wrong, to live a moral and righteous life? It’s impossible to do that if we can’t even tell the difference between good and evil. So why is God try to prevent humans from getting that knowledge?
It’s also strange because what God tells Adam isn’t actually true. God threatens that if Adam eats from the tree that he will die on the same day. That isn’t true. He does eat from the tree later, but it doesn’t cause him to die. In fact, he goes on to live. In fact, according to Genesis 5, Adam goes on to live for another several hundred years. He doesn’t die until he’s 930 years old. What God says to him is simply not true: “In the day that you eat of it you will die.” It sounds like the kind of over-the-top threat that parents sometimes make. If you do that, I’ll ground you until you’re 30 years old. But it’s definitely not true. Which is very strange.
The reading for today then jumps ahead. In the part that is skipped, Eve is created from Adam’s rib. Which means that she never gets the warning not to eat from the tree at the center of the garden. Presumably she only has a second-hand warning from Adam.
In any case, our next scene opens with Eve and Adam having a conversation with the snake, who is described as the most intelligent animal in the garden. Notice that this snake is never described as the devil. It’s just a snake who is talking with Eve. It reads kind of like a folktale, with talking animals who act like humans. The conversation is between Eve and the snake, but it’s revealed in verse 6 that Adam is there the whole time. He just doesn’t say anything.
So Eve and the snake have a conversation about the sacred tree while Adam stands by listening. The snake asks if God really said that they shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden, and Eve corrects the snake, that they can eat from any tree except the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that if they eat from that tree, they will die.
But the snake disagrees. The snake says, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So here’s another weird thing. The snake is right. What God said about the tree isn’t true, but what the snake says about the tree actually is true. Do you see what I meant about this being a weird story? It is a really weird story.
As we know, both of the humans do eat from the tree, and just as the snake predicted, they don’t die, and they become a little more like God. They gain moral reasoning. They gain he ability to know good from evil. We might say, they grow up. Of course, God is not pleased. God curses the snake and Adam and Eve, and expels them from the garden.
But why exactly? In one sense, it’s obvious. God is upset that they were disobedient. But before they ate the fruit, they didn’t even know right from wrong. It’s not until after they eat the fruit that they realize that it was wrong for them to disobey God. And why did God want to keep them from knowing the difference between right and wrong in the first place? Why wouldn’t God want people to know the difference between good and evil? That’s just very odd.
And the answer to that is given a little later in the story, in Genesis 3:22. It appears that it’s because the gods are jealous of humans. Here’s the quote: “The Lord God said, ‘The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’”
Remember what I said about this story being older than monotheism, the idea that there is only one God? What seems to be happening in this story is that the gods are afraid of the humans. There are two things that separate animals from gods. The first is their ability to reason. The second is immortality. The humans have begun to bridge the gap. Humans are now able to reason, they have the knowledge of good and evil. The gods know that that is halfway to become a god. If the humans are allowed to eat from the tree of immortality, then they will be just like the gods, and presumably, that means that they would be a threat to the gods. As in the stories of so many other ancient cultures, the gods are afraid that they will be overthrown by a new group of gods, in this case, by humans.
Do you see what I mean that this is a strange story? This is an incredibly familiar story, but it presents an image of God that is so unlike the image of God we are used to. This is a jealous, capricious God who is afraid that if humans learn the difference between right and wrong, they might become a threat to God’s position. I shouldn’t be spending as much time as I am on it, but I just can’t resist pointed out just how strange this story really is. It is ancient, and it is, in many ways, quite foreign.
The Apostle Paul picks up on the themes of the Adam and Eve story in the 5th chapter of his letter to the Romans. He compares the first human being, Adam, with the person he thinks of as the new Adam, Jesus the Christ.
The main detail Paul latches onto is that Adam commits the first sin. In eating from the fruit of the knowledge tree, Adam disobeys God. Oddly, Paul doesn’t mention Eve here. I’m not sure whether to congratulate him for not putting all of the blame on Eve, on the woman—like so many theologians have wrongly done—or whether to be upset that he has written her completely out of the story.
In any case, as Paul understands it, this first sin has a number of consequences. Sin enters the world. Along with sin, death enters the world. In Paul’s understanding, the nature of human life changes in this moment. Humans are now under the control of sin and death. Paul doesn’t think God starts keeping a strict tally sheet of sins until after Moses comes along and reveals God’s law. After all, can people really be held accountable for breaking laws that they have never heard? Nonetheless, they are still subject to death. All of this, Paul argues, follows from Adam’s first sin of disobedience. At some level, Adam can be blamed for every sin that comes after his.
It’s important for Paul to establish that all sin is ultimately the result of just one person’s action because he is about to argue that just one person’s action can break the power of sin and of death. When Jesus is unjustly killed, when he sheds his blood like one of the animal sacrifices that people used to make for sin, he wipes out the power of sin with the many-times greater power of God’s grace. Not only that, but when Jesus is raised from the dead, he destroys the power of death. Just one person, Adam, did something that brought sin and death to everyone. Just one person, Jesus, does something that destroys the power of sin and death, not just for himself, but for everyone.
Now we can argue about just what happened in the garden, or what it is that Adam and Eve did wrong, or whether Paul is really understanding the story about Eden. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a very weird story, and therefore, it can be somewhat confusing.
But no matter what we think about those questions, the point that Paul makes about Jesus is absolutely right. He says it over and over in this passage, no matter how much sin you and I and the entire human family might accumulate, God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is not just a little bit more powerful, it is many times more powerful. “The free gift of Christ isn’t like Adam’s failure. If many people died through what one person did wrong, God’s grace is multiplied even more for many people with the gift—of the one person Jesus Christ—that comes through grace.”
God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for me. God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for you. God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for the whole human family. In fact, it is many times more than enough. Our sin is dwarfed by God’s grace.
In this season of Lent, when we tend to focus more on our sin, to try to find ways to live more closely with God’s intention for us, it is enormously important to remember God’s grace. You and I can never make up for all of our mistakes, for all of the ways that we have hurt God and one another, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. But we stand in the power of God’s grace, a grace that is more than sufficient for us. In fact, it is only by God’s grace that we can begin to stand up to the power of sin in our world.
As we reflect on our lives this Lent, we aren’t trying to clean up our lives to make them presentable for God. No, we are accepting God’s grace into our lives, to transform us, a grace that has already conquered our sin, a grace that has already righted the scales, a grace that has already broken even the power of death. Thanks be to God, who in Jesus overwhelms us with grace and leads us forward to share that grace with our world.