October 27, 2019

Genesis 3: 14-24 – ‘Tempted’

Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church                    

Stephan Greenblatt, who wrote a book called “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” says that the creation account in which Adam, Eve, the serpent and a garden all play a central role is one of the most important and influential stories ever recorded in Western history.  It professes to be the key to understanding who we are.  In the span of a few short verses it attempts to explain the origins of our fears and desires, our dreams and losses, our deepest sense of shame and the impulse to transgress and disobey. It addresses the question of humanity as a dominant species, the origin of humanity itself, love, sex, labour in childbirth, reproductive desire, male domination, the necessity of labour, mortality and our fear of snakes.  Built into the story, Greenblatt reflects, are a whole host of problems and then he says “stories that most matter always have deep problems built into them.”

No question that Christianity in particular has exacerbated the problems inherent in the story. A good deal of those problems came when St. Augustine, in the fourth century, used this story to introduce the notion of original sin.  In fact, the idea of original sin has become so tied to our understanding of this story that it may come as a surprise to many of you that there is no actual mention of sin in the story at all.  It was Augustine who came up with this interpretation of the story, as well as the idea that original sin gets passed from one generation to the next, as more than one commentator puts it “like a sexually transmitted disease.”

There is no original sin in the bible.  But Augustine, and many others across the centuries have inserted it there by reflecting on the way the story of Adam and Eve answers the question how?  How did humanity become sinful?  How does sin keep reappearing in one generation after the next?  Beyond that, how were woman and man created?  One from the earth and one from a rib?

For centuries we have been using this story to answer the question how when in its most ancient context, the story was more likely meant to answer the question why?  Why is it that women experience pain in childbirth?  Why is it that men dominate women?  Why is it that we feel shame?  Why is it that we think we are God and God seems so powerful that we will never understand the fullness of who and what God is?  Let me tell you a story to answer your questions: once upon a time, there was a garden…

As many in our weekly bible study group have been learning these last couple weeks, there are actually two creation stories in our bibles.  Those of you who were here last Sunday heard a version of the first account from Genesis 1, the story in which darkness and light, land and sea, sun and moon, creatures that fly and creatures that swim and those that walk upon the earth were created and how God declared it all to be very good.  We heard about the seventh day, the day of rest, given to us to appreciate all the other great gifts. And we heard about how we have been created image of the divine.

Scholars widely agree that this story was written down during one of the most challenging periods in this history of Israel, the period known as the Babylonian Exile.  In the 6th century BCE Israel was conquered by the Babylonians and all its leaders and elites were taken from the country into what is now known as Iraq.

In response to the question why?  Why did this happen to us?  Why are we suffering? What did we do wrong?  the first creation account serves as a reassurance that there is nothing anyone did wrong to deserve what they are experiencing.  The world is not an evil place.  The world is good, God is good, humanity is good.  God’s intentions are for peace and beauty and abundance.  God is the sacred mystery that creates order out of the chaos of our lives.  It’s a message we still need to hear when our lives and our world is in chaos and we doubt that anything is “good.”  It’s a message of comfort and assurance.

In contrast, the 2nd creation account, the story of Adam and Eve, portions of which we heard this morning, was written at a much earlier time, at the height of Israel’s power as a nation.  So, at least one of the messages of this story seems to be that in those times in history when we think we can keep colonizing and conquering and increasing our power as a nation, when our tendency is to think we are all powerful and all knowing, we would do well to remember our human limitations, our human fallibility.

We don’t need to look very far to find evidence of the truth that human power all too often goes hand in hand with human corruption.  And yet the timelessness of this story isn’t just because it reflects the way nations fall into temptation when they gain power, it’s also because it reflects the way we all fall into temptation.

In many ways this second account of creation in our bibles serves as a kind of corrective to the first creation account.  We are created in goodness, given everything we need to live and live well.  But for some reason, we have a difficult time trusting in this truth.  Instead of listening to the voice of abundance and beauty and grace, we listen instead to the voice of the crafty serpent.

Author Eric Elnes points out some interesting aspects of the story of Adam and Eve.  He says that if we take away the overlay of how many of us have received this story over the years; a story about our original sin and God’s eternal punishment for our misdemeanors and our never ending need to appease God by doing right instead of wrong; what we see beneath that overlay is a couple, a man and a woman who look like you and me who, fall into temptation by listening to the voice of a serpent who diverts their attention away from everything they have onto what they lack.  The man and woman have been told they can eat from any tree, an abundance of good and delicious fruit with only one prohibition, just stay away from these two trees.

The first thing the serpent, the voice of deception and lies, speaks to the couple about is their external lack.  You can have any car on the lot, the Toyota Matrix or the Honda Civic, the Nissan Leaf or any model of BMW you like, you just can’t have the Ferrari or the Porsche.  “What?!” says the voice of the snake.  What do you mean you can’t have the Ferrari or the Porsche?  What kind of a God would put a limitation like that on you? Clearly not a God of love.  Let’s storm the car lot and get that Porsche.

The second thing the serpent, the voice of deception and lies, speaks to the couple about is their internal lack.  Ah go on, if you eat from the fruit of this tree you won’t die, your eyes will just be opened and you will have the knowledge of good and evil.  What? There’s some kind of knowledge we don’t have.  We better eat that fruit right away and find out what it is.  If there’s a difference between right and wrong, good and evil we better find out it is.  What if we do something wrong and fail in God’s eyes?

And there it is, once we start assessing our worthiness based on whether what we do is right or wrong, once we start defining those divisions saying this is right and that is wrong, our attention drifts away from our inherent goodness, away from the love in which we were created, away from God and onto ourselves.  We choose knowledge of good and evil over knowledge of God.  Some have said this is actually the original sin of humanity.

Preacher Nadia Bolz-Webber points out that this story is also a story about original shame.  When Adam and Eve hide themselves from God because they are ashamed the first thing God asks them is “who told you you were naked?”  If we were to add in a few more lines to the text they might be “and what’s wrong with being naked?  You look wonderful just the way you are, there is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Bolz-Webber says perhaps the reason God gives them clothes is because if we are going to obsess endlessly about our cellulite God doesn’t want to hear about it.  Her point is that shame doesn’t come from God, it comes from us.  It rises up within us when we listen too closely to the voice of deception instead of the voice of love.

So what is it that tempts you? What external things tempt you?  Is it the desire to have more possessions, a better car, just a bit more money in the bank?  Ice cream, chocolate, potato chips?  What is it that tempts you internally?  Is it the voice inside your head that tells you you aren’t good enough, or tells you you need to prove to others that you are better than you really think you are just so they will like you?  Is it the voice that tells you you’re too old, you’re of no use, no one cares about you anymore?  Is there anything about yourself that you are tempted to feel ashamed of, that you keep covered up because you fear that if people really knew the truth about you, they would turn away?

This week in our bible study group we were trying to come up with a definition of temptation.  The best that we could come up with is that it is anything and everything that alienates us from being who we were created to be and lures us into thinking we are not worthy of being loved.  I wonder if a temptation isn’t so much about doing something wrong or thinking about doing something wrong.  I wonder if what makes something a temptation is the way it has the capacity to breaks down our relationships with one another, with creation, with God and with deepest selves.

One thing we all agreed on in our group this week is that there will always be snakes in our gardens.  There will always be the voice of deception, evil, darkness or whatever we want to call it but there will also always be the voice of love.

Much has been written and said about the way God responds to Adam and Eve after they have eaten the forbidden fruit: the punishments as they are commonly called including banishment from the garden.

The picture these punishments have always left in my mind is of a harsh God and I’ve had a hard time reconciling that harshness over the years with the God of love that I believe in.  I think that’s one of the reasons people have struggled with this story. But remember what Stephan Greenblatt said “stories that most matter always have deep problems built into them.”

On closer examination, I’ve come to see that the God portrayed in this story isn’t quite so harsh after all.  God did give Adam and Eve a garden to live in with all kinds of trees to eat from and only two from which they couldn’t.  After eating the forbidden fruit, and hiding themselves from God because they were naked, God compassionately made them clothes.  Instead of banishing them from the garden and placing a guard at its entrance to keep them out, I now see that God placed them just outside the garden with the cherubim and a flaming sword at its’ entrance to protect them from the tree of life, so their suffering would not be eternal.  And as for the questions about why life is so hard, it makes sense that the answer is life is hard when we listen to the voice of deception instead of the voice of love.

I’m not sure if the story of Adam and Eve really answers the question why, why we transgress and many of the other “why’s” the story professes to respond to but I do know that within the story is a whole lot of truth about humanity and life and the presence of grace and love that companions us through it all and says that we are worthy.

May we remember that voice when we are tempted to forget it.