YOU CAN RUN, BUT…
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 7, 2015, 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

“Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
Genesis 3:11b

What does God sound like?

The whoosh of the wind?

A deep, booming voice?

A delicate melody, played on some instrument never before heard, heartbreakingly beautiful?

How about the crunch of a sandaled foot on a gravel path?

That’s the sound the author of Genesis 3 goes with. Adam and Eve hear “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”

How extraordinary! God — that vast cosmic abstraction, that spirit “infinite, eternal and unchangeable,” the ineffable “ground of our being” — appears in a form almost human, strolling through the Garden of Eden as any human being would do.

God’s looking for those first human beings: but they’re not so easy to find. They’re hiding.

“Where are you?” God asks.

What a question! Doesn’t God know where they are?

It’s as though they’re playing a game: Hide and Seek. Have you ever played Hide and Seek with a young child? As the older person, you let the child go first. “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 — Ready or not, here I come!”

You walk into a room and see a curtain moving (and it’s not the wind). “Are you in here?”

“No! There’s nobody here!”

That’s very much the game Adam is playing with God. He doesn’t say that, exactly, but he says something about as childish: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Adam thinks he’s so clever, ducking down behind the bushes. But God has his number all along!

“Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Indeed they have. You know the story. The serpent tempted Eve, telling her God wants to keep them ignorant, doesn’t want them to have the knowledge of good and evil. She tastes the forbidden fruit, she offers it to Adam and he eats some too. Suddenly, they know too much for their own good. They realize they’re naked. They sew loincloths out of fig leaves. Just as they’re trying them on for size, God shows up, strolling down the garden path. They dive into the bushes.

And that, according to Genesis, is the human condition. Before the surpassing glory of God’s presence, we are ashamed and afraid. And so we struggle — vainly — to hide ourselves.

*****

It’s among the most ancient of tales, this story of Adam and Eve. Its details are so familiar: the stuff of many a joke, a New Yorker cartoon, a comedy sketch. All you have to do is draw a couple of bare-shouldered people standing behind a hedge, one of them holding an apple, a snake twining up the trunk of a nearby tree — instant recognition!

Yet, the scene is so familiar, its very familiarity can keep us from understanding what’s really going on here. So many preachers and theologians, over the centuries, have added their own interpretations: it can be hard to excavate the original tale in all its simplicity.

But, let’s try. Let’s look at the story itself: what’s actually in it and what’s not. Let’s set aside a few things that aren’t in it.

*****

First of all, it’s not a scientific account of the origins of the human race, at odds with the work of anthropologists who dug up those ancient hominid skulls in Africa and used them to demonstrate Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yes, I know there are Creationists out there who want to throw out school science textbooks and replace them with the early chapters of Genesis, but there’s absolutely no reason to do so. There are different kinds of truth – one of them being scientific truth and another being the deep truth that arises from primal stories of human origins like this one. The truth of Genesis 3 is of that second variety.

Second, the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit is not about sex. Beginning with the great theologian, Bishop Augustine of Hippo — a recovering sex addict, by his own admission — lots of creative Christian thinkers have assumed the original sin of Adam and Eve must have something to do with sexuality. There’s nakedness in the story, sure enough. There’s a frantic rush to cover up. But there’s no more sexuality in this tale than there is in a National Geographic photo spread of some primitive tribe emerging from the Amazon jungle. No, the sex thing was superimposed on the story by later interpreters.

Third, it’s not Eve’s fault, any more than it is Adam’s. Generations of male theologians have looked at this story and assumed that women must be weaker, when it comes to resisting sin, than men are — and are therefore inferior. Sure, Eve holds the fruit in her hand first, but that doesn’t mean Adam isn’t as eager to bite into it as she.

Fourth, it’s not an apple. It’s just not. The Bible never says what kind of fruit it is, just want kind of tree it comes from — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Fifth, the serpent is not the devil. This is an unspeakably ancient tale, dating from a time centuries before the Jewish people developed any idea of Satan, or the devil. On the contrary, in very ancient times, snakes were considered symbols of wisdom — just the sort of creature you’d expect to see wound around a tree of knowledge of good and evil. Only this serpent doesn’t wind around anything. In this part of the story, it doesn’t have the form of a snake — remember, it’s only when God curses the serpent, later on, that it’s consigned to crawling on its belly. Actually, the serpent is an ancient symbol of Asherah, the fertility goddess of Canaanite religion. More than likely, that’s how it got into the story. It’s a way of warning the ancient Hebrews not to take any advice from Canaanite goddess-worshipers.

Finally, the story’s not trying to say God was trying to keep the human race in ignorance. The tree is sometimes referred to, in a kind of shorthand, as the tree of knowledge, but you can’t cut off the last part of its name, because that’s the most important part. It’s knowledge of good and evil.

Well, what does that mean? Does it mean — as Augustine and other early theologians thought — that people in the Garden of Eden were sinless, and as soon as Eve sunk her teeth into the fruit, “original sin” came into the world, and has infected the human race ever since, like some spiritual contagion?

Not at all. There’s a far simpler explanation.

Who is it, do you suppose, in ancient societies, who’s supposed to have “knowledge of good and evil”? Why, it’s the person to whom people come to sort out their ethical problems — the headman of a village who acts as judge, who in later centuries becomes a king. Think of the earliest rulers of Israel: they were known as judges, because that’s what they did (they judged). Later on, the people demanded a king to take on that all-important judging function. That leads to the famous scene from the Bible known as the Judgment of Solomon — those two women who come before the king, each of them claiming to be the real mother of a baby. Those two are part of a long procession of supplicants lining up that day in the royal palace, waiting to bring their case before the king. The king is the man who’s expected to have knowledge of good and evil: the wisdom necessary to render legal judgments, according to the law of Israel.

Well, in these early chapters of Genesis there are no kings, but there is one person who’s capable of exercising the knowledge of good and evil. That person, of course, is God. (Now, here’s the really important point that just opens up the meaning of this whole story.)

In desiring to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve are trying to step into God’s role. They want to become gods unto themselves — judging their own behavior, rather than trusting God to do so. This is indeed what they want, but the story shows them to be hopelessly lacking in the necessary skills. That image of the two of them standing there naked, but for a hastily-sewn fig leaf, would be ridiculous if it weren’t so pitiful.

*****

You and I, my friends, are not much better. Given half the chance and a bushel basket full of knowledge-of-good-and-evil fruit, we’d gorge on the stuff until we were doubled up on the ground, moaning about a stomach-ache. In countless ways each day, you and I aspire to be little gods, absolute monarchs of our own ethical universe.

But — don’t you know? — we’re no better at it than Adam and Eve. Our finest ethical judgments turn out to be no more substantial than their fig leaves. In God’s sight we appear just as ridiculous — and just as pitiful in our moral nakedness — as they.

Our Lord Jesus Christ advised his disciples, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged.” He might just as well have said, “Don’t aspire to the knowledge of good and evil. Don’t try to take on God’s judging role. Look to the scriptures — Gods word — to find wisdom for living, and stop trying to make up your own rules in your heads.”

The truest sort of wisdom for living is no human creation. It’s the precious gift of God’s law. And it is in following God’s son, Jesus Christ — relying on him alone for salvation — that we recover some measure of the sort of joy Adam and Eve knew, in the Garden, before they tried to become like God.

Let us pray:
Lord God, we do not ask for such wisdom as to become like you.
We ask only for the wisdom to listen for your voice,
to heed your teachings,
and to come to know the one who is your word incarnate,
Jesus Christ — who feeds us at his table,
who nurtures us in his love and grace. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.