Knowledge: The Two-Edged Sword
If you have not been here for the past two Sundays, it will help to know that this is the third in a series of sermons based on the opening chapters of Genesis . We have arrived this morning at one of the most vivid stories in the Bible: how the mythical first humans violated the one prohibition given to them when they were placed in a beautiful park, and how because they were disobedient every human being born since has had to suffer. Is it a true story, or is it a kind of parable, this tale of forbidden fruit and a talking snake, of two magical trees and a God who comes around to take his evening constitutional when the park cools off in the evening? Like millions of others over the centuries, I read it as sacred fiction rather than literal history, an allegory of that universal human experience in which we enter the world innocent of either good or evil, discover both, and leave the Garden of Innocence forever.. Since it is also one of the best examples I know of something called etiology , let’s begin by considering that word for a moment.
Etiology is the study of causes, an explanation of how things came to be the way they are. I used to call it in university classes “a question-answering device.” When people ask questions, there are always other people ready with some kind of answer. In a scientific age, the answer may come from research, but in a pre-scientific age, the answer may come from a creative imagination. One thing the third chapter of Genesis does is provide answers to certain common questions: Why do snakes crawl on their bellies and, as it seems with that flickering tongue, eat dust? Why is there so much human hostility toward snakes? Why are we embarrassed by nakedness when other creatures are not? Why, if God delighted in us as his creation, do men have to work so hard? Why is there so much pain for women in childbirth, and why are women second-class citizens in a male chauvinist world? And finally, why do we have to die?
If you forget chapter divisions, which did not exist in the original writings, our story today begins immediately after this sentence: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” At first glance, the remark seems superfluous. Why should they be ashamed, since there is no human society yet, and since no other living creature in their park wore artificial covering? As I said last week, this is what the creative writing teacher calls a “plant,” a way of setting up a reader for a future event. So as soon as we are told about the unashamed nudists we are introduced to a talking snake whose clever remarks will tempt them into a world where they will be ashamed.
We need, by the way, to unlearn something most of us have been taught since childhood. The author of this story did not intend the snake to represent Satan, a character who did not exist yet in Hebrew religious thought. That identification was made much, much later and is no part of this folktale, created long before Israel had developed a dualism of supernatural agents….a good god and an evil god. For this writer the serpent is simply another one of God’s creations, except that it is more clever or cunning than the rest — an opinion held in many ancient human cultures. Snakes seemed unusually mysterious, with their flickering tongues and their strange way of moving, seemingly effortless despite having no legs or wings. So one of the Proverbs speaks of the wondrous “way of a serpent upon a rock,” and Jesus himself alludes to the snake’s proverbial intelligence when he tells his disciples to be “as wise as serpents.” Whether Jesus really thought snakes were smarter than dogs or donkeys, or whether he simply made use of a common cliche, we have no way of knowing….and it really doesn’t matter. His importance to human history is as a model of moral and ethical behavior, not as a naturalist.
In our story, the author wants to dramatize in dialogue the process of temptation, and among the other creatures of the Garden who better to be a tempter than the one considered more cunning “than any other wild animal the Lord God had made”? You can bet that every Jewish kid sitting around every campfire in the long history of Israel would be riveted by that beginning, and once the author has caught their attention he can teach them the psychology of temptation before they have time to lose interest. A smart child, hearing this story, might ask: “Was the woman surprised to hear a snake talk?” but in folklore some strange things are simply taken for granted so the story can get underway. So the snake begins the game by first casting doubt and then misrepresenting what was said: Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden? This is not what God had said, but by making God more restrictive than he was, the temptation to disobey gains force. It’s the familiar ploy of the tempter who says, “Did your dad really tell you that just one little drink would make you drunk?” Dad hadn’t, and his words have been twisted, but he has been made suddenly to seem quite unreasonable.
The woman straightens the snake out: “We can eat from all the other trees, but if we eat from the tree in the middle of the garden we will die.” The serpent presses the argument: “You won’t die if you eat that fruit. The fact is, God knows very well that the moment you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will become like gods yourselves, knowing good and evil.” As we will learn later, even God admits that the serpent has told the truth about their entry into a world of knowledge. The author doesn’t bother to explain why, if the gods can know good and evil, human beings shouldn’t. What he does explain is that the forbidden fruit has been made very appealing. Wise in the ways of temptation, he knows that no boy was ever tempted to climb a neighbor’s fruit tree for a half-rotten peach with a worm crawling out of it, so he tells us next how attractive the forbidden fruit is: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it was to be desired to make one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it….” The tale that has beguiled us first with a talking snake now turns suddenly into a model of temptation psychology familiar to any highschool kid: first, the insinuation of doubt (Did your Mom really tell you that?) — then suspicion cast on the motive (She’s just afraid you’ll grow up too fast!) — and finally, with resistance breaking down, all the logical reasons for experiment: there’s nothing inherently bad about this, it looks like fun, and besides I will have learned something I didn’t know before. Our ancient author, wiser than we have ralized, has written a paradigm of how we stumble.
So, the woman eats and like any generous wife shares her pleasant experience with her husband, who raises no objection and is portrayed in this old story as an equal and willing partner in crime. But, as you know, in later times a patriarchal society more and more blamed Eve and found ways to excuse Adam until it became fashionable in religious literature to say bluntly: “It was through woman that sin entered the world.” This blatant chauvinism passed into early Christianity, where one of the New Testament epistles (1 Tim. 2) bizarrely blames Eve more than Adam because she was dumb enough to be fooled while he at least was smart enough to know what he was doing. But nothing in our ancient story even hints at this; it’s a spin created by male chauvinists who needed to justify their treatment of women. For fear you may think I’m making it up, and so you can hear for yourselves how culture-bound the New Testament can be on occasion, listen to this early Christian epistle: “A woman must be a learner, listening quietly and with due submission. I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man; she should be quiet. For Adam was created first, and Eve afterwards; and it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who, yielding to deception, fell into sin.” When you want to justify the status quo, logic is the first thing thrown onto the trash pile!
Now back to our story, where the immediate consequence of eating the forbidden fruit is that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” Isn’t it odd that sexual awareness should have been the one result of their new knowledge of good and evil which the writer chooses to mention? He could have had them tell the world’s first lie, or shout hateful words, or physically abuse one another, but instead he links their new knowledge to sexuality. Whatever connection he may have intended to make, one thign is clear: the first pair are now wiser than before, just as the serpent had promised. But innocence is lost and guilt has made its first appearance in the human psyche, so when God next drops in on their garden home they try unsuccessfully to hide. This God, by the way, is described in very primitive language. Far from being a spirit in the later language of Jesus, he has enough substance to make noise and be heard as he strolls around in the garden at his favorite time of day, when a cool evening breeze springs up. A God who seems to spend regular time on earth, but prefers to avoid the heat, is only one more clue that we are in the pre-historic world of Hebrew mythology. There will be nothing like this in the rest of the Bible.
When this sociable God wonders why he doesn’t see the first couple on his walk, and calls out “Where are you?” we encounter the first buck-passing episode in human history. “The woman you put here with me — she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.” The woman, catching on quickly, blames the serpent-creature for tricking her. Interestingly enough, the serpent is not interrogated — probably because the author is not interested in explaining evil except as it expresses itself in human life.
The curses handed down by God are ingenious pieces of etiology, designed to explain how the world got to be the way it is. The curse on the snake shows clearly that the author is thinking not of Satan but of a real snake. It is condemned to be an outcast among animals, crawling on its belly, eating dust, and eternally at odds with humanity — which is exactly how things were in the natural world at the time the author told his story. His contribution was to explain why snakes are like that. I’ve never met anyone who felt much sympathy for the snake’s descendants but the next penalty is another matter. Turning to the woman God says, “I am going to increase the pain of childbirth” — a punishment, you must remember, not just for this particular woman but for all the billions of her sisters from that time to the present. Like the great theologian, St. Augustine, if I read that literally I would be slain spiritually….but understood as etiology it makes perfect sense.
Women do experience great pain in childbearing, a fact referred to many times in the Bible. To the woman giving birth, and to any husband who suffers at the sight of her suffering, the folk tale says: Sorry, but the first woman ate forbidden fruit and her punishment. is now shared by ALL women. The second half of the curse explained the social status of women in a chauvinistic world. The story has God say that despite the pain of childbearing, woman’s desire for man would keep her forever under his control. The idea that women became enslaved because they needed men so urgently certainly provided a convenient rationale for a male-dominated society: we are their masters because they can’t do without us!
And what about the man? Well, unless his name would someday be Bill Gates or Donald Trump, he would have to scratch his little piece of rocky soil, be held hostage to weeds and drought, and then return to the very dust he had labored over because, in the end, he is dust himself. This is life for the average man as the author knew it, and surely a benevolent God would never have made it that way if mankind had not disobeyed in the person of the first man. Obviously, this writer cannot even imagine a Polynesian society where the Genesis curse would have no meaning — where fruit and fish would be so abundant the islanders probably did not even have a word for back-breaking toil. It was so hard for God’s Elect People to understand why their stone-filled Promised Land wasn’t more like California’s rich Central Valley that they later came up with another piece of folklore: God originally sent out two angels with sacks of rock to distribute over the whole world….and one of the sacks broke open over Palestine.
As Genesis , Chapter 3, comes to an end, the man — who does not yet have a proper name — calls his wife Eve “because she was the mother of all living.” By using the word adam, which means people, and the word Eve , which means life, he means to make the story symbolize all human experience. The fig leaves the pair made for themselves are deemed not enough after the fall, so the author has God make them clothing from animal skins. He has no comment on about where and how the divine tailor got the skins. His interest lies only in telling society that clothes are God’s idea. In conference with his heavenly court, God worries next that since the pair have now “beome like one of us, knowing good and evil,” they might decide to eat fruit from the tree of life and live forever — a prospect this God and his heavenly council clearly do not like.
So he drives out the two, and at the gateway into the Garden he stations security guards called cherubim — those winged half-human, half-lion monsters that stood at the entrances to old Babylonian and Assyrian palaces — along with a twisting and flaming sword to further discourage any attempt to return. I suppose that by this time it goes without saying that no literal-minded explorer has ever found the Garden or caught a glimpse of the fierce-looking guards and the flaming sword.
The old fable makes beautiful sense. The story of the “fall” is our story. Life is one long series of expulsions from one kind of garden or another: the garden of innocent childhood, the garden of the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect child — even the garden of immortality, for from dust we came and to dust we return. Little did we know when we first heard this story in Sunday School or in the pale light of some sanctuary that instead of being someone else’s story, it was our own that was being told.
Next week we meet the boys in this family: one a farmer, the other a rancher. When one kills the other in a fit of jealousy, instead of receiving the death penalty he is sent into exile a marked man but free to wander the earth — to play golf, even, if he can find a course. Already it begins to sound close to home. Please come back for the tale of two brothers.
We are grateful on this day, Eternal God, for the gift of mind, to
be curious, and we ask for an even greater gift, a sensitive heart
to love and serve in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.