If you’re anything like me, you ask something like “What on earth is wrong with us?!” just about every time you read a newspaper, watch the news on television or peruse a news website. There is something wrong, very wrong, with us. We naturally prefer to blame someone or something rather than accept personal responsibility for humanity’s mess. Yet we must conclude that something is wrong at the very heart of things that must be acknowledged, admitted and addressed.
The mess the human race has made not just of itself but also of nearly everything else leads at least some people to ask where all that evil came from. Christians often turn to the Bible for answers to important questions. So those to whom we preach and teach the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may assume it tells us where evil originated.
Yet as Scott Hoezee wrote in an earlier sermon commentary on this text, “the closest you get [to an explanation for the source of evil] is what could be called penultimate or proximate answers.” Careful readers, teachers and expositors notice that even Genesis 3 doesn’t really tell us where its sin originates. Sin first manifests itself in one of God’s creatures. But even this Scripture doesn’t bother to tell us how sin infected that creature in the first place.
In Genesis 2 we meet the Creator and three creatures. Only one of its “characters” is eternal and uncreated. That’s the Creator God of heaven and earth. Since the Bible vigorously and repeatedly insists that God cannot be the source of evil, sin must originate in something or someone God created.
In Genesis 2:15 we read about one of God’s creatures, “the man” whom God has turned from dust into a living creature by the power of God’s creative breath/Spirit. We won’t learn his name until verse 20. We only know the man’s job is to “work and take care of” (15) part of God’s good creation.
Yet before Genesis 2 introduces us to two more creatures, it takes us to what verse 15 calls “the Garden of Eden.” It’s a part of God’s good creation that’s probably less morally “good” than functionally “good.” That is to say, Eden functions in the way God created it, to be both aesthetically pleasing and to provide our first parents with plenty of good things to eat.
Genesis 2 and 3’s preachers and teachers might explore what seems like the often overlooked close proximity of what we verse 15’s “creational mandate” to God’s call not to eat from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (17). This proximity may suggest that working and caring for the creation is closely linked to obedience to God’s will. Does it at least suggest the first temptation our first parents faced was not so much to disobey God’s “rules” as to not properly take care of what God had so lovingly made?
Genesis 3 introduces us to a second “creature” that it calls “the serpent.” No matter whom we deduce he is, he is a part of God’s creation. So the serpent was originally “good,” again probably less morally than functionally. That is to say that he originally fulfilled God’s good purpose for him.
Yet while it does not explain how or even who or what turned the serpent, Genesis 3 implies he has surrendered his “goodness.” It, after all, reports that he invites the third creature we meet, Eve, to disobey God by eating from the one tree that God has forbidden them to eat from. That is to say, the serpent invites her to join him in surrendering her “goodness,” that is her proper place and function in God’s creation.
Initially, of course, all the serpent seems to want to do is have a theological discussion with Eve (perhaps a sobering warning to those of us who spend at least part of our lives having theological discussions). In fact, no one talks to God in the whole text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. The serpent asks our first mother, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” So he’s not just talkative. He’s also crafty. After all, the serpent asks Eve the direct opposite of what God really told Adam.
Eve’s memory is still sharp enough to quote God directly. However, it seems that the crafty serpent has planted in the still naïve woman’s mind a question about God. Reflexive obedience must now become reflective obedience. “Did God really say…?” becomes a kind of filter through which our first mother sifts all issues.
The serpent manages to poke a hole in the trust for which God created Adam and Eve to have. The hole in that trust seems to only grow with the serpent’s first assertion about God relationship to people. “You will not die if you eat from that tree,” he insists. “In fact,” it’s as if the crafty creature adds, “you’ll actually really live. God’s just jealously guarding his divine ‘turf’ by keeping you from eating from that tree. He knows that eating from it will make you just like him. You’ll be God’s equal.”
While we don’t know where the serpent got it from, we do know verses 4 and 5 show evil’s hideous face. He peddles disobedience as healthy. On top of that, the serpent seems to recognize that those God creates in God’s image long to be not just like God, but also to be God. If you wonder that, ask yourself the last time you at least thought something like, “If I were God, I wouldn’t do that. I’d do this instead.”
From there, things only quickly spiral downward. Genesis spends far more time telling us about the serpent and Eve’s conversation than it does telling us Eve and Adam’s disobedience. However, it leaves them both so miserable that they can’t hide from each other or God fast enough. Embarrassment and fear replace trust and obedience. Soon enough, alienation and even murder will also worm their way into God’s creation.
So how might preachers and teachers help hearers think about Genesis 2 and 3? We might begin with a reminder that it doesn’t explain the origin of evil in God’s creation. Those chapters are more about what it means to be human, especially about our natural tendency to make gods out of ourselves and/or other created things. This leads to our deep-seated tendency to deliberately and repeatedly rebel against God, as well as God’s good purposes and plans.
Adam and Eve find it excruciatingly difficult to live on God’s terms in God’s creation. They have no interest in the boundaries God sets for them in it. Because we prefer to set our own boundaries and make our own rules, we come to think of God not as knowing what’s best for us, but as trying to wreck all our fun. We trade trust for disobedience.
Yet our first parents quickly learn that disobedience creates barriers between not just God and people, but also between people and the rest of creation, as well as among people. Yes, their eyes are opened to the difference between good and evil. But with those open eyes they also see both their own and each other’s evil. When we realize we’re naked in so many ways, we become so ashamed that we try to cover ourselves in all sorts of ways that separate us from each other.
Thankfully, then, when the tempter confronts the Second Adam, the outcome is quite different, according to the gospel lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. While temptation comes via in a different place in different shapes, it’s no less apparently attractive. Yet, praise God, the Second Adam succeeds where the first fails so miserably. Jesus begins his earthly ministry by successfully resisting the evil one’s temptations. With his victory he begins, in a sense, to lead Adam and Eve’s sons and daughters back to the Garden from which God had banished our first parents.
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In her article entitled, “A Long Obedience,” in the January 7, 2015 issue of The Christian Century, Katherine Willis Pershey writes, “It is strange to think of a particular person as the person with whom I did not have an affair … And yet there is one man I cannot help but think of as the man with whom I did not cheat on [my husband] Benjamin. We had no improper physical contact, no inappropriately intimate conversations. I don’t even know if the attraction was mutual.
There was, however, temptation. I felt desire … When I realized that I had feelings for this man, I was shocked. I dearly love my husband, to whom I have been married — mostly happily, and decidedly faithfully — for more than a decade. I almost didn’t recognize the crush for what it was, it had been such a long time since I’d had one. It was disorienting, terrifying, the slightest bit exhilarating — like being on a roller coaster but knowing full well that upon hitting the last loop-de-loop, your car will derail and you will plunge to your death. My internal alarms all tripped at once, clanging an overwhelming and persuasive warning. Danger, danger …
I did the only thing I could fathom: I told my husband everything. Even though there wasn’t much to tell — oh, how profoundly glad I was to go to him with a clean conscience! — the conversation was risky. Would it wound Benjamin to know that his wife, though delivered from temptation, had experienced it? Yes, it did. But it was a hurt he could sustain, because he understood that at the root of what I was telling him was that I was trustworthy. I had been tested and proven faithful.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 5, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Commentary