Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 26, 2023
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 Commentary
It is one of the more important questions you could ever pose. Perhaps that is also why it is one of the most-asked questions in history:
Where does evil come from?
As Christians, we perhaps think that surely the answer to this vital inquiry must be somewhere in the Bible. But it’s not there. Everywhere you turn in Scripture the closest you get is what could be called penultimate or proximate answers. At the beginning of the Book of Job, a tempter is simply already there in the heavenly precincts, challenging God as to the depth of Job’s commitment. But we’re not told where that tempter came from. Other parts of the Bible suggest that Satan and his hosts may be fallen angels. But what tempted them to fall?
Where did that temptation come from?
Eventually this gets to be like peeling the layers of an onion hoping to get to some core. You won’t. You’ll just end up with a fully peeled former onion and nothing left over!
It reminds you also of the old story about a people who believed the entire world rested on the back of a turtle. So a little boy asked his mother what the turtle was resting on. “Another turtle,” she replied. “And what about that turtle” the boy pressed on. This went on for several rounds until finally the mother says, “Honey, it’s just turtles all the way down.”
In the New Testament the Apostle Paul goes to great lengths in talking about how sin is now our common problem. Yet Paul does not indicate where evil came from in the first place. Even in Genesis 3 there is no indication where this tempting force originated. Instead we are introduced to a serpent, who is clearly identified as one of God’s creatures (and so the serpent itself was not some alien intruder who infiltrated Eden from the outside). God made this creature, yet he somehow turned out to be crafty and something about that fundamental nature made this particular creature able to be manipulated by an evil force, whose origin is, again, simply not explained.
In this case the serpent raises just enough doubt as to lure first Eve and then Adam away from God. The serpent is not called Satan or a devil or even the tempter. Yet through his shrewd words, God’s desires for this creation become sullied in ways from which we have not yet recovered.
There are profound mysteries that attend sin and evil. The church long ago condemned as heresy any teaching that suggests God and the devil are both eternal beings. God alone is eternal. The church has also rejected the notion that God is the source of evil or the author of sin. God, we confess, is pure holiness, sheer goodness, unalloyed moral beauty. But if evil does not co-exist with God from all eternity, and if God created everything that exists yet did not create evil or sin, then we’re back to square one in wondering where sin comes from.
The onion keeps peeling. We just keep hitting upon another turtle.
These are desperately difficult questions. Genesis 3 is not going to answer them, either. But what Genesis 3 does provide is a vignette, a showcase display window if you will, of the way life goes. If you think that this chapter is just the story of what happened once upon a time in far-off Eden, you’re wrong. What the author of Genesis 3 wants to give us is the first instance of the same thing that has been happening all along in history (and that still happens in your life and my life even yet today).
It’s less about the origin of evil and more about the choice we face constantly as we live in this creation. It’s less about trying to explain why things are the way they are and more about confronting us with who we are supposed to be. Although this story has something to do with what happened in the past, it is also meant to bring into sharp focus this present moment as well as the future.
Because no less than were Adam and Eve, we also are called to live in God’s world and not a world of our own devising. We are to live in God’s world and on God’s terms. But there is only one way you can accept those terms happily. Because when some people hear that they are to live on God’s terms, they immediately feel like their wings are being clipped, their fun is getting spoiled, their freedom squelched.
For some people hearing about living on God’s terms conjures up the image of a heavenly drill sergeant ready to wag a bony finger in their faces and then to run them ragged on some moral obstacle course. So how can you avoid that reaction? How can you get put into your proper place yet without feeling put upon, hemmed in, or restricted? You avoid it by nurturing trust. If you trust that God has your best interests at heart, then you can fit yourself into his creation without feeling as if the zip just went out of everything.
Trust. Can you trust that if God says “Don’t,” it’s because he doesn’t want to see you get hurt? Can you trust that if God says, “Go ahead,” it’s because he wants you to enjoy your life? Or will you choose instead distrust and suspicion, leading as often as not to resistance and rebellion? Again, Genesis 3 lays all of this out for us.
Most commentators are in agreement that Genesis 2-3 form a seamless narrative. If you look back into chapter 2 and then look also at Genesis 3:8 and the verses that follow (even though those verses lie just beyond this particular Lectionary reading), you may rather quickly notice what is different about those later verses and Genesis 3:1-7. The first difference is in the way God is referred to: typically he is called “Yahweh God,” or “the LORD God,” as the NIV translates it. It’s always personal in chapter 2 and in also Genesis 3 after verse 8. But in Genesis 3:1-7, first the serpent and then Eve (taking her cue from the serpent) merely refer to God as, well, “God.” It’s less personal, almost like the difference between a man referring to his spouse as “my dear wife Jill” and referring to her as “the wife.” The serpent is backing Eve off from her personal relationship with Yahweh.
Another difference between Genesis 3:1-7 and the surrounding verses is the fact that God is not being addressed, engaged, or prayed to but is instead being talked about in a rather dry, theoretical way. It’s as though the serpent and Eve think God is out of earshot (and most of us know that sometimes we talk about people rather differently when they are not in the room over against when we think we could be overheard). Eve and the serpent are apparently not worried about being overheard. And so this is theology at its worst: the personal God drops out of the picture and is replaced with just an abstract idea of who God may be, what God may desire, what God may or may not have said.
But the impersonal reference to a generic “God” and the abstract theorizing about this God are just the backdrop against which the serpent does his real dirty work. “Did God really say . . .?” The word of God, by which Adam and Eve had lived happily until now, is cast into doubt. “Did God really say that you can’t eat any fruit from any tree in this whole beautiful garden!?”
It was a ridiculous question, but it succeeded in casting God into a negative light. But it was the ridiculous part Eve picked up on first, probably feeling quite safe and on firm ground as she did so. She was not about to be taken in by something so obvious, so clunky, as this! “Of course God didn’t say that,” Eve blurts out in reply. “We can eat from all of the trees, except the one in the middle.” Eve corrects the serpent. But then she says one thing more. “And we can’t touch it, either, or we’ll die.”
We cannot touch it, either.
When did God say that, Eve? God didn’t. She made it up. The serpent’s suggestive seed that God was overly strict was already taking root and sprouting. First the serpent overtly makes God look oppressive. Next thing you know Eve does the same thing but covertly. Did it reveal a touch of resentment she and Adam had had all along about that one rule?
Has your own resentment about something ever come to expression through your exaggerating something? Kids do this all the time, but grown-ups, too. Tell your son that it just won’t work this particular Saturday to have a friend over, and you may well hear him lament, “You never let me have any fun! I can never have people over!” Or maybe your manager at work has an office rule about taking only two coffee breaks a day. Next thing you know you find yourself complaining to a colleague, “Yeah, the boss doesn’t even let you go to the bathroom anymore!”
In Genesis 3, having tapped Eve’s smoldering resentment, the serpent now goes for the kill. “You’re not going to die if you touch or eat the fruit of that tree, Eve! The thing is that God is trying to tamp you down, hold you back, keep you from realizing your full potential. Because God knows that if you eat that magic fruit, you’ll be that much more like God himself.”
And that’s all it takes. God is not present but is a generic absence. God is not kind and does not have their best interests at heart but is arbitrary, strict, and repressive of their real potential. Who does God think he is, holding them back like that? Shouldn’t even God want Adam and Eve to grow, mature, gain ever-greater insight and wisdom and knowledge? If God doesn’t want that, he should.
So Eve ate. Adam ate. And what the serpent said was true: their eyes were opened, they gained new knowledge, and it promptly drove them straight into the bushes! Suddenly life didn’t feel so innocent anymore. They had tried to do something behind the back of the God whose back is never turned. So when they heard God snapping twigs under his divine feet on his daily stroll through the garden, suddenly Adam and Eve did what at one time or another we’ve all done (but it was a first for them): they blushed.
And the blushing hasn’t stopped since.
[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
Genesis 3 reminds us of how things go when suspicion displaces trust, when self-reliance and an independent spirit trump a belief that there is a God who has our best interests at heart. And so the slogan “Trust and obey” gets displaced by “Analyze and retrofit.” A church choir’s rendition of “If you but trust in God to guide you” gets drowned out by Frank Sinatra belting out, “I did it my way!” “Thus saith the Lord” gets replaced with, “So what do you think?”
Richard Mouw recently noted one way by which liberal preaching sometimes gets defined over against the traditional rhetoric of the church. Too often in some pulpits you hear what the historian says, what the psychologist says, what the Op-Ed page of the New York Times says, and then the sermon concludes with, “But perhaps Jesus put it best when he said . . .” followed by the preacher’s finding a way to make Jesus echo what everyone else is already saying anyway. But whatever happened to hearing a preacher echo our Lord in proclaiming, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.”
Can we trust God? Or do we feel tempted to think “There’s just gotta be a better way, and I am going to find it”? In a complex world that pulls us in so many different directions, even simple trust of God is not always so simple. Precisely what God desires in a given situation cannot always be tracked down to some “proof text” to which we can either submit or not. We need to develop wisdom to know that the moral life before God is often an exercise in a careful sorting through of multiple layers of complexity.
But the only way to do that sorting out properly is to believe that God through the Spirit is available to help us because at base God wants us to flourish, to enjoy life, and so to avoid hurts of all kinds. The alternative is distrust and suspicion, both of which, as Genesis 3 makes dreadfully clear, lead to fear. “I was afraid,” Adam said in what may well be the first recorded case of existential Angst. The more we live cut-off from God, the less certain life looks. That’s why our vocation as disciples is to nurture trust. Somehow we have to be able to believe that although life is not always easy, it is still better finally to believe that God is pulling for us.
Someone once asked a Jewish rabbi why God had to call out “Adam, where are you?”
“Didn’t God know where Adam was?” this person asked the rabbi.
“Oh yes, God knew,” the rabbi replied, “it was Adam who didn’t know where he was.”
Nor do a lot of us most of the time.
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