Genesis 3:8-15 | Mark 3:20-25
Back before Easter we took the opportunity to walk through the six days of the poem of creation told in Genesis chapter 1. The story ends, of course, with God’s declaration, looking at all that has been made, that it is “very good”.
It is the first, and the central statement of any Christian understanding of creation: God made it, and God made it good.
But of course, this description of the created world lies at odds with much of our experience of the world around us: for though there is much that remains good and beautiful, there is also much that is not – whether in the realm of human wickedness, or of natural dangers or disasters, or of sickness, injury, infirmity, disability.
It’s arguably the biggest problem that faces people of faith: how is it, that if we are loved by an all powerful God, we still face suffering.
And, despite the impression sometimes given by smug atheists who challenge believers with the problem of evil as if it were a brilliant and novel insight, I suspect it is a problem that pretty much every believer has recognised and struggled with; perhaps coming to some understanding that works for them, or perhaps naming it as something they accept, at least for now, to be a mystery.
Certainly the authors of the scriptures were well aware of the problem of evil, and wrestle with it in many different ways, the very first, and perhaps oldest, of which we encounter here in Genesis chapter 3.
And of course, being a piece of ancient Hebrew writing, there is not really any attempt to give a formal reasoned answer to the logic of the problem. Instead what we have is a story; a story which outlines the shape of the classic Hebrew (and Christian) answer to the problem of evil, but which also does more, starting to hint at our part in the problem, and God’s ultimate solution. A story told in six acts.
We don’t have the whole of the story in today’s reading, but I’m sure you all remember how it starts. God tells Adam he is free pretty much to do as he likes, with just one constraint – not to eat the fruit of a particular tree; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And I’m sure I’ve preached before now about the symbolism of the tree, and how the Hebrew understanding of knowledge as experiential gives a different meaning to “knowledge of good and evil” than we might assume.
Act one: there is temptation; a wrong which seems desirable. And the temptation is anthropomorphised in the character of the serpent, who tricks Adam and Eve. The first hint at complication in the story comes in the first words of Genesis chapter 3: Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made – even here, as the serpent is introduced as the villain of the piece, it is also acknowledged that this villain is also part of God’s creation.
Act two, the fall, we also know well: Adam and Eve both fall to the temptation, they take the fruit, and eat it. And immediately they know that something is wrong – in the language of the story “they knew that they were naked”. Innocence lost.
Our reading today starts at the opening of the third act: hiding. For this is more or less the universal first response of anyone who realises they have done wrong: hide. Hide the evidence, hide the facts, hide yourself. Bury the truth, perhaps literally, or perhaps figuratively: bury the truth under an avalanche of misdirection, of sophistry, of noise. Get people talking about something else, anything else. Our politicians, perhaps, are the masters of this game, of shifting the question, obfuscating, delaying, waiting for attention to move on. But let’s not take the easy step of just pointing the finger at others; which of us has covered up our tracks in one way or another, knowing that what we did was wrong, but hoping that perhaps no-on will ever look closely enough to know.
The story, attributed to Conan Doyle, is probably apocryphal – but its popularity testifies to some truth that it exposes. A friend of his had often been told that there is a skeleton in the cupboard of every household, no matter how respectable that household may be; and he determined to put this opinion to a practical test. Selecting for the subject of his experiment a venerable Archdeacon of the Church, against whom the most censorious critic had never breathed a word, he went to the nearest post-office, and dispatched a telegram to the revered gentleman: ‘All is discovered! Fly at once!’ The Archdeacon disappeared, and has never been heard of since.
But of course in the story of Genesis, hiding is no use – for God calls Adam and Eve out, and questions them. And so our play moves to Act four – shifting the blame. In the cross-examination of humanity we have a response that would be farcical if it were not so true: Adam lays the blame on Eve, and Eve points in turn to the serpent – a good choice of scapegoat, for surely God would know the wickedness of the snake. If you’re going to pass the blame, it’s very important to choose a believable villain…
And yet in the shifting of blame there is also just a hint of confession – “the women who you gave to be with me (notice that subtle blaming of God?) gave it to me (and I ate)” “the serpent tricked me (and I ate)”
By the time we get to shifting the blame, we have at least realised that there is, in fact, blame to be shifted.
And that moves us into act five: consequences.
In our reading today, we heard the first of those consequences: the curse of the snake. But we know, knowing the story, that it is not just the snake, the original culprit and the final scapegoat, that carries the downside of what has happened. Both Adam and Eve are also told that they will suffer because of their choice to reject God, to know good and evil, not just as things that God has told them of, but as personal experience. In the story, the suffering of woman in childbirth, and the hardship of man in the toil of work, are both described as the consequences of this wrongdoing – as if the pain of childbirth and the weariness of a hard days work were somehow equivalent. Evidence, if we needed it, that Genesis was written by a man.
But all involved face the consequences. Including God. For God had walked with the man and the woman, but now has to send them away. God’s creation is broken, God’s stewards of creation are fallen. Perhaps God, more than anyone, faces the consequences of what happened.
But even in act five, even in the consequences of sin, we see act six – the end of the story – for act six, is hope.
For as part of the banishment of humanity, we read “the Lord God made garments and clothed them”. Even as God is acting to deal with wrong, God is also acting to protect the wrongdoer, to mitigate the consequences, to offer hope for the future.
And here, it seems to me, is the punchline of the story of the fall: that it is a story, not just of wrongdoing, and of the consequences; not just an explanation for why there is evil in the world; but an offering of hope for those live with the consequences. That at the end of the story is not just suffering, but also possibility.
But… the hope in the story is not found in the hiding, and it is not found in the shifting of blame. It is only found in the final act. And this, I suspect, is really the heart of this story. It’s not, in the end, about the problem of evil – at least not in the abstract. It’s about something much more personal – the problem of our evil. It’s about the way that we try to hide what we’ve done, and try to hide from what we have done. It’s about the way we seek to shift the blame, to make everything someone else’s fault.
And it is about the way that, in the end, hope lies, not in avoiding the consequences of our wrong decisions, our foolish actions, our arrogance, selfish, self indulgent choices; not in hiding or blame shifting; but in act six, when our wrong is laid bare before God, and we discover that there is hope. Despite everything, there is still hope.