Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8
Today we begin a new series of readings, a series that will take us up to the end of the Church year and the beginning of Advent. The way the Narrative Lectionary works, our Spring sees the focus on a sort of narrative arc through the Old Testament; and for this year, that arc is tied together through the theme, the idea, of promise.
And we begin here in the story of creation and fall; the story of God’s great promise in creation and the way that promise was broken by human distrust and disobedience.
each of you should have received, as you came in, a small laminated card, with two symbols on it, one on each side. Two symbols that are closely associated with this story. On one side, you have a snake, a serpent, the figure representing temptation personified, the enemy, the one who would break God’s good creation.
And on the other side, an apple. Now I wonder what meaning you give to the apple in the context of the story of the fall? I’m guessing that most of us, if you say “Apple” and “Garden of Eden”, the immediate connection we make is the forbidden fruit, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
But I’d like you to look again at the picture of that apple, and focus instead on God’s words: “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden”. Look at that apple and remind yourself of all the other trees, all the good things that God had provided.
Because it seems to me that in going straight from “fruit” to “forbidden” what we are doing is accepting the great lie that is as the heart of the serpent’s temptation, the lie found in the serpent’s opening question: “did God say ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’”?
The image of God that is immediately created; the image many outside the Church have of God, and that on some level many of us carry around inside us: that the fundamental description of God’s nature is the word “no”. That God’s relationship with us is defined by “thou shalt not”, by forbidding.
But when we read back in the story, to the command God gave, it is given in the affirmative – a gift, a promise of good things, the gift of permission, of freedom: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden”. God’s command is not “do exactly what I say, when I say it, the way I say it” – it is “here’s a whole garden of option, good choices. Take your pick”. Obedience to God is not finding the one right option out of many, many wrong ones; it is enjoying a wide range of good choices.
The lie, then, with which the serpent starts is to suggest that God’s commands are far more restrictive than they really are. To paint God as the great big “no”. And though Eve, in the story, doesn’t fall for it, the question, and her response draws attention away from all the other trees, all the other good things, and onto the one thing that has been forbidden. From this point on in the story the question has been crucially changed – from “which of the many different good fruits shall we eat?” to “shall we eat this one?”.
No longer is Eve considering all the good options available to her; now the question is whether or not this, forbidden, thing, is desirable. And this reflects a second lie: that the forbidden thing is somehow uniquely more desirable than the many which are permitted.
The lie which we accept, which tells us that God’s will for us is very specific, very restrictive, a single path that we must follow, morphs into this second lie; that the things God would deny us are much more interesting, desirable, and exciting, than the things God freely gives for our enjoyment.
I think I’ve mentioned before an article I read by a Catholic Priest, asked what it was like to hear people‘s confessions. And he said that, while it was a powerful and profound experience to have people open up and share the hidden parts of their lives, it was also much less exciting than most people seemed to think. Almost all sin, he said, is boring.
Boring because, as G. K. Chesterton wisely observed, sin is not a thing in itself; it is just a broke and distorted version of virtue. The life well lived is the real thing. Loving relationships are the real thing. Art and music, poetry and science, truth in all its forms; friendship, compassion; those are the real thing; all the other trees in the garden, all the good fruit that is the promise of creation.
But the serpent manages to make the one forbidden thing, the one restriction that God placed upon humanity, seem like it was the thing most to be desired.
And what was it? The fruit of the forbidden tree?
The knowledge of good and evil. By which I think the author intends us to understand, the ability to decide for ourselves what is good, and what is evil, the power to form our own ethical systems, divorced from the wisdom and revelation of God.
But isn’t that desirable; to be able to make your own mind up, figure out for yourself what is right and wrong, good and evil? Isn’t that what we put so much emphasis on in our education – teaching kids how to make good decisions for themselves, not just to go along with the crowd or the loudest voice? Isn’t that growing up?
And of course, the answer is yes. Because, once again, the question has been changed. The question is not “should we grow up, learn how to make good decisions, learn how to tell right from wrong ourselves?”. That’s a simple yes. The question is, when we are doing that growing up, that learning, who will we trust to guide our growth? What authority will we accept reliable? What voice will we listen to as we struggle to work out what a life well lived really looks like.
Will we hear the voice of our culture, telling us that those things we know, those things we recognise, are good and right, and those things that are different, alien, unknown, are dangerous, wrong?
Or will we hear the voice of the advertisers, telling us that the good life can be bought; that the iPhone 7 will bring us closer to one another; that the right diet, the right clothes, the right gadgets make the right life?
For the reality is, of course, that we cannot possibly explore every conceivable option first hand. Working it all out for ourselves, trying all the alternatives, taking no-one’s word for it, isn’t possible, logical, mature, or even sane. We choose authorities, we choose the voices that we listen to.
And it seems to me that the ultimate root of the sin in the fall is not so much disobedience, but Adam and Eve’s decision not to trust God’s word, God’s wisdom, but to insist that they, and they alone, will be the masters of their fate, the captains of their soul. That they will not trust the promise of God that was manifest in all the good things that surrounded them.
And when they eat the fruit, their eyes are opened, and they hide themselves from God. They seem to know instinctively that having chosen not to trust in the promises of God, they have broken something deep within creation, damaged the relationship between God and humanity which lay at the heart of the goodness of the garden. I think it’s striking that before God declares judgement upon Adam and Eve, they have declared judgement on themselves; they have removed themselves from God’s presence. The promise of creation has been broken, and they know it.
And so we come back to the card – the apple and the serpent, the two sides of the story that we read in Genesis. On the one side, the promise of God, the goodness of creation, the fruit of all the trees; and on the other, the challenge of the serpent: “take no-one’s word for it, trust no-one but yourself”
Trust the promise and generosity of God, or trust nothing but your own wisdom, insight, power.
The fundamental decision for all humanity.