This is the sermon given by Rev Sue on Sunday 6 June.
The Old Testament reading was part of the second creation story in Genesis. In this story God creates the earth and the heavens in just one day. There are plants and flowers, but there is no one to look after creation. So God creates the first man from the soil like a potter shaping clay. We could call him an earthling, for the Hebrew words for humanity and earth are very similar. Into that image God breathed his breath, and the man had both gift of life and a mind and a personality. God placed the man in Eden, which means the garden of delight. It is in the East, in Mesopotamia where the four great rivers meet. You will not find it on a map. It is everywhere and nowhere. In the middle of the garden were two trees. The first is the tree of life, the second the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The man has the task of looking after the garden, but it is a joy and a pleasure – not the backbreaking work of picking crops by hand. The man was given all the fruits of the garden to eat (he is, in fact, a vegan). God made all sorts of animals and birds to keep him company, and the man named them, but they did not give him the helper he longed for. So God makes him a helper, a partner, by forming a woman from the man’s side. She is his companion and equal. They are immortal so there cannot be children, or the world would become quickly full. They are a contented couple with no more need of clothes than the birds of the air.
Then upon the scene comes a snake. The woman is not easily enticed, but the snake is crafty. We don’t know why the snake approached the woman – he is it seems, just a snake. He asks the woman whether God has allowed her to eat from any tree in the garden. The woman explains that they have been told that if they eat from the tree of knowledge, or even touch it, they will die. The snake argues that she will not die, but they will become like the gods, knowing good and evil. The woman looks at the fruit. It looks delicious, and who would not want to be wise? She takes and eats the fruit and passes it to the man. In a sense, the snake was right. They do not immediately die. But they realise that they are naked and sew leaves together to make themselves clothes. They have become mortal, and in doing so they have discovered sex – for now it is necessary to have children for the human race to survive. God asks the reason for their disobedience. The man blames the woman, the woman the snake.
God tells the woman that she will suffer pain in bearing children, and that she will no longer be equal to her husband. The earth is cursed, and instead of the man and nature working together in harmony the work of cultivation has become hard labour. Eve is now named as the mother of creation. God continues to care for them and makes them better clothes, using animal skins. The couple must leave the garden, as if they were to eat of the tree of life, they would become immortal. But God is with them outside the garden – he has not abandoned them.
The story of Adam and Eve is a myth. Myths have in modern times got a bad press. We say it’s a myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they are scared (in fact, they can run at 30 mph which is generally a better plan!). But when we say that Adam and Eve is a myth, we are not dismissing it as untrue. We are saying that it is not a literal, factual account, but a story with a deeper meaning. Like novels, poetry, music and paintings there can be deep truths within, and a variety of valid interpretations. When CS Lewis was asked about his Narnia books, he said that the author does not have the last word on explaining his work – there may be deep meanings of which he himself was unaware as he wrote. Art in all its forms speaks to the depths of the soul and can never be explained by rational analysis.
As I told the story I was drawing on the work of Hebrew scholars1 to examine the text as it was written. But now I am moving to a subjective interpretation. This is what the myth of Adam and Eve says to me. You may have different and equally valid ideas.
When I think about life in the garden of paradise, it all seems very pleasant, but fundamentally unchallenging. Hard work and struggle are a part of life, a way that we develop our characters. I don’t find eternal innocence attractive. I am with the woman – if someone asks me whether I want to know something, the answer is nearly always yes. A bit of me cheers the woman on and tells her to go ahead and find out what good and evil are all about, and that doesn’t seem to me to be a sin or character flaw. It’s not so much disobedience as curiosity, and that’s a trait I value. And again, a life of perpetual childhood, never reaching adolescence, never having sex or rearing children, seems only a half-life. Life is not about a returning to the happy nakedness of childhood. It’s about getting dressed and going to work – discovering who we are and relating people other than just our family. The mediaeval carol Adam Lay Ybounden takes a similar line. It finishes with words “Blessed be the time that apple taken was, therefore we moun singen. Deo gratias!” It expresses joy and gratitude in all that resulted from the woman eating the fruit. As children grow, they test out boundaries by sometimes disobeying their parents. They wonder what will happen if they go too far. Safe with loving parents, they can make mistakes, but be protected from the worst of what might happen. They learn why the rules are there, not just blind disobedience and they grow until they have the maturity to make wise decisions for themselves. Similarly, our faith should not be rules based, but our actions should be evaluated in the light of love. Jesus most frequent and harshest criticisms were reserved for the legalism of the Pharisees, who technically kept the laws but were merciless and unforgiving. Societies do need laws to enable people to live together harmoniously, and sometimes those laws need to be changed, and sometimes it is appropriate to break them, because God has given us his Spirit to enable us to discern with wisdom and compassion.
Secondly, I focus on original blessing. We come from God and are beloved by God. We are made in God’s image, and we yearn for a return of the communion of walking in the garden with him. We have a feeling of something missing 2“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”. We want to come full circle, to have left behind our innocence, but to instead find that wholeness in maturity where we knowingly make the right choices. In each of our lives we moved from our innocence as babies and our mother’s love to grow in understanding and independence becoming increasingly responsible citizens, with a wider outlook. Our eventual end is to live once more with God, not as the couple in the garden, but in the community of the heavenly city.
You may be more familiar with interpretations that focus on sin, and that suggest that every new-born baby is already tainted with the original sin of the first man. At worst that can lead us to strive to be good enough and to attempt to earn the forgiveness of God. It can put the fear of hell ever before our eyes, making us afraid to act boldly, always nervously checking that we are staying well within the rules. And theology that diminishes us instead of setting us free is always bad theology.
What you believe about God matters, not because we will be barred from heaven if our understanding was wrong, but because it affects the way we relate to ourselves and other people. Good theology is freedom and healing. Genesis teaches us that we are created by a loving God, who tenderly cares for us even when we make mistakes, who enjoys our company and longs for our wholeness and maturity. To know that gives us the courage and hope to keep moving forwards. I leave you with the wise words of Lucy, friend of Charlie Brown. It is raining very heavily. Linus, always on the anxious side says, “What if it floods the whole world?”. Lucy explains that God has promised never to flood the world again. “You’ve taken a great load off my mind” replies Linus. Lucy comments “Sound theology has a way of doing that.”
1See Amy Jill Levine, The Bible with and without Jesus for a Jewish commentary
2St Augustine of Hippo
3 Peanuts Charles M. Schulz