Adam and Eve and the Snake
Stuart Grant's sermon from Feb 10 is a more than useful introduction to Lent, and explodes a few myths and howlers that have long prejudiced the popular view of the Church, and its attitude to all the things negatively associated with Lent - sin, the fall, temptation, the role of Eve, etc etc.
The gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is Matthew’s version of the temptations of Jesus. Three times Jesus is put to the test by Satan, and three times he comes through the ordeal without falling.
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the ancient story of Adam and Eve and the snake, in Genesis Chapter 3. There, we read how Adam and Eve were tempted, and how they succumbed to temptation. They “fell”.
- - - - - -
We live in a wonderful world, but somehow, so much has gone horribly wrong.
Human beings are wonderful. They’re capable of doing so many marvellous things. They can be so creative; they can do so much that is good; they’re capable of so much love.
To make it more personal, we should really change “they”
to “we”. Serious questions arise. Why are we tempted to do wrong? Why do we do wrong? Why do we turn our back on the good and the positive, and make a mess of it all?
I’m not saying all of us go wrong in a spectacular way.
Most people go through life without causing great damage to other people or themselves. But some lives go terribly wrong.
During the summer days of January here in New Zealand hardly a day went by when there was not some report of a violent assault or a homicide in the news media.
I’m sure many of us asked ourselves questions like: What brings someone to take someone else’s life? What is it that brings out so much violence in people? How do people get sucked into the world of drug production and dealing? What causes a businessman to get involved in shady financial dealing that will ultimately put him prison.
These are questions we ask ourselves now, in 2008, - but the same kinds of questions have been asked in some form or other for ages. They are ultimately ancient questions. And the story of Adam and Eve and the Snake is an ancient attempt to answer them.
It’s a fascinating and powerful story. But sadly, it’s not taken very seriously. How many jokes have been told about Adam and Eve?
How many pictures and cartoons have been drawn depicting them hiding in the bushes with their scanty covering of fig leaves, and the snake close by twining himself around a tree?
But it’s just a quaint story from the dim distant past isn’t it? It makes us smile, but it’s not relevant to us today, - or is it?
It most certainly is! The story of Adam and Eve is profoundly relevant to our lives. But it will only become relevant to us if we are prepared to get beyond a literal interpretation of it, beyond its quaintness, and try to plumb the depths of its meaning.
To begin to do that, a few explanations are necessary, to clear the way.
Adam and Eve were not the original human beings, - despite the continuing attempts of some Christians to convince us that they were. We cannot look to the Bible for accounts of human origins. That is the task of science. We look to the people who devote years of their lives to searching for fossils in the desert places of Africa for information about the ancestry of the human race.
There was no Garden of Eden, - not in the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates or anywhere else on earth. To conjecture about where the Garden of Eden was is about as useful as climbing Mt Ararat to search for the remains of Noah’s Ark. (I.e. no use at all!)The Garden of Eden, for the purposes of the Adam and Eve story, is simply the Earth, the place where we live, our home.
And the tree? The Book of Genesis doesn’t tell us what sort of tree it was, not what kind of fruit it bore. (There’s no mention of apples). The tree is really a marker tree. It marks the boundary in our lives which we step over at our peril.
The snake? Well, any story with a talking snake just can’t be taken seriously. Really?
We don’t have a problem with stories like the Big Bad Wolf and the 3 Little Pigs, or Little Red Riding Hood, - where the wolf stands for greed and rapaciousness.
So what’s our problem with the snake? The snake is a perfect image for temptation; it insinuates itself quietly and cunningly into our minds. I’m not Hebrew scholar, but I understand the language used in this part of the story gets across the sneakiness and creepiness of the snake very well:
“Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”
The words have a sinister, evil ring to them.
The seeds of temptation are sown. “We may eat from the trees in the garden, - but with one exception”, says Eve. And in saying just that, the temptation becomes even stronger.
The fatal mistake of Adam and Eve was that they weren’t content to be as they were, simply human.
They wanted more.
‘Why can’t I have everything?’
Why can’t I do anything I like?’
This puts God in a bad light. Mistrust is aroused.
Instead of God being perceived as good and generous, God is seen as the big negative.
So, Why not just do what you like? Step over the boundary. Forget about this petty, restricting God.
(This is the snake talking).
Eat the forbidden fruit.
The story goes on to tell us that this is what happened.
Eve eats the fruit, and gives some to Adam.
Because Eve ate first and then gave some to Adam, she has been held responsible for somehow degrading the more noble man. This misinterpretation of the story led in previous centuries to women being condemned as of lesser stature than men. And this is all part of the oppression of women in the church. I hope most branches of the Christian Church have got over this aberration, but it still lingers in many places.
One of the worst examples I know of concerning this anti feminine bias that has plagued the church for so many centuries is to be found in some medieval wall paintings in an ancient church in Stuttgart, Germany, where I served some years ago. There, in simple peasant art, you can see illustrations of the Ten Commandments. In each picture there is a little black devil tempting people to transgress, and each devil is depicted with breasts!
But to get back to the story: it was through Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit that brokenness entered the human situation.
This is how love becomes lust; how religion becomes bigotry, how the desire for power and control can bring about misery and chaos:
“My team has to win.” “Our tribe must be in charge.” (Think of Kenya in recent weeks). “Our nation must be the greatest” (the power struggle between the great powers of the world has been going on for centuries).
Knowledge, which can do so much good, can also be used to create weapons of mass destruction.
Greed can destroy forests, pollute rivers and oceans.
Yes, we live in a wonderful world, but somehow, so much has gone horribly wrong.
This is what is called “The Fall”.
But we need to be careful how we use this word.
Traditional Christian doctrine, going back to St. Paul, would have us believe that Adam and Eve, understood as real historical people ate the forbidden fruit and became the cause of all the evil in the world.
Why, we ask, is there are natural inclination towards evil? Why do we so easily give in to temptation?
Simple answer: blame it all on Adam and Eve, the first ancestors. They passed their corruption on to succeeding generations. So we’re not responsible.
No. This won’t do. The doctrine of the fall as something we’ve inherited, like a physical defect passed on through our genes from one generation another, is simplistic, and wrong.
Yes, evil is real. Yes, every one of us is tempted, and every one of us can “fall.” Every one of us is Adam, - or Eve.
We all inherit the mess that has been created by previous generations of people who’ve not been content with their human lot, - who’ve wanted to be “like God.”
So what’s to be done?
The Gospels point us towards Jesus, who was tempted as we are, but did not fall. Through his life of compassion he shows us what it is like to be truly human.
So there are tensions at work in our lives, - in all of life.
We strive towards peace and harmony within ourselves and within society. But pride and greed work against this. Harmony is constantly threatened by disorder.
For people who somehow sense the call of a loving God, the downward pull of disorder is countered by grace.
For us as Christians, this is the grace of Christ.
“When anyone is united with Christ, says St. Paul, “there is a new act of creation, the old order has gone, and a new order has already begun.”