by Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
Last week we explored the first Creation Account in Genesis 1, reading it alongside the Babylonian story of creation. Many of you expressed surprise to learn that Genesis 1 was written as a distinctly Hebrew response to–and polemic against–the Babylonian account, called Enuma Elish, which the Hebrews would have heard repeatedly during the Babylonian Exile. It’s rather amazing, isn’t it, when you begin to hear the other side of a conversation you had only half-heard before?
The Babylonians believed that creation began in warfare and violence, that human beings were created with the blood of an evil god slain by the others, and that humanity’s highest purpose is to serve as slaves to the gods. These understandings did not square with the lived experience of the Hebrew people. They had just experienced violence and warfare as anything but creative. They also knew something about slavery and God’s response to it in the Exodus. Thus we hear in Genesis 1 of creation taking place peacefully, through the effortless command of God. We hear of humanity being created in God’s very image and likeness–characteristics the Babylonians believed were reserved only for kings. In Genesis 1 we also find that our purpose is not to serve as slaves of God, but as co-creators with God.
Yet Genesis has more to say about Creation than that we’re made in God’s image and blessed by God. The second Creation Account–found in Genesis 2-3 and the story of Adam and Eve–tells a more humbling story. On the surface, it may sound like Bad News, not Good News. Yet this second story actually tells better news than the first, provided you don’t fall into the trap set by the serpent! (And most do.)
If the story of Adam and Eve had never made it into the Bible, the Good News that we are created in God’s very image and likeness would not stand up to even ten minutes of scrutiny, at least if it were meant to stand as the whole story. Every day the newspapers tell a different story of our nature–one that portrays humanity as fundamentally flawed, violent, coercive, and small. How do we account for this? Genesis 2-3 accounts for it plenty.
The best biblical scholarship dates the story of Adam and Eve to the 10th Century BCE. In other words, even though it is the second Creation Account in Genesis, it was actually written four centuries earlier than the first. This was the period of the United Monarchy, of King David and Solomon. During this period, Israel was at the height of its power and prestige throughout the ancient Near East. Literally, there was not a time before or since that Israel was more powerful.
Set on a timeline, it’s striking that the first Creation Account was written during the highest of Israel’s highs as a nation, and the second was written during the lowest of Iows. At its low point, the Hebrews exalted human nature, portraying humans as created in God’s very image in the context of Original Blessing. During Israel’s highest point, the Hebrews depicted human beings as being fickle and disobedient, and created from the humble clay of the earth in the context of Original Sin.
You might find it strange that the story of Original Sin would arise during the height of Israel’s power and glory. But is it so strange? What happens when human beings ascend to the heights of power? The story of Adam and Eve represents a sincere effort on the part of Israel’s faithful to remind those in power not to be so cock-sure of themselves; that power exercised without humility and surrender to God corrupts absolutely. It is the Hebrew way of saying, “This world belongs not to you, but to God. This life isn’t all about you. It’s about God. The moment you forget this basic reality is the very moment you will fail and fall. Remember, O Kings and Princes: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
To tyrants, the story of Adam and Eve is inevitably Bad News. But to those whom tyrants seek to put under their feet, it is exceedingly Good News. Tyrants rely on maintaining the illusion that their power is unique to them; that they are uniquely blessed above all others and thus uniquely deserve to be in power. In order to remain in power, the people must forget that the tyrant’s power has as much to do with their consent and support as anything else. They must believe that the tyrant’s power is beyond reproach and that the tyrant’s authority is beyond question. That’s why democracy is so threatening to a tyrant. A story like Adam and Eve reminds those who suffer under this illusion that all of us are in the same boat, and that those who steer the boat are just as flawed as those who row it. So when the boat is being steered toward destruction, those who row it have more options available to them than to keep rowing.
How does this ancient story speak to us in our time? Shall we all rise up and join a revolution against the powerful? Before we decide to don our class-warfare hats and seize the helm of whatever ship we’ve been rowing, we would be wise to reflect for a moment on how the ancients would view us.
Whether we sit in high places or low ones, to the ancient eye we would all be like kings and queens. Not kings and queens in the political sense, perhaps, but certainly with respect to the power we wield–even the poorest among us.
According to the Book of Kings, King David and Solomon had access to wealth beyond imagining, and they expanded the borders of Israel way out beyond what Israel had seen before or after. Yet let’s set these kings among us for a moment and consider how their power compares to our own.
If David or Solomon decided to travel as far as, say, Mt. Vernon, Iowa, they might have a bit harder time getting there than my wife Melanie and daughter Maren did yesterday in order move Maren into the dorm at Cornell College. David and Solomon might be able to summon 10,000 chariots to take them there, but the journey would take them several days, not several hours as it did Maren and Melanie. Who has greater power when it comes to transportation?
If David or Solomon wanted to stop for meal on their way to Mt. Vernon, perhaps feasting on Iowa corn, Nebraska beef, Washington apples, and Wisconsin cheddar cheese, they would have to spend huge volumes of gold and silver, sending scores of servants off to procure such “luxuries” and preserve them fresh for their table. All Maren and Melanie had to do was pull off the freeway and spend $12.99 each (plus tax and tip) at The Cracker Barrel restaurant.
If these kings wanted to communicate with people back in Omaha while on their journey, they would have to send runners with hand-written messages, waiting days for delivery and days for a response. While Maren and Melanie were away, we exchanged three text messages instantaneously and spoke on the phone once. Yesterday I even sent a message to my elder daughter, Arianna, in Argentina instantaneously via Facebook. I was hoping to communicate with her face-to-face via Skype, but woe is to me–she wasn’t on Skype when I checked. I guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
Of course, both my daughters have access in college to information and scholarship that even the greatest libraries of the ancient world could have scarcely imagined. The information contained in all of the great libraries of old could fit on a single memory stick.
We could play this little game of comparison all day long, but I’m sure you get the point. The common person of average means in our country (even far below average) has access to goods and services that would have made even King David and Solomon struggle mightily with the sin of Envy. While these kings may have had enormous wealth and power in their day, even a pauper in our day owns or has access to goods and services that David and Solomon would have literally given a “king’s ransom” to obtain. Israel’s most famous kings may have enjoyed more prestige than a pauper, but prestige won’t even get you a Big Mac at MacDonald’s in our day.
The fact of the matter is that if you want to go looking for the biblical equivalent of one who sits in high places, for whom the warning of Genesis 2-3 was written, you need only look in the mirror.
So, what does the message of Adam and Eve tell us? For a start, it tells us that we may live in a veritable Garden of Eden compared to many people in the world today–and nearly every person throughout history. Yet despite our advantages, we still define ourselves by what we lack, not by what we have. Materially, we suspect that we could be happier if we had a little more. And when we examine our inner selves in comparison to others, we’re positive we’re not good enough, that we don’t measure up to some standard that we don’t entirely understand to begin with.
In Paradise, the serpent convinced Adam and that they, too, were lacking. Materially, they “lacked” the freedom to eat from any fruit of the Garden. More importantly, on the inward and spiritual level they “lacked” the knowledge of good and evil. How on earth
could they expect to live in God’s Garden for long, in God’s very presence, without knowing right from wrong? Surely, they wouldn’t want to fall into sin accidentally, would they? Once the serpent introduced the mere possibility that they might not be good enough in God’s eyes, the whole thing was over. They began to obsess over the wrong issue. You see, the greatest trick that the serpent ever plays with us is to start us obsessing over something we consider to be good and important, but that’s fundamentally beside the point. Somehow we never wise up to this trick.
Years ago, C.S. Lewis advised his readers to read several classic pieces of literature every year. By “classic” he wasn’t talking about something written in the 1950s, or even the 1850s–but the 550s, or 1050s–something many centuries old. He didn’t presume that those who lived back then were any wiser than we are. Rather, what he wanted us to be aware of is the fact that both sides of a heated argument could be fundamentally wrong about something far more important than whatever they were arguing about. As long as they argued over the wrong thing, the even-more-wrong thing flourished
For example, let’s bring the focus forward to something a bit closer to our time: the issue of slavery in the United States. For decades before and after our nation’s founding, the debate was centered on containment. One side argued vehemently that slavery should be legal throughout the United States. The other side argued just as vehemently that slavery should be limited to the southern states alone and forbidden everywhere else. Both sides felt morally righteous, claiming that God, the Bible, and human decency were on their side. And what was the effect of their arguments? Slavery won either way, as both arguments legitimated the practice. The harder each side argued, the deeper the slavery grew roots in our nation. Eventually the roots were so deep it would take a Civil War to eradicate it, and some believe fragments of the root still lurk beneath the soil.
Back to the Garden. By implying that Adam and Eve were lacking in an essential form of knowledge, the serpent began an internal argument within each that was not only self-destructive, but also would jeopardize their relationship with each other and God. The argument was about worthiness. “Am I worthy to live in this Garden with God, or am I unworthy? How can I be worthy if I don’t know right from wrong? How could God be pleased with me if I do something wrong without knowing it?” As we see in our story, that inward and personal argument soon expanded: “Is this other person worthy of living in the Garden or not? Will this person’s sinfulness cause me to be sinful? (“The woman offered me the fruit and I ate!”)
When we start engaging in that debate over worthiness–be it centered on our own or that of others–we fall just as hard as Adam and Eve ever did. What the story is practically screaming at us to understand is that this whole world revolves not around us and our worthiness, but God and God’s worthiness. The question was never meant to be about us and what we’re doing, but about God and what God is doing.
Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber (our Skype Guest tonight at Darkwood Brew) wonders what would happen if Adam and Eve were not so obsessed with their self-worth and were more focused on God instead. In a reflection entitled, “Adam and Eve and That Darned Snake,” Nadia writes the following about Adam and Eve and their response to God’s discovery of their sin in the Garden:
“I wonder … how would this story have ended differently if [Adam and Eve] simply said “yeah we screwed up…we were wrong – we listened to a voice other than yours and didn’t trust you, please forgive us.” How differently would this story have ended? I mean, maybe their disobedience (while not insignificant) wasn’t as big a deal as it’s been made out to be. Because from what I know of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, forgiveness is like, a really big deal to God. Reconciliation and the desire to make whole that which is broken is a big part of God’s redeeming heart for us. And when, like Adam and Eve, we can’t just say the truth and instead we hide and are fearful and rationalize and justify and blame other people…when we do this, it’s like we rob God of being the forgiving and redemptive God God wants to be for us.”
Nadia continues, “Genesis tells us that God made us and indeed all of creation “good”, not perfect, but good. So given the good-but-not-perfect nature of humanity, maybe messing up and then speaking the truth of it and then allowing God to forgive and make whole that which we have broken has just always been part of the deal. If there was a fall, if there was something which tore at the fabric of our relationship with God, maybe it wasn’t eating the forbidden fruit, maybe it was fear and shame, and untruth.
“Because while Adam and Eve had done something wrong, what they felt wasn’t guilt. Guilt didn’t make them hide their nakedness…it was shame. And here’s why that’s a significant distinction, because guilt is about what we have done – but shame is about who we are. We should feel guilty for the wrong we do. That is healthy and leads us to the foot of the cross where we receive grace upon grace for the forgiveness of sins. Shame on the other hand…that’s different. Shame keeps us afraid of God.”
Nadia notes that the story of Adam and Eve teaches us that “shame has an origin… and it’s not God. When they are filled with shame and trying to avoid God, God says where are you? And they say We were naked and tried to hide from you because we were afraid. God said to them: Who told you you were naked? Who told you you were naked? My money is on the snake. For some reason God allows us to live in a world where alternatives to God’s voice exist (for instance, the serpent) and those alternatives to God’s voice are where shame originates and there is another term for alternatives to God’s voice and it is that which we call the demonic. Shame, when it keeps us hiding and blaming and fearful is demonic. And Jesus … has no patience for this. Jesus just absolutely insists on destroying the false voices that shame.
“Shame kept Adam and Eve from the truth as it has continued to keep all of us from the truth. So Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve and the shaming continues and God’s forgiveness is simply not allowed to take hold.”
Finally, Nadia concludes, “Maybe you are sitting here tonight hiding having listened to a voice other than God’s. And maybe that story is so familiar that you think it’s the
truth. But consider that you might not know your own story. Listen and maybe you can hear God saying, Who told you you were naked? Who told you that you have to lie to be loved? Who told you your body is not beautiful and worthy to be loved? Who told you that you must manipulate everything in your life to get what you need? Who told you that God cannot forgive, that you or anyone else is not redeemable? Who told you that what you have done (good or bad) is actually who you are? Who told you that? My money is on the snake. And he’s a damned liar. Always has been.
Should you perform a self-evaluation this morning and determine that you have been listening to the snake more often than God, the story would continue to remind you not to let shame get the better of you. Do you remember what happened to Adam when they listened to the snake?
Life got a lot harder for them, of course. The “punishments” they received are really just the story’s way of reminding us that when our focus is on ourselves rather than God, life gets hard. Really hard. Sometimes even unbearable. But ultimately, do you remember God’s response?
God worried that the original couple might eat from the other forbidden tree–the tree of eternal life–and become eternally obsessed with themselves. So God escorted them out of the Garden and forbade them re-entry so that none of their mistakes would ever have eternal consequences. (Why do we find this point so easy to overlook?)
Then, God sewed clothing for the couple so they would at least stop obsessing over their fat folds and cellulite. Apparently not even God can put up with that!
The two Creation Accounts in Genesis tell us that while are marked by Original Blessing and Original Sin, we are defined by neither. We are defined by Original Grace. We are defined by the gift of knowing that even though life is hard and we make mistakes, there is forgiveness when we turn from ourselves to God. There always has been. There always will be. That’s because life in this world isn’t about us and our goodness anyway. It’s about God’s goodness. And that’s very Good News indeed.
For Further Exploration:
If you found what Rev. Bolz-Weber has to say useful and would like to hear more on the topic for her, go to the 9/2/12 episode of Darkwood Brew where she appears as our special guest. And if you still can’t get enough, you would certainly enjoy this talk that she gave recently to 10,000+ Lutheran youth in New Orleans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kM9Y5S3UYi8.