“And so it begins…” mutters King Theoden ominously in a famous scene from the “Lord of the Rings” as the Battle of Helms Deep begins. That seems an appropriate note on which to embark on our nine month journey through the Bible. I can imagine God looking at the man and woman he has created as they stand in the Garden of Eden and thinking with a mixture of delight and apprehension, “And so it begins…”
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are called “prehistory” because they present stories of origin passed on from generation to generation in Israel by means of storytelling. With the story of Abraham which begins in chapter 12 we come to stories of specific people whose time and place we can identify. The way to approach chapters 1-11 is to imagine nomadic families sitting together around the fire and the child asking, “Who made the world?” and “Why can’t people get along?” and “Why do people look different and speak different languages?”, and a grandfather weaving together stories for answers. The stories which survived and are included in the Bible are those which were valued most highly for their beauty and theological insights.
Two creation stories made the cut. The first one, in Genesis 1, tells of a Creator God who envisions a world and speaks it into being in an orderly and complete manner. “Let there be light!” and there was light, and creation proceeds in an orderly, sensible manner through the gathering of the waters to the creation of water life, plant life, animals and birds, and finally people. They don’t have names, men and women are created at the same time, they are created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth.
The second story is our text for today. It is a story told to tell about God’s relationship with the people he creates. In this story God begins with creating a man – there was nothing growing, no rain had fallen, just a primordial steam rising from the earth. God made the man using dust from the ground and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Then God planted a garden in Eden for the man to live in. Here God is not off afar speaking creation into existence, He is getting his hands dirty shaping a man and planting a garden. He has empathy for the man, who is alone, so again out of the earth God fashions all the different animals and brings them to the man to let him name them. But after this process, the loneliness problem still wasn’t solved. So God scheduled surgery. He put the man to sleep, operated and took out a rib, closed up the wound, and made a woman from the rib. When he woke up the man couldn’t believe his eyes and he exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh!” And this is the point at which I imagine God reacting with a mixture of delight and dread, “And so it begins…”
The next story tells how the man and woman succumbed to the temptation to eat from the tree that was forbidden to them, and their eyes were opened to realize for the first time that they were naked and feel the shame that led them to sew clothing out of fig leaves. Then they heard the Lord walking in the garden and they were ashamed and fearful and hid from him. The Lord called to the man, “Where are you?” The man replied, “I heard you and was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.” Oops. “And who told you that you were naked? Have you gotten into that tree I told you not to eat from?” “Well, yes, that woman you gave me gave me some of that fruit and I ate it.” The Lord then asked her, “What have you done?” She replied, “The snake tricked me.”
Disobedience has its consequences. The man and woman are expelled from the garden where everything is provided for them. The man is told he will have to eke out his existence from the ground by hard work, and the woman is told that giving birth is going to be a very painful experience. God has indeed just experienced that as well. But at the same time God made for them much better clothing from animal skins, and he had given them the abilities they would need to survive.
So what are the important things to glean from this story of origins about God and about us? Why is important that the Bible begins with a story like this? There are quite a few very important foundational beliefs established here, and I’d like to highlight a few.
First, this story emphasizes that people are created to have a special relationship with God. In chapter one God creates everything in accordance with his plan and vision, then at the very end creates people and plops them down into this world he has created. In today’s story, God creates the man first, then everything else is created around the man, and in a sense is created in order to provide for the needs of the man. God doesn’t create the people and then leave them on their own. God continues to walk with them in the garden and make sure they are okay. This is a wonderful thing to teach our children, that God knows us by name, cares about us, wants to provide for our needs.
Secondly, this story reminds us that people are very fragile beings. Unlike the superheroes of the movies we are not made out of iron or steel. We are made out of dust and breath. The story emphasizes this very strongly through the use of a pun in the Hebrew language. God creates a person, which is “adam” in Hebrew, from the dust of the ground, which is “adamah” in Hebrew. In this way the storyteller creates an unforgettable image for the hearers. Adam was created from adamah. This is good for humility and understanding one’s place in the universe. When all is said and done the breath will depart and our bodies will return to dust. This is sobering but important to remember. We are not indestructible, we are fragile. Life is a precious gift which must be handled with care. And each of us is unique, one of a kind, an original, no matter how much we look or act like someone else in our family.
Thirdly, God cares about our needs and our happiness. God could have seen the man moping around and lambasted him for not being grateful for all he had done for him. Instead, God considered the possibility that the man was lonely for companionship. Maybe it hurts God to think that his companionship is not sufficient to make a person happy, but he accepts it and creates a second person who can fulfill that need. In addition, God gives the man a sense of purpose from the beginning, even before the expulsion from the garden. The purpose has to do with taking care of the land. There are varying translations of the word describing this purpose: to till the land, to work the land, to farm the land, to cultivate the land. Jacqueline Lapsley points out that the word “habad” is more appropriately rendered “to serve” the land. The root of this verb is connected to worship, not farming. Instead of being given “dominion” over the earth as in chapter one, the adam is put in the garden of Eden “to serve” the earth from which he has come, all the trees and plants have come, and all the animals have come.
Fourth, God sets limits on human behavior, but then gives us the freedom to make choices regarding those limits. There are all of these good fruits in the garden which you are welcome to eat, and there are plenty of them so you will never go hungry. These trees, though, you must not eat from or you will die. But there is no wall around the forbidden trees, no alarm system to go off, no guards to shoot trespassers. We are given both freedom and responsibility.
Fifth, the story makes clear to us that a tendency toward sin, disobedience, and rebellion is part of the truth about who we are. You might have thought the storyteller would let paradise continue for a while there in Eden, but the tranquility is really broken immediately, and that is a theological affirmation. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” is a New Testament statement of the fact. Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” So we find posed in this early story of origins in Genesis the question which will be answered by Jesus Christ many years later. But even as with Paul, who came after Jesus, the problem of sin still persists for us today.
We’ve been given plenty, in most cases, but there is always the grass that looks greener on the other side, the fruit which we are told we are not to eat. And everyone has different means of rationalizing out our disobedience: What can it hurt? Who will ever find out? Maybe it will add something important to me like knowledge or life.
Here we come to the second pun in today’s passage. The snake is introduced as the most “crafty” of any of the wild animals that God made. Crafty means clever, subtle, maybe some pulling of wool over the eyes. Crafty is how we feel when we are certain that even though all these other people have gotten caught doing what they weren’t supposed to do, we are smart enough and crafty enough that we will be able to get away with it and no one will be the wiser. The snake is able to twist the words Eve had heard God say around to plant in her mind that God didn’t want them to eat that fruit because it would make them equal to him. So she and Adam ate of it and all that they were any more knowledgeable about was that they were naked. The Hebrew word for crafty is “harum,” and the Hebrew word for naked is “harumim.” The craftiness, subterfuge, and rebellion, resulted only in awareness of nakedness. Another unforgettable play on words for the hearers around the campfire, driving the point home beautifully. I think about the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” where the emperor buys into the crafty ploy of this brilliant new suit of clothes being made for him. When the day comes to, shall we say, unveil it, he paraded through the streets as naked as the day he was born, thinking he was wearing beautiful clothes until one child had the courage to call out, “The emperor has no clothes!” And then he realized at once it was true.
Including disobedience this early in the story helps us understand who we are. It helps us understand that some of the bad things that happen to us in this life are direct results of bad choices that we or others have made. It helps us realize that the relationship between us and God has been broken by sin.
But this brings us to the good news of the sixth and last point I want to mention from today’s story. In spite of our rebellion and disobedience, God continues to care about us and continues in relationship to us. Our circumstances may change due to our disobedience, but the fact that God is our God and we are his people does not change. The nature of that relationship as it adapts and develops will be our subject each and every week.
Those who put the narrative lectionary together say that the point of this week’s story is this: “Even though our God promises to provide for us and to take care of us, we have wandered and followed other, untrustworthy voices. Humankind was created to be in relationship with God and with one another. God provides restrictions or guidelines as a means of protection. Even when we fail to follow what we know is in our best interest, God is continually forgiving us and creating something new.” (Small Group Guide #3-1, p. 1)
Next week we will move to God’s promise to Abram in chapter 15. On the way out today, I invite you to pick up a sheet headed “Daily Readings.” This will take you daily through the major stories between today’s story and next week’s. With each reading there is a suggested activity. For instance, Wednesday’s reading is about the destruction of the flood. The activity is to pray for people who have loved ones affected by natural disasters, and to make a donation to an organization that does disaster relief. Thursday’s reading is about God’s promise to Noah through the rainbow. The activity is to use crayons or markers to draw a rainbow, then make a list of the promises God has made that mean most to you. This will be a great way to engage the story on a daily basis and end the year with a much enlarged vision of the Bible.
And so it begins… God creates, in the manner of a child with play-doh. God cares and provides and empathizes and creates some more. People both delight and disappoint. Some things come to an end and other things begin. There is no point in sighing for Eden, or blaming Adam and Eve for failures we know are our own. There is no going back, only going forward, but we go forward in the comfort and knowledge that God goes with us and cares about our journey. Next week we will travel briefly with Abraham and Sarah on their part of the journey.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 11, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church