I am indebted to the exegetical work of John Holbert for the insights into Hebrew humour!
Each year as Lent approaches, I find myself flirting with the idea of giving up Lent for Lent. Lent is just too much work. For centuries, during Lent the church has emphasized so many concepts that seem alien to the 21st century mind. Each year during Lent preachers are required to undertake the unenviable task of unpacking unpopular, seemingly antiquated concepts in an effort to encourage the contemporary churchgoer to entertain the equally antiquated rituals of Lent. I mean Christmas and Easter might attract a few more people to our sanctuary, but how do you attract people with talk about repentance or fasting? Just look at our readings for this morning. Temptation is the order for toady. Eve and Adam succumbing to temptation, the Apostle Paul prattling on, heaping condemnation upon the first parents for having given in to temptation, and then Jesus himself resisting temptation from non-other than the Devil. Not exactly cheery stuff designed to bring comfort on a cold damp winter morning, where apart from the time change, there are very few signs of a longed for spring.
But Lent has arrived and so we must tuck into this dish of temptation hoping that it will reveal some hint of the promise of what lays beyond our long Lenten journey as we travel toward Easter’s resurrection joy. But these are not easy readings to unpack.
I could begin by warning against taking these texts literally. But you have heard warnings against taking the text literally and I know that you understand that the story about Eve and Adam is just a story. It never really happened. Most of you, even though you might be tempted to think that Jesus literally went out into the wilderness and was tempted by the Devil, most of you have long since realized that the Devil doesn’t actually exist. If you’re still tempted to believe that this story actually happened, well, the fact that in the story itself, Jesus goes out into the desert all by himself ought to at least make you pause to ask, who wrote this story down, if there was nobody there but Jesus and the Devil?
These stories are just that, they are stories. In the words of Marcus Borg, “The events in these stories never actually happened. But the events in these stories are always happening.” Let me say that again, lest there be any doubt: They never actually happened, but they are always happening. That’s what makes these stories such great stories. The stuff in these stories is always happening over and over again. Temptation is the stuff of our lives. Each and every one of us, each and every day struggles with temptation, each and every one of us and all of us together as humanity. This grand human experiment that we are caught up in requires that we all struggle with temptation.
So if you’ll pardon the pun, let’s begin with Genesis. For far too long know the church and indeed our culture has looked at this familiar tale as if we’ve got it all figured out. But no matter how many times I read this story, I never fail to find some new detail that reveals something about this tale that I’d never grasped before. So, this morning rather than focus on the abusive habits religious types have when it comes to the interpretation of this particular text, I’d like to explore this story as if we’d never ever heard it before. So, forget about “The Fall.” This story is not about the theological concept that humans were created perfect, and would have stayed that way if only Eve hadn’t succumbed to temptation and then tempted Adam to do like wise. Apart from the millennia of misogyny that has resulted from that particular patriarchal reading of the text, its just plain bad theology to suggest that humans were created in some perfect state and that thanks to Jesus we can find our way back into the garden. Our Creator created humans thousands and thousands of years before this story was ever told and humans have been evolving ever since. We were not created perfect, only to fall from grace and be punished by a vengeful Father, who can’t abide the idea of his creatures growing up, so he kicks them out of the garden, condemning them to a life of hardship and toil, who later relents and demands a blood sacrifice in order to save us from ourselves.
This misinterpretation of Scripture is what comes from a literal reading of the text. So, let’s forget that interpretation and read the text. And because this is the first Sunday in Lent, let’s read the text from the perspective of temptation. Because isn’t that how Lent begins? We gobble up our fat laced pancakes at Mardi Gras, fat Tuesday, because we are meant to fast from such temptations for 40 days, in the hope that our suffering will remind us of Jesus’ suffering. Or we could simply focus on Temptation because that’s what’s going on with Jesus in our gospel reading. So, temptation it is then. For who among us has not been tempted?
Eve and Adam may not have been the first people to walk the earth but these characters certainly bear a striking resemblance to every person who has ever walked this earth. In the Genesis story, the Creator, whose name in Hebrew is El Shaddai, which translated literally means “She Who Has Breasts.” If only the translators would take that literally for a change!
Anyway, El Shaddai, reaches into the dirt, in Hebrew the ‘adamah and creates ‘adam, which literally means earth creature. In Hebrew this play on words is meant to set you up for the punch line, but sadly the joke looses something in the translation and we rarely even see the punch line coming. So, the earth creatures created in the image of the Creator, male and female, these earth creatures, Eve and Adam, are placed in the Garden of Eden, in order that they might garden. Some translations suggest that they are placed in the garden to “till” the earth, but the Hebrew word in the text is often used to mean serve. That changes things, because “till” implies some sort of control, where “serve” makes it clear that they were there to care for the earth. Older translations also translate the Hebrew word for “protect” or “guard” as “keep.” This leaves the impression that as keepers we own the earth, when the Hebrew literally says that we are to protect or guard the earth.
There are lots of lovely details that are lost in our translations. But let’s move on to Temptation. El Shaddai insists that the earth creatures may eat as much as they like from any of the trees in the garden, except for this one very special tree. Of that tree they may not eat. Now, right away you know this is a set up. Because every body knows that forbidden fruit tastes great. Put a bunch of kids in a room full of toys; tell them they can play with all the toys, except for that shiny one smack dab in the middle of the room. Everyone who has hears to listen, already knows which toy the kids are going straight for. And the ancients weren’t any less intelligent that we are. They knew that the storyteller was setting them up. What they didn’t expect, and how could they in their patriarchal world, how could they expect that the protagonist in this story would not be Adam. Adam just stands there, quiet as a mouse, and as subservient as can be doing what ever Eve tells him to do.
Now the storyteller has the attention of the ancients. There they are in the Garden of Eden, Eve and Adam, and Eve is obviously the power broker here because who does the snake march up to but Eve. Pardon the pun, but it really is all about Eve. Eve and that tree!
Not just any tree, but the tree of knowledge of good and ….what? “Evil” you say, but the Hebrew text doesn’t say evil. The Hebrew text uses the word “ra” which simply means bad, not evil….and in Hebrew the phrase good and bad is simply a way of saying, everything. A literal translation of the Hebrew text would read the tree of knowledge of everything.
So, the Creator God, El Shaddai, who presumably is the possessor of the “knowledge of everything,” wants to be certain that God’s created creature does not seek such vast and intimately divine knowledge. Except if God knows everything, then surely God knows that that’s exactly what the creature is going to go after: knowledge of everything. That’s what we are, seekers of knowledge. That’s our quest to know everything, to possess the knowledge, to be like God: the ultimate temptation.
What a set up! The storyteller has us right where any storyteller wants their listeners: wanting more. And onto the stage comes the cleverest of all the creator’s creatures, the serpent. But not just any serpent, this one is described as “arum.”
Careful, we’re being set up for another play on words: “arum” is the Hebrew for clever. Not to be confused with “arumin” which means naked. For the cleverness of the snake will confront the nakedness of the earth creatures.
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” The question is both a request for information and a challenge. Eve responds to the challenge by amplifying God’s command. “We may eat of the fruit from all the other trees in the garden. But of the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘Don’t eat it and don’t touch it, or you will die.’” But in the story, God never says “don’t touch it.” The storyteller has Eve add this as if to hint at her desire for that which is forbidden. But the arum serpent, the clever snake, insists: “Die? You won’t die. God knows well that on the day that you eat it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing everything!”
Now even we are tempted, for the fruit of that tree holds the promise of divine knowledge; eat it and you will be like God. The woman falls silent, her eyes are fixed on the tree, she is tempted beyond measure. The woman knew that the tree was enticing to the eye and now saw the fruit was good to eat—that it was desirable for the knowledge it could give. So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to the man beside her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were arumin. Not arum – clever, but arumin naked. Now get ready because here comes the punch-line and if you’re not very careful you’ll miss it.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and make loincloths for themselves.”
The ancients would have been rolling in the aisles. “Fig leaves” Ha! What a joke! You’ve got to be kidding me. Have you ever seen a fig leaf? Have you ever touched a fig leaf? Why the mere thought of a fig leaf anywhere near their genitals would have sent the average ancient listener into gales of laughter. What a joke! The ancient Hebrews knew all too well what fig leaves feel like. Talk about rough and prickly! How many of you would ever consider sewing the roughest sandpaper together to use as underwear! Why it’s ridiculous. They sewed what together? Fig leaves indeed! By now the ancient Hebrews would have collapsed into laughter.
But like most plays on words, there’s truth to be found in this pun. The adam, earth creatures, created out of the adamah, the dirt, sees the tree of knowledge of everything as the key to becoming like God and so trying to be arum, clever, they succeed only in exposing their arumin, nakedness and they are reduced to sowing fig leaves together to hide their plight. Scratchy loincloths, guaranteed to irritate them.
That’s the whole point of this little story. When human beings try to become like God, they sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness, because, as we ought to expect, God is all too right about us. We simply cannot eat of the tree of divine knowledge; it is far too dangerous for us human beings to do so. Whether our fig leaves are nuclear ones or fossil fuel or monetary ones, they remain scratchy fig leaves nonetheless. God made us to serve and protect the great Garden of God. But we would rather control and plunder and take over, forgetting that God is creator and sustainer of all that is and ever shall be and we stand, over and over again, scratching ourselves in our fig leaf loincloths.
Today the earth continues to shake and the alarms continue to sound warnings that the waters may surge. Earthquakes and Tsunamis are evidence that the earth continues to evolve. But the birth pangs of the Earth as painful as they are, are magnified by our desire to know everything. So as reactors threaten to melt down and spew their toxins into the air, the ancient storytellers warning rings in our ears. “You may eat as much as you like from any of the trees of the garden—except the Tree of the Knowledge of Everything. You must not eat from that tree, for on the day you eat from that tree that is the day you will die—yes, die.” And yet we must eat of the tree. For that is who we are. That is who we were created to be: seekers of knowledge, ever evolving.
Life is dangerous. Even Jesus was tempted. In the wilderness Jesus encounters what is described as the diabolos…’ which is the Greek translation for sah-than …the satan which literally means “the Tempter.”
And the Tempter does what tempters do, diabolos offers Jesus god-like powers, Power to turn stones into bread. Power to rule the world.
Who amongst us could resist such temptation? And yet the storyteller weaves a tale that leaves the clear impression that Jesus could have chosen an easier way, but even though he was tempted, Jesus did not take the easy way. And so we are left to wonder, where the easy way has lead us? Have we succumbed to temptation and chosen what appears to be knowledge of everything, the manipulation of atoms, because it provides what has been hailed as safe, clean, efficient power? Our efforts to cover our nakedness have left us with little more than uncomfortable loincloths, exposed to the elements we remain in all our cleverness, naked.
So, what do we do? Do we stop eating of the tree of knowledge? I think not. For that is who we earth-creatures are, constantly evolving, constantly striving, constantly wanting to be like God; in whose image we were created. So, we will go on partaking of the tree of knowledge, but we must do so aware of the fact that we are not God, aware of our need for God. Aware that our God lives and breathes, in with and through us and so when this task of evolving on this ever evolving earth, becomes dangerous, and our sisters and brothers in this grand enterprise suffer the from the birth pains of creation, we must remember who we are and whose we are and reach out to our fellow gardeners to aid them in their nakedness. Only each time we do, we must stitch together loincloths that are less irritating than the last. We must try again. Mindful of all that we have learned from those who have gone before us, not repeating the mistakes of the past, but striving to do better, evolving, into all that we have been created to be. Trusting that our Creator, El Shaddai, will not leave us alone in the wilderness, for She will nurture us at her Breast, with tenderness and compassion as She weeps at our misfortunes and delights in our growth. For like a good mother, She knows that she can’t do it for us. So, She comforts us when we fail and cheers us on when we succeed. Today, when the evidence of our hubris threatens Her creation, She weeps for us and waits for us to be what She knows we were created to be: servers of the earth and sisters and brothers to one another. Let it be so, El Shaddia. Let it be. Amen.
El Saddia weeps for us,
She waits for us to be
What she knows we were created to be.
Servers of the earth
And sisters and brothers to one another.
Reach out, taste and see,
the love of God is yours,
the peace of Christ will guide you,
and the power of the Holy Spirit will move you.
Wow! What an incredible sermon!!! I have been pouring over this text and got stuck in theology, but you helped me dive back into the text where I needed to be for my sermon this Sunday! Thank you!