My granddaughter Audrey is just four years old. A couple of weeks ago, I received a text message from Audrey’s mother Laurel about a conversation over dinner. Said four-year-old Audrey, “Who made the world?” Her mother Laurel responded, “God made the world.” To which Audrey asked, “Who is God?” Audrey’s Dad, Jeff is a lawyer responded with a marvelous answer, “God is an all-powerful spirit who is everywhere. He made everything including you.” My brilliant granddaughter Audrey took her father’s answer in her stride and just like a four-year-old does, she pushed her parents even further by asking, “Who made God?” Jeff and Laurel answered in unison, “You should really talk to Gran.”
While I chuckled with delight at my granddaughter’s ability to stump her parents, I couldn’t help hoping that they might have spared me the prospect of trying to answer the unanswerable question of the ages. Little Audrey’s line of questioning echoes the questions of all the generations that have gone before her. I suspect that her parents swerved her theological challenge to their answers in much the same way as generations of parents have, by passing the question back to the generation that went before them; perhaps hoping that there might be an inkling of an answer that they might have missed along the way. But even though as Audrey’s Gran, I have spent the better part of my adult life dwelling in Audrey’s questions about the nature of reality, when it comes to questions about who made us, and who made God, all I can really do is look back to the wisdom generated by the generations who have gone before me. Just like my granddaughter, each answer that I discover, only generates a deeper more piercing question that leaves me to cope with the MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of reality, that which is beyond every answer, beyond the beyond, and beyond that also. So, this morning as we peer back beyond the beyond, we turn our attention to a story that has been handed down from generation to generation.
Genesis, the very name of this the first book of the Torah, genesis means the beginning. But don’t let the name of this ancient book fool you into believing that it will reveal the answer to age old questions. For we know that Genesis is but the beginning of a multitude of questions. Most of us have heard the answers that have been wrestled from Genesis so many times that we have already formed opinions about the stories in Genesis based on arguments about whether or not the creation stories are literally true. I have little or no interest in such childish arguments, as our friend Dom Crossan insists, it “is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” Let’s just agree that the mythological stories contained in the book of Genesis were told to symbolize the nature of reality.
Let’s also demonstrate that we are grownups and do our best to move beyond the simplistic theological answers that have been offered to explain the symbolic meaning of these stories. When it comes to the myth of Eve and Adam, the answers that have been offered for generations have led us down the garden path in ways that have allowed our culture to destroy the garden. 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 myth 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 as perfect beings and would have stayed that way, if only Eve hadn’t succumbed to temptation and then tempted Adam to do likewise. Apart from the millennia of misogyny that has resulted from that particular patriarchal reading of the text, it’s 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.
The MYSTERY responsible for creation created humans thousands and thousands, no millions and millions 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 particular reading of the text that masquerades as a literal interpretation of the story. So, let’s forget that interpretation and read the text.
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 or Breasted ONE.” 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 loses 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 the temptation that drives this myth. El Shaddai, the Breasted ONE 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 everybody 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 ears to listen, already knows which toy the kids are going straight for. Our ancestors 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 whatever Eve tells him to do. Now the storyteller has the attention of our ancient ancestors. 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, because 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 knows that the tree was enticing to the eye and now sees the fruit is good to eat—that it is desirable for the knowledge it can give.
So, Eve took some of its fruit and she 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.”Our ancient ancestors 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, see 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 volcanic eruptions 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, and plastics strange sea creatures, 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.
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, our eyes fixed on the meeting of two mad earth creatures who stand between us and nuclear folly. 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 long to believe 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 the MYSTERY that lies beyond the beyond. Aware that our MYSTERY lives and breathes, in with, through, and beyond 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 and 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 the MYSTERY at the core of reality, our Creator, El Shaddai, the Breasted ONE 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.
So, what shall I say to my darling Audrey, when she asks her Gran, “Who made God!” “I don’t know Audrey.” For I don’t know, my friends is an answer; an answer that leads us beyond answers. I shall tell my darling girl that she is a daughter of Eve who, just like her, wanted to know everything, but we cannot know, not yet anyway, but wanting to know is who we are, so ask away my darling girl, ask away. The MYSTERY you seek is all around you. I will reach into the earth from which she was made and I will tell her that the answer to her question lies beyond the earth, beyond the stars that gave birth to the earth, beyond the knowledge of all we now know, beyond the beyond and beyond that also. Then I will take her by the hand and together we shall go for ice-cream and together we will evolve in the LOVE that is the Breasted ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. Let it be so, El Shaddia. Let it be so. Amen.
I am indebted to the exegetical work of John Holbert for the insights into Hebrew humour!