Between Two Gardens
Genesis 2:15-17 and 5:1-7
Chilmark Community Church
March 5, 2017
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
It would seem that whether one finds oneself in a lush and primal garden or in the middle of the wilderness, there is danger and temptation in the Bible. There be serpents and devils abroad! I love that we begin Lent in the Garden of Eden and that we will end Lent in another garden – -Gethsemane this time – – and how different the two gardens are in terms of what they mean to us. And in between the gardens there is time in the desert wilderness.
Let’s begin in the first garden. Depending upon how we read the story, this is a tale either of our descent into a failed experiment on the part of God – – or it is a story of our immediate elevation to a status just a little lower than the angels.
We begin with a gift and a command. The gift is a glorious place to live with meaningful work to do. “God took the human and placed him in the garden” and gave him responsibility for caring for it as God’s steward. There are all kinds of good fruit bearing trees and full permission to eat from any of them EXCEPT… and here comes the command: There will be no eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil on pain of death.
This is the stuff of a good story. Any of us who have had any dealings with toddlers, or even teenagers, for that matter, know the fundamental truth that if you set down the rule that under no circumstances are they to pull at that shiny ornament just within reach on the Christmas tree or sample that pot that seems so enticing when all the other kids are doing it – – before you know it, that ornament – and maybe even the tree will come crashing down – and the teenager is going to experiment. But – God tries anyway – – do not eat of this particular tree or you will be punished – you will die.
There are ALWAYS reasons why human beings skirt or break the rules. And there is always someone else to blame for the transgression. The serpent says “come on – try it. “ The Woman says “no – If I do I will die.” The Serpent says “Naaahhh! -You won’t die. God only said that because God knows that if you eat it you will become like God – you will know the difference between good and evil.”
She bites the fruit – – she shares it with her human buddy – – he blames her – – she blames the serpent – – and the rest is history.
For centuries, this story has been used to help us understand how sin and suffering came into the world. It has also given us someone to blame for it all. If we give weight to 4th century Christian thinker and eventual saint, Augustine, we understand that it is through woman that sin came into the world – that woman is the devil’s gateway. Augustine and others of the early church fathers were very committed to this line of reasoning and interpretation. At different times across the 2000 year history of the church women have suffered stigmatization, abuse and discrimination because of the of the early church fathers exclusive interpretation of the story.
But they do not have the last word and theirs is not the only line of meaning that might come out of this ancient story of humankind’s beginnings. Other interpreter’s find a different way of looking at it. A place to start might be with the serpent – that much maligned creature so often equated with fear, poison, slipperiness, death. The serpent is described as cunning – crafty – having skill. It seems that the serpent knows a little more about God than the humans do at this point – – and the serpent knows that the woman will not literally die if she chooses to do what is necessary to know the difference between good and evil. So the serpent says “go ahead -try it!”
The woman makes a choice. She eats the fruit of the forbidden tree. Does she instantly know the difference between good and bad? The story doesn’t say. But it tastes so good that she offers it to her partner – and immediately they see the world with different eyes. …their eyes are opened.
Actually, a kind of death does, indeed, happen. They become fully conscious human beings – – responsible for their own actions – – they suffer consequences from every choice they make from then on. Like the serpent that appears to die as it sheds its skin when it no longer fits, the first humans “die” to a kind of innocent unconsciousness in order to become fully functioning adults in relationship with God. This may be our earliest story of death and resurrection. Rather than pointing to the sin and depravity of humankind, the story embraces curiosity and a hunger for something more. The story embraces life. And it tells the truth. When human beings are ready and willing to strive for a higher levels of conscious awareness, there will be consequences. A certain naivete needs to die – and with increased knowledge and wisdom about both the goodness and the evil that pervade all of life comes increased responsibility for that knowledge.
The fundamental principle of the story is so contemporary as we daily have to come to terms with what technology and social media have unleashed in our lives. We are at a Garden of Eden moment as we figure out how to be responsible for all the increased awareness of good and evil, for what it means for our lives and for how we take responsibility for what we can know and do. We have tasted the fruit – and it is really good – – but now we have to learn how to live with the consequences.
Serpents gradually came to be equated with the devil – with Satan. But in the Hebrew scriptures, the word Satan only means “adversary”. Biblical thought has no conception of a devil personified with horns, tail and pitchfork. That imagery came much later in the church’s development. Indeed, in the scriptures, the adversary occasionally works in realtionship with God to bring about God’s purposes. We meet just such an adversary in the Book of Job. If we follow the more ancient meaning of the word, Satan – Adversary – we might find that the serpent in the story accomplishes God’s yearning for human partnership in the work of sustaining creation. God needs partners who know the difference between good and evil. I just happen to think it is really cool that the woman is the one who takes the first step! And here is a curious note. The woman is not given a name until the 20th verse of Chapter 3 when Adam names her Chavah or Eve, and she is identified as The Mother of All Living. Her name means “Life.” She receives her life bestowing name after she has broken the rule and after God has meted out the consequences for her choice to taste the fruit.
Perhaps 500-1000 years after this story of our human origins was circulating around the campfires, another amazing human being emerges on the scene. He begins his life journey in total innocence as a long awaited infant.
We catch up with him as he leaves his baptismal waters and begins a 40 day sojourn in the wilderness. As a young adult, he is already fully conscious of what his moral and ethical and spiritual responsibilities are all about. He already has the gift of being fully and intelligently human – passed on to him through the centuries of the evolution of God’s people. But even he wrestles – just as his ancestors did. His temptations are even greater – because his heightened degree of consciousness and sense of responsibility are greater.
He must turn down the temptation to supersede the laws of God by turning stones into bread. He must turn down the invitation to test God by throwing himself off the highest point of the temple to see if God will really save him. He must turn down the offer of wealth and power in order to be faithful to serving God. In a very short time, his conscious refusal to knuckle under to the enticements set before him will lead him to the second garden.
The stories provide a curious balance for each other. On the one hand, the humans are given a direct limitation by God – do not eat the fruit of that particular tree. Because the woman is curious (what is she doing exploring the garden all by herself?) she interacts with a stranger in the form of a serpent. In that moment, what the serpent says makes sense to her. She risks her very life in the service of learning more. She tastes the fruit. She and her partner eat together. It is only after this sharing of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that she becomes “the mother of all living.”
On the other hand, Jesus resists the enticing temptations set before him in the wilderness – – he refuses to be led off course back into a lesser state of consciousness that would make magic and power and money his way of life. He chooses the much harder way of being fully conscious and aware of his truest nature as the offspring of God. The woman was threatened with death as a result of her choice – – and she lived.
Jesus made a choice that would lead to his death. The paradox is that by his refusing what the world had to offer in the way of power and wealth and the kind of security that might have come with them, he shows us the Way to eternal life.
Our choices are not always as clear or dramatic – but we have to make them every day. In the world we live in, we are constantly bombarded with the choice to live fully in richness and integrity because we seek greater knowledge and awareness of what is going on around us. The Mother of All Living bequeathed us this ability when she chose to eat that forbidden fruit.
With the presence of Jesus in front of us, we have a greater awareness that our choices for the right and the good and the just may be very costly – – – those choices may lead to persecution, imprisonment – perhaps even death.
As we set our faces toward Jerusalem with Jesus in these next 40 days, it is well to keep both gardens in our line of vision. In our thinking, in our spiritual lives, in our actual physical interactions, we are continually faced with the choice for ignorance and bliss on the one hand – – and the knowledge of good and evil on the other. Jesus and the Mother of All Living chose knowledge, wisdom, clear vision and resistance to whatever might cloud a bright and alert human consciousness to the reality of life that God places before us.
Both made choices that led to a kind of death – for the woman it was the death of ignorance and bliss. For Jesus it was the death of his body on the cross. Both made the paradoxical choices that led to the fullness of life that is possible in partnership with the presence of God. Between the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane there is life – the everyday challenges that we face as we try to live consciously in the way that Jesus did. We are challenged to make the same kinds of choices that faced Jesus. We are given the gift of a simple meal to both remind us and to sustain us along the way. May God grant us the curiosity of the Mother of All Living and the faithful wisdom of Jesus as we find our way to the table.