The Second Sunday of Advent - The Garden (Part 2 of 4)

This is the history of the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that God made the earth and the heavens.  No plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for God had not caused it to rain on the earth. There was not a man to till the ground, but a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground. God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. God planted a garden eastward, in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground God made every tree to grow that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food, including the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but you shall not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”  God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helper comparable to him.”  Out of the ground God formed every animal of the field, and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called every living creature became its name.  The man gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the sky, and to every animal of the field; but for man there was not found a helper comparable to him. God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. As the man slept, he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. God made a woman from the rib which he had taken from the man, and brought her to the man.  The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken out of Man.”  Therefore, a man will leave his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will be one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed.

Now the snake was subtler than any animal of the field which God had made. He said to the woman, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the snake, “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but not the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it. You shall not touch it, lest you die.’ “The snake said to the woman, “You won’t really die, for God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took some of its fruit, and ate. Then she gave some to her husband with her, and he ate it, too.  Their eyes were opened, and they both knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together, and made coverings for themselves. They heard God’s voice walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of God among the trees of the garden.  God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” The man said, “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; so I hid myself.” God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” God said to the woman, “What have you done?” The woman said, “The snake deceived me, and I ate.”  God said to the snake, “Because you have done this, you are cursed above all livestock, and above every animal of the field.  You shall go on your belly and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth. You will bear children in pain.  Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you have listened to your wife’s voice, and ate from the tree, about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ the ground is cursed for your sake. You will eat from it with much labor all the days of your life. It will yield thorns and thistles to you; and you will eat the herb of the field. You will eat bread by the sweat of your face until you return to the ground, for you were taken out of it.  For you are dust, and you shall return to dust.”  The man called his wife Eve because she would be the mother of all the living. God made garments of animal skins for Adam and for his wife, and clothed them. God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand, and also take of the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever.” Therefore, God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.  So he drove out the man; and he placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.

Genesis 2:4-9, 15-25, Genesis 3:1-23

It is no accident that the forbidden fruit is from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  God did not choose a tree arbitrarily for the prohibition to test obedience.  It is fairly clear that God wishes to prevent Adam and Eve from attaining the ability to distinguish between good and evil.  What a strange goal!  This is particularly strange if moral judgment is a central concern in our relationship to God.  It seems He didn’t even want us to have the ability to tell the difference! It is less strange, however, if this story represents God’s advice to us not to assume that we have moral autonomy and adopt the illusion that we can freely choose between good and evil.

Notice that when Adam and Eve hide from God, they don’t hide because they fear punishment for their disobedience.  Rather, they say they are hiding because they are naked – they now have the ability to distinguish between good and evil and have the capacity for shame. 

The story is not about disobedience.  Rather, it is an exhortation against adopting the illusion that we have free will and can exercise morally responsible judgment. In the Garden, Adam and Eve are blissfully unaware of good and evil and are unable to exercise moral judgment and we are invited to assume they do not have or think they have free will.  The situation is described as paradisal!   It is only when humanity adopts the presumption of believing they can choose between good and evil that things start to fall apart.  Moments after Adam and Eve assumed that they had free will and that they were morally responsible agents, God asks Adam what happened.  Adam’s answer reverberates powerfully through the rest of human history.  He says, “the woman who You gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the Tree and I ate it”.    His answer is almost comic in that he instantly assesses blame against his companion for feeding him the fruit and even implies blame for God for ever bringing her into his life.  Eve, not to be outdone, points the finger at the snake and says “the snake deceived me and I ate”.  God immediately recognizes what has happened – it is obvious from their answers and obvious from their newly fashioned fig leaf aprons.  The language of Genesis reads that God imposes punishment for their disobedience, but we know that our ability and indeed our overwhelming instinct and propensity to judge is itself a road that leads directly out of paradise and into the world we inhabit now.  Within a few chapters, the silliness of Adam, Eve and the snake assessing blame against one another gets far more serious as Cain, in a murderous rage generated by envy - an envy that would not be possible without the ability to distinguish good from bad - kills his own brother.   Scripture is telling us that when we assume we have free will and exercise our ability to judge right from wrong, we risk filling our minds and tainting our society with hate, envy, jealousy and demands for retribution.  We hate by attaching narratives to events.  And the narratives we attach are almost always about free will.  God was not lying when He said we would surely die if we ate from the Tree.  It has been a rough road ever since, filled with moral judgment of each other, hatred and death.  God does not react to Adam and Eve’s disobedience as much as to the fact that they have developed a moral sense and are now engaged in moral judgment, blame and humiliation, as will all their descendants after them.   Far from being a blessing, this ability is a curse.  

It is critical to note that the scene of the Garden closes with the image of God fashioning clothing for Adam and Eve as if to say that now that humanity has falsely asserted that it can choose freely between good and evil, the inevitable result is that we will each morally humiliate ourselves and each other by comparison and jealousy – and that God immediately set to work to relieve our shame.  This theme – God mitigating our shame – will be a central theme throughout Scripture through the encounter with God at Mount Sinai and the birth of Jesus.  The flaming sword set at the entryway to the Garden seems to be an allegory for the fact that we cannot get back into the Garden by the path we took to leave it.  We will not be able mitigate the bad effects of exercising moral judgment and assuming free will by acting ever more morally, charitably, or by a commitment to social justice.  We will only mitigate those bad effects by rejecting moral judgment itself and recognizing that our will is not free.  We cannot re-enter paradise with moral perfection as both secular people and people of faith often assume.  Rather, to inhabit a place without hate and jealousy we need to recognize that we are not morally autonomous and that we do not have free will.  The Kingdom of God is not a possible future when everyone will act morally and charitably because of a desire to avoid divine punishment and receive divine reward. The aim of religion is not the creation of a moral utopia.  Rather, the Kingdom of God is a possible future when judgment is replaced by forgiveness because it is right, just and reasonable to do so.  It is a possible future characterized by universal acceptance and love – not just forbearance or tolerance, but a genuine recognition that we are all in this together and there is no need or justification to place anyone anywhere on a moral spectrum.  This is determinism nestled comfortably in one of the most important passages of Scripture, and actually seems to illuminate it.

Image: Genesis Chapter One written on an egg. Israel Museum