Opening The Old Testament
Of Knowledge and Place: Reflections for the First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
March 9, 2014
When I first learned Hebrew, now forty-five years ago, I learned the language inductively. That is, we read the first eight chapters of Genesis, stumbling badly at the start, but gaining confidence as we went, learning grammar and vocabulary along the way. The times I myself have taught the language, I employed the same method. There is nothing quite as exciting as discovering, like some hidden vein of gold, the rich meaning of a Hebrew word or phrase while you are plowing through a text you imagined you already knew. In actuality, Hebrew is quite a simple language, its odd look easily overcome, leading to its exceedingly simple sentence structure and its very limited vocabulary (some 8000 words total).
But as with all things looks can be very deceiving. The simplicity of the language, the result of a very limited sample of structures and words, leads to vast complexities of possibilities when actually attempting to translate the stuff. I have been asked over the long years of my teaching ministry why I have never translated the Hebrew text in my own special way. My response has long been that no one would ever read such a translation, since it would be about one hundred volumes long! Each page would perhaps consist of one sentence translated at the top, heading fifty footnotes attempting to explain just why that translation was chosen as opposed to the other possible ones that could have been. Hebrew prose, not to mention the still more complex poetry, is a riot of possible readings; any translation is only an interpretation, a phrase that should be tattooed on the brows of any who dare to read only one, imagining that they are approaching the original fountain of the "one" meaning of the text.
Today's look at Genesis, the usual Hebrew Bible portion that the lectionary heaves up for the first Sunday in Lent, is a case in point. Though the goal of the lectionary collectors, I assume, is to get us to look squarely at our inclination for sinning, eating the fruit precisely and expressly denied to us by the command of YHWH, I wish instead to look very closely at the first three verses of the pericope, namely Genesis 2:15-17, for there is so much here to stir up the mind that I can only point to a small array of wonderful possibilities for your preaching as Lent begins again.
First, the text in my own translation (well, I finally cannot resist at least some attempts!): "YHWH God took 'adam and placed it in the garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it" (Gen. 2:15). Elsewhere in my writing (see my book Preaching Creation), I have illuminated this pregnant passage in more detail. It has become for me the very heartbeat of a new way of seeing the created order of God of which we are part. Focusing on Genesis 1:26-28 has led us, I argue, to think of ourselves as lords over the creation, having full dominion over it all, as given by God. That is not what Genesis 2:15 implies at all. Here 'adam is placed by YHWH God in the garden of Eden for a very specific task. (This is the first creature made by God who is not a male—such differentiation does not happen until 2:22 where male is distinguished from female—but is rather an earth creature. I prefer to name him "Dusty," a gender neutral name.) It (Dusty) is first to "serve it."
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.