Opening The Old Testament
Of Knowledge and Place: Reflections for the First Sunday in Lent
The older translation "till" (still preserved by the NRSV of 1989) will plainly not do. It is the result of the much older KJV reading of 1611 when nearly everyone in 17th-century England was the son or daughter of the plow. This word most obviously does not mean "till"; it is the very common but important Hebrew word "to serve." We are described here as partners with the garden, not offered some sort of rule over it, not commanded to plow it up as its master. And once we are clear that we are the garden's servants, then we have the possibility of fulfilling the demand of the next verb, "to protect" or "to guard." We, as servants of the soil, must relate ourselves to that soil in such a way as to protect it. The garden depends on us as much as we depend on the garden. There is one idea for preaching: how do we humans relate to the created order of God?
"YHWH God commanded the 'adam, 'From every tree of the garden you may certainly eat, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you may not eat, because on the day of your eating from it, you will certainly die'" (Gen. 2:16-17). All fruit of the garden of YHWH is available for 'adam to eat, except that one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. And just what are we to make of that tree? In Hebrew, one of the ways to express the concept of "everything" is to use the locution "good and bad." (I choose to read "bad" rather than "evil," because the latter term has been negatively loaded in the story by its constant expression when the story is told.) This tree then is the tree of the knowledge of everything; in short it is the tree of divine knowledge. The human is denied the fruit of that tree, because human beings ought have no access to divine knowledge, a knowledge that in the hands of human beings can lead straight to death.
One need only think for a brief moment of this kind of knowledge possessed by human beings that may lead directly to death. Our discovery of the atom and its immense power has led us on more occasions than we know to the very brink of extinction. Such knowledge is not going to go away, but if it is obtained and used apart from the presence of God to remind us of our possible folly, our acquisition of such knowledge may result in death for all.
Still, the Hebrews were hardly fools. They know that they would continue to eat from this tree of knowledge no matter how often they heard the command not to do so. Human beings are driven to learn more and more. But they warned us as clearly as they could of the possible consequences. In chapter 3, the consequences are spelled out in hilarious detail. The woman eats, egged on by the snake; the man eats, saying nothing, simply following the dictates of his belly; and at the last both man and woman blame others for their own folly, standing deep in the garden, scratching themselves in their ridiculous fig-leaf aprons! Such are the results of human striving for divine knowledge, uncomfortable and laughable garments, hurling insults and blame in every direction save the only one that is appropriate, namely at themselves.
So, the place of humanity in the cosmos or the dangers and possibilities of the striving for great knowledge. Either of those could be a fine place with which to start a Lenten series. Both ask crucial questions of us as we embark on the yearly Lenten journey. I hope you will choose one and have at it with a will, and may your journey this year be rich and fruitful for you and for your congregation.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.