Of Knowledge and Place: Reflections for the First Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Reflections
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."

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.