There has been so much extra-Biblical speculation about the implications of the Garden of Eden story that it’s very hard to read the story on its own terms. When I was a kid, I couldn’t get over how ridiculous it was for God to be mad enough to burn billions of people in hell over a stupid apple. Well, it would be ridiculous if that were the truth. But if we read the actual text of Genesis 3, it offers us a brilliant allegorical illustration of the loss of innocence and trust that every human being goes through and which God is . A written summary for last weekend’s sermon is below. Here is the audio:
There’s an uncomfortable question we need to ask first about the Garden of Eden story: did the serpent tell the truth to Eve or did he lie? God had told Adam: “On the day that you eat of [the fruit] you shall die” (Gen 2:17). But the serpent says to Eve, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5). So in other words, the serpent is saying that God’s real agenda is not to protect Adam and Eve from death, but to keep the knowledge of good and evil for Himself.
So what happens? Adam and Eve don’t die, and their eyes are opened. God seems to confirm the serpent’s suspicions about his motives when he repeats the serpent’s statement almost word for word in verse 22: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”
Notice that verse 22 wouldn’t make any sense if the man was already immortal before eating the fruit. The tree of life would be redundant. If God’s curse were the means by which Adam and Eve were rendered mortal (when He says in verse 19, “You are dust and to dust you shall return”), then there would be no reason to kick them out of the Garden of Eden.
So it seems like the serpent is the one who is telling the truth and God is just a big bully who wants to keep humanity stupid so that He can run the show by Himself. And then God punishes the serpent and Adam and Eve for catching Him in a lie. It’s critical for this to be one of the possible interpretations of the story. Why? Because the serpent’s story, both in the Garden of Eden and in our lives, is a legitimately plausible interpretation of the universe that is backed up by a mountain of facts and statistics. It is going against the grain to reject the serpent’s story.
According to the serpent, God is a capricious, selfish figure, which is why it is appropriate for us to live capricious, selfish lives. In our world today, we could add to this the question of whether God even exists at all; there are plenty of cynical “facts” that could be thrown out to disprove the existence of God. The serpent is the original social Darwinist (the irony of course being that many Christians today justify their social Darwinism by worshiping the selfish, capricious monster that the serpent portrays God to be).
To believe that God is telling the truth or even that a God exists at all requires interpretive imagination both in the Garden of Eden and today. If we take God at His word, then some kind of “death” must have occurred as a direct result of eating the fruit of knowledge because God tells Adam that he will die on the day that he eats of it (i.e. not just that he will become mortal, but that his “death” will happen that day).
So what happens when Adam and Eve eat the apple as its immediate consequence? Genesis 3:7 says, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Eve had thought based on the serpent’s advice “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (v. 6). The only “wisdom” she receives is the shame and fear of knowing her nakedness. Genesis 2:25 had said, “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” So the “death” that happens when Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened is the death of their innocence.
This is a death that every single one of us goes through in our growing-up process as humans. When Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to children and that we can only enter the kingdom if we receive it as children (Mark 10:14-15), it’s because children have a form of life that we have lost. Children know how to worship God even though they don’t know that’s what they’re doing, because they delight in His creation in innocence. They live in a universe of complete trust until something happens to “open their eyes to their nakedness.”
When our eyes are opened in this way, a curse falls upon us. We no longer dance; we no longer chatter; because we are preoccupied with how we look to others. We find bushes to hide our nakedness like Adam and Eve did when God came walking in the garden (Gen 3:8). Everything we do after this point is a performance that we are living for the sake of our imaginary audience. Even if we dance and chatter again, it will never again happen without self-consciousness. The fear and shame of our self-consciousness is the reason that our sin calcifies and sticks to us, because instead of confessing it and learning from it, we try to justify it. We hate having our nakedness exposed above all else, so we seek the darkness instead of the light (John 3:19-21).
All of the curses that God names for Adam and Eve are the consequences of living according to the “wisdom” of the serpent with a neurotic self-consciousness and a cynical mistrust of the universe. Eve’s curse is that her insecurity will cause her to cling to her husband and accept a hierarchical, abusive set of power dynamics in their relationship (Gen 3:16, note that gender hierarchy is a curse, not God’s intended order). Adam’s curse is that he will no longer live as a hunter/gatherer who eats the fruit of creation’s garden blissfully unaware of how it gets there; from now on, his anxiety with self-preservation will force him to take up agriculture and see nature with all its droughts and thorns and locusts as his mortal enemy (vv. 17-18).
The story of humanity is the story of God’s efforts to undo the death of our innocence, to win back our trust and convince us that the serpents in our lives have not told us the truth about Him or the world He created. The reason that we can only enter His kingdom if we receive it as children is because we need to regain the innocence that we lost when our eyes were opened to our nakedness. This is not merely innocence in the sense of a courtroom verdict, but innocence in the sense of regarding our universe with a genuine sense of trust and peace. The courtroom verdict of innocence we receive through Jesus’ cross is relevant insofar as it cultivates the deeper innocence of trusting in God.
When God is able to win back our trust through Christ, then the bitter plantation of self-consciousness and self-preservation that we have created for ourselves by listening to the serpent’s story is converted back into the beautiful garden that God has never stopped creating. He can restore us to a life in which we worship and trust without hiding in the bushes when He walks past. So the first thing we can say about eternal life is that it is innocence restored. This weekend, we will talk about the gift of God’s Torah (teaching/law) and how we abuse it.