The Original Bad Decision – September 20
Based on Genesis chapters 2-3 (If you don't have time to read all that, it's the story of the creation of Adam and Eve and of their encounter with the snake, when they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Remember that this is a separate, second creation story, not a sequel to chapter one!)
Being a feminist teenager back in the 80's was not always easy, especially when dealing with chauvinist teenage boys, of which there were many. I remember being quite thrilled when I found a T-shirt which said, “Of course God created man first, you always make a rough copy before you make the masterpiece.” It seemed like the perfect comeback to some of the more conservative Christians I grew up with, who felt that this second story of creation which we just heard, fully justified the idea that men were superior to women.
I have to confess that as a woman, especially a feminist, this second story has been problematic for me. When I discovered there were actually 2 stories, written at different times by different authors, and that the first story, Genesis 1, was far more inclusive, I was so relieved. There was no need to ever read about Adam and Eve again.
But eventually I went to seminary, had to look at this story again, and I began to see new meaning it. Yes, it has been used to oppress women for centuries. But a closer read with a better translation reveals that woman was created not to be a “helper” who is lesser than man, but to be his “sustainer,” which interestingly enough, is a word often used for God. A sustainer is one who has the strength and wisdom to get you through the hard times. So it would seem that the story itself isn't quite as oppressive of women as it has been made out to be.
As I studied more, I realized that where the first creation story is the poetic “why do we exist” and “who is God” story, this one is our practical “how come” story. So where Genesis 1 describes the grandeur of God in creation, Genesis 2-3 is concerned with figuring out how humans fit in, what's our role. It tries to answer questions like, How come is childbirth so hard? Why don't snakes have legs? How come we do stupid things we know are wrong? And the big one, why is there good and evil in the world?
Interestingly enough, despite our association of sin with this story, many scholars say that it's not actually about the introduction of sin into the world. Augustine came up with the concept of original sin back in the 5th century and that has had huge influence on Christians ever since, but that was never part of the Jewish understanding of story. It's about good and evil, the word sin never even used in the story. So it doesn't say we're born in sin, it says we're born really good at pushing boundaries. After all, only one tree in the garden is forbidden and that's the one Adam & Eve go for.
As a child I found that the verse where God is looking for Adam and Eve and they are hiding so sad. To have been able to walk with God and to mess that up felt heart breaking to me. And yet, the story actually is one of God's grace in the end. The punishment for eating the fruit is supposed to be death, but instead God only expels them from the garden and even gives them clothing.
God handles that first instance of incredibly bad decision making like like a good parent, with boundaries and compassion. No, you can't play in the garden anymore, but yes, I'll still be with you and I'll give you the tools you need to live outside of the garden.
Still, as child, when I read the story I wished desperately that Adam and Eve hadn't taken those actions and decisions. Think how great life would be if they had left the tree and its fruit alone! But as I got older I wondered, would it be that great? Isn't free will, the ability to make our own choices, a big part of a fulfilled life? How interesting would it be to just sit around a garden all day?
This story sums up human nature and the gifts and shadows of free will so well, doesn't it. God created us to be capable of so much good, but we're our own worst enemy. It goes back to that tree of good and evil, we are capable of both good and bad, and free will means that sometimes we don't make wise decisions, even when deep down we know better.
And yet, ironically, it is eating from the tree that truly allows us to live as the image of God. Without free will and that knowledge of good and bad we would be like the other animals or small children. Wisdom only comes with the ability to see more deeply.
This is the older of two creation stories, which I know gets a little confusing because it comes second in the Bible. It's called the second creation story, but it was actually written first, so perhaps the writers of Genesis 1 took this story into account when they were putting their story together. It's almost like Genesis 1 sees the knowledge of good and evil as a gift, as part of being created in the image of God, and this second story sees it as curse, or burden. It seems like a simpler world view.
But of course, Genesis 1 was written when the worst had happened, God's people had been defeated, conquered, exiled. They shouldn't have existed anymore but instead they became stronger in their faith. They knew God was with them no matter what, even when they made mistakes.
The story from today was written earlier while Israel still existed as an independent nation. They were struggling with leaders who didn't always follow God's law, with people who were tempted away by other gods. It's a different mindset completely from Genesis 1, there is more fear, less learning from mistakes.
How old were you when you started to realize that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes? And how old were you when you became okay with that? Me, I still struggling with it! But this story helps.
This is the original mess up, the original bad decision and yet without it there would be no story of God's relationship with creation, of God's relationship with humanity. God worked with that original mistake to take creation in a whole new direction, one that has led to love, art, science, music and so much more.
Yes, it has also led to hatred, war and oppression, but we still have that free will we grasped so long ago, we still have the ability to choose what we do, we still have God trying to support us and love us and give us the tools we need to make better decisions, decisions that will heal and not hurt.
We will always mess up and make mistakes, it's part of the human condition. Even when we try to make wise decisions, we'll still mess up sometimes because it's not black and white. The trick is letting God be part of the decision making and letting God be part of the healing all those times when we mess up.
Theologian Dennis Bratcher puts it so well, he says this story teaches us that “God can actually work with human beings to transform them into something more than they are as self-directed persons.”
On our own we're a bit of a mess, but with God's love and support we can be more like God originally created us to be. I think it's Paul who puts it best in Ephesians, God is the one “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
May we embrace all that it means to be human, created in love, struggling with good and bad, always learning and always growing as God's people.