The title of the sermon series – “A Brief History of Time” – is borrowed from a best-selling book by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, in about 1990. For many years that book was what he was most famous for; in the last few it may have been that he was Sheldon Cooper’s hero, and appeared on a couple episodes of “Big Bang Theory.” The book is about the origins of our solar system and the physics of how the universe works. Now, I took science and math courses in high school and college. I think I understand the book up to about page 30.
But rather than looking at Big Bangs, black holes, and quarks, our “brief history” is examining the relationship between God and humanity – how it started, what happened, what’s going on now, what its future might be. Last week, in the sermon entitled “God Created Them,” we looked at the relationship’s beginning: God created humanity and gave it a job to do – not a job with a man’s half and a woman’s half, or a job that included being suspicious of one another, but a job for men and women to do together: multiply, fill the earth, and watch over it and its inhabitants.
We didn’t mention it at the time, but there were a couple conditions, a couple specific rules, attached to this charge, as explained in Genesis 2: 16 and 17. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’” Today’s Old Testament lesson continues the story. It tells us what happened next, after God created humanity and gave it its job to do and the conditions.
Take a trip with me down memory lane, to the days of high school; that’s a little longer journey for some of us than others. And specifically, to the times we had to take tests or exams in high school. I’ll bet I’m not the only person here who was often rescued in those situations, by the type of question called “multiple choice.” Had I been asked to “fill in the blank” or “write a short paragraph,” the day often would have been lost, but with multiple choice the answer was there on the page, if only I could select the right letter – a, b, c, or d. And if one didn’t recognize the answer, why there was always the possibility of “process of elimination”: cross out the options known to be incorrect, until the one left must be the right one. Get the stuff intended to interfere or misdirect out of the way, toward identifying the right response.
Perhaps more than any other story in the Bible, the one we’ve just heard, from Genesis 3, sometimes called “The Fall,” has had interpretations and embellishments added to it by commentaries and teachers, until it becomes hard to know what is the Bible story itself, and what is the stuff that’s been added on. So to get at an understanding of what the Bible story itself really says, we’re going to try the “process of elimination” approach today, to get rid of some of the extra stuff. What is Genesis 3 all about? Give me a moment to get out my props:
Answer A: It’s about apples. Eve picked an apple, and gave one to Adam, and eating this apple somehow made them sinful and got them kicked out of the Garden of Eden. “The apple of destruction.” “Adam’s apple.” Is it. . . about apples.
Well, first of all, Genesis 3 doesn’t say what kind of fruit it was, but just the “fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden” – no specifics. Given that apples don’t grow in the Middle East, where this presumably would have taken place, it almost certainly wasn’t an apple. Those who have wished to say what kind of fruit it was usually guess a “pomegranate,” given the climate and agriculture.
But the type of fruit isn’t really as important as what the fruit represents, and there’s a couple different directions we can go to look at that. First, the tree it comes from is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Well, that kind of fruit doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Why wouldn’t God want us to know good and evil, to be able to distinguish between them? Being that this is an ancient story, there has been a lot of speculation about that question – and no certain answers.
But one of the explanations that has a lot of fans has to do with who decides what’s good and evil. The act of taking the fruit, this theory says, is a statement by the man and woman that they’re qualified to know, by themselves, what’s good and what’s evil, that they can make those decisions, rather than leaving them to God. By ordering the people away from the tree, this theory says, God is saying that the determination of what’s right and what’s wrong is something for God to say, and to teach the people, not something for people to decide for themselves.
And in that case it’s not the fruit itself, the non-apple, that’s bad or causes the problem, but the act of disobedience in taking it, and the act of pride that says, “I’m good enough to take the fruit, and be just like God.” It’s not an apple that causes the problem, or a pomegranate, or any other particular fruit or tree, but an act of disobedience, a knowledge that God said “Don’t touch this tree,” but touching it anyway.
So, the story’s not really about apples. What is Genesis 3 all about?
Answer B: It’s about Satan. Everything was great, was paradise, was perfect, until Satan came along and messed everything up. Yet if we look at Genesis 3 closely, we see that the word “Satan” never appears. In fact, not only does “Satan” not appear, but neither do the terms “devil,” “demon,” “fallen angel,” or any of the other words sometimes associated with Satan. All Genesis 3 says is: “the serpent.” A serpent came along and started talking to the woman.
Again, there are lots of theories about what the serpent might represent. It is sometimes taken as a symbol of Satan; but sometimes as a symbol of human curiosity. It’s noted that the serpent is a common mythological symbol, in some religions associated with prosperity and wisdom and knowledge, in others with the line between life and death, probably because of its poison and the fact that it can shed its skin and so look dead and alive at the same time. Sometimes it’s considered a symbol of chaos, and therefore the opposite of God’s creative process, which is more than anything else an ordering of what had been chaos. And sometimes it’s believed that it was chosen just because it was an animal thought to be particularly clever. A scholar named Westermann believes the serpent is purposefully not explained because the storyteller wanted to make the point that the origin of evil is a mystery, that we don’t know why evil exists and bad things happen.
The serpent could mean any of these things; all we know is that the story says “a serpent.” One piece of evidence that it doesn’t mean Satan, besides the fact that it doesn’t say so, is the fact that God goes on to curse the serpent, and if this had only been Satan masquerading as a serpent, it doesn’t seem very fair of God to punish the serpent just because Satan happened to dress up like him. In fact, most of all, we notice that God doesn’t lecture, curse, or punish anyone called “Satan.” God reproaches a serpent, and reproaches a woman and a man for their disobedience, for their having done what they had been told not to do. God holds them responsible, not any Satan figure.
What is Genesis 3 all about?
Answer C: It’s about sex. Now, this answer’s kind of scary. Or more accurately, the fact that this answer’s so widespread is kind of scary. Because Genesis 3 says nothing, absolutely nothing, about sex. At one point, it says the word “naked,” and I guess theologians for several centuries couldn’t handle the word “naked,” so somehow associated nakedness with sex and with God’s displeasure. But God made the man and woman naked! If anything, God’s unhappy to find them clothed – that’s the indication that something’s wrong, not the fact that they were naked. And . . . God is the one who first introduced the subject of sex, back in chapter one: be fruitful, multiply; fill the earth. So God can’t very well be against sex either. No, more likely is the idea that nakedness is introduced here because it indicates how the man and woman felt after being disobedient – they felt exposed, they felt there was nowhere to hide. So they tried to hide themselves with garments. From God. Good luck. This story has nothing to do with sex.
So, what’s Genesis 3 all about?
Answer D: It’s about “original sin.” Original sin is the idea that the first man and woman sinned, and that that sin is somehow passed along, and inherited by all their descendants, by all subsequent men and women, so that they’re all guilty because of what the first man and woman did. It doesn’t matter what kind of life you lead; you’re doomed from the start because of what happened back on Day One.
That . . . isn’t in Genesis 3. It doesn’t say in any of God’s speeches that God is going to hold all humanity forever accountable for the mistake of those two first people. And, in fact, it says elsewhere in the Bible, most clearly in Ezekiel, that God does not believe in this kind of group guilt for an ancestor’s sin. Ezekiel 18 says, as do parts of Jeremiah: If a person is upright, and their actions law-abiding and upright, someone like this will live, declares the Lord God. The one who has sinned is the one who must die – a child is not to bear their parent’s guilt, nor a parent their child’s guilt. The upright will be credited with their uprightness, and the wicked with their wickedness. I shall judge each by what that person does.
So God doesn’t hold descendants guilty for what their ancestors did, not even their ancestors at the beginning of time. This story is not about inherited original sin.
Answer E: It’s about women being more guilty than men. Or more gullible, or more easily deceived, or weaker, or whatever. Somehow the idea has sprung up that because the woman ate the fruit first, she’s more to blame than the man. Well, let’s look at their two situations: the woman was told not to eat that fruit. The man was told not to eat that fruit. The woman was approached by someone else who told her to go ahead and eat the fruit. The man was approached by someone else who told him to go ahead and eat the fruit. The woman ate the fruit, even though God had said not to. The man ate the fruit, even though God had said not to. The woman hid when she heard God coming. The man hid when he heard God coming. The woman said, “It’s not my fault; that other creature you made tempted me.” The man said, “It’s not my fault; that other creature you made tempted me.”
Do you see a pattern here? The woman didn’t do anything the man didn’t do. The fact that she ate first doesn’t mean anything; would you be less guilty than your neighbor just because you committed your crime on Thursday instead of Wednesday? This story is not about woman’s extra guilt. Remember Ezekiel: I shall judge each by what that person has done. And these two did the same thing.
Answer F: It’s about God being an angry God, eager to punish those who sin. We could discuss this image of God for hours, but today I’m just going to point out two things and offer an opinion. Thing #1: Notice that most of what God says to serpent, man, and woman is not a commandment, or an expression of what God wants to happen, but is instead just descriptive, just pointing out what’s going to happen now, the consequences. God says to the woman, “now your husband will rule over you,” not “it is my will that your husband will rule over you.” In fact, Genesis 1 suggests that God’s intent was equality—same creation, same assignments—not domination by one or the other. It’s only when the people have gone against what God wants that the notion of one ruling over the other comes into existence. God says to the man. “Now look what you did. Now the land will be hard to get food from; you will have to work hard,” not, “it is my will that your life be hard.” God is predicting the future here, describing what will happen as a consequence of their chosen actions, not necessarily handing out punishments, saying what God wants to happen. These aren’t commandments, but descriptions.
Thing #2: We find that same idea elsewhere in the Bible. In Romans 1, for example, Paul describes “ungodly” or disobedient, people this way: This is the New Jerusalem Bible version:
“God abandoned the ungodly,” he writes, “to their cravings and practices and thoughts and behavior.” God abandoned them – not God sentenced them to twenty years hard labor. That which they chose, they must live with, with all its automatic consequences.
The usual image associated with this word “abandoned” is God turning away, God’s back being turned and allowing the choices and the consequences to take their course. For human beings are creatures with choices. The consequences of the first man and first woman’s actions: hard work, and a sinful hierarchy in which man dominates woman because he’s bigger and stronger. So Opinion: this story is not about a wrathful God, eager to punish.
A through F. That’s a lot of stuff out of the way, isn’t it? The story’s not about apples or Satan or sex, or original sin or women’s extra guilt or an angry God. What’s left?
What’s left is the discovery, by the writer of Genesis 3, of this truth: All people disobey God; all people sin. From the very start, from humanity’s origin, there has been a violation of what’s been known to be right. Even if there’s just one rule, like “stay away from the tree in the middle,” the rules get broken – human beings don’t stick to what they’re supposed to do. God creates them, God gives them choices, and God watches them choose wrong. Westermann words it this way: “It is part of human existence that a person is fallible.”
Unlike some other mythologies, there’s no belief in a golden age or golden race here, no length of time when people were ever perfect and God was obeyed. At the end of Genesis chapter 2 creation is complete; at the beginning of Genesis chapter 3 human beings sin. Right away. They always did. They always do. They always will. It’s part of the history of time.
That’s what Genesis 3 is all about: all human beings sin.
So Part I of our “Brief History of Time” series was creation. Part II is sin, and its consequences.
Fortunately, the brief history isn’t over yet. Next week, we turn to the subject of how God responded to humanity’s inevitable sinfulness. Yes, we all
sin . . . but the story doesn’t end here.
Let’s pray: God, we thank you for the opportunity you have given us to choose what is right, to follow your will; we confess that we all, sometimes, choose wrong; and we thank you that you have not let the story end there, have not turned your back on us. Amen.