By Aian Macpherson
As we look at Genesis three we need to remember the trees, ‘all kinds of trees– trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food’, and the ‘tree of life’ from chapter 2. Also the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ and the command ‘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.’
The tree of life symbolises the promise of continuing life – the possibility of a special blessing and this worldly eternal life.
What the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is becomes clearer as we consider chapter three.
Chapter 3 begins with the crafty snake. The snake is not evil but ambiguous; it represents anything in God’s good creation that offers options to human beings. It is the human response to those possibilities and not the snake that is the stories focus and ours.
It is the woman the snake addresses with a question: ‘Did God really say, “You (plural, the man is included with her) must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The snake raises a question about human freedom.
‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, (correct) but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden (well one of them), and you must not touch it, or you will die.”’ God did not say ‘don’t touch it’. Did the man add this when he passed on the command? We don’t know. But it does show some anxiety about death, a fear that exaggerates the rule.
Responding at the point of exaggeration the snake rightly says the humans won’t die from touching the tree or for that matter if they also eat from the tree of life. Physical death is not inevitable. ‘And’ suggests the snake ‘you will be like gods’. The snake tells the truth but also raises a question. Why has God forbidden this thing? Maybe God’s motives are not so pure? Here is the key question raised by the presence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the possibility offered by the snake: Can you trust God?
The tree and the command together represent a natural limit to being a creature – not being God. Tree and command together are a version of the first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me.” To break this one command, in a context of so much freedom is to say ‘I know what is in my best interest, I am my own god.’ The fruit does not contain knowledge in its self but raise the question of who knows what is good for me? Do I trust God to have my best interests at heart?
The woman does not reply, she looks and sees that ‘the fruit of the tree was ‘good for food and pleasing to the eye’ – it becomes to her just like all the other trees in the garden. Also it is ‘desirable for gaining wisdom’ she thinks! Wisdom means discerning what is for the best. Can you gain discernment by doing the one thing that breaks the creation to creator relationship? She took some, touching it and not dead yet! The additional rule becomes a reason to go on. She ate it and gave some to her husband, who was with her as the silent partner throughout and who has done nothing to intervene. They act at this point as one flesh.
Four immediate consequences (consequences continue to build to chapter ten – if this is a fall it is a long slow one). 1. Their eyes are opened, as the snake promised. 2. They know they are naked. 3. They make rudimentary loincloths to hide from each other. 4. They hide from God.
Having taken the place of God to decide what is in their own best interest, they realise they cannot do so from God’s perspective. They are now small gods looking out at the world from isolated thrones. They do not even share a human perspective any longer, they are not one flesh now but each is the centre of their own universe. They see each other’s nakedness, and shame comes between them, they patch the problem with leaves but it only covers the symptom. The act of covering up reveals more than it hides.
In contrast the creator chooses to relate up close to creation, walking in human form in the garden, (as usual?) God enters into life with humans even as they fall out with God. God calls to the man.
Saying that he is naked gives the game away. ‘How do you know that?’ asks God.
The man blames everyone else, ‘it was the woman, the one you put here, it is your fault, her fault.’ Have they gained wisdom, the good use of knowledge? No! The man cannot handle his new knowledge well. We continue to seek knowledge and not wisdom to use it. Like Mr Gatling who invented the Gatling gun believing that it was a weapon so terrible that war would stop! We continue shifting the blame. The man is alienated from God and his wife.
Then God questions the woman, she blames the snake.
Then God passes judgment – will it be vindication or condemnation?
There is in Gods judgments a ‘moral order’ – poetically just consequence. Primarily the effects are all relational. Humans have already broken trust with God and hidden from God. Now every conceivable relationship is disrupted: human to human, human to earth, human to animal, even relationship to self is disrupted by shame and the loss common identity.
For tempting the woman to eat, the snake is cursed to crawl and eat the dust. The reference to the snakes head and the human heel show a conflict that is impossible to resolve within creation.
The woman is not cursed, but work (women often worked on the fields) will become toil. Labour pain will increase but the woman’s ‘desire for her husband’ will remain despite the trauma of child bearing that results from sexual intimacy.
That the man ‘will rule over you’ is a seventh reason (looking back to last week) to understand that the man and woman were created as equal partners. The theologian Trible, says that the dominance of the male ‘is neither a divine right nor a male prerogative. Her subordination is neither a divine decree nor female destiny.’ The writer of Genesis clearly understood patriarchy to be a consequence of sin.
The man, who tried to blame the woman and God, receives the most extensive sentence. Because he ate what God had said not to eat, growing food will become harder. The man is not cursed but the ground from which he was formed is cursed because of him. The same word ‘toil’ is used for the man and woman: the human task of cultivation, cherishing, understanding and celebrating creation is unchanged but vocation becomes laborious. Humans were always mortal, but the tree of life was there for the taking, instead we ‘return to the ground’ ‘for dust you are and to dust you will return.’
Verse 20 ‘The earthman named his wife Eve (living), because she would become the mother of all the living’ might seem an odd intrusion to the tale. But it is a sign of hope; the man trusts (on the basis of God’s judgment) that he and his wife will go on, there will be children. Vocation though burdensome is affirmed.
Then God does the most beautiful thing. In the moment human sin is exposed, when everything is shame and vulnerability, when they are shifting blame and judging each other, and the best cover for all this they can make is a leaf, God makes them clothes. God makes sturdy, enduring, coverings in an act of profound grace. An Old Testament professor once said that if you read Genesis 1-3 carefully enough you could accurately guess the rest of the story. For me this one act of God is a good reason to agree!
Then God drives them from the garden. Does that discomfort you? After all God does say they are, as the snake said they would be, like gods now. Why banish them from the tree of life?
Life can be good, harmonious and fulfilling, or it can be shameful, isolated, and painful. Death can also be more than physical. Death is the broken trust between creator and creation, the cursed ground, the toil, the fractured relationships, the domination of male over female.
In the first Harry Potter book, Lord Voldermort, the villain, keeps his life going by killing a unicorn. Harry is told that when you kill something so pure to extend your own life it becomes a cursed life, a half-life. That I think is an illustration of what we see here. If the man and woman aren’t stopped they may add disaster to disaster, taking from the tree of life and living on, they will have no escape; death is at least an end to toil. That is the way of things this side of Eden. ‘If you lose your life you will find it’. Death of self comes before new life in Christ. Genesis 3 shows us ahead of time what God does for us through Jesus. He clothes us, covers our nakedness, sin, shame, broken relationships, blaming, and judging. In Jesus we are remade and as new creations we have again a future that contains the tree of life.
All Photos courtesy of Pixels unless otherwise stated