March 13, 2011

Then the Eyes of Both Were Opened

Passage: Genesis 3:6-7

6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked; we generally speak of awareness and knowledge as good things.  The story of Genesis’ third chapter indicates that this is not always the case.  There is a vast difference between opening your eyes and knowing you are at home in your bedroom and opening your eyes in a prison cell.

1. Many Christians find some of the details of the early chapters of Genesis challenging to embrace.  Talking snakes, for example, make us wonder if we are reading history.  These details along with other indicators have lead many theologians to read the first 11 chapters of Genesis as parables.  There is one part of me that is not particularly troubled by the unusual elements of the story—there are lots of things I experience that I have no explanation for (take falling in love for example).  Yet there is this other part of me that appreciates the idea of reading these stories as parables.

No one dismisses the parables of Jesus just because the parables don't describe historical events. "A certain man had two sons", Jesus begins his best-seller about the prodigal. Jesus isn't referring to an actual historical figure, Mr. X on 42nd Street, Mr. X being a man known to everyone in Nazareth who happens to have two sons. The parable, rather, is a story that Jesus makes up on the spot. Even though Jesus makes up this story it is nonetheless utterly true; true, that is, in that it tells us the truth of God concerning God, concerning us, concerning our world.

The stories of Genesis are written following the Exodus of Israel from the slavery of Egypt; indeed Genesis is the first in what are known as the five books of Moses; the Pentateuch.  In other words the stories that tell us the truth about God as our creator; the stories that frame for us the truth of our existence; these stories become known to Israel after Israel knows God as Saviour; after they know God as the one who frees them from slavery.  They are first redeemed; then they come to know the truth about God.

I have often said to you that it is the cross of Jesus Christ that reveals to us the problem that needs remedy in us humans.  In other words the cure—the cross of Christ—reveals the disease—namely, our sin.  Indeed our sin blinds us to the fact of our sinnership—unless God shows this to us we will never discover it on our own.  This logic of God’s loving initiative to redeem humanity functions in the same way in the Exodus—in God’s saving action of Israel the cure reveals the reality of human existence.

2.  A reading of any newspaper offers daily litany that something is wrong with people. What's wrong with you?  What's wrong with me?  What's wrong with the world?  What are the stories our world tells in answer to these questions?

Dr. Jesse Bering in his book The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life offers one such answer. On human origins Bering said: “In reality, we simply come to exist as individuals, just as beads of condensation form on a glass of water or spores of mould appear on old bread.”  Bering believes that biology has a significant role “in the evolution and development of human behaviour and decision making. One person may indeed be freer than another to be “good” instead of “evil,” given their inherited individual differences (such as in temperament and general intelligence) in combination with their prior experiences. In reality, we’re only as free as our genes are pliable in the slosh of our developmental milieus.”

In answer to the question what’s wrong, Genesis 3 tells us something the world would never guess.  The issue is not genetic makeup; what is wrong is that the world slanders the goodness of God.

The old story of Genesis is a timeless story about the history of every man and every woman, for "Adam" is Hebrew for "everyman" and "Eve" for "mother of all the living".  According to the old story God has placed us in a garden abounding in trees: "every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food".  In the garden are two extraordinary trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The tree of life symbolizes the fact that the origin of life and the conditions of life and the blessings of life rest in God; the tree of life symbolizes this and reminds us of it.  As John Calvin says so finely, "God intended that as often as we tasted the fruit of the tree of life we should remember from whom we received our life, in order that we might acknowledge that we live not by our own power but by the kindness of God."

In addition to the tree of life there stands the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  "Good and evil" does not mean "good plus evil"; as if God only told humans about good and withheld information about evil.  "Good-and-evil" (virtually one word) is a semitism, a Hebrew expression meaning "everything, the sum total of human possibilities, everything that we can imagine."  To know, in Hebrew is to have intimate acquaintance with, to experience.  In forbidding us to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil God is warning us against intimate acquaintance with the sum total of everything that we can imagine.  He is warning us against thinking we must experience or even may experience whatever we can dream up.  In other words, God has set a limit to human self-extension; God has set a limit to our extending ourselves into anything at all that the mind and heart can invent.

Why has God set such a limit?  Why does he urge us to become intimately acquainted with everything that is both nourishing and delightful, both essential to life and culturally rich -- and then in the same breath warn us against becoming intimately acquainted with "good and evil"?  He sets such a limit just because he loves us; he sets this limit for our blessing.  This side of the limit is blessing; the other side is curse.  This side of the limit there is the blessing of curative medicines the other side of the limit there is cocaine, curse.  This side of the limit there is the one-flesh union of marriage, blessing; the other side there is the curse of promiscuity and perversion with their degradation and disease.  God, who is good in himself, wants only what is good for us.

Good?  We don't think that God is good when he tells us, "Every tree except the one tree"; we think he's arbitrary.  After all, he didn't consult us when he decided where the boundary line was to be; he simply told us; arbitrary.

The root human problem is that we disparage the goodness of God.  The root human problem is that we don't want life from God's hand under the conditions God sets for our blessing.  We prefer an alternative; we want to be the author and judge and master of our own life; indeed, we have each turned to our own way.

3.  The process by which we typically arrive at self-willed curse in place of God-willed blessing is subtle.  The serpent is the personification of this subtlety.  The serpent asks with seeming innocence, "Did God say?  Did God really say you weren't to eat of that one tree?"  The serpent hasn't exactly lied: at no point does it say, "God never said...".  While the serpent never exactly lies, neither does it ever exactly tell the truth.  The serpent (subtlety personified) smuggles in the assumption -- without ever saying so explicitly -- that God's word, God's command is subject to our assessment.

The subtlety takes the form of a question that appears innocent but in fact is a doubt-producing question with a hidden agenda.  What's more, the doubt-producing question is an exaggeration: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'"  Any tree?  There's the exaggeration!  God has forbidden us to eat of one tree, one tree only!

Eve (mother of the living) decides to correct the serpent.  Surely there's no harm in correcting an exaggeration!  But for her there is, for as soon as she attempts to correct the serpent she's been drawn into the serpent's territory; now she's dialoguing with a subtlety to which she's not equal.  When first she heard, "Did God say?", the only thing for her to do was to ignore the proffered subtlety.  Correcting it looks harmless but is ultimately fatal, for now she's been drawn into the tempter's world.

In essence subtlety asks is God really good?  If you seek to correct subtlety thinking you can show God to be good you have already bought the assumption that God’s goodness is to be doubted.

Isn't it the case that as soon as you and I begin to reason with sin we are undone?  As soon as we begin to reason with temptation we're finished!  Temptation can only be repudiated, never reasoned with, for the longer we reason with it the longer we entertain it; and the longer we entertain it the faster our reasoning becomes rationalization—and rationalization, everyone knows, is perfectly sound reasoning in the service of an unacceptable end.

As soon as Eve attempts to correct the serpent's exaggeration she exaggerates herself!  "God has told us not to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree; we aren't even to touch the tree, lest we die."  God had never said they weren't to touch it.  In trying to undo the serpent's distortion of the truth she distorts the truth herself.  Of course.  To dialogue with a subtlety pertaining to temptation is invariably to be seduced by it.   It is good to note how insistent Jesus is in repudiating temptation—he does not argue with the tempter, he clings to the truth of God revealed in scripture.

4.  Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with the result that “the eyes of both were opened ".  What were their eyes opened to?  They had thought that by defying God they were going to be enlightened.  By defying him, however, they have moved to a new level of experience; their eyes are opened -- but now they are anything but enlightened.  They now know "good and evil".  I am firmly convinced that you do not have to experience something to know it is bad for you; it is a lie that you can only know the goodness of good in contrast to having experience the wretchedness of bad.  Too late, they now know too why it was pronounced "off-limits": it's accursed.

Look how they respond to their opened eyes—“they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”  Immediately they feel guilt—there is shame and an attempt at cover up.  Humans feel guilty because they are—according to this story.  But something else has happened; a rift between them has materialized.  Not only a rift between them and God—as the story goes on to say that they hid from God—but a rift between them has occurred.  What they previously could trust to the other now no longer.

5. On the Sunday following Jesus crucifixion two dejected disciples were on the way from Jerusalem to Emmaus deep in conversation about the things that happened to Jesus.   Jesus joined them in their walk and talk.  It was at supper when Jesus took bread and broke it and gave it to them that the text tells us “then their eyes were opened and they recognized him”

It was in the bright light of Jesus raised from the dead that the disciples came to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death.  As Paul put it (today’s Epistle lesson) juxtaposing Adam and Jesus: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”

Peter put it this way “he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). To "bear sin" is a Hebrew expression meaning to be answerable for sin and to endure its penalty.  Peter knew well what the Torah said—“anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut 21:23).  Jesus wasn't accursed on account of his sin; he was accursed on account of humankind's sin.  That is, while he was not a transgressor himself, he was "numbered among the transgressors".  While not a sinner himself, he identified himself so thoroughly with sinners as to receive himself the Father's just judgement on them.

Last Wednesday the church marked the beginning of Lent; we have made the turn with Jesus towards Jerusalem; we are coming again to the contemplation of what happened that awful day.  May our eyes be opened so that we recognize him.