Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Genesis 3 - Now the drama begins. There is a serpent in the garden who approaches the woman and asks her if God forbade them any of the fruits of the garden, and Eve tells him of the prohibition on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil along with the threatened penalty, which I must point out is a prohibition given to Adam – before Eve was even part of the picture! She has HEARD of the prohibition from Adam.
The serpent then tries to convince Eve that God is bluffing them, that they won’t die if they eat from this tree. Furthermore, the serpent offers, God is just trying to keep man from being “like a god,” for knowing good and evil is a trait pertaining to divinity.
The language of the serpent is important: “’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’” (3:4-5).
Eve considers all the good things the fruit seems to offer – its pleasing look (beauty), its good as a food (practical usefulness), and she appreciates the desirability of the knowledge it promises to give her (philosophical good). So she disobeys God, trusts in the word of the serpent and eats. Her husband, who is with her throughout, also eats. Then the text tells us “the eyes of both of them were opened” (3:7). They see that they are naked, but of course they always saw that – it’s just that now they feel differently about it.
A lot of the meaning of this story rests in understanding that it is all about “seeing” and less about really eating and learning. And, I think there is a good deal of irony in the dialogue that is not commented upon. First of all, when the serpent tells Eve that God doesn’t want them to eat the fruit because it will make them “like god we mustn’t forget that God has specifically created them to be “like us/God” (1:26). He wants them to be not only like gods but “like” the one and only God.
Similarly when the text says, “the eyes of both of them were opened”, it is being completely sarcastic – before they ate of the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened – it is partly the beauty of the fruit that draws Eve into disobedience. But after disobeying God, they are now really blinded to their true nature and to the nature of their relationships to each other and to God.
Another interesting thing to point out is that Eve is not drawn into disobedience by desiring anything bad; she convinces herself that what she really is seeking is “good.” The problem is that the first step she must take is a failure of trust in God, for he has already given her the good things she seeks here. And by failing to trust in Him, she will lose the very things she is seeking through her own independence from God.
Back to the story - Later, when God comes to talk to them, the shame they first experienced in relation to each other now comes between God and them. They are afraid, and God sees that things have changed between him and them. They have separated themselves from him and from the divine nature He planted in them.
When he confronts them they proceed to obfuscate and deceive. The man blames the woman; the woman blames the serpent. No one accepts responsibility for the act of disobedience (1:9-13). The consequences of this disobedience are both explicit and implicit. The consequences already displayed in the story are a dramatic alteration of the way reality is “seen” by man and woman; the rising up of shame and defensiveness--which divides us from each other and from God--and an inability or refusal to accept responsibility for the acts we chose.
To these consequences God adds others: the serpent is separated from the rest of the animal kingdom. There will be an on-going struggle between the serpent (what it represents) and the offspring (seed) of the woman. The offspring of Eve will struggle with the principle of evil as long as evil strikes at our heels or “dogs our steps” if you will. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (NRSV 1:15).
Here it is important to comment briefly on the promise Christians have always attached to these words, and here again the salience of the words is directly related to the translation one works from. Consider just the following:
Christians saw in these words a kind of ur-promise to mankind, or more specifically to Eve and through her to all mankind, that one of her line would eventually overcome the power of evil, and this seed of Eve was seen as a prophesy of Jesus. The word seed, therefore, took on significance – for many indeed the significance of the two other great images for Christ – God’s Word and God’s Light. All three of these images may take their origin from these stories of the creation. I must say of all the changes the newer translations have brought the worst change has been abandonment of the word “seed,” for offspring. So much biblical meaning is tied into the word seed that I just think it should be kept.
Anyway, to return to the story, woman will suffer in and through the having of offspring, yet she will be tied in an unequal yoke with man. She will yearn for that unity promised with man, but he will lord it over her instead, frustrating both. Man is burdened with the difficulty of eking out an existence from the soil, yet his labors will be filled with hardship and with a sense of futility, for “you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return” (1:19).
The two of them are helped by God to some garments to cover their nakedness and then banished from the garden. At the entrance to the garden God posts sentries armed with a flaming, “revolving” sword (1:24), so that they will not be able to come back in, eat the fruit of the tree of life and live forever. The further implicit consequences of all this are the stuff of the later stories, but these are the main ones: the peace of the garden is disrupted; the union and friendship with God is shattered. This is the fallen condition in which we live.
Now we must return to the problem alluded to before. What is the death Adam and Eve suffer as a result of their disobedience? Have they already suffered it? Does it hang over their heads for the future – when they return to the dirt or dust from which they came? Early in history, people who read this story tended to believe that the death threatened by God was an eventual bodily death, an allusion to their mortality which, readers believed, was never part of the intention of God when He created them. Some more modern theorists, seeing the problem presented by evolutionary theory in this kind of idea, posit that the mortality of man, which is, they admit, part of the natural condition of man’s existence was meant to be overcome supernaturally by God (by God giving us access to the tree of life).
An insight I had some years ago into this promise of supernatural intervention is that the cross of Christ might well be that supernatural tree and the body and blood of Christ offered us in the Eucharist might well be seen as the fruit of the Tree of Life. The irony of what “seems” to be death being “life” is then applied to BOTH baptism and Eucharist.
Still, the story says that God said that the death we were to suffer would come upon them the very day they eat the fruit. And that death seems to me to be a spiritual death. This is not a subtle, nuanced thing but a dramatic change in the way man sees, feels, thinks and responds to his God and to other men and women as well. They are separated from the closeness from God they were intended to enjoy and from the closeness promised between them as man and woman. Later we will see that the death includes also the turning of man to violence against his brother, and the deep ignorance we have in our “natural” fallen state of what our true nature is and what we are in God’s creative scheme.
The question of what this story has to tell us or teach us about the state of relations between men and women is one that has interested readers for centuries at least. For many Christians, the story has served to explain why women are to be subordinated to men, just as it explains or pretends to explain why women have pain in childbirth while other animals seem to deliver their young without undue pain. But the thing that interests me is that both circumstances are not part of God’s intention with respect to our lives, only the results of that deep sin which all mankind begins in “naturally”. As we enter into the redemption offered by God, however, the consequences of the fall begin to weaken and the lives we are called into begin to free us from the baneful effects of Adam’s disobedience.
The two creation stories together also stimulate in my mind another interesting idea. Could it be that “man” – male and female together – is for God what Eve is for Adam? Did God perhaps create us to be his companion, his other? Sometimes when I look at people and see how amazing they are – how sensitive they are, how profoundly they think and create, I feel in myself—sometimes only for a fleeting moment, but intensely—how God must love us, how lonely it must be to be God and how desirable man is. God seeks humanity, I believe, because we are “bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh.” He seeks to be wedded to us as Adam seeks Eve. Complimentarity, mutuality, love, admiration, dignity, and incredible goodness—all are at the heart of this infinitely huge and unfathomable creation we are part of. The miracle is that we can even sense it in part.
First Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (96/97 AD) Sections 26-30
Section 26 – Still discussing the importance of the Phoenix story, Clement says he finds the story meaningful because it helps us to see resurrection as a reasonable hope for “those who have served Him in holiness and in the confidence of a sound faith” (34). And he quotes from the Book of Job: “You will raise up this flesh of mine which has had all these trials to endure” (34).
Section 27 – “Seeing then that we have this hope, let us knit fast our souls to Him who is ever true to His word and righteous in His judgments. He who has forbidden us to use any deception can much less be a deceiver Himself; untruth is the only thing that is impossible to God” (34).
It is God’s Word that has brought together all that exists, so he is able to end it if he chooses.
Section 28 – Let us approach our Lord with awe. There is “nothing He does not see and hear” (34). He quotes psalm 139: “Whither shall I go, and where shall I hide from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I retire to the ends of the earth, your right hand is there; if I make my bed in the pit, there is your Spirit” (34)
Section 29 – “It follows that we must approach Him in holiness of spirit, lifting up pure and undefiled hands to Him in love for the gracious and compassionate Father who has chosen us to be His own” (34).
Section 30 – Since we are the “Holy One’s own special portion, let us omit no possible means of sanctification” (35). We must abandon slander, “lewd and unclean coupling”, drinking and rioting, lust and pride. “Let us clothe ourselves in a mutual tolerance of one another’s views, cultivating humility and self-restrain, avoiding all gossiping and backbiting, and earning our justification by deeds and not by words” (35).
And the “testimony to our good deeds is for others to give” (35), not for us to advertise.