A Sermon for the First Sunday of the Narrative Lectionary
Genesis 2:4-7b, 15-15; 3:1-8
I’m very excited to begin our journey through the Narrative Lectionary this week, which will take us on a sweep through much of the Bible between now and Pentecost Sunday next May. I’m excited about this because I love to tell this story—the most important story ever told.
Like any good story, it’s the kind that invites us to find ourselves within it. The difference, however, is that this story is actually THE story—the one that matters the most; the story in which all of our stories find their true meaning.
And like any good story, it begins at the beginning—this one from the VERY beginning. We’re only going to spend three weeks in Genesis on our rapid tour through the Bible, but this is a foundational story for the rest of the story. Like any good novel, the first few chapters set up the narrative, introduce the main characters, and provide the engine for the rest of the plot.
When it comes to Genesis, however, there has been a raging debate about whether it belongs on the fiction or non-fiction shelf. There are those who view Genesis 1 as a myth with no connection whatsoever to science, while others view it like a textbook that describes the origins of the universe. I would argue that neither of these views actually does justice to the biblical text—a subject I don’t have time to process today but will during our “Epic of Eden” class beginning in late September.
For now, I want to use Old Testament scholar John Walton’s view of the Genesis story as the difference between viewing Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” and a picture from the Hubble telescope. They are both true in the sense that they describe an actual thing—the night sky. Van Gogh, however, isn’t trying to describe it scientifically—that’s the Hubble telescope’s job. Van Gogh instead painted an artistic rendering of the reality he saw. It is a picture made to tell a story in ways beyond systematic description—it makes you feel something. The Hubble photo can do that as well, of course, but it is used for a particular purpose.
There is, in other words, a way to tell a story that transcends our post-Enlightenment categories of true vs false, history vs myth. The writers of Genesis would not have recognized those categories. They lived in a storied where people arranged their lives around a particular story set in a particular time and place. It is not pure history or science, nor is it pure myth and fiction. It is the story they found themselves in—it is the story of two central characters: God and humanity. It is the story we find ourselves in.
To read the story well, however, we have to begin by reading it with new eyes or, more properly, very old ones. I often tell this to my Bible study classes—that my goal is to get you to read the biblical story first as an ancient person—be it a 6th century BC Israelite or a mid-50s AD Roman Christian. How did they understand it? What did the story mean to them? Only when we begin there can we really begin to know what it might be saying to us—only when we first crawl into the story as it was first told can we hear it with fresh ears.
As I said earlier, the beginning of a good story introduces the central characters and then begins to define the relationship between them—a relationship that features both closeness and conflict. The beginning of Genesis introduces us to God right out of the chute—“In the beginning, when God created…” Here in the first chapter, we read an orderly account of creation, but an account where things are more defined by their function than their materiality. That’s an important distinction for what follows.
Notice that when God begins the creative process, there is already some “stuff” hanging around—the earth was a “formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Formless, dark, and watery. An ancient Israelite would have realized those as signs of chaos, or “non-order.” When God begins creating over the next six days, the emphasis of the story is on how God begins to put the chaos in order—he separates light from darkness, sea from land; he gives plants and animals a particular function. On the sixth day, he creates humans and gives them a particular function as well—to bear his image and have dominion over the things God had made.
Ancient people would have recognized this as a temple building narrative—God prepares things and puts them in order, making a sacred space for him to inhabit. That’s actually what happens on the seventh day—God “rested,” not because he was tired. That “rest” means that God’s glory “rested” on his creation, just like it would “rest” in the tabernacle and temple later in the story. And just like a temple, God appoints priests to mediate and tend the sacred space.
That’s what the “image of God” means. It’s not merely a status, but a vocation. John Wesley understood this and said that there are three aspects to creation in God’s image: There is the “political” image of God—meaning humans are tasked with being the rulers and caretakers of God’s creation; there is the “natural” image of God where humans are given reason, a will, and freedom to use them—just as God has reason, a will, and freedom; and then there is the “moral” image in which humans are to reflect the character of God in righteousness and justice.
But while humans are made in the image of God, the text also makes it clear that they are not God. Genesis 2 is a snapshot of two of the humans God made and their relationship to God and one another. Here again we’re confronted with the modern dichotomy of myth vs history—are Adam and Eve real people and the ones from whom all people descend, or are they simply mythical figures who play out an ancient fable? Well, what if those aren’t the only two choices? We so often look at Genesis 2 as a sequel to Genesis 1, but the evidence suggests it was written by a different author to tell the story from a different angle. Genesis 1 seems to suggest that God created all kinds of people (let us make “them”—which can refer to more than two). If that’s the case, perhaps Adam and Eve are simply two of the people whom God created and with whom God chose to enter into a representative relationship. Some of the story points to this, if you’re reading it from an ancient viewpoint.
For example, Adam is made from “dust.” In our bifurcated reading of the text, we assume that means that God created one man out of the dust, while the rest of us are born in the natural way through the womb. But, biblically speaking, every human is made out of dust, not just Adam. Ecclesiastes 3:20, for example, says that “all come from dust and to dust all return.” Psalm 103:14 says, “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” This is what we are reminded of every Ash Wednesday – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When Genesis says that Adam was made from “dust” it is a way of saying that he is mortal, just like all of us. In other words, we are not gods. The specter of death was present even in creation—a sign that things were not quite yet complete. We like to think of creation as pristine—a finished product that humans destroyed. The text, however, seems to indicate that creation was and still is a work in progress. Remember that even after six days there were still signs of non-order and chaos in the world—darkness, the sea, animals wth tooth and claw. God appoints the humans to take charge of it and work with God to bring it to completion. They are to partner together with each other and with God—that’s the whole idea of the creation of Eve from a “rib”—male and female are to work side by side with God in this mission
The story then moves into a Garden—another temple image. Ancient temples were usually surrounded by gardens, and Solomon’s temple was adorned with garden images inside as well. If the earth is sacred space, according to Genesis 1, then the Garden is the center, the “holy of holies” of that space in Genesis 2. God places two humans in this sacred space to act as high priests, dwelling in his divine presence. In that Garden, there are two trees—The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Often when we read this story, we blow by these trees, except for when Adam and Eve start munching from the one they were supposed to leave alone. For ancient people, however, these trees were key to the story. The trees represent two gifts that God alone can give to the humans he created: immortality, or life without death, represented by the Tree of Life, and wisdom represented by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The text makes it clear that God is the sole source of life and wisdom, but in his love and creativity, God makes both life and wisdom available to these humans because of their relationship to him.
Living in the presence of God in the Garden meant access to the Tree of Life. The other Tree, however, was forbidden to the humans because wisdom comes only from God—it has to be nurtured through a relationship with God.
But that’s when the snake showed up on the scene. Notice that the text doesn’t identify him as Satan. Indeed, there’s no indication of that anywhere in the Old Testament. The snake symbolized a lot of things in the ancient world, but generally speaking it was seen as a “chaos” creature—another piece of evidence that creation was not yet complete. “Chaos” creatures were known for their deception, misdirection, and troublemaking—for promoting chaos, in other words. The snake approaches the couple (not just Eve, Adam was with her, says the text), and begins his misdirection. “Did God say you couldn’t eat from any of the trees in the Garden?” The conversation that ensues is a distortion of God’s original command and intent. But it’s when the snake says that eating from the Tree of Wisdom will make them “be like God” that they are intrigued. It’s an offer to shortcut God’s creative process, to position themselves as the source of wisdom, and assert their independence.
One of the questions I’m often asked about this story goes something like this: The humans were seeking wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil. Isn’t that a good thing? Well, wisdom is good—but it must be acquired through a process of instruction and modeling from someone who is actually wise! God had created the humans to be his image, his priests, his rulers of his creation, but they would have to learn how to do that from the only one who truly knew how—God himself. They would need to learn how to do that through a relationship with him. The snake, however, invited them to take God’s role on for themselves rather than joining God in the process of bringing order to his creation. The Tree wasn’t just an arbitrary test of their obedience, it was an invitation to let God be God and learn from him what it means to be truly human, made in his image for his creation.
Instead, they chose the shortcut, put their own wisdom at the center, and we have been dealing with disorder ever since. “Sin” is the word we use for this centering of our own wisdom, desire, and shortcut-taking over and against the wisdom of God. When the humans rejected the wisdom of God for their own wisdom by grabbing from the Tree of Wisdom, they lost their place in the center of God’s sacred space and lost access to the Tree of Life. Death is the inevitable result. They forfeited the role they were created for and damaged their relationship with God. They tried to bring order to God’s creation using their own wisdom, and they were not ready to do so. They did not complete the training, became reckless….and now things are worse.
But their actions didn’t just affect them—they affected all of humanity. Adam and Eve failed in their priestly role; they failed to trust God and lost access to the sacred space, the inner sanctuary, where there is real life. Theologians call this brokenness “original sin” and while the story doesn’t tell us precisely how the disease of sin is transmitted from generation to generation, we know that it is. Augustine believed it was passed through our physical birth like a degenerative gene. Irenaeus, on the other hand, believed that sin and disorder were released into the world like a contagion that infects every human. This is more like the apostle Paul’s definition of sin as a malevolent force that reverses the image of God—instead of having dominion, we are enslaved to sin and death.
We all live outside the Garden now, with no access to the Tree of Life. We are stuck dealing with the wisdom and folly of humanity, which confronts us every day with its failure. We seek order, but we are more used to disorder and non-order in a creation groaning for completion and redemption.
In chapter 4 of Genesis, one of Adam and Eve’s sons kills the other in jealousy. In chapter 6, God lets the watery chaos loose to deal with humanity run amok, but then saves a family to start over again. In chapter 11, the new humanity builds a tower trying to once again prove that they are the center of the universe, inviting the divine to dwell with them on their own terms. We’ve been dealing with sin ever since—and today, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, brings that into even clearer focus.
However it happened, Genesis reminds us that this is the story we find ourselves in. But it is not the end of the story. Indeed, the rest of the Bible is the story of how God will bring order to his creation, how he will overcome the brokenness of sin, and how he will defeat death.
That story will involve a human family whom God works at training in wisdom in faithfulness. That story will involve another human who comes from this family, but one who is also not subject to the temptation to be “like God” for he already is. That story will involve another Tree—a tree that looks like death itself but is actually a Tree of Life made available to all once again. That story will involve a Garden where there is an empty tomb and where death can no longer reign. And that story will involve a vision of creation completed—a creation where there is no more chaos, no more sin, and no more death.
How do we enter into that new creation? We begin to remember that life and wisdom begin with a relationship with God. We are all infected with the disease of sin—we are not who we were made to be. But our story isn’t finished yet. God still wants to write it in us.
Walton, John. The Lost World of Adam and Eve. IVP Books, 2015