Tuesday, February 28, 2017

With Eyes Open Wide -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1A (Genesis)


Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” 
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So 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. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

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                I recently watched an old Star Trek episode. The title of the episode is “TheApple.” In this episode, the Enterprise crew encounters a planet that seems Edenic, with a people who seem happy but culturally stagnant. These people live to serve what they believe is their god, though we discover that it is a really powerful computer that both provides for the people and protects its domain from outsiders. I won’t go into the details, but the episode raises questions about innocence and progress. Ultimately, Kirk, McCoy, and Spock, play the role of the serpent, opening the eyes of the innocent. They do this by destroying Vol, which allows the people of Vaal (Ba'al?) to begin the road to “progress.”  In reviewing their experience, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy ponder what has happened. Kirk makes reference to the story of Adam and Eve being driven out of Paradise, to which Spock replied:
"Precisely, Captain. And, in a manner of speaking, we have given the people of Vaal "the apple" - the knowledge of good and evil if you will - as a result of which they too have been driven out of paradise."

As we read the story of Eden in the twenty-first century, do we long for the innocence and sense of dependence on God that marks life in the Garden? Or are we grateful that the first couple ate the forbidden fruit and gained knowledge of good and evil? Is having our eyes opened to things God had chosen not to reveal a good thing? In other words, would you agree with McCoy, that knowledge and freedom is better than innocence and protection? Or is Spock correct, that despite their lack of progress, was it their place to intervene, especially since the people seemed happy with their lot? In other words, had they played the role of the Tempter?    


                This first Sunday of Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect on one of our primal stories. On a Sunday in which the Gospel reading records the temptations of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11), we read of another moment of temptation that set in motion a different kind of world than perhaps God intended. While Jesus said no to the tempter, the primal couple chose a different option. They throw caution to the wind and taste the fruit.  The question is—was it worth it?   

                The story of the Fall is familiar to many, both inside and outside the church. We may each read it differently, but we know the story. Some mourn the eating of the fruit. Others celebrate it. As I read the story this time, what caught my eye (no pun intended) are the two statements about eyes being opened.  In the first instance, the serpent, who is craftiest creature in the garden (in other words the serpent must have been placed there by God). The serpent engages the woman in conversation about the primal couple’s diet. What is allowed? The woman says that everything in the garden is open to be eaten, except the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent asks why this prohibition? The woman gives what she believes is the proper answer, but the serpent raises questions. Will you really die, or will your eyes be opened? By asking the question, the serpent raises doubts in the woman’s mind about God’s goodness. Is God hiding something? It’s not that she’s hungry. It’s not that the other fruit in the garden tastes bad. It was just one tree.

 There is a second time that eyes opened is mentioned. It’s the last verse of this passage. It states: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” What does the author of Genesis mean by this? What is it about their nakedness that gets their attention? Why do they decide to make some clothing out of leaves to cover their nakedness? It must be more than realizing they weren’t wearing any clothes. I have those kinds of dreams—you go out in public and forget to put on your pants. It’s very embarrassing. Fortunately, to this point, it’s only occurred in my dreams. What is the relationship of nakedness and the knowledge of good and evil (especially the knowledge of evil)?

                It needs to be noted that while traditional readings of the passage connect the serpent with Satan, that’s not presumed by the text. The serpent is simply the “craftiest” of God’s creatures. Terence Fretheim notes the metaphorical nature of the serpent, who represents in the story “anything in God’s good creation that could present options to human beings, the choice of which can seduce them away from God.” He also notes that it’s the tree that is the temptation, while the serpent “facilitates the options the tree presents” [“Genesis,” NIB, 1:360]. In other words, God placed temptation in the Garden, along with the prohibition. Perhaps the reason for this is that God wanted to know that they trusted God’s wisdom.

The conversation here is intriguing, because the woman seems to exaggerate God’s prohibition and the consequences of eating the fruit. She says that it involves death, while the serpent raises questions as to whether that is true. But more importantly, the serpent invites the woman to question God’s wisdom. God must be hiding something. God doesn’t want you to know the whole story. In other words, God is both a narcissist and untrustworthy. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a prohibition.  In the end the fruit and its promise is too enticing to say no, so she decides to eat.

Growing up we all feel like there are unnecessary rules that keep us from enjoying the benefits of adulthood. Adults tell their children that they’re not ready to experience things that adults enjoy. Curiosity, at the very least, leads children to push the boundaries. Surely the adults are not trustworthy. 

                So, what does it mean to have one’s eyes opened? What knowledge has God held back in the interests of creation? Surely God wants them to know good, so what is it about evil that seems enticing? The serpent places the question in terms of “being like God.” But what does that mean? Could it be that choosing to eat of this tree is to choose a shortcut to wisdom that short circuits our ability to discern what is good, and it leads to the wrong choices. It’s important to remember that once they are placed outside the garden, all manner of bad things occur, starting with the murder of Abel, by his brother Cain. Fretheim suggests that in choosing this path, of going against God’s command, they had arrogated to themselves choices that didn’t take into consideration God’s broader perspective on things. As Fretheim points out “only God has a perspective that can view the created order as a whole; human beings (even with their new knowledge) will never gain that kind of breadth for they make their decisions from within the creation” (NIB, 1:361).  Perhaps this is why we have a tendency to embrace tribalism and nationalism. We can’t see the forest for the trees, and so we fail to see the world as it truly is, and as God sees it. So, perhaps what happens is that even as eyes are opened, they don’t see fully. It’s as Paul suggested in 1Corinthians 13:2 – we only see through a mirror dimly.

                Maybe God does no best, but it’s too late. Their eyes are opened. They have been enlightened, and they can no longer stay in the garden. The reading for the first Sunday of Lent concludes with their recognition of their nakedness. The story continues, of course. God wanders in and they hide. Eventually God will expel them from the garden lest they gain access to the “tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22-23). It’s good to remember where the story leads, because it would seem that the only death possible from eating the forbidden fruit will be their inability to continue eating the fruit of the tree of life. The question for us is whether the tradeoff was worth it.

                To get back to the text, I want to close by considering what is meant by them having their eyes opened to their nakedness. What is this nakedness that requires covering? Why do they hide from God? (vs. 8-10). Could it be that once they ate the fruit they saw things differently? As Fretheim puts it, “having decided to be on their own, they see the world entirely through their own eyes. They now operate totally out of their own resources” [NIB 1:361]. In other words, in their embrace of the forbidden fruit, they have displaced God. They’ve arrogated for themselves the right to decide what is good and what is bad.  What they discover, after eating the fruit isn’t knowledge but shame.  In the West, we may have found a way around the honor/shame ethic, but it’s ancient concept. What they discovered, it appears is that the forbidden fruit didn’t give them super powers, it just uncovered their nakedness. As the story unfolds, having this new “knowledge” wasn’t all that great after all. All kinds of problems emerged, including murder, rape, incest, and much more. Is it wise to abandon God?

                Of course, that’s not the end of the story. The first couple may have been expelled, but God isn’t finished with them. At the end of the biblical story, in Revelation, the people of God regain access to the tree of life, which brings healing to the nations (Rev. 22:1-5).


Picture attribution: Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Adam and Eve, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54653 [retrieved February 27, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abeppu/3816721814/.

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