Back to Eden

Passage: Genesis 2:4b-25
Date: September 1, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Mary Oliver will get us started this morning in her poem, “When Did It Happen?”

When did it happen?
“It was a long time ago.”

Where did it happen?
“It was far away.”

No, tell. Where did it happen?
“In my heart.”

What is your heart doing right now?

(From Felicity, Penguin Books, 2015)

All of us have stories that we tell again and again. Some are stories about great things, celebrations and successes. Some are stories of sad or even tragic things, loss and death. Some stories are funny, some are mysterious or mystical, but these stories that we tell again and again have nestled in our hearts and become part of us.

The Bible is full of stories, stories that happened a long time ago in far-away lands. Maybe some of these stories are in our hearts, the stories of hope or grace, the stories of vengeance or justice. As people of faith we are called to remember these stories because they lay the foundation of our faith and our living.

So we’re going to help each other remember these stories this year, focusing on one book of the Bible each month, and trying to hit some of the highlights. This month we’re looking at Genesis, and this morning, at the creation.

Did you know there are actually two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis? The more familiar one is the first, in which God makes something each day, calls it good, makes man and woman in God’s image, and on the seventh day rests.

We’re looking at the other creation story this morning. It’s the older of the two stories, and the order of creation is different. First the earth and sky, then the human, then plants, rivers, animals, and finally (saving the best for last?) the woman.

Why two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis? There are creation stories throughout the Bible, in Genesis, in the psalms, at the beginning of John’s gospel. If you read the first four books of the Bible carefully, you’ll notice that in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers stories often show up more than once with some of the details changed.

Modern scholars believe that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible, the Jewish Torah, as was once believed, but that four different authors wrote the stories. As scholar Richard Friedman writes, “These first books of the Bible had as extraordinary a manner of composition as any book on earth. Imagine assigning four different people to write a book on the same subject, then taking their four different versions and cutting them up and combining them into one long, continuous account, then claiming that the account was all by one person. Then imagine giving the book to detectives and leaving them to figure out (1) that the book was not by one person, (2) that it was by four, (3) who the four were, and (4) who combined them.” (Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, pp.53-54)

The first creation account, in Genesis 1, was likely written after the Babylonian exile by the author called the Priestly writer, or P, who was very concerned with the order of things, and with proper worship and the proper observance of the law.

The second account of the creation, today’s scripture, comes from the writer known as the Jahwist, or J, who wrote this account, based on oral tradition, some time before Israel went into exile. This author calls God by name – a name Jews consider too sacred to be uttered, so in respect for that tradition I will say that the Jahwist, the J writer, uses the name the Lord God.

For this writer, the Lord God is a little bit fallible. He – and for this writer, God is a “he” – makes mistakes. He regrets things. He is more personable – he comes to visit Adam and Eve in the garden, he talks to them. He talks to himself a bit too.

Perhaps the person or persons who put the book of Genesis together decided that both creation accounts had merit. So here we are, with two. Why-ever they are both here, both attempt to do the same thing – to tell the story of how we got here and what God’s role was in our getting here. Most of the stories in Genesis try to explain something about origins – why women have pain when giving birth; why there is murder; why God puts a rainbow in the sky; why we speak different languages.

This story of the creation tells why we are here, but from the point of view of someone who lived close to the land. Before God does anything else, God creates land – dirt, to be specific. And unlike the other creation story, the first human being is not made in God’s image, but out of a lump of clay, dirt, dust. Those are pretty humble origins for us, but as Barbara Brown Taylor says, “God sifts divinity into that dust.” (BBT, When God Is Silent, p. 4)

I would think for this author dirt was a precious thing. From dirt came plants that would feed both animal and human. More than that, I think this author J is trying to say that we are deeply connected to the dirt – you might say that earth is our mother, that from which we are born. One of the reasons that God created us is to do work – to till the land, to grow the food that will feed us.

For this writer, someone close to the earth, paradise resembled a lush place. There was water; plants were green. The root of the Hebrew word “Eden” means abundance or plenty. For a farmer who likely endured his fair share of drought, God’s perfect place would be where there was no possibility of drought and death, only verdant life.

Now I will be honest with you: I do not think that either of these creation stories is factually, historically true. But I think they are right about God’s role in creating life. So maybe instead of debating or discussing the stories’ historical realness, we can talk about in what ways these stories are true and what that means for us, how we are to understand ourselves in terms of the rest of the creation and in terms of our relationship with God.

Remember, for this writer the Lord God is fallible – the Lord God does not make a perfect, flawless creation that will never experience trouble. In fact – I don’t know if you heard it or not – a note of discord is introduced right here in the text. The Lord God magnanimously says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden,” and no sooner are those words out of the Lord God’s mouth but he adds, “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.” The first prohibition and the first threat of death. And let’s be honest – it is the Lord God who introduces temptation in the garden. You know how it is: as soon as someone tells you can’t do something, that is the one thing you want to do.

A friend of mine says, “This text is about the nature of relationships…: between human beings, between humans and animals, and between humans and God. Over the course of the story, all these relationships are ruptured and there are consequences to this rupturing.” (Nanette Sawyer, Lectio Jubilate paper, 2011.) We’ll get to that part of the story next week.

I think this story reminds us that we are all connected. The genetic difference between individual humans today is minuscule – about 0.1%, on average ( That’s because however you view the origins of the human being, we really do share common ancestors, that first man and that first woman. We’re connected by blood. And we’re connected by dependence on the earth and on animals to live, whether we’re omnivores or teetotaling vegans. All living things and the places where they live – earth, water, sky – share an origin in the divine, or so some of us believe.

The stories we tell again and again remind us that we are connected. When I was growing up, it was the story of where people were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot. I was in college when the Challenger exploded. Most of us here this morning remember where we were and what we were doing when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers of New York City.

It’s hard to imagine anything more different from Eden than September 11, 2001. The J writer, a humble man of the soil whose best theology and science imagined life from breath, could never dream of a city with buildings that scraped the sky, with more people in one place than existed on the entire planet of his lifetime. He would never have seen a bird and imagined an airplane, or steel, or explosives. Perhaps he would understand hate and the desire to injure or kill.

But we tell those stories of our common experience of that event – who was the first person we called; how many degrees of separation between us and someone who was killed that day. If we visited Ground Zero; if we’ve been to the National 9/11 Museum. Maybe we went to a candlelight vigil; maybe we made a point of reaching out to our Muslim neighbors to let them know that we understood those terrorists did not represent the beauty of their religion.

We tell those stories to reconnect, to remember that we are bound not only by shared history but by human response to those things that happen to us. On that day, we all became New Yorkers. On that day, there was no greater hero than the firefighter running up the stairs as the towers came down.

It’s a long way from the Garden of Eden to Ground Zero. But the threads that began in that mythical garden – threads of human connection, threads of divine creativity, threads of the persistence of life – traveled those millennia and were present on that bright, awful Tuesday and are present even today. We are still connected to one another. We are still dependent on the earth and so care for the earth. We are still hardwired toward life.

Maybe it is as Frederick Buechner said. “Generally speaking, the threads that bind us to each other are no less real for being mostly invisible, no less important and precious.In the long run, each of our stories turns out to be the story of us all…” (The Longing for Home)