Becoming Human

Passage: Genesis 3:1-24
Date: September 8, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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This morning, I’m going to start with an assumption, that most everyone here knows the story of Little Red Riding Hood, who travels through the forest to bring a basket of goodies to her grandmother, only to be waylaid by the Big Bad Wolf. The wolf eats the grandmother and Red Riding Hood, but the heroic lumberjack kills the wolf and frees grandmother and granddaughter from the wolf’s stomach.

So we might know the story, but do we know what it means? Interpretations run the gamut. Maybe it’s a story about being wary of strangers. Maybe it’s an allegory about sexual awakening. Maybe it’s a story about life, death, and rebirth. Maybe it’s all or none of those things. Or maybe it’s just a story.

Today’s scripture lesson, the third chapter of Genesis, is a story that has been subjected to a lot of different interpretations, some of which have influenced western civilization for centuries. This story has led to a wariness of snakes, a hesitation to accept an apple, and some really bad theology.

If this story is familiar to you, you might also know its favored interpretation, that this story explains the condition of original sin. The apostle Paul sowed the seeds for that interpretation in Romans, where he writes, “by the disobedience of the one [Adam] all were made sinners.” Most regrettably, Paul didn’t say much more than that, leaving us to figure out how that error was transmuted into sin.

But that particular interpretation really took root with our favorite 4th century church father, Augustine. Basically, he said that since Adam and Eve gave into temptation, and ate the one thing God told them not to eat, they were tainted by sin and so were all of their offspring, which is everybody. In his writing The City of God, Augustine says, “From the bad use of free will, there originated the whole train of evil, which conveys the human race from its depraved origins, as from a corrupt root....”

So then, for the apostle Paul and for Augustine and for those who agree with this interpretation of the story, the only way we can be redeemed, saved, washed of our taint of the original sin, is through the power and sacrifice of Christ, who in Romans is given the nickname of “the new Adam.”

This interpretation is problematic in what it says about us and in what it says about God. For us, it says we are doomed to a life of unworthiness. For God, it says that God must hate us, be disappointed in us. Maybe God even regrets having made us in the first place.

Now while I can get behind the idea that Jesus was needed to heal the world of sin, I really don’t agree with this idea of original sin. Last week it was such a joy when Raine and Michael brought up baby P.K., all of five weeks old, and introduced him to the congregation, that sweet baby with his dad’s face and dark-haired mohawk. I got to hold that baby and I’ll tell you, I had no sense that I was holding a sinner. I was holding a beloved child of God, new, innocent. And while there may be times when parents who have endured their umpteenth sleepless night might argue the point… you know what I mean.

There is another way to look at the story – we might call it the “crime and punishment” interpretation. The crime was eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Or was the crime having that knowledge? God’s judgment and the ensuing punishment come by way of conversation. “Why are you hiding? What did you do?” And then a sorry excuse of a confession, with some Biblically proportioned finger pointing. “I was naked…ashamed…she made me do it…the snake made me do it.” 

God had told them that if they ate that piece of fruit – which, by the way, is not an apple – that on that day they would die. But they don’t die. They do get kicked out of Paradise. But God makes them better clothes. So it seems that while there is a crime, sort of, instigated by one of God’s creatures, and there is a punishment, sort of, but not the one promised, that maybe this story is really about something else.

One scholar raises some good questions about this interpretation.“Isn’t this a harsh punishment for one small mistake… for breaking one rule? Is God really that strict? Why did God create a tree that He didn’t want anyone to eat from? Was God setting Adam and Eve up to disobey so that He could punish them? Why is the story told in such a way as to make it seem that it was all the woman’s fault?…if the forbidden tree was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, does that imply that Adam and his mate had no knowledge of good and evil before they ate of it? And why were they punished if they had no sense of good and evil before they ate of it?” (Kushner, 18-19)

I was very happy to have someone recommend to me Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book How Good Do We Have to Be? Happier still I am about Kushner’s take on this story.

I went into this sermon with the assumption that this story in Genesis is trying to answer the question of why humans experience pain – the pain of back-breaking labor, the pain of childbirth, the pain of separation from God.

Then I read Kushner, who wonders if this story is really about how we became human. As he writes, “I would like to suggest another way of reading the story, one that I think makes better sense of the events, leaves fewer loose ends, and paints a more positive picture of our first ancestors and by implication of us as well. We don’t have to feel condemned by the story, inevitably fated to sin and lose God’s love as Adam and Eve did. We can read it as an inspiring, even liberating story, a story of what a wonderful, complicated, painful, and rewarding thing it is to be a human being. I would like to suggest that the story of the Garden of Eden is a tale, not of Paradise Lost but of Paradise Outgrown, not of Original Sin but of the Birth of Conscience…. It is the biblical account of evolution, seeing that difference between human beings and animals in moral rather than in anthropological terms.” (Kushner, p. 21-22)

Now I love our dog, Max. He excels at sitting on my lap and protecting us from squirrels and crows. Every morning I tell him he is a good dog. But in any ethical or moral sense, Max is not good. He is not selfless. He is not motivated by love or altruism. He is motivated by food and warmth and being in our little Neel version of a wolf pack.

Animals don’t have sense of morality, as much as Disney would like us to believe. But human beings do have a sense of morality. Most of us are raised to learn what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. And having that knowledge can be a source of joy or of suffering.

What if God did not want Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because God alone knew how painful that could be – to know good and to know evil?

Knowing disappointment, knowing loss and grief, knowing betrayal: those are painful things, sometimes poignantly so, sometimes bitterly so. But part of being human is also knowing love, and joy, and beauty, and grace.

I like to think that Rabbi Kushner is on the right track, that this story in Genesis is a story about moving from an identity of being an animal to becoming a human being. But remember it is a story told within the framework of knowing God. This is a story about becoming human and being in relationship with God. It is a story about what God desires for the human being, what concerns God has about the human being, and how God will interact with the human being.

Yes, God provides a painful consequence for eating that danged piece of fruit. But God does not kill Adam and Eve. God sends them out into the world, to make it on their own, to continue to till the earth, to be in relationship with each other, to start a family, to suffer and to rejoice, to live and to die, but all with God. God sends them out of Eden, but God does not abandon them.

So what does this mean for you and me? What would it mean if we stopped thinking of ourselves as tainted by original sin and saw ourselves as beloved and susceptible to failures of so many sorts? It might mean that we would start being a little more gentle with ourselves and with each other when we mess up.

Because we are going to mess up. We are going to eat forbidden fruit. We are going to hide from authority figures in our lives because we know we’ve done something that will disappoint them. We are going to hurt someone else, intentionally or not. We are going to fail – we might fail a test, we might get fired from a job, we might have our marriage fall apart. None of that means we are worthless. None of that means we do not also get to have bountiful feasts, and mentors, and friends, and successes and joy.

And that’s because of this other thing that’s present in this story in Genesis 3, though it’s never named. Grace. Yes, grace. Grace to sew clothes for the ashamed and naked Adam and Eve. Grace to allow them to continue to live. Grace to be with them outside of the garden.

A friend of a friend on Facebook posted this thing and it has stayed with me, maybe because I – like you and everyone – need to be reminded of these words. And if you don’t know who Lizzo is, look her up and listen to her music. Here’s what this friend of a friend posted:

“I keep seeing people say, ‘what did we ever do to deserve Lizzo’ , ‘we were never worthy of Mr. Rogers’, or, ‘Dogs are too good for us.’Listen: Lizzo would be the first person to tell you that you deserve her love and positivity just by being you. Mr. Rogers would hear that and pat the spot next to him on a cozy bench and tell you how special you are, how wonderful, and how you are worthy of all the love and goodness this world has to offer. If a dog could talk, they would tell you you are the goodest person, and how much they love loving you….You are good, you are deserving, you are worthy. That's all that Lizzo, Mr. Rogers, and dogs have been trying to teach us all along.” (Facebook, Solo Detreux)

That’s grace. That’s what followed Adam and Eve out of Eden, and that’s what’s been passed on to all their descendants. And it is very good.

Recommended books:

Genesis from Interpretation commentary series, by Walter Brueggemann

Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Wilda C. Gafney

Hebrew Myths: Stories of Cosmic Forces, Deities, Angels, Demons, Monsters, Giants and Heroes – Interpreted in the Light of Modern Anthropology and Mythology by Robert Graves and Raphael Patai

How Good Do We Have to Be: A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness by Harold S. Kushner

Adam, Eve and the Serpent by Elaine Pagels