Text: Genesis 2:4b-25
Speaker: Joel Miller
The book of Genesis is appropriately named. It’s about beginnings. It reaches all the way back to the origins of, as it says, the heavens and the earth. It goes on to tell the origin story of a small near eastern tribe through its patriarchs and matriarchs. They are a people who will be, for much of their existence, on the losing side of history - slaves, exiles, living under foreign rule in their own land. And that’s really something, because, as has been repeated many times, “history is written by the victors.” Usually. Remarkably, a sizeable portion of humanity has now adopted Genesis, this minority report, as their own origin story. The fact that we’re even talking about it today and that most of us have a printed copy – or ten – in our home is remarkable indeed.
It’s hard to overstate the power of origin stories. For example, consider the founding story of our nation many of us were taught in school. The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom, which they found as they established Plymouth Colony. We fought a revolution against the tyranny of a king and founded what is now the world’s longest living democracy. Our values are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Now consider the turmoil, still churning, caused by the 1619 Project, a project of mostly Black academics, which suggested that a more truthful telling of our nation’s origins would begin in the year 1619, the year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Colony. That was the year the ship the White Lion delivered between 20 to 30 Africans to Virginia Colony, setting off 240 years of enslaved labor that built the economic engine of this nation that keeps roaring to this day.
In a world that is very difficult to understand, origin stories give us a place to stand. They tell us who we are. They tell us what’s important. They tell us who is important. Even if we’re entirely unconscious of their effect on us, they are the architecture we walk through and think within every day.
So it ought to come as no surprise at all that when an origin story gets challenged people will fight with all their might to hold onto it. If you have to relinquish or rethink your origin story, you’ve got a big project ahead of you. It’s all up for grabs. It can be downright terrifying and threatening. What do you stand on? Who and what are important? How do you fit into this chaotic clashing of wills and desires and claims and needs that is life?
What if, gasp, the minority report were to become the primary way we view our collective story?
All of this is at stake in Genesis. And you may have sensed this importance. Even if you haven’t been around the church much, this story is so baked into our culture that it’s pretty likely you’ve had to form some of our own thoughts about it - especially if your parents go off and name you Eve. And if this was presented to you as your origin story and you’ve since questioned or rejected parts of it, maybe you have wondered whether you can really genuinely be part of the story it tells, the whole tradition it sets into motion. Like, am I real Christian if I don’t think this actually, historically, happened? Or if I reject the gender hierarchy that this story seems to present. Or if I don’t believe in talking snakes? Or whatever it may be.
We’re going to be working our way through the Bible from now till next summer, but let me say up front that I have very little interest in defending the Bible, per se. Or trying to convince anyone that it’s better than it sounds, although today is going to be some of that. What I am interested in, and what I hope we can be open to, is taking a fresh look at these stories, and the overarching story.
Sometimes that might involve cutting through some of the layers of sediment that have accumulated on top of them over the centuries. Sometimes it might involve adding some pressure to that sediment to form a stone that could be part of a solid foundation. Sometimes it might just be poking around in the mud. Occasionally there could be a bit of tectonic activity that shifts the ground we stand on. Sometimes it might involve something other than a geological metaphor.
The Narrative Lectionary reading for today is Genesis chapter 2. To go stick with geology for a little longer, scholars have concluded, fairly conclusively, that this Garden of Eden story, which continues into chapter 3 and beyond with the eating of the fruit and its consequences, is an older strata of story, placed on top of the newer strata of Genesis 1, another telling of creation. That’s fairly rare in nature, but sometimes there is a disturbance where the older layer underneath gets flipped to rest on the newer layer. That’s what happened in the formation of the Bible as we have it. In the view of the editors and the Spirit that inspired them, this ancient story of the Garden of Eden can’t be properly understood apart from a newer story that now serves as its foundation.
So there’s something to note right away. If you have a very old story, you might need a newer story to tell first to give the older story context and meaning in your time.
That newer story of Genesis 1, very broadly speaking, includes these elements:
The world was created through the spoken word, through Divine speech. “Let there be light,” and so on. What does that say about the power of language as a creative act?
The physical world of earth and water and creatures is good. Let that sink deep into your psyche. Material reality and life in the body is fundamentally good.
Humanity, in all its gendered expressions, is created in the image of God, which means every single person you encounter is a reflection of the Divine, or, simply, has inherent worth and dignity. Again, the implications of this little/not little detail are vast for interpersonal relationships and our legal code and politics if we actually believed that to be truthful in some deep way.
And, to add one more piece from the newer story, Sabbath – rest and enjoyment of life for its own sake – is an integral aspect of the cycle of creative activity. And again, think about how this might shape and reshape how we live if we were to actually, together, take this story to heart as an origins story, the ground on which we all stand.
So that’s the setup. And now we come to Genesis 2, which is both an older story and fused together as part of the same overarching story that Genesis 1 sets in motion.
And it gives us some additional things to consider:
Now the act of creation also involves what appears to be playing in the dirt. The Lord God forms a solitary human from the dust of the ground, and breathes into it the breath of life. Which, is hard to picture, and we can get into trouble pretty quickly when we start to imagine God as some kind of big person doing person-like things, but it’s unavoidable in this story. God plays in the dirt and gives mouth to mouth resuscitation, or just suscitation since it’s a first, to the earth-person. This is Adam.
And while Hebrew does default to male pronouns, there’s a thread of commentary that holds that the best way to think about this first person is androgynous, with the split between biological male and female not occurring until later in the story.
God also plants a garden, and a garden is this interesting mix of wild nature and intentional cultivation. It’s not wilderness, and it’s not purely a cultural product, it’s a meeting of the two. It has a life of its own, shaped by the willfulness of other life. Gardens don’t stay gardens without a gardener, without someone making decisions about what is allowed to grow and what gets pulled up, and that’s a big responsibility.
So right away we have the introduction of this dynamic relationship of life forms. And it appears that the human has quite a bit of power over the garden but their task, as it says in 2:15, is to serve the garden. That’s really the meaning of the word that sometimes gets translated “till.” So there’s not a clear hierarchy here at all between ground and person.
So we have a human and we have a garden, and we have a relationship of interdependency, giving and receiving. And it goes on. After the repeated affirmation of goodness throughout Genesis 1, we have the first statement that something is not good. It’s not good for the human to be alone. So what’s a god to do? God decides to make a partner. And who is the partner? Who’s going to fulfill this need? God goes back to playing in the dirt and breathing into it, and forms…the animals.
This is great, but it just doesn’t quite cut it in the partner department. Genesis has no problem with God learning right along with creation, about what works and what doesn’t work so well. Later in the flood story God will be sorry to have made humans altogether, and then, after the flood which was one possible solution to this problem, promising to never do that again. Maybe if for no other reason than give the theologians something to mull over for the next few thousand years.
So now we have the making of another partner. God puts the earth-person to sleep, and takes out a rib, maybe not coincidentally the part of their body that protects their heart such that there is some inherent condition of vulnerability involved in this new relationship, and we have the differentiation of man and woman.
And you could say, based solely on this story, that the man came first and the woman was created out of the man, thus establishing some kind of foundational ordering of power and authority. It’s definitely odd that you’d have a story of a woman coming out of a man since it is verifiably, the reverse of how we all got here. But, strange as it is, the logic of the superior coming first followed by the inferior doesn’t really hold up in the story itself. Under that reasoning, it would be the ground, which came first, which is superior from Adam who was formed out of it. And Genesis 1 has always been interpreted as humanity being the crowning achievement of creation since they came last. So there’s plenty of space within the story to flip patriarchy on its head with the woman as the crowning achievement of creation. Better yet, in my humble opinion, to read this origin story as being free altogether of any form of dominance and inherent superiority. Despite the layers and layers of interpretation piled on top of it, it appears to be a playful story about interdependence and partnership, starring the ground, a garden, animals, man and woman, and the Creator, who is willing to learn about partnership right along with creation.
I did leave out one key part of the story and want to end with this because it’s so important for the rest of the story. It’s that part about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which Adam and Eve are commanded to not eat, lest they become like God – from which they do eat after which they become aware of their nakedness, and the ground hardens under their feet, and they no longer have access to the garden, and the woman has increased pains in childbirth, and the man does dominate the woman.
This is where it might be especially helpful to start with a newer story to shed light on this older story. Because there was a time, on the evolutionary timeline, however long ago and however long it took, when we became differentiated from the animals, became self-aware, which is both wonderful and a hard burden to bear, and we grew these big brains to hold all this knowledge of good and evil, and its because of these big heads to contain our big brains that makes it so hard and sometimes life threatening for our mothers to push us out into this world, and we even call ourselves homo sapiens, clever humans that means, and we’re so clever that we have this god-like ability to create powerful things like tools and cities and laptops and atomic bombs and even artificial intelligence and it’s not that all of this is evil or bad but it’s of central concern that we’re these hairless apes running around with iphones and AK 47s and we might, just might, forget that it’s a good creation, and we are its servants, and we and everyone bear the divine image, and we most thrive when we are partners and not dominators of one another.
Microsoft Word says that was a run on sentence. Exactly. That’s the run-on story from Genesis 3 onward. What are we going to do with this knowledge that we have, with this fruit that can’t be uneaten? That’s a pretty open ended question and a pretty good question to live with. And when faced with big important questions it helps to have a place to stand, even if it is just some hardened plates of earth floating on magma.
It’s good to have an origin story that helps orient us to the task at hand. And it’s good to feel the Divine breath that keeps breathing us into life, wondrous and wayward creatures that we are.