Genesis 3: 8-15
Over the Easter season we were deprived of readings from the Old Testament. So today it is my pleasure to share with you some thoughts on our reading from Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve.
Genesis contains what we might call origin stories. Stories which address questions like “who are we?”, “what is our background?” or “where do we come from?”
Origin stories are important. I think of my own sense of where I come from. I start with a sense of place, a house, an atmosphere. And into this come people, parents, aunts, uncles, family friends - and voices, ways of saying things, and stories, often repeated, and with them attitudes, beliefs, and there are also songs, sung on long journeys, swimming in cold seas, lots of games, and celebrations, but also shadow with the light, tension and sadness. All these colour a picture which describes my origins, the place where my story began.
You will have your own sense of beginning. For some the place and the people are far away, physically out of reach, or long gone. But remembering, reliving those times is part of our humanity. And, they come, I hope somewhere, with a sense of being loved.
Origin stories are told about groups as well as individuals. And for the people of Israel, stories as vessels of their identity are ever present with them. They too are rooted in a sense of place, of the promised land, the land Abraham was first called to and where he took his family and made his home, and then, generations later, the same promised land, to which the Israelites travelled out of Egypt, across the desert. And people too: as well as Abraham and Moses, there are the kings and prophets, all with their stories which the Israelites carry with them and give voice to their sense of who they are.
But the stories at the start of Genesis – the first eleven chapters - come before Abraham’s call to the promised land. They contain a kind of pre-history: stories from before real history begins. These early stories are woven together quite late in the development of the Hebrew scriptures, at the time when the Israelites are returning from another period of exile in Babylon. They include older material, some of which resonates with stories told in other Middle Eastern cultures, but the authors, or editors, turn them to their own purpose.
And the question for them is, is there a story about our origins which comes before the land? Does it start there, or is there something even earlier, in a sense, more important, more foundational? And the answer I believe is their relationship, as a group, with their God.
This relationship is the theme, I suggest, which runs through the whole of Genesis and beyond. On one side is God, who creates them, who looks after them, protects them, guides them and who is faithful to them, whatever they do. And on the other is the people, sometimes as individuals, sometimes the group, who, from the very beginning, try to be faithful and then fail, over and over again, and yet are always given another chance, always offered forgiveness and reconciliation.
Adam and Eve, as the imaginary first humans, fit this pattern. God provides for their every need, in a beautiful garden. But there are rules, and the penalty for breaking them is death. So of course they break them, but God is merciful and does not enact the penalty, instead sending them on their way, to meet again.
So much for the context and bigger theme. But this is also a living story, like all these great Genesis stories. It is not there to be studied and parsed, but to be told aloud, with an audience, holding them, teasing them, making them laugh, making them cry.
The great commentator on Genesis, Walter Bruegemann is passionate about recovering this sense of living story-telling. I have quoted him before but it is worth another hearing:
“Story” he writes “is not interested in “deep structures”, in “abiding truths”, nor in “exact proofs”. It does not trade in “eternal realities”. So we must avoid all the solidity which appeals to myth and all the proof which rests on history. Story offers nothing that is absolutely certain…. It lives, rather by the scandal of concreteness, by the freedom of the imagination, and by the passion of hearing.”
So I imagine that the story we read in Genesis is one of a thousand versions, each told by a parent or aunt or uncle, coloured by their creativity and adapted to the reactions of their audience. So many living versions of this story, of which we have just one written down, preserved, like an ancient insect caught in amber.
And in the version we have there are those echoes of the storyteller’s wit and poise. I will mention just two.
Firstly, the passage we read today, where the guilty rulebreakers are found out, andGod wants to know who was responsible, and the man protests, “It wasn’t me!” and points to the woman, blaming her, and she also cries out, “It wasn’t me!” and points to the poor snake, who, even though he can talk, has no one else to blame. I love the way so many of these ancient Hebrew stories make gentle fun out of the stupid attempts of their protagonists to justify or cover up their misdeeds.
And then there is a beautiful twist right at the end. Because Adam and Eve now feel shame at their nakedness, which they didn’t before, God makes them clothes to wear, before he banishes them from the garden. I imagine God as a tailor. “Hold still!” he says, out of the corner of his mouth, for he is holding pins between his lips. And he carefully pins the pieces of animal skin, across the shoulder and under the arm, his gentle breath on them, as they wait like nervous children.
So they and their descendants the Jews, carry within these stories the sense that they are loved by God. And we share that precious inheritance, carried to fulfilment in Christ.
Richard Young (Rector)