Genesis 2:4-7, 15-17; 3:1-8

September 13, 2020
Joanna Harader

*You can view the video of this sermon on YouTube.

To be honest, while I do love the Bible, I also struggle with parts of it. And this story is one of those parts. There are many reasons. On the surface it reads like God is a petty dictator making arbitrary rules just to exert control. And it seems that Eve is punished—as women often are—for taking initiative and daring to claim some power for herself. And if eating the tree truly would cause harm to the people, then why did God put it there to begin with?

In my wrestling with this text this week, I came across some helpful thoughts from Eugene Roop in the Believers Church Bible commentary. He asserts that thinking of this story from Genesis 3 as “the Fall” is an idea that has been perpetuated by various people over the years, but it is not a biblical reality. He writes that “Neither the Gospels nor the Old Testament refer to Genesis 3 as the only story about when life became permanently distorted. . . . Transgression is not inevitable, but people just keep doing it.”[1]

This framing helps me. Genesis 2-3 is one among many stories in the Bible that seeks to explain why. Why isn’t life perfect? Why is there conflict between humans and the rest of nature? Why does it hurt so much to give birth? Why is it so hard to get food to grow from the ground? Why are relationships difficult and so often unequal? Why do we die? The story of Eve is one of many stories in scripture that seek to address these questions.

Imagine being in your favorite place with your favorite people enjoying your favorite food with a healthy, pain-free body. Paradise. For these ancient storytellers this perfect life was depicted as the Garden of Eden where animals were friends, not threats; where food and water simply appeared without work or effort; where humans were equal companions and God was hanging out with us. The details vary from person to person, but we can all imagine a perfect life. And in every case, our reality doesn’t match our vision of paradise. And we want to know why.

Maybe you’ve heard the popular phrase, often said when people manage to mess up what should have been—could have been—a great situation: “This is why we can’t have nice things.” This story of the fruit and the snake and Eve and, as a side note, Adam is the ancient example: “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Because we mess it up. Somehow. Always.

So Genesis 3 is not the Fall, but just a fall. One of many. This story doesn’t really tell us why there is sin in the world. It is an acknowledgement that there is sin in the world. And it is a reminder that sin has actual, real-world consequences.

OK. But then. Then we bump up against the difficult question of what, exactly, is sin. I mean, sure, disobeying God is sin. But since God doesn’t often hang out with us in the garden these days—at least not in a way where we can hear direct words from God—we’re still left wondering what exactly it means to obey God.

One implication of the story of Eve seems to be that seeking knowledge of good and evil is sinful—which is very difficult for me to accept. And once again, Eugene Roop shed a bit of light on this text for me this week.

He notes that when the biblical writers mention the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” it does not have the moral overtones for them that it has for us when we read it today. Scholars aren’t 100% sure what the “knowledge of good and evil” refers to, but they have narrowed it down to a couple most likely possibilities:

  1. unlimited knowledge OR
  2. knowledge that enables someone to control the future

It’s not about knowing right from wrong, it’s about seeking knowledge that is beyond what is reasonable to expect; it is about wanting to have knowledge for the purpose of control and manipulation.

I recently came across an article about how many evangelical Christians are embracing the ideas of Q-Anon—and how their pastors are struggling to address this. I moved on to a podcast interview with a woman who had written an in-depth piece on Q-Anon for the Atlantic.

For those of you fortunate enough to have not come across Q-Anon yet, here are the basics: It’s a conspiracy theory promoted by a person or persons that go by the name Q on some message board I’ve never been on. The heart of the conspiracy is that the world is ruled by a cabal of Democrats and liberal Hollywood elites who do all manner of evil—including child abuse and sex trafficking. The current president of the United States is secretly fighting this cabal and will save us all from its evil clutches. Of course, there is no actual proof for any of this, and the messages Q posts are written in a kind of code—cryptic phrases and references that people have to interpret. 

As fascinated as I was, I had to stop delving into Q-Anon. Not, as my husband suggests, because I was in danger of being drawn into the beliefs of Q. But because, honestly, the more I learned, the more depressed I got about humanity. The more disoriented I felt, like I just don’t even understand people anymore—these people who are throwing all common sense and reason out the window . . . for what? For the novelty of something new? For the chance to feel like they are in on some secret knowledge? I mean, what is this world coming to?

Right? And then . .  . then I read about this snake in the Garden promising a secret knowledge to Eve if only she will take a bite of the forbidden fruit.

Q-Anon conspiracy theory adherents are an obvious example of people seeking knowledge in harmful ways—the seduction of the promise of secret access and simplistic answers. But we shouldn’t relax into thinking that only “people like that” are susceptible to this temptation. Get-rich-quick schemes and rapid weight loss programs and bulleted lists of advice abound.

Many years ago, I thought I might want to be a freelance writer. While there are a few very gifted and astute people—like our friend Joel Mathis—who are able to make a living writing substantive, thoughtful pieces, what I learned is that your best bet for getting published in any publication that actually pays money is to write articles like: “3 steps to a great body” or “5 things you can do NOW to be rich tomorrow” or “4 simple ways to improve your relationship.” I realized I didn’t want to spend my life writing stuff like that. But I’ll admit that I read it sometimes. It’s tempting stuff.

Who doesn’t want to take one little bite of the fruit and magically have life figured out?

But that–according to the ancient people who passed this story down from parent to child to grandchild—is sin. Somehow. And I think I’m starting to understand. A little.

In our Wednesday night topic discussion this week we talked about defunding the police; and while we weren’t exactly all on the same page, we all agreed that we expect too much from police, that we want less violence in our communities, and that there are about a hundred other issues that we have to work on—including homelessness, racism, and the profusion of guns—if we want to move toward a society that relies less on law enforcement officers.

In my prayer group on Friday morning, another Mennonite pastor asked for prayers for the work she is doing with Mennonite Church USA on curriculum around prison abolition and defunding police. She said she is really inspired by the transformative justice movement and the ways that people have found to move away from punitive models of justice to restorative ones; to address root causes of violence rather than just symptoms. There’s a perception, she said, that people advocating for these kinds of changes are naïve, are thinking that we can just wave a magic wand—or eat a piece of fruit—and get rid of police and prisons. But the people doing this work—the people who have been doing this work for decades—know there’s not an easy fix. There’s not one program, one policy, one president, that will make our system a just and peaceful one.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil tempts us with a lie: that there’s an easy path to wholeness. And this desire for the easy path can steer us away from the good path. The belief in a simple answer can lead us away from the true answer. The grasping for secret knowledge can lead us to double-down on our own world-views rather than learn from others.

I’m still not entirely comfortable with this story. I still have questions. I think God has some explaining to do.

And I’m also starting to think that my discomfort, my questions, my wrestling are signs of my faithfulness. Signs that I’m not accepting the easy answers or expecting to have complete knowledge of life and of God.

I don’t need to reach for the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I need to continue reading and praying and listening and struggling, appreciating the knowledge I gain and realizing that it is never, can never be, complete.

[1] Roop, Eugene. Believers Church Bible Commentary: Genesis. Herald Press, Scottdale, PA. p. 37.