September 10, 2023 (Proper 18)
“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”
There are some strains of Christianity that teach pretty rigid gender roles. Men do “x,” and not “y,” and women do “y,” and not “x.” Some even go so far as to teach that the God-given arrangement within families—and within churches and in the workplace—is that men are the masters and women are servants. They will say that God intended it to be that way, and therefore that’s how it’s supposed to be; and if we rebel against that or choose another way to live, work, and be in relationships, we are sinning against God.
That’s what the Bible says, they argue.
But is it?
There are a number of passages in the Bible that folks might point to in support of this position. The so-called “household code” in Ephesians 5 and 6 is included in this selection of passages, with its instruction for wives to submit to their husbands.
We’d be here all day if I tried to deal with all those passages in one sermon; suffice it to say that the household code in Ephesians 5, when read in context and especially with some knowledge of the original language and what we’ve lost in translation, is actually quite a lot more mutual than we often hear it interpreted. “Wives, submit…” when the word for “submit” means not “he’s in charge and you do what he says” but “put his needs ahead of yours when making decisions.” And then, “Husbands, love your wives…” where “love” is agape, the kind of love God shows us, a love that seeks the best for the object of our love and gives everything for them if that’s what it takes—as God did in Jesus Christ.
So that section of Ephesians 5 could be read, “Wives, be attentive to the needs of your husbands; husbands, be attentive to the needs of your wives.” In other words, it’s a two-way street and a whole lot more equal than many interpreters would tell us.
Genesis 3 is another text people will look to as Biblical justification for an arrangement of life, work, and marriage in which men are in charge and women are subordinate. It does say in Genesis 3 that men will rule over women, women will bear children in pain, and it will be a whole lot harder to grow food because of pests and weeds. However, the question is whether this was God’s original intention for us, or if it’s the consequence of the first people eating forbidden fruit. And if it’s a consequence of Adam and Eve eating from a tree God specifically told them to leave alone, is that consequence a punishment—and if so, why are we being punished for what they did?
Personally, I read God’s response to what Adam, Eve, and the serpent did as a “just so” story—like the ones in Rudyard Kipling’s book of that name. The stories are non-scientific explanations of why certain things are: why an elephant has a long trunk, for instance.
So Genesis 3 explains a few things: Why don’t snakes have legs, and why do humans fear and hate them? Why does it hurt to have a baby? Why do we constantly have to do battle with weeds in our gardens and our fields? Why do we die?
Well, the answer is… “Once upon a time…”
The issue is whether pain in childbirth, an unequal and often unhealthy relationship between men and women, weeds, death, and hatred of snakes are God’s will. I would argue that they are not.
The other question is whether all these things are God’s punishment for disobeying his instruction not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I would argue that they are not.
If that’s the case, then what is God’s will?
It is amazing how quickly something that seems bright with promise can degenerate.
That’s how it was for our first ancestors, according to Genesis. What promise! A paradise, filled with good things to eat, animals, fulfilling work to do, partnership with another human being, close relationship with a God who came and walked with us through the garden in the evening. We had a vocation—something God gave us to do—we were the gardeners and the guardians of Eden. We had great freedom: we could eat of any fruit in the garden, except one, and God placed a boundary around that one that we were not to cross. Not a hard life at all!
A lovely setting, a partnership, an abundance of food, work to do that meant something, not just drudgery. You can’t beat that.
I think the garden, not the broken relationships described in chapter 3 of Genesis, is God’s ideal for humanity—the way he intended for us to be. But like any ideal, it didn’t last long. The way the story tells it, it wasn’t more than a day or two between when we were created and when we messed up.
We need to think about what it was that we did wrong there, and that may mean we have to look at some of the traditional interpretations and toss them out.
First of all, it wasn’t somehow the woman’s fault that everything went wrong. That’s been one of the traditional interpretations that has been quite damaging—the idea that women are more prone to sin than men, and thus need to be more tightly controlled to keep there from being horrific consequences for everybody.
In this story, it could just as easily have been the man who encountered the serpent first. Both people ate the fruit. Neither of them gave any thought to the boundaries God put around their behavior.
When the two are first together in the garden, at the end of today’s reading, we learn that both of them were naked but not ashamed. Then, after they ate the fruit, they suddenly became aware and ashamed of their nakedness. Many have interpreted this to mean that what went wrong had something to do with sex. This isn’t actually in the text—it doesn’t say anything about sex, whether they had it or didn’t have it, nothing at all.
The discussions that have come down through the years linking this story with sex are not based on something in the text. Instead, they’re examples of eisegesis—a ten-dollar word that means taking your own assumptions or beliefs and reading them into a passage. We all do that, quite honestly, because we all bring our own lenses, our own experiences, our own hangups and preferences, to the project of Biblical interpretation. We can do that while aware we’re doing it, or we can pretend we’re objective interpreters, which none of us is.
Many early Christians who came out of Greek culture had problems with sexuality because they had problems with anything physical—and they read their own discomfort into the story of the first humans in the garden of Eden.
This text has been misused, as I mentioned a moment ago, to justify women being dominated by men, because this is how things are laid out at the end of the story. “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Therefore, some would say, this is God’s plan for humanity: Men are in charge, and women are second-class citizens.
It gets worse than that, even: For a time, even after we had the ability to relieve pain after surgery, injury, and so forth, it was still standard practice to withhold pain relief from women in childbirth. Genesis 3 says that’s the God-given state of affairs, so some people said it was God’s plan for women to be in pain and it would be a sin to tamper with that. However, I don’t remember hearing about anyone saying we shouldn’t make work easier for farmers, or remove weeds from our gardens and fields, even though this story says sweat and toil and weeds are also part of this new state of affairs!
We need to put aside the ways Genesis 2 and 3 have been misinterpreted and misused through the years. That doesn’t mean we have to put aside the text. Many preachers seem to think that’s the best thing to do with passages that have been misused, but when we do that, all we do is allow the misuse to be the last word.
I’m not willing to do that. What we need to do is figure out what the truth in the story is—and I believe the truth of the story is that Eden, not what happened after Adam and Eve left Eden, is what God intended for us.
So what was life like in Eden?
The people are in relationship with God. God comes down and creates animals and brings them to the man to name. God walks in the garden in the evenings, and no doubt the plan is for the people in the garden to walk with God in companionship.
The people are in relationship with one another; they’re not master and servant but partners. This is what God meant for them to be: companions, partners, friends, lovers, without the mind games, deceptions, backbiting, abuse, and other unpleasantries that come when people are in unequal relationships.
The people are in relationship with the rest of creation. God places the people in the garden and gives them work to do. The garden brings forth fruit for the people, and the people till, care for, and guard the garden. There is a sense of respect and mutuality even in the relationship between people and nature.
That’s what God meant for it to be like. That’s the way it was supposed to be. But our ancestors were sent out of the garden, and life was a whole lot harder out there.
People became alienated from God. When they heard God coming, instead of walking with him as a friend, they ran and hid. Was it a guilty conscience? Maybe. But I think it was more that the fruit of the tree of knowing good and evil made them realize how different they were from God, and they became afraid of God.
The relationship between God and humanity was broken, and the people became alienated from one another. When God asked them what had happened, they played the blame game. Adam said, “Eve made me do it—and you, God, are the one who gave her to me.” Eve said, “It was the snake.”
When they realized they were naked, and sewed leaves together to cover their privates, maybe it was because they suddenly realized how different they were from one another, and those differences began to seem so large in their sight that they blocked out all the ways they were alike. The relationship between men and women was broken.
And the people became alienated from the rest of creation. Instead of being fulfilled by the work of tilling the earth, they would be worn out, used up. They would work, and the land would bring forth weeds, rocks, dust. Their crops would be eaten up by bugs and destroyed by blight. Suddenly creation is an adversary, an enemy to be subdued, a servant to be bent to our will, instead of a partner in bringing forth life and sustenance. The relationship between humanity and creation was broken.
That’s the bad news.
When God pronounces the curses at the end of this story, he isn’t saying, “This is my plan for you.” What God is saying is that this is the result of all that alienation. The people are put out of the garden into the world, alienated from one another, yet needing one another and clinging together in relationships that have become distorted from what God intended. They depend on the earth, on the plants and animals, for their survival, but the earth no longer gladly brings forth what they need. And God still desires relationship with humanity but finds they are not willing or able to approach God in anything that resembles companionship.
Everything is broken, and we cannot, on our own, fix it. We can’t get ourselves back to the garden.
Is there any good news?
Well, yes, there is always good news. The good news is Jesus Christ.
“Sure, he saved us from our sins; we can accept that,” we might say. “But what does Jesus have to do with our relationships with other humans, the ones in our homes, the ones in our church, the ones we work with, the ones on the street? What does he have to do with our relationship with creation?”
Humanity became alienated from God, from one another, and from creation as a result of our ancestors’ eating that fruit. But Christ died to reconcile all things to God and to one another. Broken relationships are redeemed, and the chance is offered to escape alienation.
It’s not God’s plan for us to be so terrified of God that we have to have a priest or other intermediary talk to God on our behalf. Through Christ, we are able—if we’re willing—to move back into the kind of companionship with God that we were created for.
It’s not God’s plan for men and women to mistrust and misunderstand one another. It’s not God’s plan for one gender to have all the power and the other to be subordinate. Through Christ, our relationships with one another are redeemed, and we can—if we’re willing—create partnerships of mutual respect, love, and friendship.
It’s not God’s plan for us to have an adversarial relationship with the rest of creation. It’s not God’s plan for us to have to wear out ourselves and the land to bring forth what we need to live. Through Christ, our relationship with the earth is redeemed, and we have the chance—if we’re willing—to repair it by seeing the land not as an enemy to be conquered by as a partner to be respected.
Now, in Christ we are given the opportunity to start repairing the relationships between ourselves and God, between ourselves and our fellow human beings, between ourselves and creation. And every time we accept and act on that opportunity, we are moving one step closer to getting back to the garden.
But we can’t get ourselves back to the garden. We live as if we were there, even though the world around us clearly isn’t Eden, but it will take an act of God to bring us back into Eden—or, more properly, to bring Eden back to us.
One of the purposes of the Narrative Lectionary is for us to begin seeing that there is a narrative arc that runs through the whole Bible. It begins with creation, and it ends with re-creation. And when you know how the story begins, you can recognize that when the story ends, we’ve come full circle.
Look at the closing chapters of Revelation, the very end of the Bible. There we’re shown what the fully redeemed and restored creation will be like. It’s not primordial wilderness; it’s a city, the New Jerusalem. What humanity has built isn’t destroyed; it’s perfected through Christ’s work to put an end to sin and evil and death once and for all.
But in the middle of that city is this, described by John:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
You’ll remember from the passage Phyllis read to us that there were two trees in the middle of the garden of Eden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the eating of whose fruit brought about disaster; and the tree of life, which would have brought about eternity if we’d gotten hold of it, which could have been disastrous if we’d eaten it when the fruit of the other tree had given us knowledge we weren’t equipped to handle.
At the end, once Christ has made all things new and banished the powers of evil, then he gets us back to the garden.
 The first man and woman don’t have names until after they’re tossed out of Eden. What eventually becomes the first man’s name—Adam—is actually a common noun in Hebrew, usually used with the definite article: ha-adam, the human being. And Adam names his wife, Eve, the mother of all humanity.
 It isn’t actually until after the Flood that God gives the people permission to eat animals. Before that, evidently, we were all vegetarians.
 Revelation 22:1-2, emphasis added.