The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, Domenichino, 1626, National Gallery of Art (Washington)
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Genesis 2:7–9; 3:1–7
March 1, 2020
Our first reading today is from the book of Genesis. It is often called the story of the creation of Adam but is more accurately depicts the formation and then dissolution of the perfect community.
This creation story is one of two in Genesis and, although placed second, was written earlier. The narrative we read first was written by priests and is concerned with how the Jewish people were to connect to the Cosmos. (Ge. 1) Today’s passage however describes the relationship that God wishes to establish with us and assures us that it was forged at the very beginning of time. The first version of this text was most likely written at the beginning of the Davidic Dynasty. (c. 1,000 BC) and is a call to the king to restore the God-given order. It then became part of the expectation of the Messiah.
This section begins with a desolate world while “as yet there was no field shrub on earth and no grass of the field had sprouted.” (Ge. 2:5a) To be fruitful, it needed rain and someone to care for the land. First came the water “but a stream was welling up out of the earth and was watering all the surface of the ground” (Ge. 5:6) then, the point where we begin today:
The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground
and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,
and so man became a living being.
God is seen as a potter intimately forming the first human with his own hands. He then breathes life into him. He—we—will always be creatures of flesh and blood. In Hebrew “human” and “dirt” are similar sounding words “adam” – “Adamah.” Adam was created by a conscious loving act of God. How loving is revealed in the next sentences:
Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east,
and he placed there the man whom he had formed.
Our passage for the week stops here, but the chapter continues:
Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow
that were delightful to look at and good for food,
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden
and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.
Eden literally is an area in southern Mesopotamia and means fertile plain, but sounds like the Hebrew word for delight. This is clearly not a farm but a park that kings would build for their own enjoyment. Adam was created to be a friend of God and there he was placed to cultivate and care for it. (Ge. 2:15). The one command was that he was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Ge. 2:17)
The relationship of God and Man was not to be as two individuals. God created humanity to be social and to live in community:
“It is not good for the man to be alone.
I will make a suitable partner for him.”
God then created wild animals and the birds of the air. (Ge 2: 19) There are several areas of importance here. First, Adam was created before the animals and that the relationship with God is direct and personal. God brought the animals to Adam, and Adam gave them their names, but God spoke only to Adam. Adam then is superior to the animals, but must respect them as part of God’s plan. However beautiful none of these were suitable as a partner. (Ge 2:20) It was only when God fashioned a person from Adam’s own body that he had a partner. Thus:
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife,
and the two of them become one body.
What we have come to call marriage then is seen as part of the divine plan from the very beginning. This section ends with the man and his wife both naked, yet they felt no shame (Ge. 2:25). There is no exploitation where there is harmony.
This is where we begin again. By telling the first humans that they should not do something, the LORD was granting them free will and opening the possibility of disobedience.
Having a knowledge of the difference between good and evil seems like a good thing to us. The modern understanding of freedom is the ability to choose. The more choices, the more freedom. This is not the older view, which in some ways, persisted up to the Enlightenment. Freedom came from self-knowledge and mastery. There were some possibilities which a well-formed person cannot even imagine. To accept the way God has designed the world is to be perfectly free; for who knows better what is: best the creator or the creature? The serpent is partially correct that Adam and Eve will be gods but with a very small g. A former professor loved to remind us that “There is a God, it is not me and that is a good thing.” When we act as if it would be good, then the world unravels. Our author shows us how with some mastery.
First, the first humans know they are naked. This was not an issue when they were living as God wanted and innocent but now, they are not and must clothe themselves.
Next, they meet God for the first time since they ate of the tree:
When they heard the sound of the LORD God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of the day,
the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
Their relationship with God was once familiar and natural but has now been ruptured.
Although Adam had been at perfect peace with the animals, now there would be disharmony between man and beast. Snakes were now to crawl and be the particular terror of the desert world.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
He will strike at your head,
while you strike at his heel
Continuing the human community will become difficult both by the pain of childbirth and inequality within marriage.
“I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing;
in pain shall you bring forth children.
Yet your urge shall be for your husband,
and he shall be your master
Note it is only now that Adam gives his wife a name like he did the animals. (Ge. 3:20) The marriage of equals in Eden is now compromised indeed undermined by power and discord.
They would no longer live in a pleasure park, but the land would be cursed:
Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you,
as you eat of the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
shall you get bread to eat,
Indeed, they needed to leave Eden, because they could not be near the tree of life: the sinful could not be immoral. (Ge. 3:22) Thus they were banished but God made leather garments, “with which he clothed them.” (Ge. 3:22) These were a vast improvement over loincloths and needed in the harsher world into which they were sent. Even though they were forbidden to return to Eden (Ge. 3:24) God would not abandon them.
This story is among the oldest written parts of the Old Testament and it powerfully influenced the rest of it. It shows the outline of Deuteronomic History (see the commentary on the First Reading from Nov. 11, 2018 for more information) which guides (Orthodox) Jewish self-understanding to this day. Obedience to the will of God brings moral, political and financial success, disobedience brings ruin. Today’s author has brought this understanding back to creation and made it part of our cultural and religious DNA. We need to bring that understanding into our own world and make it part of our present social and political landscape.