Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
We know the story. Adam and Eve. The snake and the apple. The Fall and the end of paradise. Despite all we know about the Garden of Eden, this may be the most misunderstood, poorly interpreted, and politicized story in our Bible. On close reading, you might notice that there is no apple in the story, just a fruit. Rabbis assumed it was a fig or grapes. Apples did not appear in the text until the Latin Vulgate was translated from Hebrew, and the word for “evil” and “apple” are similar. Renaissance artist Michelangelo codified the apple for history on the Sistine Chapel. Apples versus figs may not change the meaning of the story, but it is a reminder that our culture bias easily slip into the story and change it.
If our culture is sexist, that’s likely to slip into our interpretation. Eve gets a bad rap. Because she first ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, centuries of theologians have labeled her the temptress, the one who brought sin into the world, the woman responsible for paradise lost. But Adam is fully in the action, as secondary character. It’s unlikely the original author was trying to explain how women brought evil into the world, therefore we have to fear their sexuality.
This is not the only creation story in the Bible. There are two in Genesis. The first involves seven days of creation, humanity came into the picture on day six, and the man and the woman are created at the very same time. They are both created in the image and likeness of God, given equal vocation to tend the garden, and God sees them both as very good. So why would the Bible then say in the very next chapter, that Adam was created first out of clay, then Eve from Adam’s rib, and one becomes the temptress and the other becomes, well, a man? Could that have all happened on the first Saturday of creation? Is so, no wonder God needed a Sabbath day off. What Genesis shares with us is two separate stories of creation, which can’t be reconciled as historical accounts, because they don’t have the same message and function. One tells us God created us very good, in divine image and likeness, but what is the other saying?
I began to see the story of the Garden of Eden in a new way after seeing the Bolshoi Ballet, the premier Soviet world class ballet. (Think Barishnikov.) I need to give you some background. I was surprised when my Evangelical college sponsored a January trip to the former Soviet Union. It was 1984. Ronald Reagan was President. The Iron Curtain was closed, and the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire.
I was compelled to go because of two conflicting parts of my soul. One part of me grew up evangelical Baptist, and the other part 1970s Flower Child. On the Baptist side, I won the prize in fourth grade for memorizing the most Bible passages. Godless Communism was considered the greatest threat to our American Way of Life, and my college friends would debate whether the rapture would occur before or after the nuclear missiles were launched. We prayed for oppressed Christians who could end up in Siberia or dead for practicing their faith. On the second day or our trip, one of my friends pulled me aside for a whispered conversation. She had contacted a Bible society and received two Russian Bibles, plus a secret contact point for an underground church in Moscow. They were sewn into her coat lining, because she was afraid of being arrested, and now she wanted me to hold on to them. My advice was we would each keep one and if anyone asked, we would simply say we were learning to read Russian. But I think she was enjoying the dangerous nature of her mission too much for that idea.
At the same time, I had marched with my mother protesting the Vietnam War in 1969. I was five, and it left a huge impression. I grew up hearing my mother say that the Russian people were just like us and were not our enemies, instead the enemy was the military-industrial complex. In high school I decided to register as a Conscientious Objector, which was a big deal when I could be drafted. Pastor Roy wondered if I was being led astray by Satan (meaning the young Associate Pastor.) I needed to see the Soviet Union, and its people, for myself.
So, this brings me to the Bolshoi Ballet, young Evangelical bible-smuggler/war-resistor. In the beginning of the dance, God leaps onto the stage. A dancer in pure white pirouettes across the stage-and there is day. A dancer draped in black comes forth, and there is night. There is a ballerina for water and another for land, chaos is brought to order. God brings forth a swan and then a polar bear. God shapes a man, then pulls a ballerina from his side, and there was intermission. Vodka became involved.
Sabbath ends and we move to the red-clad dancer with horns tempting Eve with-not a fig, but an apple. Eve eats the apple and is suddenly aware of the oppressive nature of class consciousness. She shares the apple with Adam and he too sees the lies of the bourgeois. They begin to wonder if God is the opiate of the masses and find leaves for clothes to cover themselves. In the final scene, God begs the enlightened Adam and Eve to not leave the Garden. He gets on his knees and pleads. But slowly and reluctantly they leave God behind. And then they realize the garden was a prison, and they are now free from God and dozens of dancers leap mightily across the stage to celebrate.
I was stunned. The creation story I knew from youth had been turned into a story of “un-creation.” This dance of deconstruction tore down the God I knew, and sowed seeds of doubt. Throughout our tour we were bombarded with the evils of the Russian Orthodox Church, the wealth of the czar over the poverty of peasants, how many people died while smelting copper for the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. No wonder Marx thought religion was the opiate of the masses, getting people to focus on heaven and the afterlife, while ignoring injustice here on earth.
The next semester I signed up for a class called “Marxism and Christianity” and I read Latin American Liberation theologians. They challenged me to read the Bible through the eyes of the Third World poor, which challenged much of what I had learned growing up. This ultimately led me to seminary, where I found God again, after wrestling with all my prejudices.
The lesson for me from the Bolshoi was sometimes it is good to be tested to find a deeper faith. Let me state for the record that I agree with the traditional interpretation of the Garden. Don’t do stuff you know is wrong. Don’t take the easy way out of moral dilemnas, for there is always harm in doing so. But here is an alternative view. Sometimes testing and doubt builds faith.
A few years ago, at a Bible study, someone said, “I’m glad Eve took the apple. It’s part of being human, of our moral development.” It’s hard to imagine going through life without experiencing good and evil. Something happens that shatters our innocence-something which breaks our heart, something desperately unfair or unjust. Like Adam and Eve, we suddenly feel naked. Not unclothed naked, but rather we suddenly realize how vulnerable we are, how fragile our life is. We do our best to cover it up, but we can’t shake it. And we doubt God.
I felt similar vulnerability several times this week. I felt it when I heard the news that Jean Vanier, spiritual guide and beloved founder of the L’Arch community, had sexually abused at least six women. I felt our vulnerability as the Corona virus spread and Jeanne made of list of what we might need in case of quarantine, and how will we handle church and communion. We watched the market freak out and what will happen to our retirement accounts and our jobs? I feel it every day as the norms of democracy are eroded, hatred spreads, and the destruction of God’s creation in unrelenting.
At times like these, I want another bite of the apple, or any fruit from a tree that will tell me a better story, that will save me from suffering and injustice. The ancient Jewish authors of our scriptures faced this too. Whoever wrote the story of the Garden of Eden lived through the great exile in Babylon, experienced the walls of Jerusalem breached. Fire, smoke, death and forced to live in a foreign land. Perhaps they experienced this as the death of God.
But sometimes our God is too small. Sometimes the God we knew needs to die, so we can find the God who is. A narrow God that justifies our race and nation, a God of Southern civil war preachers who justified slavery, a God who says its evil to love someone of the same gender. Enough of these false gods who divide us from each other.
I’m with Eve in this story. I’m with her, choosing to hear the truth rather than remain naïve. I’m with her, sharing the fruit with Adam rather than exploiting the knowledge. I’m with her, facing the vulnerability of knowing good and evil.
I believe in a God who allows and desires our questions, who will stay with us through our disillusionment and struggle. I don’t believe the dance ends when we discover our view of God doesn’t work. It’s a new rhythm, and God leads us in a new dance.