The mythopoeic genius of the Yahwist writer continues to unfold in today’s reading, Genesis 2:20-3:20. The readings from Isaiah 3:1-14 and Proverbs 3:19-34 contain a few gems – “O my people, your leaders mislead you, and confuse the course of your paths” (Isaiah 3:12); “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’—when you have it with you” (Proverbs 3:28) – but it’s the Genesis reading that must hold our interest today because of its momentous importance in the biblical and Christian traditions.
On days when the world is ugly, it is easy to understand the bleak conclusion of the creation story. But as I write this, the sun is out, the neighborhood is quiet and a motet of unearthly beauty by Josquin des près is playing in the background. At a beautiful moment like this I find it hard to enter into the world of the so-called “Fall of Man.” Proverbs 3:19 tells us today, “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” So God’s wisdom couldn’t possibly have failed in the creation of human beings.
In the “first” creation story, we read that God made man, male and female God made them (Genesis 1:27). Here, in the “second” creation story, man is made first and then woman is made from man’s ribs quite a bit later, after all the animals are created! Woman-haters down through the ages have used this as an argument for the inferiority of women. I think the Yahwist had something totally different in mind. Human beings are not made to live alone. Animals are wonderful and they enrich our lives and the life of the earth; dogs indeed are man’s best friends. But no animal is a fit partner; only another human being is. The myth of course requires a man and a woman in order for the human race to begin. But just as our text is not an excuse for the denigration of women, so also it’s not an excuse for excluding same-sex attractions. We have to be very careful how we use or misuse biblical texts, especially when their purpose is different from ours!
The harmony of the garden existence into which the man and woman were placed is disrupted by the entrance of the serpent in chapter 3. The serpent is one of God’s creatures, one of the animals that “creep upon the ground” that God created on the sixth day (Genesis 1:24-25), the same day on which God created human beings. And, remember, “it was very good”! Did God miss something in creating the serpent? Was the serpent exempt from the “very good” pronouncement? Good questions. I have a friend who loves snakes – he is a herpetologist – but most people prefer not to have anything to do with snakes.
Of course most Christians see the snake as simply the devil. The Book of Revelation certainly makes two references to “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (Rev 12:9 & 20:2) – but Revelation itself is a huge multi-layered mythopoeic masterpiece with its own theology. Snake or devil, it doesn’t matter. The same freedom was given to the serpent as was given to the human beings. Free will is at the root of what happens in chapter 3 of Genesis. The serpent’s free will meets the free will of the two humans, and the result is rebellion.
Is the punishment excessive? A pointless question. The myth’s purpose is to explain why snakes crawl on the ground; why people die; why there is toil and trouble; why there is pain in birth-giving; and why women are subject to their husbands. Very neat – like all good myths. This is what myths do: they use stories to explain big realities. The realities are all too real; the stories are real within the context of the storyteller and his or her audience. A reader of two thousand years ago had no trouble taking the story exactly as told. Most readers today listen to the story or read it with a different understanding.
Free will is not free unless it is put to the test. This is what God did, through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree from which the man and woman were forbidden to eat. The exercise of their free will caused them to disobey God’s commandment. The disobedience and the punishment are not the most profound insights of the myth. The real genius of the biblical story is that this act of disobedience, this act of freedom, was necessary for the man and woman to be fully human. Theoretical free will means nothing. The man and woman could have obeyed God blindly and lived in the bliss of paradise. The deception of the serpent blinded them into desiring something that wasn’t theirs to desire: to be like God (Genesis 3:5). Instead, they became human, all-too-human. And it is our story. We are humans, not gods. The myth has served its purpose – albeit under the watchful eye of God, Yahweh!