Today’s world likes immediacy. Instant messages. Immediate information. Wikipedia summaries. So we find it hard to stay with a text that has different layers, that speaks to us in images and metaphors. The first reading today from Genesis (2.7-9, 3.1-7) is one of those texts. It is difficult – but rich in meaning. This is not history like an account of the battle of Waterloo in 1815. But it is the truth about the human race, about who and what we are and how we have developed. The account given here is a story, but one that conveys the truth of human nature wonderfully.
Notice first of all that we are from the soil and yet have a God-given breath of life. What does this tell us? It tells us that we are matter and spirit. We have come out of the muck and mire of the world. We are part of the world of nature around us. But we are more than this. There is a spark in us that comes from God, breathed into us at our origins. We know this gift when we love, when we aim higher, when we repent, when we forgive and when we are inspired.
There is the little detail of being in a garden. The name of the place has come down to us as Eden. Scholars sometimes link this to a Hebrew word meaning ‘delight’, and still, today, the very word Eden speaks to us of a life of harmony and happiness.
Then we notice the reality of temptation. Note the emphasis on how attractive the tree is. It is pleasing to the eye … desirable. So often the temptation to do the wrong thing presents itself as a good thing, or justifiable, or fashionable (ie what everybody else is doing). Wrong-doing rarely comes across as ugly at first though later we may come to see it in a different light. I find it wonderful that temptation is voiced by the serpent. The hissing of temptation. The poison that comes with the bite.
What about the tree whose fruit bring knowledge of good and evil? Surely it is a good thing to know this? But remember that in the existence being spoken of, there was no need to discern between good and evil. The message here is that God intended the human race to have a free and direct communion with him. In this communion men and women would know instinctively, as it were, the right thing to do, and would freely want to do it. But once they decided to make up their own minds and to turn away from God, there was no going back to this wonderful relationship with God. And so the story ends with the human beings not only estranged from God but from one another. A relationship of mutual openness and trust between human beings has been sundered. God will always be there for humankind, always open to their voice. The difficulty is more the other way – with the break in the relationship described here so poetically, it is human beings who will find it hard to hear the voice of God. And even when they hear it, they will still struggle to do the right thing. The fancy word used for this situation is alienation. Human beings become strangers to God and to one another. It is to this situation that God sends his Son, so that the Christ could overcome the gulf between man and God, between creation and Creator, and lead us back.