(Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7)
Some folks give up things for Lent, and it’s a prime time for going on a diet. In the spirit of solidarity with any of you who are watching your waistlines, here’s a little inspirational story.
It’s about a man named Sam, who decided he was going on a diet. To make sure he would succeed, he announced his plan to all his friends and co-workers. Sam was one of those people like Oscar Wilde, who remarked, “I can resist anything – except temptation!”
Sam’s co-workers were pretty good about giving him moral support until the morning he walked into the office carrying a box of freshly baked donuts.
“What’s with the donuts, Sam?” one of them asked. “I thought you were on a diet.”
“I am,” said Sam. “But I want you to know I wouldn’t have gotten these donuts if it weren’t for God.”
That remark begged for an explanation. Sam quickly supplied one. “You see, I was driving into work, and I knew I’d have to go right past the bakery. I just couldn’t get those donuts out of my mind, so I decided to pray to God for help. ‘God,’ I said, ‘if you want me to have a box of hot, delicious donuts, give me a parking place right in front of the bakery.’ Sure enough, I found one on my eighth trip around the block.”
Some of us truly can’t resist temptation! We’re all too susceptible to that classic tagline from the potato-chip commercials: “Bet you can’t eat just one!”
Something similar was true of a certain woman named Eve, whose story we think we know well. A garden, a tree, a talking snake and a shiny, red apple. That’s the way the story has come down to us.
The problem is, a lot of other things have come down to us along the way, things that have nothing to do with the story’s meaning to its original Hebrew audience. The story of Eve, the serpent and the garden has become the playground of all manner of creative thinkers, all of whom think they see things that just aren’t there. It’s worthwhile taking a few moments to examine some of these mistaken ideas.
The first of these mistaken ideas is that it’s somehow the woman’s fault because she’s a woman. Unimaginable damage has been done to women over the centuries because some male theologians decided to read this text as proof that women are morally or intellectually inferior to men. For centuries they called women “the weaker sex,” implying that, if only Adam had been around to keep a closer watch on his wayward wife – and do a little mansplaining when necessary – the two of them never would have had to quit that prime piece of real estate.
Which is utter nonsense. Women are every bit the equal of men, when it comes to both intellectual attainment and moral sense. Sometimes they even do better, like knowing when to stop and ask for directions, or not panicking when the TV remote is nowhere to be found.
The second mistake is the idea that as soon as Adam bit into that forbidden fruit, the human race – by some sort of dark magic – experienced a cosmic change of condition known as “the Fall.” Every generation yet to come was doomed to wage a losing battle against sin because Eve boldly plucked that fruit and Adam disobediently ate it.
Well, there is such a thing as sin. No one with any moral sense would deny it. Sin is a terrible curse. It’s something we all experience and struggle against. Sin broke God’s perfect world. But did God consign the human race to a perpetual state of sin purely because some prehistoric ancestor pilfered a piece of prize fruit? Of course not! That explanation makes God into a petty, vindictive ruler, with a distinctly stunted sense of justice. The idea that the sins of the fathers – and mothers – are visited on succeeding generations is a reality, but it is not because the devil made them – or us – do it. The hard truth is, we’ve all got plenty of sins for which to repent, and they’re not Adam and Eve’s doing, but ours. We don’t need to import any sins from our ancestors to establish the fact that we need forgiveness, big-time.
The third mistaken idea is that the temptation in the garden has something to do with sex. This was a big idea in the early Christian church. It was popularized, especially, by one of the greatest theologians of all time, Bishop Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine had a convoluted and very fascinating journey into Christian faith. He became a Christian in midlife and wrote about his conversion in a book called The Confessions of Saint Augustine – which, as far as we know, is the first autobiography ever written. In his early years, Augustine was quite the player (as the saying goes) – so much so, that some today have suggested labeling him a “sex addict.” Augustine did eventually triumph over his tormenting addiction, through prayer and faith in Jesus Christ, but then he turned right around and began to teach that all sin is somehow traceable back to that first sexual act between Adam and Eve. From those very early days until modern times, the church mistakenly taught that the physical love between a man and a woman (even in marriage) is something to be ashamed of.
There’s absolutely nothing about sex in the Genesis text – with the possible exception of that little detail about the man and the woman discovering they’re both naked and covering their privates with fig leaves. Just a few verses before, God created Eve to be Adam’s partner, and Adam exclaims, in delight, “This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” It’s a clear statement that God intends marriage partners to delight one another on every level.
Why would a single bite out of a piece of fruit change God’s intention so completely? Adam and Eve are “ashamed,” says the Genesis text. They’re ashamed of their loss of innocence, perhaps, or of their disobedience. But they could not be ashamed of the physical relationship for which God has specifically created them, the relationship that is at the heart of every marriage. That was Augustine – a once-promiscuous man who spent the rest of his life as a celibate – reading his own psychological hang-ups back into the story. His view has caused needless guilt for countless generations of Christian couples who are not called to the same celibate path as Augustine.
What do Adam and Eve do that’s so terrible? The answer lies in that little phrase, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Preachers and scholars have debated for centuries over the symbolic significance of that tree and its forbidden fruit (and it wasn’t an apple tree, by the way; nowhere does the Bible say it was – indeed, apples don’t grow in that part of the world). If you refer to it, in shorthand fashion – as many do – as the tree of knowledge, that may lead you to imagine that God maliciously wants to keep humanity in the dark, to keep us from using our full intellectual capacities. But that’s not what it means at all.
The key lies in that little qualifying phrase “of good and evil.” It’s not a tree of knowledge in the general sense; it’s a tree of knowledge of good and evil.
What’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil? What’s bad is that this knowledge – defined by the ancient Hebrews in a very particular way – belongs by rights only to the king of Israel, as delegated to him by God.
We’re not talking ethics, here. God’s not bent out of shape because Adam and Eve have developed an ethical sense. God’s angry because Adam and Eve are daring to put themselves in the judgment-seat of God.
That’s what “knowledge of good and evil” means. It’s what a judge needs to know to weigh testimony in a courtroom. The Hebrew word yada, or knowledge, means more than mere cognitive knowledge. It also means an awareness of judgment, of justice. To pursue and claim the knowledge of good and evil means you’re taking on the role of judge, a role that belongs to God alone – except for those occasions when God delegates it to the kings of Israel.
If Adam and Eve aspire to gorge themselves on the fruit of that tree, it means they want to make themselves into little gods. It means they no longer have any need to revere their Creator. The serpent in the story has it exactly right. He explains to Eve that the reason God doesn’t want her to bite into the fruit is because, if she and Adam do so, they “will be like God.” This, of course, is the worst form of idolatry – the desire to assume for oneself the role of a god. The unfortunate Eve buys it hook, line and sinker. Adam, too.
Yet isn’t that what all of us seek to do, in large ways and small, each day of our lives? We turn from the God who created us. We believe we can go it alone in life. We’re like Sam in that little story we started with, driving around the block eight times to snag a divine seal of approval for what he’s already decided to do! We too often work hard to convince ourselves that we know better than God, we’re independent and we can chart our own course.
That’s what Eve does, with respect to the fruit of the tree. Listen to what Eve concludes about the fruit, after talking with the serpent: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Genesis 3:6). Examine that verse carefully and you’ll see three distinct reasons – rationalizations, really – why Eve thinks she can legitimately eat the fruit.
The tree is “good for food” — it’s useful, in other words.
It’s “a delight to the eyes” — the tree truly is beautiful.
The tree is “to be desired to make one wise” — it offers the tantalizing promise of wisdom.
In other words, Eve seeks from the tree utility, beauty and wisdom.
These are good things, to be sure, but they lead her into sin. Yet isn’t that always the way? It’s not just the bad things that lead us astray; it’s the good things – or, at least, the things that seem to be good.
The first of these is utility – practical usefulness. When something tempts us, we’re more likely to give into that temptation if we can convince ourselves there’s something useful about it. (“But honey, we really need that second barbecue grill!”)
Utilitarianism is a powerful philosophy, but it can also be ethically blind. Utilitarianism was a school of thought that grew up in England during the 1700s. John Stuart Mill was its chief booster. Mill maintained that just about any ethical decision could be made according to one simple standard: it must bring “the greatest good for the greatest possible number of people.”
That sounds fine on the face of it — but consider the fact that some of the most destructive movements in human history have used a utilitarian argument to justify themselves. The Nazi Party, for instance. Hitler and his cronies were following a particularly rigorous application of Mill’s decision-making standard. Inspired by the now-debunked science of human breeding known as eugenics, they commissioned a leading chemical company to develop the deadly gas known as Zyklon B. The S.S. subsequently used that poison gas to murder millions in the concentration camps. To the Nazis it was useful, but it was also morally reprehensible. You can justify all manner of atrocities against a minority group if you see those actions as leading to a greater quality of life for the majority.
The second thing that tempts the woman in the biblical story is the tree’s beauty. Now, our aesthetic sense is a wonderful gift, but it’s a poor guide for ethical decision-making. Each year we’re all treated – or subjected, depending on your point of their few seconds of fame as they step out of their limousines and parade down the red carpet, illuminated by camera strobes. Cloying TV commentators focus on every aspect of the gowns, the make-up, the coiffures. Beauty – or, at least, a certain understanding of beauty – will be celebrated ad nauseum. Many of these so-called “beautiful people,” with their marital infidelities, conspicuous substance abuse and privileged lifestyles, are in fact anything but beautiful when it comes to their inner lives.
Finally, Eve is led astray by her misjudgment that the fruit of the tree will make her wise. It’s true that we can gain wisdom from making all sorts of decisions – both those that are beneficial and those that bring us pain. Sometimes it’s the lessons our bad decisions teach us that are the most compelling.
Longtime veterans of 12-step groups come to mind in this regard. Part of working their recovery program is sharing testimony of bad decisions they’ve made over the years, recounting the havoc that filled their lives as a result of drinking or drugs before they got serious about trusting their “higher power.”
Such wisdom is hard-won, indeed. Its personal cost – both for the addict and the addict’s loved ones – is so high, one could legitimately wonder whether anyone would freely seek it. Far better to try to live in naive righteousness, following God’s law, than to experience hard-earned lessons like those!
The serpent never does lie to Eve. Did you ever consider that? Every word out of his mouth is the truth. But the serpent fails to tell the whole truth. He slices off a carefully selected segment of truth, one calculated to impugn God’s motives, and to puff his listeners up with self-destructive pride.
The very same thing is true of our own inner voices of temptation. Seldom are we tempted by the blatantly bad things of this world. It’s evil masquerading as good that causes the most difficulty. As Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, wrote back in the 1700s: “Vice, in its true light, is so deformed, that it shocks us at first sight; and would hardly ever seduce us, if it did not at first wear the mask of some virtue.”
That process by which we turn vice into virtue, in our minds, is called “rationalization.” It’s the same process Eve goes through as she ponders whether to disobey the Lord and bite into the forbidden fruit. When Eve manages to convince herself that the tree is useful, beautiful and a source of wisdom, then she’s able to do what would otherwise be unthinkable.
Think about all those rationalizations and how easy they are to deploy in the service of sin:
“I’m not committing adultery; I’m just finding the love I need.”
“I’m not living a greedy lifestyle of over-consumption; I’m just pursuing the American dream.”
“I’m not hurting anybody when I cheat my customers; I’m just following the laws of the marketplace.”
“I’m not abusing my child; I’m just enforcing discipline.”
Rationalizations can be deadly.
But here’s some good news. There’s a way out. It’s called grace. Just when we recognize temptation for what it is and acknowledge we can’t beat it on our own, God enters in and gives us what we need to prevail. It’s all a matter of whom we trust. Trust ourselves alone, and we go down in flames. Trust God – the author of grace – and we find, more often than not, the strength we need to resist temptation and live a godly life.
As Jesus says to Satan at the conclusion of His final temptation in today’s gospel lesson, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone” (Matthew 4:10). God alone – that’s what we need to get through any temptation.