Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ 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; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ The Lord God said to the serpent,
‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.’
To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’
And to the man he said,
‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
“You shall not eat of it”,
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.’
I remember first coming across this statement by theologian John Dominic Crossan: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
Which might leave us wondering why the story of Adam and Eve was told, if it was not meant to be a historical record?
It seems to be an attempt to answer several good questions about our world: Why do people do bad things? Why does God allow people to get hurt? Why do many things in life hurt so much?
So in the ancient story, it is explained that Adam and Eve wanted to know good and evil, and were not satisfied to take God’s word for what was good for them and what was not. Adam and Eve stand for all of us – all humanity – they explain, in a story, just what people are like. We all find it really hard to take someone else’s word for what’s good for us – even God’s word. There is good and evil in the world because, repeatedly, people are trying to work out quite what is good, and what is evil – it’s about choices. And because God wants us to have choices the world is not entirely safe – there is good and evil all around us – waiting for our free choice.
This story does not completely explain all our questions about evil in the world, and it is not the only Bible story which tries to do this. But if we read it as an ancient story which is about humanity in general, rather than a historical account of two people from long ago called Adam and Eve, it does offer us a chance to look at our lives and ask ‘how can I choose God’s way, the way of life, the way that leads to good?’. This ancient story can be one which confronts us with a real choice about doing good and avoiding evil in the here and now.
God of all time and space,
Who created us and all that is,
Show us what is good in life,
Help us to avoid all that harms us
Our neighbour, or our planet
And help us to continue to walk in fellowship with you
By whose grace we can be made new
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Rev’d Ruth Whitehead is the Moderator of the South Western Synod.