So while the children in other classes were talking about creation and recycling and the importance of caring for the earth, all the children in Ryon Price, minister of Royal Lane Baptist Church and member of our camping association, all those children could talk about was nudity. Owen, lucky enough to have been in Ryon’s class, approached me at lunch and said, “Who told you that you were naked?”
This Genesis story is problematic. Not so much because of the nudity bit, but because of the ways it has been interpreted. Early Christian writers depicted Eve as subordinate and inferior to Adam - because she was created after and from him - and as weak, seductive and evil, the cause of Adam's disobedience. Like Eve, wrote Tertullian, all women are “the devil's gateway. . . the unsealer of that forbidden tree. . . the first deserter of the divine law.”
Thomas Aquinas argued in the 13th century that women are defective by nature: "Misbegotten males" he called us. The themes of inferiority, evil and seductiveness continued to be emphasized in the writings of Luther, Calvin, and Knox and remain disturbingly prominent to this day. The consequences for women have been and continue to be devastating.
But these interpretations are not supported by the Biblical account nor within the Bible itself. Nowhere in the First Testament is Eve connected to sin or judgement. The prophets love to talk about sin, punishment, and judgment. Yet, they never mention this story. The idea that women are the originators of sin and death, is not found in the Hebrew Bible.
Perhaps even more importantly, these claims are not supported by the story itself. They say the woman is inferior because she was created last. But these same interpreters never argue that humans are inferior to animals because they were created after animals. On the contrary, they regard the final creative act in Genesis 1 as the pinnacle of Creation. If this later-is-better principle were applied consistently, the creation of the woman in Genesis 2 would be seen as the crowning achievement. They say that the woman was created to be the helper of the man. In English, helper connotes subordination. The Hebrew word for helper is ezer - 95% of the time when it is used in the Bible it refers to God - in that case, it is hard to suggest this title makes her inferior!
The serpent speaks only to Eve. Church fathers interpreted this to mean that woman is morally weaker than man and thus an easier prey; that woman is simple minded, gullible, untrustworthy; or that she is more sexual and her sexuality is used by the serpent to ruin the man. The text itself does not say why the serpent speaks to the woman. Why not speculate instead that the serpent questions her because she is the more intelligent of the two? Or because she has a better understanding of the divine command? Or because she is more independent? By contrast, it could be said that the man is silent, passive, bland and belly-oriented; that he thinks with his stomach and not his brain.
Eve is not the simple minded, gullible female who deviously seduces the male to sin but as Old Testament scholar and my professor, Dr. Trible puts it, she is "intelligent, informed, perceptive. . . a theologian, ethicist, hermeneut and rabbi" who speaks with "clarity and authority" and who acts independently but without deception.
This story is not about sin. It is not about the inferiority of women. It is about knowledge. It is about the power of choice. If one buys into the constructed Original Sin/Fall interpretation, then one is required to see the human couple's acquisition of knowledge as problematic. But wouldn’t we want knowledge?
Clearly not everyone would. There seems to be an entire group of people who are choosing willful ignorance. Consider climate change deniers and Biblical literalists, for example. Consider that a man who regularly refuses scientific reality is now in charge of our country’s response to coronavirus, that the man recently received the presidential medal of freedom has told everyone listening to him on the radio that the coronavirus is nothing more than a cold, that the government refuses to study gun violence - it cannot be true that we all desire wisdom.
But a careful reading of Genesis 2 and 3 suggests that knowledge is necessary for human life. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is certainly not the mark of human maturity. It is certainly not how we make our best decisions. In John Milton’s retelling of this story he gives us the lines of your epigraph: “The World was all before them where to choose.” And indeed, it was and it is. Blame Eve if you want to but make sure your blame is a celebration of the power of choice.
This story is about the importance of careful decision making. And careful decision making surely is as much about our knowledge, not just of the options before us, but also our knowledge of ourselves, our identities.
Just before Jesus is tempted for forty days in the wilderness he is baptized. And at his baptism he hears the voice of God call him beloved much like the voice of God called all creation, including humans, tov meod - very good. Knowing himself to be beloved, to be part of the very good creation, Jesus goes to the desert.
‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Prove your worth, prove what you can do. Show me that you are not a fake - let’s see a miracle! Jesus says no. There’s more at stake here than hunger. I don’t need to prove anything. I know who I am - I am beloved.
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority . . . You are not enough, you do not have enough. You are what you have and you need more. All of this can be yours. This is the temptation of every commercial we have ever seen - you will be whole if your hair is shiny, your skin is clear; if your lawn is the envy of the neighborhood, if you have these clothes and this house. Capitalism prays on our willingness to believe we are not enough, that we don’t have enough, that we are incomplete that we will never be happy unless we are more unless we get more. Jesus says, no. This is about what’s important, it’s about what is worshiped. Jesus refuses to give his devotion to things. Jesus says no to jealousy and grasping.
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “God will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.” The pinnacle of the temple: they are in the most public place in Jerusalem. Everyone will see. Show them, Jesus, show them you are important, show them - just think of all the accolades, everyone will be so impressed. You are what people think of you. And Jesus says no. Instead of running around trying to make everyone happy, trying to earn approval, Jesus knows himself as beloved, as whole and he resists every temptation to forget this truth.
Jesus is tempted to see himself as lacking, tempted to get caught up in the never-ending striving to please others, to have what others have, to meet the expectations of others - to believe that he is deficient. But Jesus does not give into these temptations.
John Shelby Spong writes, “Jesus was portrayed simply as having the courage to be himself under any set of circumstances. The Being of Jesus thus issues in enormous freedom. It delivers us from the need to impress, to win, or to protect ourselves. It calls us only to be the self we are, the deepest self, the most real self. Being one’s most real self is a God quality.”
The serpent says Adam and Eve will be like God if they eat of the fruit, knowing good and evil, but they were already like God. They were made in God’s image. We are all made in the image of the divine. We are tov meod-very good. We are beloved.
This knowledge, this knowledge that we are beloved, that we are very good and have been since it all began, this knowledge is how we can make choices for health and hope and justice and peace, not just for ourselves but also extending into the lives of our families and our communities. We have enormous freedom to be our deepest, most real selves if only we will choose to use this freedom, to use the power of knowledge, to refuse to be swept away in the currents of grasping for what we do not have, seeking constantly for the approval of others.
I am not saying there is no room for improvement. Lent is an excellent time to seek to add a new habit or change an old habit. What I am saying is that our starting place matters. When we start from a place of knowing our identities as very good, as beloved, then our changes are made out of love, love for ourselves and the world rather than out of shame or grasping.
The other temptation many of us face perhaps especially in these days is to believe that we are powerless, insignificant, that nothing we do will make a difference in the face of so much oppression, bigotry, injustice. But we are the sons and daughters and children of Eve - the inheritors of wisdom and choice. We must refuse the temptation to live as though we don’t have any choices?
These days of Lent, whatever ways you might be considering making changes, please hold tight to your identity as beloved, your identity as very good. There is no need to keep up with the Joneses when you have divine approval, no need to grasp after people’s opinions when the God of Love has already declared you beloved. You are endowed with wisdom and choice. The world is all before us where to choose.
Written by Laura Mayo, March, 2020