Those of us who argue that not every word of the Bible is literally, factually true, are often looked at as not taking it seriously by Christians who treat it as factually true. But, I actually think not taking it literally frees us up to connect to the power that is story—to connect to truths that are deeper than fact. As John Dominic Crossan writes, “…it 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.”
Because, if you think about it, stories are how we make sense of the world, how we build meaning. Stories help us place ourselves in the sweep of history—help us identify our people and see how they lived. They help us understand why we are the way we are. And they help us understand that, even when we are sure we are one of a kind we are really just the most recent players in the age-old dramas of life and death that connect us to every other human being who has ever walked the face of this earth.
That is what our story from Genesis really is—our ancient family story that tells us some truths about ourselves; our ambition and appetite, our curiosity and daring, and how blindly we can make life changing decisions for which we are soon really, really sorry. You may have learned that this story is about the Fall, or Original Sin—how we were contaminated with congenital germs of evil and death that are always lurking beneath the surface unless we are very stern with ourselves and remain on our best, most holy behavior always. But neither the Fall nor Original Sin appear in the Bible—they were labels added later to try to make sense of the story and figure out what the lesson is so we don’t keep on making the same mistake over and over again. But the story is not really interested in that, that is not what it is about, it is simply a story about God, people, a choice and the consequences. It is a story that tells us how we fail and, perhaps more importantly, how we go on—how we survive. How did Adam and Eve go on knowing they had really messed up, defying God who had so recently created them and breathed life into them? How did they create a future from such a brief, ugly past? How did they survive after Eden?
They had lived for a time in Paradise—described by the biblical writer as a place of perfection and fullness—a green, lush place with everything a person could want. A place with no chips or dents or scars. A place safe enough, comfortable enough a person could walk around stark naked without giving it a second thought—in fact, without even knowing you were naked. All that was required to continue this way forever was to stay away from that one tree.
And of course, that was just too much. Eve stood staring at it and the serpent, always lurking about, made its move—engaging in the first religious debate in history with Eve and winning. She ate it—so did Adam—and all was lost.
I am guessing you, like me, can relate to this. Can see, in your mind’s eye, your own hand reaching out—almost against your will—picking the fruit and bringing it towards your mouth. Part of you knows this is going to be a disaster, but you just can’t help it—the fruit is so tempting. And the next thing you know you have a mouth full of apple and everything has changed. The sun stops shining and the breeze changes from gentle and warm to brisk and cold. You take a look around and suddenly you know you are naked, exposed—just like in one of those dreams. And you are rooted to the ground- unable to run or cover yourself. Frozen in place forever, naked as a jaybird, for all to see.
Of course, that is not quite what happened to Adam and Eve. They were able to run—and they hid. Hid from their friend, their beloved. Who, of course, came looking for them. And as soon as God finds them the blame game begins. It was Eve’s fault, she gave me the apple. It was the snake’s fault. It was a race to throw the other under the bus first. And God, heart-breaking, tells them the consequences; pain, toil, dust. Catastrophe.
You know how it is—you do one thing wrong and a cascade of catastrophes happen-lost jobs, failing grades, broken relationships—and there is no undoing it. And then, in the aftermath, the blame game. It is the other person’s fault, of course. And you get to be righteously angry—and a victim, waiting for the other person to fix it, because it is all the other person’s to fix. Or it is your own fault—and you can punish yourself for a long, long time eventually either becoming afraid to ever engage in life again or driving yourself ridiculously hard, not settling for anything less than elusive, impossible perfection. Or you can blame God for making the world the way it is—who made the snake, after all?
There are stories that didn’t make it into the Bible about what happened to Adam and Eve after Eden. They may not have made it into the Bible, but I think they have something to say about humans and God anyway. One of them, called the First Book of Adam and Eve, tells that God gave Adam and Eve a cave to live in just east of Eden, where they sat in shock for months after their expulsion from Paradise. Telling each other the tragic story over and over again, trying to make sense of it. Eve offered to kill herself if God would let Adam back in the garden, but Adam would have none of that—though he tried to kill himself by jumping off a cliff. Then they beat their chests and begged God to let them back into Eden. God, sadly, said that couldn’t happen—even God could not go back on the Holy Word. But God did send angels to sing to them and sprinkle scented water on them to cool them—which didn’t really seem to help. For 83 days they refused food and drink, fearful they would sin again. God gave them a fountain of fresh water to drink but had to take it away when they tried to drown themselves in it. God sent them figs to eat but they left them for the birds.
Finally, when they were speechless, starving and freezing, they let God teach them how to sew sheepskins together to make clothes—to cover their nakedness. God sat down right next to them demonstrating how to use the needle and thread. And an angel told them, “Fear not, the God who created you will strengthen you.” And God did exactly that. The serpent hung around and was a problem from time to time, but Adam and Eve had made the decision to live. They found scraps of wood and stones and built an altar first, then a home. They learned how to plant and harvest so they could make bread and how to get honey from the bees. Eventually they had 5 children. Out of their broken, sorry past, they made a future in the world we live in. Of course it had cracks, places where you could see things had been glued together—something of a testament to our God who seems to work well with broken things and wants us to do the same.
This is our story. It contains it all: promise, failure, blame, guilt, forgiveness, healing, hope and love. A story about the God who created us, whose heart broke when we turned away, and who seeks us out continually—recreating us—because nothing God created can be ruined for good.
This really is our story.
*With thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor whose thoughts influenced this sermon.