Where Did It All Go Wrong?

A Reflection on Genesis 3:1–24

1. Certain Death
Many people are quick to dismiss the Bible—often without pause to think what it is they might be disowning. There is, however, an assertion of the Bible that is difficult to deny. Written on most pages, in different ways, is the bad news that precedes the good news we have in Christ Jesus. This underpinning claim is that the world is broken, and that humankind is at the heart of this problem.

We readily believe this biblical claim because it is evident all around us. Our newspapers, news channels and social media are filled with enough evidence to prove, beyond any doubt, that something is wrong with this world. Organised crime, sexual violence, war, and environmental damage, to name just four, cover a multitude of sins.

Early in Genesis we read this:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:16–17, NIV

Surely, on this basis, we now know what to expect if Adam should ignore God? This is storytelling at its bluntest: “you will certainly die” says God to Adam.

We have all seen TV dramas where what happens next is so obviously set-up, we don’t feel the need to watch the next couple of minutes. In the UK this is embodied in the hospital drama Casualty. The opening scene might have an elderly couple whose car breaks down close to a bend in a very narrow country lane. They get out of their vehicle to see what they can do. The camera cuts to a group of young people in a car. They are acting boisterously with more than a hint that alcohol, as well as the passengers, are impairing the driver. On this limited evidence we know what happens next.

In Genesis when Eve and Adam eat the fruit, they don’t drop down dead—this is no poisonous apricot. Nor is God’s judgement an instantaneous bolt of lightning from heaven. Rather, Genesis 3 is a slow unfolding car crash, far worse than two people poisoned or fried by lightening.

2. Naked Wisdom
Some people struggle with the apparent arbitrary nature of God’s command to Adam and Eve.

. . . but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:17, NIV

But this is the heart of the story. Captured in this act of eating a singular specific fruit, is our failure to recognise the creaturely need for instruction from the creator. To ignore God’s instruction is a denial that we are creatures, and a choice to break the created order.

Both biblical wisdom and our everyday experience testify that we are our own worst enemies. John Donne puts it well:

Nothing but man of all envenomed things,
     doth work upon itself, with inborn stings.
John Donne

In Genesis 3 we notice that the snake craftily nudges Adam and Eve:

but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
Genesis 3:3, NIV

The added emphasis on touch seems to exaggerate the sense arbitrariness and invites another sense. They have seen this fruit, they know they should not taste it, and now the serpent suggests even touching it is out of the question. And yet the snake makes a good point:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:5, NIV

There is nothing in this story to suggest that either Adam or Eve are more at fault. The women sins by her words, the man by his silence. But to even think about the blame game is a mistake. They fall into temptation as one, just as they are united in one flesh in Genesis 2. They fall as one, and this joint act sows the seed of future disunity.

They acted unwisely at the most fundamental of levels—by not fearing God. Where has their earthly wisdom got them? The first fruit of their action is the irreversible road to perceive right and wrong for themselves rather than looking to God. They now question everything, and most fundamentally they know shame. They know they have betrayed the one that made their bodies, and that they are naked before him.

3. Poetic Justice
Death is now inevitable as there will be no opportunity to eat of the tree of life. The good of creation—captured in the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2—has been marred. Genesis 3 captures the consequences in poetry. It is laid out in short lines in the NIV, and other most modern translations, to show this form. But why poetry? Its form highlights the importance of these verses. The consequences started with the first humans, but they are still with us today.

Hebrew poetry testifies to divine order even amid disorder. Some of the most difficult parts of the First Testament are poetry. The consequences of the fall are undoubtedly negative, but they are part of bigger story guided by a God of order.

The poetic justice is that Eve labours to bear children and Adam labours to grow food. Life is a struggle in this broken creation. And we know all of this is worked out in a morass of complexity to this day, and ironically amid a divisive web of irreconcilably different interpretations.

4. East of Eden
The first couple were made from dust—with no access to the tree of life, to dust they will return. Rather oddly, Adam only names his wife as Eve after the fall. Might it be that they were so united in idyllic Eden that they went by a single name? In any case Adam and Eve will both become adamah, or earth, on their death.

Now East of Eden, we can only guess how much they may have looked hopefully West, longing to go back to the garden and to be with God. In Near-Eastern and European culture the West has often been looked to in hope—the place where the sun sets as the place of blessing. Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth will know the haunting appeal of the Undying Lands:

But islands lie behind the Sun,
That I shall raise ere all is done.
Lands there are to west of West,
Where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Bilbo’s Last Song, JRR Tolkien

The problem is that there is no way back. Rather than the wide ocean of Tolkien’s fiction, Adam and Eve are thwarted by cherubim and a flaming sword. The way to God is shut.

And yet for us, on this Earth, the fate of the snake offers us hope:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:15, NIV

Later theology sees this as the conflict between Church and the evil one. Genesis 3 might be the bad news. But this self-evident broken world is a constant reminder of the one who will redeem it, and us, by destroying evil, sin and death. It also provides the starting point for conversation with those who hastily dismiss the Bible—for they know the reality of the bad news, and this is the start of the road to the quiet and rest of the good news.

J is for John Donne

John Donne (1572–1631) was a poet and in later life an Anglican priest. The penitential psalms were dear to Donne, and of his many surviving sermons nineteen are based on these texts. Only one sermon, however, is on Psalm 51. This sermon, and his understanding of this psalm, is of great importance for understanding Donne, as we find his bold theology of preaching crystallised there. His sermon is more specifically on verse 7. The NRSV and Latin texts of this verse are:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Psalm 51:7, NRSV

Asparges me hysopo et mundabor
lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor
Psalm 50:9, Latin text and versification

Donne’s sermon on this verse is remarkable in what it reveals of Donne’s sacramental theology of preaching. It is clear that he anticipates both the work of the Spirt and the response of his listeners to enable the cleansing so central to this verse:

God hath given us a free and publike passage of his Word, and Sacraments, the diet and the ordinary food of our souls, and he purges us with that Hyssope, with the application of his promise, with the absolution of our sins, with a redintegration into his mysticall body, by the seales of reconciliation. And this reconciliation to God, by the blood of Christ, applied in the Ordinances of the Church, is that which David begs for his cleansing, and is the last circumstance of this branch, Purge me with Hyssope, and I shall be clean.

In his sermon Donne makes much of the ongoing practice of the ritual of Asperges. This ritual is closely connected with Psalm 51:7 and its Latin text [50:9], see above. In such an act, worshippers are sprinkled with water using an aspergillum. The act of sprinkling stands in a rich biblical and liturgical trajectory. It culminates in an understanding that grace might be ‘sprinkled’ in accordance with the mercy of God through the means of the biblical text expounded by the preacher. In Numbers 19:18, hyssop and water are used for cleansing:

then a clean person shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the furnishings, on the persons who were there, and on whoever touched the bone, the slain, the corpse, or the grave.
Numbers 19:18, NRSV

The book of Ezekiel uses imagery of water sprinkling in association with the cleansing of exiles:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
Ezekiel 36:25, NRSV

These Biblical texts gave rise to rites involving sprinkling in the time of the Church Fathers. Although some Reformers were not fond of such acts, in Donne’s time this functioned as a reminder of the worshipper’s baptism and a reflective aide memoir regarding God’s salvific grace—the mercy both described and offered in Psalm 51. Donne’s claim from Psalm 51 is radical—preaching is a means of grace.

Bibliography
John Donne’s sermons are available online from Brigham Young University, see:

https://lib.byu.edu/collections/john-donne-sermons/about/search-guidelines/