Questions in the Desert of our Existence

Questions in the Desert of our Existence

Glynn Cardy

Sun 05 Mar

The story of Jesus going into the wilderness, the mythical borderlands of faith, for 40 days and 40 nights, where he allegedly wrestled with his ‘demon/s’, provides the liturgical framework for the season of Lent.  And maybe it was even written with liturgy in mind, to remind us that struggle is, and has always been, part of faith and life.

The reading from Genesis[i] this morning – well-known in popular thought and literature as Adam, Eve, the apple, and snake – correlates with this theme of struggle.  Genesis means ‘beginning’.

Due to biblical literalism, which tries to make every piece of writing in the Bible historically factual, it’s important to remind ourselves that the two accounts of the beginning of life in Genesis[ii] are both myths.  Myths were regarded in the premodern world as a form of psychology, charting the inner world – somewhat how a good novel today gives us fresh insights into human life and behaviour.  Importantly, these origin myths in Genesis for their authors and audience were part of the religious quest for meaning in the midst of an often chaotic and brutal existence.

So, to speak plainly, there was no literal 7 day creation, no literal Garden of Eden, no literal man called Adam or woman called Eve, no talking snake, and no God who literally strolled with them in the cool of the evening.  As Martin Luther, the great leader of the 16th century Reformation once said: “God doesn’t walk!”

But this does not mean these stories are devoid of truth.

One of the first things to notice is that there are two creation stories, put side by side, with significant and contradictory differences.  Our forebears did not try to harmonize the accounts.  Indeed it is if they were saying not only is there more than one way to understand our origins, but right from the beginning there are conflicts in understanding, and in life itself, that we must wrestle with.

The first story has an omnipotent God who creates the world, makes men and women on the 6th day in ‘God’s image’, tells them to ‘fill and subdue the earth’ (I think we would write that differently today!), and declares everything ‘good’.  This ideal world is ordered, good, and God is in control.[iii] 

The second origins story in Genesis 2:4ff is quite different.  A spring rose from the earth and enabled vegetable, animal, and human life to flourish.  God did not imperiously summon all things into being but like a potter fashioned humanity (Adam) from the earth (Adamah) and then breathed life into gender undifferentiated humanity.  (The differentiation came with the split to Eve[iv]).

This 2nd origins story introduced not an ordered world, but a perplexing one.  There were two trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God forbade Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge but gave no reason for this arbitrary prohibition.  So instead of all things being declared ‘good’, now something is ‘bad’.  And to add to this alleged ‘badness’ is the talking snake.

Ever since Augustine developed his doctrine of original sin in the 5th century, Western Christians have read this story of Adam and Eve as a fall from innocence to guilt.  Many have believed that Jesus’ death was to save us from the sin of Adam, inherited by all human beings.

But, with apologies to Augustine, the story in Genesis is less concerned with morality and more interested in the existential reality our separation from the divine source of all existence.  Nearly all cultures have myths of origin where there is a golden age of harmony with the environment and the divine – no sickness, death, or discord.  We desperately want to believe that life was not meant to be so painful and fragmented, and we struggle when it is.

The author of this second Genesis account (usually we call this author J, or the Yahwehist) did not regard the disobedience of Adam and Eve as unique and decisive.  The separation from God was a process that had begun long before the apple was plucked.  J believed that once the creative process got underway, separation from God was inevitable.  (I suppose it’s a bit like how once a child is born he/she will one day grow up, disagree with their parents, and leave home – though maybe not in that order!).

God, in J’s account, had already begun to lose touch with Adam before the arrival of Eve or the snake.  In chapter 2:18ff. God could see Adam was lonely, and in an attempt to rectify that made the animals.  The text takes a comic turn at this point: like an eager matchmaker, God presented the inexperienced Adam with one animal after another.  Bison?  Elephant?  Kangaroo?  You like??

How could this God have imagined for one moment that Adam would find a mate this way?  The all-powerful and all-knowing God of Genesis 1 was now unable to fathom the desires and needs of His creature.  In other words God and the human were already becoming separate and incomprehensible to each other.   The cause of this separation was not sin but had been inherent in the creative process from the beginning.

In J’s story Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden because they aspired to divine wisdom and knowledge.  But there is a problem here, for humanity was fashioned in God’s image and therefore genetically programmed to not only wish to exercise freedom of choice but to long to see as a God sees.  Humanity was bound to yearn for divine wisdom and knowledge.  As Jung said, any image harkens after its archetype and seeks to resemble it more closely.

Now the talking snake is interesting.  It seems to be like a trickster, a jester, outside of the usual frame of reference, who can question God’s kingly decrees objectively.  Philosophically it poses the question of whether inquiry and rebellion lies at the root of what it means to be human.  But J was not a philosopher.  He didn’t try to explain how rebellion could exist in a world pronounced ‘good’ by a morally perfect deity.  This was just one more of the imponderable problems that exist in the gracious but perplexing world that we humans live in.

In the course of Eve’s conversation with the snake, Eve says that not only can’t she eat the apple, she can’t touch it (which is her words, not God’s), otherwise she’ll die.  But the snake says, ‘Ahh, come off it, you’re not going to die, and your eyes will be opened – knowing good and evil.”  And you know what?  The snake was more truthful than God.  Adam allegedly lived for a 1,000 years, and indeed their eyes were opened… but divine wisdom eluded them.  What they did acquire was a new painful knowledge of their frailty in what was becoming an increasingly difficult world.

Of course later Christian commentators would construct an anti-woman and anti-sex thing around Eve and that apple.  Woman would be blamed for man’s fall into “original sin”, and the snake likened to Satan.  But the snake, after this incident, goes off stage and never reappears in Genesis.  And trust me there is lots of murder, rape, and evil in the rest of the Genesis saga where snaky could have made a reappearance!

No, what J’s story, the 2nd origins story, is about is depicting the timeless human predicament: adam is every human; Eve and the snake are both aspects of humanity.  We have all experienced the inner conflict that works against our best interests.  Like Eve, we are greedy for life and ‘blessing’.  Like the snake we have an inherent tendency to question and rebel.  These attributes can be destructive, but they have also been responsible for some of the most admirable achievements of men and women.  Failing, sin if you like, is simply a fact of life, not an unmanageable catastrophe.  Maybe blame – Adam blaming Eve, Eve blaming the snake, God blaming them all – is the most destructive part of this story.

So this Lent, in our quest for meaning, our wrestling, in our desert places, we might ask:

Is God endlessly good, and if so how come there are seemingly moral traps set for us?  And if we are in a trap, how might we find our way out?

Is life a blessing?  And if so why do we have to work so hard, and why do we get sick?

Why, when things go wrong, do we blame and mistrust each other?

Why is God so hard to access, so distant when we need to understand so many things… and why so distant when we need comfort and support?

These are some of the questions of the desert, the borderlands.  And they have been with us from the beginning.

[i] I have used as a reference text for most of this sermon Karen Armstrong’s In The Beginning.

[ii] Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:4-3:24

[iii] As an aside, right from the first verse in the Bible, there have been difficulties around translation and interpretation.  Usually the first verses are translated as “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” etcetera “And then God said, Let there be light”.   They can also though be translated as “At the beginning of God’s creating” etcetera “God said: Let there be light”.  The first version has God creating out of nothing.  The second version has God imposing order on what is – namely the evolved universe.  My point is not that one version is the correct translation and other isn’t, but that from the beginning people of faith have had to wrestle with these texts.

[iv] See Phyllis Trible’s work