Talking serpents, miracles, God incarnate, resurrection...how can a person believe this stuff? Is such belief necessary to truly have faith? Do we all have to agree on what these things really mean? During this Lenten season, we will explore ideas and stories from the Bible that can be intellectually challenging, to see how these things might be for us more than obstacles on our spiritual journey. What can be gleaned that is life-giving, hopeful, encouraging? How can we sharpen our own thinking about these tricky aspects of our faith tradition? Join us for this adventure and exploration as travel together toward Holy Week and Easter.
The Devil Made Me Do It
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 1, 2020, first Sunday of Lent. “How Can You Believe This?” series.
Text: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Humans are storytelling creatures. We love stories. It is widely affirmed that from the time that language came into existence, humans have spoken, sung, danced, and acted out stories—stories that help people know their history, explain why things are the way they are, imagine their place in the universe, laugh at the foibles and earthy realities of life together, celebrate desire and love, and express all the other human experiences of beauty and brokenness in life. Most of the stories in our Bible began as spoken or sung tales, repeated over and over until language found its way into written characters. The stories originated in particular cultures and times and communities and were spoken in languages whose words and idioms are difficult to faithfully translate into our own. So, even though biblical stories are pretty engaging on the surface, interpretation is required. Because these are not just good stories, but narratives that interpret the world, interpret us, what it means to be human, what it means to be in relationship with God and with one another.
A problem is that there are interpretations of core stories in the Bible that have been proffered as the only correct and true interpretation and these are what tend to be most prevalent in the collective imagination. And these hardened and often deeply erroneous interpretations lead those outside the tradition—and, often, us too!—to ask “how can you believe this?” How in the world is that helpful, lifegiving, or meaningful?? What kind of God do you follow?
Today we get an excerpt from a doozy of an example. The story in Genesis 2-3 is the second biblical description of how God created life. Distinguished feminist scholar of Old Testament, Phyllis Trible says, “According to traditional interpretations, [this story] is about ‘Adam and Eve.’ It proclaims male superiority and female inferiority as the will of God. It portrays woman as ‘temptress’ and troublemaker who is dependent upon and dominated by her husband.”
We know other derivatives of this—that the snake is the symbol of the devil, that the devil came to the woman because she was weaker—more susceptible to temptation and manipulation, that the woman’s wiles—connected negatively with sexuality—can be blamed for Adam’s transgression, that this story confirms that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” These interpretations are not benign, but rather support and inspire violence, suppression, blame, denial, and countless other human transgressions. And yet they have continued to be given credence.
Trible, based on her close reading of the story in its original language and literary context, contends that none of the citations from the story used to support this stuff are accurate and most are not actually present in the story itself. There is not sufficient time to share the fullness of Trible’s insight, but I want to look closely at several key pieces of this story in order to disrupt at least some of the assumptions about this rich story.
First, let’s talk about the word translated “man.” The Hebrew word is ha-adam, a play on the word for earth (dust/ground): ha-adamah. Out of the ha-adamah God created the ha-adam. For all of Genesis 2 the appropriate translation for ha-adam is not “man” but “earth creature.” At this point, there is no sexual identification. The earth creature’s pronouns might appropriately be “they/them/theirs”—for this creature holds in its earthy body, the stuff that will become is/issah, male/female, later in story. The earth creature is formed of earth and patted into shape by Yahweh God who then breathes into them the breath of life.
God plants a garden and sets the earth creature in the garden to tend and guard it. God gives the ha-adam this guidance: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Gen 2:16-17) Notice here three important details.
First, God has provided all the earth creature needs to live—every tree is available to feed the creature, including the precious tree of life.
Second, there is only one tree that’s off-limits—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequence for eating of that tree is death. The name of the tree signals the choice before the earth creature—adherence to the life-giving limits set by Yahweh God (good) or disobedience with its death-dealing consequence (evil). God sets a limit in order to keep the earth creature safe, in harmony…alive.
Finally, notice that the same act—in this case, eating—can result in very different consequences depending upon whether the wise, healthy boundaries are honored. If you receive sustenance from this tree all is well, but if you seek sustenance from the tree that’s out of bounds, things get broken, harmony is lost. Can you imagine any activity that, if not kept within healthy boundaries can break bodies, relationships, trust? //
Trible writes, “According to Yahweh God, what the earth creature needs is a companion who is neither subordinate nor superior; one who alleviates isolation through identity.” From one flesh, diverse bodies are created, bodies drawn to and desirous of the other to again be “one flesh.” In Genesis 2:25 we read, “Now they both were naked, the man and …woman and they were not ashamed.” The nakedness is a symbol and sign of what Trible calls “holy insecurity.” There are threats to the creatures, but in their most primal created nature they know themselves secure in Yahweh God. They know and trust the provision and parameters of God. This allows them to live without shame or fear.
I am referring to pieces of the story we did not hear today in order to set proper context for the encounter of the woman and the serpent that we did hear. These two have gotten a very bad rap over the centuries.
The “naked”—trusting, vulnerable—woman and man encounter the serpent who was more crafty than “all the wild animals that the Lord God had made.” This last bit is key; the serpent is not an evil power apart from God’s creation—not the “devil”—but is rather a creature who uses the gifts of its created nature (its cunning) and becomes a tempter. There are all sorts of associations we can make about this—not least of which the power of “reptilian brain” to incite fear when it is likely unnecessary. In the literary context of Genesis 2-3, the reptile becomes a plot device to bring to the fore the real issue: the life and death choice between obedience and disobedience, between trusting the provision and protection of God or allowing fear to incite a grasping for power and control.
The serpent engages the woman in theological conversation. Trible notes that neither uses the formal name for God—translated “Lord God” (Yahweh God)—but instead speak of generic, impersonal “God.” Think about how much easier it is to ignore, bully, or betray someone when you depersonalize and make them an object or stereotype… And the serpent asks a leading question: “Did God say you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” Tricky. God had said all but one. So the serpent highlights not the generosity and abundance, but the limit set by God. The woman answers with strength and clarity. And then the serpent—who is this creature??!—has the audacity to claim knowledge of God and proceeds to interpret what God really meant when setting the boundary around the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “You won’t die. You’ll be like God.” You won’t be diminished or lost anything or break any healthy relationship or do damage to your body or soul if you cross this line, you will be more powerful, more alive, more fulfilled! You will know “good and evil.”
I guess if you are the original earth creatures you don’t know what you don’t know. Who would want to know evil??
And then comes the moment of truth, the turning point in the story—in this story and in our own. “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.” (Gen 3:6)
Trible highlights the agency of the woman. “Three actions immediately follow three insights…Taking, eating, giving: these actions by the woman do not tell the whole tale of disobedience. The story is careful to specify that the man is with her…Yet throughout this scene the man has remained silent; he does not speak for obedience. His presence is passive…The contrast that he offers to the woman is not strength or resolve…The story does not say that she tempted him…It does not present him as reluctant or hesitating.” The point is that the woman and the man illustrate the range of human responses to temptation and transgression. “Both activity and passivity, initiative and acquiescence, are equal modes of lawlessness.” The woman and man were mutually responsible for their actions. The woman is not the villain, nor the innocent victim of “the devil who made her do it.” The man is not the innocent victim of the temptress woman—the “devil” who made him do it.
The woman and man both eat what Yahweh God warned would do harm; and paradise is lost, the life of perfect love and freedom, of harmony, mutuality, openness, vulnerability without fear, trust, interdependence is gone. The sexually differentiated earth creatures who once were naked and unashamed now feel the need to hide. They hide their bodies with “loincloths.” And if you read the rest of the story you see that they hide from God, too. The creatures go from a state of not needing defenses, to becoming defensive when Yahweh God seeks them out. Hiding, defensiveness, denials, rationalizations, blame, and discord between people once united. That’s the prize for eating the forbidden fruit.
I find it fascinating that this story—this story!—has been used to try to make LGBTQ persons hide, to make human sexual desire feel shameful, to blame women for everything, and to rationalize all sorts of violence. Why, do you imagine, is this so…?