outside view

Humanity’s Renouncement

Humanity’s Renouncement:  Creation 3.
Genesis 3: 1 – 24 
I changed the title of this sermon to ‘humanity’s renouncement’.  I thought it served the topic of Genesis chapter 3 far better than ‘restoring humanity’ as previously advertised.
What does Genesis 3 say to us? In the old language and traditional theology it’s the story of the ‘Fall of Man (sic)’. It is the story how a man and a woman fell out of favour with God by asserting their wills against God’s. It was an act of disobedience. It’s what we call ‘sin’.
This ancient Hebrew story about the origin of humankind and ‘sin’ is frustrating and simultaneously insightful. First of all I am frustrated how the snake appears as the crafty animal when I would give that appellation to a monkey or fox. Why the poor snake? It is harmless. It spends most of its time sleeping. If it hears us it slither away. If it does strike us its because we have surprised it. That’s why the canny bushwalker will be careful where s/he walks and simultaneously make a noise. The likelihood is that the first walker will not be attacked but the second, because the first walker disturbs the snake. So why the snake? Is it because we are frightened of a creature that slithers and slides silently and carries within it a poison that could kill us?  The second problem with this text is the role of the woman. Clearly she is the cause of every ill of humankind. I won’t go there except to say it seems that a man confused by the mystery and power of a woman wrote this interpretation. Thirdly, God’s rule about a tree in the centre of the Garden seems absurd. Rather silly isn’t it.  There is enough to dismiss this story.  Clearly I don’t take it literally. However these three objections I raise are minor points to the story. The germ of this story lies in the relationship between God and humans.  The Bible is about relationships and in particular ours with God and how that affects others.  The interpretation and insight I will offer to you is supported by the stories that follow Genesis chapter 3 – the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the tower of Babel.  Each one of those stories is about our relationship with God and God’s with us.
Genesis 3 tells us something very important. The story uses traditional images. The slithering snake represents slyness and sneakiness. The tree is a rich metaphor for life, family relationships, or other things that are explained by a root and branch system.  The tree in the Garden of Eden represents life and knowledge in god-like proportions.  In Genesis 2 verse 9 we read that the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And a few verses later humans are told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good … , for they (you) shall die. [Gen 2:17] This story is to be taken for its message not its detail.
The plain meaning of this story is the Word of God. This story is full of imagery. What happens is that this man and woman, representing humanity, decide to know about life and death, good and evil.  They choose to go against the wisdom of God, and in doing so they become aware of themselves.  They see their nakedness, they uncover their fears, they unlock their jealousies and close the gates to a life of harmony with nature and God.
The man and woman cover their bodies as they recognise the nakedness of their fears and jealousies. They must cover themselves. That is, they must not let people see their true self with its fears and insecurities. This means they are alienated from their very selves. You know we are like that. We have our masks and pretences that hide the real self not only from others but also from ourselves. Then the man and the woman hide behind trees so God cannot see them! Yes, we too have our ways of running away and hiding from God.  Ours are a tad more sophisticated. Some of us are very clever and hide behind our knowledge, always keeping the question going with more thinking so we don’t have to act. We’re still working it out. Our intellectual rumination justifies our inaction. We hide from God by never stopping to think about God. Our busyness is the excuse for our lack of commitment to God.  Or we hide from God by our organisation. Our well organised services and controlled liturgies ensure that we remain in control. Of course our pretence of nice social behaviour helps protect us from the prying prompts of the Holy Spirit. Our alienation as humans is most evident in our putting the blame on others.  All this is symbolised in the man and woman sewing fig leaves to hide their nakedness, their hiding from God in the forest and when confronted by God the man blaming the woman and the woman the snake. Oh, what a common human scene. The man says to God,  “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”   The woman replies, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”  [Gen 3: 12,13] I love the man’s response for it implies that it is really God’s fault for giving him the woman!  Do you see that in these actions and exchanges we see humanity’s deep seated alienation – our separation from God and others.  No wonder when we reject God we end up as alienated people fearing and fighting each other. Read or listen to the media through this lens and you will see Genesis 3 re-lived. This is an alienated world. ‘The Asians are taking over our land, we’re being swamped by Muslims and its all the fault of these illegal migrants!’ This talk, this alienation, leads to tribalism. Tribalism is the death of the community of humanity. We’re in great need of redemption. Tribalism is the death of community. Yes, if you eat of this tree you will die.  The Bible is right.  All this leads to a spiritual death.
The Genesis 3 story of the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden tells us that humanity asserts its will against God and in doing so renounces being created in the image of God. Consequently humanity experiences alienation.  The assertion of my will against God and others is a declaration of wanting to be the-god-of-my-life.  I want to be in charge. This assertion lies deep within humanity. Genesis 3 begins to tell the story. The following chapters build upon this foundation of humankind’s assertion of self and alienation.  Cain, the tiller of the soil, kills Abel, the sheep grazier. Again reading that story literally doesn’t help us understand the issue that there is tension between two brothers. This tension has to do with their rights to the land. One works a designated piece of land and sows crops. The other grazes his flocks across the land. In the story of Cain and Abel we find the story of our lives about the boundaries we want to keep, preserve or extend.  It is a story about the boundaries that we refuse to acknowledge and respect. It is the micro-story of the world’s macro-story about control over the earth’s resources.
The story of the Tower of Babel reinforces this point and the metaphor almost becomes a literal description. Earth is where humankind lives. Heaven is where God is. Humankind, through a new technology – the discovery of bricks and mortar – build a tower that reaches heaven. The Tower of Babel story is about humankind’s desire to be one with the gods. We want to get to heaven by our own resources. This same wisdom prevails today. The people who built the tower of Babel thought they were clever enough to reach heaven. Today we believe our scientific knowledge and technology will provide all the answers.
Right now we live in a time where our marvellous knowledge base, our incredible technology and amazing new scientific discoveries are empowering us with knowledge, technology and power to do things as never before.  It is wonderful, but for one thing.  At this very time in history we face these two enormous challenges to our existence from Global Warming and the massive Displacement of Peoples.  I speak of ‘displaced people’ describing those people who have been forced from their normal dwelling place. Refugees are displaced persons who have crossed the border of their homeland.  How many displaced persons are there in the world today? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimate that in 2015 there was an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world, who have been forced from their home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.  54% of refugees came from Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan.
For all our scientific and technological development we cannot improve on our human relations. In our country mental health is an issue. For all our wealth, knowledge and technology we are unable to improve our relationships and quality of life.  At least we fool ourselves that our lives have improved by the fact that we can buy more things. We’re too proud to acknowledge the wisdom of holy Scripture that tells us that our pathways to self-autonomy and self-assertion will lead to death: the death of the human spirit; the death of our community structures; and, the death of our wealth and health.  The whole issue at stake in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is our relationship with God the Creator and the rest of Creation. All else is really the supplementary story expressed at times in poetry or metaphors that defy rational explanation.  We’re created in God’s image to be good stewards of the world, proclaimers of God and God’s justice for all. When we assert our wills we renounce our status as bearers of God’s image.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  18/09/2016
 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org.au