There are so many questions to ask about our world and how things came to be. Why do people wear clothes and animals do not? Why don’t snakes have legs? How did we learn the difference between right and wrong? What was the first thing a person did that caused division or harm in a relationship? Why do people always blame others for their own mistakes? Why are things the way they are?
An etiology is a kind of story that explains the beginnings of something. It answers the questions of why and how things came to be. Much of Genesis is made up of etiological stories. The writers of Genesis were not witnesses to these things, but were writing down stories from a very old oral tradition. The Israelites, like people everywhere, told stories to explain why things were the way they were. Many etiological stories were not necessarily meant to be historical stories, but were rather ways of expressing fundamental truths in ways that people could understand and easily remember for the next generation.
People wanted to understand why humans live in an imperfect world. Did God create it that way? Or did we somehow mess it up? Where does evil or sin or imperfection come from? Our Old Testament lesson today, Genesis 3:8-15, is an attempt to explain these things. The things I want to focus on today are: evil, wisdom and blame.
Philosophers and theologians have explored the concept of evil and tried to figure out how much it is an external or an internal force. This story from Genesis is often used to support the idea of a personification of evil or a being of evil. The text itself does not ever say that the serpent is Satan or even evil, which is an interpretation that came much later. Paul identified the snake as Satan in 2 Corinthians and John did so in the book of Revelation. Part of the reason why they identified the snake as Satan is their connecting the sin and evil beginning with Adam and Eve and then Jesus Christ being necessary to take away our sins and defeat evil.
I think it must be noted that whoever or whatever this serpent is, all it did was ask a question and state the truth – it didn't force anyone to do anything or directly cause something to happen. The human beings in the story, Adam and Eve, were the ones to take action.
The verses before our reading today fill in more of the story, but seeing as how it is such a familiar story I will not reread it but rather highlight the main points.
Depending upon translation, the serpent is described as crafty or cunning – which are words about intelligence that often have negative connotations. However, the Hebrew word used here is used elsewhere in scripture in more positive lights, such as crafty and prudent (Proverbs 12:16) or clever (Proverbs 12:23; 13:16; 14:8; and 22:3).
The serpent and Eve were having the conversation, but the text tells us that Adam was there. The snake asks a question: ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ (Gen 3: 1) Eve answered that there was one tree that if you ate from it or even touched it you would die. The snake told her the truth: “‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen 3:4) This was technically true – Adam and Eve did not die from touching or eating from this tree. And they did know the difference between good and evil. Do you realize what knowing the difference between good and evil is? It is called wisdom.
Now you might be wondering – if the snake caused wisdom instead of sin then how come it was cursed by God?
Eating from the tree can be described as the first sin in that it was the first act of disobedience, but it can also be described as the birth of wisdom – of knowing right from wrong. And while disobeying God is a bad thing, wisdom is a mixed blessing. Ask any nerd in school – wisdom is both a blessing and a curse. Wisdom can lead you to many possibilities – some beneficial, some harmful, some neutral. Wisdom is a deep understanding of our world and what is possible; this has led to the creation of tools that can be used for good and can also be used for great evil. It’s up to the people what they do.
This brings me to the concept of blame. When confronted by God about what happened, Adam and Eve’s response was classic. Neither claimed responsibility but passed the blame along. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent. If the serpent had been asked, it probably would have passed the blame back to Adam and Eve. I think the fault rests with Adam and Eve equally. No one forced them to disobey God. They saw something that they wanted and they took it. Taking what we want without considering the cost and passing the blame to others is human nature, and definitely not a good thing.
When we were dating, Dave and I went on a road trip, and stopped in Chicago. One morning we decided to go to the aquarium, and we debated whether or not we needed to bring our jackets. It was a little chilly and there was a chance of rain. For some reason I decided that we didn't need our jackets, and Dave went along with my decision. The aquarium was lots of fun, and when we left we had the choice of flagging taking a normal cab back to the hotel or a water taxi. The water taxi seemed like a novel idea, and Dave decided that we should wait for one to arrive. I went along with his decision. We had a long wait for the taxi to arrive and then for it to leave, and meanwhile clouds were gathering and the sky was growing darker. By the time we were on the boat and on our way it started raining. There was no top to the boat and the rain was freezing cold. It was miserable. The amazing thing was that we just laughed. We could have had a major fight about whose fault it was – my fault for leaving the jackets behind or Dave’s fault for insisting on the water taxi. But we just had to laugh because we realized that it was both our faults. There was no use in shifting blame; we were stuck in the freezing rain no matter whose fault it was.
I contrast that experience with countless others I've had, particularly when I was a kid with a younger brother. We blamed each other for everything. Who knows how much blame was mine and how much was his – what was clear was that both of us rarely took credit for anything bad happening. You see this in politics. It is always the other political party’s fault, it is always the previous person in whatever position that made the bad choices. It seems to me that there is plenty of blame to go around.
What would it look like if we claimed responsibility for our actions? What would the world be like if we not only took credit for the good that we do but the bad as well? What if we no longer passed blame along to protect ourselves, but recognized our own culpability? I think that would be a world that was initially quite painful (because the truth can hurt) but it would be a world where decisive change and relationship building would be easier.
You might say that the sin of Adam and Eve was disobeying God’s order to eat from the tree of knowledge, but consider this: what if eating from that tree had been God’s intention all along? What if it was a test, not whether or not they would eat but rather what they would do once they knew the difference between right and wrong?
Our own court system recognizes that some people are not capable of knowing right from wrong and that you cannot hold someone accountable for doing something they cannot understand. Those people might be put somewhere where they can no longer do any harm, but it is not considered punishment in the same way that you would punish someone who knowingly did wrong. Someone who is mentally impaired and doesn't understand consequences is not considered the same as someone who intentionally harms another person. If Adam and Eve did not know right from wrong then they would be considered mentally impaired by our courts and not be held guilty of an intentional crime. God could not have been surprised that when you put two people who do not know the difference between right and wrong in a situation of temptation that those people would be unable to resist.
To me, the major sin in this etiological story was not eating of the fruit – but the act of not claiming responsibility for their own actions. In this story, it is after eating the fruit that Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened. They suddenly understood that they were naked and what right and wrong were. When God asked them, “"Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" (Gen 3:11) the correct answer would have been “I knew that I was naked because I now have wisdom. I understand the difference between right and wrong. I did eat from the tree which you told me not to. Why did you tell me not to eat from it? Are you angry? I didn't understand before that it was wrong, but now I do. What happens now?”
That would have been the correct response. Instead, Adam says, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." (Gen 3:12) Adam is not only blaming Eve for his own actions but he is also ultimately blaming God because God gave him Eve. Eve’s response also places the blame elsewhere, she says "The serpent tricked me, and I ate." (Gen 3:13) She claims to have been tricked, and so cannot be held responsible. This was Adam and Eve’s great sin – they knew right from wrong and knowingly blamed another for their own actions. They shifted blame and gave excuses as to why they were not at fault.
Explanations are not the same as excuses. It is okay to explain how things came to be, why you came to the wrong conclusion or why you felt you had to do something. It is not okay to excuse your own wrong behavior by blaming another.
So what does this mean for us today? It is an interesting story, an ancient story that the Israelites told to try to explain how many things came to be – particularly sin and blame. But what relevance does it have for our own lives?
I think that this story from Genesis is incredibly relevant because it describes part of the human nature that we all share. It is human nature to not want to take credit for when things go wrong, particularly when it is our faults. Sometimes we can overcome this – like Dave and I did in that story of the water taxi. But many times we fall into the trap of blaming others for our own mistakes, particularly when the consequences of our actions are greater than freezing rain.
However it came to be, we generally know right from wrong and good from evil, in many circumstances. It is not always clear to us, but most of us have a general understanding. I pray that we not only have the wisdom to understand what right and good is, but also the strength to resist wrong and evil, and when we do err that we can avoid blaming others. My prayer for us is that we are enabled to work through the painful truth of our own actions, to acknowledge when we have done wrong, and to be strengthened by God’s grace and forgiveness so that we are able to change any harmful ways.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.