Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Trust and Obey

If you've grown up in church, Genesis 3 is one of those passages of scripture you have heard so often that it becomes difficult to hear at all.  One's inclination is to quickly read over thinking "Yeah, yeah, I know all of this.  Let's get to something more interesting."  Additionally, it is one of those texts that has had all kinds of tradition and centuries of theological debate poured into it.  We designate this passage as "the fall" and we're off to the races discussing the doctrinal of original sin before we've even heard the Word of God.  But before we assume that we already know that this is a story about the devil tempting Adam and Eve to fall from their created glory, let's pay attention to the details of what these verses actually have to say.

First, it is worth noting that the serpent in the story is never equated with Satan by scripture itself.  Later Jewish and Christian tradition will certainly make that equation and it may not be a wrong conclusion to come to it but it is not one that we will find in the book of Genesis.

Second, many translations describe the serpent as "more crafty" than any other animal.  We thereby assume that the serpent is a schemer, a deceiver, one who intentionally outsmarts the man and the woman arguing and persuading them into sin.  Again, that may not be entirely wrong.  Later in the chapter the woman will accuse the serpent of deceiving her and God does not argue with her assessment and punishes the serpent accordingly.  However, craftiness does not necessarily convey the idea of deceitful scheming.  It can simply mean wise, resourceful, and sensible.  It can carry a meaning similar to that of the steward in Luke 16 whom Jesus commends in his parable for being cunning in his use of unrighteous wealth, an example he calls upon his followers to imitate.

Third, the conversation between the woman and the serpent is not presented to us as in anyway unusual.  The serpent does not contradict God's command and never says something that is blatantly false.  The serpent simply asks the woman questions and not unreasonable ones at that.  We could read this story as nothing more than an innocent theological discussion, the world's first Bible study.  The serpent and the woman are simply discussing God and God's commandment.  In fact, if either of them is twisting God's command it is the woman who adds the prohibition  "neither shall you touch it" (3:3) whereas God had simply said not to eat from the tree.

Finally, when the man and the woman do eat from the tree which was forbidden to them they do in fact have their eyes opened.  The serpent was right!  The man and the woman gained knowledge; knowledge which apparently God had been keeping from them.

So what went wrong here?  There doesn't seem to be some grand sinister scheme here.  This all started out as a simple conversation and it ended with a gaining of knowledge.  

But somewhere in the midst of this story was a serious breach of trust and obedience.  God had provided everything for this man and woman.  He had placed them in the midst of this luscious garden that provided food for them.  They had no need of anything.  And the only thing that God asked for in return was for them to trust him; to trust that he could provide for them, that he knew what was best.  God had given them every reason in the world to trust him and all he asked for in return was that they obey this one commandment, avoid this one thing, and thereby show that they trusted God.  But somehow along the way the woman and the man failed to see God as someone they were in trustful and obedient relationship with and instead began to see God as something to talk about, an object of discussion.  They began to think that they knew better than God did, that they could make decisions for themselves instead of trusting in their creator and so they tried to become their own gods, the rulers of their own lives.

The rest of Genesis 3 describes the disastrous consequences of that human attempt to be gods.  The man and woman's lack of trust in God's command obviously harms their relationship with God.  While previously humanity had enjoyed a meaningful fellowship with his creator, now the man says to God that he hid himself because he was afraid.  The previous relationship of trust and obedience is replaced with one of fear.  But it is not only the relationship with God that is impacted.  Our relationships with one another immediately begin to degenerate as well.  When God asks the man if has eaten from the tree the first thing he does is lay the blame on his wife and when the woman is asked the first thing she does is pass the blame on to the serpent.  The relationship between humanity and creation is corrupted as well, the earth no longer bearing fruit effortlessly as it once did.  Finally, this damaged relationship with God even impacts our relationship with ourselves.  Prior to eating from the tree, the man and the woman walked naked and proud through the garden.  Their bodies were creations of the almighty God, nothing of which to be ashamed.  (I get a pretty good representation of this when Malachi manages to get away from Jess or I in the middle of changing his clothes.  He proudly streaks through the house as if to say "Look at me!  I'm naked and its fantastic!)  But now the man and the woman are so ashamed of their bodies that they have to make impromptu clothing out of fig leaves in order to cover their shame.

This story is a microcosm of Israel's and of all humanity.  God also created Israel as a nation, graciously delivering them from their slavery.  God gave them manna and quail in the wilderness and led them into an abundant land in which to live.  God provided everything they could possibly ask for and gave Israel every reason to trust him and all that God asked for in return was that trust and obedience.  But repeatedly the people of Israel act as if they know best, they want to be in charge, they want to make the decisions, they want to be gods for themselves.  There are a few glimmers of hope along the way; individuals like Abraham, Moses, and David who exhibited remarkable trust in God but at times even they failed to trust God completely.  The story of scripture is that God keeps calling us to place our trust in him.  God promises that he will provide, he will defend, he will protect, if only we will trust and obey but instead our response is often "No thanks God.  I think I can do better on my own."  Over and over again, our story is a failure of trust...with the exception of one man.  There is one man to whom God said "just trust me" and he did no matter the circumstances.

In the gospel reading for this week (Matthew 4:1-11), we hear a story that sounds eerily like the one in Genesis 3.  Jesus is praying and fasting in the wilderness and the tempter shows up to have a theological conversation with him.  In this conversation, the devil makes some very reasonable, we might even say sensible and crafty suggestions.  Each of these suggestions is essentially an alternative to the cross.  The devil is saying "Hey look, if you are really God's Son, the rightful king of the world, then you shouldn't have to go through the messy and painful business of a crucifixion in order to inherit your rightful kingdom.  Surely there is an easier way.  If you can turn stones into bread, that will surely get the people excited.  If you jump off the Temple and survive, that will get people talking and you'll be king no time.  Or let's just cut straight to the point, just bow down to me and I'll give you everything."  And nowhere along the way can we say that the devil has said anything blatantly false.  In fact, we know that Satan was right to say that most people will follow whoever can produce food and miracles.  The devil even quotes scripture in this conversation.

But at stake in this story is the same thing at stake in Genesis 3.  Will Jesus trust his own judgment when he sees an easier path to the same result or will Jesus trust his Father?  Will Jesus grasp at power as Adam and Eve grasped the fruit of the tree or will he cling to his Father's direction no matter where it leads him?  And we shouldn't turn a blind eye to where this path leads; straight to the cross and into the gaping jaws of death in a stone sealed tomb.  But Jesus chooses trust and obedience over his own life.  Jesus trusts his Father even to the grave.  Jesus believes that his Father can provide even on the other side of death.

Paul tells us in Romans 5 that Jesus' trust and obedience has undone the impact of Adam's lack of trust and disobedience.  He says just as sin and death spread to all of humanity because of what Adam, so also life and righteousness have come to all because of what Christ has done.  Our broken relationship with God, our broken relationships with each other, our broken relationship with creation, even our broken relationship with ourselves can be mended because Jesus trusted his Father and that trust transformed our world.

The essential element of our faith hasn't changed from Genesis 3 to the life of Jesus to our own day.  God is still calling us to trust him.  God's call is still for us to obey his commands because we believe that he is God and we are not and therefore he knows what is best.  God's call is for us to be a people who live in faithful obedience no matter the circumstances because we believe in a God who raises the dead.

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