Genesis 2:4 – 3:21
4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
World’s creation in the garden
On the day the Lord God made earth and sky— 5 before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being[a] to farm the fertile land,6 though a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land— 7 the Lord God formed the human[b] from the topsoil of the fertile land[c] and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. 8 The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed. 9 In the fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river flows from Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides into four headwaters. 11 The name of the first river is the Pishon. It flows around the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 That land’s gold is pure, and the land also has sweet-smelling resins and gemstones. [d] 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It flows around the entire land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is the Tigris, flowing east of Assyria; and the name of the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. 16 The Lord God commanded the human, “Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; 17 but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” 18 Then the Lord God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.” 19 So the Lord God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name. 20 The human named all the livestock, all the birds in the sky, and all the wild animals. But a helper perfect for him was nowhere to be found.
21 So the Lord God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it. 22 With the rib taken from the human, the Lord God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being. 23 The human[e]said,
24 This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they weren’t embarrassed.
Knowledge, not eternal life
3 The snake was the most intelligent[h] of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”
2 The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees 3 but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’”
4 The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! 5 God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”6 The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves.
8 During that day’s cool evening breeze, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God in the middle of the garden’s trees. 9 The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”
10 The man[i] replied, “I heard your sound in the garden; I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.”
11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree, which I commanded you not to eat?”
12 The man said, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit[j] from the tree, and I ate.”
13 The Lord God said to the woman, “What have you done?!”
And the woman said, “The snake tricked me, and I ate.”
14 The Lord God said to the snake,
“Because you did this,
you are the one cursed
out of all the farm animals,
out of all the wild animals.
On your belly you will crawl,
and dust you will eat
every day of your life.
15 I will put contempt
between you and the woman,
between your offspring and hers.
They will strike your head,
but you will strike at their heels.”
16 To the woman he said,
“I will make your pregnancy very painful;
in pain you will bear children.
You will desire your husband,
but he will rule over you.”
17 To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and you ate from the tree that I commanded, ‘Don’t eat from it,’
cursed is the fertile land because of you;
in pain you will eat from it
every day of your life.
18 Weeds and thistles will grow for you,
even as you eat the field’s plants;
19 by the sweat of your face you will eat bread—
until you return to the fertile land,
since from it you were taken;
you are soil,
to the soil you will return.”
20 The man named his wife Eve[k] because she is the mother of everyone who lives.21 The Lord God made the man and his wife leather clothes and dressed them.
Boy, this story is a mess, isn’t it? When Joseph and I got married I tried to convince him to use this text and he rightfully said, Um, no.
If we try to take it literally we end up in ridiculous conversations like, did Adam and Eve have belly buttons? And growing up in the bible belt, even in college, I encountered people who still believed that men have one fewer rib than women. Because… that’s how women are still created?
The folks who first told this story knew it wasn’t literal history. They knew what we too often forget: it’s intended to answer questions of meaning. Who are we? What are we made for? Why is life hard and painful?
But even when people don’t take the story literally, it still causes a lot of pain. As early as the New Testament this passage was being used in a non-literal way to denigrate and diminish half of humanity. In 1 Timothy, Paul writes, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
And Tertullian, one of the earliest theologians, wrote to women, “Do you not know that you are [each] an Eve? You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your [sin] even the Son of God had to die.”
Ugh. Just hearing that nonsense makes me want to take a shower. But, this is how this passage is so often understood. The first thing we need to notice is that these readings, Paul’s and Tertullian’s, they aren’t actually taking the text literally. They’re drawing conclusions, skipping some parts, making some parts metaphorical. Just like we do. I think that’s important to notice because often as modern progressive Christians, we can be kind of apologetic when we don’t take something literally. I think it’s a metaphor. I prefer to skip that. But this is what Christians have always done, all the way back to Paul and Tertullian. The question is, what reading brings life? I think we can do better at this than Paul or Tertullian did. Don’t you?
Let’s jump in. God creates a garden and then creates Adam. I like imagining Adam with dirt under his fingernails, feet perpetually black from walking that dark, rich earth from which he came. I imagine Adam’s chin dripping with juice from peaches or pomegranates. It was good.
But then Adam grew lonely. The work was good. The land was good. But Adam had no one to share it with. So, animals began to appear. Great and small, furry and slimy, all kinds. That was a delight. Adam was still lonely.
Finally, Adam falls into a deep sleep and then wakes and discovers someone else. At last!
The way we traditionally read this story, man was created first and then woman. But there’s something interesting about the Hebrew and how it describes gender here. At the beginning when Adam’s created, the word Adam isn’t actually a proper name. Adam means human. The person who’s created is ha-adam, which means “the human.” It’s related to the word for earth, adamah. So, a more literal reading might be “the earth creature was created from the earth.” This word for human or earth creature is essentially gender free. This is not a man who is created but a genderless person.
There is a Hebrew word for man, and it doesn’t appear until after the woman is created. The earth creature wakes up from the sleep and discovers a woman, and then the earth creatures is called a man. In strict chronology, woman appears before man. We could make a cute point here about how woman was created first and therefore she’s better. But I don’t think that’s helpful. What it really says is that gender emerges in relationship. Adam becomes male at the same moment that Eve becomes female. They’re made from one another.
Which is how we’re still made. We’re made from one another. And made for one another. We’re made for relationship. And not only romantic relationships. Adam and Eve’s relationship was erotic, but our loneliness is also answered in friendship, like Ruth and Naomi’s, and in relationships that don’t conform to society’s rules, like David and Jonathan’s.
Eve and Adam are born into relationship, naked and unashamed. They trust each other, are vulnerable with one another. No fear, no shame. Just bliss.
There are only two restrictions. Do not eat from the tree of life. Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Then, that snake slithers up, and tells them the truth: you won’t die if you taste this forbidden fruit. God said they would, but the snake says they won’t. The snake was right.
Eve listens to this wise serpent, looks at the tree, considers the fruit, sees that it’s beautiful, that it will give wisdom. And Adam’s there, too. The story says so explicitly. Often folks imply he wasn’t, that this was Eve’s decision. But that’s not the story. He’s right there with her as she considers, takes, and eats. He was quiet, but I think he was passive. I think he was thinking, discerning. When Eve hands him a bite, he makes his own decision. He takes and eats.
Then everything changes. Tradition calls this the Fall, when we fell from grace. This is the original sin from which we’ve never really recovered. But what, exactly, was the sin? In some ways this text is mirror. Whatever we see as our vice, we find it here. For Tertullian, it was sex. For Augustine it was pride. Others see disobedience or arrogance. It’s worth noticing that the word sin never appears in the story.
What, exactly, did Eve and Adam do? They ate the forbidden fruit. What was that fruit? It wasn’t sexuality, or pride, or arrogance. It was the fruit of wisdom. They reached out and took wisdom. Their crime, if we can even call it that, was to seek wisdom instead of following a simple rule.
We all do this. My children already answer every “No” with “Why?” They want knowledge. This is what every child does. It definitely lands them in trouble sometimes. Those of us who care for children, adolescents, young adults hope that we can spare them from some of the consequences of reaching for knowledge—whether that’s knowledge of what a hot stove feels like, or knowledge of how fast a car can go, or knowledge of intimate relationships that they’re not ready for. We all reach for knowledge. And there are consequences.
We might wonder, was God a tyrant, setting them up to fail? Or a really poor parent—like most of us are when we get started? Did God just not babyproof well enough? The story doesn’t say. It just says everything changed when they reached for knowledge.
There was a loss of intimacy and innocence. Nothing was ever simple again. From this point on they had to wrestle with shame, and pain, and hard work. Their relationship became fraught. Is this punishment? There’re consequences. But is it punishment? I’m not sure. God makes them clothes. God tells them they have to move out, but also helps them get set up in the new place. It’s in the midst of this trouble that the woman receives her name: Eve, Life.
Human and Life—Adam and Eve—enter a new stage of life together. They see clearly. They grow up. Nothing is ever the same. Divine certainty disappears. The enchantment of childhood disappears.
Like every once upon a time story, this is really a story that tells us about us here and now. “This is what it means to be human. We’re limited… much is beyond our control. We live with fear and doubt. We are lonely, sometimes in … relationship. We have deep longings…” for meaningful work, intimacy, wisdom. Our longing for knowledge is a gift, and it carries consequences. It complicates things. There are things that, once we know them, can’t be unknown. Once we grow up, we can no longer be as we were before.
I wonder what it was like for Eve and Adam. Overwhelming? A rush of power? A knot in the stomach? Did they experience the awkwardness in your body that comes with puberty? The nervousness that comes with moving? Everything’s different. They’re in the real world. So are we.
There’s one last detail in this story that I’d never noticed before. At the end, it’s only one of them who is explicitly expelled. All the consequences, and the clothes, those were given to both of them. But when God expels them from the garden, the story only says that Adam was expelled.
We could be cute and say men are the fallen ones. But I don’t think that’s true, and it’s not what the story intends. I don’t think it really has anything to do with gender. It’s probably just a detail without much meaning, but here’s what I can’t get out of my head: if only one of them is expelled, it means the other one chose to go with the one who’s been cast out.
They chose relationship. The first human is cast out, and the second human immediately, almost without thinking, leaps to go after him. Like a shepherd who will do anything to find one lost sheep. Like a God who will be born in the flesh.
This is who we’ve been from the beginning: people who will leap, leaving all manner of goodness and comfort behind, so that we can love, care for, save another. Eve loved Adam from the start, and she loved him to the end. So, when he was cast out or embarked on this adventure, she leapt. She went with him. She chose love. This is who we are. People who, in spite of it all, choose love. From the very beginning.
I want to invite us to spend a few minutes with a poem that’s been really important to me as I’ve meditated on this passage. An Autobiography of Eve by Ansel Elkins.
Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.
Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.