There is probably not another story in the entire Bible that has been more misinterpreted, misread, and misused than the Genesis story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent that we heard this morning.
One frequent misinterpretation of this myth is that all sin is derived from this act, that because of Eve and Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit all humanity is doomed to sin. It has also been misused to keep women in subservient positions, claiming that this story proves that the nature of women is to be both inferior to and seducers of men.
That’s a lot of baggage for a fairly simple, although profound, story.
We actually begin today’s reading in the middle of the story. If we go back a little further, we hear the account of God’s creation of the beautiful garden, and God’s instruction to Adam, whose job it is to till and keep this lovely paradise.
“You may eat freely of every tree of the garden,” God says, “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.”
In setting aside the tree, by making it off limits, God has inserted a new element into the garden, creating a forbidden zone. And by linking that forbidden zone with knowledge, we learn that there are things we ought not know, that there are limits to our humanity, that there is a separation between us and God.
Setting aside the tree means we must learn to restrain ourselves, to put limits on our own behaviors. The forbidden tree is not in some forgotten corner of the garden, where it will be seldom seen. It is in the very middle of the garden, easily accessible and available.
There is no fence around it, no guards to protect it, nothing external to keep us from partaking of it. The tree is there, in the middle of the garden, at the same time forbidden and alluring. Something in us must resist what something else in us in inevitably drawn toward.
Journalist Bill Moyers, in writing of this story, remembers that his mother used to leave her freshly baked sugar cookies right in the middle of the table, warm and inviting, but forbidden until supper was over.
“If she meant the temptation to be a test of discipline, to build character, my brother and I often flunked,” Moyers says.
And so, of course, do Adam and Eve.
In setting aside the tree, God has created two areas – one which is permitted and one which is forbidden. In doing so, God makes it clear that humans are not intended to be puppets, but creatures who have the freedom to choose their own behavior.
God has not programmed the divine-human relationship, but has given us the ability to choose how we will respond to God’s love and whether we will trust the limits God has placed upon humanity.
What happens next seems inevitable. The man and woman are in the garden when the crafty serpent, also one of God’s creatures, says to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’”
The woman knows that is not what God said, and she quickly corrects the snake. “We can eat the fruit of most of the trees, but not that tree in the middle of the garden. God said if we eat from that tree, or if we even touch it, we will die.”
Eve exaggerates a bit. God said nothing about touching the tree, only eating from it. But she makes it clear that she knows the tree is forbidden, that she must stay away from it.
But the serpent does not let the issue rest. “You won’t die if you eat of that tree,” it says. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The snake seems to know something the man and woman do not know. It seems to have tasted of the very fruit that has been forbidden to them. It beguiles Eve not to trust the authority of God. It suggests that God has lied to them.
The serpent opens up an alternative to God’s command, although it says nothing about what the consequences of that alternative might be.
Eve looks at the tree again. And instead of seeing something that has been forbidden, something that she should not even touch, she sees that it is good for food, that it is a delight to the eyes, that it is to be desired to make one wise.
Why should something so desirable, so good, so beautiful be forbidden? And so the woman picks the fruit and eats it, and offers it to her husband, who without a word of protest, also eats. And so we have the first recorded example of human beings succumbing to temptation.
The temptation, the attraction, the desire themselves are not the sin; the sin is succumbing to temptation’s allure. And temptations are always alluring, always attractive and enticing. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be tempted.
The forbidden fruit wasn’t on an ugly, shriveled up tree; it was on a beautiful one. It wasn’t sour or bitter; it was sweet and delicious. Eating it would not make one ill; it would make one wise.
How could it possibly be bad to partake of such a thing? What could possibly be wrong with being like God, with knowing good and evil? Who wouldn’t partake of such a fruit?
We are all faced with similar temptations every day of our lives. With things that on the surface seem appealing and attractive and desirable, things that seem reasonable and logical and good.
Sometimes they are minor things – like the cookies that Bill Moyers’ mother put on the kitchen table, or the ones that seem to call our name in the grocery store. We know we need to watch what we eat, but they smell so good, how could it possibly hurt to have just one – or two or three?
Sometimes they aren’t so minor. There’s that attractive man or woman who works in the same office or lives in the same neighborhood., who seems to value our opinion and laugh at our jokes. Yes, we are married, but what harm could there be in going out for a drink after work, spending a little time together?
Or we’re writing a paper for school, and on the internet we find an essay already written on just that topic, saying everything we wanted to say. Why not just use it or at least borrow from it?
Such temptations are facts of life. We can’t avoid them – they are part of our very environment, part of the conditions of our lives. Just as Adam and Eve could not avoid the fact that the forbidden tree was in the middle of their garden, that it was, in fact, beautiful to behold.
That is the sinister nature of evil – that it masquerades as good, disguises itself with beauty, wraps itself in arguments of logic and justice.
Adam and Eve succumb to the temptation. They allow themselves to doubt God’s goodness, succumb to the allure of wanting to be like God, to live without boundaries and limits.
And they pay the consequences of their actions. God expels them from the garden, and decrees their lives will know pain and suffering, hard work and enmity.
But notice that the punishment is not what God had said it would be. They do not die for their actions. God does not abandon them, but continues to care for them, making clothes to protect them as they leave the garden.
The divine-human relationship is damaged, but it is not destroyed.
God finally allows us to endure the allure of evil because God wants us to respond freely to the allure of divine love.
When we fail to do so, when we succumb to the allure of evil’s temptations, we must pay the consequences. But even then evil cannot overcome God’s grace and love.