First Sunday in Lent (Year A)

The Old Testament lectionary texts for the six Sundays of Lent each year typically touch on selected high points in the story of God and Israel.

March 13, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The Old Testament lectionary texts for the six Sundays of Lent each year typically touch on selected high points in the story of God and Israel.

How a Preacher Might Approach the Old Testament Texts for Lent This Year
Thus, the preacher has an opportunity to walk a congregation through the “grand narrative” of the Old Testament.   This year’s series of Old Testament Lenten texts moves from
1) the story of the “fall” in Genesis 2-3 to
2) God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 12 to
3) Israel in the wilderness in Exodus 17 to
4) the election of David as king in 1 Samuel 16 to
5) the exile and promise of a communal resurrection in Ezekiel 37, and 6) the portrait of God’s suffering servant in the prophetic book of Isaiah, chapter 50 (Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday).

Another feature of the lectionary texts for Lent this year is an unusually strong set of interrelationships between the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for each Sunday in terms of theme, imagery, and action.  Therefore, another preaching strategy for Lent may be a series of dialogical sermons bringing together both the Old Testament and Gospel texts, allowing each text its integrity and then bringing them into conversation.

Wrongheaded Assumptions about Genesis 2-3 
This Sunday’s Old Testament text from Genesis 2-3 highlights what is traditionally known as the “fall,” the Bible’s first temptation and act of disobedience by the human man and woman in the garden of Eden.  The popular conception of the garden of Eden story often includes elements of the following assumptions:

  • God created an absolutely perfect and static world
  • humans lived in a luxurious paradise with no responsibilities
  • the evil serpent is a Satan figure who brings evil into God’s perfect creation the woman alone succumbed to temptation and so she alone is responsible for bringing sin into the world (see the questionable exegesis of Genesis 3 in 1 Timothy 2:11-14)
  • the central aim of Genesis 3 is to explain how evil came into God’s perfect creation.

Offering a More Faithful Reading of Genesis 2-3 
A careful reading of Genesis 2-3, however, would undermine or nuance each of these assumptions.  Let’s examine each assumption in turn.
1) God does indeed create a “good” world but not a “perfect” world in the sense of a closed, static, and totally divinely-controlled universe 
In the Genesis 1 creation story, God repeatedly calls creation “good” (Genesis 1:4, 12, 21, 25, 31).  But the primeval “deep” or “waters” which were understood as the source of evil and chaos in the world in ancient times did not disappear with God’s creation.  God’s ruach (“wind, breath, spirit”) swept over them and pushed the waters of chaos back behind the “dome” that formed the sky and also under the earth (Genesis 1:1-6).  Evil and chaos thus continue to lurk at the margins of creation and can come rushing back as in the story of Noah and the flood, if God allows it (Genesis 7:11; 8:2). 

Moreover, God invites humans and other elements in the creation to exercise responsibility and stewardship over creation (Genesis 1:26-28).  In the creation story in Genesis 2, God’s process of creating is open and dynamic.  After creating the human and the garden, God discovers a problem: “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  So God creates the wide variety of animals and invites the man to name them.  The animals may help with the loneliness problem, but something is still missing (Genesis 2:20).  Thus, God tries another strategy and creates a woman from man, and that solution does seem to work (Genesis 2:23).  But the impression is that God’s creating activity is a work in process from the beginning, not a “perfect” world in the sense of a fully-formed, static and pristine universe.

2) In the Genesis 2 creation story, the human has work and responsibility from the very beginning 
God places the man in the garden “to till it and to keep it.”  This is no Caribbean vacation in paradise!  From the beginning, humans are made for a regular rhythm of doing work that has meaning and purpose for the good of creation along with regular periods of sabbath rest and enjoyment (Genesis 2:2-3).  While there is great freedom for the human (“you may freely eat from any tree”), the garden also contains one boundary that restricts the human.  God decrees the first biblical law (eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil [or bad/pain) and the consequence of breaking the law (immediate and certain death “in the day…you shall die [the Hebrew is emphatic–you shall surely die!]” (Genesis 2:17).

3) In its original OT context, the serpent in Genesis 3 is not Satan who invades God’s creation from the outside 
The serpent is a very clever and talkative (!) animal “that the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1).  The serpent is one of God’s own creatures who simply poses some questions and alternative explanations concerning God’s motivations in creation for the humans to consider.  At any point in the conversation, the humans could have told the serpent that he was full of it and to please go and bother someone else.  But there was something already in the human that resonated to the hermeneutics of suspicion that the serpent offered as one option for interpreting the words and actions of God. 

4) Often the scene of the temptation in Eden is portrayed as the woman standing alone with the serpent, but a careful reading suggests that the man was likely present all along 
The scene is of one piece:  the serpent and the woman engage in conversation, she takes and eats the fruit, and she gives the fruit to “her husband, who was with her” all along!  God had earlier observed that “it was not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Likewise, in Genesis 3, it was not good that the woman should be alone in fending off the serpent’s temptations and suspicions about God’s motivation for restricting the humans’ access to the forbidden fruit. 

The man failed to speak up, to speak out, and to join the woman in an alliance against the serpent’s attempt to appeal to the suspicions and yearnings that somehow were already within the humans’ heart.  This is a story of human disobedience and rebellion against God, not a story of the woman who alone was tempted and who alone was responsible for sin entering into the world (contra 1 Timothy 2 :11-14).

5) The central aim of Genesis 3 is to describe the mystery of sin, not to explain its origin 
Sin is a mysterious force that arises from within God’s “good” creation.  The serpent is simply one of God’s creatures.  And the yearnings and suspicions of the humans about God’s motivations are somehow already embedded within the human heart from the beginning and simply needed the encouragement of the serpent to bring them out and convert them into action.

Thus, Genesis 3 is less about “explaining” the origin of sin and more about describing the reality of what it is to be human and our mysterious human tendencies continually to rebel against God, to resist the gracious boundaries and limitations that God places around us for our own good, and to desire to be like God rather than thankful creatures of God.