First Sunday in Lent (Year A)

Context means everything.

February 10, 2008

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

Context means everything.

If one reads Genesis 2–3 against the backdrop of Christian theology and tradition, themes such as “Original Sin” or “the Fall” emerge. Within the context of the lectionary, the idea of temptation is prominent for this first Sunday in Lent. This is appropriate, since Lent is a season of repentance and reflection. In the context of biblical scholarship, however, especially among those who seek to locate the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures in their ancient Near Eastern context, one finds narratives about the conflicted origins of knowledge or the painful progression of development toward human maturity. In this last context of interpretation, the emphasis moves toward themes of what it means to be fully human under the rule of a divine king. With a little theological imagination, all of these themes can provide good content for preaching in the season of Lent. My own reflections on Genesis 2–3 emerge from yet another context of interpretation–the internment experience of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. Since this historical event is not the most natural fit for the Garden story, my interpretive move requires a brief explanation. What does Manzanar have to do with Eden?

I was confronted with the preceding question when I was asked to preach on the first Sunday of Lent in mid-February a few years back. I am a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American; and hence, I am one generation removed from the internment of over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066–the legislative act that put into law this unjust imprisonment. Consequently, the Japanese American community has marked this day as an annual day of remembrance to commemorate those who lived through the camps. Whenever I am asked to preach around February 19th, I incorporate themes that emerge from the Japanese American experience of internment both to raise historical awareness and as an act of conscience. One particular year, February 19th fell near the first Sunday in Advent during a Year A cycle. Thus, my challenge was to tie in themes from the internment, such as community survival and persistence, with the Edenic narrative. I include this window into my interpretative process in order to suggest that interpretation is always an ongoing navigation between text and context, between the Bible and its readers. What emerged from this theological reflection was an insight into the biblical material itself–one that I had not formerly considered in my scholarship or teaching.

In turning to Genesis 2–3, one finds that the language of sin is absent in the text itself. The human beings certainly face consequences for their disobedience to the divine command; however, neither the narrator nor the characters use sin vocabulary to define the situation. Moreover, elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the Eden narrative is not used to describe the sinfulness of humanity. Interpretations of this story as the Original Sin come much later in the history of Christian interpretation. An underlying assumption within these traditional readings of the Adam and Eve story is that the first couple was perfect and without sin. An ancient Israelite, however, would have assumed quite the opposite. In the ancient Near East, human beings were often portrayed as a rebellious group, seeking to assert their authority over/against the gods. More importantly, if one decides to read this story as a “Fall,” one is required to see the human couple’s acquisition of knowledge as problematic. The idiom, “good and evil,” which describes the essence of the forbidden fruit, means that the tree contains complete knowledge or knowledge from A to Z. Wouldn’t full knowledge be essential for human life?

A key for understanding the complexities of Genesis 2–3 is to remember its form. Like many stories in Genesis 1–11, the Eden tale is an etiology. That is, the story helps to explain important questions about certain realities in life–why is there pain in childbirth, why is the ground hard to work, why do snakes crawl upon the earth, etc. Genesis 2–3 suggests that knowledge, a necessity for human life, is something that is acquired painfully. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is certainly not the mark of human maturity. When humans understand what it means to be fully human–that is, when they have complete knowledge–the realities of life come into full relief in all of their complexity and difficulty. Knowledge is both enlightening and painful.

A second important theme that emerges out of Genesis 2–3–one that reflects the experience of Japanese Americans during the internment–is the theme of community persistence and survival in the face of an arbitrary decree. The Lord’s command is clear concerning the tree of knowledge, though no reason is given for it. The human couple shall not eat from the tree’s fruit, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:17). The Hebrew syntax is emphatic. The idiom means literally, “dying you shall surely die.” The surprising thing in this passage is not that the human beings disobey and eat. Rather, the shock comes from the fact that the humans, after eating the fruit, do not die but continue to live. The Lord threatened immediate death upon violation of the command, and yet the human beings continue to survive. In fact, after the first couple is expelled from the garden, they continue to live–even thrive–outside of the garden by being fruitful and multiplying (4:1–2). The story of Eden points to the first humans’ persistence and survival in the face of a divinely decreed death. Like the Israelites throughout their history, Adam and Eve serve as an example of how human beings continue to live even when the gods or other earthly powers have sanctioned their death. Surviving adversity is what makes Israel who they are and characterizes what humans have always done from “the beginning.”