Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
“Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.”
These opening words to the second chapter in Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God1 frame the way that the protagonist sees her life and begins to recount her earliest memories of self-discovery. When I read these words, the trees in the garden of Eden spring to the forefront of my mind. In describing “her life like a great tree,” I immediately think of “the tree of life in the midst of the garden”; and the poetic merisms of “things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom” conjures the infamous contrast in “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).
Noting these parallels, I can’t help but think about the fruitfulness (pun intended) of reading the origin story in Genesis 2–3 in dialogue with Hurston’s famous novel. Potential meanings for this Genesis passage abound, and other Working Preacher commentaries (Claassens, Olson, Wines) helpfully disabuse us of several common and sometimes historically dangerous misconceptions. A few (Howard, Lapsley, Yamada) offer very different reflections on how we can make this passage meaningful for preaching. By following the womanist interpretive practice of facilitating a dialogue between a rich artifact of Black women’s legacy and a potent biblical text, I hope we can see another.
In Janie’s contemplation on her own origins, she “decided that her conscious life had commenced” (10) in a new discovery of herself on a spring afternoon in her grandmother’s backyard. While sitting under a pear tree, Janie is “summoned to behold a revelation”: the flies and the flowers with the bees are all a-buzz with a frequency she longs for. She calls it marriage, “[w]ith kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world.” And her sixteen-year-old self, “bursting buds” like the pear tree, struggles as she asks, “Where were the singing bees for her?” (11).
In Genesis 2, the beginning of the world features “The Human” (the literal translation of haʾadam) similarly in a place full of life. Like young Janie, we might imagine the original earthling enraptured by the many trees described as “pleasant to the sight” (2:9) or focused on the central tree that is “a delight to the eyes” (3:6). God knows that this human should not be alone, but none of the animals that God brings forth are deemed a suitable partner (2:18-20). Through the lens of Janie’s longing, we might sit with the frustrations of “The Human” or any person in our congregation who is longing for companionship. The rich language of Janie’s frustration compels me to pause in the moment of unfulfilled partnership rather than immediately proceeding to verse 21 where God will swiftly rectify the situation. Whom might this story speak to if one takes the preaching moment to wrestle with loneliness one might feel in the midst of a multitude of unsuitable solutions?
Hurston describes Janie’s new discovery with the language of vision. Janie emerges from a state of “her former blindness” (11) to re-view a previously uninspiring fellow who now gleamed because “the golden dust of pollen [from the blossoms on the tree] had beglamored his rags and her eyes” (12). The new revelation that Janie underwent in her longing under the pear tree was an awakening to herself as a sexually charged being; and the next thing you know, Janie and this young person are kissing.
Readers of Genesis 2–3 witness no kissing. But many scholars have proposed that the tree of knowledge of good and evil symbolizes a full range of mature knowledge including sexual knowledge. After all, ydʿ, the Hebrew root behind the noun “knowledge,” is commonly employed as a euphemism for sex (Genesis 4:1, 17, 25; 19:5, 8; 24:16; 38:26; et cetera) (hence the English phrase “to know someone in the biblical sense”). When the original humans eat from this tree of knowledge, the first detail is that their eyes were opened so that they now see “that they were naked” and want to cover (3:7) that which originally brought them no feelings of shame (2:25). Like Janie, most of us can attest that our journey of maturation often includes an awakening into recognizing our bodies as sexual; unfortunately, as in the biblical text, this new revelation is too often burdened with shame.
In Hurston’s novel, that new awakening “was the end of her childhood” (12); and the aftermath includes Janie’s grandmother lamenting the oppressive world of adulthood (with racial and gender hierarchies) that she unfortunately must introduce to Janie (14-15). Similarly, the consequences for Adam and Eve are a harsh existence. Just beyond our lectionary verses, biblical authors describe the unsavory norms of painful birth, women desiring the very husbands that rule over them, and men laboring unto death in order to wrestle food from the ground (3:14-19). These troubles come with eating from the tree of knowledge, but also—like the serpent predicted (3:5)—God acknowledges that the humans have become “like one of us [divine beings]” (3:22). Eating from the tree, entering a new state of maturity, is not all bad; it includes some great new things.
Feminist biblical scholars like Lyn Bechtel2 and Ellen van Wolde3 have emphasized the theme of maturity in Genesis 2-3. Even if acquired through disobedience, this exciting and dangerous maturity is necessary for human thriving. Janie recognizes as much in her quest, throughout the rest of Hurston’s novel, to recapture the best of her revelation beneath that pear tree in spite of all the obstacles that come with living in our troubled world. Perhaps seeing Genesis 2-3 as a relatable story of human maturity (including sexual maturity) can open the door for us to engage in complex and formative conversations with both young people entering sexual awareness and adults seeking a fulfilling life. Our biblical text does not provide a roadmap to such difficult discussions, but it can invite us to have the courage to take such a journey.
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1937).
- Lyn Bechtel, “Genesis 2:4b-3:24: A Myth About Human Maturation,” JSOT 67 (1995): 3–26.
- Ellen van Wolde, Words Become Worlds: Semantic Studies of Genesis 1-11 (Leiden: Brill, 1994).