Preached by Rev. Andy DeBraber at Douglas UCC on October 16, 2011
Scripture: Genesis 3:1-24 (Eve, Adam, the serpent, the fruit)
From the beginning of time, people have made up stories about the origins of humanity - why we are and why we are the way we are. We have just heard the ancient Israelites story about why we are the way we are. It involves not only Eve, Adam, God, and the serpent, but also an apple, sin, and the fall of humanity, right? Right? When you heard Mike read the story, did you hear those terms, or at least picture them in your head?
If you were listening closely, there was no apple. The words “sin” and “fall” were not spoken. In fact, those concepts were not applied until a couple hundred years after Jesus. The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures don’t refer to this story with reference to sin, original sin, or the fall.
But that’s what culture can do to a story. And it’s what we do as human communities in story-telling mode: we add on to and change the story, making it our own. We read into it our cultural biases. That’s how the Bible was created. As UCC scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “The Bible is an act of faithful imagination, rooted in memory and always pressing toward the new possibilities before us.”
Many of the stories in the Bible were told over and over again for centuries before anyone wrote them down. And many of the books of the Bible, when they were written down, were not written with any thought that this will be going into the permanent library of sacred Scripture. The Bible, with all its transformative, healing, and inspirational power - and it is all that - still reflects the prejudices of the people who wrote it (as does our faith; I am well aware that all the people I’m referring to in today’s homily are men).
Marcus Borg puts it this way: “The Bible is a human product (not a divine product) and a response to the experience of the Sacred/God/Spirit/Mystery.” Thus, the Bible tells us how ancient people who took God seriously saw things. The Bible communicates that God is real and can be experienced, not just known. And the Bible is, of course, made up of human culturally-conditioned words. That’s all we have!
So in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden with the serpent and the tree of life, we hear clearly from a people who believed God was experienced. We hear from a people who saw all of creation as teeming with life. We hear from a people who favored a nomadic hunting/gathering way of living rather than a settle agricultural life, thus the punishment was to be banished to the farm and work the land. We hear that knowledge and maturity, necessities for full human life, are often acquired painfully.
We also, should we listen really closely, hear a surprising truth about the persistence and survival of humanity. For what did God say would happen if they touched the tree of life, much less ate of its fruit? They would die. And the Hebrew here is emphatic. Literally, it means, on the day you eat of it, “dying you shall surely die.”
The surprising thing is not that the human beings disobey and eat (one might even argue this was expected; in the ancient Near East, human beings were often portrayed as a rebellious group, seeking to assert their authority over the gods). Rather, the shock comes from the fact that the humans, after eating the fruit, do not die, but continue to live! You might even say they not only survive, but thrive, being fruitful and multiplying. Surviving adversity is what makes Israel who they are and characterizes what humans have always done from “the beginning” (Frank Yamada).
Before offering a few tips on reading the Bible as progressive Christians, let me offer two more ways in which this story of our exit from the Garden is about new life rather than some kind of fall from grace. One, in ancient times the snake was revered and considered a magical animal personifying wisdom and the ability to see all sides of life (above ground and underground). It was a symbol of rebirth because it could lose its skin and grow a new one, like Eve and Adam did. Also, the words for Eve, snake, life, knowledge, and wisdom are all related.
Second, Eve and Adam were banned to the east, which was also symbolic of rebirth because that is were the sun is reborn every morning.
Okay, on to quickly cover four approaches to reading the Bible to help progressive Christians reclaim the book as their own. I am indebted to Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder of First Congregational Church in Thetford, Vermont, for these words. The four approaches are the Midrash Principle, The Good Parts Version, The Box of Lenses, and The Vision Quest.
First, the Midrash Principle. Jesus and Paul were brought up in a Jewish tradition of scriptural interpretation called midrash. The idea that there is only one right way to read a given scripture passage is utterly foreign to midrash. The midrash tradition believes that every interpretation is a gift from God, because God created the mind and enabled it to think up the interpretation and put it into words.
Midrash revels in coming up with creative readings. Entire books have been written with literally hundreds of different interpretations of a single verse. Midrash does not waste time arguing about whether one interpretation is right and all others wrong as so many Christians do. For one thing, that would insult God, who is the source of all interpretations. For another, it would take the joy out of all that creativity. And for another, it is the wrong question. The question that matters to midrash is not right or wrong, but which interpretations are more useful in this situation and which are less useful. The principle of midrash is to put the creative interpretation of scripture to practical use in our every day living. A progressive Christian should read the Bible remembering this, and approach it creatively, allowing the Holy Spirit to inspire intuitive interpretations that can be applied to the matter at hand.
The second approach is the Good Parts Version. The Good Parts Version of the Bible skips over the parts that any given reader finds useless or counter-productive.
Someone who is as sexually obsessed as a seventh or eighth grade boy should probably leave the highly erotic Song of Solomon out of his Good Parts Version, as I learned the hard way in confirmation class this week. People who believe in the loving God of Jesus Christ should probably leave the book of Joshua out of their Good Parts Version, because it is not useful to hear God telling the Israelites to batter down the walls of a town and kill every man, woman, child and animal there. Maybe if you did midrash long enough on that you could come up with some useful interpretation, but why bother? There are lots of other verses in the Bible. The Good Parts Version is based on the principle that you do not have to buy it all, and that it is far better to skip the bad parts than to throw away the whole book in disgust.
Like midrash, this, too, would be familiar to Jesus and Paul. The Jews started disregarding parts of the scriptures almost as soon as they were written. Jesus himself has his arguments with passages relating to the Sabbath and the touching of lepers, to name only two. The Good Parts Version is nothing new. Martin Luther did it. Thomas Jefferson did it. You can do it, too.
The third approach is The Box of Lenses. The image here is of that little box of lenses the eye doctor has. She pulls out two at a time and puts them in the device in front of your eyes and flips them back and forth asking, “Which is clearer? This or this?” There are many different lenses available for reading scripture, and some may make the meaning and usefulness clearer than others at any given time. There are all kinds of lenses that you can apply to scripture: a political lens, a history lens, a feminist lens, a geographical lens, a literary lens, a wisdom tradition lens, a mystical lens, a linguistic lens, a liberation theology lens, and on and on.
The more lenses we have in our box, the more clarity and usefulness we will find in what we read. Also, the more aware we are of our lenses, the more honest we can be with ourselves about the slant we are giving to our reading, and the more respectful we can be of others who see things differently simply because they are looking through a different lens. As with midrash, this can make reading the Bible together much more creative, mutually enriching, and fun, once we stop worrying about who’s right and who’s wrong.
The fourth approach is the Vision Quest. We can just open the Bible and start trekking through, scanning a page or leafing along until something leaps out at us. The reason this works is that we are dealing with a living word here; we are dealing with a real, live power. The same Spirit of God that is in us was in the people who wrote the Bible, and when we come to it on a deep spiritual level it is like hooking up jumper cables: sparks fly, power surges.
If we use these four approaches (Midrash, the Good Parts Version, the Box of Lenses and Vision Quest), the Bible can be a tool for transformation and healing, a source of guidance and power. It was these kinds of approaches to reading the Bible that fueled the revolution of values that took place in the Roman Empire, springing from Jesus and the disciples and apostles like Paul.
The Bible is a tool. A hammer in the hands of a vandal may smash a window. That does not make the hammer bad. It should not lead us to try to build a house without a hammer. Let us take up this tool and go out and use it in the weeks ahead, looking to it for the inspiration we need to make this world a little more like the realm of God that we find described in its pages, a realm of mercy and justice, compassion and love.