Genesis 3:1 – 13: Did we have a choice?


A sermon preached on June 10th, 2012, the occasion of the baptism of Krista Lyn Kempski and based upon Genesis 3:1 – 13. 

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.’ 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

We have a new puppy in our house.  Pearl is an adorable Golden Doodle, and she is very anxious to please her people and receive our praise (and also our treats.)   She’s a smart puppy.  It didn’t take her long to learn the basic rules.   First, poop outside, not inside.  Second, don’t steal food from the garbage.

Pearl knows the rules, but sometimes she breaks them.  Sometimes stuff in the garbage just smells so good and the urge to eat is so strong that this desire trumps her urge to please us, and so she breaks the rule.  And sometimes, well, the urge to “go” is so strong that Pearl poops in the house, though, to her credit, she always does this by the back door, as if to say, “I would have gone outside if I could!”

After Pearl has broken the rules, when we come strolling through the house (in a manner resembling, perhaps, God strolling through the Garden of Eden), Pearl does a pretty good imitation of Adam and Eve.  She hides.

She knows she has broken the rules, and it is painful for her to hear her people whom she wants so to please saying angrily, “Bad Dog!  Bad Dog!” So she hides in order to avoid this pain.

Now if I ask myself:  Does Pearl actually “choose” to either steal from the garbage or poop in the house?   The answer seems clear:  No, she doesn’t actually choose to break the rule.   What happens is that two opposing urges meet up, as it were, in boxing ring.   In one corner is the urge to eat something, or the urge to poop.   In the other corner is the urge to please us – win our praise, and avoid our wrath.  In the present moment this second urge is diminished by the fact that we aren’t actually there with her in the ring.   So the stronger urge at this moment prevails.

The reason we reward Pearl when she follows the rule and punish her when she doesn’t is in order to strengthen the urge to please us, so that this urge will have a greater chance of prevailing in those instances when the conflicting urges go head to head.

So, in point of fact, Pearl isn’t really choosing anything.  She is merely following the stronger urge.  That’s all a dog, or for that matter, any animal will ever do.

Okay, so let’s go back to Adam and Eve.  How are they, like, or unlike our dog Pearl?

Let’s consider the behaviors of Adam and Eve after they have stolen food from the garbage can — I mean, from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  As I mentioned before, Pearl’s hiding and the hiding of the first humans seems pretty much the same.

In contrast to Pearl, Adam and Eve can talk, so we get to hear them comment regarding their take on what has happened here.  When God asks them why they’ve taken the forbidden fruit, the answer both of them give is, in essence, “My circumstances forced me to behave in this way.   This wasn’t actually something I had a choice about.”    Adam says, “I was pressured into this by the woman you gave me.”   And Eve says, “I was pressured into this by the serpent.”

So this week I found myself asking a question about this passage that led me to hear the story in a distinctly new way from the way I’ve heard it for something like 35 years.  The question is this:  Do Adam and Eve really believe what they’re saying about putting the blame somewhere other than on themselves, or are they lying in order to avoid punishment?

Previously, I assumed they were basically lying.   But now it seems maybe it wasn’t a lie.  Maybe this is just how it seemed to them.

It’s as if they’re saying, “Hey!  We’re no different from the animals.  We can’t be held accountable for our actions.  We have no real freedom – no real choice.  We’re simply carried along through life by forces beyond our control:  forces outside ourselves as well as forces coming from within ourselves.”

Adam and Eve don’t realize it, but they are diminished by this point of view.

Their inability to recognize the responsibility they have for their actions indicates that that they have not embraced what God created them to be: creatures different from the rest of the animal kingdom, because they alone are made in the image and likeness of God.

God is free.  God chooses.  To be made in the image and likeness of this God is to be conscious of our freedom – conscious of the choices we make.

In the past when I read this story I took God to be angry because Adam and Eve didn’t follow God’s rules.   Now, however, I think there is something deeper going on here.   God is disappointed that Adam and Eve haven’t recognized themselves to be free moral agents who make decisions that really do determine the course of their lives.

If we ask, where did that pesky serpent come from?   The answer seems clear enough:  The serpent came from God.  God created the serpent, make him so crafty, and placed him in the Garden with the human beings.

Now unless God isn’t nearly as smart as God’s made out to be, God knew where this was headed.   So it seems clear enough that in placing the talking  serpent in that garden, God was choosing (!!!) to have the option presented to the human beings to do something other than keep the rules.   The serpent was there to make choice real.

Unless there is a legitimate choice not to follow the rules, there is no real choice to follow the rules.

So, this morning we baptized little Krista.  How does this story relate to her?  Well, at this point in her life, Krista is still in the garden before the forbidden fruit has been eaten.    When she is naked, she feels no shame.   Make sure she gets fed when she’s hungry, and her diaper kept dry, and make sure she gets plenty of holding and rocking and playing, and she will be totally content.  All will be well in her world.

But we know this state of blessedness won’t last forever.   Something will happen over time that will take Krista out of the Garden of Eden.    It will start when she learns the word “no” and gain steam as she discovers the power of the word.   By the time she reaches adolescence with all its irresistible self-consciousness, the Garden of Eden will no longer by visible in her rear view mirror.

There will be days when Tracy and Jim will long for the good old days back when Krista didn’t know the word “no,” and back when the sight of them brought pure delight to her eyes rather than utter embarrassment.

But this journey is necessary, because the ultimate goal is for Krista to embrace her identity as a beloved child of God, made in the image and likeness of God, as someone who embraces her freedom to choose her way forward, and in that freedom, chooses to love.

But it’s not just Krista.  It’s the rest of us as well.

The reason our puppy Pearl so resembles human beings in her behavior is because we human beings, more often than not, don’t fully embrace our freedom.

Several years ago many of you will remember I went on a sabbatical, and during that time I underwent what was called a “vision quest” where I went out into the woods by myself for four days and fasted.   The person guiding me through this process had instructed me far advance to come up with an intention for my time in my woods – a simple sentence that put into words what it was I was searching for during that time alone.

After some thought, the intention I came up with was, “I want to be someone who chooses his own way.”    I realized that often in my life I took a passive posture.   I wasn’t acknowledging my own responsibility to make choices that determined the direction of my life.  I was handing this responsibility over to others.

I was still choosing.  I was choosing not to choose.

The result of this was that I often felt I was devoting too much of my time and energy to activities for which I didn’t really have any enthusiasm.   The result of this was feelings of depression, irritability, resentment.

Before my quest even started I experienced what it means to not be conscious of the choices that are before me to make. In the late afternoon before the morning I was to begin my quest, I made to hikes into the woods to choose a campsite and leave bottles of water.  Hiking out of the woods the second time, as the sun was setting, I just assumed I knew where I was going.  Apparently I came to a fork and chose the wrong path, though I didn’t remember making the choice.   I got terribly lost, spending a panicky couple of hours finding my way out of the forest.

In a sense, we are coming to forks in the road continually in life, but more often than not we don’t recognize the forks we’ve passed.  We felt we had no choice but take the path we took.

Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who managed to survive Hitler’s concentration camp.  Afterwards he articulated a whole philosophy of life based upon this basic insight that in life there is always a freedom waiting to be embraced, even in the very worst of situations.   He writes,

“He who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given sent of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

If Adam and Eve could have both acknowledged that, “Yes, I chose to break the rule God gave me – the responsibility is mine,” then the prospect of somewhere down the road their consciously choosing to live in loving relationship with God and God’s creation would also be possible.

But there is not hope of living out their identity as those unique creatures made in the image and likeness of God, until they recognize their freedom and responsibility.

A big part of how it is that so often we miss the forks, and miss the choices that are ours to be made, is the fact that we so often find ourselves in a hurry.    When we are anxious to get down the road, then the forks are more likely to be missed.

So we have rituals such as weddings and baptisms to help us stop the rush so we can be conscious of the choices we are making.   The purpose of weddings is not to put on great displays of beautiful fanfare.  It is to draw attention to the choice that is being made.   In the presence of God and these witnesses, I choose this person to live the rest of my life with.   I am not forced to be here.   This is my choice.    

Further down the road, when the marriage is difficult, as marriages always are at times, it will make a world of difference if the partners can remember they chose to be in this marriage.   I wasn’t forced here by my partner or by the serpent.   The decision was mine.

And something similar is going on in baptism.   Tracy and Jim, and in fact, all of us, made vows in the baptismal liturgy.   We have chosen to embrace this child with love..  Further down the road, when the child presents sides that are, shall we say, not so easy to love, it will make a world of difference if we remember that we chose this path.   The God who created me doesn’t give up on me, and neither will I, made in the image and likeness of this same God, give up on my child.