Perhaps the most important question at the heart of the Bible, at the heart of the church, at the heart of our nation is this: How do we live together? How do we organize ourselves into society? How do we live with nature? How do we coexist and intermingle on this planet with all the other peoples, with the creatures of the earth, and with earth and air and sea?
That question is the burden of the entire Bible, to be sure, but it is nowhere more evident, more prominent and vexed than in the first pages of the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, which means, beginning, origin.
The authors of the first pages of Genesis, imagine a time, a time before time, when humans and the earth and God were all in harmony … when there was a glorious, innocent interdependence … a paradisiacal kinship and coexistence.
These first stories don’t tell us what happened historically … but it is the burden of these stories to explain what is, existentially.
What is, is sin. What is, is that we live East of Eden … we live in disharmony, in disunity. We are plagued by feelings of existential dislocation, estrangement, despair, angst … and the shocking awareness, the relentless, ever-present-ness of our own mortality. And because of this, we are forever at war. We are forever at war with ourselves, with one another and with the land, the earth, the creation.
The story goes like this: God took the man, the man whom God had fashioned from dirt and breath … God took the man whom God had made in an act of creative intimacy … and put him – the word denotes settled him, situated him – in the garden God had made.
It is quite intimate this settling, this situating … it conjures a parent taking a child to college … settling the child in … all the love and all the emotions bubbling at the surface … all the memories of the past and all the hopes and risks represented by the future.
God settles the man in the Garden, in Eden, to till it and to keep it. The Hebrew connotes: to till it and to serve it … even, to be a slave to it. The Hebrew gives the sense that Adam belongs there, he is home there … he is as aptly suited to the Garden as the Garden is perfectly suited to him. Indeed, they were made for each other.
God says: “Adam, son, child: All is yours. All you can see is yours to till and serve and save. You may eat, nourish yourself from everything, all of it – except just this one tree. From the fruit of this tree, this tree alone, you may not eat. Everything else, all the vast array of trees and plants … all else is yours. And, just to clarify, this is no frivolous prohibition … there’s a reason for it. If you eat it, you’ll die!” God walks off stage.
Enter: the serpent. The crafty serpent. More crafty, we are told, than any other wild animal whom God has made. Sadly, as we come to learn, the serpent is a whole lot more crafty than young Adam.
The serpent approaches, not young Adam to whom God had spelled out the prohibition, the everything – but, the whole kit-n-caboodle except this one, single, solitary, tree. The serpent approaches the Woman. Ever so innocently the crafty serpent asks the Woman: “So, what did God say about what you can and cannot eat? Did the Lord God happen to say that you should not eat from any of the trees in this garden?”
The Serpent portrays the prohibition as arbitrary, unreasonable, and tyrannical. The Serpent insinuates that God is a tyrant, jealously set against human freedom.
The Woman, who, as it turns out, has been informed by Adam of the prohibition—the Woman confidently and correctly reports what she has been told. She reports: “We may eat of the fruit of all of these trees, all of these … except one. Just one. The one there, in the middle. We can’t eat from that one … You see, Serpent, if we were to eat of that tree, we would die.”
Well done, Adam, for sharing the prohibition with Eve. Well done, Eve, for having listened to Adam for repeating it out loud, word for word. For getting it right.
However, the Serpent, who is crafty, contradicts God. To the Woman’s explanation that eating the fruit will cause death, the serpent replies: “Rubbish! That’s a load of hogwash. There’s nothing poisonous about that tree. You won’t die. Don’t be silly.”
“I’ll tell you what, though”, continues the Serpent. At this, the Serpent leans near to the Woman … brings the Woman into the Serpent’s confidence. The Serpent whispers … whispers so God won’t hear: “Not only won’t you die … there’s something extraordinary about the fruit of this tree, something God doesn’t want you to have, something delicious and enchanting, something magical and marvelous … If you eat from that fruit from that tree, you will become like the Lord God yourself … able to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong.”
The Serpent slithers off somewhere into the Garden.
The Woman is left there with the Serpent’s words worming their way into her mind. She contemplates the forbidden fruit and the words of the Serpent. She looks upon the fruit hanging from the tree … she can almost taste it: ripe and sweet and juicy and more: it will make her wise, wise like God.
She pulls at a heavy ripe fruit, twists until it releases from the tree. She bites into it, the juice dripples down her chin.
And Adam is there. Has he been there all along? Did he observe and overhear the conversation between the Serpent and the Woman? Who knows? But Adam is there, by her side, at that tree.
Her mouth filled with the sweet juiciness of the fruit … her face a wide smile … her eyes and shoulders communicating the yumminess, the-out-of-this-world-yumminess of the fruit …wordlessly she hands it to the Man.
He takes a bite … the juice runs down his hand and drips off of his elbow … runs down his chin … he chews, savoring the sweet goodness of the fruit and swallows it down.
There, then, in the blink of an eye, in the beat of a heart, in the drip of sweet, sticky, juice, everything is changed. They have new knowledge to be sure, but also shame … which is to say, something inside them has died.
They, who had been at one with the Garden, at one with their home, at one and at peace with nature … at one and at peace with God, have severed that unity, that natural interdependence.
With their disobedience there enters distrust. Enters estrangement. Enters the human experience of alienation. Enters the knowledge of our own mortality. Enters angst. Enters despair. Enters pain.
The problem at the heart of the Bible isn’t resolved. It remains our fundamental challenge: How do we, way out here, East of Eden, live together? How do we organize ourselves into society? How do we live with nature? How do we coexist and intermingle on this planet with the creatures of the earth, with earth and air and sea?
The Bible’s answer to that, God’s answer to that question is prosaic: law and laws.
The first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – form the Torah, a Hebrew word for law … law, not as arbitrary or frivolous restraints, but as our best hope of living together out here, East of Eden.
Not all laws are perfect, to be sure. Like everything else on this planet, like everything East of Eden, our laws will need revisions and additions and removals … but they are our best hope.
Today, July 2nd, is the anniversary of the birth of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice. Born on July 2 in 1908, Justice Marshall served on the Supreme Court from 1967-1991 … helping to make us a nation of laws, just laws. I give God thanks for Thurgood Marshall.
Today, July 2nd is the anniversary of the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress (which included members of this church, our own forebears) resolved “these United Colonies are & of right ought to be Free & Independent States”. I give God thanks for the Continental Congress, for the men who penned and polished and debated new laws into existence.
Today, July 2nd is the anniversary of the day in 1777 when Vermont became the first American colony to abolish slavery, by law. I give God thanks for Vermont and its lawyers.
Perhaps the most important question at the heart of the Bible, at the heart of the life of the church, at the heart of our nation is this: How do we live together? How do we organize ourselves into society? How do we live with nature, how do we coexist and intermingle on this planet with the creatures of the earth, with earth and air and sea?
One answer – not the only one, but an important one – law, laws.