Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

To Know Good and Evil

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9 March 2014, Women’s Sunday, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11.

Today Kowloon Union Church celebrates Women’s Sunday since it is closest to March 8, the International Women’s Day.  As many of you know, International Women's Day honors the struggle of the early women who claimed their right to vote; the women who called for an end to war; the women who struggled for equality in work and pay; the women who fought for women’s rights as human rights. 

For some people, the celebration may have become something like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, when women are given flowers and special treats; or given time-off from caring for children and cooking for the family.  But actually, the observance is to build support for women’s rights and participation in various aspects of life.  It is a time to reflect on progress made in the area of women’s empowerment.  It is also a time to call for change where women still experience discrimination, injustice and violence.  And it is a time to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in their communities. 

For our reflection, I decided to stick with the Lectionary readings for today, which include excerpts from the creation story in Genesis 2-3.  We all know this story.  But may I invite you to reflect with me on this story with new eyes and new ears.   

You must have learned that the story is about original sin, resulting from Adam and Eve's disobedience when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  Original sin is part of the doctrine of the fall – the belief that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they ‘fell’ from perfection and brought evil into a perfect world.  St. Augustine, a church father who explained this theory extensively, said that this fallen human condition is transmitted from generation to generation through procreation.  Thus, every person is automatically blemished with the original sin.

You must have also heard that many times, Eve is blamed for tempting Adam into sin.  We can read about it in I Timothy 2:14: “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”  This is why there has been a misogynistic (anti-women) attitude within Christianity for centuries.  The Lectionary readings for today, however, include Romans 5 rather than 1Timothy.  I think it is because the focus is to compare Adam’s disobedience which brought sin and death into the world with Christ’s obedience that brought justification and life for all. 

In celebration of Women’s Sunday, I will focus on the creation story and invite you to find new lessons from this that would be more inspiring and liberating. 

There are two ways of reading this story.  One is the literalist view which regards the story as something other than a myth or a folk story.  This view would take the meaning of the story to the letter – such as affirming that Adam and Eve were real historical persons; that the Garden of Eden was a physical place that God originally created; that the serpent was also a physical, historical being.  If one takes this literalist view, one would find the theory of original sin easy to follow.   

The other way is the literary view which regards this story as a form of etiology.  Etiology [from aitia, Greek word for ‘cause’] is the study of causes or origins, expressed in terms of historical or mythical explanation.[1]  We have many folk tales, myths and legends on how a certain place, fruit, animal, or the human being came to be.  For example, we have the legend of why and how the Durian has a spiky shell and a very strong smell.  Yet we know that no one was there to actually record how the Durian came to be at the beginning of history.

Since we are already familiar with the literalist view, I suggest that we learn from the literary view to get to the deeper meanings behind the creation story. 

Many Bible scholars are convinced that the creation story appears to have been drawn from an ancient Near Eastern tradition of an idyllic garden from which rivers flowed.  God created the human beings to till and keep the garden, and to enjoy the fruit of its trees.  The idea of an idyllic garden is symbolic of the unbroken relationships between God and humanity, and between humanity and nature. 

However, Bible scholar Mary Phil Korsak suggests that the garden was meant to be a temporary location and condition, a womb-like incubation for humankind in their infancy.[2]  The humans must eventually move out of the garden to perform their occupation.  Hence, the river flowing out into other lands demonstrates that life is possible outside of Eden

Then God said: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."  So God’s gift of freedom in the idyllic garden had a limit or boundary.  It is like a parent telling the children, “You can do this, but not that.  You can take this, but not that.”  Growing up in the Philippines, I remember how parents would scare their little children from going somewhere by saying: “Don’t go there.  If you go, you will be eaten by a monster.”  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden is a symbol of the limit or boundary to human freedom.  And all that God wanted was that they would respect that limit, that boundary. 

In the words of Walter Brueggemann, 
There are secrets about the human heart and the human community which must be honored, bowed before, and not exposed.  That is because the gift of life in the human heart and in the human community is a mystery retained by God for himself.  It has not been put at the disposal of human ingenuity and human imagination. [3]

However, the human tendency seems to be to test the limit, push the boundary, and do that which is forbidden.                     

What is the significance of the serpent?  Because of the role of the serpent in this creation story, the snake is among the most demonized of creatures.  When I mentioned this in a theological lecture in an Indian seminary a few years ago, one young pastor responded that whenever he’d see a snake, he would kill it because the Bible speaks of enmity with the snake.  There is a joke that if God had only created Adam a Chinese, there would have been no original sin because he would have immediately turned the snake into soup. 

A common character in the mythology of the ancient Near East, the serpent was often portrayed as representative of wisdom, imbued with a position of divinity and knowledge.  The word “Arum” (often translated as ‘cunning’ or ‘crafty’) is used frequently in wisdom literature as prudent.  In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells the disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Why did the serpent choose to discuss with the woman?  In the Old Testament, wisdom is often personified as a woman.  In fact, God’s agent of Wisdom, Sophia, is a female character.  Many Bible commentators consider the serpent to be an extension of Eve, rather than an independent or external character.[4]  Thus, the serpent’s cunning is really the woman’s cunning.  The dialogue between the woman and the serpent is her own wrestling with the issue of whether or not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

So what is the significance of “knowing good and evil” as a result of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree?  Bible scholars say it symbolizes growing into the knowledge of opposite realities that require making choices, discerning among options or possibilities.  The choices can be between good and evil, right and wrong, creativity and destruction, and the many shades in between, as well as facing the consequences for choosing one or the other.  This is the knowledge that infant children do not have; that youth and adults have to wrestle with.  To know good and evil is therefore to attain wisdom.  In our common language, we call it conscience.       

Korsak claims that God really intended for the man and woman to leave Eden, after their ‘eyes have been opened’, which means they have received the knowledge and wisdom to live in the world.  She asserts that God’s statement in relation to the tree of knowing good and evil reflects motherly concern, not so much of a threat.  Like a human mother, God was dreading the coming of knowledge resulting in her children leaving her direct influence.       

The story of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4:1-11 describes Jesus being led by the Spirit into the desert, fasting forty days and forty nights, and then being tempted by the devil.  While the passage does not mention serpent or snake but the devil, many paintings on this story portray this so-called devil as a winged red creature, if not a person, with horns and tail, and a pitchfork in his hand.  But having demystified the role of the serpent in the creation story, we can also re-read the temptation of Jesus in a new light.  That it happened soon after his baptism tells us that it was a period of making decisions, of choosing from opposing options, on how he would carry out his ministry.  Indeed, forty days and forty nights signify a period of waiting – just like the 40 days that Noah and his group in the ark watched the rain fall; or the 40 days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 commandments; or the 40 years that the Israelites wandered around the desert before they could get to the Promised Land. 

The significance of the temptation is that it clarified for Jesus the kind of messiah or leader he was going to be.  According to an evangelical preacher, Paul Fritz, the three temptations that Jesus faced had to do with three needs.  The first temptation had to do with the desire for Self-Satisfaction.  When thinking of what is the most important in life – is it seeking the good life by satisfying one’s physical and material needs, or obeying the God’s will?  The second temptation had to do with the desire for Self-Accomplishment.  When thinking of how to do great things, should one go for the spectacular in order to be famous, or go with a simple trust in God?  The third temptation had to do with the desire for Self-Glorification.  In carrying out God’s mission, should we take shortcuts in order to get to the end as quickly as possible, or should we allow God to accomplish God’s plan in God’s time and God’s way?  Indeed, these three temptations remain true for us to this day.   
I hope that on this Women’s Sunday we have gained a fresh understanding of the creation story that for a long time has been used to keep Eve and all women after her subordinate, oppressed, the object of blame and shame for the sin of the world.  I hope that you have found a more liberating message – which is that wisdom – To Know Good and Evil – is really God’s gift and will for us.  It is a sign of our coming of age – that we have grown in our being created in the image or likeness of God. 

However, while divine wisdom is God’s gift, it does not come easily to us.  It involves careful discernment, struggle within oneself and maybe with others, having an ability to reason out and weigh options, making sound decisions and firm commitment on one’s choices, and being responsible for the consequences of such choices.  As we struggle within ourselves, we may need some help from others.  And isn’t it comforting to know that we have our role model in Christ Jesus, who did face and overcome temptation.          

During this first Sunday in Lent, may we each embark on a journey of reflection.  May it help us grow in wisdom – like it did Eve, the mother of all the living.  May it strengthen us in our life’s commitments, like it did Jesus, our role model who dealt with temptation using the gift of divine wisdom.  

Finally, here is an encouraging verse from the Bible for those of us who are struggling with temptation in life: 
“…remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience.  And God is faithful.  (God) will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can't stand up against it.  When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it.”   1 Corinthians 10:13 (NLT)

Let us pray:

Dear God,
Thank you for new lessons that we have learned today – that the wisdom to know good and evil is your gift to us.  May this gift of wisdom strengthen and guide us each day, as we encounter temptations in our lives.  Thank you for the assurance that we will not be tempted beyond what we can bear.  Thank you that in Christ Jesus we have both a great role model and a faithful deliverer.  Amen.

[1] Danijel Berković, “From Misogyny to Cult: An Etiological Reading of Genesis 3,” KAIROS - Evangelical Journal of Theology / Vol. III. No. 2 (2009), pp. 153-170 [156].
[2] Mary Phil Korsak, “A Fresh Look at the Garden of Eden,” Semeia, vol. 81, (1998) pp. 131-145 [138].
[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Genesis,” Interpretation (a Bible Commentary for teaching and preaching), Louisville: John Knox Press (1982),  p. 152.
[4] R. Kimelman, “The Seduction of Eve and Feminist Readings of the Garden of Eden,” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal.  vol. 6 (1998), pp. 1-39 [5-6].

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, March 09, 2014

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