They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ 10He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ 11He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ 12The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ 14The Lord God said to the serpent,
‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
You can almost feel this passage gasping for breath under the weight of centuries of interpretation. This text has been used to perpetuate a lot of harm – to teach about “the fall” of humans and to prove the existence of original sin, or as a misogynistic tool to blame women as the source of all evil and to prove that women shouldn’t be allowed to lead men, or to copy and paste societal constructions about gender onto the faces of the people in this passage, and on and on and on.
But if we listen closely, we don’t necessarily find these things in the text itself. We don’t find mention of a fall, or a suggestion that these two people ruined the world with sin for the rest of us, or any statements essentializing gender. As theologian Walter Brueggeman puts it, “this text is treated as though it were an explanation of how evil came into the world… [when] in fact, the narrative gives no explanation for evil. There is no hint that the serpent is the embodiment of principle of evil… [this passage] is not concerned with origins but with faithful responses and effective coping.” (Walter Brueggeman, Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, pg. 41.) So let’s give this text some breathing room, letting go of what people have projected upon it for centuries and tuning into what’s actually present here. It may help us not to look at this text as an explanation for how the world has ended up as it is now, but rather as a mirror, reflecting things back to us that we experience just about every day as humans in relationship with God and each other.
The two people have eaten from the tree that God told them not to eat from. And now they are hiding, ashamed. Nichola Torbett, one of the commentators I read this week, says “the humans were struck with shame, not initially for what they had done (that would have been “guilt,” for which they could have made amends) but for who they were in their nakedness. Suddenly they wanted to hide. They did not want to be seen—at least not in the fullness and reality of who they were.” (Nichola Torbett, Enfleshed: Justice, Liberation, Delight, “Genesis 3:8-15”) And what strikes me first about what happens in their encounter with God, coming from this place of shame and hiding, is the cascade of blame that follows. The man blames the woman for giving him the fruit to eat, blaming God in the process for being the one to create the woman in the first place. The woman blames the serpent. And then it seems that God echoes that blame towards the serpent, cursing it to a life of crawling on its belly, eating dust, and having a terrible relationship with humans for generations to come. Remember, these texts were written and edited together by people just like you and me. What we know about God in the rest of the Bible is that She reaches out and pursues humanity over and over and over again. But maybe God gets sucked into our own waterfall of blame in this passage. As Torbett puts it, “perhaps the cursing and exiling [from God] in this passage is a way that human beings have ‘created’ God in our own image—us at our worst, complete with our tendencies toward excommunicating those who don’t follow the rules.” (Torbett, Enfleshed, “Genesis 3:8-15.) What begins with guilt, moves to shame. And then shame leads to a blaming of others so powerful that it pulls even this image of God into its vortex too.
And one of the things blame is best at doing is cutting us off from each other. Because the connection between the two people in this passage is one of the first things to go, right? Theologian Wil Gafney points out that these two people were created by God not as separate entities, but as “two halves of a whole… Together and individually they reflect the divine image.” (Wil Gafney, Womanist Midrash on the Torah, “Genesis”, pg. 22.) They even hid together amongst the trees when they felt shame. But once God asks where they are, their sense of belonging to each other breaks down, and they start to identify as individuals, not as part of the collective. “I heard the sound of you in the garden… I was afraid… I was naked… I hid myself… I ate…” All of a sudden, they have lost sight of their togetherness, and they batten down the hatches, convinced they are going it alone.
Perhaps this sounds familiar. The marriage that’s become a mess convinces us to project that all is well even when behind closed doors there are yelling matches, cold silences, and bad habits developed to escape the problems. The mental health battle threatens the image of perfection we’ve carefully cultivated, so we don’t tell even those closest to us how difficult it has made our life. The rage we feel towards God after a tragedy leads us to believe we aren’t welcome back into the community of faith until we have something nice to say about God. In moments or seasons where we experience shame, the first thing to go is often our togetherness. We batten down the hatches, and convince ourselves that we are going it alone.
And what I want to say about this “going it alone” is not just that it hurts us, but that it’s a lie. The two people in this passage are not experiencing isolation because they are suddenly thrown apart on opposite sides of the garden. It’s because they stop reaching for each other, they stop showing their true, naked selves, they start to believe the lie that their beloved is not right there with them in the moment of crisis. They stop remembering that they are a “we”, an “us”, and they tell themselves the lie that they are only an “I”, a “me”. Their isolation is not reality. It’s a way they choose to operate, resulting from their shame.
But the good news is that in the face of lies, we can tell the truth. And the truth I cling to in this passage is actually right there in the beginning, when the two people “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…” A late spring and summer tradition for Dexter and I is to walk a handful of yards down the street to wander into Lower Columbia School Garden after the heat of the day has passed, but before it’s time to go to sleep. We stroll through that garden for no other purpose than to marvel at it. And we don’t go there to see just one thing. We walk through it to see the incredible interdependence of tomato vines climbing a trellis with purple basil seedlings springing up in their shade. Of bees dancing between the sweet peas and the lavender to share pollen that leads to growth. And my favorite discovery this week, when I found it odd that the carrots and beets were all mixed together in their sprouting. I Googled it later to discover that it’s great to plant carrots and beets intermingled because carrots root deeper than beets, breaking up hard dirt that gives beets the chance to thrive, these two plants growing at different depths in a way that helps the other access the nutrients they need to live. (“Can Carrots and Beets Be Planted Together?”)
The Hebrew word for God walking in the garden can actually be translated “God taking Godself for a walk.” (Gafney, Womanist Midrash on the Torah, “Genesis”, pg. 24.) I wonder if God was taking Godself on a walk through the garden for the same reason Dexter and I do: to marvel at and revel in the way life was meant to be – a beautiful dance of interdependence and mutual thriving. Commentator Vanessa Lovelace points out that “The Hebrew word for ‘breeze’ is the same for ‘wind,’ ‘breath,’ or ‘spirit.’ The breeze here suggests a cool, comfortable gentle wind — a welcome reprieve from the typically hot, arid climate…” of the ancient Near East. (Vanessa Lovelace, Commentary on Genesis 3:8-15, June 10, 2018.) Maybe this breeze-blown, Spirit-filled walk of God is a reminder of the truth about us – that no matter how much we try to isolate ourselves in our shame, this interdependence of the garden, this mutual belonging to each other and the planet is our birthright, a reality about how we were created to live that brings God pure delight. We can lie to ourselves all we want about being alone, but we’ll never be able to shake the part of ourselves that was made for connection. We couldn’t revoke our belonging to God and one another and to the earth even if we tried (and we do try, don’t we?). The mirror of this text will remind us of the ways we try to blame away what hurts in our lives, but the rest of Scripture reminds us that this God who cries out “Where are you?” in search of Her hiding children nevers stops pursuing us. From here to the book of Revelation, this God longs to bring us back to the interdependent festival of mutuality that is the garden of God’s delight.
We belong to each other, dear friends, and the good news about how God made us is that there’s nothing we can do to change that. So in that thing you’re hiding from the people around you, the thing you’re convinced this church family can’t hold with you … don’t let the lie of isolation have its way any longer. Reconnect with community in a way you haven’t before as we start to step out of quarantine living. Listen to the Spirit’s nudging in your heart when you sense that there’s a person who needs a listening ear. Open up a part of your life to someone else, the part you’ve been convinced is too much or too messy. Let someone in this church family be the carrot to your beet, breaking up some of the tough soil so you can find some space to be where you are, to grow, and to find a home. May the Spirit on the evening breeze be a cool, comfortable, gentle wind for your soul – a welcome reprieve from the dried out shame desert where you’ve been languishing. Take a risk to let someone in. Because you were made for God’s garden of interdependent living. It’s the place where all of us belong. Amen.