“Eve: The Mother of Knowledge”
Genesis 2 & 3
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 16, 2018
University Baptist Church
This is the second sermon of a trio of reflections on the women who started things that created something new in us all. Last week we looked at Lilith, the extra-biblical figure that legend has it was too headstrong for acceptable religion. She exists at the edges of polite society. She’s the agitator who tells an inconvenient truth. The original nasty woman, she demands attention.
Next week we’ll look at Mary the mother of Jesus. The refugee unwed teenager shunned by her family and giving birth while on the run amongst filth and sweat. She’s depicted as a demure figure, but I imagine her as a fierce warrior, part Lilith, part Ruth, part Miriam, all holy. Her Magnificat is a liberationista manifesta.
This week, we’re turning our gaze toward Eve, one of Mary’s Spiritual mothers. Tradition has given us Eve the temptress, Eve the deceiver, eve the one responsible for humanity’s downfall. I prefer to think of her as the mother of knowledge.
Sojourner Truth spoke about Eve and Mary in 1851 when she said:
“That little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
We know of Eve from her encounter with the serpent and her enticing of an entirely passive Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. What we know of her especially is that she is the mother of knowledge. She ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And ever since, we have had the ability to know what is good and what is not good. Today, we are barraged with information, just a click away. But does it give us knowledge? Knowledge is the integration of information. It’s taking the information with a moral compass. It’s seeking out the truth which will set us free. In this day when our president and his advisors lie so much that it is hard to keep it straight, we need some knowledge. We need a little Eve power today. With her, we need to discern good and evil.
Kathleen gave us a good introduction to Eve, this morning. Thanks.
There are two creation stories in Genesis, three if you count the flood. The first one is where God creates the world in six days and then rests on the seventh. It’s familiar and reads like a liturgy. Creation begins as God brings order out of the primordial soup. Light, darkness, heaven, earth, plants, animals and finally humanity are created by the dramatic word and work of God who art in heaven hallowed be thy name. Everything is good. Nothing is bad.
The second creation story is different. Unlike the first story, God is not far off. In this story, God is a gardener. It’s not an accident that Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane when he wanted to commune with God. It’s also not an accident that when the risen Christ appears to Mary, she mistakes him for a gardener. God actually walks in the Garden of Eden, like a breeze. In this garden, God creates more complexity. Domestic and wild beasts get named, but not everything is good about creation.
There are good trees and bad trees. Good fruits and forbidden fruits. There are serpents about—calling the first creatures to make choices and suffer the consequences. What we see in the second story is humanity moving further and further away from God until we can no longer live in the garden. We venture off and always before us are the choices between good and evil.
We cannot look at the Bible as simply fact or fiction. It is a mirror through which people have searched for and have wrestled with God. Myth is the language of the Bible, and each story teaches a lesson. The second creation story is about the relationship between God and humanity and humanity with itself. The larger question is what does knowledge do to human community?
In order to understand this story, we need to know that there are a few word-plays in the original Hebrew. The first person is formed out of the earth. The word for earth in Hebrew is adamah. The first person is adam which really means earthling.
The first earth creature is not male. For there is no distinction between the genders until the second is created. At that point the man is ish and the woman is isha. To say that Adam was created before Eve is not biblically accurate. They were both the essence of the first earth creature adam.
Another thing we learn from this story is that wisdom and audacious action is part of the creative process. Eve chose to eat the fruit so she could have wisdom. Adam ate because Eve gave him some. Barbara Harrison calls biting the fruit “Eve’s act of radical curiosity sowed in our marrow.” (“A Meditation on Eve” in Out of the Garden)
Nine hundred years later, the writer of Timothy turned Eve’s creative searching into a justification for misogyny saying, “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet a woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”(I Tim. 2:11-15) If we have knowledge of good and evil, we might be able to show how Paul’s writings and interpretation of Genesis is flawed.
Some of the loonier theologies said that the knowledge Adam and Eve gained was carnal knowledge and the only way to undo the sin or Adam and Eve was to practice celibacy, even in marriage. The Shakers believed this, which is why there aren’t many around anymore. It might even explain their convulsions.
Until the fourth century, Jewish and Christian teachers alike believed that we fought against two competing urges: the good and the evil, and in this struggle is where we find our creative forces. Then along comes St. Augustine. He believed that the eating of the forbidden fruit irrevocable changed human nature and made us unconsciously and naturally hell-bent on sin. Western Christianity followed right along in lock-step, taking us off the hook in our moral responsibility to choose between good and evil.
But does such an interpretation accurately describe what we see in Genesis? Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis says that the text is not interested in theoretical or abstract questions of sin/death/evil/fall/sex. Brueggemann and Claus Westermann both remind us that the OT does not assume a fall. Instead, the OT assumes that we have the ability to choose life so that we and our descendants may live. We can choose life. We can choose between good and evil. Genesis is not interested in the origins of evil. It’s interested in how we cope and faithfully respond to temptation.
In the popular mystical book, Conversations With God, God addresses the fall in the following way, “What has been described as the fall of Adam was actually his upliftment—the greatest single event in the history of humankind. For without it, the world of relativity would not exist. The act of Adam and Eve was not original sin, but, in truth, first blessing. You should thank them from the bottom of your hearts—for in being the first to make a “wrong” choice, Adam and Eve produced the possibility of making any choice at all. (Conversations with God, 1995:56.)
What we see in Genesis 2 and 3 is people making choices and living out the consequences of those choices. Creation starts out good, just like in the first story from Genesis 1. There is harmony and beauty in the garden. It’s what Phyllis Trible calls Eros, life. But then comes the discord. A serpent dares talk theology with one of the creatures. The serpent opens Eve’s eyes to the possibilities out there. And she eats and hands the fruit to Adam and he eats, too. There is no temptation of the man from the woman. The text even notes that the man was with her at the time of the discussion with the serpent, but said nothing. Phyllis Trible notes “…the woman is intelligent, sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, brutish, and inept.”(God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 1988:113)
When they ate of the fruit, their eyes were opened, but they did not receive wisdom, what they received was helplessness, insecurity and defenselessness.
Adam and Eve emerge as adults, but when they are expelled from the garden, they act like children, unable to cope with their new powers or responsibilities. They shift blame. “The woman gave it to me.” “The serpent tricked me.” They hide from the one from whom there is no hiding. They hide their beauty from each other, from God by creating clothing out of thorny fig leaves. Not one of their wiser choices.
Here’s the truth: We are not let off the hook. Unlike Adam and Eve, we are not to skirt or placate the truth away. We are to know the truth and be set free by the truth. We are to know good and know evil and choose the good which leads to life so that we and our descendants can live.
Our president is a master at telling us in endless tweets who is good and who is evil. Those who disagree with him are evil. Do you notice that he spends little time talking about who is good and a lot of time vilifying his opponents, calling them evil? The only good he talks about is making America great again, but that happens by getting rid of so-called evil ones, who do evil things like wanting decent health care, respect people of different religions, different nationalities, wanting clean water, clean air, clean books, to follow the rule of law. Because of Eve, we can look beyond the serpent’s lies. We can tell when evil is disguised as good. We can discern between good and evil. We have a responsibility given to us by God and the mother of knowledge, Eve. We are to use this knowledge and use it well.
We are given the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We have eaten its sweet fruit, but we act as if we never tasted it.
Complexity happened when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We can no longer act as if we don’t know the difference between good and evil.
We are looking at these creation stories in Advent because we need to be that new creation. That’s what the nativity story is about. It’s all about starting anew, just like God did when God chose an unmarried outcast refugee couple from a backward backwoods hamlet, forgotten by their families, mistrusted and deemed as threats by the state and fleeing for their very lives. That’s where God emerges with a new creation. And it is no accident that this child is called the new Adam. He was given by Mary what her spiritual mother Eve gave to her: courageous knowledge that tells truth from fiction, that tells freedom from bondage. Eve gave Mary and us the power to see the truth: that God is not done with us. And together we have a call to make it all good.
God asks Adam and Eve’s descendants to exercise our knowledge of good and evil. God asks us to know who we are and whose we are. We are to recognize that we are responsible for each other, just as we are responsible to live in community with the animals and all of the creatures of this world. It’s so much easier to vilify and destroy that which we don’t understand. But we can do better. We must do better.
We need to be better than pitiful Adam and Eve who explain themselves by excusing themselves. God can see all and wants us to be better than that.
This Advent season; dare to be a new creation. Exercise your powers of discernment. Hold fast to what is good and reject that which is complicit with evil. And imagine that stable where we will hope to be transformed once again. And God will reign because of God’s radical action and our faithful response. O come, o come, Emmanuel.