(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on June 10, 2018)
If you were in church last Sunday, you might remember that during the announcements I said I was going to preach this Sunday on the story of Adam and Eve. And then Jane Stewart asked if people had to wear clothes.
I must say I’m disappointed no one showed up naked today. But if you’re moved to throw off your clothing during my sermon, go right ahead. We’re always looking for new pictures to put up on the church’s Facebook page.
The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has certainly influenced a lot of people through the years. It’s one of those stories everyone knows, even if they’ve never cracked open a Bible. And it’s also filtered into popular culture. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed Garden of Eatin’ organic corn chips from the Co-op, for example. And I’m sure you’ve heard some of the many jokes involving fig leaves and Adam and Eve, none of which are appropriate for a family-friendly service.
The story has perennial appeal because it taps into universal themes. Many cultures around the globe have some version of an Adam and Eve story, describing a time when everything was perfect before evil entered the world.
Take the Greek myth of Pandora. She was given a box by Zeus, who warned her never to open it. Of course curiosity got the better of her, and when she opened it all sorts of negative things were released into the world—death, crime, envy, hatred, illness, and sorrow. Pandora tried frantically to put them back in the box, but the only one that she managed to keep inside was a little thing that wasn’t ugly at all: hope.
The story of Adam and Eve has generated many interpretations and inspired a lot of folklore through the centuries. Most of us think, for example, that the fruit given to Eve was an apple—even though a fig or a pomegranate would have been more likely. It turns out that the identification of an apple with Adam and Eve is likely because the Latin word for apple is malum. But when malum is used as an adjective it means evil, so you can see how people could get confused.
Another piece of folklore is that our larynx, our voice box, is called an Adam’s apple. That’s because it’s said that the forbidden fruit stuck in Adam’s throat as he swallowed, creating a bulge.
And as long as I’m on a roll with folklore about Adam and Eve, here’s another one. There’s a Jewish legend that says that when God created Adam and Eve, they were actually Siamese twins, joined together at the back. The bumps in our backbones were made as God sawed them apart.
It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Scholars have had a field day with this story as well. It’s no accident, they say, that it’s a serpent that tempts Eve. That’s because in many cultures, snakes were powerful creatures that represent life, immortality, and rebirth, no doubt due to the fact they have the ability to shed their skins and be re-born in a new form.
What’s more, in the ancient Near East, snakes were often associated with pagan religions, especially with the worship of mother goddesses. Doesn’t that put a whole new spin on the scene where the serpent entices Eve into eating the fruit that’s been forbidden?
In Christianity, this story is usually told as a morality tale. Adam and Eve disobey God, and then suffer the consequences. They’re kicked out of the Garden of Eden. God tells Eve that she and her descendants will suffer pain in childbirth, and that Adam will have to work by the sweat of his brow. And the serpent is sentenced to crawling on its belly for eternity.
This morality tale became the basis for the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that there’s a stain that’s passed from generation to generation because of how Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Humans are afflicted with this Original Sin just by virtue of being born. St. Augustine was largely responsible for making this a dominant doctrine throughout church history.
But other people have looked at these same verses and taken a different tack. In Judaism, for example, there is no doctrine of Original Sin. Adam and Eve messed up, but their actions don’t mean that the rest of humanity inherited their sinfulness. Humans are born pure (though of course we mess things up all on our own as we grow up).
Many interpreters, both secular and religious, believe this story illustrates an essential aspect of human development. Only young children live in a Garden of Eden. That’s because becoming an adult means leaving the nest, getting hurt, and enduring failure.
Looked at in this way, Eve isn’t to be blamed. Instead, she was an essential catalyst. Because of her, humans grew up. For the Garden of Eden, as beautiful as it was, was still an enclosure—the equivalent, you might say, of a gated neighborhood.
So in the story, humans trade innocence for a taste of divine knowledge. And because humans have free will, they must take responsibility for what comes next.
The story of the Garden of Eden is the first example in the Bible of how good can come out of humans screwing up. Or maybe a better way of putting it is that God can work good even out of our failures.
I can’t help but think, in fact, that God knew exactly what he was doing in setting up the garden as he did. Because if you tell people not to think about an elephant, they’re going to think about an elephant. And if you tell people not to eat a certain fruit, they’re going to eat that fruit. That’s human nature, which God is responsible for creating.
Theologian Matthew Fox has written a lot about the difference between Original Sin and Original Blessing. For him, the bite of the forbidden fruit—let’s call it an apple, for convenience sake—started a chain of blessing and blossoming.
In making this claim, Fox also draws on the other creation story in Genesis (for there are two versions of the creation). This is the one that says that men and women were created at the same time, both in the image of God. And from the very beginning, they were pronounced good. They were born good. And they remained good.
Fox writes that too often the focus of spiritual life has been on individual moral perfection. In contrast, the doctrine of Original Blessing, one might say, is about the courage of imperfection.
Here’s how he puts it:
One of the first lessons [of creation] is how beauty and imperfection go together. Every tree is beautiful; but if you approach it closely enough you will see that every tree is imperfect. The same is true of the human body: every human body is beautiful, but every human body is imperfect. In nature, [and] in creation, imperfection is not a sign of the absence of God.
So it would have been much easier to stay in the Garden. We wouldn’t have ever had to worry about being hungry, or frustrated, or despairing. We’d never have to worry about the future or mourn the death of someone we loved.
But in that state of perpetual bliss, we also wouldn’t know the lessons that come only from hardship. It’s only by having experienced brokenness that we can appreciate the miracle of healing. We have to endure hardship and loss in order to grow up. Mistakes are essential in learning, as any teacher knows.
In short, we have to leave the Garden in order to find out who we are. Self-awareness comes with a high cost. But it’s one that we all have to pay.
Writer Frederick Buechner has a wonderful way of summing this up, words that should have been said to Adam and Eve as they left the Garden. “Here is the world,” he says. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.