August 20th, 2017

One of the most common ways we hide from God is focusing on the sins of others. 

Genesis 3:1-15


Two approaches

There are two legitimate ways to approach Genesis 3 – theologically and exegetically. To approach this passage theologically means to take Genesis seriously as a book of beginnings and look for what begins in chapter 3.

For example, Dr. Curt Thompson, a Christian psychiatrist, wrote a book called The Soul of Shame, in which he talks about how shame affects all our lives and relationships. One entire chapter of the book is dedicated to Genesis 3, the beginning of shame. Larry Crabb wrote The Silence of Adam, using Genesis 3 to launch a discussion of passive masculinity. We could use this rich chapter as a starting point to discuss the origin of evil, the work of Satan, how temptation works, husband-wife conflict, death and mortality, and many more theological themes.

I want to start today with an exegetical approach. The word “exegesis” comes from a Greek word meaning “to lead out.” We start with the text itself and let the text itself lead us. (That may mean that some of the questions you and I want answered will be unaddressed!) 

When we read Genesis 3 exegetically, we notice first that it is the middle part of story unit (pericope, if you want the seminary word), that began in Genesis 2:4 and continues through chapter 4.  One of the major differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-4 is the name for God. In Genesis 1, he is Elohim (the all-powerful Creator who speaks light and land and stars and creatures into being). In Genesis 2, he is Yahweh-Elohim, a personal, covenant-making God who connects and communicates and loves – with himself and also with us. In our story today, we will distinguish between Powerful God and Personal God, the way Elohim and Yahweh are used in the passage.

The story

Personal God made the heavens and earth, the latter without plants or rain. He watered the earth from underground streams. In that setting, Personal God molded a handful of dust into the body of the first man. He exhaled life into the clay, and the man himself became a living, breathing, personal being.

To provide the man a home, Personal God planted a garden in Eden. In that garden, he placed all kinds of trees, chosen for their beauty and their fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed two trees – the Tree of Life and the Tree of Secrets.[1] Personal God watered the garden with four rivers. He placed the man in the garden to tend it, giving him purpose. He told the man to eat from any tree in the garden except the Tree of Secrets. “If you eat from that tree, you’ll die,” Personal God said to the man.

He added, “It’s not good for the man to be alone. I created him to be personal like me. I will make him an opposite ally, someone like him but also different.” Having also made all sorts of animals to live in the field and fly through the air, Personal God paraded these creatures before the man so the man could name them. This required thought, choices, and words – all part of being personal. The man named them all, but none of them could match him side by side and face to face.

So Personal God put the man into a coma, surgically removed his side, and healed the wound as if nothing had happened. From that man-side Personal God formed a woman. When the man woke up he exclaimed, “At last! She’s like me, only a girl!” (That’s why still today children grow up, separate from their parents, and join together as husband and wife – two persons, one family.) The first man and woman thought nothing of walking through the garden unclothed, just like all the other animals.

Of all the creatures Personal God made and the man named, one was unique. The creature the man named Snake was almost human. It could think, it could talk, it could stand erect even without legs. Snake was also very sneaky.

One day Snake found the man and the woman together near the Tree of Secrets. Ignoring the man, Snake said to the woman, “Really? Did Powerful God ban you from eating all this luscious fruit in your garden?” (Notice he did not say “Personal God!”)

The woman answered him truthfully, only adding a little to what God said: “We can eat from all the trees… except for the one in the middle. If we eat from the Tree of Secrets, we’ll die. We shouldn’t even touch it.”

Snake was ready with his sneaky answer. “You won’t die,” he said. “Powerful God knows if you eat from that tree, you will know what he knows. You’ll know his secrets! He doesn’t trust you to know what he knows, so you shouldn’t trust him.”

The woman took a long look at the Tree of Secrets. The fruit looked delicious and beautiful. She wanted to unhide God’s secrets! She took a bite, then gave it to the man next to her. At that moment, nothing changed… and everything changed. Snake disappeared. Both the man and the woman realized how exposed they were. They patched together large fig leaves to cover up.

Later that day, Personal God came strolling through the garden, looking for his usual intimate connection with the man and the woman. They were playing hide and seek, with no intention of being found.

“Where are you?” said Personal God, acting like he was playing the game even though he certainly knew.

“I heard you coming,” the man answered. “But it’s a little embarrassing to walk around here naked. So I’m hiding.” That was a lie. He was covered with a lettuce quilt.

“Who informed you that nakedness is shameful?” Personal God replied. “I never said that. Have you been munching on fruit from the Tree of Secrets?”

The man was ready for that question. “The woman – the one you gave me as my ‘ally’ – um, she started it. She picked the fruit and handed it to me. I couldn’t say no.”

Personal God turned to the woman, “What have you done?”

The woman answered, “It’s Snake’s fault. That sneaky creature tricked me.”

Personal God then doled out the consequences.

  • “Snake, no more walking and no more talking. You’ll slither on the ground from now on, and when you open your mouth, you’ll eat dust. You and Woman, and those who follow each of you, will always be enemies. You’ll hurt her descendants continually, but her child will stomp on your head and crush you.”
  • “Woman, the beautiful and natural process of bearing children will include great pain and discomfort. What’s more, today is only Day 1 of a power struggle between you and the man. You’re going to want him and need him, but he will dominate you.”
  • “Man, you can’t blame her for what you You ate from the Tree of Secrets when I explicitly forbade you. The ground will still produce food for you, but it won’t be hanging off trees for the taking. You’re going to sweat as you work for it, battling weeds and elements. What’s more, you will die as I said, returning to the dust from which I made you.

Epilogue:  Adam named his wife Eve, which means living, because she would be the mother of the race. Personal God slaughtered animals to help them hide their shame. He banished the couple from their garden home, so that those who had eaten from the Tree of Secrets could not have access to the Tree of Life. They then started making babies. Things went downhill with the human race so fast that their oldest son killed his brother. Eventually, people began calling again on Personal God. The End.

How to love a sinner

So what do we make of this story? We could connect many themes to your life and mine. Here is a connection I didn’t read anywhere else, so if I were you, I’d be a little suspicious of it:  “How to love a sinner.” Genesis 3 records the first interpersonal barriers – both between the man and the woman (horizontal) and between the couple and God (vertical). How does Personal God handle it when they disobey him, when they don’t trust him, when they hide from him?

Do you have any sinners in your life? Anyone who treats you badly? Anyone who has betrayed you? Anyone whose sin has erected a wall between you and them? Anyone hiding from you? What do you do about it? Since you are created in Personal God’s image for community, maybe you can learn from him how to love a sinner.

Freedom with boundaries. From the very beginning, God made them free. He didn’t create robots; he created free beings who could think and choose. We ask, “Why did God put the Tree of Secrets there in the first place if he knew what would happen?” Because without the option for a bad choice, it wasn’t true freedom.

God was saying, “I want to be close to you, but I will allow you to create distance if you want it. I want to protect you from Secrets you don’t need to know, but I will give you access to it even though it will destroy you. I will even let you die if you’d rather die than be close to me. I’m here, but I won’t force me on you.”

This principle of freedom with boundaries applies to all relationships but I seem to deal most often with either parents and their children, or with spouses. When your adolescent or young adult child is making choices that you know could result in alienation or even death, or when your husband or wife is destroying the covenant you mutually agreed on, your urge is either to try to control that person or to look the other way. Even before any sin had been committed on this earth, even before there was another person to sin against or sin with, God said to the man, “This is what’s best for you, and these are the limits. Love me and live, or reject me and die. I will not choose for you.” That is an unbearably difficult thing to say to someone you love. This is the big risk of the creation story. God took it.

Patience with pursuit. God is strategically absent when the Snake deceives Adam and Eve. You say, “That’s not fair. He should have shown up and argued the other side, reminded them of the consequences, and exposed Snake for what it is.” He didn’t, because to do so would be to exercise a different form of control. Personal God gets out of the way to let them freely choose, even to let them try their best to cover up. He will ask questions rather than condemning, allowing them to add to their sin with excuses and blaming.

But he will also go looking for them. He’s not going to wait for them to make the first move, because he knows they are incapable. They are too filled with shame. Why would he pursue them? Why would you pursue someone who has rejected you? It’s a matter of deep empathy. What’s it like for someone to realize the mess they’ve made? The first instinct is not to apologize or (to use a biblical word) repent. The first instinct is to create more distance, to hide. God comes looking for them – not to force them back into a relationship but to let them know he’s still inviting them to be known and loved, even in their sin.

This is the balance we so often miss when we are betrayed by sinners. We’re either going to try to reapply control, or we’re going to cut them off. Some years back I preached a sermon in which I shared my fatherhood story. It took a while before I realized when your kids grow up, the choices are not between the extremes of smothering them and doing nothing. Waiting strategically includes looking for them, keeping the door open. Praying for our children, even praying for our enemies, is one key way we keep our hands off the control lever while not letting go.

Consequences with grace. When we look at Genesis 3 as only about “the Fall,” we miss something important. Examining this only as the first sin prompts us to ask questions we can’t answer. When exactly did sin enter? Was it just the first bite or the thought process that led up to it? Did Adam sin when he ate or did it start when he stood there in silence? If Eve had eaten but not Adam, would we still have a fallen world? Asking questions like that causes us to miss critical aspects of the story.

Here’s a big one I’ve often missed:  the consequences of their sin are overlaid with grace. The woman will cry out in pain during her labor, but she will still know the joy of bearing children. The man will sweat for every morsel of food he places in his mouth, but the ground will still produce for him. They will die, and so will every human who follows them, but not yet. That was the deception of Snake, planting the seed that not only was God holding something back, he couldn’t be trusted. When we doubt God’s word, we mistrust his character and we assault his very nature.

Death will come, but it will not be the end of their story. This Snake will not have the final word. There will be ongoing struggle between the Snake’s offspring and the woman’s, but the Snake’s head will be fatally crushed. Most Bible interpreters see here the first promise of the Gospel, the protoevangelium. Jesus dealt the fatal wound to the evil one, opening the gates again to the Tree of Life.

Pursuing and pursued

Reading this passage as a lesson in “how to love a sinner” can truly help us as we seek the balance of a loving God toward those who are destroying themselves and creating distance from us in the process. We’re created to be like him, including in our relationships with those who go astray.

But there’s a danger in reading the story that way as well. The danger is one of arrogance – seeing myself in the place of God pursuing that person who can’t see their own sin. I’m not God. I’m created in his image, but I’m very different from him in many ways, the most important of which is that I too am a sinner. My attempts to love sinners is complicated by my own sin, my own blind spots, my baggage.

One of the most common ways we hide from God is by focusing on the sins of others. We’re off the hook, or so we think, because they’re so bad. In Jesus-words, we’re straining past our own beam to examine their speck.

The good news in Genesis 3 is that while I am pursuing sinners, I am being pursued by God. That’s humbling, because it means he knows me so well. It means all the fault in this broken human relationship does not lie with the other person. It means as long as I’m thinking, “I need to do my part to fix him or her,” I’m ignoring the very significant ways in which I have contributed to the breach.

Francis Thompson, a nineteenth century English poet and author, knew what it was like to wander so far from God that it severed bands with all that gave his life meaning. Succumbing to an addiction to opium, Thompson was homeless on the streets of London before realizing the God he had left had not left him. Imagining himself as a hare and God as a hound, he wrote The Hound of Heaven, a 182-line verse that begins this way –

I fled him, down the nights and down the days

            I fled him, down the arches of the years

I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways

            Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears

I hid from him.

This is where the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 washes the soul with hope. God didn’t just pursue the man and woman in the garden. That was the start of his pursuit that led all the way to the cross, where Jesus died to crush Satan’s head and then rose again to give us life eternal. The cross removes any need to hide our true selves from God or others, because in Christ God has removed the barriers erected in Genesis 3. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift. Amen.

[1] There’s a good bit of discussion and speculation about the meaning of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” What it means to know good and evil is really not explained, either in Genesis 2:9,17 or 3:3-5. Some theorize that Adam and Eve were not sexually attracted until after they ate of this tree; this was their new “knowledge.” I find the mystery of the tree more the point. Derek Kidner suggests that to inquire further into what the tree is, is to repeat Eve’s error. There is mystery here, both before and after they eat. Thus, “Tree of Secrets.” Snake later exploits the mystery.

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