Reading from the Garden—Genesis 2 and 3

by David Hawkinson

I am writing this little piece the morning after Ash Wednesday Eve, still vividly imprinted on my forehead as a dark, gray smudge. The opening narrative for the first Sunday of Lent is the story of our debut as humans, walking about the garden “at the breezy time of the day,” as I imagine it. It is a wonderful tale, full of curiosities and possibilities, a thousand questions which lead in countless directions. I have determined to read this one story in worship, week after week, through the entire season of repentance in order to discover what treasures we might find for our little community, perched as we are on the western slopes of the Green Mountains. So I invite you in to read along with us, over the next several issues of Pietisten. The story will also provide many opportunities to review the essentials of the biblical styles which, I have been suggesting all along, are at the heart of good bible reading. Here is the text as translated by Everett Fox, beginning with the original command from God in 2:15.

YHWH, took the human and set him in the garden of Eden, To work it and watch it.
But YHWH commanded concerning the human saying: From every other tree of the garden you may yet, yes, eat, but from the Tree of the Knowing of good and Evil—you are not to eat from it, for on the day that you eat from it you must die. Yes die.

(Then, from verse 25 on)

Now the two of them, the human and his wife, were nude, yet they were not ashamed.
Now the snake was more shrewd than all the living-things of the field that YHWH had made. It said to the woman: Even though God said: You are not to eat from any of the trees of the garden…!
The woman said to the snake…. From the fruit of the other trees in the garden we may eat, but from the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, God has said:
You are not to eat from it and you are not to touch it, lest you die.
The snake said to the woman: Die, you will not die! Rather God knows that on the day that you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will become like gods, knowing good and evil.
The woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to contemplate.
She took from its fruit and ate, and gave also to her husband beside her, and he ate.
The eyes of the two of them were opened and they knew then that they were nude.
They sewed fig leaves together and make themselves loincloths.

We will stop here for the moment. I am immediately struck, as I always am, by how short this story is—how few verses are required to describe such astonishing drama. I have used the term “conden-sation” to describe this basic biblical literary device. This is a supreme example.

To highlight this feature let me offer a contrast. I attended a conference last autumn where a remarkable storyteller, whose ancestry was partially Guatemalan, told the ancient myth of the origin of his people, the Mayans. This required five days, two-and-a-half hours a day, to tell this tale called the “Toe Bone and the Tooth.” And, this was actually the shortened version of the telling, because when it is used as it was intended, as an initiation story, the “Toe Bone and the Tooth” requires ten full days. The story, even the short version, was deep and rich, like the rain forest that was its setting, dense and magnificent in detail and color, filled with action and suspense, humor and mystery, wonderful creatures, human and non-human, with dramatic character and plot development. I was entranced and could easily imagine listening for the full ten days, especially if I were a young indigenous native hearing about the origin of my people, knowing that this narrative held the knowledge I needed to shape a world of meaning, root my identity, and provide direction and guidance for my own journey.

When we compare this kind of traditional narrative with the one we have set before us from Genesis, the contrast is astonishing. Little more than 14 or 15 verses are all that is needed to tell this core story from which, according to the biblical tradition, we draw our essential knowledge of what it is to be a human being. Like the bubbling spring that originates the flow of a great river, this little story begins the immense epic that sweeps across time and space, while continuing to hold the imagination of people now scattered throughout the world.

The story is so elegant, so sparse in detail, like the desert which is its natural setting—absent of background information, psychology, and motivation. The surface is cool and nearly calm, unhurried, but a tension fills the spaces, like a spring coiled tight and ready to open with the first touch, the first question.

These two narrative traditions ask different things from us. At the conference, the telling of the “Toe Bone and the Tooth” required an openness to the entire flow of the story, a receptivity to the way the story has essentially been told for generations. It was not our role to interrupt or interpret, but to listen carefully and with rapt attention. This should not be confused with passivity. The story was alive. I perched on the edge of my chair as if to take to flight. When the drama intensified, my heart beat more rapidly. When the story slowed to reflection, my mind flooded with insight and joyful regard for our common human journey.

But when I read an exquisitely crafted biblical tale such as this one, the enormous gap between what is on the page and what is not immediately overwhelms me with questions. A deep impulse stirs me to raise my hand, to ask a question, to engage the story teller in an active, more interruptive listening process. In other words, I can’t just sit in my seat. I want to shout out a hundred times: “What is going on here?” The rabbinic readers of the text call this process “midrash”—derived from the verb, “to inquire.” If questions do not rise in our minds, when we read these biblical texts, then we are reading as if asleep—meaning, the text has become too familiar, loosing its capacity to surprise, jar, confront or challenge our secure contentment that we know what is really going on.

Nearly everyone has read this story at least once, or thinks they have. Most of us think we know it fairly well. But I want to urge each of us to approach this narrative (as we should all texts) as if we had never heard it, as if it were entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before us ready made, everything set in its proper place.

Better for our souls if we could conjure that edgy tinge of anxiety that anticipates we may be reading a tale we have never really heard or listened to, but which opens a door to our deepest selves. Perhaps, if we let our preconceptions fall away, open ourselves to the story once again, we may hear something truly new, something quite real, which may startle us to live differently in the world, with each other, and with the One who made heaven and earth, who fashioned us like our ancestors from the dust of the ground. So let us begin. First, go back and re-read the text.

The Set

Imagine the garden as a stage. The set was not arranged by the creatures that live in it, but by another who places them on it. Earlier, when the garden is first planted by God (verses 8-14), two trees are set in the middle—the tree of life and the tree of the knowing of good and evil. But once YHWH sets the human in the garden, the tree of life fades as a center of attention—for the moment. What was in the designer’s mind? Why, for example, have these two trees been highlighted, planted at center stage? What was the intent of the set designer to focus all our energy at this one place? And what kind of a tree is this one that grows in importance? I don’t mean, what is the actual, literal tree? I mean, what kind of a tree has knowledge? Is this a magic tree? Is this a magic story? Is this tree like the magic seeds that Jack gets for his cow, which will burst in a heavenward rush, carrying him up into the clouds where adventure and fortune await him? In other words, does the tree itself have special power, or does the real power of the tree lie elsewhere, perhaps in the warning, the invisible hedge that God places around it. Still, there it is, smack dab in the middle of the garden. My confirmation students immediately smell a set-up. I mean, if God truly didn’t want his human creatures to eat from the tree, why set the forbidden object right in the middle of everything? Our own eyes are inexorably drawn to the center and not to the edges. Perhaps, the real power (if knowledge is power) lies in the prohibition. Yet, doesn’t the question linger on the edge of the tongue; why is this forbidden? Why this one tree? Why not the tree of life? That fruit would have granted immortality! (Perhaps the woman should have first grabbed the fruit of that tree while it was accessible.) Why are humans not supposed to possess the particular kind of knowledge that this particular tree appears to contain? These questions seem to be fair. But they fall on deaf ears. The narrator does not help us a wit. The tree is set in the middle, named “the Tree of Knowing of good and evil,” and humans are told to stay away.

Do I sound like a petulant first-grader, grabbing the pants leg of mother or father, questioning everything, repeating ad nauseam, “Why, Why, Why?” How irritating this can sound to the parental ear. Yet, somehow, it feels perfectly natural. Curiosity seems to be the way of humans. And, it is absolutely necessary for reading the biblical text. After all, neither the world, nor the text, was created to be a dull and uninspiring place to live. Rather, as Robert Louis Stevenson tells it: The world is so full of a number of things/ I am sure we should all be as happy as kings. I mean, if you don’t want human beings wondering about the tree, then why create trees that are “desirable to look at and good to eat” (2.9), place two of these beauties in the middle of the garden, with the command to stay away from one! The tree instantly becomes a source of intrigue, of curiosity, and speculation. We don’t know if it is the tree itself, the knowledge that it supposedly offers, or, is it the prohibition that most draws our attention? Perhaps Fox’s translation of the tree of “knowing,” as opposed to the tree of knowledge, helps us locate the central point. Fox leads us to imagine that it is the relation between the humans and the tree that holds the knowledge. And what is this knowledge anyway? We will deal with this in the part that follows. Either way, in this terse verbal landscape, one question always leads to another. No single question stands out. All the while, the story teller is patiently reserving any guidance. We will not be given any information that the actors in the drama do not have. We are simply let onto the stage to walk about, as our ancestors have down through the generations, with an occasional glance over to the center—where that tree sits, it’s leaves fluttering when the winds pipe up, “at the breezy time of the day.”

David Hawkinson is a teacher of Bible, editor of Pietisten, and Pastor of Covenant Community Church, Jericho, Vermont.

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