Lent has taken many forms over the years. In the early Christian Church Lent was time of preparation for baptism. Lent has also traditionally been a time of penitence. To this day many Christian communities view Lent as a season of personal reflection on how to live up to Christian ideals. There seems to be a current shift in the observances of Lent with many Christians now using this time to intentionally take up spiritual practices and draw closer to God. Whether drawing closer to God, engaging in personal reflections, observing the practice of penitence, or preparing for new life, the scriptures in the Bible seem to be one of the foundations to which we, as Christians, turn during this season. For this reason, I will be attempting through out this Lenten season to offer some scriptural reflections on this blog and these reflections will be based on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) or feminist lectionary Women’s Stories from Scripture for Sundays and Festivals: Remembering the Women by J. Frank Henderson, which also follows the RCL while offering passages reflecting the lives of biblical women to be used when the RCL does not.
Perhaps I should not be surprised that the scripture for the first week of Lent, the season of repentance and reflecting on sins, is Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 about Eve and Adam eating of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It is a text often pointed to as proof of “Original Sin,” the “untrustworthy” or “evil” nature of women. If you are unfamiliar with this passage or would like to refresh your reading of the text you may do so here. It is a text that has long affected the relationships of men and women, particularly in the realm of religious understanding and authority. But what does it say to us in Lent, about penitence, about drawing closer to God, about living the Christian life today?
I recently had occasion to re watch an episode of Bill Moyer’s wonderful PBS series Genesis in which Moyers, himself a pastor, gathers a variety of thinkers, artisans, scholars, and theologians to reflect on the major stories in the Book of Genesis. One of the Genesis episodes named “Temptation” addresses the Genesis passage about Adam, Eve, and the Tree of Knowledge. (And yes I must admit spending an hour listening to scholars discuss this was heavenly.) I mention this episode because in rewatching it I was particularly struck by two issues in the Adam and Eve text that I don’t think we often talk critically about: fault and relationship.
So often we approach this text with our tendency to idealize and analyze, and I wonder if in doing so we miss something important. We often imagine Adam and Eve in the garden with all their needs meet and without much worry. Perhaps it was ideal, certainly having all my needs met so I can simply be sounds ideal. But Adam and Eve were human. I have not lived as long as some people have but it does seem to me that one of the traits of our humanity is that if things get too easy we become bored; when we have too few challenges we wonder about new things, we strive to do something new, something to change the status quo although we always hope it will change for the better. It seems that some of that is a foot in this text from Genesis. Eve acts. If we ponder that without judgment for just a minute (go on, I dare you!) we see something different emerging from this. Steven Mitchell, in the Genesis episode comments that Eve is “the one who makes everything happen, who acts out of love for God, if God is wisdom.” (Genesis: a Living Conversation, New York: Doubleday 1996, 47.) In the text the serpent tells Eve “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” It is in some ways Eve’s eating of the fruit was a very Lenten act for it was an act to become closer to God, to “be like God”.
Yet, seeking to be closer to God can often change things in unforeseen ways. In the Genesis story, Eve took a human risk to do something different in order to become closer to God. But things did not work out the way Eve expected. There is in the text evidence that God told Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge before Eve was a part of the story, Eve may not have had this command directed at her. Nevertheless, whether Eve defied God, as is often said of this text, or whether Eve was acting out of innocence (which seems a closer reading of the text) Eve’s eating of the fruit changes the relationships in the Garden. In Genesis, prior to this episode God is portrayed as walking in the Garden with Adam and Eve. Yet that changes after the eating of the fruit. In the Genesis episode Marianne Meye Thompson makes the point that after the fruit is eaten “they clothe themselves, as if to hide from each other. And they also hide from God.” (Genesis, 52). The text then is about human changes. Changes in human ingenuity, changes in human spirituality, changes in relationships between man and woman as well as between humans and God.
Our text seems to indicate that changes in ourselves also lead to changes in our relationships with others. One of the other things I have noticed about humans is that we don’t like change. Adam very much portrays that aspect of human nature in this story. For when God asks why they are hiding, why they know they are naked, Adam explains that Eve gave him the fruit to eat. God does not fall for it. God does not tell the pair that everything is going to be okay. Rather, God acknowledges the change in all their relationships that will take place, perhaps because of their acts, but also because of the change that has taken place in the man and woman themselves. Not only is change never easy, but in this case the change also brings about suffering. In the Genesis episode Elaine Pagles says of this text that “it insists that suffering has to be somebody’s fault.” (Genesis, 50.) As Christians we live with a tradition that (perhaps not originally) for many centuries has taught that this is a text that tells of how a woman brought sin into the world and how man was given power over her. Sin is a form of suffering. And yes this is a text that speaks to how suffering came about in the world. But woman did not bring suffering into the world. The wisdom of acknowledging suffering existed in the Garden, locked in the Tree of Knowledge, before Eve was ever there. Once that knowledge of suffering, once innocence, came out it could not be put back. There was change; change that required Adam and Eve change their relationships to one another. Once change is proclaimed, it is not always a pronouncement about the way things will be forever. We know this. As Christians, it becomes part of our being. For our teacher Jesus was always challenging the ways people related to one another, turning relationships upside down, inviting the outcasts—even the outcasts from the Garden—back in. Change is part of the Good News!
So, welcome to Lent. Whatever you seek to do this season whether penitence for sins or drawing closer to God through spiritual practices, be aware that such changes can have profound effects on all your relationships. And may God be with you on the journey.