Only Humans Choose to Miss the Mark
A sermon based on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 9, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I love the story of Adam and Eve. It’s seems so simple– simple folks.
There’ a bit of simple fun too.
Now don’t blame me, but punning is intentionally in the story. Adam’s made from earth and Adam in Hebrew means earth, so it’s like naming him Rocky . . .or Clay . . . or Sandy . . . or Dusty . . . or maybe Mud. And speaking of humor, if we think about it, what’s not funny about a talking animal? Or naked people scurrying to get fig leaves on and hide from God?
The story was not intended to be as serious as we’ve sometimes been led to believe. There’s fun stuff in it. Maybe that’s why almost from the start God’s ribbing Eve . . . okay that pun was me.
On one level this is a fun story. That’s not to say the story isn’t also packed with meaning and multiple meanings that we might learn from– and it is important to note that the lessons are there regardless of whether we come at the story from a literal or non-literal understanding.
I know that there are lots of people who understand the story as an actual recording of an historic event, as literally a real event in time– that’s alright, but I am not one of those people. Although anyone here is free to disagree with me, I do not understand the story to be written history of a literally real happening, with that said, I find it a story nonetheless soaked in truth and poetic meaning.
As I mentioned on Ash Wednesday, how the earlier part of the story where Adam is made of dust and God’s breath matches nicely with Carl Sagan’s observation that were are made from the stuff of stars– stardust. I love the poetic truth of that image.
But the story is not all pleasant truth. Most scholars think that today’s part of the creation story (this section on Adam and Eve) was originally written when King David, or maybe King Solomon was in power. At that time things in Israel were relatively good and calm and peaceful . . . or should have been. Israel was united, relatively wealthy and well protected at the time. As far as peace in the Kingdom goes, outside enemies had been put down or were held at bay. But it was inside trouble in David’s reign and then in Solomon’s reign, that brings about an end to the peace of the “garden of Israel.” The sins of the royals led to adultery and murder and warring between dad and son with David; and then with Solomon there were the sins of enslavement, over taxation, gathering women as prizes and property, further opulence and the worship of false idols.
The stories of David and Solomon, although often told as stories of great glory, include stories of great sin by great men. Sin and men that brought disharmony to the peace of the kingdom, their kingdom . . . But not really, it’s God’s people’s kingdom . . . But not really, it’s God’s kingdom, the place where God calls humans to nurture and grow in relationship to one another, a place where, as Psalm 72, puts it “the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.” And they are supposed to yield prosperity and righteousness because kings, the leader of nations – all nations– are supposed to (and I am quoting the Psalm)
defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. . . (3-4) For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.(Psalm 72:3-4, 12-14)
King David and King Solomon did not do this. That is their biggest sin. And it has remained most nations’ leaders biggest sin ever since.
I don’t know if we’ve all caught on yet, but, see, the story of the sins of the kings and nations’ leaders can be heard echoing in the symbols of the Adam and Eve story of actions that brought disharmony to the peace of the Garden of Eden. 1.
And if we think about it, it is not just David and Solomon’s sins that can now be symbolized, but the sins of any of us be can related to the story. See there is a universal application of the Adam and Eve story, that’s one of the reasons it’s so compelling. Knowledge of good and evil is a precursor to sin. This is a story not just about the symbolic onset of knowledge that leads to sin with God’s first people or even Israel’s royalty, it’s about the onset of all sin, ours too. We all sin. It’s not like David and Solomon and Adam and Eve are unlike the rest of us humans, and human sin always disturbs the peace and brings disharmony.
We tend to come to the Adam and Eve story missing the humor and simplicity because we come to it jaded by centuries of it being used to blame Adam, and especially Eve, for all sin in the world. The story’s been that the story’s about those two forever tainting humankind and the world with sin, as if they sullied the gene pool by somehow putting it into our DNA forever. Paul and Augustine sort of give us that spin and countless other theologians have followed suit. But we don’t have to read or hear it about sin being innate in the human DNA or souls. At one level we can hear it being about the choice we have to sin or not. Adam and Eve chose to do as they did, so did King David and King Solomon. So the leaders of our nations’ leaders. So do we.
But truthfully sin does not have to be a part of the moment we are in, regardless of what Adam and Eve did, or more to the point, regardless of what we’ve done before the moment we are in, we can choose to be sin-free at least for a moment. Everyone in the world could just agree that now at this very moment, at this very hour here on March 9 we won’t sin. And we could agree on this the next moment and the next.
So sin is a choice.
I can sense that a whole bunch of you are worried that your new-ish pastor is gonna cut loose and preach a fire and brimstone sermon about sin. I can sense the squirming from up here. I am preaching about sin, but you can stop squirming, I’ve got no fire and brimstone planned. However, I do want to explain one sort of different idea of understanding sin from this story. The word sin is not actually in the story of Adam and Eve as I indicated this story is more of a precursor to the onset of sin outside of Eden by Cain’s murder of Abel. So we need to understand sin, as its what the story points to.
There are over fifty words in Biblical Hebrew for “sin.” 2. By far the most used word is derived from “ht” (cha-taw) it is a Hebrew archery term that means to miss the mark. 3 Sin can be heard as meaning “we miss the mark.” God aims us at the target of being our best, of loving and . . . well, you may have noticed we don’t always hit where God’s aimed us. We may not be born to sin, but all who are born do sin in this respect, we miss God’s mark for us, individually and corporately. . . we do that more than a bit of the time.
The theological dictionary defines sin as “failing to do God’s will.” 4. We can hear that as the same thing as “ht” (cha-taw). Said another way, we fail to do what God wants us to do. Post Eden what God wants us to do is our best as individuals and as a collective whole. In a sort of over-arching archery summary of Jesus’ love commandments, God wants well being for all which is peace and the way we pull that off is aim for (desire) the well being of all, which is love. Love for God, love for self, love for neighbor and love for creation.
See, love is what is best for us. Despite that truth, we all know we miss the target of love individually and as a collective whole. Sometimes we miss because we intentionally shoot to hurt. A lot of times we fall short of the effort needed to hit the target because apathetically or lazily or greedily we don’t make the effort to do what’s best or loving. Whatever it is, humans on the archery range of love and life – as a whole– are often not very good marksmen and women. We can be, we just choose to not work hard enough at it, or we get sidetracked, or we let self interest rule the moment.
The story of Adam and Eve can be heard in many different ways, but one thing is for sure they fail to miss a target set for them at the time by God, and they disrupt the peace God has aimed humanity at since the start. So, how is eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil disrupting peace? Theologians have been talking about that for almost four millennia. Scott Casebeer and John Ryerson and I even heard John Dominic Crossan speak on the topic this weekend.
There are all sorts of theological ideas, too numerous and complex to list here. But I would like for us to consider one idea inspired at a recent Adult Forum. The question of evil came up in our discussion and I asked a question I often ask when discussing evil: If there were no humans in the world would the world have any evil? It’s a scary thought. I submit the answer is “We’d have no evil if there were no humans.”
Animals do not commit evil, which is defined in the theological dictionary as “that which opposes the will of God.” 5. Or as I like to put it “Evil is intentionally turning from God’s will and defiantly heading in the other direction.” Animals do not do that.
Shortly after the Adult Forum where we discussed this, I started work on this sermon rolling around thoughts in my head. And it dawned on me to think of the other creatures in the garden. They did not take and eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, did they? Animals do not have the knowledge of good and evil, and I thought, animals do not do evil because animals do not choose to miss God’s aim for them. The Garden of Eden programing remains in their system. Not so Adam and Eve, as humans we choose. And we have to, our original Garden of Eden programing is gone. In this sense that is the curse of the story, not sin. In modern terms, when we humans evolved to the point that we became cognizant that we could choose between good and evil, the old programing was deleted, and we installed a beta version, that – like a lot of beta versions– it’s hard to adjust to. In the six thousand years since the onset of civilization we still haven’t learned to use it right yet.
We do not NOT choose any more, we always choose. Our choice between good and evil. This is why God’s commandments in the Bible are not to the other animals, they have their gig and it does not involved choosing and so they live in the Garden of Eden mode still. We, however, do not. Our job ever since Adam and Eve is to get our choosing skills honed –like a video game player– to be able without pre-programing to always choose good. And not just alone, but together– notably the failure in the garden is not just one of the humans, but all of the humans, individually and collectively. From this perspective sin in the story of Adam and Eve is not knowing good and evil, it’s choosing wrongly. God always calls us to good no matter what has happened in the past.
That’s ultimately what Lent is about. Like a phoenix we arise from the ashes of the past born anew. Or to use another sort of ash-like dirt-like metaphor: from lumps of coal God makes diamonds of us when we repent, that is turn around and answer God’s call to goodness. We don’t always answer the call. This is symbolized by Adam and Eve not obeying God in the first place, though ironically at the time they had yet to eat of tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so arguably they could not know that what they did was NOT GOOD until after they did it. I hear that to suggest that metaphorically Adam and Eve are not culpable for being made with a conscience, something evolutionists (like me) assert are a result of the process of evolution, at some point we became aware that we could relate goodly, or badly. I call this conscience a number of days ago and was pleased to hear Dr. Crossan call it that too.
What Adam and Eve are responsible for is their conscience – every choice for good, and every choice for evil they make or not make. Once they partake of the fruit they (pardon the pun) learned the naked truth. They are exposed to the harsh reality that humans choose to sin . . . or not; to do evil . . . or not; to do good . . . or not.
I already mentioned the bit of humor in Adam and Eve’s response of trying to cover up quickly making fig leaf loin cloths. In a bit of ironic humor in the next part of the story, their covering up reveals their true evolved nature to God.
Dr. Ken Smail asked at the end of a recent Adult Forum class on anthropology, when was it that humans reached a point in their culture development that they understood there to be a God or gods? I imagine it was when humans began to understand that three forces exist: (1) a force that compels a continuation of creating; (2) a force that calls all of creation to its best; and (3) a force that calls us into relationship with creation – especially with each other. The way I see it, humans have come to explain and understand and name these forces as God or gods.
We have also experienced that despite the force– God’s– call to be our best, humans have a choice in the matter, we know good and evil and we can, and we do, pick good or evil ways to relate. Religions it seems to me are sets of practices about how humans do that relating. As Christians we understand and experience all these forces as emanating from one divine being, GOD, which we believe also calls us to relate to creation and others in a goodly fashion, which in Jesus’ teachings always boils down to relating with love, that is a dynamic desire for the well being of others – and actions to make that well being come about. Seeking justice and loving kindness are the actions God requires. . . the only actions besides walking humbly with God.
So here’s the thing, whether we think the story of Adam and Eve is real or metaphor, the truth in the story is that humans have evolved to a stage where we have to choose to do good or to do evil. As humans that’s our choice. As Christians we claim to – as Jesus did– always try to choose to do good, not evil. Lent is about “getting” that, it’s about arising from the ashes of our past like a phoenix to begin again to do God’s will, which is to love.
At Lent we take seriously God’s aim for us. We try and get our head together so we can better aim and hit the mark, the target of love. May we all learn to do just that!
1. I am not sure where I read or heard that in seminary, but it has stuck with me.
2. The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol 6, p 30
3. Ibid., 32.
4. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms p 260.
5. Ibid., p 97.
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