I’m presently in the midst of teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost to my students at Bethlehem College. The opening lines are an apt summary of today’s sermon.
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse.
Disobedience. Forbidden Tree. Death. Woe. Loss of Eden. Hope of Restoration. That’s my aim in this sermon. Before we look at Genesis 3, let’s remind ourselves of where we left things in Genesis 2.
In Genesis 2, we have God’s Man in God’s Land under God’s Law on God’s Mission. Adam is placed in God’s world, in the land of Eden, in a beautiful garden, with a river running down to water it, and then splitting into four rivers as it flows out into the rich, fertile, but unsubdued earth. Adam’s task is to work and keep the garden. He is to cultivate it and protect it. The world is God’s temple, and the Garden is the sanctuary, the Holy Place, and Adam is tasked with being a servant in God’s house, a priest who guards the sacred space. In order to accomplish this mission, Adam needs help, so God creates Woman from Adam’s side and commissions them together to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, to exercise dominion over fish and birds and beasts. The man and woman are called to expand sacred space and make the world like the garden. And as he completes these tasks, he is implicitly called to faithfully name God’s world, joining God in drawing out and expressing the meaning of God’s works. In this mission, Adam is the head of his wife, and she is his helper. There is headship and mutual dependence in this relationship. And God is lavish in meeting all of their needs, physical and relational. God creates a world of Yes, and places one No at the center of it. And last week, I argued that this No is in reality a Not Yet; it is the test of Adam and Eve’s obedience, to see whether they will fear the Lord and thus grow up into wisdom and maturity. And because they need to be tested, in Genesis 3, there came a serpent.
Now the serpent is described here as the most crafty of the beasts of the field. However, from later in Scripture, we learn that this is no mere beast of the field; this serpent is in reality God’s enemy, Satan or the devil. Perhaps we are to understand that the physical beast is inhabited or possessed by the devil. And at this point, the serpent comes to tempt and seduce Adam and Eve.
For the remainder of this sermon, I want to explore four things: the nature of temptation, the nature of sin, our response to sin, and God’s response to sin. And at each point, there are thousands of implications for our lives that I won’t have time to explore, but I’ll try to point in a few directions and trust the Spirit of God and your imaginations to fill out the connections to your lives (and we have a Q&A in a few weeks to focus on some of these).
Let’s look first at temptation. I’ve mentioned before that Adam and Eve were called to faithfully name God’s world. When the serpent comes, he unfaithfully names God’s world. He doesn’t portray and express the world as it is, but instead twists the world into a monstrous image, first in the form of a question, then in the form of a declaration. “Did God really say, ‘You may not eat from any tree in the garden?” You see the subtlety here. What kind of world did God make? A world of Yes, with one No. One No in a world full of Yes. The serpent takes a true feature of the world (the No) and blows it out of proportion. He turns the single prohibition into a total prohibition. God made a world of Yes. The serpent describes it as a world of No. And in doing so, he not only presents a false world, he presents a false God. He presents God as a miser, a kill-joy, a cosmic tease who creates delights and then bans their enjoyment. The serpent presents a stingy God and a forbidden creation and asks, “Is this the world?” And the plausibility of the serpent’s lie is owing to the fact that it is based on a truth. There really is a No in God’s world. But it’s not a world of No. God is not a Forbidder; he’s a Father. And so, the serpent creates a false world and invites the woman to live in it.
Now she responds with a correction, but she adds something to the command. She says that God said they can’t eat or touch it. Now I’m undecided about the significance of this addition. Either this is an example of legalism, of going beyond what is written, or it’s wisdom, setting up wise boundaries to keep one safe from sin. If it’s the former, then the question is where the additional prohibition (“Don’t touch) came from. Did Eve invent it, or did Adam add it? But, like I said, I’m not sure which way to land. In either case, the serpent is undeterred. He comes back at Eve with a declaration: “You will not surely die.” First, it was a question: “Is God’s world a world of No? Is God a miser, a forbidder?” Now it’s a declaration: God is a liar, an idle threat-maker. And the serpent’s lie again is immediately followed by two truths. “You will not surely die (Lie), because 1) your eyes will be opened, and 2) you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Both of those are true. In 3:7, their eyes are opened. In 3:22, God says they now know good and evil.
So what do we learn about temptation? At root, temptation exaggerates true features of God’s world and minimizes or denies true features of God’s world. It creates a false reality, a fantasy world and invites us to live in it. It tells us not to believe what God has said, and to instead believe lies about God: that his commands are miserly and he is the great Forbidder, rather than a lavish Father. And the applications are endless. Think about your besetting sins: pride, bitterness, lust, anger, envy, manipulation. If you probe your temptation to those sins, you’ll see the exaggerations and the denials. Lust holds out the promise of short-term satisfaction while denying the long-term consequences to ourselves, our marriages, our bodies. Our anger is often provoked by some real injustice done against us. And thus our response feels justified because we forget that the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. When you are being tempted, remember that you are being invited into a monstrous, fantasy world, a distortion of reality.
What about the nature of sin? Last week I argued that knowing good and evil is a biblical way of referring to wisdom, and that God intended Adam and Eve to eventually eat from the tree after they learned to fear the Lord. If I’m right about that, then one way of describing sin is this: it is the seizing of a legitimate good at times or in ways that God has forbidden. In other words, sin is the twisting of a good desire. When Eve sees that the tree is good for food, she’s right. When she sees that it is a delight to the eyes, she’s right. When she sees that it is desirable to make one wise, she’s right. But instead of trusting God and fearing the Lord by respecting his boundaries, she seizes the good on her own terms. She grabs it in direct violation of her Father’s command.
Thus, we might say that the root of sin is pride—doing something on our own terms. Or we might say that it is the quest for autonomy—the attempt to live to oneself, apart from God. Or we might say that it is impatience—pursuing a good out of order rather than waiting for God to show up. And if we see sin in this light, other passages in the Bible start to make more sense. Last week, I noted that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is the reverse of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden. It’s not wrong for Christ to pursue the kingdoms of the earth and their glory. But he must not pursue them on his own terms, as though he could receive them from the devil’s hand rather than his Father’s. The devil tempts him to take the short cut, but thankfully, as Philippians 2 points out, Jesus refuses. He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or seized, but instead made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. Rather than seizing equality with God as High King, Christ humbled himself to obedience and death. And because he didn’t seize the highest place, he was given it, as a gift. “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Satan urged Jesus to seize the highest name and the obedience of the nations; Christ refused, choosing the harder path of obedience to God, and then received the nations and the name as a gift. Christ shows the path that Adam might have taken, that he should have taken.
Our Response to Sin
After they eat, their eyes are opened, they see that they are naked, and they are ashamed. It’s worth reflecting again on the full meaning of their nakedness. When we read in Gen. 2:25 that Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed, we rightly recognize that this means that they were innocent. They have no sin, and therefore no shame. One of the functions of clothing in the Bible is to cover shame. But it’s not the only function. Clothing in the Bible is also about giving glory and authority. “Not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed as the lilies of the field.” When Joseph is elevated to the right hand of Pharaoh in Egypt, he is given a new royal robe. So also with Daniel in Babylon. The gift of new clothes signifies new rank or authority. The prodigal son combines both functions of clothing. When he comes home, his father puts on him the best robe, both to cover his filthy rags as well as to communicate that his son is still his son and will share in the inheritance.
Therefore, like the prohibition on the tree of wisdom, Adam and Eve’s nakedness shows both their innocence and their immaturity (as any parent of toddlers will tell you). Just as God intends for them to eventually eat from the tree of wisdom, so also I suspect that at that time, their eyes would have been opened, they would have seen their nakedness, and God would have been there to clothe them. Instead, they see their nakedness and try to clothe themselves. They sew leaves together and try to hide among the trees. This is our first response to sin: we try to hide and cover it up. We think camouflage can keep God from seeing us. Right now, there are some of you that are covered in fig leaves, hiding among the trees. You’re hiding from other people, and you’re hiding from God. But you can’t hide. He sees you. He sees all of you. And he will find you. “All of us are naked and exposed before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Don’t hide. Your brokenness, your sin, your shame—all of that may be real. But shame is not the end of this story.
The second response is blame and accusation. God calls to Adam, “Where are you?” Adam says that he was afraid because he was naked, so he hid. And like a child caught in his disobedience, his explanation for hiding gives away the game. “Who told you that you were naked?” Notice what Adam does. “The woman you gave me.” It’s everybody’s fault except Adam’s. God then turns to Eve. “What is this that you have done?” “The serpent deceived me.” Eve follows Adam in the blame game.
Think about blame. The command was, “Don’t eat.” Both of them admit, “I ate.” But both of them try to justify their action by deflecting blame. “I ate, but it was her fault (and yours).” “I ate, but it was the serpent’s fault.” This is what we do. We sin, we cover it up and hide, and when we’re caught, we may admit our sin but then we blame something or someone else as a way of getting off the hook. Again, the applications are endless.
But I want to drill down more into the sequence of events here so that we see how sin progresses. Think about three stages to Adam’s sin. Adam was called by God to guard the garden, to protect sacred space. And then, when a serpent comes and lies to his wife and blasphemes his God, Adam is passive. He just stands there and watches it happen. And we know he was there because the passage says that “she gave some to her husband who was with her.” He was with her the whole time, and he did nothing. He should have picked up a sword to kill the dragon and protect the girl. But he doesn’t. I remember a friend saying at one point, “Those who fall into great sin never fall far.” What he meant was that prior to the great sin, there is almost always gradual drift. Small compromises that numb our consciences. Failures to act, weak resistance that we justify (there’s blame-shifting again). Passivity—that’s stage 1.
Stage 2—after Eve eats, she offers some to him, and now Adam has a choice. And Paul makes a big deal about this in 1 Timothy 2. He says, “Eve was deceived, not Adam.” Eve wasn’t created when God gave the prohibition. She learned about it second-hand from Adam. The serpent twists the truth, and she’s deceived. But Adam isn’t deceived. This isn’t because he’s less gullible; it’s because he’s committing high treason. He knows the serpent is lying; he heard it from God’s own mouth. Therefore, his sin is high-handed. In this moment, he has to choose between his God and his wife, between bone of his bone, and the One who made his bones. And he chooses her. He exchanges the glory of the immortal God for a creature. That’s what God says when he punishes Adam. “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat it…” In other words, “you listened to her and not to me. You listened to a creature, and not your Creator. You loved her and wanted her more than you loved me.” Stage 2—Idolatry. This is where drifting always leads. Eventually, you’re faced with the big decision. But if you’ve been drifting, if you’ve been silencing your conscience and quenching the Spirit, then when the moment of Choice comes, you’ll seize sin with a high hand.
Stage 3—Abuse. Think about what Adam blaming his wife means. What is the consequence for eating? Death. So, when Adam blames her, he is effectively saying, “Kill her, not me.” He is supposed to protect her; instead he exposes her to judgment. He’s supposed to die for her. Instead, he tries to make her die for him.
Passivity—failure to answer God’s call to protect and provide. Idolatry—choosing the gift over the Giver. Abuse—ditching the gift to save your own skin. And while this sequence—passivity, idolatry, abuse—applies to everyone, it is particularly relevant for those in authority. May God help us to see ourselves in this story.
I’ve said before that this is foundational, that God is establishing patterns. Go read Exodus 32 and 1 Samuel 15 in light of Genesis 3, and we can talk about that in the Q&A. Maybe one more observation before turning to God’s response. Notice that the serpent assaults Adam and Eve at their weakest point. Eve wasn’t present for God’s command; therefore the serpent looks for an opening in her ignorance. “Did God really say…” Eve doesn’t know what God really said; she only knows what Adam told her. On the other hand, Eve was God’s greatest gift to Adam (“At last! a helper, a companion, a perfect match”); so Satan exploits that love by using her to lead him into sin. The serpent knows our weaknesses too.
God’s Response to Sin
We sometimes say that God curses Adam and Eve after they fall. It seems significant that the only person that is cursed here is the serpent (3:14). “Cursed are you.” God doesn’t say that to Adam and Eve. We’ll come back to God’s curse on the serpent. I want to focus on God’s curse in relation to Adam and Eve. I think it’s significant that the curse is specific to each of them, and this difference is relevant for how we think about men and women. The curse in relation to Eve (and by implication, to women) is not identical to the curse in relation to Adam (and by implication, to men). And to understand the difference, we need to remember something I said last week. Adam was taken from the adamah, the ground. The Woman was taken out of Man. Adam was taken out of the ground and is oriented to the ground. The ground is his fundamental calling. Eve was taken out of Adam and oriented to Adam; as Paul says, “woman was made for man, not man for woman.” He (and their children) is her fundamental calling. That fact—your origin determines your orientation--is, I think, the Bible’s explanation for the general tendency for men to be oriented outward, to look to the horizon, to want to subdue the untamed lands, and for women to be oriented toward other people, to relationships, to family and home. (I’m describing general tendencies, not rules; men care about people, and women care about the mission in the world, but there is a difference). Notice where the curse falls in relation to women.
I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.
The pain of childbirth (and by extension child-rearing) is multiplied. A desire for her husband, coupled with her husband’s sinful rule over her. In other words, what’s cursed? What will be painful? Her relationships; her work as his helper and ally. God created woman to be the companion, ally, and helper of her husband in their joint task, and the bearer of children. Both of those are now broken and painful for her.
The phrase “desire for your husband” is controversial. “Desire for” shows up two places in the Bible, once in Genesis 4:7 (sin is crouching at your door; it’s desire is for you, but you must rule over it) and once in Song of Songs 7:10 (“I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.”) At the very least, there’s a connotation of possession, perhaps ownership in the phrase; a lover wishes to possess the beloved, and sin desires to possess (even devour) us. The curse in relation to woman is that, apart from God, she will want to possess her husband (and by extension, her children) in excessive ways. This will take different forms: it could be in the form of neediness and hunger for affection; it could be in the form of manipulation; it could be in the form of outright possessiveness (Lewis once said, “She was the sort of woman who lived for others, and you could always tell who the others were by their hunted expression”); it could be in the form of her own desire to rule her husband. But in whatever form, without God, she will want more from her relationships than they can deliver. She was made for her husband and her future children, but without God at the center of her life, they will take on a significance for her that will inevitably disappoint and frustrate and cause pain to her. And the capstone is that she will be at the mercy of a man who just accused and blamed her to save his own skin. She will want to possess him in the way that sin wants to possess Cain, and rather than sacrificial headship, he will respond with the same kind of hostility and domination that we ought to have over our sin.
For Adam, what’s the curse?
Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Eve was taken out of Adam; now their relationship is cursed. Adam was taken from the ground; now the ground is cursed. All of the dreams of expanding the garden and taming the land and subduing the earth—those are now painful dreams. The ground will fight back. Those shrubs that were meant to be gentle and easy to cultivate? Now thorns and thistles. Labor and work were designed to be a delight. Now they will be hard and painful and vain. And of course, the ultimate vanity—death. “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Adam, you will work hard your whole life; you will sweat and bleed to eat and provide, and then you will die and you won’t enjoy the fruit of your labor.” Read Ecclesiastes in light of Genesis 3.
Just as Eve will want more from her work and children and relationships than they can deliver, so now Adam, without God, will want more from his work than it can deliver. And the tragic irony of it all is the way that these different forms of the curse will aggravate each other. Work will now be harder for him; he’ll have to pour himself into it in order to be fruitful. And this will pull him away from his wife and children, and so her desire for him will be more frustrated, as will her ability to truly be his helper and ally. Or come at it the other way: her desire is for her husband; she will have increasing expectations and demands of him. As a result, he pulls away; he throws himself into his work alone because home is hard. The relationship is a constant tug of war, with no winner. What’s so remarkable to me is that in four short verses, God has described 90% of the marital conflict in this room right now. And apart from Jesus, that’s all there is. Thank God that’s not all there is.
We now come back to the curse on the serpent. In reality, it’s important that it comes first in the story; it shapes how Adam and Eve are to hear the curse on their relationships and labor. The serpent is cursed to eat dust. When Man dies, he returns to dust. Your adversary the devil prowls like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Because of sin, death has a horrible sting. The serpent who tempted is the Satan who accuses and the dragon who devours. (In fact, in the Bible, there is a difference between serpents and dragons. Serpents seduce; dragons devour). We are dragon food. And if that was the whole story, it would be tragic. Man’s first disobedience brought death into the world and all our woe—broken relationships, painful labor, in the end to be devoured by the dragon. But in the midst of judging sin, God mingles mercy. Three elements of mercy.
- War with the serpent – “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” This is mercy. We may be food for the serpent, but there’s a war, and we can resist. The war between the two seeds opens the possibility for us to choose sides. This opens the way for us to renounce Satan and all his works and all his ways. God doesn’t abandon us to be dragon food; he starts a war. The question now is, “Which side are we on? Will we be the seed of the woman or will we be a brood of vipers?”
- The Skull-Crusher – While the war encompasses all of Adam and Eve’s descendants, there will be one of these descendants (he; singular) who will crush the serpent’s head at great cost to himself (the bruised heel). And now the question is, “Who is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent? Who will give us relief from this curse? Who will put the world to rights?” The rest of your Bible is the answer to that question.
- New Clothes – In 3:21, Yahweh himself replaces their fig leaves. He kills animals and clothes them with their skins. Two things are happening here. First, sin requires a covering, and covering requires death. For sin to be dealt with, blood must be shed. Second, there’s a subtle wordplay in Hebrew that I think we’re meant to notice. The Hebrew word for “skins” is or; But there’s a homonym (sounds the same, different spelling and meaning) for skins: or, meaning “light.” Remember I said that God intended to clothe Adam and Eve? I suspect that God intended to clothe them with garments of or (light), but now he has to clothe them with garments of or (animal skins).
This is judgment mingled with mercy. The ultimate judgment here is exile from the garden of God. Broken relationships, painful labor, war with the serpent—all of these are awful. But the worst consequence for man’s rebellion is that he is forced at sword-point to leave paradise. The loss of Eden. This too is mercy; God refuses to let us live forever in our sin and brokenness. But the loss is real. We lost God. We lost God. But as he sends Adam and Eve out to walk their solitary way, he did not send them out without hope. The skins on their back and the promise of the skull-crusher in their ears were meant to give hope. And I think they did.
Have you ever wondered whether Adam and Eve will be in heaven? Did they turn from sin to God? We’re not told explicitly. But I think we see a hint. Notice what happens after God gives the curses. “Now Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” Here’s why that matters. “In the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” And when God confronts them, he says they will now return to dust. But he also says “I will put enemy between your offspring and her offspring.” I can imagine at that point, Adam perking up. “Offspring? Did he say ‘offspring’?” This is a sign of hope. All is not lost. God is not finished. There will be children. There will be a war. And in the end, there will be victory. And so when Adam gives his wife a personal name, that name reflects his faith in the promise and mercy of God. “She is the mother of all living.” There will be life. Death is not the last word.
Which brings us to the Table (I invite the pastors and deacons to come). This is a Table of Death. Broken body, spilled blood, represented by bread and wine. It’s a table of judgment, reminding us of the wages of Adam’s sin and ours. But it’s also a Table of Mercy. When God judged Adam, he proclaimed death, but he promised life. At this Table, we proclaim death and ache for life. We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. More than that, we proclaim that the Skull-Crusher, Eve’s Offspring has come, with bruised heel, to give us new garments, new clothes, and a new name. His body is the true bread. Let us serve you.