Friday, Week 5 of Ordinary Time
February 10, 2017
Gen 3: 1-8
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord God had made” (Gen 3: 1).
Folklore likes to use animals to present life-lessons. Aesop’s Fables are told entirely with animal characters like the tortoise and the hare, the ant and the grasshopper. Many of us read Brer Rabbit stories in school. Today the sacred writer introduces us to a talking serpent.
Just yesterday we heard that God had created all the creatures and given dominion over them to the man before he made for the man a “suitable partner” (1:20). The story today picks up from there; the villain, so to speak, is one of “the animals that the Lord God had made,” not some dark, external power that rivals God; remember that some religions propose that there are eternal Beings, one good and the other evil, contending with each other.
The serpent is described as “cunning.” In the context of Hebrew religion, we can say that this cunning is worldly wisdom, which sets itself up in opposition to God’s laws. The serpent works at such worldly wisdom, and Jesus, St. Paul, and Christian spirituality constantly warn us against it.
The Temptation of Adam & Eve
As a matter of curiosity: the story doesn’t identify the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It seems that Latin-speakers initiated the idea that it was an apple, making a pun on the word for apple, which is malum. Malum also means “evil.”
Isn’t knowledge good? Well, not every form of knowledge is good. The fruit of this tree counters all the good that has surrounded the man since God created him and placed him in the garden. If there’s nothing but goodness around you, why would you want to know about evil?
In biblical language, moreover, “knowing” means “experiencing.” It’s not merely intellectual knowledge. An astrophysicist may know how space flight works; but an astronaut knows space flight. It’s not good for humans to know evil in that sense.
The man and woman’s choice, further, is motivated by what the Greeks call hubris— inordinate pride. “You will be like gods!” (2:5). To aspire to greatness, of course, is a good thing. To go beyond our nature, our essence—not so good. It’s scary today to see so many people aspiring to be like gods—deciding for themselves what’s true and what’s false, what’s right and what’s wrong; creating and destroying life at will; messing around with the human genetic code; creating creatures half-human and half-animal; etc. As in the story of the Fall in Gen 3, that can result only in disaster. When anyone can decide his own moral code, there is no moral code, and anyone can do what he likes—if he’s powerful enuf. We’ve seen too many examples of the powerful deciding what’s right and what’s not.
The 1st fruit of the couple’s new knowledge is their vulnerability. They are naked. They are shamed. They are defenseless.
The 2d fruit is alienation. Now that they’ve experienced evil, they feel they must hide from God, the All-Good with whom they had been on such intimate terms when goodness was their only knowledge. And, as the story goes on, we learn that they’re also alienated from each other and from the rest of creation. More about that tomorrow. As Oliver Hardy might have said, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”
Fortunately for humanity, God didn’t leave us in the mess we created by our foolish choice. He offers us the unwarranted grace of forgiveness and redemption, which we celebrate in these sacred mysteries.