I suppose that the story of the Garden of Eden is one of those which have passed into general knowledge, like Noah’s Ark and David and Goliath. Many people don’t know that the stories come from the Bible, and there are many Christians who think they now the story but have never read it carefully. Christians tend to rely on the New Testament and the teaching tradition of the Church and we neglect the Old Testament. This is a pity, because there are some real surprises in the Old Testament, good ones and bad ones.
The Garden of Eden has some surprises in it, but we miss them because St Paul has most carefully interpreted the story for us in his letter to the Romans, which we heard today. St Paul was a well educated Pharisee, and, like all good preachers, he read and interpreted the Bible to make it speak to the people he was addressing. It may be interesting for us to back to the original story and see what it speaks to us. How do we meet God in the Garden?
In the first verse, Genesis chapter 2, verse 15, the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and keep it. God entrusts his garden to humans. The human creature is to care for and tend the garden. The two words “till” and “keep” might make us think of the work of a gardener who tills the soil and the work of a shepherd who keeps the sheep. Either way, work belongs to the garden, and work which is cares for and conserves the garden is good. From the beginning of human destiny, God is prepared to entrust the garden to this special creature. From the beginning, the human creature is called, that is, given a vocation, and is expected to share in God’s work.
In the second verse, Genesis chapter 2 verse 16, God gives the humans permission to use the garden. Eat freely of every tree in the garden, says God. The humans are permitted to go wherever they like in the garden and to use the produce of the garden for food, and, I would guess, for clothing and shelter as well. God gives us permission to use creation creatively. But we must also remember that our vocation is to care for creation with the same care God gives it. Exploitation and wanton destruction are not permitted.
Which brings us to the third word, in verse 17, which is a word of prohibition. God commands his humans to care for the garden and to use it but there are limits. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.” The bible does not tell us much about the tree of knowledge except its name and that the woman saw that it would make one wise. But it is not important what the tree is or was. What counts is the fact that God has set limits. What counts is that God speaks authoritatively, not requesting, but commanding. God expects to be obeyed.
These three verses tell us a great deal about God and about human beings. God has given us a vocation, a calling, work to do. God has given us permission to come and go, to do this and that. And God has given us a prohibition. Some things are not permitted. There are limits to our freedom, there are limits to our work and our vocation. This is how we, as humans, stand before God, as God’s creatures, called by God, permitted and empowered by God and given limits by God.
The next part of the story we have heard today is about the disobedience of humans. The serpent, however you might like to think of it, is the voice which disturbs all human beings, it is the voice which urges us to cross boundaries, to stretch the limits of permission. Notice that God is left out of this conversation. The characters talk about God as if God was an optional extra in life. God’s gifts are treated with contempt, as if God had gone home from the party and we didn’t like what he had given us. As the woman and the serpent talk, the gift of vocation is not mentioned, the prohibition is broken and the permission is perverted. The humans have no energy for tilling and keeping the garden, their energy is focused completely on themselves, on their new freedom and the terror that comes with it. Instead of trusting God, the humans are afraid, they are ashamed and they feel guilty. “Who told you that you were naked?” God asks, and Adam might have answered, “I did.” But of course it was the voice which we all hear, the voice which urges us to cross boundaries, to stretch the limits of permission. That same voice is also our accuser, declaring us to be guilty.
That accuser is the same voice which spoke to Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew calls it the tempter or the devil, but it challenges Jesus in the same way it challenged Adam and Eve.
We can make some comparisons here, but it is not clear which temptation challenges Jesus’ vocation and which challenges the permission has from God and which challenges him to break the limits and boundaries God has set.
The voice firstly asks Jesus to step beyond the boundaries by using magic to feed himself. Make these stones into bread, says the tempter, and feed yourself. But stones and bread are not the same. Jesus will not disturb God’s creation for his own benefit.
The second temptation asks Jesus to use his heavenly power to command the angels to catch him in their hands so he will not be dashed to pieces by falling from the top of the temple. We know that Jesus has permission to use his heavenly powers. Think of the miracles, if you like. But Jesus is not prepared to pervert the permission he has. The miracles are for the benefit of others, not himself.
And the last temptation is for Jesus to change his vocation. Instead of serving God, the tempter urges Jesus to serve himself and be ruler of the world. But Jesus’ vocation is too strong to be shaken. The voice cannot make him disobedient.
Jesus is prepared to trust God absolutely, even if death and resurrection are beyond human understanding. Jesus, the Christ, accepted the limits of being human, limits which neither we nor our ancestors are prepared to accept. Jesus is prepared to be obedient to God, even to the point of dying on the cross. This obedience strained his trust in God to the limit, but it was never broken.
And this is our salvation, this is how we are saved. St Paul says the same thing, but he’s very hard to understand. I hope I have helped in some way.