Based on one of the visons of the 14th century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, Elaine A. Heath writes about what more can be gained by a closer look at the Garden of Eden story.
(Dr. Heath is McCreless Assistant professor of Evangelism and director of the Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University and an ordained United Methodist minister. She has served several churches and taught at several seminaries.)
Genesis 3 has traditionally been used to teach the doctrine of original sin. In its reading, the narrative demonstrates how each of us moves from a position of blameless vulnerability as children towards becoming persons who are caught in a web of wounds and sin from which we cannot extract ourselves.
The purpose of the human story unfolds with the complex relationship between vulnerability and sin far more apparent than is the case with what are so often superficial readings of the text, whether fundamentalist, wooden literalism, or a dismissal of the text as mere myth.
Julian of Norwich received a vision from God which she contemplated for years. This contemplation led her to the conclusion that “wounds proceed sin – original wounds – and for this reason the eyes of the Lord look upon the human predicament “with pity and not with blame”.
Before the fall, Adam and Eve are like children, naked and unashamed, playful and free in the garden of God‘s provision. They live in community with each other and God. The only boundary given to them, according to the text, is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They are not to eat from its fruit, God warns, or they will die. Adam and Eve cannot know what “die” means, because they have not eaten of the tree. To know is to participate, and they have not “known“ evil. For an unspecified amount of time, they leave the tree alone. They are blameless, naïve, beautiful, and, like children, capable of being deceived. They are vulnerable, capable of being wounded.
Then one day one of the creatures speaks to them. God has not warned them to be suspicious of other creatures or to avoid the serpent. They have dominion over the creatures, including the serpent. The mystery of iniquity in the serpent is present, but its origin is unnamed in the text. Like children, Adam and Eve are trusting of the familiar creature who shares the garden. They are unaware of the danger that lurks before them, so they listen vulnerably to the serpent’s words. They do not “recognize” evil because they have not tasted evil, have not yet eaten of the forbidden tree.
So, as the Scripture tells us, the serpent deceives Eve and Adam, who was with her. The text says that Eve saw that the fruit was delicious and beautiful. (Did she see the serpent take a bite, perhaps, without apparent consequence?) Wanting to be like the God she loved (“you will be like God, knowing good and evil“) promised a good outcome by the confusing but familiar creature that she had no reason to fear. She accepted the fruit and gave some to Adam.
What kind of disobedience was this, on the part of Adam and Eve? Was it pride and willful rebellion, or as is so often claimed? Was it gullibility because Eve was easily duped as a woman, and shame for weakness on the part of Adam who should have known better than to follow his wife’s foolish lead, as in traditionally presented? Or was it the disobedience of naïve children who really cannot understand the enormity of their actions?
Adam and Eve cannot know how this event will forever change their future and the future of others. When they eat the fruit, they swallow a pervasive shame that begins with their sexuality (they make loin clothes) and extends to every part of life. Their previous freedom to trust God, each other, and themselves, and the wonderment and peace between them and creation, are broken, and a sequence of death-dealing consequences is unleashed. No aspect of life is left untouched.
The story of Adam and Eve is your story and my story in our loss of innocence and our wounding and our eventual bondage to sin. It is the universal narrative of original wounds. Sin originates in wounds that come from living in this broken world. Regardless of the kinds of original wounds we receive, the mystery of iniquity is part of the world into which we are born. The world is already marked by sin, by death, and by evil. No life is untouched.
The marvelous good news in the midst of this universal tragedy is that love is God’s meaning -toward Adam and Eve, toward every human. The promise of I Corinthians 15:22–28 (below) is that wounds and sin do not have to have the last word. Love, not death, wins the day. As Julian of Norwich saw, “all manner of things shall be well.“
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet. Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (I Cor 15:22-28)
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The Mystic Way of Evangelism by Elaine A. Heath