I cannot think of culture that doesn’t have an origin story. It’s the universal story of who we are, where we came from, and what it means to be us and not them. Like cultures, families also have origin stories. Long before the popularity of ancestry probing DNA, the question was often asked, Who are your people? The answer established one’s bona fides and could open doors, or shut them, to a more promising future.
Christians have an origin story borrowed from their elder Jewish relatives. It’s not a story of our tribe or our culture. It’s the story of existence itself. It’s in the first few chapters of the bible’s opening book, Genesis. It begins with the startling declaration that before there was anything anywhere in any existence, there was God, who is not a thing. It is God who brought into being all that is. It’s unfortunate that many people believe the creation story is factual history, because that’s not it’s intent, which is to reveal through story telling truth about who we are as human beings.
In it is the story of Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the consequence of eating forbidden fruit. It’s the story of who we are as human beings in relationship with each other, with God, and with our freedom to make moral decisions. The story says that before they ate the forbidden fruit, they were ingenuous, naive, having no knowledge of good or evil. Though instructed not to eat it, their naivety made them gullible, so it didn’t take much for a clever snake to convince them. It wasn’t Eve’s fault: they were both there and each ate of their own free will. Since, in the story, the garden and all things in it existed in a state of innocence, one has to wonder how a snake that was neither naive nor gullible got in, but stories don’t have to explain everything. The point is, the fruit gave them self knowledge, self awareness, self interest, and the recognition that they could make moral decisions because they now knew what morality was. With that, the Garden of Eden no longer had a reason to exist, but there is more truth to be revealed.
The story tells us a great deal about who we are as creatures, about how we relate to each other, and to God. It makes clear that we cannot escape responsibility for making moral decisions. It reveals our instinct for self interest and survival, even at the expense of other creatures, including other humans. Perhaps most important, and often overlooked, the story reveals that God is never absent, that God is engaged with creation, and that God intends blessings in spite of our weakness and selfishness. But God is never a puppeteer. Engaged with us as God is, we are free to decide and act as we will, as Adam and Eve always were.
It’s too bad some people think Adam and Eve were real people, and that the human condition is their fault. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be the way we are. The greater truth is that we are each Adam and Eve. We each try to be our own god, or inflict our wills on others as if we were their god, or create a gods in our own image to suite our needs. We can’t claim innocence, and we can’t blame Adam and Eve. Taking the story literally deprives it of it’s power to reveal greater truths, thrusting it into a pointless, never ending conflict with science and history. Among the greater truths is that our origin story includes all of humanity, no one is set apart as us against all others as them. Recognized or not, God is God of all, for all, and engaged with all because what God created is good.
The story goes on to explore the many ways in which humans, free to choose, corrupt their relationships with one another, with creation, and with God. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest. We are quick to divide into competing tribes, assuming full humanity for ours while denying it to others. We expect God will be for us, but not for them. We kill and abuse what is good for selfish reasons, or just because we can. Yet the mystery remains: God is for us.
The origin story of Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, and of their progeny illustrates that we are unable to resist the temptations of self interest, although we can do better than we usually do. The bible goes on to explore our relationship with God through the eyes of a particular people called by God to teach the rest of us, a people God never abandoned and never will. It is not our story. It’s theirs, but it’s instructive for us because in it God’s truth for all people is progressively revealed. We, who are not Jewish, enter into it in what amounts to a second chapter of the origin story.
It’s not written in metaphor or myth, but in history. Jesus is the one who, being fully human, is neither naive nor gullible. He chose to reject the temptations of self interest that no one has ever done. He is, as some theologians have pointed out, a type of Adam (and Eve) who does not eat the forbidden fruit. Or perhaps better said, he did eat the fruit and was not corrupted by it. Anyway, it’s not to make the rest of us look like incompetent losers. Jesus extends an invitation to follow him in a way of life that demolishes tribal enmities without dishonoring ethnic and cultural differences, or assuming the moral superiority of one’s own culture. It’s an invitation we have found difficult to accept. We have a hard time leaving our personal Adam, Eve and snake behind. Fortunately it’s more than just an invitation to follow Jesus. It’s also a promise that the one who was able to reject the fruit will be our strong companion to help us get back up when we fall, who has the authority to absolve us of our failures, and through whom the limits of this life are transformed into the gateway to a greater, more full life in God’s presence that transcends anything the mythical Garden of Eden could promise.
It’s a good story with which to begin a lenten journey.