Good and Evil
Did you see the Academy Awards? I saw about half before I drifted off to sleep on the couch and missed the surprise ending. I did see the Oscar presentation for Best Visual Effects that went to the newest Hollywood version of Jungle Book. I saw the movie this weekend and can confirm that the visual effects were outstanding. The live action film combines real and made up images of jungle and animal life to re-tell the classic tale by Rudyard Kipling. In Kipling’s original story, a huge and powerful snake named Kaa is a wise, respected creature that assists in rescuing the boy Mowgli from danger. By the time the story has gone through versions of print, animation, and now a second live action film, the snake is no longer so benevolent. It wraps itself around Mowgli and prepares to squeeze the life out of him while at the same time looking into his eyes and saying “trust me.” Kaa is not a creature to be trusted.
The serpent in another jungle known as the Garden of Eden said this: “Go ahead and eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You will not die.” Trust me.
How do we know the difference between what is good and what is evil, and how do we know who to trust? That’s a pretty pertinent question, whether we are watching the news or following tweets or simply trying to navigate the circumstance of life that challenge or souls and test our integrity.
I’m not a fan of snakes, and I have a clear recollection of my older brother terrorizing my sister and me with snakes he found in the back yard. He would chase us around the house with serpents that looked several feet long and certainly poisonous when in reality they were small and harmless and of the garter species. I guess I’ve never recovered, and I will insist that they are all slimy and dangerous regardless of the facts.
Keeping the facts straight on things that affect us emotionally is difficult, isn’t it? The story from Genesis of the first man and the first woman is a pretty straight-forward tale that can be confusing if we let it be so. The snake offered fruit from the tree, and we all know that it was a delicious, red, ripe apple. Except that the text doesn’t say that. It’s just a piece of fruit. Maybe a pomegranate or even a banana. Since I would be most tempted by a juicy peach, that’s of course what I think it must have been.
Is the story of the garden in Genesis literal, historic fact? I don’t know of any serious Bible scholars or Jewish or Christian theologians or ministry colleagues who believe it is. And yet there are many people who stake their faith on the belief that Adam and Eve were the first actual human beings and were made on the sixth literal day of creation.
The serpent has a confusing role as well. Like Kaa in Jungle Book, the snake talks. In case you imagine that there are many creatures with the ability to speak in the Bible, there are not. A donkey talks back to its owner, Balaam, in the book of Numbers, but that’s it. Who is this talking snake that tricks the woman into eating an unidentified piece of fruit? Is it the devil, also known as Satan, a quasi-deity who also appeared in our Gospel reading today? Most Christians seem to assume so, but the concept of a devil wasn’t really in the minds of Jewish people when they wrote these stories down during a time of exile six centuries before the birth of Jesus. It is really Christians who have read that meaning into the story, beginning in the earliest years of the Christian faith.
Perhaps the most confusing thing for me here is to try to understand why God would not want human beings to know the difference between good and evil. Or why people would die because they ate fruit from a tree that was forbidden because it would allow people to tell the difference between the two. Generally, it is understood that the stories of Genesis resulted from an oral tradition that attempted to answer basic questions about life. Where did the world and its people come from? Why do people hurt one another? Why do all the people that we love eventually die? The story of Eden is about two newly-created naked people who are told to follow instructions but fail to do so and then are embarrassed by their nakedness and get kicked out of paradise and don’t live forever in the garden – or anywhere – as they were intended to. It answers a lot of questions about temptation and sin and rebellion and death and why we wear clothes.
We could minimize or even ridicule the story in Genesis by suggesting that it is just a folk tale by pre-scientific, primitive people, or we could see how it grapples with some of the same questions we ask ourselves. With all of our advanced technology and all of the information at our fingertips through Google, we are still human beings like any who came before us, trying to make sense out of the mysteries of life.
Christians often look into this text and find the foundation for the historic doctrine of Original Sin. In some sense, it is a description of the first act of sin. So the bites of Adam and Eve into the fruit were the original sin and somehow we have followed along in their path. The term “original sin” also means that the sin as a moral stain originates within each of us as a successors of the first, tainted human beings. Again, this is not a Jewish concept. Those who told the story of Eden over and over until it was written down did not have such a belief. Original sin originated with the church fathers during the early centuries of Christianity.
In May I hope to participate in a conference with Matthew Fox as the keynote speaker. Fox is best known for his challenges to the doctrine of Original Sin and his proposal that it is more constructive and appropriate to focus on the concept of Original Blessing. After all, in Genesis 1 God created human beings on the sixth day and concluded with the words “It is very good.” Not just “it is good” like on other days of creation, but “very good.” That original blessing precedes the introduction of sin in the second account of creation found in the next chapter. Original Blessing means that we are always more fully defined by our innate goodness as pronounced by God than we are by our ill-chosen actions.
I don’t think there can be any question that the story of the Garden of Eden has contributed to the misogynous beliefs of people throughout religious history. Christians, Jews, and Muslims share this account of creation that implicates a woman in the first action of evil. The serpent talked to her, not her husband. She wanted to be wise more than she wanted to obey God. She gave the fruit to her husband who passively received it and ate. Later when God confronted Adam, he was quick to say, “The woman whom who gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit from the tree.” Not my fault! It was a convenient excuse, and the story is a convenient reason to scapegoat women by those who take the story literally. If we’re using Scripture to hurt people, then we’re using it wrong.
But what about good and evil? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a tree that grew on our planet that produced fruit that would somehow give us the ability to discern between good and evil if we ate it? Would it be wrong to eat from it?
The first Sunday of Lent always gives us the same stories from the Bible: The temptation of Eve in the garden and the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Jesus was tempted to choose immediate fame and power and success. It’s not that any of those was inherently bad, but they were distractions from his mission. He was about to begin a ministry motivated by higher values that what the tempter offered.
If we use imagination to play out what might have happened in the garden if Adam and Eve had listened to God rather than the crafty snake, we might conclude that the fruit from the tree might have been the ultimate gift once they passed the test of obedience. They became convinced that they knew better than God what was best for them, and they missed out on the best gift of all.
Knowledge of good and evil hasn’t been kept from us as something we can’t handle. Perhaps it’s just a bit harder for us to attain than intended, and that is what the story is about. Adam and Eve were ejected from the garden with the understanding that they would have to work for a living and that they would eventually succumb to death. For us, those realities teach us much about life. Living in a sometimes hostile world rather than an idyllic garden, and struggling to support ourselves and our families, and knowing that we are mortal are not a bad context for learning what is good and what is not.
In these current days of upheaval, we all want to understand what is true. It is easy to react and assign evil to others, but knowledge of our human limitations and even our own tendency to choose what is expedient should temper our reactivity. Jesus countered the temptations of the devil by quoting Scripture. Meditating on sacred writings and praying and listening calmly and carefully are good practices for us.
And when we do hold convictions about what is good and evil and what is truth and false and what is just and unjust, may we not succumb to the temptation of being silent. The knowledge of good and evil is a gift to be used carefully in service to all people everywhere. Amen.