Text: Genesis 3:18-15
This we know,
All things are connected
like the blood
which unites one’s family…
Whatever befalls the earth,
befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
[Humanity] did not weave the web of life;
[humanity] is merely a strand in it.
Whatever [humanity] does to the web,
[humanity] does to itself.
As we begin the liturgical season of caring for creation, these words inspired by Chief Seattle remind us of the interrelatedness of all aspects of creation. I remember the day, many years ago now, when I first became aware of my connectedness to creation in a way that went beyond just human connection. Oddly enough, I was walking across the campus of Meredith College having gone there to visit a friend. As I stepped from the pavement onto a small patch of grass underneath a large oak tree, I looked down at the ground to see in my path a small bird’s nest holding four dead baby birds. Their tiny bodies were nestled together, clothed with a spattering of fluffy white feathers. Sitting in the grass underneath that giant oak tree, maybe three feet away, was a mama bird singing what I can only imagine was her song of sorrow and grief. Even now, I can’t fully explain all that I felt in that moment; but as I looked at those tiny lifeless birds in that nest and as I listened to that mama bird cry out in pain, I knew that in some strange way I shared her sorrow. All things are connected. And all God’s creatures are connected.
Telling that story feels a bit embarrassing, even a little silly. After all, we all know that nature is not always kind to the smallest and most vulnerable of God’s creation; and that of all places, it is the natural world that displays both the wonder and joy of creation as well as the pain and suffering and unfairness found in creation. One might say that it’s all just a part of the circle of life. And they would be right. But it is that story that marks for me that moment in life when I became consciously aware of how profoundly connected I am to the larger web of life. I am not just connected to other human beings. My life—and yours—is intrinsically woven together with every single aspect of creation. And what we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
In the second creation story found in the Bible, the first humans discovered this truth in the Garden of Eden as they struggled to find and know their place in the created order. The text we have read this morning from Genesis 3 of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden because they had eaten from the forbidden tree, has been historically translated as the story of “the fall.” In Christian literature it has been used to introduce humanity’s sinfulness into the story of creation. It is the favored text for proponents of original sin rather than original blessing, and it is also favored by those who wish to keep alive the age-old dualism of good versus evil. I find it interesting that while interpreters have had difficulty identifying the nature of the primal sin in Genesis 3, few have had the courage or imagination to suggest an alternative reading of the text. Staying within traditional Christian thought and teaching they have assigned to this story common themes of disobedience, mistrust of God, pride, and humanity’s desire to be like God—all playing to what is categorized as humankind’s sinful nature.
This morning I want to step outside the traditional interpretation of Genesis 3 and suggest possibly another way to read this story. Rather than reading this narrative through the lens of sin and failure, disobedience and mistrust, good versus bad as we have always done, I want to suggest that we understand it instead as a rite of passage toward responsibility. Yes, I am suggesting that after hundreds of years of biblical interpretation, we change the heading of Genesis 3 from the story of “the fall” to the story of “a rite of passage toward responsibility.”
To get the full picture of what is going on in Genesis 3, we have to back up a bit in the story. In chapter 2 verses 15 and following, the text says: “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but 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.’” Then in chapter 3 we learn that indeed, with the encouragement of a serpent, the man and the woman ate from the tree of knowledge. After which the text tells us, not that they died as they had been told they would, but rather that their “eyes were opened” and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
It is my belief that in that moment, when Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened they became fully human beings with all the freedoms and rites and responsibilities of what it means to be a person with free will. As their eyes opened, they saw new dimensions of life that they had never experienced: loneliness, limits, temptation, anxiety, dependency, and uncertainty. They saw each other as individuals who were independent yet still connected to one another. For the first time they understood that there were consequences—real consequences—to their actions. That the world around them and all that was in it was bigger than just the two of them. And in that moment, their freedom of will became a necessary rite of passage towards responsibility. What had been was different now. Their relationship to their creator was now changed forever. A new way of being and of relating and of living in the world would need to emerge. And that new way of being would carry with it great freedom and great responsibility. I, for one, am grateful for Adam and Eve’s courage to step into the unknown, and even into the forbidden, for the sake of freedom and the privilege of being responsible for one’s own choices in life. Instead of teaching us that we are sinful creatures, it seems to me that what Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden of Eden teaches us is that knowledge leads to choice and choice leads to freedom and with that freedom comes great responsibility. And therein still lies the greatest challenge for us human beings. Taking responsibility for our freedom and freedoms. Not hiding. Not shaming. Not blaming one another when we are careless with those freedoms. But rather, showing up and taking responsibility for the choices we have made and will make.
When I read Genesis chapter 3, the part that breaks my heart is verse 8. Listen as I read it again. “They heard the sound of God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and woman hid themselves from the presence of God among the trees of the garden.” While it is not uncommon in the biblical text, the image of hiding from God is, to me, one of the saddest images in all of scripture. Every time I read the creation story, I long to rewrite this part of the story—to take away all that shame and the blame that is so pervasive in this narrative. Here is what I wish the text said:
They heard the sound of God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze and the man and woman were delighted to be in the presence of God among the beautiful trees of the garden. God called out to the man and woman and said, “Where are you?” And Eve along with Adam responded, “Over here, God, among the beautiful trees of the garden.” God said, “What are you doing?” Eve replied, “We are sitting here trying to figure out what has happened. We ate from the tree that you told us not to eat from and now everything seems different.” Then God said to Adam and Eve, “You have taken a different path than I had imagined for you. This day you have discovered the gift of free will—the knowledge to know good and evil, the freedom of choice and all the responsibility that comes with such freedom.” Then Adam said to God, “And what of this responsibility?” And God replied, “All things are connected like the blood which unites one’s family…Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. You did not weave the web of life; you are merely a strand in it. And whatever you do to the web, you do to yourself.”
With a willingness to step outside traditional interpretation and with a bit of imagination, maybe Genesis 3 is not such an unlikely story for saving creation.
I cannot say that the day I heard that mama bird singing her song of sorrow as she stood by her lifeless babies, that I made some great commitment to caring for creation, or that all the sudden I became a responsible person caring for all creation. But what I can say is that was the moment in my life when I realized that I am connected to all of God’s creation. And in a simple yet profound way, I understood that day that what befalls the earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the earth because “this we do know, all things are connected.”