Of course, we cannot know. But that is part of the beauty of this story. It is so obviously mythical. There is something infinitely charming about the idea of God, at the end of a long day on divine business, stepping out for a stroll in the evening breeze, wandering off to meet a couple of friends.
Already, we’ve started reading this story in a very different light from the usual. But let’s take a step back to remind ourselves of how this story is normally heard. It goes like this: God has made a rule; the man and the woman, but especially the woman, break the rule; God is very angry; the man and the woman are banished and made to suffer, especially the woman. That’s how the story is normally heard. But that is a reading which does real violence to what is an infinitely subtle and important story, too important to read in such a simplistic way.
So let’s go back to the beginning. This is a story about beginnings. The community in which it arose had sensed a great truth and were trying to put it into words, in the best way they knew how – through creating a story, a legend. They have already created a story about physical beginnings, painting a vision of God at work creating all things and all life. Gradually, they turn their attention to another, equally deep question. They are exploring how human nature came to be.
The people who created and told this story had observed something about human nature. They had seen that we all have a tendency to get things wrong. I don’t think that this story is claiming more than that, though others, later, have read this as the beginning of essentially evil human nature. I think that’s going too far. I do not think that human nature is essentially evil. Humans commit evil deed, to be sure, but these deeds, in all but a very few, trouble those who commit them. That’s why murderers often confess. It is a deed so at odds with human nature that the knowledge of it is too difficult to bear.
Why, the people who created this story are asking, do humans, who prefer what is right and what is good, still end up making the wrong choices? It must, they figure, be something about our human nature, and that nature is different from God’s nature, as the story explains.
It is set on a balmy evening, just the kind of time when people might come together and talk and tell stories. They imagine God out for his stroll, intent on dropping in on his friends, Eve and Adam. But something is amiss. They are not where God expects. He calls out. Already, this scene raises so many questions. Did God really not know where Eve and Adam were? Did he really not know what they had done? If we believe in an all knowing God, that seems scarcely credible, but this story comes from a very early time, a time when theology was in its infancy, and these are not the most pressing questions in this imagining of God.
The man and the woman, of course, are hiding, but not doing it particularly well. If you are really hiding, you don’t answer when you are called, but that is what Adam did. The man is confronted with, and is confronting, a reality of human existence. He’s realising that he is not as great as he’d like to be. He is realising the difference between him and God. He is realising that God is perfect and holy and that he, the man, is not. The hiding is about not wanting to admit this truth. It is about covering up human imperfection. His nakedness is a metaphor for all about ourselves that we would rather keep hidden.
In the story, God asks how he knows he is naked. Adam tries to do another very human thing. He tries to shift the blame, onto the woman and also onto God. “The woman, whom you gave to be with me, gave me the fruit from the tree.” It’s all your fault, God. If you had given me a better woman, none of this would have happened. In the mind of Adam, God is to blame for making the woman the way he did. In Adam’s mind, the only one not to blame was himself. How like a man.
What is at the root of this story is the human desire to escape human nature, but not in the sense of never making mistakes. The sin, if you can call it that, was to try to be like God, to know what God knows, effectively to cut God out, to dispense with God. That desire, if we are honest, is something that we can see in ourselves. We resent surrendering our will to the will of another, even if that other is infinitely wise and good, as God is. Humans just want to go it alone.
And there’s a real tension there. We want to be autonomous, but actually we are made to be in relationship. Genesis expresses the relational nature of humanity with its description of Adam and Eve being made for one another. So necessary is that bond that, even when they are banished, they are banished together. They are not sent apart.
But that is not the only vital relationship. The other is with God. And that’s where this image of God strolling along, of an evening, to meet his friends, Eve and Adam, becomes so important. They are friends. There is a relationship between them all. All relationships require trust in their foundations. And that’s what has gone wrong. God trusted the humans, but they broke God’s trust by eating the fruit.
Now, that’s quite a different way of reading this text from the normal one. We’re more used to a legalistic reading. There was a rule. The rule was broken. Punishment followed. But recapture the idea of relationship, and something changes. Principally, what changes is our understanding of sin.
The legalistic reading equates sin with the breaking of a rule. The relational reading equates sin with the breaking of trust. And that has profound consequences.
You’ll be aware, no doubt, of the controversy gripping our church and many others over how to respond to same-sex marriage and to the ordination of people in same-sex relationships to the ministry. Once again, it was a big issue at our General Assembly. This week, it has been reported that the Russian Orthodox Church has broken all links with the Church of Scotland over this issue. That’s not as serious as it sounds, because they weren’t talking to us anyway and aren’t in any of the ecumenical bodies of which we are a part. More seriously, though, the United Free Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland are drawing back from relationship with us.
But I think that they are making a fundamental mistake. They are focussing on a legal understanding of sin, and not a relational understanding. They see what they see as rules being broken, but are responding by breaking relationships, when actually it is the breaking of relationship which is the sin, more than the breaking of the rule. I wonder how these relationships may be recovered.
That matters, because relationship is at the heart of our religion – relationship with God and with each other. Relationships, not rules; love, not morality; grace, not law. That is the thing that is so radical and compelling about Christianity. It is about God’s continual quest for relationship with us, despite our human nature. Other religions see human interaction with the divine in terms of humans appeasing a supreme being. Christianity, properly understood, holds that God is always seeking us out, in love.
Our story today is not about an event. It never happened but is it always happening. There was never a moment when innocent humanity fell from God’s favour. But every day, we are pulling away from God. Every day we assert our human nature over God’s divine nature. Every day we betray God’s trust, try to hide ourselves from God and try to go it alone. The miracle and the good news of the Gospel is that the relationship is never fully broken and God, in love, is always coming looking for us, to be with us, us flawed being he calls his friends.