God and the Serpent

1st Sunday of Lent A - St. Augustine, Tamale (GH): Gen 2,7-9; 3,1-7

The first two Sundays of lent are somewhat how the ouvertuere of a great opera: The introduce the motifs and themes which will be follow. So the readings of the first Sunday of lent tell us about the origins of sin and temptation, those of the second Sunday about the transformation of Jesus at the mountain of Tabor, and that is a anticipating symbol of his easterly victory over the force of the sin through his passion and death on the cross. Therefore the first reading of today is taken from the  beginning of the book of Genesis, the story about the Fall of Man. And this story raises the question which will be answered by the the events of the Holy Week.

Hence, let us listen a little to this story of fall. At the beginning man finds himself in the wonderful garden made by God and given to him as a trustee. But one day there is the serpent, symbol of the dangerous, but also the fascinating, and therefore symbol of the evil which perverts the whole good Creation. There is no question where the evil came from. It’s suddenly there, without invitation. Just like we humans experience it in the sudden, unplanned readiness to hurt our partner. It is not the question whether there is evil at all – the life experience can answer this easily – but the question is how the evil works, in order to show us of which components it is made of.

Everything starts with the serpent asking: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” What sounds like a harmless inquiry first turns out to be an attack on the human’s idea of God. In fact, God has not said as the serpent has asked. Even more, he explicitly allowed them to eat from all trees but one. And furthermore, he was worried about the man being alone, and he changed it. How could man carry a different idea of God in his heart – but then, suddenly, the serpent is there. The serpent is much cleverer than the other animals, as the Bible says. It gives us a hint that we have to understand the serpent as a symbol for a particularly deep and weird understanding – of course, similar to the character of serpents. The serpent also appears in numerous legends outside the bible: the Indians of Middle America tell that the world is placed above the Cipactli monster, which could tear up his throat at any time and mash the world. And the ancient Germans told about the Midgard serpent, which has its massive body swung around the earth. If she pulls it together, she reduces the space for people, which means that she frightens them. So the serpent stands for a terrifying insight in finiteness and transitoriness of the world and of us ourselves. This knowledge attacks every man once while growing-up: he himself, everybody and everything which is important and precious to him, will after some time have ceased to be. This oppressive truth encounters him in a very sudden moment – just like the serpent appears in the Bible.

And only due to this image we can capture the conversation between woman and serpent in its total monstrousness. With its question the serpent has called an evil reverse image into mind, which illustrates how God could be as well: a tyrant who has created a wonderful garden and who puts man into this creation but forbids him – while man has the whole beauty of life in front of his eyes – to enjoy it. The serpent does not claim that God is like that. It only asks. But this is enough to drive this evil image of God into Eve’s heart, so that her own idea of God as the patron of life experiences a tiny, but nevertheless disastrous change. Eve answers the serpent:
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”
However, God just has not said this. He warned that man must not eat these fruits; but he has never mentioned that it is forbidden to touch the tree. That the woman, however, claims this is an indication for the success of the serpent to inject the bacillus of fear into its opposite. It is not the fear of being afraid of the tree, but the fear for one’s own life, and out of this fear one gets the suspicion that the creator of life maybe is not as good as one had thought up to now.

With this change in the idea of God, the decisive moment of the disaster has already happened. The image of God starts to become ambiguous. To come to the point: the Fall of man, his sin, consists of his mistrust towards his life experience, namely that God is glad to give him as much life as man needs, and that man starts to think that there might be something more than the creator is willing to reveal. Exactly at this extremely thin change in the God image the serpent starts create a shrill portrait of God as a shady creator. It answers the woman:
“Ye shall not surely die. For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods…”
Which means: God has forbidden touching the tree, because he – he! – fears you might become his competitors. He is weak, therefore he watches jealously over the middle of the life. The logic of the serpent is persuading. One does not know, however, it could be exactly that case. So wouldn’t it be safer to do everything on one’s own than being dependent on the patron mood of such a God? The tree looks enticing thanks to the promise of increasing life, thanks to the idea that with him I have everything in my hand.
She took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Adam isn’t positioned any better: he also ate. Contrary to all experience the mental conflict initiated by the serpent did succeed in perverting man’s image of God by using all methods of fear, so that man has to act on his own to make sure that he keeps his life. This becomes inevitably necessary if distrust starts to overcome confidence.

Actually, the promise of the serpent – your eyes will be opened – really comes true: But what do they see! It is still the same reality in front of them. But now, outside the protection of God-trust, everything seems to be the other way around: They realize that they are naked. In the atmosphere of fear-causing mistrust they see how unprotected they are, how vulnerable. They use loincloths from fig leafs, because they have to pretend something – in a double meaning: They are ashamed of what they are, because it seems to be nothing when separated from God, just a bit of earth and an incomprehensible thin breath. Man and woman who wanted to be like God.

Because of the mistrust towards God they cannot discover even a glimmer of goodness and beauty on themselves any more. This feeling is so strong that they believe they must hide from their own Creator.
 “[Adam,] Where art thou?” – “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked.” – “…Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?”
God truly suggests Adam a confession which – considering of what one had become aware of in God’s Creation up to this point – would probably have saved man. But instead of confessing, Adam is blaming a scapegoat. As watched by Genesis, he blames the physically weaker one, the one he had been keen on shortly before: “It was her, the dream of my nights, she is guilty. She gave me the fruits to eat.” And a further excuse: “You, you gave her to me, so in the end it’s your own fault.” The rift of mistrust between man and God is set forth by the rift between man and woman, although they could have been – protected by God – one flesh. The belonging-together of their hearts suffers from the dictatorship of power, as the woman must hear: You desire a man, but he will rule over you – the patriarchy as a consequence and symptom of the sin, as it is written on the first pages of the Bible, since about three thousand years.

Even more: the rift between God and man, which is set forth by the rift between man and woman, also does not spare the relationship between man and animal: Hostility is set between woman and serpent. Furthermore, the rift affects the relationship between man and earth:
“Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.”
Not even the relationship of man and his own nature remains unaffected:
“I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. [And you, Adam:] For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Adam would have died before as well, as a finite being, but still when dying he would have been aware of God’s protecting hand. Now he must die without being able to die – because death is not the completing of blessed days of life any more, but the fall into dust, into nothing. Bit by bit God’s wonderful garden turns into a vale of tears. Nothing, absolutely nothing is changed in God’s creation. It is just because of the mistrust against God that everything is turned into opposite. And in the end, consequently, God himself appears to the sinful and separated man exactly as the serpent had caricatured him: As he would be full of envy and concerned about his dominance:
“Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”
Being sent away is the only feeling which man can now still experience, because the God he can see is the God who the view of mistrust allows him to see. Man is expelled from paradise because he tried to carry the superhuman burden of giving and guaranteeing life to himself. He will feel like being driven into the hot circulation of searching and securing life, a circulation that will burn him. He will try to gain the fulfilled centre of life that way – which is told by the angel with the flaming sword who is now watching the path to the tree of life.

The experience of having to live without trust towards God turns our world into what we know today. The lost paradise is the price we have to pay because we don’t want to say “Thank you” to and be protected by God. And all this happens despite the fact that everything, absolutely everything we do and look for aims at ourselves being protected and freed from the burden of guaranteeing that oneself is allowed to exist. The first conflict between confidence and mistrust is the reason of our life; the conflict between belief and fear, between mercy and sin – that’s what the Creation story tells us via the figures of Adam and Eve. We shall know why the world is the way we know it; we shall learn that God had meant it in a different way, and why everybody of us is able to turn the good into its opposite. The story is written so that we can find ourselves in the images of Adam and Eve. Yet the gospel from the temptations of Jesus tells us, that nobody is sentenced to act like Adam and Eve wherever somebody risks to trust in God so as Jesus did. That’s the beginning of the victory over temptation and sin which we will celebrate after the 40 days of lent.