First Sunday in Lent
March 9, 2014
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 (Trans. Robert Alter)
The Temptation story from Genesis is so familiar that we should take a moment to purge it completely from our minds and dispel the imagery that traditionally accompanies it in order to hear it anew. We probably have images of the woman enticing the man to eat the fruit, most likely an apple, almost like a seduction. And certainly, the images of woman from this story often depict her as highly sexual and that the sexuality is not erotic or sensuous but dangerous. This story traditionally establishes woman as subordinate to man. Some commentaries of this story border on misogynistic.
Let’s back up and take this slowly and include the missing verses. First, God put man in the garden to till it. God told man, “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.” Then, God created animals to help man and when they proved insufficient, God put man into a deep sleep, removed a rib, and fashioned it to become the woman. The story shifts to the woman, who converses with the serpent about the tree and the fruit. Note that nowhere in this text is the fruit defined. Though the serpent completely misstated God’s instruction, the woman corrected it and then expanded the instruction to include a prohibition upon touching the fruit. The serpent told her that God’s real reason not to eat the fruit was to keep her from becoming like gods by gaining the ability to know good and evil. She ate the fruit and then handed it to man for him to eat it as well. They ate and knew they were naked.
Keep in mind that God initially gave the instructions to man as woman was not yet created. When we read this story closely it seems that man stood next to her when she spoke with the serpent. Man said nothing. He did not challenge the serpent, “God did not say that we should not eat of any tree in the garden.” He didn’t try to correct woman, “God said nothing about touching the fruit.” He offered no objection by saying, “We should not eat this fruit.” Indeed, man seems passive, especially in view of woman’s engagement in almost all aspects of the story.
Woman took the initiative to obtain this knowledge. Whether man and woman planned together to assume this responsibility or man accepted this responsibility as she was his helpmate, the end result is the same. Woman and man assumed awesome responsibility.
And having this responsibility appeals to us. We can be generous. We can be instruments for good. We’re empowered because we don’t have to rely upon someone to bestow benevolences upon us. We’re liberated because we’re not left at the mercy of someone else.
But having this responsibility has ethical implications because it places us in a position to bestow benevolences. We become the one who grants mercy, which means we can also withhold mercy. We can manipulate those in need to comply with our own standards of behaviors. And because we also know evil, our motives may not always be pure. Though we might be as gods, we will not be like God. We’re not capable, try as we might, to be as unreservedly loving as God or as unstintingly generous as God or as unfailingly forgiving as God.
The story of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days foreshadows his ministry and his message. Jesus showed tremendous internal strength when he did not succumb to the devil’s temptations. By rejecting the devil’s offer to have power and dominion over the entire world, he offered a preview of the upside down world of the gospel. After the wilderness we learn through his ministry that true power comes not by being lord of all, but by being servant to all.
Jesus said that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Later, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:4-8)
By the example Jesus set in the wilderness, we’re reminded that power is a sacred trust and must be used responsibly. We should never use power indiscriminately. Having power is not a license to use that power to meet our needs without considering how our needs impact the whole creation. We have power in order to serve our family, our neighbors, our friends, and our community. We even have power to alter our environment. However we use our power, though, it is for God’s sake not ours.
Though woman claimed later to God that the serpent beguiled her to eat the fruit, she could have refused the serpent’s entreaties. She, however, chose not to. She chose empowerment. She chose to assume the responsibility that comes with knowing good and evil. When we interpret this story as the serpent tricking the woman it undermines and robs woman of her autonomy. When we think of woman as a temptress, it portrays her as devious, which undercuts her authority as a credible decision maker and one who is responsible and can be trusted with power. Consequently, we obscure the fact that woman can share power with men and when necessary can be decisive in their use of that power.
Here’s an example. Although last October seems so long ago, remember our government shutdown? The parties were at loggerheads. The leadership in both houses of Congress couldn’t begin to find a pathway out. The end came through the bi-partisan work of several women in the Senate. The New York Times reported that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me) put together a three-point plan she thought both parties could live with and then went to the Senate floor to dare her colleagues to devise something better. Two other Republican women joined her. Then two women Democrats. Eventually, 13 senators formed a committee and found compromise. Seven of the members of that committee were women even though they make up 20% of the Senate.
Women are fully capable of leading. That the Senate women found a pathway to compromise, I would say that those women understood power better than their male counterparts.
The implications of a feminist reading of this story or any other story in the Bible where women play a prominent role should remind us that women have moral agency when it comes to their lives. Men should refrain from appropriating to themselves decision making regarding women’s health, especially around reproduction. Women should have easier access to credit to start their own businesses. Women politicians should not be subjected to a trivial double standard, such as worries how they will manage their children, especially when their male counterparts get a pass. When we recognize women’s dignity, it might bring an end to their being infantilized and sexualized in our media, especially for young girls. We could end violence against women. We would become aware of the terrible burden of sex trafficking and feel more compelled to do something about it. It could shift the understanding of manhood for our teenage boys to teach them that their manhood is not about the number of girls they have sex with or the number of children they fathered, but taking responsibility to being a father for their children.
While it’s tempting to keep reading scripture from our traditional perspectives, we limit our growth in understanding our faith. That in turn becomes an obstacle to changing the dynamics of our community. Changes happen when we can integrate God’s loving kindness more fully into our lives together. We should resist the temptation to take the easy path of tradition, which lulls us into complacency. Rather, we should take time to wrestle with the texts. We need to clear our minds of what we’ve always known to make way for new imagery, which can open us to new and unimagined pathways leading to true peace and justice rooted in God’s steadfast love.