The Garden of Eden

Genesis 2:4 ff
June 30, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

How would you define Paradise?   And I don’t mean a dictionary definition; I mean, if you were suddenly handed a ticket that said, “Destination Paradise,” what would you expect to see when you arrived?  In a book of children’s letters to God, (1) a little girl writes, “God of the earth, Hi. I want to say what a pretty world you made. The hills are great and so are the ocean waters.  I like to swim. You did a good thing when you made beaches. Luv, Emily.”

Obviously, Emily would expect to see beaches when she arrived at Paradise, an expectation a lot of us might share.  What is more beautiful than a wave swept shore, sandpipers skittering across the sand, and the possibility of whales spouting in the distance?  Even the shore of a land locked lake has a paradisiacal quality because most human beings are drawn to water so I’m guessing that almost all of us would include an ocean beach, a lake shore, or at least a nice fountain or other water feature in our description of Paradise. 

Another girl in this same book writes, “Dear God, I want to visit you in Paradise,” and then she gets practical: “Is there a big jet that goes there?  Is it safe to travel?  We just had a big crash around Detroit and I am afraid to fly.  But I would be full of joy if I could see you.  Love, Anita.” 

While Emily is thinking primarily of what Paradise looks like, Anita is thinking more about what the quality of life in Paradise.  Paradise for here is a place of safety, a description that we might be likely to include in our vision of Paradise as well. 

What do you imagine when you hear the word Paradise?  And what do you think it would be like to live in Paradise?

This morning’s scripture is from Genesis 2, the second of the creation stories in the book of Genesis.  In this familiar story of Adam and Eve, God creates Adam out of the dust of the earth and then plants a garden in Eden in which Adam can live.  The Bible doesn’t go into much detail in its description of Eden except to say that there are numerous trees in the garden bearing healthy fruit and it is bounded by four great rivers, thus fulfilling our desire for a water feature.  Although the book of Genesis never uses the word “paradise” to describe the Garden of Eden, the biblical people obviously thought of Eden as a description of what the world would like if it had remained as God intended it to be before human beings messed it up.  When the Bible was translated into Greek from Hebrew, then, the translators used the Greek word parádeisos for the Garden of Eden.  By that period, the concept of Paradise had taken on political and social overtones: Jewish writers had begun to imagine a world in which the Jews were free from Roman rule, where their oppression had ended, and God had restored them to land of their own flowing with milk and honey.  The book of Esdras, which you can find in the Apocrypha, (those extra biblical books that Martin Luther called helpful but not sacred) takes this even a step further and promises that if the readers don’t live long enough to see God restore Israel on earth, they will be restored to Paradise when God remakes the world at the end of time.  It is this association between the Eden of Genesis and God’s new creation in the last days that leads the writer of the book of Revelation to say, “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” 

The association between our concept of paradise, of the last days, and even then of heaven has long become tangled up with this story of the Garden of Eden but I’d like us to take a moment to go back and try to understand what this story actually says about God’s original intent for human life.

First of all, the Bible describes the Garden of Eden as a place where all of creation is healthy and in balance.  Here in Eden, the animals live at peace with Adam and Eve and with one another; there are no factory farms in Eden where animals are treated like industrial products, no pesticides killing the honey bees, no chemical discharge polluting the rivers flowing into the Eden.  The Bible even suggests that Adam and Eve are vegetarians since it says that God gives them the plants to eat but makes no mention of whether they are allowed to eat that deer that Adam just named, presumably calling it “Bambi!”  Though the biblical writers knew nothing of the kinds of pollution and ecological destruction that we have come to experience in our 21st century world, they still knew times of environmental stress and disease when cattle could die unexpectedly and drought could turn the earth to rock, and so it is no surprise that their vision of Eden was the same as ours: a land which yield its bounty easily and where people can walk in harmony and peace with the earth.

A less noticed but just as important aspect of Eden is that for the biblical writers, paradise included work.  We sometimes imagine Paradise as a perpetual vacation where all we have to do is lie around in the sun working on our tans, but this is clearly foreign to the original concept of Paradise.  When God creates Eden, God doesn’t include lounge chairs but instead tells Adam that it is his job to tend this garden because God knew that work is a way of connecting ourselves to earth and to others.  Work gives us a reason for being and for many of us, a sense of identity.  Now obviously, not every job for which we draw a paycheck gives us a sense of meaning and for many, work can be life draining rather than life giving, but the story of Genesis tells us that the problem is not be in the fact of work itself but in the type of work we are doing.  We may not be well matched to our job, or as we mature and change, what first gave us passion may no longer touch our spirits in the same way.  And of course, many people don’t have the luxury of choosing jobs that feed their need for meaning because they simply literally need to feed their families.  Nevertheless, when our job isn’t giving us a sense of purpose we can still find meaning in other types of work, whether it be volunteer work, or the work of raising a family, or gardening, or the work of caring for a family member of neighbor.  The main teaching of the story of Eden is that human beings need some sort of work to connect us to others and to the world around us, and if we really were to win the lottery and have nothing to do but sit around and drink martinis by the pool, our spirits would wither and our lives would be diminished.  Any work that brings us a sense of usefulness and joy is work that brings us closer to Eden.  

So far, the description of Eden is one which we can find in our own lives at times: a time when our life is in balance, our work gives us satisfaction and delight, and when we can feel God walking closely by our side. It is evident that in Genesis, Paradise does not even require immortality because Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from the tree of life, and thus we see that death was always to be an assumed part of their existence.  In our own lives, then, we can experience moments when everything is truly Eden-like when everything comes very close to being just as God had intended for us, except for one thing that makes Eden no longer wholly possible.  Perhaps it was possible still when we were children, if we were lucky enough to grow up in a good home with enough to eat and knew nothing outside of the protection of family; perhaps in those innocent times we were able to experience the joy of a world in which the worst thing that could happen was that our ice cream would melt because we couldn’t lick it fast enough, but as we grew older and developed understanding and empathy for others, we could no longer live in a perfect paradise because our eyes were opened to the possibility of moral failure and the reality of suffering, or as Genesis puts it, the knowledge of good and evil. 

Adam and Even ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and at that moment, paradise was lost.  It is difficult for us in English to understand what happens to Adam and Eve when they eat that fruit because our language isn’t nuanced enough.  We think, “Why would knowing right from wrong be a bad thing?  And of course, there is that favorite conundrum: “If Adam and Eve had yet to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, then why did God expect them to know that it was wrong to disobey God’s command?”

The story of Genesis, however, is referring not to the cognitive knowledge of good and evil but to experiential knowledge, to a personal understanding of the capacities and failings of the human heart.  One scholar has suggested that this passage could better be translated if we think of the French words for knowledge.  In French, both savoir and connaitre can be translated, “to know,” making them sound alike in English but they are actually very different. Savoir means to know with your mind. It is a cognitive knowledge like the knowledge of math while connaitre means to become personally acquainted with, to know in your heart and soul.  I think that this story of Adam and Eve is telling us that what drove Adam and Eve from the garden was the sudden very personal experience of good and evil.  Before they ate of that forbidden fruit, they had known in their heads the difference between right and wrong and understood about the moral order of the world, but when they gave into their temptation, suddenly they experienced the suffering, the pain, the guilt, and the shame of the consequences of ignoring our moral obligations.  Good and bad were no longer abstract intellectual concepts to be discussed in a classroom but were matters of personal import.  They suddenly knew in their hearts that they themselves had the power to hurt others, that their decisions could have terrible consequences for themselves and for those they loved, and that as weak and flawed human beings, there was a good chance their choices would not always be the right ones.  How much it hurts our hearts to know that no matter how hard we try, we are likely to blunder in this life and cause others pain?  How can paradise even be possible for us, the Bible asks, once our eyes are opened to the power we have to not only bless but also curse others through our own mistakes?  

When God saw that Adam and Eve had experienced good and evil firsthand, when God saw now that God could not save them from acquaintance with grief, from the selfishness of others and their own failings, from the suffering of the world, God drove them from the garden so that they would not they eat from the tree of life and have to live forever with those experiences.  And in the most important detail of this story, too often neglected in our Sunday School re-tellings, before God closes the door of Eden, God sits down and sews some clothes for Adam and Eve to keep them warm and safe in the harsh world they are about to enter.

The story of the Garden of Eden is a poignant love story.  It describes a God who wanted only the best for us and who gave us a world of beauty and bounty, who directs us toward meaningful work and shows us how to live in harmony with nature and with one another.  And it describes the weakness of we human beings who, even when we have everything we could possibly need to make our lives into a paradise, manage to hurt others and make the wrong choices and generally muck things up over and over again.  It shows us the profound heartache of God’s realization that God cannot protect us from ourselves, and from the suffering that results from our imperfections.  Most importantly, however, it also reminds us that God’s grace towards us endure, even in our sin.  God clothes us in the warmth of God’s continuing love, and though Adam and Eve were forced from Paradise, we discover that God says, “You cannot remain in Paradise with me, but I can go out into the world with you.”  God doesn’t stay back there shut up in that perfect Eden but goes instead with the people as they journey into the world.  God remains with us in all of our trials, leads us in our wilderness, takes our suffering upon God’s self; and hold our broken hearts in God’s loving hands.

The perfection of Eden is no longer available to us in a battered and sin soiled world, but the perfection of God’s love remains still and when we rest our lives in God, we once again can know the peace of paradise.  

Footnotes:

  1. Dear God, What Religion Were the Dinosaurs? by David Heller