Ancient Story, Contemporary Wisdom

This is an article by Rev. John E. Boyd originally published in First Baptist Voices.

In 1974, during my final term at Acadia Divinity College, I was immersed in writing my Master of Divinity thesis on the Theological Motifs of the Yahwist in Genesis 2:4b-3:24; in other words, on the ancient story of the Garden of Eden.

Scholars had long since discarded belief in this story as literal history, but that had not stopped Baptist preachers from teaching it as fact, thereby confusing many Sunday School children and youth who were learning about evolution and the Big Bang in school. Too often a false dichotomy was set up: you can believe the Bible (literally) or you can believe science. If you believe science, you are throwing the Bible away.

My thesis sought to show that this ancient story held amazing wisdom that was independent of its literal truthfulness. Its author, an unknown Hebrew theologian known by scholars as the Yahwist because of how s/he referred to God, had a deep understanding of the human condition and the nature of God, about which s/he told the truth through this parable of the Garden of Eden.

You might wonder why I am bringing this up forty years later! The sad truth is that fundamentalist preachers are still teaching Genesis 2-3 as literal history and are still trying to force children and youth to choose between the Bible and science, as if trusting God means putting your brain in neutral!

Reading the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as a parable gives us access to its timeless wisdom without shackling us to a “history” where serpents talk out loud and where an anthropomorphic God not only walks in the cool of the evening, but undertakes rather complicated surgery.

Here is some of the wisdom in this story that has contemporary relevance:

    1.    Our “home” on this planet is a “Garden” whose healthy ecology depends upon a harmony between humans and all other life that neither exploits nor destroys.

    2.    Humans are made of the same “stuff” – differences in sexuality or race or any other characteristic are real, but do not change our essential nature as humans.

    3.    Human freedom cannot exist without the possibility of evil. Humans can choose not to follow God’s intentions or wisdom in relationships with other humans or in relation to the environment.

    4.    Humans are relational and find deep meaning in relationships with each other and  with God, suggesting a spiritual as well as a physical and intellectual nature.

    5.    Deception, lies and hubris bring disruption to life at all levels, ecologically, relationally and spiritually. Adam and Eve lose the Garden, become distant with each other and are cut off from God when they choose to substitute their own wisdom for God’s wisdom.

    6.    Even when all seems lost, God does not abandon us. As Adam and Eve stand naked outside the Garden, it is God who makes clothes for them, and the journey “back” to the Garden begins, a journey to what Jesus would call the Kingdom of God.

Lent is a time to reflect on our lives, and particularly how we relate to each other and to God. There are few better helps than the story the Yahwist told many centuries ago, a story we can hold up like a mirror to discover the nature of God, our environment, our humanity, our struggle with evil and God’s intention to bring us “home” to the Garden.

And nowhere is this intention more explicitly revealed than in the death and resurrection of Jesus which we celebrate at Easter!

Posted in General Forum