OT Lectionary June 7th Trinity 1 Genesis 3:8-15

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Now that we’re in ordinary time I face a choice over whether to comment each week on the related or continuous strands of the OT lectionary. I’ve plumped for the related stream, simply because it will be more interesting for me, but if I were you I’d scrap the lectionary altogether and preach on what your church needs to hear at this particular time in its history, which of course you can do legally for several months. My How to Preach Strategically[1] can help you with this.

Anyway, for those determined to go on, here’s some thoughts on Genesis 3, the so-called story of the Fall. Our compilers miss out the slightly weird snakey stuff at the beginning, and cut to the chase of the consequences of this event. Our first question, though, is about the degree to which the term ‘Fall’ is a good one. We talk about ‘falling from grace’ and ‘falling into sin’, but I remember hearing one lecture in which it was suggested that a better terms was ‘the rupture’, which is less about tumbling from an exalted position and more about breaking out of proscribed boundaries in our search for something new and better. It is human nature to focus immediately on the one tree which was out of bounds and ignore the other however-many which were OK. But this bursting of boundaries continually goes on around us. We have recently done it to marriage in Britain, for example. I find it a much more helpful way of thinking than falling, and the more I think about it, the more I can see its insidious power, and the more I can see it in my own life.

Hugo van der Goes - The Fall of Man and The Lamentation - Google Art Project.jpg

So what are the consequences of this rupture? One way of looking at it is to see harmony replaced with separation, conflict and enmity. So we see separation between Adam and Eve and God in v 8. Previously they communed: now they hide. There is separation too between Adam and Eve, as blame enters the world in v 12, and equality is replaced by submission (v 16). At a deeper level humans become separated from themselves as they first begin to experience shame: unhappiness with who they are, as symbolised here by the sudden awareness of nakedness. There is a brief interlude for a couple of ‘Just So’ stories explaining why snakes have no legs and why childbirth hurts, but then we see separation and hostility between humans and the created world, as their bursting of the boundaries affects the rest of the created order, and the land itself. There is even separation from life itself, as a few chapters later God curbs human immortality and limits his life, an act of mercy actually.

Bursting, therefore, matters. To us as individuals, to our relationships, to our society, and even to the very land in which we live. Nowadays medical hernias are pretty easy to repair, apparently. But with this rupture, as in the very different story of Pandora’s Box, it is almost impossible to rewind and go back to how things were. That is why the grand sweep of Scripture is less about healing than it is about re-creation, less about life-support and more about death and resurrection. As the story begins here with the rupture, so it ends with a brand new heavens and earth, and a new paradise, free from blame, shame and pain. We are part of this story, disobedient but learning, on the way to re-creation but still broken. Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Cambridge: Grove W211, 2012

OT Lectionary Lent 1 Mar 9th Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Just what is sin?

Today’s OT story is a game of two halves, almost child-like in its simplicity, and oh so true to human nature. ‘You can do anything you like’, says God, ‘except this.’ So what’s the one thing they do? There are goodness knows how many trees, shrubs and bushes to choose from, and just the one which is banned. So of course it’s precisely that one which they want, that forbidden fruit which they want to taste. Those of us who are parents have seen this scenario played out many times, giving the lie to those educationalists who, like Rousseau, believe that human nature is fundamentally good. We may even have used it to our advantage through the gift of reverse psychology: ‘Whatever you do don’t you dare eat those sprouts!’

We often label Genesis 3 as the story of ‘The Fall’. We use terms like ‘falling from grace’ to describe the action of going wrong and losing something of our previous exalted and virtuous state. But I can remember a talk long ago (although sadly I can’t remember who gave it) in which it was suggested that a much better term than ‘fall’ was that of ‘rupture’. Medically the term refers to something which has burst its boundaries and spread out into somewhere it should not be, where its containing tissues have split open and allowed it to lose shape. The danger is that it might not go back in again, with all sorts of painful and even fatal results. I was convinced that this was a really helpful way of conceiving of sin, not as falling off something, but of bursting out of something.

File:Diaphragmatic rupture-cat.jpg

The creation story of Genesis 2 tells us of four things which God knows that the human race needs. In fact we were wired up to need them right from the very start, and in his love he provided them for us. Work, companionship and responsibility were all given by God, along with the fourth, slightly less enjoyable but equally essential gift: boundaries. Like speed limits boundaries are there for our own good, to restrain our stupidity, to protect us and others, to give us something solid against which to kick, and ultimately to remind us of our created and mortal status. Paradoxically it is the bursting of this boundary which brings mortality to the human race.

There are several pictures of sin in the pages of scripture: missing a target, falling short of a standard, disobedience, rebellion, offending God and harming others, but I reckon that bursting out of our God-given restraints is a good cover-all one. I wonder if it can help us to rethink what is going on when we sin. As we spend time in penitence during Lent, maybe privately and maybe in our public worship, might it be a good idea to ask ourselves when we have overstepped the mark, gone further than we ought, broken through boundaries which were there for our own protection? The slightly less biblical picture of Pandora’s box nevertheless tells us an important truth: the best way to give up something is never to start in the first place. Fortunately the Master Physician of our souls is able to perform corrective surgery, but it may well leave a residual weakness which we will have to watch carefully for the rest of our lives.

There is another application, though, for those of us who are parents, especially of young children. Our job, I have argued elsewhere[1], is to be like God to our children, and we have a God who does set boundaries, which to cross brings consequences. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that disciplining children has gone a bit out of fashion in our politically correct and ‘rights’-obsessed culture. Christian parents do well to ponder the benefits of boundaries and their enforcement, just as our heavenly Father obviously sees their benefits.

Leach, C and J And For Your Children (Crowborough: Monarch, 1994)