This morning I was in class, and we had a guest speaker from The Dougy Center, which is an incredible nonprofit that offers support groups for children who are grieving a death in their lives. It was inspiring and hard. We watched a video that included a three-year-old telling about how her mom used to sing to her, and then she stopped singing, and then her body stopped singing, and then she died. I cried. Full streams of tears.
And now I’m exhausted. I struggled to focus for the rest of class (which was like three more hours after that). And it was so appropriate for writing about Genesis 3 and death, but it was also so appropriate because of shame.
I’m a counselor in training, and a five-minute video about what the Dougy Center is all about wiped me out. Not only am I training to become a counselor, I don’t just want to be a listening ear that then responds by teaching people helpful skills or goes through a surface level, manualized, step-by-step response. I fully intend to support people in wrestling with deep issues of meaning and purpose and rewriting the narrative they use to define themselves and their lives.
And death and grieving are going to come up. They just are. What am I going to do if I can’t handle people’s grief?
So then I start questioning myself, and the shame starts to whisper and creep in, and I doubt whether I can be a good therapist. Just imagine it. The first day in a session after I get my degree, someone is going to walk in and need to process losing their child to cancer. And I’m going to freeze. And they’re going to leave worse than they arrived. And I’m going to have to retire on the first day because in good conscience I can’t keep doing that to people.
That’s what’s been swirling around in my head (and body) all day for the last few hours while I was supposed to be paying attention to some theory on leading counseling groups.
Grace offers me the truth that I’m still learning and growing, and the future isn’t yet made. Grace offers me the present and the choice of what to do with it. Shame whispers that the future is now and there is no hope and I deserve no grace and that imperfection is absolute failure. I know these things, but it’s hard to feel it, to believe it fully. I know I’ll find it, but I’m worn out right now. But I choose to walk in the garden with The-One-Who-Is, and light and life with replace the shame if I let it. And the fear too.
It’s the same struggle Eve and Adam faced in the Eden narrative. A choice between connection and purpose and joy on the one hand and shame and disconnection and death on the other hand.
“When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:6-7).
So much just happened there. Like, the fate of the human race was forever altered in a matter of two sentences. What was it that happened?
From an atheistic perspective, perhaps the snake would be the hero of this story. Something outside of humanity (or rather made up by some people to control other people) claims the power and the right to dictate how all of life ought to be for everyone. Any deviation from that opinion is cast as evil and duly punished (with death and eternal torture, no less). What kind of benevolent creator would put a tree in the middle of paradise for the sole purpose of telling us not to eat its fruit? Ridiculous. Clearly, the creator was never worth following. In that light, the heroic freedom fighter, the snake, encourages the poor, deceived humans to take up their own destiny and seek knowledge and truth for themselves, forever freeing themselves from the oppression of those who would subjugate them. Those are good things. Obviously, it’s not what the writer of this passage intended, but it is a viable understanding of the nature of humanity and the struggle for truth and freedom. In that way, this allegory encourages us to be Eve. Take up the freedom and knowledge shown to you and share it with the people you care about.
Of course, that assumes a lot that isn’t in this passage, and since I’m writing from a Christian perspective, you already know this is not my point of view.
Another teaching (the one I’ve been taught most of my life) that is valid and even useful is that God’s primary purpose in creating us was to be in relationship. It would be a relationship based on mutual love and trust and freedom of choice, or else that love would be coerced and not truly love. That meant that something available to Adam and Eve had to allow for them to choose to deviate from God’s will. That was the only way to test whether they actually chose to love God or if they robotically only had the one option available. It was not ill-will but the only logical way to allow for real love and freedom of choice. The knowledge they gained, then, was the ability to discern between good and evil and truly choose either way, by experiencing it firsthand. This isn’t a bad explanation, but it’s no longer how I understand the story.
In my view, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and its fruit are not about a literal plant and some apples or oranges or something. It represents the opportunity, the possibility to choose a way of being that diverges from the way that leads to life, the way that is in tune with Yahweh and the calling as the image of God. The ‘fruit’ then are the consequences of such a choice, similarly to the New Testament when it talks about good trees bearing good fruit and about knowing people by their fruit. It is referred to as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because ‘eating its fruit’ is about choosing the prerogative to take on authority to decide what is good and what is evil, or the responsibility to know for certain which is which. It denies dependence on the way of life Yahweh teaches. It denies trust and relationship. It puts me in the position to declare some people good and some people bad. It puts in me in a position to decide some people should be ‘in’ and some should be ‘out.’ It puts me in the position to hate and despise and reject. I now wield shame against others and myself, and I make myself separate from everything, including the Creator.
Yahweh prohibited that choice not as a test, not to be arbitrary, not to find out where Adam and Eve’s loyalties were but because God is wise. The snake promised Eve she would be like God. She assumed following its advice would make her wise. This is the first assertion about God’s character in the whole Bible. God is wise. God understood that to choose to live by taking on the role of the decider of good and evil could lead to nothing but separation and death. It would be a rejection of the way of Yahweh, a rejection of the call to reflect God’s character and the purpose to be the caretaker of creation. Only the way of Yahweh leads to life. In the anxiety-fueled attempt to seize their own destiny and claim absolute control over reality, the attempt to hang on to life with everything they have, they reject the only true source of life and inadvertently choose to embrace death instead.
Yahweh, in wisdom, knew that would be the case and tried to guide them toward life and away from death, but they were too afraid to trust. So then comes the shame. In the Bible, other than before Genesis 3:7, nakedness always represents shame. Not because bodies are shameful (that’s not possible since Yahweh created them), but because being uncovered is vulnerable and dangerous. There is no protection, no barrier to keep the rest of reality at a safe distance. They are naked before God and know they’ve blown it, but they’re stuck in their fear and shame. Shame ALWAYS motivates us toward further disconnection and belief that we deserve the muck we’ve gotten ourselves into. They’ve needed rescuing from that moment forward.
God is so gentle with them. He looks for them. He asks them questions. They try to protect themselves (the goal of every bad decision they’ve made so far) and blame others for their choices. Notice Yahweh doesn’t agree that they’re naked but simply asks who told them that. God intended them to be as they were and knows something is wrong by the fact that they feel ashamed of themselves. The rest of the chapter sadly goes over the consequences of these heartbreaking choices. The consequences God was trying to avoid for them from the beginning. Ultimately, death and separation are the consequences of the way that strays from Yahweh’s purposes, not as punishment but because they actively reject the way of life and connection at self-defeating attempt at self-preservation.
I’ll go over more details about the consequences (or ‘curses’ as they’re usually known) in the next post where I’ll also discuss more of the male-female dynamics of Genesis 1-3.
I know much or most of these ideas are different than what you likely have been taught before. What do you think about it?