If Genesis 1 is the account of God building his temple, and Genesis 2 shows us God creating his image—us—and placing that image within his temple—setting things up so that the good Creator of all things might be properly worshiped by his creation—then logically, worship belongs at the very center of life. It’s in the worship of God that our world finds its true story and its true meaning. But the world doesn’t understand that. Some people insist that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of pleasure, or power, material wealth, or fame—which is to say, that the only meaning to life is whatever you decide to make of it. Others are honest enough to look at that and see that it’s really nothing more than just whistling in the dark—that if the only meaning to life is whatever you give it, then what that really means in the end is that life has no meaning; things like power and pleasure simply aren’t worth our worship, they aren’t worth the dedication of our lives that so many people give them. These braver souls tell our culture to stop piling its trinkets atop the altar of life and just admit the hard truth: the temple is empty. There is, they say, no one worth worshiping and nothing that makes life truly meaningful, and we might as well just accept the fact and learn to deal with it.
God created the world as his temple and us as his image, but there are millions of people who believe the temple is empty, abandoned, derelict, and millions upon millions more who have chosen to clutter it up with the worship of other gods. That is the tragedy of human existence; Genesis 3 is the story of how it happened. And just as the creation account of the first two chapters is, ultimately, all about worship, so too is the story of the fall of the human race, which we read here. Yes, obviously, this is also about obedience, and the failure of our ultimate ancestors to follow God’s command; but the obedience God desires was, as it always is, rooted in trust, and that trust was supposed to be the product of proper worship. We worship, therefore we trust, therefore we obey; and it’s that chain that the serpent attacks.
Note how it happens. The snake comes up to the woman—and interestingly, the author of Genesis doesn’t explain this; in fact, he doesn’t even identify the serpent, as Satan or as anyone else. The voice of evil and temptation is just presented as a fact, unexplained and inexplicable. Wherever it came from, the snake inserts itself into whatever Eve is doing at the time, and it says, “Ah, so God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden!’” It’s not exactly a question, as you might have noticed; a question might have gotten Eve thinking, and that’s the last thing in the world the serpent wants to do. He does want her to talk, but note this—the snake is trying to get her to talk about God, instead of to God, because if he can get her to do that, then he can get her to doubt God. She could cut off the conversation and refuse to talk with him, or she could invite God into the conversation, but instead, she plays along with the snake. In fact, she plays into his hands a little—yes, this snake had hands, or at least feet—by misquoting God’s instructions herself. No, God hadn’t told them they weren’t even allowed to touch the tree; but of course, the snake doesn’t correct her on that. After all, that makes God look rather unreasonable, something the enemies of God always want to do.
Instead, the serpent comes back with a most interesting response: he says, “You shall not surely die.” This does a couple things. In the first place, it’s a direct contradiction, a direct challenge to the word of God—he’s calling God a liar, straight out. Genesis doesn’t say, but at this point, maybe the snake said, “Go on, test it—touch the tree. Touch the tree. See? You’re not dead, are you? You just have a little sap on your hands.” He calls God a liar, and the woman lets it stand; and with that, the first seeds of doubt are sown. More than that, though, this statement by the serpent shifts the focus of the conversation. Starting off, the focus is on what God said, which means ultimately it’s on God; now, the serpent has changed that, and instead of being on God, the focus of the conversation is now on death. The question of whether or not to obey God is no longer a matter of the character and goodness of God; instead, it’s a matter of whether God is serious about the punishment he promised for disobedience.
This is a necessary shift for the snake as he’s trying to tempt the woman to disobedience. If he’s encouraging her to disobey God and she’s thinking about God, she’s going to come back and say, “No, I don’t want to do that because God is good and he knows what’s best for me and this is what he wants me to do”—and there’s really nothing the snake can say to that. But if he can instead get her thinking about punishment, then when he tempts her, then her response will be, “No, I don’t want to do that because if I do that, God is going to hurt me”—and that, he can argue about. To that, he can say, “No, God isn’t going to hurt you, no, you aren’t really going to die, and really, God’s only saying this because he wants to keep the best stuff for himself.” You see, the tempter wants to get us into a cost/benefit analysis where he offers the benefit—whatever the temptation of the day is—and God offers us the cost—whatever our punishment is going to be for giving in to temptation; he wants us to see God simply as somebody who punishes us when we do wrong, because if the tempter can do that, then he can always convince us that what he’s offering us is worth the price. If our reason for obeying God is positive rather than negative, though—not just because we don’t want God to punish us, but because we love him and want to please him—then the devil has a much harder time with that.
With the woman, though, his trick works. He gets her focus off of God and onto death—and in so doing, as the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman notes, the snake moves death to the center of the human agenda, where it’s pretty much been ever since. What’s worth the risk of death? Well, the snake tells the woman, “When you eat of it”—and note that “when”; he doesn’t let her think of this as an if, something she might do, but only as something she’s going to do—“when you eat of it, you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God, he tells her, has a better gig, one that he’s trying to avoid having to share with her. God gets to know everything, God gets to do everything, God gets to make all the decisions, and she’s just stuck doing what she’s told. God gets to be worshiped, and she just gets to do the worshiping. But if she will just disobey, the snake says, she can get out of that trap, and she won’t have to worship anybody but herself, and she won’t need anybody else to tell her what to do.
Now, to this point, the commands and the authority of God, the boundaries God has set on her life, have been givens, part of what made the garden a good and safe place; her life has been defined by trust in God. That trust is the necessary foundation for obedience—if we don’t believe that God wants what’s best for us, we aren’t going to do what he says. The snake, however, has subverted that trust, telling her that God set those boundaries not for her well-being but to keep her down; her options, as the snake tells it, are to be a sheep, allowing God to control her, or to challenge him, to eat the fruit, gain his knowledge for herself, and take over her own life. The temptation here is the most fundamental of all, the temptation to spiritual ambition—the temptation to be our own gods—and she gives in, and takes Adam with her; and with that, the great cosmic dance is broken, and the music of the heavens falls into discord. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and it was very good; but this is the end of the beginning.
This is the bad news of our existence: we are, all of us, sinful people from birth; it’s a part of our inheritance just as surely as our eye color and the shape of our nose. We can’t blame the ills of the world, whether other nations or our own, on racism or sexism, Islam or Christian fundamentalism, poverty or the wounds of history, all of which explanations are usually advanced to make the world’s problems somebody else’s fault. The root problem is the darkness in the human heart, and that’s our problem as much as it is anyone else’s. We construct our systems for dealing with the rest of the world, and we build our structures to bring order to our society, and I think most of us do so with all good will and the best of intentions; but even at our best, what we produce is seriously flawed, and sometimes it seems even our best efforts to fix those flaws only manage to make things worse. Left to our own devices, we’re doomed.
If that’s the bad news, though, Genesis 3 also gives us the good news, because look how God reacts to the sin of his people. He has warned them that death would be the fruit of disobedience, and so it will, but in his grace he holds it back; and at the very point when they have fallen into sin, he puts his plan into motion to heal the damage and set things right. One will come, he promises, one of their descendants, who will crush the snake’s head. Indeed, God the Son himself would come, becoming human, Jesus Christ; and as Paul declares in Romans 5, in Jesus, God has given the final answer to sin and death, making true life available once again for all. Through him, there is a way out of our mess, if we will give up our pretensions to be gods and goddesses of our own lives and accept him as our Lord; in Adam and Eve, all of us their descendants fell into sin, but in Jesus Christ, all who will come to him have been lifted back into life. This is our hope, and the hope of our world.