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January 17, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: Genesis 3:1–24


This is a familiar story to most people – at least the basics of it. My experience with this chapter is that it tends to raise more questions than answer – for reasons we have explored in the last couple of weeks. So, at the risk of boring you via repetition, let me cover two things about our sermon series on Genesis:

First, we are not going to try to answer all the questions you may have had or heard regarding these verses. Why did God create a snake that could talk? Why did God put the forbidden tree in the garden? Why did (or does) God allow evil to exist? Where did evil come from? These are great questions for a Bible study. For our purposes here, we are going to look within the text to see what is being revealed to us about the nature, character, and purpose of God? Who is this God who has revealed himself to us? What has God revealed? What does God’s revelation mean for how we understand who we are and how we are to live?

A second reminder: Genesis is the first book of the Pentateuch; that is, the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We need to keep in mind that Genesis does not exist separate and distinct from those other books. They are a set. Taken as a whole, the most important theme in this five-book set is the movement of God to rescue his people, to covenant with them, and to deliver them to the Promised land. What we read in Genesis Chapters 1-11 are a preface to that story. They set the stage. From there, the rest of the Bible is the revelation of God’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration through the promise, fulfillment, and hope of Jesus Christ.

Exclusion versus generosity of God

To set the scene, last week we concluded with the picture of creation in which things were as they were supposed to be. This week begins with the literal snake in the grass, looking to corrupt that perfect creation. The author does not spend any time addressing why God would create or allow something like the snake in the garden; He just did. Again, great Bible study questions, but for now let’s focus on what the author did write so that we can see what is being revealed about God.

The NRSV (our pew bible) translates the description of the snake as “crafty.” Other versions use “shrewd” or “subtle.” As I mentioned last week, I tend to prefer subtle because it highlights how subtle differences can have huge consequences.

It is important to recognize the snake’s approach. The way the writer opens this scene makes that clear. “Explicit characterization of actors in the story is rare in Hebrew narrative, so it seems likely that in noting the snake’s shrewdness the narrator is hinting that his remarks should be examined very carefully. He may not be saying what he seems to be saying.[1]

The snake came to the woman and asked, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” That is a huge inaccurate overstatement of what God actually said. What did God actually say to the man? “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Note how subtle is the approach: the snake did not contradict God (at this point). The snake did not question God’s authority (at this point). The snake did not in any way do anything to undercut “plausible deniability.” You can almost hear his defense before God if God had intervened at this point, “I wasn’t doing anything wrong; I was just asking a question. I was just clarifying!”

Nonsense. Here’s where the subtlety comes into play – and where we see the temptation still playing out today. By overstating the case, the snake drew out from the woman the one tree excluded from permission. Instead of focusing on the generosity of God in providing all the variety of trees available for food, the snake was able to circle her attention onto the one thing that was prohibited. It cast God in a negative, harsh, or repressive light.

Does anyone here recognize this phenomenon? I sure do. So often it is along these lines: never-mind all the things God has made available to me, I will obsess over the one thing that is prohibited. It is as if all that God has given me is mine – no thanks necessary any more – and is the baseline for the rest of what I think should be mine.

That obsession poisons the pool. It becomes like a toothache. The rest of your entire body may be healthy and functioning well, but if you have a sore tooth, the only thing you can do is touch and probe that tooth with your tongue and feel the pain over and over again. It captures your entire attention and becomes the sole focus of all your concentration.

It is the phenomenon we are seeing writ large in our political environment right now. The game is to identify someone or something to blame for the problem that we perceive is preventing us from realizing all life should have for us. The notion that government – or any institution – is capable and responsible for making things good for me is a subtle form of idolatry. It puts that institution or person in God’s place. Politicians of all stripes play on this: promising solutions to problems, then blaming others because there are not enough resources or people willing to accomplish the promise. So when election season comes, we again hear the promises of how they have a plan to fix our problems.  

Friends, many of you know the first question and answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism: what is the chief end of mankind? The chief end of mankind is to glory God and enjoy Him forever. That is true every moment, every day, in every situation. We exist to serve and enjoy God, not to serve an enjoy ourselves.

To digress for a moment: if that is the case, should we work to resolve problems here, in our community, in our state, in our nation, and in our world? Absolutely – as stewards of God’s creation, thankful for all that we have received. “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Should we work for justice? Absolutely – we should work for God’s justice which calls us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

As the people of God, we have to keep our eyes open to see and proclaim what God has done, is doing, and has promised to do. What the subtle snake did – and what we see the world doing -- was to remove from the woman’s attention from God’s generosity and instead painted God with a restrictive, negative brush.

At this point the snake contradicted God, “You will not die.” Now, just so you are aware, this phrasing is a translation choice. The Hebrew is ambiguous here, and can be interpreted more akin to the snake’s subtle nature, “Are you sure you would die?” Then came the temptation, “God knows that when (not if) you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” The trap was set.  

What follows was action: she saw, she took, she ate, she gave, and he ate.

One commentary observes this:

[Note] the inversion of roles that characterizes this narrative: how the man listens to his wife instead of God, the woman to the creature, and so on. The very phraseology of these verses strengthens his observations. Actions previously characteristic of the creator are now ascribed to the woman. She “saw that the tree was good,” clearly echoing the refrain of Genesis 1, “God saw…that it was good.” In Chapter 2 it is the LORD God who takes the man and the rib; here she takes the fruit. Previously it had been God who has made all that man requires; now man and wife attempt to make loincloths. The human pair are shown usurping divine prerogatives as well as explicitly disobeying God’s express word. When God makes the couple clothes of skin, this is both an act of grace and a reassertion of the creator’s rights.[2]

When we lose sight of the generosity of God, we begin to try to do things on our own and to do things that are good in our own sight. We confuse who is God. How did that work out for them? How does that work out for us?

Existence of evil

Let me turn our attention to the snake for a few moments. Though the narrator is not at all forthcoming about the nature or origin of evil, there is no ambiguity in his understanding that evil exists. 

Evil is real. Sometimes it is subtle like the snake; other times it is overt and brazen. We are always shocked when we see a brazen act of evil. As a nation, we remember the morning of September 11, 2001. Everything stopped and we watched the video of the planes hitting the buildings over and over again. We could not comprehend it. In the years since, we have tried to figure out how we can prevent something like that from happening again. From school shootings to assault to systemic corruption to terrorism, we keep seeing evil manifest despite our deepest desire to not have it impact our lives. Evil is more than being virtue-challenged. Deep down we know – we know – that evil exists and is real.

I think it is surprising to people who have never read the Bible to find out that it is not an historical Hallmark card, full of nice words about a nice God. The Bible reveals how things really are.

What the Bible reveals is there is an entire spiritual dimension of which we are unaware, and over which we exercise no control. When we ask, “what would possess someone,” it actually is a correct question. The problem is that our culture does not accept or recognize the demonic – we feel foolish saying something like that because it seems so, well, naïve, ignorant, and religious. It seems a copout when there must be some sort of scientific explanation.

The narrator did not hesitate. Though the narrator did not spend any time addressing why God would create or allow something like the snake in the garden; the narrator did specifically write that the snake was there. In the New Testament, Paul would write to the Ephesians, “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

We need to be careful as we handle the question of evil. Evil is more and different than simply “all those things I do not like.”

A number of years ago, M. Scott Peck wrote a book entitled People of the Lie. It was the follow-up to his bestseller, The Road Less Traveled. In this book, Peck tried to grapple with the reality of evil – something he experienced with some frequency in his calling as a psychiatrist. In a chapter entitled “Toward a Psychology of Evil,” he wrote, “Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has, in short, to do with killing. Specifically, it has to do with murder – namely, unnecessary killing, killing that is not required for biological survival. …When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is also that which kills spirit. (p. 42)

This is consistent with what Jesus said to those judging him in John 8:44-45, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Evil is real. Sometimes it is subtle like the snake; other times it is overt and brazen. 

Consequences of sin

That the snake was evil did not excuse the man and woman from their disobedience. It did not mean that disobeying God’s specific command was not their fault. It was. Their guilt was compounded by their efforts to avoid responsibility. “The woman you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate.” Has that ever worked –with God or women? The woman also tried to shift blame and avoid responsibility, “The snake tricked me.” God was not fooled or persuaded. In the garden there was harmony between men and women; between humankind and the animal kingdom. Now?

The consequence of their sin was to be removed from the garden and re-inserted into the chaotic world out of which God had taken them when he created the garden. They were removed from access to the tree of life – hence, they were subject to death. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote succinctly to the Romans.

The consequence of their sin was complication of their created roles.

The woman was to be man’s helper and the mother of children. Now, childbirth would be painful. Now, she would feel the competition of the power dynamics with her husband; her struggle to be an independent partner would conflict with her husband.

Because the man “obeyed the voice of his wife” (and not God), the ground (the land) was cursed and the man would struggle to farm and provide food.

Even so, their brokenness was not devoid of blessing. The hardships described to the woman and the man were (and are) difficult. However, there is blessing in the pain. The blessing of the pain is that it drives us to our knees to seek the face of the God upon whom we are dependent.

As we go through this pandemic and experience the fullness of how things are so not the way they are supposed to be; as we watch the horror of the riots of your choice – insurrection or anarchy; as we see the tearing apart of families and communities who cannot even talk with each other any longer, we should open our eyes and realize how futile are our efforts to fix things without God. We should open our eyes and realize how desperately and completely we need to repent of our rebellion against God and seek His mercy and grace.

As we come to the place of repentance, we also see God has not abandoned us. Yes, we have rebelled against God. For our own protection and for our own good, God has banished us from His presence until we are redeemed, restored, washed clean, and reconciled to him.

Look at how this plays out through the Pentateuch. The history of God’s people (as we will see) is a journey from broken circumstances – bondage and slavery in Egypt – to a covenant relationship established at Sinai, to a cycle of obedience, disobedience, brokenness, judgment, despair and repentance, and restoration.

Look at how this plays out through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The curse on the snake – versus the consequence to the man and the woman – the curse on the snake foreshadowed Gesthemane, the cross, and the empty tomb.

That brings us to the Garden of Gethsemane. As we are approaching Lent, a time in which we remember Jesus’ road to the cross, the Garden is one of those times we see the heavy burden Jesus bore. He entered Jerusalem triumphantly. He taught in the temple. He shared the Last Supper. Then, the disciples were rocked when it was revealed Judas was a traitor. And after supper Jesus led the disciples to the Garden. He went off a distance to pray.

Matthew says that Jesus was grieved and agitated. He quotes Jesus as saying, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” We do not fully understand the depth and mystery of Jesus’ anxiety; but it does seem clear that he was experiencing the full reality of evil as he faced the prospect of dying as the bearer of sin.

As Jesus encountered and endured evil, prayer was the only tool he used to combat it. His prayer was not to the evil as if it had power over him – “please don’t do this”; it was to “My Father,” that “this cup would pass. Yet not what I want but what you want.” He did not try to resist, he did not try to overpower evil in his own strength. Jesus put his trust in his Father. And his trust was not disappointed. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Though it is a battle that still rages, the conflict was decided on Calvary. Christ died, enduring the worst that evil could inflict. Christ’s death on the cross was the ultimate expression of rebellion against God. It was the high point for evil – God submitting to the destructive force of evil. For three days it looked to us as if sin and death had won. However, mysteriously and wonderfully, the cross also was the ultimate expression of God’s love. Christ’s willing submission to death – even death on a cross – was the offering in the holy of holies for all of our sin. It was the once-for-all atonement for our sin.

Evil had its moment with Jesus; but even in that moment, God’s sovereign will was served. Evil has moments; God is eternal. Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the empty tomb testify to God’s eternal victory over sin and its consequence, death. He reversed Genesis 3. It is why the Lord’s Supper is not a morbid retelling of a failed hope; it is the celebration of a victory won. Jesus’ resurrection has eternal significance, including right now. We live in the knowledge and hope of his victory and resurrection. We live confidently that sin and death do not have the last word. We live with the assurance that death has lost its sting.

We know that in Jesus Christ what has been broken will be redeemed, restored, renewed, and reconciled.



[1] Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis 1-15, p. 72

[2] Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis 1-15, p. 75.