The Incident of the Woman, the Snake, and the Apple in the Garden

All fairy stories need a villain – and the snake is as good a villain as any. I remember a memorable dinner party at a former colleague’s house in which a series of terrariums populated by large snakes stood against the walls of the dining room. For someone who grew up in a country where there are no snakes – being surrounded by them contributed to a particularly disconcerting dinner party.

It’s worth noting – before we dismiss the serpent as the all-time villain in our seminal religious history – an incident recorded in the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers. After a serious serpent infestation of the Israelite camp resulting in many deaths from snake venom, Moses instructed the Levites to cast a bronze image of the serpent and raise it up over the camp so that whoever looked upon it was cured.

We can puzzle over how this incident escaped the Second Commandment’s prohibition against the fashioning of graven idols? It seems that bronze serpents are a curious exception to the Golden Calf rule. Yet, what’s interesting about the story in Numbers is that it’s the first depiction of the homeopathic principle – that the toxin is also the antidote.

Some ideas have a universal resonance in human consciousness and it seems the serpents or snakes are a case in point. The Rod of Asclepius – a stave with a single serpent coiled around it became the symbol of healing among the Ancient Greeks. Do you think they had read Numbers 21? The Rod of Asclepius became the symbol of healing in modern medicine and in the United States where two is always better than one – the Caduceus – the double headed serpent stave – was officially adopted as the symbol of the Army Medical Core in 1902.

The OT reading on the first Sunday in Lent records the fateful incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden. Just as God’s plan for creation seemed to be right on course the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden seriously derailed things. This unfortunate incident subsequently came to be known as The Fall.

The reasoning goes that through the gross disobedience of eating the fruit from the only tree God had forbidden them to eat of – Eve and her hapless husband Adam, fell from a state of original grace into the state of original sin.

The Apostle Paul was at pains to map out the history of sin from Adam to Christ in his epistle to the Romans – our second reading for Lent 1. He maps out the notion of felix culpa – felicitous or happy sin. Happy in the sense that universal salvation through Christ became its ultimate consequence. Following Paul, Augustine chose to place the emphasis on the sin side of the sin-redemption equation – thus creating a doctrine of original sin – transgenerational sin from which no human being could ever escape being born into.

It’s curious that upon receiving the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve’s first discovery was shame at their realization of nakedness. For Augustine, this was proof enough of sex as the means of intergenerational transmission of an unalterable genetic fault.

As Anglicans, Episcopalians don’t pay much mind to the doctrine of Original Sin – good news to those of you raised in either Roman Catholic or Calvinist traditions. Although Archbishop Cranmer included the doctrine in article 9 in the 39 Articles of Religion – given the times how could he have not done so – the direction of Anglican theology has been to place the emphasis on redemption through grace and not on the sin of Eve and by extension, her hapless husband. Anglican Tradition recognizes the necessary tension between the influences of sin, and freedom of choice. That we are subjected from birth (and not before) to sin’s influence is a matter of environmental nurture not intrinsic nature. Our human vulnerability to self-centeredness restricts and distorts our exercise free will – requiring us to look to God for our ultimate hope and salvation.

Matthew picks up this theme in his depiction of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Following Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, Matthew tells us that- Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness – there to be tempted by Satan.

Satan – that ancient Serpent appears again – taking us back to the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple – but this time, note not in the garden, but in the wilderness. Since the fall the gates to the Garden have been firmly shut – consigning humanity to an exile of toil and suffering in the wilderness.

Satan tempts Jesus with a series of metaphorical apples – everyone the promise of omnipotent power that flows from possessing the knowledge of good and evil. However, unlike the spiritually adolescent Eve, Jesus has the spiritual maturity to see through the Serpent’s ruse.

An important re-reading of the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden reveals God’s prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – is not as some have conjectured – a divine desire to keep Adam and Eve in a state of infantile immaturity but the safeguard of parental protection. In the process of their creation, God imbued Adam and Eve with freedom of choice. To understand this seeming paradox, we need to view the incident through the lens of parental guidance.

The skillful and loving parent leads the child to an eventual state of full independence by protecting the child from being exposed to making certain choices – before they are fully mature enough to understand them. One of the signs of that maturity is to understand the consequences of the decisions we make.

Today, multiple, and shocking survey evidence is revealing to us the damaging consequences for our adolescent and young adults of being exposed to choices – the consequences of which they have neither the full cognitive development nor emotional maturity to understand. We are beginning to wake up to the pernicious effects of social networking in prematurely exposing our young to a knowledge of good and evil which they are not yet ready to handle. The result is an epidemic of youth depression, social bullying, and suicide.

Jesus enters the wilderness to face the temptation of being presented with the illusion of omnipotent freedom of choice. Unlike Eve and her hapless husband, Adam, both still at the stage of adolescent omnipotence – Jesus is a fully mature human being with wisdom and foresight beyond his chronological years. He sees through Satan’s allurements to affirm his rootedness in the wisdom of God.

Last week I ended my reflection with coming down from the mountain of transfiguration into the rocky and barren terrain of the lent of our lives. The wilderness not a place – it’s a metaphor for a particular lens that reveals sinfulness at the heart of everyday life. Through the wilderness lens we come to see more clearly how sin – when not openly acknowledged -restricts and distorts the actual freedom of our moral choices. Sin, like the serpent’s venomous bite acts like a toxin at the center of our daily lives. If sin is the toxin, then repentance is the antidote.

The Prayer Book invites us to contemplate keeping a Holy Lent through practices that trigger self-awareness – bringing us to a fuller appreciation of how sin distorts the quality of our choices.

  • Self-examination and repentance reconnect us with our sadness and sorrow, our hatred and anger, our refusal to acknowledge our selfishness and greed. Self-examination and repentance- makes us more sensitive to, and mindful of, the way we speak to and about others. Self-examination and repentance remodulate our internal voices of judgement and criticism – esp. the pernicious self-criticisms which feed the hardening of our hearts.
  • Fasting and self-denial introduce elements of physical and emotional discomfort that trigger a more conscious sense of the food we eat and how we eat it. Food here can be a metaphor for all our cravings. We deny ourselves something and the experience of frustration – the mildest deprivation – makes us mindful of our normal patterns of over consumption and waste – our collusion with social inequalities of access and distribution and our despoiling of the natural world. Through self-denial we are reconnected to an experience of a bountiful God who requires us to preserve and not just consume.
  • Through worship, prayer, and study – through the cultivation of habitual recollection (every moment mindfulness) – we retune to the presence and goodness of our Creator in the human and natural world around us. In so doing we rediscover the sources of gratitude that bring us the pleasure and fulfilment only found in generous living.

In the temptation in the wilderness Jesus shows us what humanity – mindful of our relationship with God, is capable of. Let’s keep this realization front of mind as we embark on the journey through the lent of our lives – only to arrive prepared and ready for the great celebration of Easter.

I’ve been to the Mountaintop (MLK Jr)

Last week I noted that in the wide sweep of history between Moses and Jesus – we see a clear evolution in the picture of God – a development always moving in the direction of greater complexity.

The Hebrew God of Moses is experienced as a god inhabiting the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This god who through control of the elements – reigns down fire, deluge, and drought; famine and earthquake – on hapless humanity. The Hebrew god is a god of transcendent encounter in the external world. But by the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of a god increasingly encountered within human consciousness – a god of internal space.  No-longer a god encountered on mountain tops but a god encountered in the mind and heart. It is within this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his massive opus A Secular Age explores the historical, religious, and political developments in the evolution from an age of belief to our current secular one. He contrasts the year 1500 when it was impossible not to believe in God with the impossibility of such belief for many today.

The Bible communicates the broad sweep of evolution in human perceptions from the Hebrew mountaintop god of Moses to the 1st-century Jewish god of heart, and mind – the god of Jesus. Likewise, Taylor charts the broad sweep of development – tracing in some detail the route of travel as the culture of the West moved from the impossibility of unbelief to the impossibility of belief.

Another way of speaking about the evolution in religious consciousness of God – both in the biblical record as well as the subsequent evolution of Western culture – is to note a movement from transcendence to immanence. In the long 400-year emergence of our current secular Western mindset, Taylor notes the gradual transition from the age of enchantment to the age of disenchantment. By disenchantment Taylor is commenting on our loss of a connection to the transcendent.

God, who in human experience was once transcendent over the vastness of external space became God, now discerned within the immanence of spiritual awareness, and emotional experience.

Taylor notes that when our connection to the transcendent is lost, all we have left is ourselves alone occupying center stage. The opposite of transcendence is immanence. With the loss of belief in spiritual transcendence the Western mind eagerly embraced the experience of immanence – weighing the costs of disenchantment off against a hubris of omnipotence. Afterall, we may find ourselves alone on center stage, but in our hubris we consoled ourselves that it’s now we – and no longer God – who from center stage commands the world.

To find ourselves center stage is a lonely and at times alienating experience. Thus, the Western spirit continued to frantically seek to recapture through entertainment and fiction the experience of enchantment in a world of lost transcendence. In fact we’ve coined a new term for this recapture of enchantment – we call it magical realism. And today we find magical realism everywhere.

We have two stories of mountaintop experience in the readings for the last Sunday before Lent – that of Moses and that of Jesus. Both are stories of transcendence – or to use Maslow’s term, peak experience. But as the disciples with Jesus were to discover, peak experience is always problematic. The spatial image of the mountain summit works in some ways for us, yet, it feeds an assumption that it’s only there that self-transcendent experiences such as joy, awe, and wonder can be found, captured, and forever held onto. With minds clouded by this illusion we will miss the more ordinary and everyday places where true joy is – by chance – encountered.

It’s not altitude that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a dogged refusal to let go of our preoccupation with seeking transcendence somewhere other than where we happen to be.

The image of the mountain top is an image of an encounter with God that ordinarily feels so out of our reach – driving us crazy with a promise of bliss. However, it’s not altitude that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a dogged refusal to let go of our preoccupation with seeking transcendence somewhere other than where we happen to be. Transcendent experiences are not found by climbing mountains but in experiences like joy and sadness – ordinary everyday experience. Experiences of transcendence await us – not elsewhere – but in the here and now.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he’d been to the mountaintop, no one assumed he had actually climbed a mountain. The mountaintop now becomes the metaphor for the possibility of a different order of experience, one that challenges our acceptance of our disenchantment – our blind acceptance of lives that have no space for the possibility of belief.

Our struggle is not how to attain transcendent experience – how to seek and capture (Lord it is good to be here, -I will make three dwelling places) experiences of peak bliss. Our struggle today is the struggle to rise above our own individualized preoccupation. In our secular age, spiritual transcendence is found within the immanence of our everyday emotional lives – when we are able to move beyond our immediate self concerns and embrace an encounter with God through everyday relationships with others. For this is where the god who inhabits the heart and the mind is to be found.

So here is the clue. For us today, transcendence is found in the web of interconnectedness with one another. God inhabits the relational spaces between us as well as the internal spaces of the heart -mind within us. We escape our arid experience of immanence – lonely life centerstage – not into the emptiness of bliss – but into the fullness joy.

The great 19th-century Bengali poet and spiritual teacher, Rabindranath Tagore noted:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

Joy is an experience of connection, communion, and presence – of divine grace reconnecting us to experiences of transcendence within the immanence of our daily lives. Yet, paradoxically, joy is also found in moments of great suffering. Meg Wheatley, a spiritual writer and change consultant with an acute eye to the paradoxical nature of our contemporary experience notes that it is in pursuit of happiness that we estrange ourselves from joy.

She speaks of joy being the same as sadness for both states embrace us with an energy that is beyond the physical. Laughing or crying – it doesn’t matter. This strikes us as paradoxical. We might doubt the truth of the statement until we realize that joy and sadness are both states of self-transcendence. Both open us to a level of experience that takes us beyond the tyranny of the preoccupied self – the isolated self, confined within the hubris of disenchanted omnipotence.

Faced with a birth, a wedding, an anniversary – we are captivated by joy. In the face of sickness, a death, a disaster, a tragedy of personal or epic proportions, sorrow and sadness capture us as we suffer with, console, and love one another.

The Transfiguration story is a halfway point in Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus. It marks the transition point from his preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside to his final and eventful journey to Jerusalem.

The Visit of the Magi and the Transfiguration bookend the Epiphany season. From here on, we move into a different section of the spiritual journey. The landscape becomes rocky and desert-like as we journey down the mountain into the Lent of our lives.

Intention Means – Paying Attention!

In the wide sweep of history between Moses and Jesus – we see a clear character development in the picture of God – a development always moving in the direction of greater complexity. In his book God: A Biography, Jack Miles recounts the evolution of God’s character through the eyes of Israel’s religious story.  By thoroughly analyzing scriptural text, Miles contends that the broad sweep of Israel’s relationship with God reveals a god who is a learning god. His book won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Miles presents God evolving – learning as he goes along from the events of a long and tumultuous relationship with humanity as represented by Israel. The capacity to seemingly learn from experience, esp. mistakes – is the key quality that jumps out from Miles’ somewhat startling portrayal of God.

The capacity to learn from our experience, esp. our mistakes, is the primary way that we humans continue to evolve in the direction of greater psycho-socio-spiritual complexity. In short, learning is fundamental to our survival.

It’s a startling notion – hypothetically speaking of course – that God is also capable of learning from experience.  Put another way, maybe that’s why humanity is imbued with this capacity of learning from experience because we are made in the image of God – a god who also learns from experience.

The Biblical story of God’s relationship with humanity is full of instances where God changes god’s mind. God seems open to argument – able to be convinced by human beings like Moses into a change of mind. God acts, often precipitously, only to on reflection, regret impulsive action. God can be convinced to moderate genocidal impulses, which alarmingly in the earlier sections of the story, seem to be God’s default response in the face of human disobedience.

How does this notion square with the theological assertion that God is unchanging – omnipotent, as in can do whatever God likes – as well as omniscient – knowing all outcomes in advance?  One way of getting around this theological conundrum is simply to say it’s not God who changes but human understanding of God that is deepening over historical time. The god of Moses and the god of Jesus – although recognizably the same god – nevertheless are dramatically different. My point is not so much to challenge the traditional theological assertion of divine unchangeability, but to recognise in the broad sweep of history separating Moses and Jesus, Jewish evolving understanding of God’s character in the direction of complexity and sophistication.

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20 we hear Moses’ dramatic ultimatum: I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.

This is a call to make choices, which can be either life enhancing or death dealing. The Deuteronomists conceived of the choice for life as one of fidelity and obedience to God’s commandments given through Moses. Obedience not only demonstrated being faithful to God, but also ensured justice in community life. For contemporary Judaism, Torah observance remains the way of contributing to the building up of society through performing the actions that support the evolution of the world in line the dream God has for it -as revealed in the teaching of the Law and the Prophets.

The Hebrew God of Moses is experienced as a god inhabiting the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This god controlled the elements – reigning down both blessing and punishment. This is a god of external spaces.

By the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of God increasingly encountered within human consciousness – a god of internal space.  No-longer a god of mountain tops but a god of the mind and heart. It is within this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.

In Matthew chapter 5 – in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers his listeners back to the ancient Hebrew understanding of God’s commandments. He begins and then repeats the phrase: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times – as his springboard into a developing Jewish inner consciousness of God.

But of course, Jesus takes things to a new level by thrusting Jewish ethical teaching into the deepest recesses of his hearers’ minds and hearts.

Many of us would probably prefer to remain ancient Hebrews in our orientation to the requirements of the religious life. This accounts for the appeal of Christian Fundamentalism. Give us a good external commandment we can choose to follow or not as the case may be, and we at least will know where we are.

In contrast, Jesus’ teaching is frightening in its seeming impossible confrontation with human nature. For whom among us exercises the degree of self-control over our thoughts and intentions, our impulses, and motivations, let alone our fantasies that Jesus seems to require of us? It is no longer a matter of refraining from unethical actions, we now must harbor only virtuous intentions. This is impossible.  

Despite leading outwardly upright and ethical lives – if we are to take Jesus literally – we all remain serial murderers and adulterers in our hearts. And the penalty for non-virtuous thoughts and impulses, even if firmly under our self-control, is astonishingly severe indeed! Eyes are to be plucked out, hands to be lopped off and hearts and minds exposed to the most searing condemnation. Moses’ cry: today choose life or choose death makes death the only obvious proposition.

We are not fundamentalists and so to interpret this passage as Jesus setting impossible standards – so as to continually reaffirm through failure our broken and sinful nature – contradicts his primary message of God’s love and forgiveness. Another way that is consistent with our understanding of Jesus primary message – is for us to understand Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and esp. this section, as the next step within the evolution from ancient Hebrew to 1st-century Jewish understandings of God.

Through his frequent use of hyperbole Jesus invites us to pay attention to the hardness of the unruly passions lurking in the darker recesses of the human heart. I imagine his disciples found this invitation as unnerving as we do. But one thing is clear, Jesus has our attention!

In this difficult teaching Jesus is reminding us that ethical and spiritual health are not simply a matter of the actions we refrain from taking but also concerns intentions we entertain. To get a better sense of what Jesus means we note in Matthew 15 his further development of his theme here in chapter 5 – when he tells his disciples that we are not defiled by what goes into the body but by that which flows from the human heart.

Jesus ushers in the dawning of a new religious age with the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. No longer camouflaged by an externalized morality of rules and obligations – religious observance now requires a subjective examination of conscience – esp. with regard to the disordered projections of fear, rage, and desire that if ignored harden our hearts.

Moral and ethical action is good, but right intention is better. Right belief is one thing, but right relationship is even better.

This is the focus of Jesus’ teaching, and it represents the big leap for humanity into a new kind of relationship with God and with one another.

Psychologically speaking, none of us is without a rich inner fantasy life in which we can detect thoughts and feelings that we have absolutely no intention of acting upon. But our best protection against acting out is to know such thoughts and feelings are there and to see them clearly. For most of us to act on our darker fantasies of rage, hurt, and desire would create an intense conflict with our higher self-aspirations.

Our refusal to act upon our darker urges motivated by rage, pain, and desire is not enough, however. We also need to be able to recognize them and look them in the eye. The ability to recognize and to know our darker impulses and to reign them in – is what makes us fully human as reflections of the divine nature – imperfect though this reflection may be.

Returning to the theme of learning from experience leads me to conclude with three questions of the moment that remind us of the importance of calling out our darker urges and looking them in the eye.

  • What can learn from the gradual erosion of restraint of darker motives now afflicting our current political culture – unrestrained urges that were on full display in Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address?
  • What stirs us as we witness the brutality of Putin’s war in Ukraine – a situation that challenges us to learn from the mistakes of the past?
  • Will we learn something vital about ourselves as we confront potentially irreversible environmental changes – so as to ensure a brighter future for generations to come?

The process of learning must first begin with looking into the darkness of our human hearts.

Good intention means paying attention!

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