Why No Fence?

Many people focus on the “fall from sin” aspect of the “second creation narrative” in Genesis chapters 2 & 3. But, a question we never ask is “Why was the tree there in the first place?” This sermon provides a possible answer to that question, and the implications of such an answer.

Below is the text of a sermon I gave in a class at Theological School on 11/19/2009.  The scripture is Genesis 2:7-9; 2:15-17 & 3:1-7, which recounts the creation of the Garden of  Eden and the eating of the fruit of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” by Adam and Eve, up to the point where they are “ashamed”, sew fig leaves together to “cover their nakedness” and then try to hide from God.  The reading includes only those scripture verses pertinent to the sermon – others, such as those describing the rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden, are omitted.

Many of my readers with a strong knowledge of the Bible will note – and some will probably object – to my using “she” when referring to God, as well as to the use of the name “Yahweh” instead of using only the more traditional consonants (YHWH) or phrase “Lord God”.   I use the name “Yahweh” and pronoun “she” very intentionally here: to emphasize that YHWH as shown in this story is seen as a very personal, relationship oriented sort of God (wouldn’t you know the name of a very personal acquaintance or friend?) and to emphasize that Yahweh’s attributes seen in the scripture we examine here are often traditionally associated with the feminine.

Why No Fence?

You know, the story of Adam and Eve is a great story, but it’s always bothered me.  I mean, come on: if the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were so darned important, why didn’t God put a fence around it?  I mean seriously: even if the man and woman obeyed, I could easily see one of their kids or grandkids, or great-grandkids “forgetting” and taking a bite.  Without a fence, someone was bound to slip-up eventually.  So, why run the risk?

On the other hand, there was no penalty for eating of the Tree of Life – until we slipped up.  Was God trying to trick us?

Well, let’s step back for a minute and consider the text as a whole.  This particular story, the second of the two “creation narratives” at the start of Genesis, belongs to the “Jahwistic” tradition: identified primarily by its use of the name “Yahweh” when referring to God.

In this narrative, Yahweh is a very hands-on sort of God: unlike the “Priestly” God that we see in the first narrative (in Genesis 1).  God (in Genesis 1) “spoke” the world into being, hovered over the waters and said “Let there be light!”, but Yahweh (In Genesis 2 & 3) doesn’t command things into being, Yahweh gets down and dirty: She lovingly forms us with her own hands, then gently breathes the breath of life into our nostrils.

Yahweh is concerned for us personally, saying “it is not good that the man is alone” and created the woman.  Yahweh isn’t a distant, hands off God.  She talks face to face with the us.  The man and woman, we are told, “heard the sound of Yahweh walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”  Yahweh works, walks, talks and breathes.  Yahweh is a very human God.  Yahweh is a very personal God.  Yahweh is a God of Relationship.  Yahweh is a God of Love.

So, what does the type of God that Yahweh is have to do with all this?  Why wasn’t there even a “keep off the tree” warning sign?  Why was it left unguarded, tempting us?

First: its clear God was not trying to trick us.  Nowhere in the Bible is there a case where God “tricks us”.  True, there are many places where God tests us, but such tests are always explicit, never hidden – never a trap.  As James 1:13 states, God never seeks to “ensnare us”.  Yahweh did not “trick” us into eating of that tree.

Still, there had to be a reason for no fence!  My hunch is that it has something to do with the kind of God that Yahweh is.

What kind of relationship can you have if you have no choice about it?  Sure, you can have relationships with a doll, or a toy, or a computer – but they don’t have any choice in the matter, do they?  Such relationships don’t have much going for them because you control both sides of the interaction.  There is no synergy, no freshness, no exploration, no intimacy, no growth. They are relationships that give nothing back.  They are relationships without a future.

If Yahweh controlled every aspect of our relationship with her (which she could easily do), we wouldn’t be much different from that doll, or that toy, or that computer.  At best, we’d be a kind of pet: cuddled, fed and watered, but not an equal, not in charge of our own destiny.

We need a real choice as to whether we will have a relationship with Yahweh.  The fence can’t be there – if it is, we’d never have a choice.  To have a meaningful relationship with God, we have to choose to have it: it cannot be forced upon us.

But, let’s not forget about the other tree, the Tree of Life: it has a role in this story, too.  The Tree of Life was no big deal to the man and the woman.  There were no rules concerning it – Yahweh doesn’t even mention it to them.  It was just another tree – over there, next to the “Knowledge of Good and Evil” one.  There was no reason why they wouldn’t have eaten of it all the time.  They had eternal life in the bag (at least, as long as they hung out in the garden)!

But, we don’t even know how long they were in the Garden.  If you think about it – what would it matter?  With Eternal Life, and no experience with death, time was an unlimited commodity for them: every day was just that – simply another day – one of an infinite number.  There was no need to count them, no need to keep track of them, no need to worry about them.  With Eternal Life, time meant nothing.  It was not a precious commodity.  Phrases like “saving time”, “making time” or even “wasting time” – all of which you and I hear every day – were meaningless.  The man and woman never ran out of time, they never gave time a thought.

Yet, they certainly made choices all the time – whether and what to eat, when to sleep, but their choices were never about the future – they were always about immediate things: after all, they didn’t even worry about what to wear!   They never considered the consequences of their choices, they couldn’t – they hadn’t eaten of the fruit.  They existed purely, and eternally, in the present.  In a sense, they had no future, because their future was identical to their present, and to their past.

In this timeless world, Yahweh was … just there: there was no choice as to whether we wanted a relationship with God – or not.  Without meaningful choice, there was no meaningful relationship.  Yet, Yahweh is a God of Relationship: She would not have created us without providing a path for us to choose to have a meaningful relationship.  There had to be a way to escape eternity.

Let’s call that escape-path the “First Choice” – the choice of whether to eat of the fruit – or not.  But, we had no knowledge of Good and Evil.  Or, to put it another way, we never had to choose between Good and Evil.  We never had to deal with the consequences of making choices.  Good and Evil are always the outcome of choices.  Good and Evil cannot exist unless there are choices, choices with consequences.  That tree is all about knowing the possible consequences of our actions, about choosing between what is Good and what is Bad, about knowing the difference.

Eating of that Tree was the only thing in the Garden for which we’d been told there was a consequence – “In the day you eat of it, you shall die.”  Yet, the man and woman did not know what a “consequence” was: Yahweh was speaking way over their heads: a specific day?  Time?  Death?  What’s that?  I’m sure the man and woman thought: “Hmmm, sounds bad, let’s not go there!”  Time was infinite, so why rush? Why push the boundaries?  Why risk change?

Yet, there was a reason.  The serpent knew what it was: they would “become like God, knowing Good and Evil.”  Eating that fruit meant we’d learn new things: we’d escape from merely existing.  Something new would happen in the never ending cycle of days.  But, to do so, we had to be willing to face what we had never known: change.  We would have to experience limited time, we would have to experience death.

Yahweh knew we would eat of that fruit when we had outgrown the Garden, when we were ready for change.  She did not tell us we’d be cursed if we ate of that fruit, She told us change would happen, that things would be different.  The endless sameness would go away.  We would step into a world where we would have to make choices, we would be able to envision the consequences of our choices, and we would see our choices making a difference in the world: consequences we would have to live with – for Better or Poorer.

Our relationship with Yahweh would change from a one sided, limited relationship to a full one, a two way relationship: one capable of growth and change, one that would produce fruit.  Eating of the fruit marked the point where we changed from being one creature among many, to being capable of having a real relationship with Yahweh.  We escaped from eternity.

Now, we can’t say this escape was all good!  Having choices means we have to live with the choices we make.  We’ll inevitably make bad choices, and will be faced with situations where even the best choice is not good.  It means pain.  It means loss.  It means death.  (I could go on, but would rather not do two sermons at one time!)

But, most importantly, having choices is part of Yahweh’s plan for us.  As we saw: Yahweh is a God of Relationship.  To have relationship with her means being allowed to chose to have a relationship with her.  To make that choice required the man and the woman to make the first choice, of whether to eat the fruit: the choice to have choices.

We cannot Love Yahweh through a fence: we first had to be allowed to escape eternity.  We had to be able to make choices that mattered.  We had to have the choice to Love.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Author: Allen

A would-be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is the proud father of a daughter and son, and enjoys life with his wife near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/.

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