john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    Genesis 1-3 - Adam and Eve and other disputes

    Good Shepherd - Sunday Eucharist 20/7/2008


    Genesis 1-3


    I'm departing from the lectionary today because:
    (a) through the summer we'll be taking a few occasional looks at characters from the Old Testament;
    (b) at this time, start of the Lambeth Conference, just after the vote to accept women as bishops in the Church of England, it seems appropriate to go back to basics....

    ... to the story of Adam and Eve, and what it says about men and women, and especially women. It might also tell us something about the bible and how we use it and help us decide how to respond to all the controversies we are hearing about today.

    There are not one but two stores of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis. The first chapter is the one where God creates the universe in six days, and rests on the seventh. We'll come back to that one in a bit. The second and third chapters are where God makes a garden and puts Adam and Eve in it.

    We know how that story goes. First there is God, the chief gardener, and then there's his assistant Adam, created to look after the garden that God had planted. Next in the order of things comes Eve, who hadn't been thought of at first but had been created out of Adam as a 'helper' once Adam hadn't found a helper among all the animals. Beneath Eve were the animals, no good as helpers, but not totally inferior to Eve; for the cleverest of them - the serpent - persuaded her that he knew more than she did about God.

    That's one version of the story, anyway, and it's one which has been used against women throughout history. It's a story which proclaims male superiority and female inferiority as the will of God. The writer Phyllis Trible says that this story '... portrays woman as "temptress" and troublemaker who is dependent upon and dominated by her husband.' She calls this a 'misogynous reading' - a reading which demonstrates a hatred of women by men, and worst of all she says that this story has become so accepted that 'those who deplore and those who applaud the story both agree on its meaning.'

    In this day and age, of course, women like Phyllis Trible will not stand for any of this, and they will challenge these age-old assumptions.

    The idea that because Adam was made first and Eve last makes Adam superior to Eve - Trible reminds us that in other parts of scripture the last is often though of as 'the first', like in the other story of creation in Genesis, where humanity is created after the animals, but God gives humans domination over them.

    The idea that woman is created for the sake of man; a helpmate to cure his loneliness - Trible says that the original Hebrew word didn't mean 'helpmate', it meant something more like counterpart, equal.

    The idea that Eve tempted Adam to disobey God - Trible notes that Adam is with Eve all the way through the conversation with the serpent and he doesn't object, and he could have refused to eat the fruit of the tree but he didn't - so both man and woman are equally to blame for disobeying God's commands in the garden: 'If there is moral frailty in one, it is moral frailty in two ... They are equal in responsibility and in judgment, in shame and in guilt, in redemption and grace. What the [story] says about the nature of woman it also says about the nature of man'. Because neither accepts responsibility for their actions, both are punished. The sin of the one is the sin of the other.

    Scripture - it depends how you read it, it depends what you do with it.

    Scripture - it is ancient Hebrew literature and it comes from a male dominated society. We have to remember that when we look at it for guidance about how we should live today.

    Scripture - if we read it honestly, with our eyes open, then we can see other things which might change the ways we think about ourselves and others.

    Let's go back to the beginning when I said that there are not one but two stories of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis. The second and third chapters about God and Adam and Eve in the garden, we've just looked at.

    The first chapter is the one where God creates the universe in six days, and rests on the seventh. And this is very different in the way it writes about women and men. Because in this creation story there is no distinction between women and men; here, male and female are created in God's image, together, and blessed, together. Their status before God, their role in the world is identical. They are truly partners.

    The gospels tell a similar story. On the one hand people say, look, Jesus didn't have any women in his close circle of friends. On the other hand people notice that Jesus did include women in his groups of disciples and among his friends, people say that with the woman at the well, who went out proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah, he inspired a woman to be one of the first evangelists, and people say that in Mary Magdalene who was the first to see him in the garden Jesus appointed a woman to be the first ever to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

    Scripture - it depends how you read it, it depends what you do with it.

    Scripture - if we read it honestly, with our eyes open, then we can see other things which might change the ways we think about ourselves and others.

    The same goes for tradition. Some argue against women being leaders in the church because it goes against the traditions. But traditions are created at different times and for different reasons, and they change over time. Traditions are important - they provide the basis, the structure, for the way we live out our life and faith. But they can and do change.

    For instance, this week a small but significant thing happened here in this church. Actually in the very dusty area behind the organ where all sorts of bits and pieces are stored.

    Two women came in from the Orange Lodge and asked if they could take their banner which had been stored here in church for decades. They needed it for an event in town this weekend. So Jimmy, Peggy and I spent some time getting the dusty old thing from the back of the organ so that they could take it away. They said they wouldn't bring it back, because they had found somewhere else to store it now.

    Now that may not sound very significant, but if you think about it it is a break with tradition, it's the start - for them and us - of a new tradition in the relationship between the church and the lodge. The flag is a symbol of that tradition, and where it is stored an expression of what that tradition means today.

    It's hard for many people to see it this way, but the vote to accept women bishops is the same: it's the start of a new tradition in the relationship between the church and the men and women in it.

    Just as scripture can be re-read for each new generation and situation, so tradition can be altered too. These things shouldn't trap us; they should be held before God who will graciously help us to see them through fresh eyes.

    Because we change, then the way we read scripture and do tradition changes.

    Because we are different, then the way we read scripture and do tradition will be different.

    So what sort of attitude should we have to all the discussion that is going on in the church at this time? And more importantly, what sort of attitude should we have to those we disagree with?

    There are arguments about scripture and church tradition all over the news at the moment because of the vote on women bishops. And there are a lot of people feeling the pain of this division: those who hold deep-held beliefs about faith and tradition can't just accept the change and carry on; and those who hold the opposite point of view may feel deeply hurt or insulted by them. It's not easy for any of these people.

    I think that the most important principles which we should hold as Christians are not principles about sexuality or gender or styles of leadership. I suggest that the most important principles which we should hold as Christians are captured in the two commandments of Jesus: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.

    Asked about the current debate the wise and widely respected Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that "The Anglican Church prides itself on being the church that is comprehensive - meaning that it is a church that includes all kinds of points of view." "One of the sadnesses about the current crisis," said the archbishop, "is that we seem to be jettisoning this wonderful inclusivity that is a characteristic of our church."

    The archbishop's words, echoing Jesus's two commandments, suggest that the most important thing about the current debates in the church is not who wins the arguments but how we all treat each other, particularly those with whom we disagree. As anyone who has ever had a major disagreement with a loved one knows, it is very hard to keep loving the other through it all; very hard to forgive, to find a way forward which doesn't harm the others involved. But that is the challenge for the people of our church at the moment.

    Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself - each week we hear these words in church and our response to them is to say, Amen. Lord have mercy.

    So let us keep these words in our hearts; and let us keep praying faithfully for our leaders at this time, men and women together.



    Notes
    [1] Sermon based on an essay written whilst at theological college, Is Genesis 1-11 irredeemably sexist?, available as a pdf download, with all other references, here. (I can't remember what mark I got for it but in summary, the answer I gave to the question was: well, yes, unfortunately, it pretty much is).
    [2] Thanks to Maggi Dawn for the 'women "firsts"' passage in her blog of 16/07/2008, Women Bishops - it will cease to be an issue.
    [3] Archbishop Tutu quoted in Ekklesia, 15/07/2008