Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
Where the Devil Did Evil Come From? (Jim Malcolm) 10.2.2008
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

After a story like that it is tempting to say ‘What a load of rubbish!’ and preach on one of the other readings. But Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book ‘How good do we have to be’ has some words that challenge that approach.

‘I don’t believe that the story of Adam and Eve is the story of two people who could have lived happily ever after had they done everything right but instead were punished forever for making one mistake. … I don’t take the story of the Garden of Eden as a newspaper report of an actual event… describing the human race as beginning with two full-grown, Hebrew-speaking adults and a talking snake. But I do believe that the story of the Garden of Eden tells us something profoundly true about the emergence of the human race, and that we will become more comfortable with ourselves as imperfect human beings only when we have learned to understand what the story is really about.’

So with that in mind let’s give the story a second chance.

Some parts of the Bible picture God as a king on a throne up in Heaven, above the clouds, remote and inaccessible in holy isolation. Even the New Testament speaks of Jesus as being seated at God’s right hand as the King’s top adviser.

But the science of astronomy, successor to those wise men who studied the heavens and saw the star at Jesus birth, has shown us that above the clouds is outer space that keeps going for distances beyond our imagining.

Of course, other parts of the Bible offer different images of a God who is present here on earth – everywhere. Psalm 139, as we have heard, says

‘Where can I go to hide from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me.’

We’ve come to understand that the image of God on a throne in the sky is picture language and indeed, when we start to look for God we don’t look above the clouds, in outer space, we look closer to home, in the wonders of the earth, the faces and deeds of people around us and in our own hearts.

So, when we look at the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, as Rabbi Kushner suggests, we need to think of it too as picture language. God didn’t actually make the earth in six days and rest on the seventh; that’s obviously picture language to explain the practice of working for six days and then having one day off.

God didn’t actually produce just one man from mud first and then cut out his rib to make a woman. Again, that’s picture language to explain where people came from, to make it clear that God had a hand in it. Clear that we’re linked to the earth but specially linked to God too.

But there are two more elements to the story that need explaining, the fruit and the snake, and they are inextricably linked. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eat that fruit and you are able to tell good from evil – it is a way of telling us that there was a time in our development into human beings when we gained a conscience. And note that the conscience is not implanted by God, but consciously taken on by humans.

From now on for us humans, every decision we make has a moral dimension. More often than not, there is a conflict between self-interest and the interests of others, and the conscience speaks for those others. Inevitably, with the awareness of good and evil comes the ability to choose to do good or evil.

If God made us, you could explain a natural tendency to do good, but where does our natural tendency to do evil come from? Enter the snake (AKA Satan, or the Devil though the story doesn’t actually mention Satan).

If you take the Garden of Eden sequence, we were perfectly doing God’s will until we met the snake and ate the forbidden fruit. But is that the best way to understand things with our modern understanding of the origin of Homo sapiens (which, by the way is Latin for wise man!)?

Let’s hear some more from Rabbi Kushner:

‘I would like to suggest another way of reading the story; one that I think makes better sense of the events, leaves fewer loose ends, and paints a more positive picture of our first ancestors and by implication of us as well.

The account of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, as I see it, is a mythical description of how the first human beings left the world of animal existence behind and entered into the problematic world of being human. It is the biblical account of evolution, seeing the difference between humans and animals in moral rather than anthropological terms.’

Our good friend Marcus Borg puts it this way

‘Adam and Eve, living in a paradisiacal state, become conscious of opposites, of good and evil. The result is multi-fold: they cover themselves, no longer naked and unashamed; they experience life as toil and burden; they are expelled from paradise. The Genesis story ends with them (and us) living their (and our) lives ‘east of Eden’, estranged and in exile.’

First let us freely admit that in that state of estrangement and exile from God we are capable of all sorts of evil. But the Bible reports again and again that there is an alternative.

For the Israelis in slavery in Egypt, God provides release. For those in exile in Babylon, God brings them home. For the penitent prodigal son, God comes running to meet him – and throws a party!

So where DID evil come from? It seems to me that when humans developed a conscience we started to realise that following our animal instincts isn’t good enough. We came to understand the impact of our actions on others – to empathise with them. The animal way is self-preservation, me first. Of course we must love ourselves and look after ourselves, but not at all costs, if we are to live happily with others and ourselves.

With the wisdom gained from becoming Homo sapiens (eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil), God dwelling in us helps us see that selfishness, carried to extremes, is evil. And that same indwelling God helps us with the challenging task of opting instead for the goodness of selfless love.

We need not keep living our lives in exile east of Eden, defeated by our animal nature. God knows we are humans. We know good and evil and we are capable of good and evil. When we do evil we may stop loving ourselves, but God never stops loving us. We come to God, admitting our imperfection and God says ‘What imperfection? You look fine to me! Let’s have a party.’

So tonight, as you eat your meal, think of it that way – God’s party to welcome us back from exile and estrangement, into an ongoing love relationship, where we know good and evil, and choose, more and more, to do good and live out the love of God.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands