A Tale of Two Trees

This was my homily for Grace Anglican Church upon 10 June 2018.

In the course of life, sometimes an event is just so important, so central, that everything seems to revolve around it. That central event becomes the title of the story that leads up to it and follows it. Without that special moment, absolutely everything would be completely different. In the Bible, the crucifixion, the death of Christ, and his resurrection form perhaps the greatest and most central event for all of human history. The reign of sin before, and the outpouring of grace thereafter, is made entirely possible, and indeed is defined by, these gospel events on and around the cross.

Today we heard a different, but almost as critical, central event in our Old Testament reading: the story of the Fall of Man.  The central moment, the words that could make a summary and title of the larger story, are “and he ate.” Everything in this story either leads up to that or flows out from that moment.  Let’s take a look at that story, starting in the middle, and working out from there, forwards and backwards.  There is a sequence of seven scenes, so we begin in scene 4.

Scene 4

Scene 4 (verses 6-8) is the center of the pattern.  Only Adam and Eve are present.  As they eat, the hierarchy established in creation (God-man-woman-animals) is completely flip-flopped (animals-woman-man-God).  In the center of this scene are the words “and he ate”, sitting between two mentions of the fruit’s effect of opening their eyes and giving knowledge.  The action of the story moves in and out, towards and away from this moment, forming a literary structure called a chiasm, and this writing device is found elsewhere in the Bible, such as in the flood story and in many of the Hebrew poems in the Old Testament.

Scenes 3 & 5

(3:1-5,9-13) These are the two real dialogue scenes, the first between the snake & the woman and the second between God & the humans.  In both cases they are discussing the fruit.  Where the center of this story is the eating of the fruit, the second-most important feature is the reality of what the fruit does.  Thus the dialogues flanking the central moment of eating both warn of and confirm what happens when the fruit is eaten: our “eyes will be opened” and we would “be like God.”  Of course, where Satan makes this out to be a benefit to us, it turns out actually to be a great evil and loss.

Scenes 2 & 6

(2:18-25, 3:14-21) On the next level out we have the mandate of God for Adam and his wife and the subsequent action of Adam.  Before the eating of the fruit, God is preparing Adam to find companionship in his wife over and above his work in caring for creation.  After the eating of the fruit, God is preparing both of them for the hardships they’ll endure as a result of sin.  In both cases, Adam responds by receiving his wife – the first time calling her Woman “because she was taken out of man” and the second time calling her Eve “because she was the mother of all living.”  The contribution of this layer of the story shows us the relationship between the central characters who ate the fruit and fell into sin, both how they were meant to relate and how sin will impact their relationship.

Scenes 1 & 7

(2:5-17, 3:22-24) The outermost layer of this story, its first and last scenes, show us God at work on his own.  Adam and Eve were dealt with in the penultimate layer of the story, now at the very beginning and end it’s about the two trees and their fruits.  In the beginning scene, God is creating the world, particularly focusing on one garden, and culminating his attention upon two trees: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat…”  At the end of the story, God’s actions return to these trees: “he placed a cherubim and a flaming sword that every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”  The whole story begins with a warning to Adam against eating one specific tree, and ends with a solution preventing Adam from ever getting to any of the trees again.

Side Note

For the past 150 years, there has been a working theory that the five Books of Moses were not actually written by Moses, but are later compilations from various groups of anonymous authors. A great deal of ink has been spilled over who and what those authors represent, the various religious agendas and theologies that they brought to the table, and how and when they got compiled into the books that we have today.  Literary structures such as the one used in telling this story of the Fall of Man are generally good clues that the multiple-authorship theories of the Books of Moses don’t do these books justice.  These overarching patterns of storytelling show us a lot about the text and the story it tells, and there is left little to no reason to attempt to pick apart these verses to identify the different ancient sources that theoretically produced this text.

A Tale of Two Trees

There are many ways of summarizing the story of the Fall of Man.  Normally a sermon would focus on how this is the origin of sin in the human race, and the beginning of the reign of death.  But today, sticking with the lesson from the literary structure of the story, I’d like to come at this from a different angle from usual.  This is “A Tale of Two Trees”, and in the center of the story is the moment that Adam and Eve at of the fruit.  But the fact that transforms this whole story from a beautiful reminiscence of paradise into a dire tragedy is the fact that Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the wrong tree.

In this paradise there are two trees, that of eternal life, and that of god-like knowledge.  The one, available to them as long as they did not eat of the other.  God intended to provide us with life so that we could live in blessed fellowship with him and one another for ever.  It was our place to love him, not compete with him.  And that’s what the tree of knowledge represents, the desire to compete with, equate to, or even to surpass God himself.  Our undoing was in accepting the demonic lie that we could be equal with God, and achieve a place where we wouldn’t rely on him anymore.

And with that rebellion, we were cut off from the other tree, the one that would continue to feed us unto eternal life.  That tree represents, or perhaps is, Jesus.  Eternal life is found in Christ alone; no magic fruit, no magic formula, no secret knowledge, no amount of good deeds, no religious fervor will ever substitute for Jesus.  Our downfall is founded in the fact that we reject Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.  Grasping for knowledge, grasping for power and the illusion of independence is the way of death.  And the result of that was pretty stark: God closed the way to the tree of life.  A flaming sword stood between the human race and the source of eternal life.

But, as Saint Ephrem the Syrian wrote nearly 1,700 years ago, “Blessed is he who was pierced and so removed the sword from the entry to paradise.”  That is the Gospel, that is the reason we rejoice amidst sufferings, that is the reason we have hope despite our sin.  Jesus did not remain stationary, in the presence of the Father, out of our reach forever.  But in the fulness of time he exited the garden and became man.  He walked among us as the Prophets of old, teaching and preaching and working miracles to revive our hearts and show us the Kingdom of God.  He then took up the role of High Priest, and led the way into the garden, even at the cost of his own life, and made us his priesthood so we could follow him in.

My friends, the garden of paradise is open again.  The tree of life is available to us again.  As the Psalmist says, “Taste and see the goodness of God.”  Let us feed on Christ in our hearts, with thanksgiving, for blessed are they who are invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb!

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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