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Who Lied? Literal Truth and Deception – Part 1

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The myth of the Fall as told in Genesis 2 and 3 is one of the fundamental narratives of Western culture. Even those who completely reject it have to come to an understanding of it because it so pervades our perception of what it means to be human. The common understanding of it is this:

God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, a lush sanctuary where they could live and work in comfort and security. Along with all the trees God provided for food, he placed two special trees. One was the Tree of Life, of which a man might eat and live forever. The other was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, of which God forbade the two to eat, telling them that if they did they would certainly die.

One day the serpent, who was craftier than the other beasts, encountered Eve and asked her, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the Garden?”

“We may eat from any tree except the one in the middle of the Garden. He said if we eat from it or even touch it we will certainly die.”

“You will not certainly die,” said the serpent. “God has forbidden it because he knows that if you eat from it, you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”

Eve believed the serpent. She saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and desirable to make one wise, so she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then their eyes were opened. They became aware of their nakedness and sewed together fig leaves to cover their bodies.

Later God discovers them cowering among the trees and finds out that they have disobeyed his command. He pronounces curses on each participant. The serpent becomes a slithering beast who must eat dust. The woman is cursed with pain in childbirth. The man is cursed with drudgery, working very hard just to survive. Then God expels the pair from the Garden and places cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance to prevent them returning and eating from the Tree of Life and living forever.

First off, it’s worth noting that by any objective standard, God is the villain of this piece. He does not appear as a loving Father but as an arbitrary and vindictive autocrat, punishing an outcome he surely must have foreseen, even if he were of only average intelligence and not all-knowing and all-wise. The hero of the story is the serpent. He risks God’s wrath to bring a wisdom and understanding to the human pair that God had apparently reserved for himself. Like Prometheus giving fire to humans, he defies God and lifts the unwitting humans out of their subservience and into genuine autonomy, by which they become fully human. If God chooses to curse them for their defiance, it is because he is evil, for their intentions were noble: they wanted to be like him.

Yet this is not the common interpretation given to this story. A few visionaries (for example, William Blake) have seen it this way, but for the most part, we all know that God is good and just, the serpent is the devil, and the human pair sinned and brought evil into the world. I don’t want to go into the differences between the interpretations we’ve inherited and the one I just expressed (which might be called a literal interpretation). I want to focus on just one question that we might ask of the story. Who lied?

According to the traditional understanding, the serpent lied. Eve lends support to this understanding when she testifies, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Yet her testimony is suspect because she seeks to deflect the blame that Adam had just cast on her. In fact, if we carefully consider the serpent’s words, we find that everything he said was literally true. God really did forbid eating from just the one Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they ate, they did not die. God himself testifies later that they had become like him, knowing good and evil.

The one thing that the serpent says which flatly contradicts what God had said is this, “You will not certainly die.” In fact, Adam and Eve did not die. They both lived on for many years—for hundreds of years, if the stories of antediluvian longevity are to be believed. Since what the serpent said was true and contradicts what God had said, it is rather God who must have lied. He told the human pair that they would die, but they did not. By taking God’s and the serpent’s words literally, we have to conclude that God lied and the serpent told the truth.

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How to Die

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My brother, Mark, died with grace and aplomb. His deaths were always flawless. Whether he was shot by Indians, stabbed by a pirate, or murdered by the Mob, he always died with such finesse.

Of course, we all took turns dying. The barn was the perfect place for it. There were stacked bales of hay with a pile of loose hay just below to cushion your fall. One by one we would climb to the top bale, clutch the wound where the bullet entered, and pitch headlong into the hay below. Yet Mark always made it seem so realistic.

One time he seemed not to notice he had been shot. He put his hand to his chest as if he had an itch. Then he pulled it away, staring with surprise at the warm, red blood on his hand. His eyes glazed over, and he fell face first and spread-eagle into the hay. Another time, the impact of the bullet knocked him into a half-turn. His arms went up as if he expected to by picked up by a gentle deity. Then he fell backward into the hay like a rag doll. Once dead, he also would linger longer in his final pose; it lent a greater air of verisimilitude to his death to see him lying there unmoving, not even breathing, for what seemed much too long for play.

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The Significance of the Cross

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Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. -Luke 9:23

The church—and Christians—doesn’t talk about the cross as much as it used to. You used to hear Christians talk about “bearing their cross” usually nothing more than an inconvenience. Perhaps there was a neighbor who wasn’t neighborly or a teenage daughter who was rebellious. “It’s just a cross I have to bear,” the complacent saint would say. This isn’t anything like what Jesus meant when he spoke to would-be followers.

To first-century disciples, the cross represented public torture and execution. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes against Rome. It is possibly the most cruel and violent form of execution ever devised, designed to kill slowly and tortuously and very publicly. The condemned were typically made to carry their own cross to the place of execution, so when Jesus says his follower must “take up his cross daily,” he has in mind only one destination: death.

Jesus tells his followers they must embrace their own death every day. In this way, they will always be prepared to die if need be for what they believe. For the way of Jesus’ followers is the way of love. They are to be like Jesus, offering themselves up to torture and death to secure life and liberty for others. They are not to use violence or try to force people to comply with their demands. They can persuade. They can reason. They can do good works. They can pray for their enemies. But they cannot curse. They cannot bribe. They cannot use force or coercion. At times, when the church has been politically ascendant, this command has been forgotten, and Christians have even tortured and killed other Christians in the name of Christ.

There is nothing Christlike about the use of force. Jesus never compelled; he invited. He spoke out harshly against the oppressors, especially when they pretended to speak for God, but he did not attack them physically*, and he did not resist when they attacked him. He expects his followers to behave as he did. He urges his followers to make a point of daily facing their own death and assures them that death is not final. This attitude of love with nothing to lose is what has made the church uniquely powerful in the world. It is a power not of force or violence but of totally committed people who will speak out against injustice and let themselves suffer and die for what is right.

* Of course there is an incident where Jesus confronted moneylenders in the temple with a makeshift whip of knotted cords. He was, however, severely provoked, not as some think by the greed and dishonesty of the moneylenders themselves, but by the tacit understanding that certain people could be excluded from God’s presence. The moneylenders set up their tables in the court of the Gentiles, the only portion of the temple open to foreigners, women, and invalids. The authorities did not arrest Jesus because he had exposed a policy they themselves knew to be wrong.
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