East of Eden
One of the more puzzling stories in the book of Genesis (and there are many to choose from) from the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden in Genesis chapter 3.
The passage reads like this:
22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
There's a lot to unpack in this passage, for sure. To begin with, we need to recap what happened to get to this point in the story.
The Scripture tells us that "the serpent" tempts Eve to eat fruit from the one tree in the Garden of Eden that she and Adam have been prohibited from eating--the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Adam and Eve had been told that if they ate that tree's fruit, they would "surely die." The serpent points out that this is false and that God is just trying to trick them. So Eve eats the fruit, and so does Adam, and guess what? They don't die.
They are found out, of course, and then are cursed to have to work in order to eat and to experience pain in childbirth, among other hardships.
Which brings us to the passage quoted above.
In an effort to keep human beings from becoming immortal, God decides to kick them out of Eden, never to allow them the chance to eat from the Tree of Life. The entry to Eden is then guarded by an angel with a flaming sword waving back and forth.
The thing is, when you try to read this story as literally true, it doesn't make any sense at all. Who is God talking to when God says, "The man has become like one of us?"
And what is the "East of Eden" besides being the title of a John Steinbeck novel?
Then there is the angel and the flaming sword guarding against any re-entry into Eden and all its secrets. What?
The story is a metaphor, of course. It's the ongoing saga of how we struggle with our desire to control our outcomes and live independently of God's purposes, even as we long for the benefits of intimacy with God.
It also addresses the ancients' challenge to understand humanity's relationship with God in terms that were easier for them to grasp. In fact, the whole of the Bible is the story of people slowly waking up to the reality of God and God's purposes for Creation.
The ancients had ideas about God and God's reality but didn't have the framework to truly comprehend either, so they created stories and metaphors that helped them discover the truth about who they were and who God was to them.
"There was a time," they say in the Genesis account, "when humanity was closer to God than now." They then go on to relate, "But humanity chose to take control of its own destiny, and lost that intimacy, and also lost the serenity that comes with it."
Father Thomas Keating once wrote:
Adam and Eve lost what they were intended to have, namely intimacy with God, which is the only true source of serenity.
Further, belief in the story's facts was far less important to the ancients who told it than the truth that was embedded in it.
Our own hubris and willfulness keep us from the kind of intimacy with God that we long for... the only thing that will bring us real peace, harmony with Creation, joy in connection with the Divine, and the serenity that comes when we surrender our need for control to the One whose purposes are for us, not against us.
There is something else here, too.
The revelation of God's peaceable kingdom on Earth is something we will only realize when we are truly ready for it, and often, this feels like some sort of closely guarded secret.
But there is no secret to it. When we are ready to let go of our own desires and embrace the desires of God for us, we no longer find the way blocked, as it were.
The serenity that we seek can be discovered in this surrender, which seems impossible unless we learn to trust God more fully and let go of all the things that keep us from being intimate with the Divine in the world around us.
May this be so for you, me, and all of us. And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us now and always. Amen.