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In the Beginning

Genesis 1-3

“In the beginning, God”: this is how our story opens. We do not know anything about God but only that God is.

God’s first act is to bring Light into being. This Light is a mystery. We can’t really understand it as physical light, since the luminous bodies have not yet been created. All we know is that the Light enters a previously dark universe and that the Light is “good.” The Light does not eliminate the Darkness but lives with it, separate from it.

The rest of the first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of a flawless world. It is not just “good”; it is “very good.” All God’s creatures coexist peacefully, and the human being is God’s crowning achievement.

But instead of continuing in the next chapter, the story seems to go back over itself and reach a very different conclusion. Chapter 2 gives us the so-called “second account” of creation. This one does not describe a flawless world at all but a life of need, suffering, and sin.

In Chapter 1 of Genesis God first creates the animals, then human beings. In Chapter 2 the order appears reversed. Is this a contradiction?

That is the wrong question to ask. Such questions confine us to the most superficial, least relevant aspects of the text. There is a reason for the reversal. In Chapter 1 the focus is on the world, the entirety of God’s creation. In Chapter 2 the focus is on the human situation. And so the human being is mentioned first.

And the human creation is limited. Man cannot live by himself. He needs woman to be his partner. God places them in a wonderful garden, in which they may enjoy themselves and do anything they like, except for one thing: they may not eat from the tree of “the knowledge of good and evil.”

In Chapter 3 a new character is introduced: a serpent. But this is no ordinary serpent. This one talks! Yet the woman shows no surprise when approached by a talking snake. So who is this serpent? Clearly a symbol of something. We may think of the serpent as a symbol of desire. Keeping this in mind will reveal a new dimension of meaning as the story unfolds.

In Chapter 1 there was no desire, and also no sin. There was only God’s perfect creation. Chapter 1 describes God’s creation in essence. This “second account” of creation describes the existence, the experience of the human condition.

The serpent makes a tempting offer: eat the prohibited fruit and you will be just like God! You will know the difference between good and evil, and you will not die. The desire for knowledge, power, and immortality is too hard to resist. The woman accepts the offer. And so, in turn, does her husband.

But the knowledge they gained was not what they expected. They acquired self-consciousness. They suddenly realized that they were naked, and they made clothes out of fig leaves. They also felt shame, and they wanted to hide from God.

God takes them to task for violating the order to leave that tree alone. The man blames it on the woman. The woman blames it on the serpent. We see a crack in the previously idyllic union between the woman and the man. Their loyalty and trust has been compromised. This is the first in a series of separations.

The next separation is from the garden in which they had lived a carefree life. Their offspring will be in perpetual conflict with their desires (the serpent). Man and woman will know a life of hardship and pain: the daily struggle to maintain their existence, the pain of childbirth, the knowledge of their mortality.

There are many ways of interpreting this story. Are these punishments new? The first way that man and woman changed after eating the fruit was that they became conscious of themselves. Their “eyes were opened”; they “knew that they were naked.” They did not become naked; they had always been so. But now they came to realize it. Similarly, it is possible to interpret these curses in the same way: they are not new, but now man and woman are conscious of them. They leave the untroubled existence of childhood and become conscious of their human condition, that it is characterized by pain, suffering, and death. Of all God’s creations only human beings are aware of this inevitablilty, and only human beings suffer the psychological and spiritual consequences of this knowledge.

This is why only human beings undertake a spiritual quest.

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