Hespeler, 1 May, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 2:25-3:11, 21, Hebrews 13:10-16, Psalm 40:4-11
he story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis was always about much more than just the question of where the human race came from. Adam was never just supposed to be a historical figure. Even the earliest people to tell and pass down this tale knew, after all, that the name Adam meant man and that he represented humanity as a whole. They knew that his wife’s name meant living, and so they understood that this story was not about history or events that took place in the earliest mists of time so much as it was about what it meant to be human beings living in this world here and now.
For example, the particular selection of verses that we read from Genesis this morning seems to be preoccupied with one particular question about being human. The question is this: why do human beings wear clothes. I mean, think about it, the story originated in the ancient Near East which has one of the most temperate climates in the whole world. They didn’t have to deal with the extremes of a Canadian winter. Even rain was a rare event. Clothing, for them, was not a physical necessity most of the time, so they needed an explanation for why human beings, alone among all the creatures on the earth, wore clothing. So if you were going to tell a story about what it meant to be human, that mystery was something that, in their minds, you needed to tackle.
And the story makes it clear that, in the ideal world as God originally intended it, clothing was not necessary. “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” The need for clothing, apart from protection from the elements, is, according to this story, actually a reflection of what has gone wrong with human life in this world.
Clothes, in the Genesis story, also seem to represent that human fear of being ourselves. When Adam and Eve are first created, the idea that they are “naked and not ashamed,” seems to symbolize a relationship were they are able to fully share themselves with each another. They don’t need to hide behind anything; they can just be themselves. That they suddenly feel uncomfortable with such nakedness after their disobedience is an indication that something has gone wrong. And, to this very day, we still struggle with just being ourselves in front of other people.
So clothes are part of the problem. But they also seem to be an undeniable necessity given the failures and the shortcomings of our human nature. We just can’t go through life letting it all hang out – not literally and not figuratively. Yes, there are exceptions to that. A few times in your life you might hope to have a relationship with somebody where you feel completely free to be yourself all the time. It can happen in a good marriage or an excellent friendship. But it is rare and most of us spend our lives hiding who we really are from the vast majority of people that we meet; afraid that, if we were to show our true selves, we would be rejected.
This is something that this story in the Book of Genesis is acutely aware of: human beings are flawed. We have our shortcomings and we have our failures. That is a part of what it means to be human. But the amazing thing that we see in the story in Genesis is that, although God is clearly angry at the failure of his humans and deeply disappointed in them, that does not prevent him from being entirely gracious to them.
When the man and the woman first awake to the realization that they are flawed and find this deep inner need to cover up those flaws, they attempt to improvise a solution to their problem: “they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” But this is, clearly, at best a temporary solution. Fig leaves are simply not the most flexible or durable material to make clothing out of but it seems to be the best that we humans can do sometimes.
But then, right at the end of the story, there is a little surprise. At the end of the story, after God has handed out all of the consequences to the woman and the man for their disobedience and to the serpent for his part in it all, there is a little side note: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” And so we learn that, as far as the Bible is concerned, the invention of the first durable set of clothing is to be credited to God. Think of it; the Lord God was the very first person to design a line of clothing.
And I find this idea of God as the first cosmic fashion designer to be very interesting. It tells me a few very important things about God and our relationship with God as human beings.
It tells me, first of all, that we have a God who understands our weakness and failures. God clearly understands what the man that the woman are struggling with, which means that he understands the struggles of all humanity. This is rather extraordinary when you think about it for God has no experience of shame. Why should he? And yet he understands that the man and the woman need clothes not out of their physical necessity but because they feel shame for their inadequacies.
This willingness of God to deal with us where we are as opposed to where God thinks we are supposed to be is of enormous importance. Have you ever had somebody in your life who absolutely refused to deal with you the way that you were – somebody who simply would not accept that you might be fearful or shy or lacking in confidence or whatever particular problem you were dealing with? I’ll bet that each and every one of us has had to deal with someone like that at some point. Was that person helpful to you? Probably not. In order to really help you with getting where you need to be, your friends need to start with you where you are and not where they think you ought to be.
I don’t know how often I have encountered in people this notion that they are unable to access God’s grace or be part of the church or even to pray because they don’t have everything worked out in their lives. “I can’t talk to God,” they will say, “because my life is such a mess.” Well God, fortunately, doesn’t work that way. If he did, none of us would have any hope and no one would ever belong to the church. It is very helpful to know that that is where God joins us on this journey of life where we actually are and not where we are supposed to be.
The second thing I would note about this is that God’s gift of clothing is different in substance from what the man and the woman are able to create by themselves. This is obvious: Adam and Eve’s attempt to clothe themselves is plant-based; God’s gift is animal based. And one of the problems seems to be that Adam and Eve’s approach is less durable because it is plant-based than the one that God offers.
But there seems to be more than a question of durability at stake here. Here is one thing I notice: when we wear plant-based clothing, when we wear things like cotton or linen or even fabrics like wool that are harvested from animals, nothing needs to die in order for us to be warm and cover our “shame.”
Death itself doesn’t seem to be part of the plan at the beginning of the story of the Garden of Eden. At least, the way that it is described, the man and the woman and all of the animals were supposed to live together in such harmony that nothing ever needed to die. The lion and the lamb were supposed to lie down together without anyone getting eaten and even the strongest of predators were supposed to live as vegetarians. It is rather interesting that we seem to have, in this portrayal of ideal life in God’s original garden, a world where nothing has to die in order that something else may live.
But that ideal has apparently failed with the failure of the humans, and it is interesting to see that God’s very first act upon learning that his ideal vision for life in this world is not going to work out is to kill something. Some animals (it doesn’t say which ones) have to die in order to create the right kind of clothing for the humans. These are, according to Genesis, the first recorded deaths. This has to do with more than just the relative quality of plant-based and animal-based clothing.
When ancient human beings finally became aware of their place within this world, when they realized that there was a difference between them and the other animals that lived alongside them (a realization that they came to by telling stories like this one in the Book of Genesis), they discovered something kind of scary and amazing. They realized that other living beings were dying so that they could live and be strong and healthy – so that they could eat meat from time to time and so that they could have strong and durable clothing. They realized that there was something tragic about that, but they also realize that there was something sacred about it.
Almost all ancient humans of all races and cultures came to that amazing realization and many ancient cultures celebrated that sacred tragedy with a ritual called sacrifice. An ancient sacrifice was how you killed and prepared your supper in a way that acknowledged how sacred and tragic the death of that animal was. But the ritual of sacrifice also had a great benefit. Most of the sacrificial animal was eaten by the worshippers who brought it and by the priests who prepared it for them. In addition, skins were taken and turned into clothing and leather and to make other useful things.
But some parts of the animal couldn’t be used. These parts – the bones, the fat and some other bits – were burnt up on the altar as a gift to God. In this way, they believed, the sacrifice created a meal that was shared with both God and the worshippers – a shared meal that was all about rebuilding the broken relationship between God and his people.
And I believe that this action of God who slaughters some animals in order to clothe Adam and Eve is anticipating that – all of that. It is a recognition that the world is a tragic place where things die and that sometimes animals die so that you can live and become who you need to be. It is also aware of the sacredness of such an act and the potential for healing to come out of it.
Christians don’t practice sacrifice, in part because they believe that Jesus, in himself, has fulfilled everything that could ever be achieved by animal sacrifice and that he did that by offering himself up for the sake of those who fell short of what they needed to be. If that is true, then it means that God, in his first act in the garden was already anticipating both the sacrificial system and the coming of Jesus himself. It is all right there in that short line at the end of this morning’s reading.
It is about what it means to be human because it is talking about things that we all struggle with. But, even more important than that, it talks about a God who is there with us in our struggles and whose presence makes all the difference in the world.