03 May Genesis: Up the Wrong Tree
Genesis: Up the Wrong Tree
May 3, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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This week we are doing things a little differently! We have pre-recorded the worship service in order to combine live music straight from Calvary’s sanctuary. Click here to access the live worship service, and don’t forget your bread and wine/juice – as this week we celebrate Communion!
“Barking up the wrong tree.” You’ve no doubt heard this familiar idiom that describes a fruitless search. If you were raised in the country, you might have had an experience with a dog in pursuit of a mortal enemy, only to discover itself barking at the base of a tree to which the rabbit or fox or whatever was not in. In Genesis 3, we have a story that is about humans following an animal into the trees for an exercise in futility. This is, of course, one of the foundational stories of the whole Bible and of our human existence, but it’s often misunderstood, in large part for the same reasons Genesis 1 and 2 are misunderstood.
Questions about talking snakes and what fruit Adam and Eve munched on are exercises in missing the point, when what we need to be asking is what the text tells us about ourselves and about God. At its crux, this is a story about humans barking up the wrong tree—something we’ve been doing from the beginning of time.
First, some context. As we saw last week, the tree comes into play in Genesis 2. God says, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden” (2.2). Every tree! That’s permission. God isn’t just getting Adam to slog through and do all the work. God is giving Adam the freedom to enjoy the fruits of divine creation which included the Tree of Life. Remember that Adam was created mortal, made from dust. It was the fruit of the Tree of Life that was not only good to eat, it gave him life. It was the antidote to death and Adam was free to eat as much as he wanted.
Every tree except one. There was one tree that was off limits, and of it God says, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it, you shall die” (2:17). To freedom is now added a boundary. Eat all you want, when you want, where you want, except this one tree.
So, why is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil forbidden to Adam? After all, it seems like that kind of knowledge would be a good thing, right? It might help us in the morally ambiguous dilemmas we encounter to be able to munch on a piece of that fruit and know what we ought to do. But it’s not the choice between good and evil that is the focus here. The real choice is whether these humans will trust God. Will Adam and Eve trust God’s wisdom or their own? Do they want the world God gave them, or do they prefer a world of their own making?
Of course, we know what happens. The result is nothing less than the unraveling of God’s created work. What was in order and functioning as it was designed to, what was “very good” now begins to run backward from the way God intended it, and it’s been running that way ever since.
This story reminds us of the way things are when humans choose to run the world on their own. It’s an exercise in barking up the wrong tree. The rest of the chapter is all about what happens to humans and to all of creation as a result. When Adam and Eve choose to violate the prohibition and break the covenant with God, the whole creation project starts falling apart as the trees we should be tending begin to wither and die.
For example, there’s the “tree” of human relationships. This “tree” totally changes. Genesis 3 tells us that when they ate the fruit of the wrong tree, “their eyes were opened.” They see something, no doubt. They see that they are naked, vulnerable, out of place. And what happens? They begin comparing themselves to one another and start playing the blame game. The mutuality and partnership for which they were created suddenly becomes a competition. Instead of ruling together, God says to the woman, “Your desire shall be for your husband and he will rule over you.” Instead of their sexuality being used as part of God’s creative plan, it will instead become bound up in self-seeking desire.
As a result of us going our own way and barking up the wrong tree, our relationships are frayed, or, at least, fragile. It takes a lot of work to hold things together. And when relationships get broken, they are difficult to mend.
Then, there’s the “tree” of creation. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says God to Adam. “In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field” (vv. 17-18). Instead of work being a joyful vocation, it becomes a chore. Tilling turns to toil. According to a Gallup poll, more than 70 percent of workers dislike their jobs. Work was made to be fruitful; instead, it has been cursed into fruitlessness. Sandra Richter, author of The Epic of Eden, says: “We who are created in the image of God are designed so to love, create and produce, but when that work is forced upon us or is fruitless, it becomes toil and our will is broken.” God made us to live for and enjoy our work; now we work to live.
How about the “tree” of serenity and peace? Anybody interested in some peace of mind? “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground” (v. 19). Yes, there is sweat in toil, but there’s also something else meant by the phrase, “the sweat of your face.” This was actually an idiom in the ancient world which was less about labor than it was about anxiety. This phrase is referring to sweat-inducing fear.
Because humans barked up the wrong tree, humans now have an adversarial relationship with the world that causes us to fear that there will never be enough, that our labor will not meet our needs. What if the crop fails? What if the storm hits? What if there’s a fire? What about groceries this week? The car payment? The tuition bill? My retirement? What if I get sick or my kids get sick? What if a world pandemic strikes and brings the world as we know it to a halt?
We can have all the resources in the world, yet they do not insulate us from worry. Richter’s right when she says, “This is the curse of Adam—limited resources, an insecure future and a world that no longer responds to my command.”
Are there any other trees that suffer because we barked up the wrong one? How about the “tree” of immortality? “Out of the ground you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return” (v. 19). Death is the curse that stalks us all. The humans who were made in the image of God will now die like the beasts of the field. As Richter grimly puts it, the curse of death means, “The ones made to rule [and cultivate the] earth will now become fertilizer for it.”
Finally, the “tree” of security withers and dies as a result of our choosing the wrong tree. The last scene in Genesis 3 offers what is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all: God banishes the humans from the garden, from God’s divine presence. They have tried to become like gods, and the God of the universe cannot allow his children to continue that rebellion forever. So, they are exiled, cut off from the tree of life, from the Creator who had made them out of his cosmic elation of love, expelled from the garden that has been their home.
The place that Adam and Eve were privileged to protect, now has to be protected from them. Interestingly, the verb in verse 23 is the same one used to divorce a wife or disown a child. The humans were “sent forth,” but it was the result of their own choice. We’ve been divorcing ourselves from God ever since, choosing the exile of going our own way rather than following God’s way, choosing to trust ourselves rather than our Creator.
We know, deep in our bones, that things aren’t right with us. We know that death isn’t supposed to be our destiny. We know that the world is broken by violence, pollution, disease, hatred and mistrust, but despite our attempts at human progress and the advancement of technology, we are still Adam’s offspring.
There isn’t one of us who can’t resonate with this story. No matter how good we might believe we are, we alone know where the fault lines are…where the brokenness is. We suffer. We all do. In comparison to what we were created for, as a human race we are cracked and twisted, capable of inflicting unimaginable evil upon our brothers and sisters.
We were made for so much more. We were created to be the people of God, dwelling in the presence of God. But we are not as we should be. We are in a mess, a mess of our own making, a mess that we cannot fix on our own.
But Jesus can. Jesus is God’s answer to our barking up the wrong tree. As a result of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, eyes were once again opened, not as a result of rebellion and sin but as a result of Jesus’ healing touch. Jesus will tell his disciples not to be afraid, not to worry with sweaty faces, because he brings a peace that defies all human understanding. He will announce the return from exile, God coming to dwell with his people again in spirit and truth. He will defeat the death that plagues us all by dying on a tree and being raised to new life in a garden. He is the new—and the last—Adam, the One who offers a new way to life that is abundant, fruitful and eternal. As we choose to follow him in faith, we discover that the “trees” which once were withering and dying, i.e., the “trees” of human relationships, creation, peace of mind, immortality and security are revived by our Redeemer.
If there are ways in which you have been barking up the wrong tree, areas in your life in which you are going your own way, or experiencing brokenness, or are feeling cut off from God, I invite you to be particularly mindful of these things as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a few minutes. At the table, in the bread and the wine, Jesus will meet you, restore you and give you new life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.