On the front cover of your bulletin today is a picture of a decorated Akkadian cylinder seal. Say that three times fast! An Akkadian cylinder seal is just what you might think—it is a cylinder. It comes from Akkad, a city in the ancient Babylonian Empire. This Akkadian cylinder seal is small. It has a hole in the middle so that you can run a string through and wear it as an amulet around your neck or wrist. Since this and other similar cylinder seals are in relief, it is thought that the Akkadians may have also used them to make imprints—hence the name seal—They dipped the cylinder in ink and rolled it on something flat, parchment maybe—or if not ink, maybe they rolled it on soft clay--creating a reverse image.
We don’t know if that is what they did, though. We only have the cylinders. The one you are looking at dates from the 22nd century, BCE. That makes it around 4200 years old. Isn’t that something?
But here’s something else, look at the image itself. What do you see? There’s a tree, right? On one side is supposedly a man, or a God--those things sticking out on either side of his head-- may be horns—Gods had horns back then. On the other side of the tree is a woman. She’s got a bun on top of her head. Now, see those two squiggly lines behind the man and the woman—what do you think? Snakes, right?
The cylinder seal you are looking at, is in the British Museum. It is referred to as the Adam and Eve Akkadian Cylinder Seal. Pretty cool, huh?
Up until just a few centuries ago, religious believers assumed that many of the books in the Old Testament were written by Moses, who got the stories in Genesis directly from God; but we now know that the Genesis stories especially, had a more winding route before making it into scripture. The stories were whittled and carved, molded and fired in kilns of our human imagination, by and among peoples of different cultures.
These stories, or myths, are foundational with us. They help us understand who we are and who God is. They are part of our moral fabric, too.
Happily, or maybe unhappily, depends on your take, many of the Genesis stories, though, are open ended—Happily, because they allow for broad interpretation—unhappily, because if you are looking for strict laws and rules on which to moor your life, and Genesis is your only go-to scripture, you are in trouble.
So it is with the story before us of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Jonathan Edwards, a famous preacher of the 1700’s said in relation to our story, Adam and Eve’s primary sin was disobedience. God gave them one, count them, one rule—“Don’t eat any fruit from that tree.” And what did they do? Then again, didn’t God know that Adam and Eve were rational beings? God created them after all. If God had only given Adam and Eve a reason, they might have complied. “Don’t eat the fruit from that tree because…..”
John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism. says that the story reveals to us that God set boundaries from the get-go of human existence—there are just some things we aren’t supposed to know and that’s that. If we persist, we will be punished. Regarding Adam particularly, John Calvin says that Adam was drawn to Eve and her apple by “fatal ambition.” It’s this interpretation I want to spend some time on today. Fatal ambition.
Just recently I heard the true story of a woman named Tara Westover. She’s written a memoir, titled Educated. It’s a current best seller. I just bought it, but I haven’t had time to read it yet—I just skimmed it for this sermon. Anyway, Tara is in her early thirties. She grew up in Idaho. She lived with her parents and seven brothers and sisters on a farm at the base of Buck’s Peak Mountain. Her father collects and sells junk. Her mother is an herbalist and a midwife. Tara’s parents are religious fundamentalists—they are fundamentalist Mormons, but their denomination is really beside the point. Enough to know that their religious beliefs are extreme. They are hoarding guns and food for the apocalypse, that great final battle between good and evil, after which Jesus will return and rule the universe. Tara’s parents were and still are suspicious of schools, the government, doctors and hospitals and the people who live in the nearby town.
For that reason, the children were born at home, and they were “home schooled.” I use that word loosely, since unlike Virginia, Idaho offers no oversight for homeschooling. The children learned basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills and that’s it. Tara’s reading was limited to the Bible, the book of Mormon, and various writings by Joseph Smith. At church Tara came into contact with other children, but, she had no friends. Her parents believed their souls had been tainted by too much worldly knowledge.
We might say that in some ways, Tara’s Buck’s Peak life was her Garden of Eden—the countryside was beautiful, yet it was also boring. Home life was comforting, yet it was also confining.
The family does not own a TV or radio. In her early years the only music Tara was exposed to were the hymns her family sung at home and at church. Then one day, when Tara was around ten years old, she discovered a boom box in her older brother’s room. Next to it were some CDs. He played for her a piece by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “What is that?” It was her fruit of the tree of knowledge. She says, “There are people out there who create music like that? How did they do that? I wanted to know more.” That music which she listened to as much as possible, was her inspiration. When she turned sixteen, with promptings from her brother, she bought some ACT practice books, taught herself algebra and enough else that she squeaked by on the ACT exams. Surprisingly maybe, she was accepted as a student at Brigham Young University.
In her memoir she writes of her first days at BYU--trying to make sense of college life, trying not to let on how ignorant she was—she had never heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement, for example—trying to fit in with people she considered “gentile.” Her fellow classmates wore provocative clothes, used curse words, and they studied on the Sabbath! But, she stuck with the program. She might not totally fit in, but she would not quit.
My dog Pepper is a sniffer. Pepper sniffs the ground when we go on walks. Sometimes she’ll discover something incredibly enticing. A dead worm! She plops down on the grass, or gravel, doesn’t matter. She flips over onto her back, and rolls around in that smell--her feet flailing, a dog grin on her face—dog ecstasy.
That’s kind of like Tara with her studies. She may not have fit in, but she was enthralled by what she was learning. She rolled around in her music classes—“I think music will be my major!” No, no,--history! Psychology! English! and so on. As she approached graduation, she applied to and was accepted at Cambridge University in England. She received her PhD from that school. She lives in England still. And now she has written this best-selling memoir. It’s kind of a rags to riches tale, only it’s learning and not money that’s her delight—in fact, HAS been Tara’s delight —these past 15 years.
So back to John Calvin. He suggests, remember, that Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden was due to Fatal Ambition. Surely, Tara’s ambition was not fatal—it was her salvation. Tara’s religious fundamentalist parents would probably tell you, though, that her life has taken a serious turn for the worse, and her soul will pay the price! I will add that Tara is now estranged from her parents. So she HAS paid a price, but she would tell you without hesitation, that it has been worth it. She has been transformed.
The author of the gospel of John writes, “The truth will set you free.” As Paul encourages us in Romans, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That is Tara—finally free; Transformed.
So, dare I say it. John Calvin may be wrong here. And surely he would at least agree, that there are other ways to interpret our Genesis story. As I said earlier, it is open ended, so we take from it what we will and as the spirit directs us. Having rolled around in this story myself this week--pastor ecstasy--I offer you these take-aways:
Take away number one: Before we shoot off in our rocket ships to seek out and explore new worlds; before we extract DNA from cells, dissect that DNA and then create new DNA sequences—God would have us consider the moral, the ethical consequences. That is because knowledge is power and therefore it is dangerous. Knowledge is a steep staircase. Hold on to the handrail. Learning is a busy highway. Look both ways before you cross. But what do Adam and Eve do after they eat the fruit of the tree. THEY HIDE FROM GOD. Not good. That may have been their fatal decision.
Take away number two. We are made to want to know more. Maybe like Tara, we dare to dip a toe and then our whole selves into places of higher learning—college, or a course of study—be it music, or car engines. We check out books from the library. We go on-line and find out all we need to know about graphic design, or flower arranging, or the temperature of the planet Mars. In other words, we engage the world, we don’t run from it. As Tara discovered, and as we know deep down to our bones, we are meant for this.