Once upon a time…
Once upon a time there was a certain miller who bit by bit had fallen into poverty. He had nothing left but his mill and a large apple tree which grew behind it. One day the miller went into the forest to cut wood.
We look especially at the first line of a fairy tale because it tells us the state of affairs. It pronounces the diagnosis of the culture as much as it describes the condition of the story. (Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine by Gertrud Mueller Nelson)
Once upon a time…
An amazing tale (whether fairy or not) begins in Genesis 1 and 2. It is rife with beauty and imagination, powerful meaning and theology. We’d love for the fairy tale to continue; for these first two chapters to be our happily ever after. But because the story is so good, because it piques our imagination and our deepest longings and hopes, we keep turning the pages. It’s not too long before we happen upon Genesis 3. And truth be told, this is the part of the narrative that has captured our attention, our imagination, our patterns, our pathology for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is Genesis 3 that has done (and undone) much as it relates to men and women, the powerful and the marginalized, our imagery of God, our experience of shame, our understanding of evil. It is Genesis 3 that feels so familiar and so laden – with a tree, an apple, a serpent, a woman, a man, accusation, guilt, misunderstanding, disappointment, banishment. What if there was a different way to tell it? What if we could start again?
Once upon a time…
Adam and Eve walked freely through the Garden, discovering every creature and naming each one. They explored every plant, flower, and yes, tree then named all but one. Given such, neither happening upon a tree with beautiful apples nor a serpent that talked would send them reeling. You have to wonder if they were surprised at all. What else would they have known? What sake of comparison could they possible proffer? Why would they, even for a moment doubt or question anything around them given that their entire reality was subsumed in amazing creativity, endless generosity, and an embodied love in the God with whom they walked in the cool of the day? If we can even begin to imagine this setting, this freedom, this love, then it seems we can also imagine anew the dialogue between Eve and the serpent.
Once upon a time…
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
Is “crafty” bad? Other translations say shrewd, clever, or even subtle. I don’t think I’m alone in making this nearly instantaneous judgment when the serpent appears on the scene. But I wonder what would happen if we didn’t, if we, like Adam and Eve, had a bit more curiosity about yet one more of the Garden’s miraculous beings as it appears on the scene. And likewise, must we jump to “temptation” when Eve is asked this relatively innocent question by the serpent? Let’s get through at least a few more sentences before we let the plot get (taken) away from us…
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “
Eve answers the question placed before her – simply, clearly, appropriately. Over time (not shockingly) we’ve moved from the serpent’s textually-stated craftiness to an even more acute and explicit stating of Eve’s. We’ve been taught that she is cunning and conniving in her response – adding to God’s words, doing her own interpretation (not so shocking when we acknowledge her as a co-namer with Adam), and setting wheels into motion she can’t undo. Really? Listen anew. With a fresh and untainted perspective, with a moment to breathe and imagine, we might just hear Eve do nothing but respond in conversation – with awareness, context, and even consequence. It continues…
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Truth be told, I still don’t find anything all that evil, crafty, or cunning taking place here. The serpent speaks the truth, nothing more. Truth be told, if we fast forward the story, once the fruit was eaten Adam and Eve did know the difference between good and evil, their eyes were opened, the reality in which they had been living and that they had named, would now change. Not a temptation. Questions. Answers. Responses. Rather, a conversation.
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Adam and Eve walked freely in the garden. They had the power to define and shape every reality around them. Because of such, the act of eating whatever they came upon does not seem out of character, as though some evil event has just occurred, tipping all of creation on its axis. The only thing different about this fruit was that it came from the one tree they had not named; which, in many ways, would only increase their God-given curiosity and hunger. How could they have had any way to understand their behavior as “wrong,” “shameful,” or “bad”? They would have known nothing of any of this. Even God’s earlier words to them, telling them not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, would have been an odd and easily-ignored request. It would be like a much–loved infant being given the rules of the house – a house in which she is provided for, safe, completely entrusted into the care of a parent. When she is told to not touch the hot stove she hears the words and even the warning, but can’t possibly understand the consequences or the ramifications. Nothing bad has ever happened. No pain has ever existed. No punishment has ever ensued. Adam and Eve, like this child, function in a world that has never betrayed them; a world they have never betrayed. How could they possibly know?
And if they did not, how does this change the way we see them, the way we’ve interpreted them over the years? Our telling of the story has significance. And how it begins makes all the difference. Once upon a time matters.
The same is true in our own stories. We have often had our own lives interpreted one particular way for so long that we have no ability or imagination to see them any other way. And, not coincidentally, the way we tell our own stories is often very similar to the way we’ve (been) told about Genesis 3. Our stories are filled with craftiness (usually interpreted as our own), temptation (usually interpreted that which we’ve succumbed to), shame, evil, guilt, etc. What would happen if, just like with the Biblical narratives, we did the good and hard work of re-imagining; of re-telling some of our own age-old stories in ways that leave room for curiosity and the possibility that we might just not be as “bad” as we’ve always believed? Our own once upon a time matters.
And once upon a time is never the end of the story, is it?
[We] enter “a fairy tale world” but quickly discover that this world offers no “retreat from reality,” nor does it invite us to a world of shining bliss. Rather, anguish and darkness are the fairy tale’s prevailing tone–the anguish of a lost paradisiacal happiness and the inevitable darkness that enters every life (Here All Dwell Free, Gertrud Mueller Nelson)
Once upon a time does not quickly segue to happily ever after. Just like all stories, the plot thickens…
I’ll write more, but before I do, I want to let this re-imagined once upon a time abide for just a little bit longer. Just as I want to understand Genesis 1 and 2 in a different way, a way that offers me a taste of equal valuing in God’s eyes, of freedom and empowerment, of defining my own reality; so Genesis 3. I deeply want to see and experience Adam and especially Eve in a redeemed, non-evil, non-tempted, non-“it’s the woman’s fault” way. It might just change how I look at the story that follows – and my own. That feels important.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about hitting “refresh” on this text.
What are the risks inherent in not making the serpent quite so clearly (and quickly) the villain?
How do you understand Adam and/or Eve differently if you don’t jump to temptation quite so quickly?
How might you re-imagine God’s interactions with Adam and Eve as a loving, all-protective parent vs. a disappointed, disobeyed one?
Where are the texts in your own life that are so laden with evil or temptation (in other words, your mistakes and sins) that you’ve never been able to imagine anything other? Is it even remotely possible that you might be able to change the once upon a time in your own story?
I hope so. Once upon a time really does matter.