The First Sunday of Lent, Year A

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

15The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Genesis 3:1-7

Expulsion from the Garden
1 Now the serpent[i] was more crafty[ii] than any other wild animal[iii] that the LORD God[iv] had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree[v] in the garden’?”
  2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it,[vi] or you shall die.’”[vii]
4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[viii] knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Comments on Genesis 2:15-17

This is the second creation story, the one written by “J” (the Yahwist, so creatively named because he refers to God as “Yahweh,” and in German, “Yahweh” is spelled with a “J”). The story as a whole begins at 2:4b, with the creation of “man” ('âdâm) and ends at 3:24, when they are driven out of the garden. The Yahwist is generally considered the oldest and most poetic author of the Pentateuch. Compare the dry chronology of Genesis 1 with the lyrical narrative nature of Genesis 2, and you’ll get it.

The garden of Eden story recounts the beginning of human life and culture as well as the first human transgression and its punishment. It understands reality as the condition of exile from a prior existence of a perfection of relationship with God, self and world. The fall from this relationship (“The transition from essential oneness to existential estrangement,” Tillich) is portrayed by J as the cause or origin of self-awareness, or perhaps even awareness itself. The story lays the ground work, by 3:24 for the beginnings of civilization.

It also lays the foundations for understanding what it means to be human. As such, two important parts of the story are missing from the reading as we have it in the lectionary. They are, first he relationship of “the Man” with God in the garden, and the second is the relationship he has with the woman. He was created by the breath of God (2:7) and was placed in a garden filled with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:9). He is directed to till the garden, not out of punishment, but because that is what human beings are created to do. It is one of two things here that makes them human. The other is free choice. Human beings have the power to choose between good and evil. “You may eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:16b-17). The sin of the lectionary passage can only be understood against the backdrop of the choice they made which was a violation of this command.

His relationship to the woman is what it means to be human. The man is functional in the garden, but he is lonely. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” says Yahweh (2:18). So God creates and then parades all manner of beasts before the man for his approval and naming, “but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner” (2:20). So God puts him asleep, steals a bone, creates a woman, pushes her in front of the man, and the man says “at last” (2:23).

A major message of this part of the story is that community, even if only with one other, is critical for creatures to be humans. They are complete now because they have become “one flesh.”

Note that most names in Hebrew (and in many other western languages) construct the nouns for male and female of a species from different forms of the same word. An exception are the words adam (“man”) and eve (“woman”). When he finally comes to her symbolically he changes his name to ‘ish, a different word for man, who is the “one flesh” partner of ‘ishshâh , woman. Now they are the male and female forms of the same creation.

With chapter three comes the serpent. Note that the serpent does not have a separate origin, but was also created by God. He is “the most crafty” of all creatures and challenges God’s truth and rule within the garden. He accuses God of lying about killing them if they disobey and eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and asserts that God prevents them from eating the fruit only to maintain control, so that they will not be “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). She accepts his truth over that of God’s and tries the fruit. She likes it, shares it with her husband and they both have their eyes opened, never to be closed again.

They do gain knowledge in the sense of losing their “dreaming innocence” (Tillich, again). They know they are naked (shame, v. 7), they know fear (of God, v. 8), they know estrangement (from themselves, the world, and God, v. 12-13). Their punishment, the result of their learning to distinguish between good and evil, is that they are forced to give birth and farm the land in brokenness rather than harmony. And, perhaps the feature which will come to most define them as creatures and not the Creator, they may no longer have access to eternal life: “‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden” (vv. 22-23).

[i] The serpent is reminiscent of the snake who steals from Gilgamesh a plant conferring immortality in the Mesopotamian epic (Epic of Gilgamesh 11.287-89).
[ii] “More Crafty” “In Hebrew, a wordplay on ‘naked’ in 2:25.” (HCSB). The Hebrew word, arum has both meanings.
[iii]Wild animal” or “”beast of the field.” Note it’s first use in 2:19-20.
[iv] The title “Lord God” is only found in Genesis in chapters 2 and 3. [NOAB]
[v]Any tree” Or “every tree.” “The serpent’s ambiguity may be deliberate.” (HCSB)
[vi] “Nor shall you touch it” A slight exaggeration of what God had said (2:16-17). Was it on purpose?
[vii] “You shall not die” Directly contradicting God in 2:16. In actual fact, the serpent is not lying. They won’t die. But the serpent “tailors the truth to incite envy.”  HCSB. He accuses God of lying about killing them if they disobey and eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and asserts that God prevents them from eating the fruit only to maintain control, so that they will not be “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5).
[viii] “like God”: The Septuagint translation has divine beings. They may be of the heavenly court. See also “us” and “our” in v. 22; 1:26; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8. See also 1 Kings 22:19 and Job 1:6. The singular form in Hebrew, Elohim, is an ordinary name for God; in the plural, it means divine beings. The singular and plural forms of the word are the same. [NOAB]

Matthew 4:1-11

4Then Jesus was led up[1] by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.[2] 2He fasted forty days and forty nights,[3] and afterwards he was famished.

         3The tempter [4]came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
      4But he answered, “It is written,
     ‘One[5] does not live by bread alone,
     but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”[6]

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
     ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
            and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
     so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”[7]
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”[8]

8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
     ‘Worship the Lord your God,
     and serve only him.’”[9]

11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Comments on Matthew 4:1-11
Here we go again. Every year at this time the temptation story in one of the three Synoptics is retold. Some of us who measure our ordination anniversaries in decades can understandably grow weary, but it’s inevitable.

Some of the more commonly made observations about the passage are the following:
(1) Mark’s version is brief, Matthew and Luke’s are lengthy, and they are very similar to one another, leading scholars to believe that they both departed from following Mark and inserted a version they found in “Q.”[10]
(2) In the placement of the story in the overall Gospel, Matthew more nearly follows Mark’s order than does Luke. Matthew and Mark have the temptation follow Jesus’ baptism, while Luke interrupts with the genealogy (3:23-38).
(3) Matthew lists the three temptations in a different order than Luke, helping hundreds of scholars over the ages to receive endowed chairs at prestigious schools of Theology for trying to figure out why.

Here are some observations related to our version in Matthew:
(1) In the Hebrew scriptures, it is usually God who is the source of both good and evil, weal and woe, and capable of enticing one to temptation. Even though in later Judaism, Satan came increasingly to replace God as the source of temptation, there never evolved a sense that Satan was equal to, or independent of God. God was always portrayed as retaining the right to tempt. “Lead us not into temptation,” says Matthew 6:13. And in this passage “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1, italics added). (Note that Luke does not portray the spirit as driving him “to be tempted”.)

(2) The idea of trying to fit Jesus into the typology of a second Moses is found most prominently in Matthew. To Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophesy to Moses in Deuteronomy 18:18, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you (Moses) from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. (It should be said, that both Islam and Christianity claim their particular leader is this prophet.)

The two most obvious examples of Matthew’s parallels between Jesus and Moses are these:
(1) Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. For the Hebrew people that experience was a time of great tempting, where people were taught to live “not by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
(2) Moses was taken to the top of a high mountain for forty days and nights (Exodus 34:28, 24:18), during which time he did not eat or drink. (Recall the Moses/Jesus parallels from last week when both were on a high mountain with God in the midst of clouds etc.)

New Testament scholar, Helmut Koester, argues that “Q” expanded an historic notion of Jesus being tempted into a Haggadah (an interpretation for ethical instruction) in the form of a narrative, as opposed to a Halaka, (an interpretation with rules for conduct).

This notion that it was originally created as an ethical frame, rather than a rule of conduct protects us from the three most common interpretations of the story:
(1) The historicizing understanding which sees in this text a report of Jesus’ temptation to become a political Messiah.
(2) The psychological interpretation which speaks about the struggle of Jesus with respect to the question whether or not he should assume the exercise of divine power.
(3) The dogmatic theologian’s interest that wants to use this narrative as evidence that Jesus subordinated his own actions under God’s will.[11]

As a Haggada, the story is used to teach the faithful about those temptations which beset us all. It’s interest is ethics: the relationship between our self’s will to power and the will of God.
There is more on that that one could say, but it is late and you guys are not worth the trouble.

[1] “Led up” (ἀνάγω anágō) Fut. anáxō, 2d aor. anēgagon, aor. pass. anēchthēn with mid. sense, from aná, up, again, or away, and ágō, to Led bring or lead. To bring, lead, carry, or take up (Luk_2:22; Luk_4:5; Luk_22:26; Act_7:41). “Though he is tempted by the devil, he is ‘led up’ by the Spirit to this encounter with so much at stake. Mark’s account is even stronger; the Spirit ‘drove’ (ekballei—the verb used for Jesus’ own driving out demons; Matt. 8:31; 12:27) Jesus into the wilderness.” (Roger Van Harn, The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts, 19, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001).
[2] “The Devil” (τοῦ διαβόλου) “The word means calumniator, slanderer. It is sometimes applied to men, as to Judas (Joh_6:70); in 1Ti_3:11 (slanderers); and in 2Ti_3:3, and Tit_2:3 (false accusers). In such cases never with the article. The Devil, Satan, the god of this world (ὁ διάβολος), is always with the article and never plural. (Vincent, Word Studies)
[3] “He fasted.” Because fasting makes the temptations more severe?
[4] “The tempter” (πειράζω peirazō) The present participle of peirazo, "to tempt," preceded by the article, lit., "the (one) tempting," is used as a noun. The descriptive term for Satan. In the NT, used only here and 1 Thess. 3:5.
[5] “One” Or “a person” (ὁ ἄνθρωπος ho anthrōpo). The term is rendered “man” in the kjv and in more conservative translations, but in Greek is meant generically for humanity.
[6] Deuteronomy 8:3: “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
[7] Psalm 91:10-12: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
[8] Deuteronomy 6:16: “…because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth. Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”
[9] Deuteronomy 6:13: “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.”
[10] Matthew and Luke are assumed by most scholars to have derive a good chunk of their gospel from an earlier (non-Markan) source, which they call “Q.” The name comes from the fact that the Germans at the beginning of the last century called it simply the “Source,” and Source in German is quelle, and “Q” is the abbreviation for that.
[11] Helmut Koester, Proclamation: Lent, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), p. 14.