Is it true that God made the first man from the dust of the earth? Wrong question.
Is it true that there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? Also the wrong question.
Did God really say “Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge?” Yes – but that’s a diabolical question!
Why does the Bible tell us that Adam and Eve suddenly realised they were naked? Right question!
We believe in a God who can work miracles. Jesus turned water into wine, calmed a storm and raised Lazarus from the dead. We hear reports of creative miracles even in the 21st century, where God’s power to change matter is made evident. So I have no doubt that God has the power to create a human body from the duty of the earth. I do, however, have reason to doubt that that is actually, historically, what happened.
Some of my doubts come from the Bible itself. If it were literally true that God created Adam and Eve and no-one else, who did their sons marry? Why do the first two chapters of the Bible seem to give two different stories about how the world was created? And isn’t a talking snake the kind of character you get in a fantasy story with a moral of a fall and a recovery? I’m thining of Kaa in Disney’s Jungle Book, Nagini in Harry Potter, or the eight-legged Shelob in the Lord of the Rings.
Other doubts come from what we know of the world around us. We believe in a God who speaks through the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture. Our best interpretation of the Book of Nature suggests the universe began in a Big Bang 13 billion years ago – a discovery partly due to a Catholic priest, Mgr Georges Lemaitre – and that the first primitive life formed from the dust and oceans of the earth 4 billion years ago. A slow, step by step process of evolution seems to have taken us from single-celled bacteria to the first human beings – but the scientists argue about whether the title of ‘first human’ should go to our ancestors from 200,000 or 5 million years ago.
And yet… Our Lord Jesus spoke about Adam and Eve in a way that feels literal. St Paul – who had been taken up to heaven and received visions – talks only about Adam, not Eve, in the letter we’ve just heard from Romans. Talking about a singular first human fits rather better with what we know about evolution. However you choose to define ‘first human’ – whether that’s something genetic, or whether it’s about God giving out the first human soul – there will have been a first one somewhere along the line. The message of both Genesis and St Paul is that the first human being failed to obey God perfectly, and that has consequences!
You might hear talk that we human beings suffer more intense temptation because we are children of the Original Sinner. That’s true, but let’s not forget that the first human managed to sin without the excuse of this extra burden, which we call concupiscence; we can’t blame Adam for everything!
More mysterious is St Paul’s statement that ‘death came into the world’ because of human sin. Taken literally, that suggest that no plant or animal or even bacterium had died before Adam’s first sin. But if we take it to refer to human death, we might conclude that God meant to give human beings the miraculous gift of immortality, if they were totally faithful to his commands. And that takes us back to Adam and Eve being naked without shame.
Before they ate the forbidden fruit, before they made clothes for themselves, they were naked. Might it be that when they looked at one another, what they saw was not a human body, but the image of God? Next week, we’ll hear the Gospel of the Transfiguration, reminding us how Jesus was clothed in light when he showed his Godly nature to his closest followers. Does it not make sense that the first, sinless, human would have been clothed like this – entirely lit?
St John Paul II reflected on the meaning of the forbidden tree. He concluded that it represented the power to define right and wrong. As human beings we cannot make wrong things right, or right things wrong – we must accept what God has taught us. By taking the fruit for themselves, and wanting to disagree with God, the first humans became not more, but less like God: they became clothed in sin. Worse than that, they found themselves clothed in a repeating pattern of sin.
Jesus – whose very name means “the one who saves” – did not come to rule the earth, but to help us find our way to heaven. So in today’s Gospel he refuses to take power over the world; at the end of Lent we will celebrate how he opened the door to life by submitting humbly to death.
If you read on in Genesis, you will find that not only did Adam and Eve clothe themselves, but later, God ‘made garments out of skin’ to clothe them – in other words, an animal had to die so that they could be protected from harm. In the fullness of time, when Jesus died for our sins, St Paul would be able to tell the Romans ‘clothe yourself in Christ’.
Now, you might have been surprised that I started today’s homily by sharing some doubts. Surely it’s not the calling of a Catholic priest to preach doubts – isn’t my duty to tell you what’s true? The thing is, the Catholic church doesn’t take a position on whether Adam and Eve were historical figures, or a story-telling way of teaching about the first human being. What’s important is that we can take the same message from the Bible regardless of whether the story is history or another kind of story.
You’ll meet some catholics who insist that we are descended from Adam and Eve because the Bible says so and who are we to doubt the Bible, however inconsistent that seems with scientific evidence?
You’ll meet other Catholics who roll their eyes and say if we want to be taken seriously we have to interpret the Bible in the light of science because we know lot more know than the Bible writers did 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.
Me, I say those are the wrong questions. The devil always uses questions to blind us to God’s word. In Genesis, he succeeded. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Devil failed. I think the right question is, what does God want us to learn from this story?
On Ash Wednesday, we heard the sobering words that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Scientifically, that’s true – we are made of the stuff of the earth, and our bodies will one day return to the earth. We want to live a long and happy life on earth, so we ask questions like: How do we protect our environment? How do we protect ourselves from coronavirus? But our bodies will return to dust, so the most important question is: How do we make sure we go to heaven?
For the next six weeks of Lent, many of us will live differently – perhaps you’ve given up something you like, or perhaps you’re doing something extra. Because we want to be better at loving God and loving our neighbour, we take on extra prayers and extra good works. It’s not wrong to work on improving ourselves. But when we come to Holy Week, we will not be celebrating our small achievement, but Christ’s great one. We can never make ourselves perfect by our own efforts. That’s why today’s psalm starts by saying ‘Yes, I’m a sinner’ but quickly moves to ‘God, create a pure heart within me’. You will never be truly lit until the light of Christ shines upon you.
Today, the 1st of March, is St David’s Day,* so I’d like to leave you with the opening words of the most famous hymn in the Welsh language, Calon Lân. In English, they would be:
I’d not ask a life that’s easy,
Gold and pearls? So little mean!
I would seek a heart that’s joyful,
Heart that’s honest, heart that’s clean.
* This year, St David’s Day is observed by the Catholic Church in Wales on 2nd March to make way for the first Sunday of Lent; in other terrtitories the observance of St David is not kept this year.