Pop quiz: What was last Sunday’s first reading and why is it so important?
Before I give the answer, I’ll say that this reading—and the entire biblical text from which it comes—is a topic I focus on at length whenever I instruct anyone preparing for their sacraments of initiation. I do so because this text provides the foundation for understanding humanity, creation, and God’s relationship with both.
Sadly, it may also be the most underappreciated and misunderstood book in the bible.
Last week’s first reading was from the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. It’s the moment just after Adam and Eve misuse their free will and break the one rule that God had placed upon them. It’s the moment that God affirms the consequences of that choice. And it’s the reading with the first divine promise that while our free will may unleash evil, God’s presence in human history will be victorious—as the subsequent readings unpack further.
I’ve come across too many Catholics—lapsed and active—that think the Church reads Genesis literally; that God created the cosmos, Earth, and humanity in six twenty-four hour intervals; that Eve alone is to blame entirely for the downfall of the human race. Or that God’s words are some twisted, divine punishment rather than an honest assessment of what Adam and Eve’s actions did in that good and ordered world.
And so here are some tips for reading Genesis—especially when it comes to understanding its role in eco-protection.
First, the authors of Genesis were not writing science or history as we understand it today. Nor were they writing in a vacuum. They were inspired to record their creation myths—and here’s the important part—that ran counter to the myths of surrounding superpowers—such as Babylon. Those competing creation myths taught that evil was an attribute of the gods. They taught that creation is the result of evil divine activity.
The authors of Genesis dismiss all that. They go to great lengths to stress the order and goodness of creation—a radical proposition at the time. (It remained a radical proposition in the first few centuries of the Church as well. Heretics wanted to eject Hebrew Scriptures, but the Church doggedly maintained what we call the Old Testament in large part because of its divine affirmation of the goodness of creation.)
But now we get to last Sunday’s reading: that dreadful scene when our first parents suffer from their choices.
Rather than placing the causes of evil on divine choices—on warring, evil gods, as the Babylonians did—Genesis maintains God’s goodness by accounting for real-world evils through the choices of Adam and Eve—that is, from the choices of humanity.
In that orderly, good garden that God created, Adam and Eve had just one rule to live by: don’t eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
But Adam and Eve thought that this fruit looked appealing. And so they ignored the law. In grasping for that fruit—in violating God’s rule—they become the first consumers who choose not to consider the consequences of their actions—until it’s too late.
The result of consuming that fruit was literally to know both evil and good. The latter they knew already. They lived, after all, in God’s good creation. But evil? That they had not known. But now they would. This knowledge of evil—this experience of it—has followed the human race ever since. Like Adam and Eve, we, too, often choose not to follow God’s laws.
And yet God pursues us. And he gives us his all to save us.
With all that as background, last Sunday’s first reading should inform us that there’s a lot going on in Genesis and it has a lot to do with you, me, and what we’re doing to the world God gave us. It is critical, therefore, for catechists and homilists to clearly and definitively teach all this—especially if we are to make some attempt to build a better world, with the grace of God, one choice at a time.
William Patenaude, M.A., KCHS, serves on the diocesan pastoral council, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and is a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish, West Warwick. He writes at CatholicEcology.net