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FROM EDEN TO EMMAUS
By MARGARET GUENTHER
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Margaret Guenther
All rights reserved.
You Can't Go Home Again
Then the Lord God said "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, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword faming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:21–24)
I've never been thrown out of anywhere, yet. I'm well behaved in church, department stores, concerts, and rarely frequent bars. I can't even imagine getting kicked out of Eden: I'm too much of a conformist to break the rules. But then, who knows? Tat smooth-talking serpent might have convinced me that I wouldn't get caught, and no big deal if I were.
This may be blasphemous, but I am also convinced that life in the Garden of Eden lacked excitement. Perfection can become too predictable. If I remember correctly from a reluctant and compulsory reading of Paradise Lost long ago, Adam was puttering around doing something not particularly interesting or necessary—just killing time—while Eve tended the roses and came up with her theory about the division of labor:
Let us us divide our labours, thou where choice Leads thee, or where most needs, whether to wind The Woodbine round this Arbour, or direct The clasping Ivie where to climb. (IX. 214–217)
* * *
But while there was plenty to do, what with naming and tending to the animals, and trying to curb the "wanton growth" of paradise with Eve's secateurs, there was no danger. All the creatures, vertebrate and invertebrate, were presumably friendly; even the snake was not venomous, just sneaky. He was not yet slithering around on his belly and hiding in the grass, hissing out seductive words. There was clean water and plenty of vegetarian, or more likely vegan, fare: theirs was the perfect Mediterranean diet now touted by our nutritional gurus. No need to do the laundry since they hadn't discovered the need for clothing, and the weather was no doubt mild. So how did the troublemaker get in, or at least get their attention? How did curiositas become an avenue to sin?
Little kids get into trouble when they are bored. All the toys in the world plus unlimited high-sugar snacks aren't enough. Why play with your big, brightly colored blocks when you can stick a finger into a live socket? Or fall down the stairs while exploring the world and testing your new-found but unreliable mobility? Or simply satisfying your curiosity, enchanted by the prospect that each new discovery would lead inexorably to a new and dangerous challenge?
As far as I know, we have the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas to blame for identifying curiosity as a sin, the insatiable itch that killed the cat. The wanting to know perhaps more than we should, more than is good for us, more than we need to know. I still recall one of my mother's most irritating statements whenever confronted by mystery: "Well, we just aren't meant to know." But why plant that irresistible tree in the center of the garden and then caution this absurdly naive pair: "Whatever you do, don't go near it!" Was the God who designed paradise capable of an oversight? Or poor judgment of character? Or just carried away with his creativity? And why pick on the snake? Serpents are, after all, beautiful and fascinating. Crows are natural troublemakers, and cats are not trustworthy. Why not add a crafty and inventive snake to liven up the critter population?
God's reaction to their disobedience reminds me of the parenting style of Bronson Alcott, who clearly thought that he was God or at least a good nineteenth-century imitation. As a character-building exercise, he would put a delicious, shiny red apple on the table, then leave one of his four daughters alone to be tested. When Louisa, ever the adventurous one, succumbed and took a bite, she had to confess, repent, and grovel in her sinfulness. Bronson, like the God of Eden, wasn't into corporal punishment; that would have been too easy. Temporarily expelled from the austere Eden of her father's approval, Louisa no doubt got the message: that juicy, irresistible fruit is dangerous! Don't even think about touching it!
My earliest coherent memories go back to when I was about two and a half years old, three at the most. I had memorized the Lord's Prayer and said it every night along with "Now I lay me." The word "temptation" fascinated me, even though I had no idea what it might mean. Its syncopated rhythm had a jaunty, bouncy sound, and anything with four syllables was a treasure to be added to my growing vocabulary. But the meaning of the word was quite beyond me: it never occurred to me to lust after anything beyond willing grownups to read to me, a garden—not Eden, but still delightful—to play in, and a high-calorie dessert at six o'clock every evening. Even now, at the other end of life, interesting temptations have eluded or perhaps spared me. So when, in imagination, I join my sister Eve in the garden, I have to admire her intensity, her willingness to let go and risk all. Over the centuries artists have depicted a voluptuously beautiful Eve reaching for the apple. You could tell just to look at her that she was headed for trouble and taking the rest of us with her.
Scripture makes her "fall" sound easy: "So 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" (Genesis 3:6). I have to wonder if it was really so simple. It might have taken days or weeks, months, even years before she took that final step. "Should I? Shouldn't I? Can I trust this charming, friendly serpent? His voice is so sweet—how could he be dangerous? I'll just walk a little closer to the tree and get a good look at the fruit again, smell its fragrance, admire its color. Maybe just a tiny bite? After all, God never told me that I couldn't have just one bite. He warned Adam before I was even around. Maybe he didn't mean me at all." Two steps forward and one step back. "Just a small bite. If it's really good, I'll go ahead and enjoy it. If Adam has some too, then it's not my fault. It'll be his problem then. Otherwise I'll hide the evidence, and God will never know."
Like the Alcott children, Adam and Eve first knew shame after eating the apple or pomegranate or whatever it was: they knew that they were naked. Experts in child development describe the stages of growing awareness as babies cease to delight in their nudity and first experience shame in their own naked bodies. I recall my own children scampering through the living room on their way upstairs to the nightly bath, shedding clothes along the way, and arriving in the bathroom ready to plunge into the tub. Eve and Adam were exposed in their humanity with no place to hide. They had lost their naiveté, their unblemished newness, their child-like ingenuousness. They were damaged goods. They were ashamed, although not of anything particular they had done—ashamed, simply, of their being. No wonder that they wanted to hide! Shame is so much more painful than guilt: it overwhelms. Whatever you have done to incur it, there is no way to undo it.
They are driven out, expelled. The gate clangs shut behind them, more final and drastic than changing the locks. That gate will not open again. There is no turning back: they can't go home again. There is a frightening, chilling finality about expulsion: there is no readmission, no second chance. All the pictures of the expulsion from Eden that I have seen and those that I have imagined have merged in my memory: the sun is not shining, Adam and Eve are cowering as they fee, an irate God looks down from heaven, and the cherubim are not to be messed with. This is the first hike alone, the first leave-taking, and it is filled with terror—the way is not clear, and there is no hope of homecoming. Did the God who sewed useful garments of animal skins think to make sandals or moccasins from the leftover scraps? Or are they driven into an inhospitable terrain with tender, vulnerable feet? After all, they hadn't needed shoes in Eden, with nothing dangerous to step on as they strolled around. But beyond the gate there must have been sharp stones, burning sand, mud, and treacherous ice. The author of Genesis doesn't tell us about that terrain. Was it a desert or a rain forest? Blistering hot or frigid? Filled with venomous snakes and mountain lions? Was poison ivy now twining around the roses? Scripture doesn't say anything about insects, so perhaps they were waiting just outside the gate for our human forebears to show up.
Whenever I ponder the shame, the fear, indeed the sheer terror of this story, I have to ask myself: was the expulsion necessary? Were Adam and Eve set up, or is that too harsh a word? Perhaps it was time for their next bold step. Growing up, accepting autonomy and maturity, means expulsion from paradise. Or maybe we outgrow paradise. Certainly it is a familiar phenomenon of human development that the child, then the adolescent, yearns to escape. Most earthly parents are less drastic or at least more subtle than the outraged creator God who tossed them out and barred the gate, but I am pretty sure that I would be tempted to change the locks if my middle-aged children wanted to move back in.
You can't go home again. These words became part of our consciousness, our intellectual and spiritual heritage in 1940, when Thomas Wolfe's final novel was published after his death. It may not be read much nowadays, but the words have stuck in our memory as a reminder what we don't live in Eden, that the gate is firmly shut and locked. They remind us that there is no going back. Home is not what or where we thought it was.
I think of the home of my childhood. Now and then, when I visit my town, I pass by the house where I grew up. It still stands on its quiet street, clearly loved and cared for by the current occupants. I want to go up on the porch, knock on the door, and hint that I would like to walk around the yard, maybe even manage a peek inside. But my cautious brother won't let me out of the car. He is right, of course. There is no going back. Or I remember cities where I have loved and lived—Zurich, Cambridge, the upper west side of New York, even the Kansas town of college years. Physically, geographically they are still there, with some changes, of course, but still recognizable. But there is no going home, only the occasional visit. Home is seldom where we think it is. Perhaps we are always leaving Eden from the moment we emerge from our mother's body, the first day at kindergarten, through the storms of adolescence right down to the moment when we draw our last breath.
Don't Look Back
Then the men said to Lot, "Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord and the Lord has sent us to destroy it." So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, "Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city." But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.
When morning dawned the angels urged Lot, saying, "Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city." But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city.... But Lot's wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. (Genesis 19:12–16, 26)
One of my favorite pictures in the National Gallery, a holy place just a subway ride away, is Albrecht Durer's depiction of Lot and his daughters feeing a devastated, stinking Sodom. It is a small painting on the reverse side of a panel depicting Mary and the infant Jesus. An interesting choice: on the one side, a tender depiction of maternal love, while on the other a family feeing for its life. Lot leads the little procession, a prosperous-looking, pudgy German solid citizen. His well-dressed daughters follow at a respectful distance behind him, carrying substantial burdens. Mrs. Lot, with no name of her own, is barely discernable. Indeed you can miss her completely unless you know the story and know where to look: she is a tiny, blackened figure far in the background. No one else is on the path from destruction to safety.
Lot, unlike his uncle Abraham who is recognized as a prophet, is not to be taken seriously; a marginal note in my Jewish Study Bible refers to him as a buffoon. At the very least he is a thoroughly unlikeable and opportunistic man. Earlier, when it is clear that their large households and herds of livestock must part ways in the land of Canaan if they are to continue to prosper, his uncle offers him the first choice of new land, no doubt with the expectation that, according to tradition, his nephew would defer to his elder. Instead, Lot jumped at the chance to prosper and chose the fertile southeastern plains near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The old man had been good to him, but after all it's only sensible to look out for number one.
To be self-serving is an unpleasant but recognizable human trait. But Lot as a family man is something else. Even as I try to persuade myself that different customs prevailed in other times and other places, and that hospitality especially was a sacred obligation, I cannot read the account of one terrible night in Sodom without a shudder of fear and rage. When the angelic messengers come to warn Lot of the coming catastrophe, he shelters them from the violence of the mob in the town square of Sodom. They batter his door and demand that the visitors be brought out to be raped as an act of humiliation. Lot, the good host, offers a compromise: "I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof" (Genesis 19:6–8).
Were the young women—more likely, teenagers—huddled together in a corner, resigned and passive, or weeping and protesting? And were the divine visitors mere onlookers, or were they ready to explain to Lot that they could really take care of themselves, even destroy the angry mob on the spot, if he would just open the door and hand them over? As it turned out, the crisis was averted and the angels themselves had to protect their host before getting away unscathed the next morning.
But Lot still was negotiating his future. During his fight from Sodom, he dared argue with the Lord, who directed them to fee to the hills. "I don't want to go there," he countered, "it's too dangerous! I want to go to Zoar." So God changed the itinerary, and Lot's family walked to a nearby small town.
We know nothing of his wife. Where was she when her daughters were at risk of being raped, and where was she throughout this whole puzzling story? If she had a voice, we do not hear it. If she feared her husband's anger, we do not know it. Was she weeping or silent? Embracing her daughters, trying to shelter them with her arms around them? Or was her spirit broken long ago so that she could not imagine disobeying or even mildly questioning Lot's wisdom? Was she gaunt and forbidding, or soft and warm? Maybe in her stoic uprightness she had begun already to be transformed into a pillar of salt.
I have to wonder why she chose to remain in such a terrible place, how she could disregard the divine command, "Flee for your life, do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; fee to the hills, or else you will be consumed" (9:17). One thing is clear: this divine imperative is not to be ignored. Yet it is only human to yield to the irresistible urge to look back. The unknown, even when it is desired or inevitable, can be frightening. There's an old Scots saying: Better the devil you know than the devil you don't. The Scot in me has an inkling of her inner debate: "Go? Stay? Maybe get a little way out of town and then look back to see how bad it is back there? I can always catch up with Father and the girls if it seems like a good idea. Especially if I don't drag a lot of furniture with me." After all, the known can offer a kind of security. One of the chilling moments from the film Schindler's List lingers in my memory: a patrician Jewish matron, being crowded with several dozen others into a small apartment, says, "At least we know it won't get worse than this."
And, of course, Lot's wife may have paused and looked back out of curiosity; it is not every day that you can see sulfurous fire raining on your city. She might have looked back with regret: everything that she had cherished in her household was destroyed. The good china, the girls' baby pictures, even the pots and pans. Or with pleasure: those terrible people of Sodom are finally getting what they deserve. Or fatigue: I'm not able to start all over in a new place. Rotten as it was, this place was home. Or her reaction might have been simply a matter of temperament; some of us are never quite ready to take the next step into the unknown.
And why was she so strangely and so harshly punished? Scripture isn't helpful here. Commentators offer the explanation that she is still there on the outskirts of the vanished Sodom, a human-like formation of salt testifying to the truth of this story. Jesus was the first to suggest that she was being punished as, describing the chaos and catastrophe of the last days, he warns his hearers not to look back: "On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot's wife" (Luke 17:31).
And why salt, treated so ambiguously throughout Scripture? We are the salt of the earth, Jesus tells us, yet salt is also symbolic of sterility and unfruitfulness: salting of that same fertile earth by the conqueror could be a final blow of devastation to a defeated people. Yet through the centuries salt has been a valuable, indeed precious commodity all over the world. Moreover, salt is part of our humanity. Our bodies contain salt, our sweat and our tears are salty, and we need it even when the Morton's is banished from our own kitchens for the good of our blood pressure. Should God one day choose to turn me into a five-foot-one-inch pillar, he would first need to augment my chemical makeup with a divinely supplied addition of sodium chloride.
Excerpted from WALKING HOME by MARGARET GUENTHER. Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Guenther. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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