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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Genesis 3:14-19
March 30, 2014 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

         The chair went round and round, faster and faster. Then all of a sudden it overbalanced and tipped over and a child went flying. No one was hurt, but my uncle heard the commotion. He strode in to view the scene where my two cousins and my sister Helen had been having a marvelous time spinning each other around in my aunt’s new swivel rocker, and administered his brand of justice.

         Uncle Dick didn’t ask who did it or try to determine greater or lesser degrees of guilt. He simply picked up each child, one by one, and delivered a good swat to every juvenile bottom in the room. My sister was last to receive her punishment. My cousins were more or less accustomed to being swatted by their father, but it was a new experience for Helen, and she dissolved into tears. My cousins, both younger than Helen, gathered around to comfort her and tell her she would be O.K. She would get over it.

         Even if you don’t use corporal punishment, if you are a parent of more than one child or even just cared for a couple kids for a few hours, my guess is that at some point you’ve at least threatened the sort of all-around punishment my uncle administered. “I don’t care who started it, if you don’t all settle down, no one will get dessert!” or something like that.

         Something like that is God’s approach as He delivers divine justice to His children in the Garden of Eden. He gives Adam and Eve a hearing and listens, as we heard last week, to their attempts to foist the blame off in other directions. But in the end He gives everyone a holy swat on the rear, regardless of who might be most to blame.

         Starting with verse 14, we hear how God’s responds to those who overturned a chair in the living room of His beautiful creation and wrecked the harmony of His world. God hands out His punishments in the order of offense—first the serpent, then Eve, then Adam.

         As we read the serpent’s punishment in verses 14 and 15, all sorts of questions come to mind. Who or what is this serpent anyway? We typically identify him with the evil adversary called “Satan” in other parts of Scripture. But how is he connected with the literal reptilian creatures we know as snakes? And since part of the serpent’s curse is to spend the rest of its life crawling on its belly, did it somehow walk on four legs before that? How does that fit with our understanding of scientific herpetology and the biology of snakes? If this is the evil spirit Satan, why does he show up as a talking snake? And where did Satan come from in the first place?

         Christian theology and tradition have come up with some answers to a few of those questions, particularly about Satan. He is a fallen angel. He was created perfectly good, not to mention beautiful, but, like human beings, fell into sin by his own deliberate choice. Now he continues in rebellion against God by trying to sabotage the relationship between humans and their Creator.

         Lots of our questions, however, go unanswered. As we read the first eleven chapters of Genesis we have to keep reminding ourselves that this part of the Bible was not written to satisfy all our scientific and historical curiosity about the events it covers. Instead, it was inspired by the Holy Spirit to teach us who we are in relation to God and why we find ourselves in such a lost and broken condition, constantly hurting and being hurt, offending against each other and against God.

         So we have to guess a little at the significance of the curse in verse 14. Working from other texts, Christian thought has often said that Satan’s own first sin, somewhat like Adam and Eve’s, was pride. He wanted exactly what he tempted Eve with, to be like God, even to be God. That’s why here in the physical body of a snake, God humbles this creature, makes him forever crawl on the ground before both human beings and other animals.

         Verse 15 can be read on both a physical and a spiritual level. On one hand, it’s obvious that snakes in general have been mostly feared and fought against down through human history. Recent on-line images from Australia of a snake fighting with a crocodile and swallowing it whole give most of us the willies. There is definitely “enmity” between serpents and human offspring. Like the rattlesnakes I encounter every now and then in Arizona, they will strike our heels any chance they get, and we will gladly clobber them on the head, like that big woman with the club in “B.C.” cartoons.

         On the other hand, there is a spiritual conflict being described here, about how God’s enemy is also ours. Like a snake or a mean dog, Satan keeps nipping at our heels, keeps finding ways to trip us up in sin, like he tripped up Adam and Eve. Yet, as we will come back to see, there is a promise here, a promise that it won’t always be like that, and that one day a Child descended from Eve will stomp on Satan’s head.

         Let’s turn then to Eve and the punishment God had for her. It’s the shortest of the three pronouncements God makes here, just verse 16. For all of you who have given birth I imagine you would say that it is harsh, even cruel. Perhaps if Eve had never eaten the apple, babies might have sprung forth into world with no more female discomfort than a belch. But now you’ve got nine long months that include nausea, weight gain, back pain, frequent trips to the bathroom and more. And at the end… well at the end is pain evidently so excruciating that it’s incredible anyone ever goes in for a second round of it or more.

         On top of the pangs and pain of childbirth, God adds this little bit, “yet your desire will be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” In other words, despite the resulting pain of birth, despite the fact that a man will dominate and subjugate and rule over his wife, a woman will keep desiring, keep wanting to be with a husband, despite all the pain and trouble it brings her.

         In verse 17, God turns to Adam and this time clearly puts some blame on him, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’…” For the man the crime is clearly stated. He should have known better. It didn’t matter that Eve had eaten. It didn’t matter that she gave him the fruit. That’s no excuse. Adam knew what God had commanded and listened to his wife instead of to God.

         Adam’s punishment is full of irony. Because it was a sin of eating, for the rest of human history, eating will require work, hard work, painful work. In fact, when God proclaims, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life,” that word “toil” is the very same word He used for women’s birth “pangs” back in verse 16. It’s no wonder we call giving birth “labor.” God used that word in the beginning. Women will painfully labor upon delivery beds while men painfully labor in the hard ground of the earth, scratching out something to eat.

         Anyone who has ever seriously tried to grow anything to eat knows how true verse 18 is. Thorns and thistles, every noxious weed on earth grows easily. Corn and peas and beans and broccoli only come up in any quantity and quality when you labor and sweat over them. And even then the raccoons and rabbits and birds and deer often get half or more of what you’ve grown.

         Thus the beginning of verse 19 nicely sums up human existence in general, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…” In other words, you work hard, then you die. And God concludes by reminding the man of where he came from in the first place. That hard, dry ground in which he will try to grow food is what God made Adam from in Genesis 2:7. As we said this morning when we came in and as we say every Ash Wednesday to remember that our own deaths will come, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

         So those are the consequences of sin. A lifetime in which two of the most beautiful and delightful aspects of our human being are tainted, even saturated with pain and toil. Relations between a man and woman and the resulting birth of children will be filled with “pangs,” painful toil and hurt. And the simple pleasure of eating will only be possible if there is more toil and hurt, only if someone, at least, stoops over and pulls weeds, or shovels manure out of a cattle stall, or spends long hours driving a truck of strawberries to supermarkets, or sits in front of a computer screen till eyes ache, all to make it possible to eat our bread, to have food on the table. And then, of course, we die. We go back to the dust from which we’ve been scraping that food, the dust from which we ourselves came.

         If that were it, it would be a pretty sad story this morning. The first human beings blew our chance at lasting and perfect happiness. Now for the vast majority of our race it’s all hard work, misery and death. Talk to the migrant workers who picked the fruit you had with breakfast or to the Asian sweat shop workers who made the shoes you’re wearing or to the people some of you have visited in Mexico or Africa or India. That’s their life story. Labor, pain, and finally death. That’s our punishment, that’s human life after the Fall.

         Thanks be to God it’s not the end of the story. I told you my cousins comforted my sister after she got spanked by their father, my uncle. Debbie, the older of the two, patted my sobbing sister on the back and told her “Don’t worry. He didn’t really mean it.” Of course, that’s not quite true. My uncle did mean to punish rowdy children. But what Debbie knew was that was not all he meant. Her father still loved them. It’s the same here. God meant it, meant to punish to Adam and Eve, to punish us. But He still loved them, still loves us.

         This summer I will attempt to preach through the book of Proverbs, that seemingly haphazard collection of nuggets of wisdom and pithy sayings. Right near the beginning, in Proverbs 3, verses 11 and 12, is a saying which a New Testament writer picked up and quoted to us as Christians in Hebrews 12:5-6, “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”

         In God’s punishment, in these consequences for sin, there is love. Let’s look at that love now. Go back to verse 15, God’s warning to the serpent that though he might strike the heel of the woman’s offspring, her offspring would strike the snake’s head, would stomp him to death. Starting with the church father Irenaeus in the second century, Christians have seen God’s love to us in those words. It’s a promise that there would be offspring of the woman who would strike a death blow against Satan our spiritual enemy.

         Irenaeus wrote, “From then on it was proclaimed that he who was to be born of a virgin, after the likeness of Adam, would be on the watch for the serpent’s head.”[1] And he quotes Paul in Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman.” And he explains that Jesus Christ is the true and perfect “offspring of a woman,” and only a woman. It is Jesus who gives us victory over the serpent, over Satan, and over death.

         People who like fancy theological talk call Genesis 3:15 the protevangelium, the first evangel, the first preaching of the Gospel the world ever heard. From God’s own mouth comes the promise of His Son, born of a woman, who will defeat Satan and free us from the consequences of our sin. If nothing else, my hope is that you will hear that first Gospel word today and know that despite all the punishments, despite all the pain and heartache and hard labor and loss you have suffered, God loves you. God sent His Son Jesus, offspring of the woman, to be your Savior and save you from sin, from death and from Satan’s power.

         There is more here. Even in the other consequences, even in the pain and hard work and death, there is some comfort, some good news, some love. One bit of good news in God’s punishment on Eve is what it tells us is not true. So many people down through the ages have gotten confused about God’s creation of human beings. They’ve taken the order of creation as an order of authority. God created Adam first, then Eve. So Adam was intended to be in charge, to rule over his wife, to dominate her, to subject her to his will and be the final authority in the human family.

         But nothing is said about authority or ruling or who’s in charge in the creation accounts. In Genesis 1:28 God told the man and the woman together to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. There’s nothing about dominion of one of them over the other. And in Genesis 2:23, when Adam meets Eve, he calls her “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” He is thrilled because she is like him, she is his equal, not an inferior to be ruled over like all the animals.

         It’s only when we get here to Genesis 3, when God is dishing out the consequences of sin, that God says a husband will rule over his wife, that she will be subjected to him. And that means that’s not how it was originally meant to be. Men weren’t created to dominate women and women weren’t created to submit to men. That’s just one of the effects, one of the consequences of sin. It’s punishment for wrong, not the intended order of creation. Men and women were created to be equal partners, not ruler and ruled.

         Which means that all our ruling over each other, whether it’s man over woman, master over slave, white people over people of other races, rich over poor is all of it something from which Jesus came to save us. The offspring of the woman comes to redeem us from all the effects of sin and that includes our need to be in charge, to dominate, to rule over other human beings. That’s what Jesus said in Matthew 20:25, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you…” He came to change all that, to enable us to submit to each other in a wonderful and glorious equality which God meant us to have from the beginning.

         And there is love and grace even in verses 17 to 19, even in hard work and death. By coming and working with His own hands in a carpenter shop, by walking through a field and plucking heads of grain to eat with His disciples, Jesus created the possibility of work raised from a curse to a blessing. When work is offered properly back to God, when we live as Paul directed in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,” we are freed both from domination and from the worst pains and suffering of work.

         Finally, another of the church fathers realized that even the punishment of death is filled with the love of God. Theodoret of Cyr wrote that God

…ordered things in such a way that the punishment might itself serve the goal of salvation. For death brings about separation from this life and brings [sin] to an end. It sets us free from labor, sweat and pain, and ends the suffering of the body. Thus the Judge mixes his love for us with punishment.[2]

Even we as human parents or as teachers, even we, when we are truly seeking what’s good, only punish when we care about the ones we are punishing. Just like my uncle, we dish it out only trying to help, only trying to save those we love. We are flawed. We deceive ourselves. We get angry and irrational. The consequences we deliver to each other are way too often too much or too little or too motivated by things other than love.

         But when Jesus came, the Judge truly and perfectly mixed love with punishment. You can see that in the fact that the Judge was willing to join us in the punishment Himself, to take our sin and our death as His own on the Cross. Yes, God punishes us. He has and will punish you and me with many of the consequences of our sins, large or small. Yet in all that there is love. There is the love of God for you and for me in Jesus Christ, who was punished for us so that punishment would someday end. He died for us, so that death would one day die. Many are the sad and painful consequences of sin, but the greatest and best consequence is God’s love and the hope of eternal life.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Quoted in Andrew Louth, ed.,  Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Vol. I (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 91.

[2] Ibid., p. 96.

Last updated March 30, 2014