Among the more fascinating family lore is the story of my great-grandparents, who both came from San Margherita, Sicily, growing up in towns just three miles apart. Unfortunately, these were “enemy towns” and so despite their proximity they did not know each other. It was only when they separately traveled to America that they met and ultimately married.
In their new neighborhood in Brooklyn, there was a new kind of enemy. It was the practice of certain local powers to collect “protection money” ostensibly to ensure the safety of the payee’s family. My great-grandfather, a peaceable man, dutifully paid up whenever they came to call.
However, one day he was not home, so the collector sought payment from my great-grandmother Anna, who was in the kitchen frying sausages. Anna, outraged at the request, shouted back: “I’ll show you protection!” and aimed the skillet of sausages and hot oil at the stunned man who promptly ran away.
My great-grandfather was horrified upon hearing this and lived in mortal fear for their safety for the next several weeks. However, it seems that the powers-that-be had determined that the family did not in fact require additional protection and no further payments were solicited.
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Genesis, from which we get our First Readings this week, tells the story of a different Protection Fail, at the origin of our human family.
In the beginning, the Voice of God spoke light and life into the world. “Let there be light” He said, and there was light. He likewise spoke into existence the land and the sea, the night and the day, and spoke again, filling them with life—the creatures of the sea, the birds of the air, the vegetation and animals of the land. He looked and saw that “it was good.”
Then as the crown of His creation, He said:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” Gen 1:26
So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…” Gen 1:27
And God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good. Gen 1:31
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. Gen 2:15
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of 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.” Gen 2:16
One could write books unpacking the rich symbolism and deep meanings of these first two chapters of Genesis, and even of these particular lines. For now, we will look at the word “keep” in Gen 2:15, which in Hebrew is shamar. It is given to man to care for and cultivate the garden, but there is also a deeper meaning of “keep”, in which they are to watch over, protect, guard the garden. Guard it from what?
There is another voice in the garden. A voice that is in Opposition to God, to life, to the light. This voice comes cunningly to Eve, “Did God say…” he begins. From the beginning, it is the goal of the Opposition Voice to sow doubt about the Word of God.
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” he asks. Notice that this “most subtle of creatures” has changed the words. God’s voice said: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” The serpent has changed “every tree but one” to “not any tree.” This secondary lie is to sow doubt in the generosity of God, by emphasizing and adding to the negative.
“You shall not die” the serpent proceeds. One notes that he is denying consequences (again, falsely) but there is another MO at work: “It’s not a big deal.” The Opposition Voice undermines the importance, the gravity, of the Word of God.
Then the Opposition Voice continues: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” The serpent’s forked-tongue strikes doubly here. First, he suggests that they have a lack, a need, that God does not mean or wish to fill. With these words he strikes at the Fatherhood of God—suggesting that God does not want what’s best for them. And the voice awakens in humanity a fear of inadequacy and of dependence.
It was in fact the plan of God spoken into creation that man be “in His image and likeness.” But the serpent who “was a liar and a murderer” from the beginning wishes to separate the Father from His children and does so by convincing the children to doubt God’s Fatherhood.
Once they lose sight of God as Father, men lose sight of what it means to be like Him. Their sin does not make them God-like, but the opposite. Even today, when we say of someone “he acts like he’s God” it is not praise; it suggests that a person is arrogant, self-serving, even tyrannical. When the Word of God shows up in the person of Jesus, humanity doesn’t even recognize Him.
After this dialog with the devil, Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that [it] was to be desired to make one wise…” The Opposition Voice has thus changed her vision, so she eats of the fruit and shares it with Adam.
And then the Opposition Voice speaks again, telling them they are naked and should be ashamed, that they should hide from God. “But wait!” you say. The serpent doesn’t speak those words!
He doesn’t have to. The Opposition Voice originates with the serpent, but continues in our own voice, or in the voice of the world. We don’t always need him to whisper doubts and temptations, we do it to ourselves. We let the world tell us what we lack, what it can do for us better than God can.
We know the Good News: that a woman would come who would perfectly hear and keep the Word of God. That her Son would defeat the serpent with His death on the Cross. At our baptism, we are reclaimed, named as children of God. We are named, our sin is washed in the waters, and then the community says the Our Father.
We are given this identity at baptism and the promise of paradise. But we must guard it from the Opposition Voice.
How do we know where a voice is coming from?
We are invited to get to know God’s voice by spending time in prayer, spending time reading His Word, learning to hear Him say I love you. The more we are exposed to what is authentically God, the more we will learn to recognize what is counterfeit.
I hope to continue exploring this in future posts…
Image Credit: William Blake (Public Domain)