Genesis 2-3, Adam and Eve, it’s a story of catastrophe and in it we are meant to find the origin of every catastrophes since. But it is not the Bible’s only catastrophe. No. According to the Old Testament Adam and Eve don’t just originate the catastrophe of Sin and Death, they reproduce it.
From Adam and Eve comes Cain who murders his brother Abel and then goes on to sire four more generations of sinners including Lamech, a murderous womanizer so pleased with himself he sings songs about his kill count.
The generations of sinners continue in chapters four and five of Genesis until in chapter six the Lord beholds the wickedness of humankind and regrets having created us in the first place. “Every inclination of their hearts is only evil continually,” God realizes, and so God decides to start over, to wash it all away.
Except God decides to preserve this guy Noah. Noah is saved along with all the animals on the ark; but then after the flood Noah plants a vineyard, gets hammered, and screws up his family. The original sin continues.
Genesis eleven ends with a city of sinners, originally called to fill the earth with God’s blessing, instead building themselves a tower so they can get themselves to heaven. God sees this and, confusing their speech, scatters them across the face of the earth he had just tried to clean up.
It’s a catastrophe. Eleven chapters of catastrophe starting in the Garden, and then corrupting the face of the earth not once, but twice. It’s a story of catastrophe after catastrophe, and in it we are meant to find the origin of every catastrophes since… but that’s not all we are meant to find.
Herschel was a widower. Is a widower. His pastor had never met him until his wife died, his wife of 48 years. Her name was Helen. She was a pillar of the church: chair of the altar guild, secretary of the finance committee, and a lifelong smoker which meant she sang both alto and tenor in the chancel choir. Not everyone knew it, but Helen used to send all the teenagers in the church a card on their birthday with a ten dollar bill inside, and she always brought an extra dish to potlucks in case someone else forgot.
When she died the whole church showed up to her funeral. The whole church… and Herschel. Herschel wasn’t the churchgoing type. Last time he set foot in a church was their wedding day.
When the pastor came to the house to plan Helen’s service Herschel barely said a word. He just shrugged and kept saying “whatever you think is best, preacher.”
The funeral was long but lovely. The choir sang two anthems. Easily a dozen people gave remembrances, but not Herschel. The sermon was better than usual, “I am the resurrection, and I am life” the preacher kept saying.
At the end of Amazing Grace everyone filed out behind the casket to the church’s side yard, the cemetery. The committal was brief, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” (that’s Genesis 3, by the way) and then everyone filed into the basement for a reception. Everyone except Herschel.
Herschel stayed outside, just standing there next to the grave, silent, staring down at the ground. The pastor was almost inside when he noticed him there, turned around, and walked back to Herschel saying “Herschel, I know this must be hard. Is there anything you’d like to say now?”
“What’s that, preacher?” Herschel said.
“What’s what? That? That’s Helen’s grave Herschel.”
“I know that’s her grave, not that, that. What is that?”
The pastor had forgotten it was there, hadn’t remembered it at all until Herschel pointed it out. It had been years since she purchased it. Right next to Helen’s grave was a second grave of equal size, with its own headstone. On the headstone was Herschel’s full name, below it his birth year and a dash, above it all there was a simple empty cross.
“Herschel, that’s your grave,” said the preacher. “Helen must not have told you she was preparing a place for you here. I remember helping her with the paperwork. She made me laugh. She said something like ‘I know we said ‘til death do us part, but I’m planning on us being together even longer.’”
Herschel lost it. He melted into the preacher’s arms and wept. A grown man, he cried and cried in the broad light of the midday sun.
“Herschel,” said the pastor. “Herschel, breathe. Breathe. Herschel, why are you crying?”
“She didn’t have to do that,” he said. He kept saying it, over and over, “She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to do it.”
“Do what, Herschel? She didn’t have to do what?”
“She didn’t have to love me,” he exclaimed.
“What do you mean, Herschel?”
“Preacher, I’m not a perfect man, by no means. On top of that, by most measures I’ve been an even worse husband. In our 48 years of marriage I gave Helen more reasons to leave than I can count, but she just never did. If she had I wouldn’t have falted her, she would have been justified! But preacher, she just stayed. Every time, she just stayed. She didn’t have to do that. I mean what kind of person does that?”
Then, again, Herschel collapsed in the pastor’s arms, and the pastor just stayed there with him.
There’s a way of reading this part of the Old Testament, the catastrophe part, as the story of humanity’s catastrophic failure to live up to our full potential, our calling as bearers of the image of God and caretakers of creation. And there’s a way to read God’s place in the whole thing as this eternal and holy God, which God is, eternally and unflinchingly righteous, who cannot and shall not abide our sin.
Therefore, says this way of reading the Bible, in the wake of our sin, humanity is justifiably banished from the garden and left to toil on the earth in failed attempt after failed attempt to earn our way back into God’s good graces. But try as we may, and sinful as we are, even with the aid of God’s righteous law we will not, cannot satisfy God, our righteous, wrathful Father until finally Christ does it for us.
In Christ’s perfect life God’s law is fulfilled. In his death on our behalf God’s wrath is satisfied, and through believing in him his righteousness is credited to us in a way that makes us presentable to God our Father.
There is truth in this reading, but there is also a problem. It’s not the whole story. In fact this reading runs the risk of making the story of the Bible no more than a legal drama, when really, the truth is, the Bible is a love story.
What actually happens when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree they are told not to eat? Initially God said on the day they eat of it they shall die; but they don’t die. Instead God removes them from that tree and from the garden, guards its entrance, and remains with them outside its gates.
When Cain kills Abel, does God kill Cain, taking a life for a life? God would be justified in doing so, no? No. Instead God goes looking for Cain and, while he is yet a sinner, marks Cain’s life for protection.
As the story continues and catastrophe mounts upon catastrophe, God is justified in wanting to wipe out all creation, the gods in other flood narratives do, but instead this God preserves life, Noah and the animals on the Ark, and after the flood God hangs up a rainbow in the clouds, and promises to never do that again.
Time after time humanity, Israel, turns away from fellowship with God to catastrophic effect. Their love, our love fails, but God’s love remains steadfast. Time after time, God stays, even to the point of saying “Fine, even if you’re going to make your bed in the grave. I’ll go there too. In fact, I’ll go there to prepare a place for you. Even in death, I’ll be waiting there for you.”
After a while Herschel finally made it inside. Someone had fixed him a plate and covered it with a little cling-wrap-and-tooth-pick tent. It made him crack a smile. He didn’t say much but he stayed until the last guest left. All he kept saying was “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
I’d love to say Herschel started going to church every Sunday. He didn’t. But he did come by the church most weeks, usually on a Friday when it was quiet. Helen’s funeral was on a Friday. He’d drive up and stop by the office where he’d drop off a check from Helen’s checkbook like she made him promise to do. Then he’d head for the cemetery.
That’s where he would stand for a moment before lowering himself down to the ground. He would lie all the way down, flat on his back on his grave, right there next to Helen. In silence he’d lie there and just breathe. Then, after a few minutes, he would rise up and be on his way. Before leaving he always poked his head back into the office and just say “Thank you.”
Part of why I wanted to do this series in the first place is because I think many of us were taught to read the Old Testament and expect to find a wrathful Father waiting for us to finally satisfy him when in fact the God that scripture points to is more like a loving spouse who, despite catastrophe after catastrophe, is helplessly devoted to her failure of a lover, even to the point of death.
This God Stays.
The Old Testament testifies to it and Christ confirms it. Catastrophe after catastrophe, God apparently can’t help but remain devoted, because in the beginning and in the end God chooses to stay, to honor vows, and to keep promises, even to the point of death on a cross and beyond.
That’s the thing. God didn’t have to. Other gods don’t! Our God does. As it turns out the preacher was right.
This God Stays.
This God is Resurrection.
This God is Life.
Even though like Adam, like Eve, like Cain, like Abel, even though like Herschel, we fail catastrophically and die, “Yet,” says the God who stays, “Yet shall I stay, and yet shall you live.”