The book of Genesis as a whole, and Genesis 1-3, holds a special interest to me in studying theology. You can search my blog to see how often I comment on a theme from Genesis, and I wrote a long series of reflection on Genesis 1-3 in my book, QUESTIONING GOD. Currently I am reproducing on my blog a series of reflections I wrote on Genesis 4-11. I hope one day to continue by writing reflections on the rest of Genesis beginning with chapter 12.
In this series of blogs I will be quoting and commenting on hymns from the Sunday before Great Lent begins which commemorates the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It is a wonderful theme but in Orthodoxy today seems to take a back burner to “Cheesefare” and “Forgiveness Sunday.” The fact is that the Sunday themes of Great Lent reflect several layers of development, with the newer layers being monastic themes, while the oldest layers are catechetical themes. This reflects the historical development which took place in Orthodoxy where Great Lent was originally a time of preparing catechumens for baptism, but as the empires and nations which embraced Orthodoxy lost this more missionary and outreach emphasis, they eventually turned Great Lent inward toward the existing Christians and into a discipline aimed at encouraging Christians to embrace monastic ideals which were often viewed as more fully keeping a Christian way of life. One can readily see this in the Sunday Epistle and Gospel readings where there are Scripture readings which do have a catechetical nature to them mostly from the Gospel According to St. Mark and then there are the newer set of readings which have monastic themes (Sts. John Climacus, Gregory Palamas, and Mary of Egypt). Palamas lived in the 14th Century, which gives us the clear sense that his memory a Sunday theme of Great Lent is relatively recent on the Orthodox scale of time).
The hymns for Vespers on the eve of the Sunday before Great Lent are totally dedicated to the theme of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise. So too the Canon from Matins is dedicated to this theme. I thought it worth reproducing these texts throughout Great Lent as well, and offering a few comments on them because they are so important to our understanding of Great Lent, repentance and salvation in Jesus Christ.
Genesis is a book of theology – it is theology in narrative form or as St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, the book of Genesis is “not so much history as ‘doctrines in the guise of narrative.’” God chooses to reveal what we receive as the doctrines and dogmas about Himself in the form of narrative. Those who reduce Genesis 1-3 to literal lessons in history or try to make it to be science lose the depth and riches of the revelation found in the text.
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)
St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) reports one discussion he has with the monks in Egypt regarding the heresy of the Anthropomorphites whose absolute literal reading of Genesis had led them into theological heresy as they took every word deed and action of God described in Genesis 2-3 to be absolute historical fact and thus ended up understanding God in totally human terms. A sympathetic view is offered of the Anthropomorphites whose literalism was seen as resulting from their simplicity – they simply were not able to think in abstract terms so their literalism caused the meaning of Genesis to be hidden from them which led them into theological error. They brought one learned monk to attempt to help these monks out of their heretical reading of the Scriptures.
“He asked him how the Catholic churches of the East interpreted the words in Genesis, ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness’ (Gn 1:26). Photinus explained how all the leaders of the churches were unanimous in teaching that the image and likeness of God should be understood not in an earthly, literal sense but spiritually. He himself demonstrated the truth of this in a lengthy discourse and with abundant scriptural evidence.” (CONFERENCES, p 126)
Cassian’s discourse goes on to explain that the problem with the simple, literalist interpretation of the Scriptures doesn’t come from demonic deception but rather from paganism. Paganism gave human form to the gods they worshipped, and when these people converted to Christianity they brought this same simplistic understanding of their gods as humans to the God of Genesis. He says no one reared in the Catholic Tradition of Christianity would make this same mistake.
So as we read Genesis 1-3, we need to recognize the theological import of the text and not overly simplify the text because it is more comfortable to read them in a literal fashion. We Orthodox have the Tradition of the Church in which to read, listen to, comprehend and interpret the Scriptures. The Orthodox hymns commemorating the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise are part of the Tradition in which we interpret the Scriptures.