Writer Bob Kaylor tells the following story:
“When I was a kid I would spend part of my summer at my aunt and uncle’s farm in Western Pennsylvania. I’d go during the time to put up hay, probably because I was small enough to tuck the bales into the spaces at the top of the barn. They were great times—drinking ice cold whole milk straight from the dairy barn, riding the tractors, and taking a dip in the river on hot summer days. Everything was magical…well, almost everything.
My cousins liked an activity I never quite understood— hunting raccoons at night. If you’ve never been part of this activity, let me describe it to you succinctly. You run at top speed, chasing a barking dog through the woods until the dog stops at a tree and barks madly into the darkness where you see… nothing. In all the years we never bagged a single raccoon. In fact, I never even saw a raccoon on those hunts. Those dumb dogs were constantly barking up the wrong tree.
I think about those nights running through the woods every time someone uses that familiar idiom—barking up the wrong tree— to describe a fruitless search.”
This brings us to Genesis 3— a story also about humans following an animal into the trees for an exercise in futility! This is, of course, one of the foundational stories of the whole Bible and of our whole human existence, but it’s often the least understood. And the reason for this misunderstanding is that we tend to externalize this story much like we do with Genesis 1 and 2. We turn it into a flat text failing to go deeper to the theological implications, failing to see what it is actually telling us about ourselves and about God.
Questions about talking snakes and what fruit Adam and Eve actually munched on are exercises in missing the point. This is a story about humans barking up the wrong tree—something we’ve been doing from the beginning.
God says, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden” (v. 16). Every tree! That’s permission. God isn’t just getting Adam to slog through and do all the work. God’s giving Adam the freedom to enjoy the fruits of divine creation! And there was fruit on the Tree of Life.
Remember, Adam was created mortal, made from dust, and able to die. One antidote to death is of course to eat, and Adam was free to eat as much as he wanted. The Tree of Life that was not only good to eat, it gave him life.
Except that tree was off limits.
So why is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil forbidden? After all, it seems like that kind of knowledge would be a good thing. It would help us in those morally ambiguous dilemmas to be able to munch on a piece of knowledge fruit and know what to do.
But it’s not the choice between good and evil that’s the focus here. The real focus is whether these humans will trust God. Will Adam and Eve trust God’s wisdom or their own? Do they want the world God gave them, or do they prefer a world of their own making?
Well, we know what happens. The result is nothing less than the unraveling of God’s created work. What was in order, what was “very good,” will now begin to expand away from God and from the way God intended. And it’s been running that way since the beginning.
This story reminds us of the way things are when humans choose to run the world on their own—it’s an exercise in barking up the wrong tree. The rest of the chapter is all about what happens to humans and to all of creation as a result. When Adam and Eve choose to violate the prohibition and break the covenant with God, the whole creation project starts falling apart as the trees we should be tending begin to wither and die.
We humans often bark up the wrong trees when we would do better tending to certain trees—trees that actually bring forth life.
The first tree we would do well to tend to is the “tree of human relationships”.
Genesis 3 tells us when they ate the fruit of the wrong tree, “their eyes were opened.” Adam and Eve saw something— they saw they were naked, vulnerable, out of place.
And then what happened?
They began comparing themselves to one another, and started playing the blame game. The mutuality, equality, and partnership for which they were created suddenly became competition and resentment.
Instead of ruling together, instead of their sexuality being used as part of God’s creative plan, it all becomes bound up in self-seeking desire.
Often relationships are frayed and made fragile. It takes a lot of work to hold things together. And when a relationship is broken, it’s difficult to mend it, which is why we must intentionally tend to the tree of human relationships.
Next there’s the “tree of serenity and peace of mind.”
Notice verse nineteen that reads, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground.” Yes, there is sweat in toil, but there’s also something else meant by that phrase, “the sweat of your face.”
This was actually an idiom in the ancient world which was less about labor and more about anxiety and sweat-inducing fear.
Because humans barked up the wrong tree, humans now have an adversarial relationship with the world that causes us to fear there will never be enough, that our labor will not meet our needs. What if there’s an accident? What if the storm hits? What if there’s a fire? What if I lose my job? What about groceries this week? The car payment? The tuition bill? The retirement savings? What if I get sick or my kids get sick?
We can have all the resources in the world and yet they do not insulate us from worry.
Which is why it becomes an imperative that we know when we are barking up the wrong tree of worry and anxiety and not the tree of serenity and peace. One will only make matters worse. The other will guide us through the cause of our worry and anxiety.
Finally, the “tree of security” withers and dies as a result of our choosing the wrong tree.
The last scene in Genesis 3 offers what is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all: God banishes them from the garden and the gap between God and God’s creation is solidified. They have tried to become like gods, and God cannot allow God’s creation to continue that rebellion. So they are exiled, cut off, from the tree of life.
The place that Adam and Eve were privileged to protect, now has to be protected from them.
Interestingly, the verb in verse 23 is the same one for divorcing a spouse or disowning a child. The humans were “sent forth,” divorced from that place. We’ve been divorcing ourselves from God ever since. Indeed, one of the primary motifs in the Bible is that of exile. It happens to God’s people, Israel, because of their sin. And it happens to us because of ours.
When we dive deeper into this story, and go further than just snakes and fruit and a singular wrong, there isn’t one of us who can’t resonate with this story. No matter how good we might believe we are, we alone know where the fault lines are—where the brokenness is.
In comparison to what we were created for, as a human race, we are broken and twisted, capable of inflicting unimaginable evil upon our brothers and sisters.
We know, deep in our bones, that things aren’t right with us. We know that death isn’t supposed to be our destiny. We know the world is broken by violence, pollution, disease, greed, selfishness, and enmity.
We are in a mess of our own making—a mess we cannot fix on our own.
But God can.
And God immediately got to work to do so, calling on God’s chosen ones—Noah, Abraham, the Kings and Judges. God sent the Prophets to bring God’s message. And then, ultimately, God sent Jesus himself—God in human form, the Word made flesh—all so that we could get back in right relationship with God.
And in partnership with God, we can continue the work of tending to and reviving the trees that are withering and dying—the trees of human relationship, creation, peace of mind, moral values, and compassion.
We can, with Christ our Redeemer, plant seeds of new trees when we reach out to those who have been cast aside, pushed to the margins, and told they don’t matter.
We can, with Christ our Savior, cultivate a new garden filled with trees of life for all.
It will require us, however, to stop barking up the wrong trees—trees of judgement and condemnation; trees of “I’m right and you’re wrong”; trees of selfishness and hate.
It will require us to get back to tending to trees that will actually make life as it was meant to be.
It’s not at all ironic or coincidental that Jesus will die on a tree, and then be raised to life again in a garden.
He will meet a couple on the Emmaus Road whose eyes are opened when he breaks bread with them.
He will tell his disciples to not be afraid, to not worry with sweaty faces.
He will announce the return from exile, God coming to dwell with God’s people again in spirit and truth.
He will defeat the death that plagues us all.
He is the new—and last— Adam; the One who offers a new way to life that is abundant, fruitful and eternal.
So may we—with God’s help, the model of Jesus, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit—stop barking up the wrong trees and get back to what we were created for—tending to trees of life. Amen.