Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Where are you?” (Gen. 3)
It has been said that the shortest questions are the best ones. If that’s true, then God’s question to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden must surely rank among the greatest questions of all time.
Three simple words: “Where are you?” They make such a great question because they can be read in so many different ways. At face value, of course, they simply mean that God is looking for Adam and Eve, and can’t find them.
But of course, we as readers know that the situation is much more complicated than that. We’ve already seen Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, and so they are now ashamed of themselves, and are in fact hiding from God—hiding from the One with whom they so recently had such easy and uninhibited converse.
And so, on another level, God’s question can also be read as an expression of fear—perhaps God suspects that Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit, so in a moment of panic, fearing the worst, he calls out, “Where are you?” God frightened for his own creation.
Or, perhaps God in fact already knows what has happened, and so the question is not a genuine effort to find Adam and Eve at all, but rather a way of confronting them with their misdoing. In that case, “Where are you?” becomes more of a judgment than a question.
Yet within the judgment, the question also implies an invitation for Adam and Eve to acknowledge what has happened—to come clean, as it were, and thereby open the possibility of restoration.
Adam, however, will have none of that. Instead, he rather brazenly evades responsibility, first by dodging it (“I was naked and ashamed, so I hid myself”), and then by wading in deeper by blaming the whole thing on Eve.
So now, with the place of humankind in the garden spoiled, God’s question takes on yet another meaning: Adam, what has become of you? What has happened to your spiritual life as a human being, that you hide from and even lie to God? Where are you?
And when all those layers of meaning have been pealed back in God’s question, what we are left with are what I find to be some of the most sorrowful, desolate words in all of scripture, full of pathos and disappointment. God had created Adam and Eve to be partners in creation, to mirror back to God the love and trust that God had in them.
But now, that plan is defunct. Adam and Eve have betrayed God, and they have betrayed one another. “Adam, Eve … where are you?” I hear in God’s voice such sadness, such a sense of letdown.
In Hebrew, the question is made all the more poignant by the fact that it is conveyed with a single word, ayeka. So in this moment of such deep pathos, God really speaks only a single word to Adam and Eve, but within that one word is the whole drama of the human condition. Where are you? How far have you gone away? How distant are you from the holiness and beatitude for which you were created?
Martin Buber told the story of Rabbi Shnuer Zalman, the Hasidic Rav of Northern White Russia, who was put in jail by the Tsarist police. The great rabbi was asked by an inquisitive jailer, “How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing, said to Adam, ‘Where are you?’” The rabbi answered the jailer, “Do you believe that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation, and every person is included in them?” “I believe this,” answered the jailer. “Well then,” said Rabbi Zalman, “in every era, God asks every person, ‘Where are you in your world? How far have you gotten in achieving wholeness?” When the jailer heard this, he stood up shaken, and placed his hand on the Rav’s shoulder, and cried bitterly, for he realized he had progressed very little.
So here is the point for us: God’s question, “Where are you?”, is not addressed just to Adam and Eve. It is a question addressed to each of us right now, as part of God’s search not just for our wayward mythic progenitors, but also God’s search for each of us. And when hear the question put to us, it suggests that the real challenge of religious life is not to figure out a way to find God (as we usually suppose), but rather to open ourselves to let God find us. It turns our picture of the religious quest on its head: it is God who is looking for us, and not the other way around.
In fact, the question suggests that it’s maybe even a bit cheeky on our part, to think that it’s up to God to await our taking the first step toward the holy One, when it is God who has already taken the first step toward us. God did not say to Adam and Eve, ayeka?, because God did not know where they were. God asked them that question because through their self-absorption they no longer knew where they were, and so God had came looking for them. It was Adam and Eve who were hiding, after all, and God who was seeking.
God’s question becomes especially important in the present moment, because coming out of Covid, many of us don’t know for sure where we are. So perhaps now more than ever, we can hear God’s question to us as coming more out of compassion and concern, than anything else. Where are you? becomes in effect, How are you?
And because God does not ask that question casually, as in daily conversation, but from our of the depths of the divine being, it is a question that is at the same time both challenging and reassuring. For God asks the question with a genuine interest in helping us to answer it, and then of responding to what we say. Where are you? is not merely a question, but an invitation to allow God to be with us in this moment, with today’s uncertainties and hopes, in our present griefs and losses. And most importantly, ayeka? is asked of us with all the same longing and desire for deep and life-giving relationship with which God first asked it of Adam and Eve in the garden. Where are you?