October 30, 2014

The First Story of Israel (Gen. 2-3)

Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, Chagall

Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, Chagall

* * *

Genesis 2 is not another version of the creation of the cosmos. It shifts the focus to the story of Israel.

- Peter Enns, Jared Byas, Genesis for Normal People

Let me tell you a story.

God prepared a good land, a land of abundance and promise. He formed a people and put them there. He provided all their needs and called them to marry and be fruitful, to work, and to worship him. He gave them wise commandments to follow that would lead them to life and warned them against choices that would lead to death. Foolishly, they listened to voices other than his and disobeyed him. As a result, they suffered his punishment. He cast them out of the good land into exile. He did, however, provide for them that they might be protected and have hope for the future.

This is the story of Israel. Listen to Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 30:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (vv. 15-20)

This is the story of Adam and Eve. Listen to the account in Genesis 2-3:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘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.’ (2:15-17)

…So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. (3:6)

…therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (3:23-24)

Adam and Eve are Israel.

Genesis 1, which we considered yesterday, is Israel’s statement of faith in God the Creator and King of all the earth. The “gods” of the nations are not God. The One who created the heavens and the earth is.

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be revered above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.

(Psalm 96:4-5)

Genesis 2-3 is the first story of Israel. It tells how God created a people, gave them a good land, instructed them to obey him, and exiled them when they disobeyed.

Adam and Eve and the Serpent, Chagall

Adam and Eve and the Serpent, Chagall

Life in the Garden. In Genesis 2-3, Adam and Eve are not presented as the first human beings. They are specially created by God to live in a good land in the midst of an already existing world. Casting them from the Garden to the east, where their son Cain would eventually find a wife and build a city and be protected from those who might seek his life, would otherwise make no sense. (And by the way, exile to the east to live among the inhabitants of the world was exactly what happened to Israel in the Babylonian Captivity.) The Garden was not a perfect place, but a good place, a place of provision, a place God blessed with his presence and Word, a place from which Adam and Eve could fulfill their vocation. In Gen. 2 they are called to care for the garden, worship God, enjoy God’s blessing of marriage and family, and keep God’s commandments. Adam and Eve are portrayed as mortals living in a world of mortality, otherwise offering them access to the Tree of Life would serve no purpose.

In brief, Adam and Eve are rendered as people before God and in the world who found themselves in the same situation as Israel. God “created” his chosen people Israel by calling Abraham, sustaining his family, and ultimately redeeming the rag-tag clan of slaves from Egypt. God put them in a Promised Land of milk and honey and chose them to be God’s “light to the nations” through fulfilling the same kind of calling God gave the couple in the Garden. Their enjoyment of the land was provisional and presented by Moses to Israel as a choice between life and death. Choose wisely and life would go well with them in the Promised Land. Choose foolishly and they would be cast out and scattered into other nations.

In Genesis 2-3, Adam and Eve are not sinless human beings who “fall” from a position of pristine perfection. They are “simple,” to use a Biblical wisdom term. They are children who have not yet developed moral and spiritual discernment. When the Bible describes them as “naked and not ashamed,” think of little ones running around the house who have not yet learned to be embarrassed by their bodies. When God forbids “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” it is because he wants them to learn good and evil through following their Father’s instructions rather than by direct access. “…the Adam story is not about a fall down from perfection, but a failure to grow up to godly wisdom and maturity” (Enns and Byas) by fearing the Lord and following his Word.

The Book of Proverbs, especially in its early chapters, portrays this as well. The keynote of Proverbs is: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). Embracing God’s wisdom leads to the Tree of Life (3:18), but “waywardness kills the simple” (1:32). Wisdom, personified in Proverbs 8, calls out to Israel:

And now, my children, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
but those who miss me injure themselves;
all who hate me love death.

(Proverbs 8:32-36)

tree-of-life-sketch-to-vitrage-in-chapelle-des-cordeliers-in-sarrebourg-1974

Tree of Life, Chagall

Before we jump to the New Testament and try to understand Genesis and its application to the story of the Gospel, let us understand it for what it meant to its first audience. Every generation of Israel who heard this story, and especially the exiles who heard it in its final form, incorporated into the Hebrew Bible, were being called to see themselves in this story.

Did they want to enjoy the Promised Land? To know God’s blessing on their families, their work, their worship? To understand what had gone wrong in their past? To find a way back to the Tree of Life?

Here is a story with which to start.

And certainly there is wisdom for us here too.

Comments

  1. As Sailhammer stresses, the idea of the early parts of Genesis are to be seen in light of the rest of the Pentateuch. It is not simply a chronological telling of the story, it is a lead-in.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Again, the Classical Hebrew trope of parallelisms for emphasis and echoes to give depth.

    NOT a simple step-by-step checklist of FACT, FACT, FACT.

  3. “Did they want to enjoy the Promised Land? To know God’s blessing on their families, their work, their worship? To understand what had gone wrong in their past? To find a way back to the Tree of Life?”

    Wow!!! I love those questions!!!

  4. Rob Grayson says:

    Thanks Mike, this is great. Although I haven’t held to the literal interpretation of Genesis for some years, I hadn’t quite thought of it in this way.

  5. David Cornwell says:

    “Let me tell you a story…”

    What I keep thinking about in this series is the implementation of this kind of storytelling to our children. Even though I go to a downtown mainline church, we have many younger families, some of them escapees from evangelical churches of various stripes. Some of our growth is internal, that is the young people are having babies. Not only that but they already have young children. During my time in this church I’ve watched these children grow up into their teens and then go off to college. I like what I’m seeing and hearing.

    We have classes on Sunday morning which are active and sometimes full. Our teachers are young and very creative. I’m not involved in this part of our church life, so I’m not sure just what, or how, they are teaching. But the First Testament presents many problems for young people, and also to some who are ancient—like me.

    But using an approach similar to the one you use here, and using imaginative concepts similar to that used by Gregory Mobley, we have the potential within them to bring alive that Testament in whole new and fresh way. If we want kids to think about and understand the ancient truth present in the bible, then here is a way. Gifted storytellers, or even ordinary ones, can stimulate young minds and help them learn to love these old stories. Such approaches may already be offered, that I’m not aware of.

    I’m enjoying this series tremendously.

  6. I’ve never heard this perspective and your presentation of it really has me thinking…

    One question though – if there is no “fall” as usually presented (in evangelical churches), then how does this affect soteriology? (Or is that for later posts?)