By Guest Author John Davy.
It seems that through much of Earth’s history there has been a perception that God is interested only in obedience to him and his laws.
It is thought that all disobedience is to be punished and that the ultimate punishment is death.
The general philosophical position of crime and punishment has provided a foundation for the idea that all sin incurs a debt to God that must be accounted for by some intervention (in order for God to forgive) or by some form of retribution in order to satisfy God’s honour.
But there is another way to see the interaction between God and mankind and another way to understand the relationship between sin and death.
The Genesis account of events in Eden form the basis of these concepts and I believe that a skewed understanding of this narrative has lead to a poor grasp of the overall themes of scripture.
The Genesis record paints a picture in which God takes particular care of his son Adam. God provides him all that he needs – a garden to work in and to enjoy, and a wife to share the experience with. God loved Adam and Eve and cared for them.
The knowledge of good and evil
There are two notable (special) trees that God makes and plants in the midst of the garden. These trees are given names, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Somewhere in the mists of time, an idea that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was in fact only an apple tree, seemed to take the imagination of those who expounded scripture. This idea became fashionable and rather unfortunately stuck, so that most people even today have the impression that this tree could have been just any tree and not the special tree that God had made. But when we go back to the biblical text we can find no reason to consider this tree any less potent than its twin (the tree of life).
The clear understanding of the biblical text is that the tree of life extended life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil awakened the ability to discern between good and evil. This simple fact has a huge implication for how we interpret the whole of the Eden account, and in turn colours our understanding of scripture in general.
The knowledge of good and evil isn’t gained just by disobedience
All of Adam and Eve’s progeny, from their time to ours, grow into a knowledge of good and evil. This happens mostly from puberty onwards and continues till about age twenty.
They don’t gain this knowledge through disobedience but it is a natural part of growth into maturity.
Even state laws in most states and territories acknowledge this developmental stage and allow for minors up to about the age of twenty to have a diminished responsibility for offences.
When Solomon asked for ‘wisdom’ the text makes it plain that he was asking for the ability to discern between good and evil because he was young and he needed to judge moral issues. God granted him this wisdom at an early age. (1 Kings 3:6-12)
When Israel failed to cross Jordan the first time, God excluded the young (under 20’s) from responsibility because they had no knowledge of good and evil (Numbers 14:29 & Deuteronomy 1:39)
If a knowledge of good and evil was gained by disobedience then these children would have gained it before their second birthday. In Adam and Eve’s case this knowledge was gained through the potency of this special tree. Since that time all generations of their seed mature into this awareness.
God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
As we read the Eden account we are faced with an enigma. Clearly God made both of these special trees for a purpose and placed them in proximity of Adam & Eve. He did not forbid the tree of life but he forbade them the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It would be remiss of us to gloss over this disparity without questioning why.
Why would it be that God did not want them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and gain the ability to discern what was morally good from what was morally bad? Clearly God himself had this ability and there was no problem with God discerning right from wrong.
Did God just want to keep them in the dark so he could maintain a supremacy over them? Was it – as the serpent inferred – because God was trying to keep them down? Genesis 3:5
Tradition has it that God was setting a test for Adam & Eve for which failure would be punished by death. A somewhat trivial, pointless command with a threat of execution attached. Is this the picture of God that you have?
Was this to be the basis for the relationship between God and Adam (and all mankind)?
I am inviting you to see God’s command in a new light.
God in his love for his creation and in particular for Adam and Eve warned Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The warning was necessary because a knowledge of good and evil would cause them pain and bring about a death of innocence in them.
What pain and death did they experience then?
God created a physical universe (earthy and temporal). All creatures were programmed with survival instincts. These instincts were necessary for them to continue to exist in a natural world where the strong feed on the weak. There is no guilt in behaving this way when there is no ability to discern moral right from wrong. Mankind also needed these instincts in order to survive. But now that we can discern between right and wrong, the things that we do out of instinct we may also (on reflection) consider immoral. We then find that there is an inner conflict between what we are naturally driven to do and what we know to be right.
God who is eternal has no need for such instincts. He is not driven to behaviour that is self serving at the expense of others and his actions are always morally right, so an ability to discern between good and evil gives no rise to any inner conflict within him. But because man is mortal, an awareness of what constitutes moral or immoral behaviour will give rise to guilt and the pain associated with that guilt. Man becomes an injured creature.
Eve believed the inference of the serpent – That God was not on their side. The serpent’s lie was in what was inferred – that God was working against Adam & Eve trying to keep them down. God was being portrayed as unloving and not to be trusted.
Eve reached for a higher (Godly) awareness that could not safely be contained in the earthen vessel that she was. We see today that in practice this holy fire is either extinguished by the vessel, or the vessel is consumed by it.
So why did God put the trees there in the first place?
The tree of life, it has been supposed, granted eternal life – just one bite and you live forever. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to know that this is very unlikely.
God is not likely to make a tree that granted eternal life to anyone who idly eats of it. It would be wrong to impart eternal life on someone without considering their suitability for eternity.
Rather it is more likely that this tree was designed to rejuvenate. It was a tree that kept Adam & Eve from aging. It was quite fitting for them to eat of this tree while they remained innocent – uninjured creatures without the pain of any inner conflict of guilt. However, once injured, they needed to be removed from the tree so that they would not suffer eternal guilt.
Why (if it were harmful to Adam & Eve) would God make the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and put it in their way? The effect of the tree was to awaken an awareness of Godly reality – this is not altogether bad. Without this ability to know right from wrong, how could anyone ever appreciate the righteousness of God and love him for it?
The knowledge of good and evil was something that every person needs in order to transition into the holiness that fits them for eternity – but it comes at the cost of the inner conflict between natural instinct and moral awareness.
But God could not make mankind in this imperfect way or we may rightly have accused him of the pain of guilt. This knowledge had to come by the hand of mankind against his warning.
Why did God punish Adam & Eve if they didn’t realise that what they were doing was immoral?
If God’s objective was to save Adam & Eve from pain and conflict and a death of innocence, why would he add to that outcome with further punishments?
The passage needs a closer examination and some reflection of the state of Adam & Eve (and the serpent) at the time.
We also have a preconception with relation to the concept of cursing. The law of Moses said that you must not curse the king. – what did that mean? Was it expected that people could bring down a supernatural curse – perhaps turn him into a frog?
The word for ‘curse’ in Hebrew simply means to detest or to view as despised. God doesn’t say that he is cursing anything – but that the serpent and the earth would be cursed (or detested)
God says to Adam “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
In paraphrase God says “The ground will be detested (by you) because it will be in sadness that you will eat from it. Your toil will return you thorns and thistles and the product of your labour will be only herbs. In your sweating and labour you will eat bread (the product of the earth) until you die and return to the earth.”
It may be difficult to see the connection here but there is significance in the labour of Adam and the failure of Israel to enter God’s rest.
Adam was now ashamed. And his natural response, as it is for all people, is to strive for self redemption. He will build his empire but it will be against a background of constant difficulties that the earth and nature seem to always throw at him, and he will always reap a poorer harvest than his efforts should return.
This is classic Jacob working for Laban.
To the woman he says “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”.
The Hebrew word for sorrow is the same as the Hebrew word for labour (Adam’s labour) and once again we see a woman ashamed and looking for self redemption – to regain self esteem. The woman would attempt to regain a sense of worth in childbirth. God was to increase Eve’s fertility (which was not necessary before when they ate of the tree of life) and Eve’s desire would be to her husband to have children and regain a sense of worth.
This is classic Sarah, Hannah, Leah and Rachel.
The serpent for the shame of its behaviour would be despised by all and metaphorically go on its belly and eat dust forever.
There was no punishment for Adam & Eve – all that befell them was a consequence of what they did.
Sin has always injured the sinner – there was never a need for punishment. Attempts at self redemption have always failed and God out of love provides redemption at his expense.
Jesus came to speak the truth
“To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Everyone that is of the truth hears my voice”.
It is a truth that counters the lie of the serpent that has echoed through all time.
God is not just concerned with obedience for the sake of it and is not vengeful. God’s laws and ways have always been for the benefit of mankind. God has always wanted to spare us the pain of guilt and return us to himself. God is not driven by natural insecurities. God is for you not against you. God loves you and all mankind. (John 3:16)
Israel endured a fearful life under the priests and scribes of Judaism as they promoted the image of an angry God for their own ends. But Jesus came to set free his people. Isa 61:1, Heb 2:15
It is only when we truly seize the import of this reality that we are able to draw close to God.
It is a truth that invites us to become one of his family. And when the change of relationship permeates our thinking it bears fruit in words and actions.
This is the truth that transforms us.
It is the truth that sets us free.
This is good news.