Thursday, February 27, 2014

Adam & Eve and the Unexplained Boundaries

Right on the heels of the Beautiful Song we turn in Genesis 2-3 to the story of Adam and Eve. As with any good story, it is rich and many layered, best understood not by dissection, but by telling and listening.


The setting is quite different from the previous chapter. Instead of a watery void we are in a desert. YHWH is again busy creating the world, but this time the man (Adam) is formed before the plants and animals, rather than after. And instead of being made together, Eve is created later when no other land creature proves a suitable helper for Adam.  The text itself indicates that this is a different (though related) story, with a different (though related) message.


The main character is the Gardener, who lovingly, personally, and relationally forms a man by hand from the dust of the ground, breathing his own life into his lungs. The Gardener then sows his garden and gives it to the man to care for, both plant and animal. YHWH the Gardener is obviously a hands-on sort of God, and he remains intimately and passionately involved in the nurture of the garden and its inhabitants. He walks among them and talks intimately to them throughout.


The human pair have a job to do, sharing in God’s gardening work. They are permitted to meet their needs within the garden, but they also have a rule to follow - no eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann sees here an archetype for the reality of human nature: we live in a world where God has given us vocation, permission, and prohibition.* The foil of Adam and Eve’s story is “how will these first humans live in the balance of these three?” Likewise, this is the test in all of our lives. How will we respond and balance the vocation, permission, and prohibition given us by God? Can we find the discipline and trust to manage the boundaries and realities, both good and bad, which we encounter?


The plot thickens. As the story reads “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field...and he said to the woman “Did God actually say ‘you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” This, of course, is not at all what God has said, but it is a good trap to get Eve talking and thinking. One thing leads to another and soon both Eve and Adam are hiding in shame.


Christian interpreters traditionally see this narrative as the foundation for the rest of scripture and reality - the cause of sin, the cause of death, and the introduction of Satan in the role of the serpent.


Jewish interpreters have traditionally read it differently. There is no Jewish doctrine of “original sin” and they do not see here the story of a “fall” or the introduction of evil, death, or Satan. Instead, most Jewish scholars and theologians believe that men and women sin and die as Adam and Eve did, not because Adam and Eve did. +


Not surprisingly, the Hebrew books - the Genesis text and the Old Testament as a whole - supports the Jewish view. The story itself does not name the snake, nor offer any explanation or analysis. The story is not referenced elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, much less as the all-pervading source of the ups and downs of humanity and Israel’s attempts at faithful, righteous living. Though the New Testament does make further theological use of Adam and Eve, Christian scholar Brueggeman warns us that the Old Testament itself is never interested in abstract issues such as explaining the origins of evil or death. Instead, the Old Testament has a pastoral focus, addressing our “faithful responses” to the evil and trials we encounter.**


What then is the pastoral message of this deeply descriptive account? As mentioned above, Bruggemann suggests that Adam and Eve’s story asks: What does it mean for humans to live in God’s world on God’s terms? How does mankind live out the balance between vocation, permission, and prohibition?


To begin with, this most certainly is God’s garden, and they are his terms - not only are the human pair not allowed input, they are not given explanation. Why the forbidden tree? The story does not tell us why the tree is there at all. As Brueggemann writes “one might wish for a garden without such dangerous trees. But that is not given to us.” ** Adam and Eve must live and work in the garden, following the terms without understanding them. Their foundation for thriving here must be trust, and mutual investment in the relationship God has initiated with them. The unexplained nature of the boundaries is exactly what the snake exploits.


It is fascinating to this theology lover that the conversation with the serpent is the first instance of theology in the Bible. Eve and the snake are not talking to God or with God, but about God. This might not be a problem in and of itself, but for Eve it subtly begins to take the place of obedience. Her thirst for knowledge begins to corrode the life giving power of relational trust.
Whether we take the Jewish or Christian interpretation of this narrative, there is a powerful message here regarding trust, limitations, and anxiety. Adam and Eve grow discontent with the limits upon them, which leads to doubt in the character of the sovereign God. They trade their peaceful, intimate relationships with each other and the Gardener for a life filled with shame and its inevitable partner, strife. The trust that made uncertainty bearable, and framed their boundary lines as life-giving rather than stifling has dissolved, and been replaced by anxiety and questions.


Whether because they did or as they did, there is no question that we too chafe against the boundaries and limits placed on our lives and understanding, raging against mortal limits and unsolvable riddles rather than accepting them inside a relationship of trust. We too fill our relationships with conflict rather than sweet, intimate work and rest.


The first chapter of Genesis declares that the world belongs to a good, intimate, relational God who presides over all with a plan of hope. The second and third chapters show us what our posture and role before this Creator must be - and what difficulty we inevitably have in remaining there.

I started out saying that a story is best listened to - so head to Genesis 2-3 and give it a read. What do you find there of interest? 

If you'd like to read the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned for next week!

* Bruggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg 46ff
+ Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, pg 10
**Bruggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg pg 41-45

6 comments:

Abby Bartels said...

super interesting... I'll read more! :)

Catherine said...

Thanks Abby! I'm glad you liked it. :)

Christy H. said...

I've been reading Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology. In the discussion of covenantal theology he explains that the view of sin and redemption that many people are taught goes something like this: Adam was put in the Garden with a law. He failed to obey. We need someone who will keep God's law on our behalf and impute to us the merit of their law-keeping. Enter Jesus, who keeps the law for us and we get credit for his obedience. But doesn't that center our redemption in law not grace? Bird asks what if the problem with Adam's disobedience was not failure to keep an eternal law, but rupture in divine-human relationship. Then salvation is not a contract to be fulfilled, but a relationship to be restored. So Jesus doesn't succeed in salvation because of his perfect law-keeping, but because he fulfills the roles given to Adam and Israel by his faithfulness to his Messianic task of reconciling humanity to God. Instead of contrasting a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, we should contrast identification with Adam (and his sin and condemnation and separation from God) and identification with Jesus (his faithfulness, death, resurrection, life, righteousness, and communion with God). The failure in the Garden was not a failure to keep a law, it was the breaking of relationship with God because of a desire for autonomy from God. Salvation is accepting the restoration of the relationship in Christ, and it is based in grace from start to finish, not in works and law-keeping. I really liked that formulation. It seems to fit better with the Jewish conception of the "story" that you outline here as well.

Catherine said...

Thank you Christy! That was wonderfully said. Want to write a guest post for my series? :)

Christy H. said...

Oh, I'm vocationally more of a blog commenter than a blog writer. Plus, I don't have many original ideas, just summaries of other people's ideas that I like at the moment. Original sin has been swirling around in my mental soup for a while. Zondervan just had a bunch of their Counterpoint books on sale, so I got the Historical Adam one. So far, I've only read Phillip Ryken's afterword though (purely out of alumni curiosity). I'm trying to figure out what I think about where the Truth in the story lies; its historical reality, its description of humanity's reality, both? It's nice to read the fruit of all your studies and add it to the mix.

Dorothy Greco said...

This is really really good. I love this para: Likewise, this is the test in all of our lives. How will we respond and balance the vocation, permission, and prohibition given us by God? Can we find the discipline and trust to manage the boundaries and realities, both good and bad, which we encounter?

Indeed. Thank you .