The Original Eden Project
To really understand the central importance of Jesus’ message about repentance and freedom we need to go right back to the beginning of the Bible’s account of God’s dealings with the human race – to the book of Genesis, in fact.
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“What?!” you may be thinking. “Do you really expect me to take that stuff seriously?” In short, yes – because Jesus did. Christians may differ in their understanding of how the earliest books of the Bible should be interpreted; and particularly about how the Creation account should be related to modern theories about the beginning of the universe and of life on earth. That is a fascinating subject for further discussion on another occasion. But what I want to bring to your attention right now is the fact that Jesus, when addressing one of our most fundamental human questions – God’s view of marriage – cited the story of Adam and Eve as having greater authority than that of Moses.
Pharisees came to him testing him, and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a certificate of divorce to be written, and to divorce her.”
But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart, he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this cause a man will leave his father and mother, and will join to his wife, and the two will become one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
In the house, his disciples asked him again about the same matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife, and marries another, commits adultery against her. If a woman herself divorces her husband, and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mar 10:2-12)
The words, “For this cause a man will leave his father and mother, and will join to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,” are a direct quotation from Gen 2:24. As far as Jesus is concerned, this story of Adam and Eve defines the nature of the relationship between man and woman, our relationship to God as our Creator and our responsibility to live in harmony with God’s design.
But adultery was not an issue for Adam and Eve. According to the Genesis narrative, their first fall into wrongdoing – though seemingly very trivial – proved far more subtle and devastating in its effects.
According to Genesis, although the early world was ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31) and God could pause and take pleasure in what had been accomplished so far (Gen 2:1-3), this only marked the end of one phase and the beginning of another. It was the beginning of the age of man.
God blessed them. God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:28)
Notice those words, ‘subdue’ and ‘Have dominion.’ Both imply that the world, at that time, was wild and needed to be managed. That was to be the assignment of Adam, Eve and their descendants: but they were not yet ready for this. Instead, God places them in a safe place, Eden, where they can get better acquainted with God, one another and their natural environment; and gradually learn what it would mean to rule this world as God’s representatives.1 So Adam was made responsible for cultivating and protecting the garden (Gen 2:15). Which is where we come to the matter of the two trees…
One of these was the tree of life (Gen 2:9). Interestingly, I’ve never heard anyone complain about this one! Apparently, eating its fruit resulted in such perfect health that a man could live for ever (Gen 3:22); and Adam and Eve were encouraged to do so whenever they wished (Gen 2:16). Great! But the other tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – was different. And the big difference was that this one tree was not there for Adam’s personal benefit: but he was still expected to take care of it. Why?
Because this was lesson one of Adam’s commission! His destiny was to rule as God’s representative on the earth; but in order to cultivate and protect its treasures: not to exploit it. God’s definition of a true ruler is not a despot: it is one who gives himself for the well-being of those over whom he rules and is a faithful steward and protector of whatever is placed under his care (Mt 20:25-28). So why was it called ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil?’ Because that’s exactly what it was. The Bible tells us that ‘God is love’ (1Jn 4:8). What is love? The word we are talking about here is not sexual love, or family love, etc.: but love in its highest form – a self-sacrificing love where someone chooses to give up what they want in order that another may benefit. That is the ultimate good (Mk 12:28-34). What, then, is the opposite – the source of all evil? Choosing self-interest over love.
You might say, ‘But isn’t hatred the ultimate opposite of love?’ Maybe – but not necessarily – and in practice it rarely starts that way. Faced with the opportunity to choose love people don’t usually choose hate. Rather, they choose to ignore that opportunity in order to indulge their own self-interest. But what it leads to is an ever-increasing indifference to others, a preoccupation with one’s own interests and ‘rights’; and, when those are supposedly violated, a desire for retribution and animosity towards the one judged responsible. So, within just one generation we would see Cain killing his brother for ‘showing him up’ over what was meant to be a gift to God (Gen 4:3-8).
But why did the tree have to be there? Or why didn’t God simply make Adam ‘perfect,’ so that he just didn’t want to be selfish or disobedient? It’s because love is only love when it is a voluntary choice. Adam had to be free to choose, or he would have been no better than a robot. He had to learn what it means to put others before yourself and why it matters: but God was making this first lesson as easy as possible.
Initially, it seems that Adam was perfectly happy. He really had nothing to complain about. But now we get a master-class on temptation from the most devious con-artist of all time: the serpent; known to us as Satan – a name meaning ‘the accuser’ (Rev 12:9). We won’t go into his origins now. Suffice it to say that he was a created being that had chosen to follow the road of self-interest; and had ended up becoming an implacable enemy of God. Vastly inferior in power, his goal was to gain territory and servants by infecting them with his own venomous philosophy. He had nothing of any worth to offer Adam and Eve. Instead he tricked them into a trade to acquire what they already had! Let’s see how he did it…
- Go for the Weakest Link. Eve was easier to deceive because she was not there when God instructed Adam about the tree (Gen 2:16-18).
- Emphasize the Negatives. God’s, “Every tree except this one,” is turned into, “Not any tree!?” This blatant lie, dressed up as a question, was designed to focus Eve’s attention on what she didn’t have, rather than what she did.
- Create a Sense of Lack. He was also engineering it so that she, rather than he, became the first to name the one thing she lacked. What we say about ourselves is powerful. When we say we lack something, it generates feelings of deprivation: whereas when we speak of the good things that we have, it generates thankfulness and contentment. Now the serpent is able to come alongside her as a ‘friend,’ offering solutions to ‘her’ problem.
- Exploit Misunderstandings. God did not say they would die if they touched the tree (c.f. Gen 2:16-17, Gen 3:3). Adam had to be able to touch it, as it was his job to tend the tree. But it seems that, in relaying God’s instructions to Eve, he had added an extra layer of ‘protection’ by telling Eve, “Don’t touch!” Excessive and unnecessary protectionism causes people to question whether rules are really necessary. And if a rule is shown to be unnecessary, this naturally leads to other rules being questioned.
- Challenge Authority. The serpent now tells Eve that she won’t die (though he refrains from saying when) (Gen 3:4). It is interesting to note that Adam was present during this conversation (Gen 3:6): but he remains silent. Now he is in a cleft stick. Should he admit that, actually, it’s OK to touch the tree because that was just his idea: whereas the prohibition on eating really was from God? Or should he keep quiet and hope this doesn’t go any further? He opts for the latter, abdicating his personal responsibility and authority. When those who represent God mess up, God’s own reputation and authority become the serpent’s next target.
- Question God’s Motives. God is accused of withholding God-like knowledge from Adam and Eve (Gen 3:5). This is the ultimate con trick – the ultimate lie – and yet, technically, it isn’t a lie at all. It’s a classic example of the way that the serpent twists truth to suit his own ends. It’s a con trick because the serpent claims that this is the way to obtain God-like knowledge: when the reality is that Adam and Eve already have free access to all of God’s knowledge because they have free access to God himself! It’s the ultimate lie, because rather than gain God-like knowledge, they are about to lose it, and more besides. Yet, technically, it isn’t a lie because they are about to acquire the knowledge of good and evil first-hand, when they plunge from good into evil. The serpent is insinuating that God is acting out of self-interest (the serpent’s own prevailing motivation); when the truth is that God’s command was always and only to help Adam and Eve to learn and grow in character.
- Let Natural Affections Have Their Way. Eve’s attention is now fixed on the tree and her natural instincts kick in (Gen 3:6). Appetite – very basic. Aesthetics are harder to define. Just what is it about a sunset, music, scents, etc., that moves us so much – even to the point, at times, of seeming irrationality? At a lower, animal, level scientists may explain some of these as instinctive: yet most would agree that they are also bound up with the higher nature of man. Ambition – even animals strive for supremacy in their own small circles: but only humans yearn after an ultimate understanding. All of these draw her closer to the tree and its fruit. She touches it. Nothing happens. Picks it. Maybe licks it. Still nothing. Maybe the serpent was right? Finally, she bites and swallows. Still nothing seems to have happened.
- Now Let Adam Choose. Adam has been watching in silence as Eve first breaks his command and then God’s; seemingly with impunity. Now she stands there and, questioningly, holds the fruit out to him. Adam knows that she has broken God’s command. He also knows the sentence: “in the day that you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). He had probably watched in horror as she finally bit into the fruit, expecting her to be suddenly destroyed – the one he had described as “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). He hasn’t lost her yet: but the initiative appears to be with Eve, and he has lost his authority over her. What can he do to retrieve the situation? She is waiting, her eyes asking what he is going to do. The serpent is also watching; but with a very different intent. Adam has to decide whose word he is going to believe and follow. Follow God and lose Eve: or hope that the serpent is right and try to win back Eve’s respect by eating the fruit himself. He takes the fruit.
- Shame. So – where is this knowledge of good and evil that the serpent promised them? My guess would be that Adam is the first to realize. The evil he knows is the evil he has done: the good he knew is now the good he has just undone. The serpent has tricked them. Now death awaits. For Adam the guilt is particularly acute. It was he whom God had commissioned to cultivate and protect the garden, and to whom God had given the command and warning about the tree (Gen 2:15-17). He knew exactly what God had said and how the serpent was distorting it; whereas Eve was being deceived. Yet he had listened silently as she succumbed to temptation, making no move to stop her and then, through fear of losing her, abandoned his loyalty to the God who had given them everything. Why? Because he was besotted with her. And now, having betrayed God, she was all he had left and he was desperate to keep her. Yet at the same time he was despising himself for his weakness and ashamed of his desire. Eve was in a similar position. She probably realised the effect she had had on Adam. Now, the sight of each other’s bodies, which had been an innocent delight (Gen 2:25), had become a painful reminder of their shame. Yet their desires still burned for one another and they sought relief in physical covering (Gen 3:7).
Now look back on these 9 points and notice this: the first 6 points are all about the serpent’s strategy for undermining Eve’s relationship with God. Once that had been accomplished, all the serpent had to do was wait for natural affections to have their way.
- When and Why?
The early chapters of Genesis contain two interwoven accounts of the creation. Gen 1:1-2:3 describes the process as a sequence of ‘days.’ But Gen 2:4-3:24 takes a different approach, emphasising mankind as God’s ultimate reason for creating the earth. Note that neither account is presented as a human eyewitness description of events, for the simple reason that no man was there at the beginning. Both accounts would necessarily have come through some form of revelation, such as a verbal prophecy, dream or vision. But describing such events in more than the very simplest of terms would have been impossible, as their language would lack the necessary vocabulary and concepts.↩