In an effort to keep my (Michael’s) last post on Genesis short, I left out some of what really impacted me from my study of the book. My goal in studying Genesis was to attempt to read it as the original audience might have, and as Moses would have intended. My mentor in this journey was John H. Walton through his NIV Application Commentary of Genesis. The first three chapters of Genesis are so critical to both the original and contemporary reader’s understanding of the world around them. It is in these chapters where Moses answers the big worldview questions of, “Where did everything come from?” and “What went wrong, resulting in so much pain in our existence?” After establishing everything was “very good” in the first two chapters of Genesis, chapter three introduces the reader to how it all went wrong. Many of us, myself included, bring assumptions to these chapters that may not have been in the mind of the audience at the time of the book’s writing. We have an understanding of Satan, sin, and the Fall from a historical view, shaped in large part by the revelations of the New Testament. Walton challenged me to set those assumptions aside as I examined Genesis 1-3.
I could speak to many different parts of the narrative in Genesis 3, but I want to focus on what actually went wrong. To start, we need to look back at chapter two and see what the text says about the trees of Eden:
“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:8-9).
At this point there is no moral statement about any of the trees in the garden: “they are all pleasant to the sight and good for food.” This is simply followed with a statement of the existence of both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is later that the prohibition is introduced, but without explanation as to why one will die if one eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When the serpent asks the woman what God said about the tree, the serpent is encouraging the woman to express not what God actually said, but her interpretation, as she says “if they even touched it they would die.” This statement emphasizes a belief that death would be immediate. This is not necessarily the case, as the narrative shows when they eat from the tree, the man and woman do not immediately die. It seems God was saying that if fruit from this tree was eaten, death would be the eventual punishment, which it was.
Now comes the question of what the tree provided, other than food. It is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which as seen in 3:22, makes one like God in knowing good and evil. This must be what God was trying to keep them from, right? If you look at the rest of Scripture, however, the knowledge of good and evil, and becoming like God, are not bad things. The knowledge of good and evil is a way of referring to discernment. To be able to make right choice for one’s self, one needs to know the good choice from the bad choice. “Good” and “bad” here do not necessary refer to moral issues. For example, holding a knife by the handle is a good choice, while holding it by the blade is a bad choice. I use my discernment, and I don’t cut myself. The entire book of Proverbs is about gaining wisdom so one can be discerning. Additionally, one can see we are called to imitate the characteristics of God. We are made in God’s image. We are to love like God. We are to be holy as He is holy. So if knowing good from evil and being like God are not restricted here, what was the actual prohibition? It was about timing and obedience.
Walton puts it this way, “If (1) the tree is not prohibited because what it grants is bad, and if (2) it is not prohibited because of divine repression, then one can logically conclude that the prohibition concerned timing.” Walton speaks of the temptation of Jesus found in the gospels, and how a similar temptation was offered to Him. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth and offers to give them to Jesus if He will only bow down and worship Satan. The very purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth was to take authority over all kingdoms of the earth from Satan, but the means to that end was the cross. Satan’s temptation here is for Jesus to avoid the cross and get what the Father was going to give Him, without following the plan and timing the Father had set before him. Likewise, I believe God was going to offer the fruit of the tree to Adam and Eve at the right time, but in taking the fruit and eating it, they exercised independence from God and disobeyed His command and timing. For this they are punished with death and separation from God.
What was “gained” at the Fall was independence from God, by taking what God longed to give, in His timing. How we do this very thing as we continue to walk in sin, thousands of years later! We certainly have the knowledge of good and evil, but because we have separated ourselves from God from the beginning, our discernment is without God’s insight. How often do we suffer the effects of sin because of a bad choice we have made on our own? I can speak to how often the source of my sin is going after good things outside of God’s timing. Think of sexual sin, for example: God intended sex to be good, yet we pursue it in ways outside of God’s timing and commandments, and as a result, the goodness is lost.
In seeing the original sin for what it was, I can see the source of my own struggles with sin today. Understanding the original sin also helps me to greater comprehend what Jesus did on the cross, in paying the penalty for my sin, and overcoming sin in my life. When I believe in the resurrection work of Christ, I am born again. This refers to the fact that though physically alive, without Christ, I am spiritually dead. When I receive Jesus’ free gift of grace, it is my spirit that comes to life and is reconnected to its source: the Spirit of God. With the promised Holy Spirit residing in me, I am no longer attempting to exercise discernment alone. I have returned to the Garden and to the way God intended my knowledge of good and evil to exist: in connection to His knowledge of good and evil. With the Spirit’s help, I am able to be like God in my choices. The struggle becomes giving up that independence “gained” at the Fall, for the dependence Jesus gained at the cross. As I surrender to my dependence on God and experience His guidance in discerning, there is a fullness of life Jesus spoke of, a fullness of life available to all who would believe in him.
My prayer for you and me is that we would see the true root of our rebellion against God and return to Him. In returning to the garden, we return to the place of walking with God in all things. Like the precious way a little child holds tightly to a parent’s finger as they walk together, in Christ we can return to holding onto Daddy’s finger as He walks with us through life.