“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 surely die.” –Genesis 2:17
“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.” –Genesis 3:22-23
My grandmother, who was something like a matriarch of my family, had an incredibly green thumb. Some of my earliest memories involve her short figure stretching up with a garden hose to water her hanging plants, which always flourished under her attentive care. I was fascinated by the way she knew just how much water each hanger needed before it would overflow and drip messily onto the concrete below. Looking back, many of my earliest memories involve watching her go about daily life like that.
I wish I would have taken the time to ask her how she got to be so good at everything. She could keep anything green alive – even in the oppressive heat of Texas summers. She was an incredible cook who could convince three picky grandchildren to eat collard greens and carrots and beets. She could paint beautiful landscapes, and photograph them, too. She could climb mountains and sketch them in incredible likeness. She could somehow sooth even the wildest of beasts. [I remember a certain wildcat whose tail had been cut off by a lawnmower. Fluffy terrorized me for years despite my desperate desire for his love, but she could convince him to tap dance and make her breakfast.] Best of all, she was a teacher. For the better part of half a century, she dedicated her life to educating second graders.
I often wonder what she would think of me now. She was an unquestionably dedicated disciple of Jesus Christ. I like to think my decision to attend seminary would have made her proud. I strive everyday to be like her in faithfulness.
Naturally, here at the beginning of this seminary journey, my Old Testament professor has been lecturing on Genesis. I know these stories well; they seem to be burned into my brain thanks to the provision of my grandmother, who had me reading scripture before I ever stepped foot in a classroom. Even as I flip through these worn, underlined pages in my Bible, I am drawn to different words, new ideas, fresh interpretations. I am discovering that there is still so much life in these very old words.
As I read more and more, I realize that I have always seen the Genesis 2 creation narrative in a particularly harsh light. The LORD God creates, communicates expectations, and leaves Adam and Eve to their own devices. Eve is deceived, and she and her husband disobey God. They are ashamed, punished and kicked out. As a lifelong Christian who has heard about the Gospel of Second Chances my entire life, I have always felt so much condemnation here.
A second look [or, more likely, a two hundred and forty-second look] revealed to me something my eyes had skimmed over every other time they took in this ancient story. There is grace in the garden. From the very beginning of human sinfulness, God has been in the business of second chances.
God warned Eve and Adam of the danger of this “tree of knowledge of good and evil”. God told them the consequence of eating of the fruit of that tree is death. I have to imagine Eve was relieved after she took that first bite and didn’t immediately perish. Then, Adam ate and survived too. Surely, they must have thought, the serpent was right and God had lied to them! But God didn’t lie. Their decision to eat of this fruit really did lead to their deaths.
Adam and Eve, though, did not yet understand the concept of death. Their only experience was life in paradise, in the garden where everything thrived in perfect harmony. Death to them only meant the cessation of existence. Death was a lack of that breath which God had breathed into them. They did not yet know that the death which they incurred was two-fold.
First, there was the death of their perfect life with God. No longer could they be as they were in the beginning. Their disobedience separated them from God, who would no longer walk alongside them “in the cool of the day”.
Second, they were actually going to physically die. The initial instruction of God prohibited their eating from the tree of knowledge. Then, after their eyes were opened to good and evil, Eve and Adam were removed from Eden before either could eat from the tree of life, which God says brings about eternal life.
Their one act of disobedience brought about millennia of sin. Starting with the first humans, we became experts at disobeying God’s will. We have come up with creative ways to break the rules, to kill each other, and to destroy the earth. Bigotry and fear are the currency, while our economy of hatred and egotism ravage our planet. As simple as it was, that one decision to disobey was the most deadly choice ever made.
You might be wondering where the grace is in all of this. It sounds only like the carrying out of God’s punishment. He did not curse the humans like he cursed the serpent, but they were burdened with new challenges they had not previously faced, all of which they would have to face without God by their side.
Look closer. The only way for God to continue any kind of relationship with these disobedient children was to ensure that they never again had access to the tree of life. Many Christians refer to this first moment of disobedience as the first sin, or the fall of humanity. Some would even say this moment functions as an ontological shift for all human beings, a change in the very nature of who we are.
See, the grace is in their exile. If God allowed Adam and Eve to stay in the garden, they would also eat of the tree of life [even if God told them not to] and become eternal beings. However, in their newly fallen state, this would mean eternal separation from God. Partaking of the tree of life would prevent their physical death but ensure the perpetual death of their relationship with their creator.
God did what needed to be done. God did kick them out, but there is more love and more grace in that eviction than in any other action in the course of human history, save one.
The simplicity of the text in Genesis 3 provides ample room for our imaginations to run wild. An Old Testament professor might rebuke me for reading too much into the text, but I would like to propose what I know many others before me have chosen to believe: God planned for the redemption of human beings from the moment they were barred from the garden. The second that fruit made contact with human lips, God knew what had to be done.
In the fullness of time, “The Word became flesh and made a dwelling among us.” That Word was put to death. Only at the cross is the love of God more evident to us than it was when Eve and Adam were forced out of the garden. Only at the cross is grace more powerful than it was when God closed off paradise.
My grandmother was such a faithful woman. She lived out God’s initial charge to human beings better than anyone I have ever known. She was a true steward of the earth, and she fought against all that might harm it. She would cross three lanes of traffic to rescue a runt kitten from the side of a dangerously busy road. She would spend part of each day tending to the small patch of green earth in her care. She would exercise the patience of a saint with every seven-year-old child she met. She was one of the best women, but she was still a woman. She still had the sinful nature which is a part of every human being. Despite her green thumb, her creative spark, her penchant for animal-whispering, and her eternal patience, she was disobedient to her creator.
The good news is this: when Jesus again breathed that same breath of life on the third day, the gates to the garden were opened once more. Jesus became our tree of life.
It would have been enough if Jesus had remained in that tomb. It would have been enough if he was never heard from again. It would have been enough because his sacrifice was enough to free us of the wrath which we have all incurred in every moment since the fall.
But for God, it was not enough. It was not enough because God did not create us to be servants. God did not create us to be entertainment. We are not born only to toil and suffer and die. We were created for relationship. We were created for eternal life in God’s presence. We are born as children of God.
And so I am grateful that the mother and father of humankind were evicted from their first and perfect home. I am grateful for the long history of humanity which led to the moment of our redemption. I am grateful that the grave is not the final word for us anymore. Most of all, I am grateful that God is not even on God’s side but on ours.
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” –Romans 5:18-21
Grace and peace,