“Eden and East of Eden”: Genesis 2:4–3:24
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EnlargeA New Name for God
Genesis 2:4 is the first segment in Genesis introduced by the tôledôt-formula [see Author’s Note 1]. Here God engages the created order in a new way. Still, this episode is organically connected to the first one, as seen in the way the phrase “the heavens and the earth” in 2:4a is reversed (“the earth and the heavens”) in 2:4b. The story featuring God’s creation of “the heavens and the earth” (1:1; 2:4a) is completed. Now, we are poised to learn something new from God’s engagement of “the earth and the heavens” (2:4b).
Perhaps the very first thing we notice is that the name of God has changed. Throughout the creation story proper the Creator is known simply as God (Elohîm). Then, out of the blue, we encounter a distinctive personal name: the Lord God (YHWH Elohîm) [see Author’s Note 2]. Later we shall discover that this name set Israel’s God apart from all the other named deities of the surrounding peoples (see Exodus 6:2–3). This abrupt change of name subtly suggests that God is now relating to the created order in a new way altogether.
But the different name is not the only difference. We are also surprised that the story now being recounted occurs prior to vegetation’s appearance, notwithstanding Genesis 1:11–12. While we are puzzling over this, we are given the reason why vegetation is lacking. First, the Lord God had not made it rain and, second, there was no man to till the ground (2:5). This seems straightforward, in that we are clearly being told that vegetation will result from something God does (brings rain) and something a man does (works the ground).
God as Sculptor
However, we readily see that no rain comes. Instead, the Lord God takes the damp ground (2:6), forms a man, breathes life into him, and the man becomes a living being (2:7). Besides being a bit confused by this vegetation business, we also have to deal with the fact that the Lord’s creating mode is novel. God is now presented as a sculptor. Be that as it may, now that the Lord has fashioned a tiller, should we not expect vegetation soon?
The answer is yes. Still, what takes place is not what we might have expected. After all, the Lord God has just produced a man to work the ground. Should not the deity simply hand the man seed and garden tools? Instead, the Lord God plants the garden, places the man in it, and then proceeds to induce good-looking and fruit-bearing trees to grow (2:8–9).
Just as surprising, we learn that one of the trees has a name: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9). If we think that finally the man will begin tending the garden we are wrong again. Rather, we discover how the garden will be watered, and it has nothing to do with rain. It turns out that a river in the garden that flows into four other rivers will supply the needed moisture (2:10).
While we are still absorbing this interesting twist, we realize that these four rivers are most impressive. One (the Pishon) flows around Havilah, which is characterized by possessing good-quality gold, not to mention bdellium and onyx stone (2:11–12). A second river (Gihon) flows around Cush (2:13), while the third (Tigris) and fourth (Euphrates) flow in Mesopotamia (2:14). It appears that not only will this divinely planted garden be well supplied with water, but the garden will in turn supply water to the rest of the known world. We cannot help saying: “This is some garden.”
At this point we have almost forgotten about the man whom the Lord God made to be the gardener. As though to get our attention again, the narration reminds us that the deity placed him in the garden with the express purpose of tilling it. But that is not all. We see that for the first time in this first engagement story, the Lord God speaks by telling the man that the whole garden is available to him for food with the one exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is the only prohibition, but it is a major one in that God warns that eating the fruit of this forbidden tree will lead to death on the very day the fruit is consumed (2:16–17). You might surmise that with so much to eat and so little to avoid, the man would have little trouble watching his diet.
Now, just as we get ready to settle back and watch this idyllic scene unfold, a note of dissonance is introduced. With the staccato references to the creation’s being good still ringing in our ears from the creation story, we are taken aback when the Lord God asserts that something in the garden is not good. What is not good? Simply, that the man is alone. Somehow, the man’s solitary existence goes against what the Lord God had envisioned.
A Suitable Helper
To rectify the situation, God decides to make a helper suitable for the man (2:18). Given the stress on maleness and femaleness in the creation story proper (1:26–27), we might figure that God would use the ground to make a counterpart female. But that is not what happens. Granted, the Lord God does make use of the ground again, but this time to form the whole animal kingdom (2:19–20).
You have to like that the man was to a degree consulted on this divine project, for he was given the job of naming all the animals. Just as the man was to be a co-worker of sorts in the garden, so the man was co-operative as well in the fashioning of the animal world. This is heady stuff. So far God has put considerable responsibility on the human inhabitant of this marvelous garden.
Still, there is no solution to the problem the Lord God was addressing in the first place, for among the animals no suitable helper is found (2:20). In response, we see for the first time in this episode that the Lord God makes something not from the ground. Using a part of the man, the deity now fashions a woman, who is brought immediately to the man from whose side she was made (2:21–22).
The man’s first words underscore how pleased he is with what the Lord God had done with his rib. His bones are akin to her bones, his flesh is of the same substance as her flesh. Wonderfully, the man executes his final naming act and also explains his decision (2:23): “she shall be called Woman (ishah) because she was taken from Man (ish).” As incredible as this episode has been thus far, we are no less startled that it concludes with an editorial on marriage (2:24–25).
A Cooperative World Order
If the creation story placed the accent firmly on God’s replacing chaos with order, on the power of divine speech, on a universe designed to obey God’s voice, on the goodness of all that was created, on light overwhelming darkness, on original blessing (1:22, 28; 2:3), and the supreme glory of humanity — male and female together — being made in the image and likeness of God, then how might we summarize this first engagement story so far? We have to conclude that co-operation between God and the man (and subsequently the woman) is highlighted.
But we also see how closely everything is tied together. The man is made of the very ground he is to till, as are the animals, who are named definitively by the man. Likewise, the woman is no less closely related. In fact, she is given a special place, as indicated by her being made only indirectly from the ground and as also indicated by the man’s fulsome and even doxological reaction to her.
Then again, we can hardly miss the emphasis on place. These events occur in Eden, which is in the east. As well, a river flows from that site into the rest of the known world by means of the four great rivers whose source is the garden river. In such an economical text, we are amazed that so much space is given to the significance of place and placement. In this light, we would be wrong to think of Eden as Utopia, which literally means “no place.” Eden is most assuredly a place, one wrought by God and designed for human and non-human life. Such a situation obviously accords with the Lord’s purposes for the created order.
Are we not also compelled to notice how special social relationship is? The Lord God is actually depicted as going through a trial and error process to find help appropriate to the man. Starting with a male flesh, the Lord God made a female flesh. Now that there are, so to speak, two fleshes, we see that it follows naturally that these two fleshes through marriage will become one flesh again. The implication is rather graphic in that by becoming one flesh through sexual intercourse, other fleshes will inevitably appear. God has seen to it that human beings are social beings. Unless a social act takes place, no one will see the light of day.
Divine Direction: A Prohibition
Finally, the Lord God has engaged the created order in such a way that we need to take account of the built-in sense of ought. This is a moral world. God has given a prohibition (2:17). Granted, the accent is on abundance and freedom (2:16), but there’s no avoiding the reality that violating the divine directive will have consequences. Incredibly, the story teaches us that how we respond to God will affect not only ourselves but the whole created order. That is as sobering as it is consequential.
As the garden episode continues, we are treated to a kind of close-up. First off, we are introduced to a creature that was more subtle (i.e., cleverer) than any other creature which the Lord God made (3:1). This clever serpent [see Author’s Note 3] strikes up a conversation with the woman by asking whether God had forbidden eating from the garden’s trees. The question accents scarcity, whereas the Lord had previously accented abundance (2:16).
We are relieved, however, for the woman’s response shows that she fully appreciates God’s provision of all the trees for food with a single exception (3:2–3). The woman is quite aware of the consequences of eating from the tree in the middle of the garden even though she was not yet around when God gave the warning (2:17).
The Fall Comes
However, not to be undone, the serpent counters: “You will not die.” The serpent goes on to elaborate his take on the real reason for the divine prohibition, namely, that eating the fruit will make one like God in knowing good and evil (3:4–5). There’s no mistaking the gist of the temptation: being like God. The serpent’s oral arguments coupled with the woman’s visual apprehension of the tree, combined with the possibility of instant wisdom induce the woman to indulge (3:6).
While we might be disappointed with her, we are flabbergasted that the man immediately succumbed also. He had been standing there all along and never said a word. The woman handed him the fruit and he ate. No persuasion was necessary. Ironically, the serpent had promised the woman and the man (the pronouns are plural) that their eyes would be opened upon eating. Such eye-opening, the serpent alleged, would result in the couple’s being like God. Instead, when their eyes were opened, they realized only that they were naked. Any four-year old in the garden could have told them that!
Now, everything is different. The man and the woman hide themselves among the trees to avoid the Lord God, who is strolling in the evening (3:8). The very trees which the deity had provided for food now serve as cover. Of course, the couple has already used the leaves of another fruit tree to cover their nudity (3:7). Trees which once revealed God’s gracious bounty have been transformed into barriers between the human beings and their maker. It only gets worse.
“Where Are You?”
Not seeing the couple, God asks a question which will reverberate for all time: “Where are you?” Poignantly, the question is addressed at this point only to the man (3:9). We realize throughout the biblical story that nothing is more important than how we answer that haunting question.
We cannot fault the man for answering untruthfully. He forthrightly admits that his nakedness made him afraid — he was apparently worried about being exposed before God (as though it is possible to hide!). When asked whether he had eaten from the forbidden tree he admitted as much, saying that the woman had given him the fruit (3:10–11). Yet, all this ostensible truth added up to the most profound of lies. Technically correct, everything the man says is designed to deflect blame from him on to the woman. But she had given in to clever temptation. He had simply stuffed the fruit into his mouth. Should we be surprised that the Lord confronted him first?
At first glance, we might surmise that the man blamed the woman purely and simply. But looking more closely, it seems the man ultimately blamed God. The problem, according to the man, is the woman “whom you gave to be with me” (3:12). That places the blame squarely on God. As egregious as it might have been for the man to blame the woman, it is beyond the pale for him to blame God. The woman fares no better when she is confronted, for she cites the serpent’s beguiling conversation (3:13). That, too, is true as far as it goes. But, again, the serpent also owed its existence to the Lord (3:1). We cannot escape the woman’s implication that the Lord should not have made such a wily creature.
The Inevitable Consequences
Reserving judgment on the man and the woman, the Lord deals first with the serpent. Previously this creature was introduced as the cleverest of all creatures (3:1). Henceforth, he would be more cursed than any other in the animal kingdom. The curse is even spelled out for us. From now on, the serpent’s form of locomotion will be singularly more inconvenient, as he is condemned to crawl on his belly and thereby eat dust. As well, the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman will in the future be at constant enmity with each other, the former nipping at the heels and the latter stomping on the head [see Author’s Note 4]. Gone are the days of casual chats over the proverbial back fence in an idyllic garden.
Likewise, the woman’s punishment is severe. God will increase the pain associated with childbirth. Plus, the woman will be unable to avoid this fate in that her natural desire for her husband will actually precipitate pregnancy. Adding insult to this injury, for the first time in the garden hierarchy is introduced. From now on, the man will rule the woman (3:16). This is bad news, grounded in divine judgment. How perverse to construe this as good news, as we have sometimes done in the Church.
The man’s punishment comes in the form of the cursed ground. The very stuff from which the man was made will now present a challenge in that thorns and thistle will be produced along with edible plants (3:17–18). God also insists that the work required in tilling the soil will be more arduous (3:19). It does not escape us that, in the wake of the disobedient couple’s actions, every aspect of the created order is under divine judgment: the animal world, the human world, and the material world. Indeed, in a moral order this was predictable.
Though not presented as a punishment per se, clearly the woes of the man and woman continue since they are about to be expelled from the garden. The Lord God is concerned that they might partake of another tree: the tree of life. Eating from the first tree proved disastrous. God will not take a chance with the second tree (3:22). The man who had originally been designed to till the ground will still do so, but outside the garden (3:23). Making absolutely sure the garden was protected from human entry, the Lord had it guarded by armed cherubim (3:24).
Grace at a Glance
At first blush, this story makes us a bit depressed. The judgments administered are hardly slaps on the wrist. Everything has been altered, dramatically so. At the same time, judgment has been mitigated by counter divine actions. For one thing, in spite of the fact that the couple had clothed themselves with vegetative apparel (3:7), God went a step further and supplied them with leather clothing (3:21). We surmise this was to prepare the man and the woman for life outside the garden.
As well, this move on God’s part puts in bold relief that indeed there would be life outside the garden. Children would come into the world (3:16). Ground would be cultivated (3:18). The garden is no longer an option, but there are nevertheless unmistakable signs of life. In point of fact, this underscores for us perhaps the most amazing act of grace in this whole episode. As it turns out, the couple did not die on the day they ate the fruit, as God had solemnly warned (2:17; 3:4).
To be sure, death would be in their future (3:19). But the death would be delayed. Incredibly, just before expulsion from the garden, life is emphasized in the most grandiose of terms. Already experienced at naming (2:19–20), the man now names the woman who is his wife. Her name would be Eve, for she was the mother of all other human beings (3:21). We are surely right to view life outside the garden as potentially problematic, perhaps extremely problematic. But it would be life nonetheless. The story would continue. It could have been worse, much worse. God’s grace got the better part of God’s judgment.
Questions for Further Reflection: Genesis 2:4–3:24
- What conclusions should Christians draw from the fact that in this section there is no vegetation because God had not yet brought rain and because there was no man to till the soil? Are there implications for other areas which require a combination of divine and human activity?
- Is there any religious or theological significance to the fact that God placed the man, the animals, and then the woman in a garden rather than in some other setting? What might that significance be?
- How should Christians regard the animal world in the light of this segment? What should be made of the fact that the Lord made the animals in the first place to find a helper appropriate to what the man needed? What should Christians make of the fact that the Lord seems to use a “trial and error” method before deciding to make first the animals and then the woman? Also, why is it important that the man named the animals?
- What is significant about the description of the serpent? If this animal is supposed to be Satan, why is the text not more explicit about it? Does the serpent in any way force the man and woman to disobey?
- Are the punishments for the disobedience even-handed and fair? Are cursed ground and increased pain in childbirth comparable? Is the serpent justly punished? Plus, why is not immediate death a punishment?
- What should we make of the fact that God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden in the first place?
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