Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Genesis in Symbol and Substance

Genesis in Symbol and Substance
By Ron Corson
Once my 7-year-old son came to me after watching a video about the Creation and the Garden of Eden. He stood beside me wrapped in a blanket since he as most of my children have determined clothing is not necessary at home. As I was cleaning the table, he said, "if they had not eaten the fruit of that tree then we would all live forever". I told him that is right and asked him why did they eat the fruit of that tree. He looked back at me blankly, so I said the real problem was that they, Adam and Eve did not trust God. They thought they knew more than God did, they rejected God by their actions, but it was their attitude that caused the problem, not the tree or its fruit. As you can imagine the light did not go on over his head, he has enough respect not to tell me I was crazy. Yet, the look on his face told me that to him, it was the act of eating from the bad tree that caused us all to have to die. However, as with most of the Bible, understanding the substance behind the stories can lead to far greater understanding the then literalism that a child sees.

In the last century there has been much written about the first chapters of Genesis. Much has dealt with the literal or figurative nature of the seven days of creation. Even with all that has been written there is a great divide which remains between the different proponents of each idea. Whether a Genesis day is 24 hours or 1000 years is not the focus of this article. Instead, the focus is on the substance behind the things written in the first few chapters of Genesis, that is, how to look for the meaning within the story. As with most stories the goal may not be to present a precise time line and sequence of action of our beginnings. But to express to the listener in general terms how we are in the situation that we see around us now.

The first six days of creation are quite easily understood. In fact, it is stated in the very first verse.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Gen 1:1
The steps in the process are listed as on one day something was created and it was good, and the next day something else was created. It is a simple formula which reemphasizes the central thought of the chapter, that God created everything we see. How it precisely was done is not indicated energy changed to matter or creation from nothing to something simply by the will of God. It is of little importance for even in a society as technologically advanced as ours today is, it is a mind-boggling idea. Would it be any more understandable to the hunter or the shepherd of ancient Israel? Still the substance remains; God created the Heavens and the Earth.

The story continues that after all we see was created man was added to the scene. The story does not concern itself with details, how did man learn to talk, was he created with knowledge or did he have to learn the multitudes of things which humans have to learn to live. Man is given dominion over all he sees. This is demonstrated in the small but amazing detail which tells us that man gave names to all the animals. No small task even if man only spent one second on each animal. (Scientist speculate that only 10% of the species that have ever lived are currently alive.)

The story has told us so far that God created the Heavens and the Earth, Sun and moon, plants and animals and mankind. That is the substance, the how’s and why can still be debated as vigorously as anyone wants to debate them. What it has done is to set the stage with everything that mankind sees around them.

Now of course a problem occurs, the problem is clear to all people, we are not living in a paradise where mankind rules all of nature. The story moves to tell us how we arrived at the current situation. It has presented us with a God created world which is good, however now the focus changes to man, God the prime mover thus far steps back from the action.

Adam means, "man" in the symbol we see him as the representation of all men. Eve means life-giver literally the first woman, the representation of all women. Our focus is to look at the substance of the story, what is the story trying to tell us as well as those who first heard the story. The story is often viewed as historical, but as we look at the story do not remove the possibility that there is symbolism which can lead more to the expression of concepts rather then merely lessons from their failures.

Before we continue with the story Gen. 2:10-14 diverges to give a geography lesson. The topography mentioned might have had significance to the ancient Israelites or it may have not. We are left with little explanation for this aside in the story. Possibly it is to set Eden in the geographic center, whatever the names indicate they are of far latter origin then the Eden story. We shall for this time ignore the two different accounts of the creation often identified as the account of chapter 1 and the account of chapter 2, and work as if it is one story.

 Gen 2:9 And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground--trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Gen 2:16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; Gen 2:17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."
As we move to the man portion of the story God has set two trees in the Garden, one of life and the other of the knowledge of good and evil. No directions are given for the tree of life, only a restriction for the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There are certain religions which from this tiny amount of information given so far have determined that if the first man and woman had not eaten of this tree mankind would not know good as well as knowing evil. To them, it was necessary for mankind to fail the test. This is here pointed out not to make fun of their teachings but rather as a warning not to jump on something and makes claims that are ill supported. It is a call to look to the substance.

When most Christians read this story they often interpret the events in the light of scripture written latter. This is normal and appropriate for us, but it may also be useful to look at the story the way one hearing it for the first time would think about it. As the story was most likely heard in the format we see now sometime after the exodus from bondage of the children of Israel. To them it would not be a dramatically different story from the ones that the religions around them taught. Order from chaos is a main feature of many ancient myths. Even what we may think is the most unusual aspect of the story, the talking serpent, is not unusual. Talking animals are also common in many ancient myths. We cannot say where the stories began if the myths are distortions of the actual history, or if the myths influenced the Hebrew creation story. We could hide behind a claim that God would never condone the use of myths but that is merely a prejudice we have placed on God. God has always had a tendency to reach people where they were, in the effort of bringing them to where He wants them to be. No one can read the Old Testament from beginning to end without noting how people’s views of God grew and changed. From a God appeased by sacrifices to a God who loved and redeemed. From Warrior God to Redeemer God, God was not changing but people were changing. They moved from the angry God to a God of love.

In the story, God has set before mankind the choice between life and death. Life is shown in the Tree of Life, Death is revealed in the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For the latter tree brings death. If the tree of Life defines itself as Life, then the other tree defines itself likewise. It was against God's will for man to experience the Tree of knowledge of good and evil, this tree represents rebellion against God. The distrust, which says that what God has told us, is not for our good, we know more than God. A God who withholds from us good is selfish at the least and evil at worst. These words are the words the serpent used to tear apart the relationship between God and man. Now out of this chaos God created life so in substance the Tree of Life represents God. The Tree of knowledge of good and evil in substance represents the rebellion against God. What we today like to call sin.

In the story there is a talking serpent; the substance of the serpent is that of an adversary, someone opposed to God, planting thoughts of distrust about God. In the story the serpent gives rise to the questions about God's goodness. It is the voice of doubt, the voice of self-exaltation, the voice of human sinfulness and rebellion.

After Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, they realize that they have done something wrong. The symbol is that they notice they are naked, they would have no reason to feel ashamed at the way they were created except for now they know they are no longer good as they were declared when created. The nakedness symbolizes their inability to hide from God the wrong they have committed. Even after their actions are discovered the first man and woman pass the blame to others. Adam blames both God and the woman ("the woman you put here with me"), Eve blames the serpent. It is here that we see the consequences given for the actions. The consequences like the other elements in creation are things which we see around us everyday.

The serpent is cursed above all creatures and doomed to crawl on its belly. By using it as the symbol of temptation and rebellion every time a person who has heard the story of the creation and sees a snake the story is remembered. The natural fear which people have of snakes because of their silent stealth and poisonous danger is described as enmity between both the serpent and the woman's offspring. Man will crush the serpent’s head and the serpent with strike man's heel. After the incarnation of Christ, people have looked back at this verse as Christ crushing the head of Satan. Christ as the offspring, and Satan as the ultimate adversary.
For the woman increase of pain in childbirth is instituted, again explaining something that is readily seen around us. The male will rule over you is the next curse placed upon the woman, again explaining the patriarchal society found throughout the world. To Adam the ground is cursed and will require painful toil, producing thorns and thistles. As before the curses declare to the listener things that are ever present on the earth.

The Lord makes for the couple garments of skin, a covering for their nakedness. Many people wrongly assume a sacrificial system inaugurated at this point. Assuming that God killed one or more animals to cover the people with an animal skin. But that is not really indicated it is developed by people inserting events into the story which were not there. The verse never even says animal skins and it is no simple or quick matter to make garments out of a skinned animal without proper preparation. If we are not sidetracked by inserting extra details into the story we can see what the substance of the garments is. The substance is that after the rebellion, and the finger pointing and the curses of mankind and the environment, God shows concern for the people. He covers their nakedness. Later in both the remainder of the Old Testament and again in the New Testament we will see that the covering is symbolic of forgiveness.

Man now experiences the results of evil and is no longer entitled to live in the presence of life. This is symbolized by the Tree of Life which is within the Garden of Eden. Therefore, mankind is banished from the Garden of God. Placing cherubim with a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the Tree of Life. The substance here is that mankind will not find his way back to the Life unless God once again opens the road. Man now lives separated from God. The creation story does not introduce people to the plan of salvation, redemption and reconciliation, they will be revealed later through the prophets and apostles and ultimately through Jesus Christ.

Whether we look at the story as a literal or a metaphorical story the substance remains generally the same. While those who prefer to look at the story as a literal historical occurrence in practice look to the substance of the meaning behind the events. Take for instance the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even those viewing the story as historical, note that it was the act of disobedience which was the first sin. It was not the fruit of the tree which somehow revealed to mankind what evil was. This is an entirely proper analysis; it goes to the substance of the story. However, if you talk to the same people about the Tree of Life it is the actual fruit that is eaten which provides eternal life. They have left the substance that is that God is the creator and source of life, to a very literal view that the fruit of the Tree of Life provides eternal life. When moving to that literalistic view many unanswerable questions will arise. For instance, did God create mankind with a self-restricting mechanism to die unless they ate from the Tree of Life? Does the devil and his demons eat of the Tree of Life since they do not seem to die?

To this point, we have predominately looked at the first three chapters of Genesis in a very restricted view. Looking at the story more in the light of a thoughtful person, who knew little about the Hebrew God, yet was familiar with other religious myths, much like the Israelites. Now we shall begin an analysis using the rest of the Bible to help us understand more of what God has intended for us.

Since we have just looked at the Tree of Life let us begin there again. It has been said by some that a tree is a tree. That usually would be true only if we knew for certain what the writer meant when making his/her statement. Consider the following: 

She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed (Prov 3:18)
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise. (Prov 11:30)
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. (Prov 13:12)
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. (Prov 15:4) (NIV)
Simple metaphors are represented here in Proverbs, which should confuse few people with their intent. Aside from the verses in Genesis to which we have already alluded and those found in Proverbs, the book of Revelation is the only other place where the phrase Tree of Life occurs.
 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God (Rev 2:7)
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2)
"Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. (Rev 22:14)
And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev 22:19) (NIV)
As we look at these verses though they are not the simple metaphors of Proverbs they are however much more metaphor then literal when the thoughts around them are observed. Such as phrases like: leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations, and Blessed are those who wash their robes. While overall most Christians do not take Revelation too literally, it is especially noticeable when certain words or phrases are removed for the symbolic or metaphorical context and taken to be literal. This is sometimes the case when certain Christians read books like Isaiah and Ezekiel with the same results. Most often this is seen in those who hold that Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are references to Satan. (See Lucifer Misidentified) Ezekiel gives us another excellent example of an instance where a tree is not a tree. Speaking of Egypt the verse says:

"Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes: "`Who can be compared with you in majesty? (Ezek 31:2)
The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor could the pine trees equal its boughs, nor could the plane trees compare with its branches-- no tree in the garden of God could match its beauty. I made it beautiful with abundant branches, the envy of all the trees of Eden in the garden of God. (Ezek 31:8-9) (NIV)
The metaphor not only provides poetic beauty but it moves the listener past the world of concrete reality to the place where the meaning or the message can be seen. However it requires the listener to look past the concrete language and analyze the words in the full context of the statement.

The tradition within the Christian church has been to see the serpent as the devil, Satan. (It is not until the book of Revelation that the connection is made between the serpent in Eden and Satan, Rev 20:2) This may not have been the typical Jewish understanding since the connection with Satan is not drawn anywhere in the Old Testament. Yet, when the substance of the story is examined it matters very little if Adam and Eve were deceived by an outside being or if the thoughts of rebellion against God came from inside their own minds. The point is that trust in God had been abandoned.

Now think of the serpent used by Moses in the desert to find protection:

The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Num 21:7-9
It is doubtful that people looked at the snake as a symbol of Satan, as it was lifted up. The snake was, as used in Genesis the symbol of the curse of rebellion, and how nature itself in some ways had become man’s enemy. Their rebellion here in the wilderness and the way out of their destruction lay in the hands of God. The typology of the snake lifted up by Moses is often correspondent with Christ being lifted up on the Cross.

But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." John 12:32 (NIV)

The correspondence is that looking to Christ provides the sinner with salvation just as looking to the snake lifted up in the wilderness provided healing from the venomous snakebites. But as we look more at the substance we can see also that as the snake was the symbol for rebellion and the curse of sin, Christ is also the symbol for rebellion and sin. As the children of Israel rebelled against Moses about being led into the wilderness and even complained about the Manna which God provided, Christ stands as the ultimate result of mankind’s rebellion. Christ was lifted up, crucified by the cruel hatred so often demonstrated by humanity. In Christ, we see the ultimate result of sin; that rebellious man would go so far as to kill his or her own creator.

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. Acts 3:13-15 (NIV
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5:21 (NIV)
Christ brings to light the true nature of the rebellion against God. A dramatic representation of just where our rebellion takes us. Man has killed his fellow man since the very beginning of time, but Christ death shows us that we can indeed commit acts that are more horrible. But we need not be left in our own disgusting circumstances. We can repent and accept again the God who offers us life.

Then Jesus cried out, "When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. John 12:44-46 (NIV)
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; John 11:25 (NIV)
From the Curse upon the snake in Eden... to the curse of snakes upon the children of Israel in the wilderness... to the curse of a Christ hung on a tree, all point out the rebellion of man. All should lead us to the answer to the problem, to put to death our hostility against God and accept His gift of life. We should not point fingers as did Adam and Eve in the Garden we must learn to accept our own responsibilities for our rebellion. The devil did not cause man’s fall, man did. It may well be that we do not understand the role of the adversary, but it is clear that we can not battle the adversary ourselves. As with all things concerning salvation it is through the power of God working in us that we press toward the mark, the total reconciliation with God.

 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." Gal 3:13 (NIV)
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. Eph 2:13-22 (NIV)
When time is spent looking at the substance of the first chapters of Genesis it is possible to see far more then the supposed historicity they are said to contain. The story tells us far more when we do not have to worry about how creation occurred or what time frame may be involved. Problems such as who did Cain marry or just what inspired the people to present animal sacrifices no longer become problems. Our understanding of the ancient world does not have to be based on sparse information. We become free to say that we do not know all we may want to know, and yet what has been provided gives us enough information to recognize our situation. The story of the first chapters of Genesis may indeed be historic; but then again, they do not have to be. The substance behind the story is the key, what does God want us to learn from the stories is the important point.
So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. 1 Cor 15:45-49 (NIV)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is the most inspired messages I have ever read of yours.

You now realize that we simply don't have to have all the answers, it is enough to know, "The story tells us far more when we do not have to worry about how creation occurred or what time frame may be involved."

One of the best blogs you have ever written.

"The story of the first chapters of Genesis may indeed be historic; but then again, they do not have to be. The substance behind the story is the key, what does God want us to learn from the stories is the important point."

I was truly blessed. Wow!!!