I am offering more commentary than usual this week. This is because these chapters contain so much that is easily missed, and they have been foundational for theology and ethics.
Christians generally interpret Genesis 3 as a story of “the fall” from innocence into sin. By contrast, Muslims interpret this story as humans coming of age and view this as a step in human development or maturity. Should we view the first man and woman as primordial (less than a full state of development) or child-like? What did they learn?
20th Century Protestant theologians who lived through WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the terrors of communism, and the struggles of the civil rights movement claimed that optimistic views of human nature were insufficient to the human problem. They believed that sunny ideas of progress or that education could easily overcome the selfishness of individuals and groups was naïve. They argued that Christian faith, which views human nature in light of creation, the fall, and redemption offers a more profound and realistic portrait of human nature. The doctrine of original sin names the truth that, while sin is not necessary, it is inevitable. It names the human fault without losing sight of human dignity of all people and avoids scapegoating societal ills on a particular group of “evil people” (French royalty, capitalists, or some other group of “them” who causes our problems, etc.). Even the guilty bear the divine image. Even we bear the fault. The wisdom of the Christian view of human nature continues to speak as we consider the importance of checks and balances on power (within society, resisting totalitarianism) and within the branches of government.
The Tree, Knowledge, and the Sexes
Review God’s command about the tree (2:16). The fact that the tree is in the middle of the garden suggests that temptation was always at hand. That God issued a command regarding the tree suggests something about the scope of human freedom, our capacity for obedience as well as our capacity to turn from God. It also suggests that the law is not simply a remedy for sin (to restrain evil). Even before the fall, humans needed the law to guide them. This has provided Reformed Christians with theological reasons to view the state and its laws more positively than some of our Christian brothers and sisters.
What do we make of the fact that once the first humans eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (remember, the distinction is broader than simple moral evil), they immediately recognize their nakedness? Do they view nakedness as a defect? Why do they hide? Some think that covering their nakedness means that they have discovered their sexual differentiation. Others think that genitalia points to their mortality. Still others think that the man and woman discover they are embodied, not divine. Notice the blaming. Why does this sound so familiar? Notice, just after they conceal their deficiency, they hear “the voice of the Lord God” (verse 18). Their neediness moves them to attend to higher possibilities.
In Reformed Theology verses 3:14-15 are sometimes considered the “Adamic Covenant,” in which God promises to be on their side against evil. This happens AFTER the fall! We will talk more about this in our Lenten sermon series, Promises, Promises. It is worth pondering how this covenant includes all people.
Feminists protest how Genesis has been used to justify treating women as second-class humans. They particularly object to the notion men are the first and, perhaps, superior sex; that women are derivative, supportive helpers; and that men are given a right to “rule” over women. In my own reading, I notice that the Bible is clear that both men and women bear the divine image. One may also ask, in light of the observation that “it is not good to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), whether just the man needs help, or whether the need for help is common to all. It is worth noting that the “rule” of men over women is part of the curse and not part of God’s creative plan.
We should not overlook more positive, pro-woman aspects of the story: when Genesis says, “a man should leave his father and mother to cleave unto his wife” (2:24), this is unique among ancient texts. In every other long-standing cultural or religious tradition, women leave their families to join the man’s family. Also note that when the woman is finally named, in verse 20, “Eve” is not derived from Hebrew word for man (“the man” or Adam is made from “the dust,” Adamah).
In verse 17, the woman is referred to as the man’s wife. We now have a family (after the blaming is over!). This family is far from perfect. Indeed, as you read Genesis, consider whether any family it describes models the family values to which you aspire. The Bible has little time for airbrushed “history.”
Life Outside the Garden
Life outside the garden does not start off as terrible as the curse promised. It begins with the joyous birth of two brothers. Your Bible may give the Hebrew etymology for Cain as “brought forth,” but provides none for Abel. “Abel” appears nowhere else in the Bible. However, in Hebrew it sounds like “vanishing breath” and may foretell his death.
Birth order studies suggest that the order, gender, and spacing of siblings impact a child’s emerging sense of self. Cain’s birth is celebrated by his mother. Abel’s… not so much. The elder brother becomes a farmer, a vocation that requires initiative, labor, skill, and the working of a particular piece of land. Remembering the curse of Genesis 3:17-19, does Cain takes over the family business? Abel, by contrast, chooses another, an easy life of following the herd. Does he choose a different vocation to avoid competing with his brother? Cain initiates sacrifice to God (God does not demand it here). Abel joins in. One wonders why God accepts one sacrifice but not the other. Cain viewed God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice as a terrible, frustrating reversal of the natural order, an injustice. The rivalry between the first brothers points to the competition that we find even within happy individual families (Genesis is full of sibling rivalry: Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers) as well as the larger human family.
Cain seemed to find the non-acceptance of his offering as irrational (I cannot explain it myself). Sometimes life and God seem unfair to us. God counsels Cain not to view the non-acceptance as rejection and to contain his rage. Despite the fact that the LORD God speaks to Cain (and only Cain), Cain’s rage anger is not quieted.
The body is buried. There is another cover up. Cain offers an evasion of responsibility, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God considers it a confession! Although Cain has killed Abel, God's punishment seems excessively light and hardly executed. Cain gets a second chance. His mark is not punishment but protection. He is condemned to wander and heads to the land of “Nod” or “wandering.” Yet, despite this punishment, Cain settles down and founds the first city.
The Hebrew word for “city” comes from a word that means “to watch.” It suggests that this city has less to do with a market or cultural center (say a temple) but a watchtower for common defense.
Notice that Cain finds a woman to marry and encounters potential enemies. The presence of other humans was not first noticed by the 19th Century cultured despisers of religion but has been commented on for centuries. It reminds us that Genesis was never meant to be science. (See the commentary on the relationship between faith and science in the previous post.)
The Bible turns its attention to Lamech who takes two wives (the first suggestively named “ornament” and the second “protector”). Lamech’s children give us music, large animal husbandry, and metallurgy. In verses 23 – 24, Lamech brags (it is a poem) about killing a man. His boast, that his vengeance is orders of magnitude greater than Cain’s, points to a rather nasty truth we often deny: civilization is not only rooted in ennobling cultural and technical developments, but also rivalry, pride, violence, and domination (one thinks of Augustine’s libido dominandi or “lust for power”). These continue to stain every civilization.
Seth and Enosh almost seem to give us a new start. After them, people begin calling out to God. John Calvin claimed that knowledge of God and knowledge of the self are intertwined. In this connection, he noted the link between knowledge of God’s glory and human sin. When we grasp God’s holiness, we see how far we’ve fallen. The reverse is also true: when we confront our wretchedness, we sense that we have fallen from something better – God’s glory. Perhaps Lamech’s remorseless, murderous boast is sufficiently horrifying that it leads humans to call on the God of life.
Genesis 5 gives us a third, almost wholly human creation story, in the form of a genealogy. (BTW – Psalm 104 is the greatest meditation on creation outside of Genesis.) This genealogy focuses on a new line of humans, 10 generations from Seth to Noah. Why are Cain and his seven generations ignored? Is it their violence and bloodshed? Is this “generations of Adam” a new beginning? Does it represent the airbrushing of history?
Notice that this genealogy traces through the men. I sense that the focus on the men is to lead us to Noah. It tells us how old the father was when the next generation was born and how old they were when they died. They lived a long time. If you do the math regarding births, Noah is the first man born into the world after Adam that finally died, suffering the curse of death promised in Genesis 2. Given the reality of death, Noah’s name appropriately means both “lament” and “comfort.”