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Monday, October 1, 2012

Beyond the Garden of Eden

Previously I suggested that there is adequate evidence, both archaeological and literary, to conclude that the Garden of Eden was a real place. But the question remains: Is the narrative in the Bible in Genesis 3 merely a myth or legend, founded perhaps in some racial memory, and no different from the myths of the Ancient Near East (ANE)? Perhaps it is even derived from those earlier myths? That is what some researchers conclude.

I would take issue. There are two good reasons to think that the Bible's narrative is not only different but far more significant than the ANE myths. First, if you read the ANE myths side by side with the Bible's narrative you'll find that they are very different in tone and style. The ANE myths are peopled (if that is the right word) with fantasy gods who are not unlike the people who created the myths. They fight. They lust after each other. And they are wholly unbelievable to our minds. Like every myth these attempt to provide an answer to the the human condition. But they fail.

On the other hand, the Bible narrative, is sober and reserved. There is only one God. This God is not capricious. He is holy and just. And he relates to human beings compassionately. He is wholly unlike the gods of the ANE.

The Genesis narrative is, of course, a literary work. It is not a text book or newspaper report, and it should not be read so. It is full of metaphors and symbolism.

Clearly, for example, the serpent who tempts Eve is not a normal snake. He is a symbol for Satan, since the son who would be born some time in the future would crush his head while this symbolic serpent would strike the son's heal (Genesis 3:15). No real snake is in view here. Reading the story as if the serpent was a literal snake, or like some Creationists do, trying to explain the curse on the serpent as reducing a pre-fall walking on four feet serpent to a snake crawling in the dust snake, does nothing but divert the serious point of the story to a mere news story.

No, the narrative is best understood as a parable, maybe as an allegorical parable. Some blanch at that idea. (It should be noted that a parable does not need to be a fictional story. Jesus told many parables, some of which were clearly anchored in actual events. I am convinced that this parable is similar.) However, it is only as a parable that the real significance of the narrative becomes evident - and that significance is huge. This parable is nothing short of the gospel - told centuries before Jesus came into the world to be the sacrifice for our sin. And this is the second big difference from the ANE myths. They have no such enduring meaning.

Here's how the parable goes. Adam and Eve at the beginning of the parable lived in a garden created special for them by God. They were innocent, symbolized by their nakedness without shame. They had no experience of sin. Yet God had given them something that no other earthly creature had, the ability to make moral choices. In the garden were two trees. One was the tree of life. If they eat of it (the suggestion is that they must continue eating of it) they would live forever. The other was the infamous tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eating of that tree would result in death. Adam and Eve had a choice. Obey God or not.

You know the story. Eve disobeyed, falling for the serpent's lie that God had not told them the truth. She also was lured by the promise that the fruit was good to eat and would give her wisdom so that she would be like God. This a classic and thoroughly biblical description of temptation, though illustrated long before any theological attempt to understand temptation and sin. At its heart, all temptation is the desire to be free of God and be our own master. It was Lucifer's (Satan's) sin, as the Bible tells us.

As an aside, God's desire for Adam and Eve was friendship and love. (Love the LORD your God with all your heart, if you recall.) But love is not love unless it is freely given. To love truly requires that one have the ability to choose not to love. The test was necessary. If it had not been the trees it would have been something else. So the trees, real or not, are symbolic of man's moral choice.

When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they become aware of their guilt. That is symbolized by their being aware of their nakedness and attempting to cover their nakedness. Nakedness is a perfect symbol. To be naked is to be completely exposed. Nothing is hidden. If we have nothing to hide, nakedness is not an issue (as it was not before their sin).

But despite their sin, God came looking for them. We should ask why. The answer has to be that God desired them as friends; after all, the story describes God as coming to the garden in the cool of the day to walk with man. He could have ended the experiment right there. He could have started over. He did neither. He sought them out. And he sought them out, as we see later in the story, to forgive them. How like the gospel that is. Jesus came into the world to seek and to save the lost. Is it incredible coincidence that the two narratives of redemption match? Is it collusion by the New Testament writers? I doubt that. It is not coincidence. It is supernatural design.

When God called Adam and Eve out of hiding, he asked them if they had eaten of the forbidden fruit. His desire was to forgive them, but forgiveness must be received if it is to result in the restoration of the friendship. To be received the guilty one must agree that he has broken the fellowship by his sin. Denial keeps the relationship broken. This is a terribly perceptive part of the parable. Is there anything like it in ANE mythology? Not to my knowledge, but here it is in the biblical narrative. It is also crucial to the gospel in the New Testament. God offers forgiveness through Jesus, and he is faithful and just to forgive our sin IF we confess our sin (1 John 1:9).

God did forgive. That is the symbolism of clothing the couple with the skins of animals. Adam and Eve had attempted to cover their own guilt but with leaves. That would not be sufficient. Neither are our attempts at dealing with our sin by covering them up. That is foundational to the gospel in the New Testament. If we could cover our sin, we would not need a Savior.

Sin, forgiveness, and redemption. That is the message of Genesis 3. That is the message of the gospel in the New Testament. But there is one more thing. Consequences. In the Genesis narrative the consequences are pain in childbirth, struggle to earn the necessities of life, and death. Those remain with us, but the point is that forgiveness does not eliminate consequences - not then and not now. The New Testament says, "Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." But we do not need the Bible to tell us that. We only need to look around. It is a law of life as much as the law of gravity. Still, it was a law illustrated with great literary skill in Genesis written in what we consider the very earliest days of human existence.

That is what makes the Garden of Eden narrative stand out from all others. It is truth. It is truth down deep. It probes the heart as the writer of Hebrews says the word of God will do. The ANE myths are stories and that alone. The Genesis account is God's word to us.

The remarkable character of the Genesis narrative places it beyond the doing of men. It is not myth. It is not the attempt of men to explain life. It goes too deep for that. There is no comparison to ANE literature. It is too different from every other attempt made by man. It can only be God. So however close it is to the actual historical report of this event, the greater significance by far is in the meaning of the story.