The Gift of Life
The Gift of Life
by William Klock
Last week we finished our look at the account of Creation that runs through the first chapter of Genesis and ends with 2:3. We’ve seen how the seven days described there stand as a prologue to the book of Genesis and to the whole story of Redemption. Genesis 1 describes God creating the cosmos as a temple for himself—a temple in which human beings serve him as his priests, giving him the glory he is due; and a temple where he rests; where he takes up his sovereign rule of Creation. He shaped it, he ordered it, he gave it life, and now he continues to hold it in his hands, caring for it and sustaining it. Genesis 1 gives us the foundational worldview of the Bible: God created the cosmos for human beings so that we can know him, fellowship with him, worship him, and glorify him. Whatever furthers our serving him is “good” and so God sees our needs and he provides for them so that we can serve him, so that we can glorify him. That’s the introduction. The stage is set. Now it’s time to get into the actual history of God taking care of his people.
Look with me at Genesis 2:4. We read there:
These are the generations
of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
We’ll see these words, “these are the generations,” over and over in Genesis, because they’re used to introduce each of the major divisions of the book: “These are the generations (or descendants) of Adam” or “These are the generations of Noah” or “These are the generations of Abraham”. Each book then describes that man’s story and leads us to the next story, which tells us about his sons, his “generations”. The first story, which tells us about Adam, begins with “the heavens and the earth” because no human beings had yet been created.
This introduction should cause us to shift some gears in our thinking. Genesis 1 showed us the “big picture”. Genesis 1 lets us stop outside of history—even outside the cosmos itself. It gives us God’s perspective on Creation. Before the story begins, Genesis 1 makes sure we know what God’s plan is—what he intended and what he purposed when he created and when he set history in motion. Now in Genesis 2 history begins and we zoom in. And as we zoom in we move from seeing the whole cosmos and from seeing all of history from a distance, to focusing our attention on a particular people and on a particular time. The fact that the text talks about particular people and about their generations or descendants grounds us in history—the history of God caring for, sustaining, and rescuing his people.
We see the shift in focus in part by how the text addresses God. In Genesis 1 we read about Elohim. It’s a name that describes God in all his majesty, but it’s also impersonal. In contrast, here in 2:4, we read for the first time about Yahweh Elohim. In our English Bibles it’s Lord God, with “Lord” all in capitals, or in some translations you’ll read Jehovah God. Chapter 2 connects God the Creator with Yahweh, the Lord, the personal God of Abraham and the God who had rescued the Israelites from Egypt, taken them through the Red Sea on dry ground, and met them at Mt. Sinai to give them his law. Again, we’re now moving into the story of redemptive history.
But if this is history it raises all sorts of questions—some of them very difficult questions. Even little kids in Sunday school see some of the difficulties here. They read these early chapters and ask, “Where did Cain and Seth get their wives?” or “How did Cain build a city if his parents were the first two human beings?” And those questions that children ask foreshadow the questions that we ask as adults. How do we reconcile an historic “first pair” with modern scientific findings? Geneticists tell us that the diversity of the human gene pool means that our race is descended not from two people but from a group of about 10,000. If Adam was a special work of creation, how do we reconcile that with the evidence in our DNA that all life on earth shares a common ancestry? These are hard questions and questions that have caused some people to doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible as God’s Word.
I’ve observed that amongst Christians there are three primary ways we deal with these questions. Many “liberals” deal with them simply by embracing the scientific consensus and throwing out Scripture. That’s obviously not an option for us. Many “conservatives” do the opposite: embracing Scripture and then either dismissing the scientific consensus or they twist the biblical text to accommodate science. Those aren’t valid options either. Positively, these folks rightly affirm the authority and truthfulness of the Bible, but if the Bible is right, then we also have to affirm that God created an ordered universe that can be reliably observed. We may sometimes come to wrong (or partially wrong) conclusions based on incorrect data or because our data are limited, but the simple fact is that the scientific method isreliable and to simply dismiss it isn’t a position that’s compatible with what the Bible tells us about God and his Creation. Twisting the text to force it to say something it wasn’t intended to say isn’t a valid option either. Increasingly, I see a third group of Christians who want to affirm the authority and truthfulness of Scripture, but who aren’t willing to dismiss what science is telling us about the world and our origins. These brothers and sisters understand that all truth is God’s truth, but haven’t been able to reconcile the Bible and science and so they live in a very frustrating state of cognitive dissonance. Often the easiest thing to do is to chalk-up these early chapters of Genesis—Creation, Adam, the Flood, Babel—as ahistorical and symbolic stories and then see “real” history beginning with Abraham. The problem is that not all of the “problems” end with Abraham. If we approach biblical history—even the Gospels—and expect them to conform to our modern concept of history we’re going to run into problems.
The solution is to remember that God speaks to human beings in human language—and not just language in the sense of Hebrew or Greek or English, but in our cultural language too. Genesis 1 communicates the truths of God’s Creation in the language of ancient cosmology and so does Genesis 2. But now that we’re moving into biblical history, we need to understand that God spoke his inspired and authoritative Word through ancient people who had an ancient understanding of history, an understanding that was different from our own. Our modern idea of history is very much influenced by our materialistic and scientific mindset. Our history is supposed to “tell it like it was” in plain language—“Just the facts, ma’am—and, at least in theory, our history is supposed to be unbiased. (Although I challenge you to go out and find a truly unbiased history book.) Ancient people were different. (Or maybe not quite as different as we think!) They wrote their histories with an agenda in mind—usually political or theological. We see that in the Old Testament; this isn’t just history. It isn’t just raw data; it’s history that shows the redemptive story of God’s people. And ancient histories could include non-scientific accounts of historical events in order to explain things like purpose and function. We want hard, scientific, and literal facts; ancient people spoke in symbols and metaphors and allegories. We want Creation described in hard facts and scientific detail; they described that historic event using the symbolic language of God building himself a temple.
Many of the conflicts between the Bible and science or archaeology are the result of Christians assuming that the Bible was written in our modern language or mindset. As a result we expect the Bible to address things that weren’t part of the thinking or mindset of the people to whom God originally gave it. When we do that we often read things into the text that are completely foreign to the thinking and mindset of the ancient people to whom it was first given. Again, we need to remember one of the most basic rules of Bible reading: We need to ask first what the text meant to the people who originally heard it. If it were written in our “language” or with our way of thinking in mind, it would have been nonsense not only to the people who heard it all those years ago, but also to the people through whom the Spirit communicated the Scriptures. Bishop Wescott wrote more than a century ago: “The Bible is authoritative, for it is the Word of God; it is intelligible, for it is the word of man.” Just as the Word became Incarnate in the person of Jesus, who was both God and human being, so the Word Written is God’s divine Word, but it’s communicated in human language and human thought patterns so that we can understand it.
So what does this mean for Adam? We have to grant that he is presented historically. He’s part of the genealogy that eventually leads us to Abraham and to David and to Jesus. At this point I think it’s unwise to completely dismiss the possibility that Adam was a real, historical person. We need to exercise some humility and admit that we don’t yet have all the data. But we also need to see that, historical or not, the Bible tells us about Adam in very symbolic language. The danger of dwelling too much on what the Bible does not say about Adam is that we miss what it does say, and that’s where I want to spend the rest of our time this morning. Look at verses 5 to 7:
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
The story starts with the uncreated earth. There was land, but no vegetation—no “bush of the field”, which is a Hebrew way of describing wild-growing plants, and there was no “plant of the field”, which describes cultivated grains. There was no source of water to nourish the plants either. Most importantly, there were no human beings.
These verses anticipate the purpose God gives to human beings. We saw in Chapter 1 that the world is God’s temple and human beings are his priests, created to serve him, but what does that look like specifically? Genesis 2 makes it clear that part of our service to God—part of our worship—involves the work of caring for his Creation. In fact, when verse 15 describes God placing Adam in the garden to work and keep it, the words used there are words that describe priestly work. Work—even hard work—isn’t the result of the Fall. Human beings were created for work. Work only became a burden as a result of our disobedience. The text also points to the significance of human beings in the order of Creation. Genesis 1 does this by placing our creation last. Here God makes us first and then provides the things we need for life. Both accounts make the same basic point: God cares for his people and provides the things they need in order to live and in order to serve him.
The story starts with no plants, no water, and no human beings. God begins by creating human life. We’re given this image of God stooping down to the uncreated earth, taking a handful of it, creating a human being, and then giving him life by breathing his own breath into him. This is one of those Old Testament passages that makes me wish that everyone could read the Hebrew text and that everyone could be familiar with the cultural context it comes from. Between our tendency to want to see this in light of our materialistic and scientific worldview and what’s lost in translation from Hebrew to English it’s extremely easy for us to miss the amazing symbolism of what’s written here.
First, we see God as the divine Potter, creating his people. He creates “the man”; in Hebrew it’s “the adam”. “Adam” isn’t just a proper name, it’s also the general word for “human being”. An English equivalent might be to say that God created a man and called him “Manny” or he created a guy and called him “Guy”. Adam is more than just an historical character in the story and he’s more than just the first human being; he’s the symbol of and the representative for the entire human race. Adam is an Everyman. The story also shows our connection with the earth. God created Adam from the earth, but what we miss in English is that the word for “earth” is adama. The best way to capture this in English might be to say that from the earth God created an “earthling”.
And as we read this remember that the point of the story isn’t material origins—it’s not a scientific account of God literally creating human beings from dust. The idea of the gods creating human beings from the earth is a common one in the Ancient Near East. Remember that their concern was non-material—it was all about function and purpose—and the point was to communicate our creatureliness—our connection with the Creation and with the earth—and to communicate our mortality. The earth is our cradle; the earth is our home; and the earth is our grave. God created human beings to be mortal, at least so far as our phsyical bodies are concerned. And yet, as much as creation from the dust was how many ancient people described human origins, the biblical story is also very unique. In other ancient stories the gods create all humanity from the earth in a single act. In stark contrast, Genesis shows us God creating a single human being. Adam is symbolic for the rest of us, but the fact that Genesis gives us this picture of God personally creating Adam reminds us that God didn’t create humanity as an impersonal slave-race to do his bidding, but creates each of us, has a special and particular interest in each of us, and relates to each of us as individuals. God knows you personally.
But God didn’t just create Adam as a creature of the earth. Verse 7 tells us that God brought Adam to life by breathing into him his own breath. In Chapter 1 we read that God made us his image-bearers. That’s the idea communicated here. God breathed a living soul into this human being he had made from the earth. In Hebrew it tells us that God breathed his nepes into Adam. His nepes, his Spirit, was what hovered over the waters in Genesis 1 before the work of Creation began. This is a reminder that God’s Spirit is our sustenance.
So God has now created a human being, but where is Adam going to live? Look with me at verses 8 and 9:
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Adam needs a place to live and a place to serve God, and so we read that God created a garden for him. Its position in the east is symbolic of life and the word “garden” itself describe a place that’s fenced-off or protected and where plants that are good for food grow. The garden is a place of blessing and well-being. The name “Eden” describes luxuriance and delight. The garden presents God’s temple in miniature. God is uniquely present in the garden in a way that he’s not anywhere else. Human beings can meet God in the garden; they can walk with him and talk with him. When we read about the construction of the temple later in Israel’s history, one of the things we see is that the temple is designed as a symbolic representation of the garden. It’s decorated with palm tree and flowers and guarded by cherubim.
In verses 10 to 14 we read how a river watered the garden. That was another of God’s provision for life. Before he created we read that there was no rain, only a mist that seems connected to the chaotic waters in Chapter 1. And yet the river not only waters the garden, it flows from the garden, splits into four rivers and flows out to water all the known earth of the time. The river represents God’s life-giving grace and blessing flowing from his throne, from his temple, out to the rest of his Creation. It’s the same imagery that Ezekiel uses to describe the establishment of an eternal temple through the coming of Jesus and it’s the imagery used in Revelation to describe the “river of life” flowing from the throne of God and from the lamb.
Verse 9 tells us about two particular trees in the middle of the garden. The first is the tree of life. Human beings were created mortal—we’re of the dust—but so long as we lived in the garden—in God’s temple and in trusting, obedient fellowship with him, we could eat of the fruit of the tree of life and live forever. Because of our sin, God removed us from the garden—from his temple and from his presence. He took away our access to the Tree of Life. And yet through faith in Jesus—through the Second Adam—we can once again enter the temple and at the Lord’s Table we receive again the sacrament of eternal life. And yet even as we come to the Table, we know that our bodies are still mortal. Here our souls are restored and here we receive the promise of immortality on that day when our redemption is consummated, when we enter the New Jerusalem and gather on the banks of the river—the river flowing from God’s throne and from the lamb—and once again eat of the Tree of Life, which stands beside the river.
But verse 9 tells us about two trees. The other is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We read more about it in verses 15-17:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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.”
This tree represents wisdom and the ability to tell good from bad, the ability to make right decisions. The tree represents knowledge that rightly belongs only to God. To eat from the tree is to fall from innocence. Think of it from the perspective of a parent. Sadly, the older we get the more we learn about the evil present in the world. Our children are innocent of that evil. We take care of them. We lay down simple rules to protect them. We shelter them from the world’s evil—often from things so awful we wish we didn’t know about them ourselves. Brothers and sisters, that’s how God created Adam. That was his intent for humanity. He created us innocent of evil—innocent even of the knowledge of a distinction between good and evil. He simply wanted to provide for us so that we could worship him. He created us as finite beings. That means that we don’t have the ability to fully know right and wrong. God is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful; his knowledge is perfect, even of past, present, and future. He knows perfectly what is right and what is wrong and he has the perfect wisdom to discern what will ultimately lead to good and what will lead to bad. Even with Bible in hand and with the best of intentions, you and I can never discern good and evil as well as God can. He didn’t design us for that burden. To eat of that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was to have innocence ripped away. Think of taking your innocent child to witness a murder, or to shove a pornographic magazine into his hand, or to read him police blotters or court dockets instead of bedtime stories. To eat of the tree was suddenly to know what sin is—that it exists, that it’s an option and a life-style choice, and it was suddenly to be inundated by the temptation that inevitably comes with the knowledge of sin. This was not knowledge God created us to handle. That’s why Adam was commanded not to eat of the tree.
God created human beings to trust him for this kind of knowledge. He created human beings innocent of right and wrong. He gave Adam only one rule: “Don’t eat from this one tree” and God placed Adam in a temple-garden where he took care of his every need while Adam did the work of worship and service that he was created to do. God’s single command to Adam reminds us that God’s intent was to protect us from taking his role on ourselves. That’s what sin is: it’s to take God role of knowing good and evil on ourselves. He created us to trust him for that knowledge. When we sin, what we’re doing is rejecting his authority and his care for us and foolishly asserting our independence. Sin is a declaration of unbelief. And as we see here, God declares that the penalty for sin is death. God gave us life on the condition we trust him. In this sense to be removed from the Tree of Life is an appropriate punishment. If we’re going to insist on autonomy, God gives it to us. He removes us from his presence and from our source of eternal spiritual life.
But thanks be to God, brothers and sisters, that God does not leave his people without hope of new life. Just because we rejected his loving care doesn’t mean that his loving care for us ceases. He saw our sin and saw our need for a Saviour and so he sent his only Son to take our punishment on himself. Through faith in Jesus, we can be restored to life in God’s temple; we can be restored to service as his holy priests. As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning, remember what you have lost because of your sin. Remember that sin once removed us from God’s presence. But remember too, as you take the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, that for we who have put our faith in Jesus—in his death and resurrection—these earthly creatures of bread and wine are signs and seals of the new life Jesus has given. And as you take them, look up; remember that one day in the New Jerusalem faith will become sight as we live before the presence of God and of the lamb, as we sit beside that great river of his blessing and in the shade of the Tree of Life.
Let us pray: Lord God, thank you for having created us so lovingly. Thank you for creating us that we might live in your presence and serve in your temple. Thank you for continuing to care and provide for us even when we rejected you. Strengthen our faith in Christ our Saviour. Give us grace by your Spirit to live the new life he has given. And let us live in hope of that great day when the fullness of our redemption comes, that day when we will live fully in your presence again and for all eternity. We ask this through Jesus Christ. Amen.