And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely 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 die.” (Genesis 2:16)
To properly understand Genesis 2-3, we have to keep the narrative of the Fall of Adam and Eve and the impact of the ancestral sin in the context of the entire Scriptures. We read the narrative through the lens of what Scriptures abundantly testifies to us about God: that God is love and He acts towards His human creatures through His merciful loving kindness which endures forever.
As Orthodox biblical scholar and priest Paul Tarazi argues, the story of the Fall of Eve and Adam itself occurs in the first part of Genesis which is not so much the story of humanity, but the story of the heavens and the earth – the story in which God is the main actor and the humans are part of what God is doing. So to understand the first five chapters of Genesis one must realize this part of the bible is not anthropocentric but theocentric and so must be interpreted with a focus on God. According to Tarazi, Adam’s story (Hebrew: toledot) really begins in Genesis 5:1-2.
“Genesis 1-4 is not the story of Adam (and Eve)… it is rather the toledot of the heavens and the earth, Adam being merely the product, the fruit, of the latter: ‘then the Lord God formed the man (human being) of dust from the ground (‘adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.’ (Gen 2:7)
Genesis 1-4 is not about the human being whose story (toledot) is the subject matter of Genesis 5:1-6:8). The first four chapters are rather the story (toledot) of ‘the heavens and the earth,’ that is, God’s entire creation. Unless this is kept in mind, then one is bound to mishandle the text.” (Paul Tarazi, THE CHRYSOSTOM BIBLE: GENESIS, pp 28,35)
In fact every story found in the scriptures is to be read through the lens of what we know to be true about God. Each chapter and story of the Bible belong in a context and are understood in that context. To remove them from their context – from the revealed theology found in the Scriptures – and to treat them as if each story can stand alone and be interpreted without a context is to distort the meaning of each passage. All books within the Bible have different authors and editors, and yet all of them were inspired to write a narration which is governed by and united by God.
If we ignore any part of the theology of the Bible, we decontextualize the words which God put into a context and so fail to read it as Word of God. For example Scripture is clear that creation was brought into existence by the Word of God:
The God who is love creates the world by His Word sharing His love with His creation. Thus even creation itself, the cosmos, and the history of the universe are part of the context in which the narrations of Scripture are unfolding. So, all of the Scriptures, history and the cosmos are the context for understanding any verse, pericope or book of the Bible. They are all inseparable and therefore also the context in which we have to read the Genesis 2-3 story of the fall of Adam and Eve and the entrance of death into God’s creation.
Indeed, we note that some Patristic writers understand that death in Genesis 3 of the humans for disobedience is not punishment but a firm limit imposed by God on evil. It is God’s will that evil shall not abide forever but is contained by God.
“Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire…” (Revelation 20:14)
Just as God walls in the chaos in Genesis 1 as He reveals creation, so too death is used to limit the effects of disobedience, evil and chaos
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:3-5)
And death itself belongs to the temporal world – it is not eternal but is a temporary condition which too will pass away according to God’s Word and will.
St Irenaeus (d. 202AD) writing at the end of the 2nd Century says:
“Wherefore also he [God] drove him [Adam] out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life … having mercy on him, that he should not continue a transgressor for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But he set a bound to his transgression, by interposing death and causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh into the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God…” (Against Heresies, 3.23.6).
As. St. Irenaeus interprets Genesis 3, death mercifully puts a boundary around the transgression/disobedience and limits its power and effect. Death is not punishing the humans but curtailing sin! St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 384AD) will go so far as to say that the death of Adam and Eve made the resurrection of Christ possible! God intended all along to defeat death by death. (Gregory of Nyssa’s idea is based squarely on St. Paul’s own teaching: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Romans 11: 32).
If God is love and acts in love toward us humans, His telling Adam that to wrongfully eat the forbidden will result in death is a warning to Adam. In the next blog we will consider the question: what was the serpent doing in telling Eve that to eat this fruit will make her god-like?