Scripture Means More Than Words and History

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.  (Genesis 2:21-25)

The Genesis 2 account of how God created the first human woman from the first human has been used variously to support among other things,  ideas of gender,  heterosexual marriage and natural law notions of the proper relationship between males and females.  In the New Testament though we find a very different interpretation and use of the text by St Paul.  Paul sees the Genesis text as referring to the great mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  St Paul like many of the early Christian biblical interpreters saw in the Old Testament not history or literal legal prescriptions, but that the texts pointed beyond those things to Christ.  Jesus Himself said that Moses (who in ancient thinking was the author of the Torah or Pentateuch) wrote about Him, Jesus (John 5:46; see also Luke 24:27, 44-45).  So, St Paul says of Genesis 2:24 –

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.  (Ephesians 5:25-33)

St Paul does get from the Genesis 2 text that husbands should love their wives and wives should respect their husbands.  He doesn’t deny that message, but he believes the text is far more interested in the great mystery of Christ and the Church.  That’s how he interprets Genesis 2:21-25.  And even though St Paul reads the text to refer to Christ, he allows the text to also have a lesser important meaning (He uses this lesser meaning in his argument in 1 Corinthians 11:7-12).  So if today we focus on Genesis 2 as mostly meaning natural law or heterosexual marriage, we are focusing only on what St Paul says is the lesser meaning of the text and we are missing its most important meaning – a reference to Christ.

St Methodius writing in the late 3rd Century or early 4th Century (d. 311AD) is very struck by St Paul’s use of the Genesis text.

Yet, while everything else seems rightly spoken, one thing, my friend, distresses and troubles me, considering that that wise and most spiritual man–I mean Paul–would not vainly refer to Christ and the Church the union of the first man and woman, if the Scripture meant nothing higher than what is conveyed by the mere words and the history; for if we are to take the Scripture as a bare representation wholly referring to the union of man and woman, for what reason should the apostle, calling these things to remembrance, and guiding us, as I opine, into the way of the Spirit, allegorize the history of Adam and Eve as having a reference to Christ and the Church?

Basically, what St Methodius realizes is that if the meaning of the Genesis 2 text is mostly about the marriage of a man and a woman, St Paul wouldn’t need to allegorize it.  St Paul highlights the great mystery in the text because that is what the divine purpose of the text is.  St Paul isn’t adding something that is not there, but rather is pointing out what we might miss in the text if we are too focused on reading the text literally.  St Paul wants us to understand the significance of Genesis 2 for Christians – the text isn’t mostly about human marriage and reproduction, rather it is about the Messiah and the Church.  Methodius continues:

For the passage in Genesis reads thus: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”  But the apostle considering this passage, by no means, as I said, intends to take it according to its mere natural sense, as referring to the union of man and woman, as you do; for you, explaining the passage in too natural a sense, laid down that the Spirit is speaking only of conception and births; that the bone taken from the bones was made another man, and that living creatures coming together swell like trees at the time of conception.

Christ the bridegroom

St Methodius is actually confronting and contradicting someone who reads the text literally telling them they are missing the point – the meaning and intention – of Genesis, of Moses, of the Old Testament by reading the text literally.  Methodius does not think the Scriptures are intended just to give us a sex education class or a class on child birth as he sees that as beneath the dignity of Holy Writ.  We don’t need Scripture to tell us about things we can learn from nature.  Scripture is a revelation from God about God – that is what we need to open our eyes to see.   The Bible is not a physiology text for it is a spiritual and sacred writing trying to lift our minds and hearts beyond the physical to the divine.  He would want to know why we want to read the text according to the flesh when God has enabled us to understand it according to the spirit.   Methodius presses his point by reading what St Paul says:

But he, more spiritually referring the passage to Christ, thus teaches: “He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church: for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.”  (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Kindle Location 575-590)

None of this means that biology or the physical body is of no spiritual importance.  God created us with bodies, with sexual organs and identities, capable of biological reproduction.  We have to learn how to connect our physical bodies with the spiritual in the same way we have to learn how to connect the literal text with its spiritual meaning.  The Bible doesn’t always do this – but God has created us with the capacity to discern the spiritual message of the written word, to harvest the spiritual fruits of Scripture, to retrieve the treasures of the Bible, to fathom the depths of the Word of God.

Unfortunately, sometimes we abandon the road to the heavens to satisfy our fleshly interests.  We move in the opposite direction from St Paul in reading the texts of the Old Testament.  And the end result is that we find ourselves entangled in earthly things or with a worldly point of view.

The Tree at the Heart of Creation

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 grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

According to Genesis 2, God planted the Tree of Life in the very center of the Garden of Delight.   As wonderful as this Tree seems, it is not the Tree that plays the first and great role in the history of humanity.    That Tree is the more infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  However, in Christian history, many poems and hymns were written connecting the Tree of Life to the Cross of Christ.  Christ is nailed to the Tree that gives life to the world.  And so we Orthodox sing:  “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world.”  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

One of the daily Matins hymns offers an interesting picture of the cross:

When you freely willed to die on the cross, O Savior, you planted the cross at the heart of the entire creation, and to save us you allowed them to fix you to that tree with nails, so that the sun and the moon were stunned into darkness. 

The thief gazed in disbelief at all that was happening, but his faith won him the blessing of paradise when he cried out to you:  Remember me, Lord, when you come in the glory of your Kingdom.   (Friday, Tone 3)

The reference to the cross planted “at the heart of creation” certainly makes me think about the Tree of Life which also had this central location in God’s planted Garden of Eden.   The cross is at the heart of creation for the God who is love also makes love central to created world which the Holy Trinity brought into existence.

Yet the humans whom God created, do not embrace this love.  They see the Tree of Life, the Cross, at the center of the Garden and are not willing to deny themselves in order to lovingly obey God.  Instead, they turn away from the Tree of Life (which they were not forbidden to eat), the Tree that gives eternal life, and they instead selfishly eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Not willing to die for God, they think they can live without God.   It was a terribly grave deception.

Adam and Eve were not willing to choose the Tree of Life – the Cross.  They were not willing to sacrifice all to remain fully united to God.  They foolishly, selfishly and mortally choose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They could not see how the Cross could bring joy into all the world, they could not see how choosing the cross could lead to life.

Christ, however, showed the way.  The new Adam did not forsake the Cross, but saw it as the way to eternal life for all humans.  In love and obedience, Jesus Christ saw that the life of the world came through that cross, which could only be embraced by love.

For Adam and Eve, knowledge looked like life but turned out to be death. Christ, knowing the way to Life, walked the path to the Tree of Life and thereby gained salvation for all people.

May the cross be graven on our hearts.

(See also The Cross is the Mirror of My Soul)

From Icon to Idol

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”   (Genesis 1:26-28)

According to the Scriptures, God created humans in God’s own image and likeness.  In the Greek text, it says God made us as icons (Greek for image) of God.  We are living icons – we breathe, we move, we see, we sense, we hear, we think, we create, we reproduce, we have dominion over other creatures.

“… then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”  (Genesis 2:7)

Though we are in God’s image and even are said by the Word of God to be “gods” (John 10:34 quoting Psalm 82:6), we are not idols.   Psalm 115:3-8 describes exactly what an idol is:

Our God is in the heavens;
he does whatever he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them.

Idols show no sign of life, but are lifeless works of human hands.  The ancient idol makers had no technology to add animation to their creations as today’s media animators could.

When one thinks about the description of an idol – mouths but cannot speak, ears but cannot hear, eyes but cannot see, feet but cannot walk and incapable of speaking – one realizes that in the New Testament, the result of sin and evil in the world is that humans have been reduced from icons of God to mere idols.  Sickness and disease have turned us into idols.  Those that make idols will become like them.  So many of the Church Fathers thought idolatry was the main human sin that brought the downfall of humanity.

We can take a quick glance at a few Gospel passages to see how humans, as a result of sin, have become exactly like idols:

“Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?”  (Mark 8:18)

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.  (Matthew 13:13-17)

Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him; it was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. For Isaiah again said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.” Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of him.   (John 12:37-41)

“God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.” And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a pitfall and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs for ever.”  (Romans 11:8-10)

And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  (Matthew 11:4-5)

All the healing miracles of Christ – sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, voice to the dumb, walking to the lame – undo the effects of the fall.  They turn us from being like idols into being in God’s image to restore us to being icons of God.

 The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.”  (John 9:15)

In Genesis 2 God takes the clay of the earth to form the first human, but doesn’t form a lifeless idol.  Rather, God breathes into the clay and the human becomes a living soul.  In John 9, Christ again takes the clay of the earth, which an idol-maker could form into the lifeless idol, and grants sight to the blind, restoring the image and likeness of God to the created human.



Be Godlike: Be a Helper

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the   Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.'” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.  Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.  (John 5:1-15)

Let us consider just one phrase from the Gospel lesson:

The Paralytic tells Jesus,  “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool…” 

Some of you know that throughout Great Lent we sang hymns which describe God as being to us “a helper and a protector.”   The words come from our Scriptures.  God is our helper in life.  We are not alone in the world or when we are in crisis, God the Lord of the universe is also helper to each of us.

The Gospel of the Paralytic brings to mind, what if God is not there to help us?  The Paralytic was lying amid invalids for 38 years the Gospel says, and the paralytic laments that in all this time, there was no one to help him.

In Genesis 2, we know that God created the 2nd human being for a purpose – to be a helper to the first human being.  Adam too had no one to help him, but God decided to fix that situation by creating a 2nd human being to help the first.

Some unfortunately conclude from the creation of the 2nd human being, who also is a woman, that God intended all women to be subservient to men, but the narrative only addresses an issue of being left alone and being a helper.  The next human being is to help those who exist before them.  Each human being comes into existence to be a helper, not just women.  For God in Scripture as we already noted is said to be a helper to us.  We each are created to be God like which implies we too are to help one another. Being a help is not subservient, but being god-like.   No human being should ever truly be left with no one to help them – if we each were being fully human.

After creating the 1st human, God says in Genesis 2:  “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Now I am by nature a true introvert and very shy.  So whenever I read that verse in which God says, “It is not good for man to be alone”…..  I always think, I don’t know God, maybe you should have let that experiment run a little bit longer.  It may be that being alone wasn’t good, but I know where the story is going, and what happens with the creation of the 2nd human being and subsequent human beings does not bring about even more goodness!

 But the aloneness of the first man is the first thing that God ever determines is not good.  In Genesis 1, after everything God created the Scriptures repeats the refrain, And God saw that it was good.”  All this goodness abounding, but then God sees that being alone for a human is not good, and that humans need helpers for one another.  God sees what is not good for humans as well as what is good for us.

So besides God being our helper, God creates for each of us helpers other beings to be just like God.  Our fellow human beings are created so that we each might help one another.  God saw the goodness in this.

God commands us:  “Be fruitful and multiply –  God wishes to have a world full of helpers, of His people whom He loves, all willing to serve and help Him as well as each other.

Our Scriptures totally envision a universe full of helpers.   The Old Testament Scriptures do not envision God living alone in the vastness of any empty heaven.     That idea of a God all alone unto himself is a particular image of a pure and perfect oneness, a monad lost in mental monologues completely detached from His creation comes from the imagination of philosophers.   It is not the God of Scriptures.  For the God of Genesis too digs into the mud of the earth to create humans, as well as trees and everything else.  Our God is not OCD when it comes to messiness!

The Scriptures envision a heaven, God’s Kingdom, full of all kinds of beings – angels, bodiless powers, invisible and spiritual beings, even gods.  All are to be God’s helpers.  The kingdom of Heaven is bustling with the activity and life of a multitude of beings.  God is not alone, dwelling in solitude thinking soliloquies.  God is not an introvert.  Christianity – never envisioned this monad God living within His own oneness and singularity.    Rather in Christianity God is always imaged as a Trinity of Persons.  Perfect relationship, three divine Persons loving not only one another but creating an entire universe with whom to share their divine life and love.

We Christians understand that God created us to be relational beings, sharing in God’s life and love but also sharing life and love with one another.  To be human is to be a helper to others, including to God.

If we think about the Gospel of the Paralytic, we can ask:

Is the paralytic truly alone?  Is there truly no one to help him at all?

How long can a human live without food or water?  Maybe a month.

How long was the man laying with invalids?  38 years.

So someone was giving him food and water.  He has basic bodily functions and needs.  To be there for 38 years means someone was caring for him.  Maybe no one met his expectation of helping him to be healed, but the Gospel surely suggests that there is someone, or maybe several someones who have helped him survive for 38 years. These are all invisible care givers in the narrative.

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us we are to be helpers to one another.  We are to help each other so that we can live in this world until that day that we meet Christ Jesus our Lord.

And then we have to help each other continue to live. It is not enough just to be opposed to abortion, for example.  We need also to care enough to help people to continue life, to continue living, even if in difficult circumstances.  We have to be the invisible people of the Gospel lesson who helped the Paralytic to live 38 years despite his problems, challenges, illness, differences.  He is not alone.  It is not true that there is no one to help him.  There is us and we are to be helpers to every such person in our lives.

Of course there is a problem in the Gospel lesson:  the paralytic is in basic competition with the rest of the invalids trying to get into those healing waters first when a miracle might occur.   All the others humans at this pool, including all the other helpers have become competition to this one man.  He sees none of them as his helpers, as his fellow human beings.  They are only competitors whom he has dehumanized.

Again, we can think about God’s words in Genesis 2, “It is not good for man to be alone…”        Really?  Wouldn’t this one paralytic be better off if there were no others around him?  No one to compete with him?

And the answer is no, for it is only this great crowd of people which draws Christ to that location, to that one person.  And now God truly becomes the helper to this one human being, not by lifting him up, but by telling him to raise himself up.  Christ does not say to this person, “let me help you up”.  No, rather he shows the person that he is capable of doing things, and so shows him that he is totally capable of helping others.   God turns this man into someone capable of helping others, Christ turns this one person from a pathetic paralytic into a full human being.  Christ totally recreates this one person into a true human being.

And what do you think, did he become a helper to others – to one other at the pool?

The man who complained with such great self-pity, “there is no one to help me”, do you think he simply walked away from that pool and all those suffering people?  Or do you think he became a Christ to even one someone else and ministered to them?

As hear the Gospel proclaimed, we are to think not just about past history, but about who am I in this Gospel lesson?  Am I the paralytic before the encounter with Christ, full of self-pity and always wanting someone else to help me?  Or am I the healed person capable of coming back and helping others?  Am I the invisible helper who works quietly and silently behind the scenes for 38 years, helping even one someone else to survive?

In the Liturgy of St. Basil we pray to God saying:

For You, O Lord, are the Helper of the helpless, the Hope of the hopeless, the Savior of the bestormed, the Haven of the voyager, the Physician of the sick. Be all things to all people, O Lord Who knows each of us, and our request, our home and our need.

Indeed, we pray that God will be a helper and a protector to us.  And then we hear Christ say, “love one another as I have loved you.”  We are to become and be that helper to each other.

The River From Eden Yields the Four Gospels

“The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.  And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  . . .  Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.  And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;’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.’” (Genesis 2:8-10, 15-17)

When I read Genesis 2, I do find Source Theory to be helpful in understanding the various currents of thoughts that make up the chapter.  Basically this theory in Biblical Scholarship says that some of the books of the Bible or chapters within a book show signs of having been written by different authors and then were placed together by an editor at some point in history.  It still is inspired Scripture and we receive the text as it is even if we can analyze it into its various parts.

So Genesis 2:8-10 begins the narration of the Garden which God planted in Eden (as we see in the opening text of this blog).  This narration flows perfectly from vs. 10, continuing in vs 15-17 as can be seen above.   Between vs. 10 and 15 verses 11-14 seem to completely disrupt the narrative with no direct connection to verses 8-10 or 15-17.     If you remove verses 11-14, you see verse 15 flows seamlessly from verse 10.  This fact is accounted for by Source theory:  vs 11-14 are in fact from a different hand/narrative but have been placed into the text and so now form our Scriptures.   Here are the verses 11-14:

“Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.  The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which skirts the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.  And the gold of that land is good. Bdellium and the onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which goes around the whole land of Cush.  The name of the third river is Hiddekel; it is the one which goes toward the east of Assyria. The fourth river is the Euphrates.” (Genesis 2:11-14)


Perhaps the point of verses 11-14 is to give some geographical connection between Eden and earth occupied by those ancients who composed and edited the text.  In any case they don’t add to the narrative and in some ways defy a spiritual interpretation.  The Orthodox Church however makes very interesting use of those verses in a Holy Friday Matins hymn.

“From Your live-bearing side, O Christ, a fountain flows forth as from Eden, giving drink to Your Church as to a living Paradise.  From there it divided to become the four rivers of the Gospels, watering the world, gladdening creation, and teaching the nations to worship Your Kingdom in Faith.”  

In the above Holy Friday hymn, Genesis 2:11-14 and the river flowing from Paradise is connected to the wound made in Christ’s side when he hung dead upon the cross.  According to John 19:34, blood and water flowed from the side of Christ when He was pierced with the spear.  That Gospel verse is interpreted in the hymn in the light of Genesis 2:11-14.

In Genesis 2, the narrative of Adam in Paradise (vs. 8-10, 15-17) is interrupted by unexpected mention of this flowing river which originates in Eden and becomes the source of 4 other rivers (vs 11-14).  Such river bifurcation is fairly rare in nature but where it exists sometimes waters and forms an entire delta region, a fertile crescent as it were.   The life-giving nature of these deltas – giving birth to a rich abundance of wildlife is used in the imagery of the hymn above.  But now in the hymn, Christ’s pierced side, like the Garden of Paradise, becomes the source of the life-giving river which in turn is the riverhead of the four rivers which are the Gospels watering the world.  The fourfold Gospels flow from the side of Christ bringing Good News to all nations.  The imagery is rich indeed and makes a very creative use of what might otherwise be seen as an odd anomaly interrupting the flow of Scripture.  The flow of the river from the Garden of Eden which is the riverhead of 4 other rivers helps us appreciate  the depth of the Gospel verse mentioning the flow of blood from the side of the crucified Christ.

Creation: Genesis and Science

American Christianity seems to assume that the main question, perhaps the only question of significance, about the Genesis 2 account of creation is whether it is historically and factually true.  Yet in Orthodoxy, the importance of Genesis 2 is really found in Christ not in archeology or history.  Our whole basis of understanding Genesis 2, of sin and of salvation, are found in Jesus Christ.  From the moment of the Annunciation to the Theotokos to Holy Pascha, we find the meaning of Genesis 2.  We understand that Genesis 2 was written about Christ, so that we could understand the Messiah and God’s plan of salvation.

“This story in Genesis, then, was not intended to give us an accurate account of the origins of two people, Adam and Eve; rather; it was meant to give us a parable about two people representing humanity, giving us lessons about our relationship to each other and our relationship with God the Creator.[…]How does the fact that two different Genesis stories regarding the creation are included in the canonically recognized Genesis text affect considerations of science? Because there are two stories with different and conflicting information that are both accepted by the Church as canonical texts, we are lead to believe that it is not the facts regarding the creation that are important, but rather other information. This suggests, in fact, that the stories are not themselves meant to be absolutely accurate or to reflect scientific fact, but rather to convey certain lessons and points of importance to humanity.[…]

St. Basil the Great uses Scripture and Church Tradition to explain the theological issues, but when scientific facts are required, he utilizes the scientific conclusions of his day as his sources. This is important; St. Basil did not try to use Genesis to convey scientific truths, but rather used the Genesis text to convey spiritual and theological truths.[…]God is not a mere artist who shaped pre-existing matter and energy into the universe as we know it; God is the Creator Who fashioned everything from nothing. God created the universe from a void, from a vacuum, from nothing. Further, we learn that God created all things to be good – there is no distinction between spiritual and material. Material things such as earth, plants, animals, our physical selves are all good because they are created by God. When God looked at His creation of the earth with animals He noted it was ‘good’. However, when God created Man, His creation became ‘very good’. This means that God’s creation became ‘very good’ with humanity.” (Gayle E. Woloschak, Beauty and Unity in Creation, pp 88-92)

Humans as Relational and Communal Beings

This is the 22nd blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans: Flesh and Body (IV).  In the next few blogs we will explore another dimension of being human: God created us to as beings who have relationships with God, with one another and with all of the rest of the created order.  Some Orthodox authors also note that if we humans are in the image and likeness of God, then we are in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity – and somehow humanity is to reflect the perfect love of the Three Persons of the Trinity.   We are designed to live communally with others; in Genesis 2:18, God says, “it is not good that man to be alone.”  This is the first time in Genesis that God sees something in creation that is not good. [And stands in stark contrast to Genesis 1 in which all creation was good in God’s eyes].   So in Genesis 2 God creates more than one human being, with all others being decedents of the first human.   So from the beginning, after the creation of ‘Adam’,  all other humans are related to the first human and all are to live in relationship with all others.   Additionally, each human is created to be the relational mediator between the Holy Trinity and the rest of the created world.  No human is an island unto himself or herself but all are organically and genetically related.  The Christian Apologist Lactantius (d. ca. 325AD) argues (living within the context of the rigid Roman culture of social stratification) that ultimately all humans, whatever their social ranking are to be considered precisely as humans.

“If we have all sprung from one man whom God made, then surely we are relatives, and for this reason it must be considered the greatest crime to hate a man or to do him harm. “ (in A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 2345-46)

The hierarchical nature of society and even the tendency for males to dominate females was generally by the Fathers seen not as God’s original intention but all a result of human sin which destroyed the natural order God created.    In Genesis 1:27, we read:  “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”   Fr. Andrew Louth, Orthodox theologian, comments:

“However, this verse from Genesis (1:27) does suggest that we are not to consider human beings as individuals, but as bound together within the unity of humanity, a unity that is embodied in the communities to which we belong. The doctrine of the image of God embraces this aspect of what it is to be human, too, for if being in the image means that we have an affinity with God, that entails, too, that we have an affinity with one another, on the basis of which we find some kind of togetherness. And if the Church is the community embracing those who, in Christ, have set out on the path to the restoration of fallen humanity, then the community of the Church should give us some sense of what a true human community should be. Nevertheless, the Church is part of the fallen world, so we should not expect to find in any unambiguous way the ideal human community in the Church.”    (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1752-58)

Genesis reveals to us what God planned for human relationships, but the relational nature of humans was based in the human potential to deny the self and to love the other.  This potential was not realized as from the beginning humans instead of practicing the self-emptying love revealed to them by God instead opted for self-love and self-preservation – in so-doing damaged their God-intended relational nature, reducing humans to competing, alienated individuals.   Roman Catholic biblical scholar Elliott Maloney says:

“In this biblical tradition, God created Adam and Eve to begin a great family of human beings who could enjoy a loving relationship with a beneficent God (Gen 1:26-28). This aspect of their being the progenitors of a great clan of humans is very important, because in ancient thinking everyone’s personal reality was deeply embedded in their identity as a member of a group.”  (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 368-71)

So in the biblical texts persons are identified by their genealogies and by the tribe or nation to which they belong.  “Who are your people?” identifies who you are as a person.  Thus, in the Prophecy of Jonah, Jonah attempting to flee from God, hides as an individual on a ship and when discovered must reveal who he is.

Then the ship’s mariners said to him, “Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”   (Jonah 1:8-9)

While today, we might begin answering these questions by talking about our occupation and identify ourselves in economic terms, Jonah’s self-identifying response makes it clear first and foremost to what tribe/people he belongs and what he and those people believe about God.  Scholar Elliott Maloney says the biblical understanding of “self” is different from our modern self-identification which is clear in the writings of St. Paul.

“In Paul’s day people did not think about themselves as individuals, nor did they consider their personal characteristics and limitations as making them ‘different.’ All thinking and moral choice was geared to and dictated by one’s position in a group, be it family, religion, or clan. The accomplishments and failures of the clan head were visited on all the clan members in a way that identified them and conferred on them their reality as human beings. Paul’s explanation of the origin of sin, what we call ‘original sin,’ is based upon this presupposition.”   (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 373-77)

Why Adam’s sin has consequences for us all is not because God is visiting His punishment on all of Adam’s descendants but because as head of the clan of human beings, Adam’s behavior and actions have consequences not for himself alone, but for everyone in his clan. This is considered natural since in the bible all humans are thought of as belonging to some social group.    As a relational being, Adam has a moral obligation to act in a way that took into account the interest of everyone who would ever be in his clan.  The clan leader is responsible for the clan and the entire clan is always affected by the moral decisions and behavior of the clan leader.   His actions thus have repercussions on all who share his humanity.   Adam’s failure to protect his clan and to engage in activities of merely self-interest thus have consequences not only for Adam but for all humans.

[And it should be noted that in Orthodox Christianity at least, Adam and Eve are not commemorated mostly for their ancestral sin and its negative effects on all humans.   They are most noted in our hyms for being those first saved by Christ.  At Pascha, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, perhaps the most common icon of the Feast shows Christ descending into Hades to rescue Adam and Eve.   The salvation of Eve and Adam is celebrated in the hymns of Pascha and throughout the year.  On one level Adam and Eve are responsible for the deaths of all humans (mass murderers!), while on the other hand, they are forgiven and saved as the forefathers of the human race.   Christ undoes all the evil Adam initiates, including bringing about human mortality, and Christ’s restoration of humanity and salvation stretches back in time to the first human as well as forward in history to the last humans who will walk on earth. Even the devastating sin of Eve and Adam which results in the death of all humans is not an unforgiveable sin in our theology!   Adam and Eve are saved, forgiven and restored to a proper relationship with God!   This is the sign of God’s grace, mercy, unwavering and unconditional love.]

Elliot  Maloney continues:

“The truth is that humans are relational beings: they are naturally oriented toward obedience and loyalty to a higher power (Rom 6:16). As we have seen, the way Paul sees it is that human beings were created to be in a loving and obedient relationship with God—nothing less than that. The authenticity and fulfillment of their lives therefore required them to honor this intimacy and thank God for the invitation to share in God’s own being. But since their minds were darkened by that first denial of the sovereignty of God, the offspring of Adam and Eve continued to make wrong choices—from Cain’s murder of his brother Abel to the petty injustices of the village marketplace where dishonesty became the acceptable norm.”   (Maloney , Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 456-61)

The consequences of ancestral sin thus spread to all humans.  So St. Paul offers us a theological understanding of Adam and Christ:

Adam in Hades

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12-19)

Christ restores fallen humanity to its rightful relationship with God.  Now we humans need to understand how to live in this graceful situation created by Christ.  We are to live in love for one another – we are not to imitate Adam, Eve and Cain who rejected love for one another and practiced only self-love.  We are to follow the way of Christ who emptied Himself and loved the kenotic, self-denying love of God.  St. John Chrysostom, ever the moralist, writes:

“God made both you and the other person, and gave you everything in common and in equal measure with them.  How then do you spurn them and rob them of the regard given by God, not allowing it to be in common but making it all yours, rendering them bereft not only of money but of good name?  God granted every person one nature; he regaled them with the same position of eminence, the same process of creation.  That statement, ‘Let us make the human being,’ is shared by the whole human race.  How then do you deprive people of their inherited being, consigning them to utter insignificance, and appropriating to yourself what is common to all?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, pp 46-47)

We come back once more to the biblical scholar Elliott Maloney who in commenting on Romans 12  says:

“Christians must be transformed by a new way of thinking humbly about themselves (v. 3). This means always considering oneself as part of the community and acting for the sake of the others, because “we, who are many, are one body in Christ” . .  .  . Notice the use of the plural in Paul’s instructions. True discernment can occur only in the communal context, for the Spirit dwells in the Body of Christ, made up of many members. Individualism is a product of the flesh with its tendency to self-reliance and self-protection, as if the ego were the only guardian of one’s life. The Spirit provides the righteous orientation to make God and one’s fellows the center of meaningful action. As the action of the Spirit in believers conforms them more and more in the image of Christ, their own spirits are “transformed into the same image (of Christ) from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).”  (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 2018-25)

Next:   Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (II)

Forewarned: The Wages of Sin is Death

St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) says  in a sermon:

“Not only did God not make death, but He hindered it from happening. However, as He had created man as a living being with free will, He could not prevent it without destroying His creature by taking away the freedom He had given. Nevertheless, in His wisdom and goodness He found a way to keep man from death while preserving his free will. How was this to be achieved? As soon as He had formed man and brought  him to life, He gave him a counsel that would make him immortal. To establish this instruction very firmly from the beginning, He made it His commandment and proclaimed it openly, emphasizing that to break this life-giving precept meant death, not death for the body at this stage, but death for the soul.

He told the man and the woman, our ancestors, ‘In the day that you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will surely die’ (cf. Gen. 2:17). Notice that He did not say the imperative, ‘Die when you eat it.’ By His orders everything that exists was made, He commanded and all things were created (Ps. 33:9). But He did not give the command for death, although He forewarned that is would result from transgressing His commandment, telling them not to eat of the tree, for on the day they ate they would die. This He did so that they might follow His counsel, escape disobedience, and not encounter death. It is obvious that He was referring at that time to the death of the soul, not of the body, because they did not die physically on the day they ate from the forbidden tree.” (The Homilies, pp. 243-243)

The Relationship of God to Life and Death

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:

“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6).

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?

Next:  The Relationship of God to Life and Death (II)

Adam and Eden: Possessions and Being Possessed

This is the 41st and the last blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is The Role of Food in Adam’s Existence.

Looking at more contemporary Orthodox writers, we see the influence of the Patristic writers in shaping the modern Orthodox understanding of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise.

 “In the beginning the Lord created man out of dust.  He made Adam and Eve immortal, fashioning them in His own image and likeness and showering gifts upon them.  He gave them the beautiful garden of Paradise to be their home, and put the whole of creation under Adam’s authority.  There was one condition only, a simple test of obedience: Adam and Eve were allowed to eat the fruit of all the trees in the garden except one.

Alas, they did not fulfill the condition.  Eve listened to the seductive voice of the serpent, and Adam listened to the persuasions of his wife.  If only they had exercised discernment and remained loyal to their benefactor!  Instead they played into the hands of the devil, who envied them the home in Paradise from which he himself had been expelled, and devised a scheme to rob them of the honor God had given to mankind.  The devil tempted the man and the woman to covet the prerogatives and the glory of God Himself.  He led them on the ambition of becoming equal to and independent of their Maker and of deciding for themselves what was right and what was wrong.  They succumbed to the devil’s suggestions and fell into sin.  In consequence they lost the promise of immortality and became subject to death.  The Lord passed sentence on them. ‘You are dust,’ He declared, ‘and to dust you shall return’ (Gen 3:19).”  (Anne Field,  FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT, pp 44-45)

We see in the modern writers the embracing of the different threads, trends and tradition which we found in the Patristic writers.  The Adam story is a rich tapestry of theology and anthropology.   It gives us a deep understanding not just of Adam the first man, but of each of us in as much as Adam is a representative of all humanity.    Humans were given wonderful gifts from God – creation, free will, relationships, the chance for immortality.  It is however the human desire to possess – grasping to hold on to things for one’s own ends and purposes, which led to the disintegration of the unity of creation with Creator.

In reality, property and family are from God.  When God created the world He gave it to man to possess, so that it would become man’s possession ‘… to till it and to keep it…’   And when He created man, He created a wife because ‘it is not good that the man should be alone…’  But then, here is the fall (the original sin): Man wanted the world as a possession for himself and not for God, not for life in Him; and man made his wife an object of love torn away from God’s love, again for himself.  And then Christ Himself gives away, leaves His life in order to resurrect it, to free it from death, so that life would cease being the source of death, so that life would reign and death would be trampled down.  Does it mean that God calls us to kill ourselves?  ‘Leave’ the world, give away one’s possessions, leave the family—all of these do not mean that they (possessions, family) are identified with evil, in which case they should be thrown away, but that they mean their liberation and their transfiguration into what God had created them to be.  The one who gives away his property in reality becomes richer because he makes the world again (given away, dispensed) divine.  ‘Leaving’ one’s family is its resurrection, its cleansing, its transfiguration, but not its annihilation.  How could the Church perform the sacrament of marriage if marriage was evil?  Marriage is a sacrament because through it is accomplished its gift to God, to Christ, to the Holy Spirit—where everything is light, as it is in Christ’s call: distribute, leave, all is positive, all is light and not darkness and destruction.”  (Alexander Schmemann,  THE JOURNALS OF FATHER ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN, pp 320-321)

This blog series on Adam, the first human, is really looking at a mosaic of quotations from various authors, ancient and modern, whose ideas are part of the Tradition of the Orthodox understanding of Adam, of what it means to be human, of the Fall, and of salvation.  The Orthodox Church reads the narrative of Adam and Eve through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   The canonical texts of the Jewish scriptures actually make very little use of the Adam story.  It is with the coming of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, that we begin to understand the depth and affects of the fall on all of humanity.  In Christ we see and comprehend what it is to be fully human.