Thursday, September 28, 2017

Choose life!

but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die (Gen 2:17).

An old crux. If the penalty denotes physical death, then it seems like the warning was an empty threat inasmuch as God didn't strike them dead. Of course, the narrator would have to be pretty inept to relay such a blatant contradiction. 

One explanation is that "in the day" is a idiom for "when", and therefore says less about sequential timing than sequential consequences. In the past, I've discussed that explanation. But now I'd like to consider an alternative explanation. A neglected interpretation.

What is meant by "life" and "death" in Gen 2-3? When we interpret Genesis, it's often useful to employ the Pentateuch generally as a frame of reference. That's partly because the Pentateuch is a literary unit, and partly because, by design, Genesis foreshadows later developments. There are common motifs in Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch.

Where else do we have a life and death contrast in the Pentateuch? A conspicuous example is Deut 30:

15 See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your Godthat I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deut 30:15-19).

Even in this summary statement, it's about the quality of life. Life in the promised pand–in contrast to exile. The meaning of "life" and "death" in that context is detailed by the covenantal blessing and bane in Deut 28. "Life" is characterized by:

The Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. 2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. 3 Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. 4 Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 5 Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 6 Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.
7 “The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. 8 The Lord will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 9 The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. 10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of theLord, and they shall be afraid of you. 11 And the Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. 12 The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow (Deut 28:1-12).

That explicates "life" in terms of spiritual and material prosperity. By contrast, "death" is characterized by famine, cannibalism, illness, oppression, bondage, invasion, exile, idolatry, insecurity, terror (28:15-68). That explicates "death" in terms of spiritual and material bane. 

On the one hand, the promised land is like a second Eden:

the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord (Gen 13:10).

7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey (Deut 8:7-8).

A well-watered land, irrigated by rivers. A land lush with fruit trees. Sound familiar? (cf. Gen 2:9-10.)

On the other hand, the woes in Gen 3:14-19 anticipate the snake-infested wilderness (Num 21:6), as well as the accursed womb and the accursed ground in the Deuteronomic imprecations (Deut 28).

The Assyrian deportation and Babylonian exile parallel the banishment from Eden. To be cut off from the sanctuary and the land of blessing. Adam and Eve "died" when they were expelled from Eden.   

1 comment:

  1. One can use these interpretive possibilities to argue for why annihilationists are wrong when some of them argue that life and death in Scripture is only quantitative and not qualitative. I've added a link to this blogpost to one of mine.