The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (pt.10)

Adam is Tested

In the next section (2:15-17) we read of God giving the man a straightforward command:

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an actual tree.  It is not called a symbol and need not be seen as one.  I agree with Merrill that we should not think of “good and evil” in this place as contrasting values so much as an idiom for comprehensive knowledge.[1]  Certainly, ethical knowledge would be included, since all knowledge bears an ethical stamp, but the innocence of our first parents does not at all lead us to think they were ignorant of the meanings of the terms “good” and “evil.”  God is communicating meaningfully to Adam, not speaking over his head.  Every word which God speaks to Adam presupposes his ability to receive and comprehend it.  Thus, the expression “to freely eat” was just as well understood as the designation “every tree of the garden.”  Again the warning “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” was God speaking to a comprehending and responsive creature.  He was not speaking into the air.[2]

Because this is so I wish to re-emphasize the communicative aspect of revelation.  Words which cannot be understood, either because the hearer does not have the tools to understand them, or because they lack the capacity for language itself, are very poor conveyers of meaning and intention.  We cannot, without veering close to blasphemy, predicate such a thing of God.  Adam and Eve understood God’s every word.[3]

Although these verses refer to a prohibition, they in no case speak of a promise for obedience, or any Divine commitment to grant anything to the man and woman.  There is no trace of covenantal language in this section.[4]  And any and every attempt to read a covenant into Genesis 2 (or 3) requires the interpreter to bring along far more speculative material than textual material to fill out the content of such a venture.[5]

But then, why the prohibition?  We are not told outright, but one reason which I find useful is to test and deepen the level of trust and love between the man and God.  Sometimes in life we allow certain trusted friends to know more about us than we vouchsafe to others.  We feel that they are able to understand who we are more deeply because a level of trust has been reached which was not present at the start of our friendship.  Seen like this, God’s warning and testing of Adam was a means of developing the relationship and of teaching Adam more about God as Lord.  It was a test of friendship as much as a test of obedience.

Adam under God’s Instruction

Genesis 2:18-25 features two episodes in which Adam names those brought to him by God.  At first sight the two episodes don’t appear to be related at all.  In fact, the second one; the naming of the animals, almost seems to cut across the first: the problem of the man’s solitariness.  But as the passage is pondered it becomes apparent that what is happening is that the Lord is using the exercise of describing the animals to teach the man about his own situation.  It is noticeable that God does not simply inform the man directly that he does not have a helper and companion.  He sets Adam a course of study through which Adam himself arrives at that conclusion.  Thus, under the guidance of his God, Adam was coming to knowledge through reflecting on what he was encountering in God’s world.  I have no doubt that this is the way all our knowledge (as scientia) was to be gained and used; that is to say, knowledge gained either listening directly to what the Creator said about His world, or indirectly through the process of accruing knowledge by examining and reflecting upon the world under God’s tutelage.  Today the only access to this tutelage is through believing God’s Word.  Yet we remain hugely privileged.  It has rightly been said:

Man still exists under God in the world, within the limits set by his nature, within society and history, with all the obligations and responsibilities such existence entails.[6]

The Bible has the right to tell us!  We ought to hear what it says about God, about ourselves, and about our environment, and we should try to make sure that our thinking lines up with God’s on these matters.  In some cases this will bring down upon us the sneers and brickbats of the world.  We must be alert to the temptation that to appease the world’s sensitivities often brings us into conflict with God’s sensitivities.

As Adam was naming the animals he realized that there was no human being with whom he could share his thoughts and feelings.  There can be no doubt that this new self-consciousness was what God wanted Adam to have.  Once this knowledge was part of him God acted on Adam’s behalf and created the woman, to whom Adam gave a generic name, “Woman” (“taken out of man”), and a specific personal name, “Eve” (“mother of all the living”).  In naming both the animals and the woman Adam implicitly showed his authority over them.  To have a part in naming aspects of God’s new creation was indeed a great privilege which God gave to his vice-regent.

We notice also that God “brought her to the man” (Gen. 2:22).  This was the first marriage, presided over by Yahweh Himself.  It was a marriage between a man and a woman, as all biblical marriages are.  The woman was made for the man (Gen.2:18).  Thus, the Bible recognizes no marriage except that of a man with a woman.  For a Bible believer, marriage between a man and a woman is normative.

Later in the Old Testament record marriage is called a “covenant” (e.g. Mal. 2:14).  It may be somewhat unchronological to read covenant into this passage, nevertheless if this is allowed to be true of the first marriage, then it is the first clearly detectable covenant in the Bible.  Now the question should be asked as to how this covenant was to be understood.  Were the mutual obligations of the husband and wife metaphorical, or were they literal?  The Malachi passage deals with treachery within marriage.  A treacherous person is one who fails to carry out his promises to others.  This of course means that the marriage “covenant” must mean precisely what it says.  Neither party may alter the words of the covenant without transgressing it.  In Malachi the Israelite men were divorcing their Jewish wives and marrying pagan ones.  Both were acts of covenant treachery (bagad).[7]  This is because, as I will have cause to repeat many times in this work, covenants only maintain their integrity when they mean what they say.  They are never susceptible to fanciful reinterpretation or spiritualization.  If they were, they would be ineffective and would very soon become uncertain and ambiguous.  No one believes there is an intellectually acceptable reason for a man to reinterpret his marriage vows to allow him to mistreat his spouse or to run off with another woman.  A covenant-maker may always be called to book by the words of the covenant.


[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 50.  Merrill cites Von Rad as being in agreement with this position.

[2] The Apostle was to use this phrase to denote a pointless exercise (1 Corinthians 14:9).

[3] To the objection that they could not have understood what the word “die” meant because they had acquaintance only with life (unless one assumes death and disease before Adam), it will be enough to say that we learn of things not only via experience, but through inference, and, of course, through verbal disclosure.

[4] Even the name “Yahweh” which became the covenant name of God, was at this time not known as a covenant name.  At least, this is how this writer interprets the words of Exodus 6:3.  I shall have to address this matter further on.

[5] Objections to finding covenants in these chapters go far beyond the mere absence of the word berith.

[6] Eric Voegelin, “History and Gnosis”, in The Old Testament and Christian Faith, ed., Bernhard W. Anderson, 85

[7] For a fine note on this passage see Eugene H. Merrill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Exegetical Commentary, 420.

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