Outside the Garden: An Adventist Midrash: Reflections on Genesis and Cosmic Conflict (Part Three)

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In the first two parts of this article, I offered a literary reading of the creation narrative in Genesis that tries to pay close attention to the highly allusive language of the story while teasing out some of its possible meanings for contemporary questions of theodicy. For Christians, though, the creation account is resonant with still deeper meanings. Drawing inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Ellen White’s “cosmic conflict” motif (which White herself actually took in part from Milton), I would venture the following as an Adventist “midrash” on the creation in Genesis in Christological perspective. By midrash I mean a kind of non-dogmatic story-telling about the silences in the narrative as a way of interpreting it. A midrash may attempt to answer the question of what “literally” happened, although this is not its primary concern. Instead, stories about stories are thought experiments that may help to open new imaginative horizons as we try to better understand what is and is not possible, both theologically and historically, within the world God has given us.

Disobedience to God, it seems to me, results in Adam and Eve’s eyes being opened to a cosmic conflict already in motion. The world outside of the Garden is the world where there is death of a different kind than the death we have so far considered. I have argued that we must take seriously the idea that not all death in nature is evil, vicious, or sinful. There are many forms of death, and cycles of birth and death in the natural world, which are filled with a solemn beauty and intimations of life being renewed rather than wasted in a vicious struggle. Still, it is very hard to separate these deaths from other forms of predation that involve savagery, suffering, and terror in ways that cannot be easily reconciled with the idea of a “very good” creation by an all-loving God. How did this kind of death in nature arise—the kind that poses a clear theodicy problem for theistic evolutionists and young earth creationists alike?

The Geography of the Conflict

The Garden may be the place where one set of governing principles rule—principles of self-emptying and perhaps even (in certain ways) suffering service and love, offered freely and for the sake of others. But when Adam is told by God to “till and to keep” the Garden, one of my conversation partners has pointed out to me, the Hebrew word for “keep” is shamar, which means not only to preserve but also to guard. Adam, it seems, must guard the Eden sanctuary from incursion and harm. I would suggest that the threat of harm that Adam must guard against is what lies beyond the Garden walls. If the Garden is where divine principles are operative, outside the Garden an experiment of a different kind, permitted by God to begin some time after the original creation, may already be under way—an experiment in rational egoism, merit, power, and competitive rivalry. Survival of the fittest.

The temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden is therefore not only a spiritual temptation but also a political and geographical recruitment. The serpent wants Adam and Eve to either be his agent saboteurs inside the Garden, or to be subjects under him in the world outside of its protective shelter. The incentive he offers is a kind of career advancement, to be “like God,” but more critically the promise of secret knowledge (or gnosis) of the struggle of good and evil—perhaps even a glimpse into the near god-like subduing and cultivating results he has achieved beyond Eden’s borders. To subdue the creation by self-emptying sacrificial love and service is a difficult task. Far better, Adam may have decided, to be a subduer of a different kind. Adam does not simply disobey an arbitrary edict like a petulant child. He sides with the enemy in a conflict concerning how best to order the creation. At issue is what kind of “government” will rule the earth.

Of course, the serpent in the Garden, in New Testament perspective and Christian tradition, is “that ancient serpent, who is the devil” (Revelation 20:2). It is a grave mistake to restrict the meanings of Genesis to the theological horizons of its original hearers, who did not think of the snake in these terms. But evil in Genesis, for the reader who has the benefit of Christian sources, is not merely the result of human choices. It is a personified Being of great power who has a certain dominion of his own. After their rebellion, Adam and Eve are blocked from re-entering the Garden by cherubim—fierce winged “beasts” with fiery swords. The idea of sharp physical boundaries and geographical separation or estrangement is clear. Adam and Eve are now inside enemy territory. The fall is thus not only temporal but also spatial. Something is happening in time but there is also movement across a landscape.

If these kinds of impulses toward power and autonomy were at all involved in the story of the fall and also have something to do with the clear division in the text between the world of the Garden and the rest of the creation, God’s punishment of Adam makes perfect sense. Adam is now set free by God to subdue the land outside the Garden by his own power, “by the sweat of your brow” (3:19). Ironically, Adam gets exactly what he wished for, though the result is that Adam himself will now be subdued and subjugated by forces he cannot control. Adam is handed over into bondage by being literally transferred to a different place, a different habitat. Eve’s punishment is meanwhile that her pain in childbirth will be greatly multiplied (playing off of the command to be “fruitful and multiply,” given to humans and animals alike). So outside of the Garden there is a linking of laws of procreation, “multiplication,” pain, and death.

But nowhere in the Genesis narrative are the rest of the animals (aside from the serpent who was directly responsible for the fall) said to be “cursed” or sentenced to death because of Adam’s sin. Why is the curse of death pronounced in Genesis on Adam alone? Were the Hebrew writers simply oblivious to the reality of animal mortality and predation all around them? Or did they think Adam’s sin as the cause of lions and eagles was something so obvious it went without saying?

It may be that the reason the animal kingdom is not cursed in Genesis has something to do with Adam’s having been uniquely made “in the image of God.” For some readers, this puzzling statement refers strictly to various human capacities, such as rationality, creativity, moral conscience, and free will. This may be part of what it means to be a human being. Yet none of these traits is ever mentioned in Genesis. Adam shares the same material origins as the rest of the animals (all are formed from out of the same dust of the ground). The one thing Adam does receive that the other animals do not is “the breath of life” directly from God into his nostrils (2:7). Clearly all life is a gift from God. But there is a more immediate, intimate, and conjoining aspect in the creation of Adam than in the creation of the other creatures. I would argue that unlike the other creatures, Adams being made in the image of God may mean that he uniquely partakes of something of God’s own immortality, God’s “breath of life,” and that the curse of sin is that he becomes mortal like other creatures.

Three Objections Noted

Readers who find it hard to accept the idea of literal spatial boundaries, conflicting spiritual forces laying claim to the creation, and of personified evil as the architect of Adam and Eve’s fall may think of corrupted “life forces” if they must. With C.S. Lewis I simply find it easier to believe in a myth of supernatural beings than in one of hypostatized abstract nouns.

Readers who cannot accept the idea of “very good” mortality of any kind, even separated from things like predation and suffering, may discard this part of the midrash if they wish. It is not essential to the distinction I wish to draw between what may exist in the garden and what may be permitted outside of it.

Readers who think these ideas fall into the same class of dualist and Gnostic speculations I earlier criticized should know that this is something I also greatly fear. I am not at all sure that this is the best or only way to read the story. I can only say in my midrash’s defense that 1) my reading emphasizes competing principles of freedom rather than supernatural post-fall manipulation of matter (whether demonic or divine) to account for the physical universe we now see before us (the classical Gnostic heresy); and 2) my reading stays much closer to the language and theological concerns of the text than many literalist alternatives (which tend to treat Genesis as a systema naturae that is all surface with no depth and that must now be validated or “proved” through—irony of ironies—the tools of a thoroughly rationalistic, quantifying, and materialistic science).

The Perilous Mission

To summarize, we must take seriously the possibility that part of the natural world was touched by death before Adam joined the rebellion against God. The entire story is highly enigmatic and filled with lacunae and insoluble riddles that prevent careful readers from making very many dogmatic statements, whether in matters of theology or science. And the great silences in the text on important questions should serve as a stern warning: Thus far but no further: You have been told as much as your minds can bear and as much as you need to know. The quest to unravel the riddles of natural evil and explain the origins of predatory animals might itself implicate us in Adam’s sin—the craving for secret or hidden knowledge about good and evil, which God’s Word simply does not provide.

Nevertheless, I think we can venture a “literal” and at the same time “mythopoetic” reading that is imaginatively faithful to the words of Scripture while realizing there are things going on beneath its surface we have barely begun to grasp:

In the act of disobeying the Creator, Adam betrayed his God-appointed task of subduing the earth, and so became himself subject to the untamed elements of the creation it had been his mission to bring more fully under God’s dominion. Further, Adam became subject to laws of decay and death that were no part of God’s original plan (whether or not that plan originally allowed for death of any kind). Instead of the Garden being cultivated and expanded through the principles of God's very good creation, the law of death was cultivated and expanded so that ever more refined forms of brutality, suffering, and waste poured into the creation. And once the wall was breached, the Garden itself was quickly consumed. Adam’s failure could only lead to one of two things: either the annihilation of all of the creation as the rebellion played itself out to its own self-destruction following its inner principles; or to the coming of a second Adam who would complete the work the first Adam betrayed.

If such a second Adam were to come, his task would now be far more harrowing than the task the first Adam faced. He would need to resist the temptations to will to power, competitive rivalry, secret knowledge, and autonomous self-creation championed by the anti-Adam. He would need to do so not from within a protected Garden but deep inside the enemy’s territory, where the law of will to power now reigned unchecked over men and beasts. The new Adam would need to win back the human rebels against the Creator and reconcile them to God through the way of kenotic, self-emptying love. And he would need to deliver conditionally mortal beings—both humans and animals—from the tyranny of the second order death that does not yield new life to others but only a long and natural descent into entropy and nothingness. Against overwhelming odds, the second Adam would need to subdue and finish the creation begun in Genesis. He would need to refuse to relent, in the face of real peril and at great cost, until all of the earth was transformed into a new Garden where death would be no more.

The Second Adam

When we turn to the New Testament we find, of course, that this is exactly what the early Christians proclaimed Jesus did. In Romans, Paul tells us that Adam was a “type of Him who was to come” (5:14). Adam’s missing the mark (sin) and rebellion (unrighteousness) resulted in a reign of death entering the world for “all men” and “condemnation for all men” (5:12, 18). The focus in this passage is on the world of humanity, without any mention of plants and animals. But the result of Adam’s rebellion is unquestionably that the creation as a whole has now been “subjected to futility” and laws of death it can in no way escape (8:20). I take this language of subjection to describe an inverted subduing, where instead of the creation be developed in harmony with God’s original plans it fell under the rule of the anti-Adam, the subduer outside of the Garden.

Christ, the new Adam, is therefore not simply the savior of humankind. Nor does he come to offer only the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve escape from an otherwise doomed creation. Christ is the one “the creation waits eagerly for,” the one who at last will “set free from its slavery to corruption” the “whole creation,” which “groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:19-22). Christ is the “first born of all creation” (Col.1:15), and the Gospel must be proclaimed “in all creation under heaven” (1:23). If we take this language not only of human but ofcosmic redemption seriously, we will see that the Gospel is not only good news to people—it is good news for creation in its entirety, including suffering, stupefied, and enslaved animals.

In the book of Revelation, we learn that Christ is the “beginning of the creation of God” (Rev.3:14) and the lamb “slain from the creation of the world” (13:8). We live in faith and hope that this same Christ will soon return to subdue/redeem the creation that is still groaning and in travail—not through conquering coercive power, but as the Lamb of God from first to last, who through self-emptying love took death upon himself and drained the poison from the serpent by dying on a tree.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2297