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The Politics of Premature Rule—Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (Alastair Roberts)

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 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.’

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 2 The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’ 4 But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

It might be argued that the story of the Fall has become a victim of its own success. As it is such a prominent landmark in the scriptural narrative on account of its paradigmatic features or theological significance, many of the actual lineaments of the account lie under-examined, neglected beneath those dimensions of it that most answer to the specific concerns of its Christian readers.

Furthermore, in attending to the theologically definitive entrance of Sin and Death into the world, we may fail to appreciate the manner in which the man and woman’s sin in Eden is the event that initiates a series of escalating ingresses of these forces into God’s good creation. In the ugly litany of Cain’s slaying of Abel, the polygamous Lamech’s vengeance, the sin of the sons of God, and the saturation of the entire world and the consciousness of humankind with evil prior to the Flood, we see the dark blot of Sin steadily spreading out, until it envelops all.

Even beyond the opening chapters of Genesis, the tragic events of the Garden of Eden reverberate in numerous later scriptural accounts, as Sin’s entropic grip upon the world tightens. In events such as Noah’s drunkenness in his vineyard, Israel’s idolatry with the golden calf, or in the sins of Solomon’s reign, Sin’s relentless hold is rediscovered at those very moments where hope most tantalizes.

Our lection introduces the narrative with the charge given to the adam, when he was first placed within the garden. This charge particularizes the more general blessing given in 1:28, commissioning the adam to exercise dominion in and establish the fruitfulness of the garden in particular, presumably before venturing out into the lands beyond the garden mentioned in the preceding verses. The narrative implies that the garden is to serve as an archetypal model for his task of the cultivation of the earth more generally (cf. 2:5); as the adam learns to serve and keep the divinely ordered realm of the garden, he will gain the necessary wisdom and skills to bring God’s beautiful and good order to bear upon the wider creation.

God repeats the permission of 1:29 at this juncture, albeit with reference to the trees of the garden in particular, and with one explicit exception: the adam must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that is in its midst on pain of death (permission to eat of the tree of life is implicitly granted). The gravity of the divine sanction attached to the prohibition suggests the sacred status of the tree and its fruit.

The continuity between God’s acts of creation and humanity’s calling to be sub-creators is a prominent theme in these chapters. The opening chapter of Genesis recounts the great acts of creation in two complementary sequences: three days of forming, dividing, naming, and taming followed by three days of filling, delegating, bringing forth, and establishing life, communion, and movement towards the future. The first three days answer the problem of the creation’s formlessness; the second address its voidness. In creating humanity in his image and blessing them (1:28), God charges humanity with the task of upholding and extending his own creative labours, continuing both his forming and filling of the world.

The progressive and outward movement of the charge of 1:28 is noteworthy: fruitfulness, multiplication, filling the earth, subduing it, exercising dominion over its creatures. Read within the broader context, humankind’s service in the garden would seem to be only the initial stage within their broader mission within the world. It is the kindergarten where the infant humanity will take its first steps and learn its basic lessons under God’s guidance, before graduating to a weightier role.

The prohibition upon the tree of the knowledge of good and evil can best be understood in such a framework as a temporary and probationary measure, existing until humanity has gained through trusting obedience the wisdom necessary to rule within the wider earth. Elsewhere in Scripture the knowledge of good and evil is associated with judgment and wise kingly rule, and is requested of YHWH by Solomon in 1 Kings 3:9. The permitted tree of life assists the adam and the woman in their initial tasks, while the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is forbidden until such a time as they are ready for it.

Our lection jumps forward in the narrative to the shrewd serpent’s interrogation of the woman concerning the tree. The serpent’s question in verse 1 casts the permissions of 1:29 and 2:16 as a prohibition and, although the woman’s response intensifies the prohibition upon the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the association of God with restriction rather than bountiful generosity seems to have been successfully insinuated.

The serpent directly challenges the divine word concerning the tree; having portrayed God as a god of restriction, he represents God as a god of deception, who purposefully denies humanity the best. This direct assault upon the divine character undermines the trust that was to be essential to humanity’s moral maturation in service within the garden. Rather than growing in stature and authority as God’s faithful sub-creators, receiving the creation and rule within it as a gift from its Creator, the adam and the woman chose to grasp the creation for themselves.

In particular, the serpent claims that God is withholding the glory of wisdom and its rule from them, selfishly denying them the right to function as authorities in the world, like God and the angelic members of the divine assembly (cf. 2 Samuel 14:17, 20). The woman’s eyes confirm the serpent’s claims: the fruit appears to her to be fitting as a source of life (‘good for food’), glory (‘a delight to the eyes’), and knowledge (‘to be desired to make one wise’), promising to satisfy the most basic human desires.

The silence of the adam merits comment here; while the woman could claim that she had been deceived, as the serpent had played off her first-hand knowledge (3:2; cf. 1:28-29) against her second-hand knowledge of the command that the adam had received in her absence (3:3; cf. 2:16-17; 3:11, 17), the adam had no such excuse. The adam’s fault was compounded by his negligence in upholding the prohibition against the serpent: the woman’s sin was in part his responsibility.

The aftermath of the couple’s trespass is surprising: the promised sanction of death does not seem to be effected and, indeed, the serpent’s claim that their eyes would be opened seems to be validated (3:7a). Yet the expected benefit does not materialize, as their opened eyes merely reveal their nakedness to themselves.

Although nakedness can be associated with the innocence of infants, it is also a mark of immaturity and lack of status in the world. Following their sin, the nakedness of the couple was a threatening one of exposure in their guilt and shame, but also a sign of their utter unpreparedness for the role that they had grasped for themselves. Their opened eyes occasioned a painful self-awareness, as what should have been the glorious judgment of kingly wisdom curdled into condemnatory self-accusation.

The wisdom the serpent promised was not what it first appeared, yet the divine sanction also belies expectations. As Walter Moberly has argued, however, rather than undermining the trustworthiness of God, the unanticipated shape of the consequences of the couple’s disobedience ought to guide us into a more developed appreciation of what the promised judgment of death entailed (The Theology of the Book of Genesis, 86-87). The text itself precipitates a growth in wisdom in its readers, as its straightforward sense is problematized, but, following a ‘critical distanciation’ can later be re-appropriated in a ‘deeper and more nuanced way.’

A text as deeply archetypal, as symbolically fecund, and as powerfully resonant as this one speaks to our reality in intense and variegated ways. Here I would like to focus upon just one dimension of its message: its warning against seizing rule before we are ready for it.

The woman was not mistaken in her judgment that wisdom and rule are desirable and good things to seek, yet in grasping for them before the appropriate time, they proved a cause of judgment and alienation. The wine of rule in the glass of life will reveal the heart of the drinker, exposing either their folly or their wisdom. Although the service and guarding of the garden was to prepare the adam and the woman for rule in the world, through their premature seizing of rule they thrust themselves into a role for which they were quite unprepared, spreading alienation as a result.

The example of the adam and his wife should be a cautionary one for us, encouraging us to exercise a great deal more trepidation in our approach to politics and rule. Too often in our exercise of political theology, we may proceed under the blithe assumption that we are suited for rule in the wider world, without having first attended to the more rudimentary and far less glamorous task of learning wisdom through faithful obedience, lessons learned in the small things of life.

In our day, the church can, in an overweening desire to wield influence on the national stage, neglect or abandon the immediate tasks given to it, forsaking the serving and guarding of the various gardens in which it has been placed for the dangerous promise of a prominence and a power for which it is not prepared. As in Eden, the result is shameful exposure of guilt and insufficiency.

That political wisdom may only properly be obtained through long and difficult discipleship in quotidian, local, and uncelebrated tasks is probably not a message we wish to hear. We aspire to the corridors of power, not to the visiting of prisoners, tending of the sick, feeding of the poor, sheltering of the homeless, and welcoming of strangers. Yet true wisdom must begin with the fear of YHWH, and in humble, patient, and trusting obedience to him. Influence and power sought otherwise will only bring destruction.


Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.

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