Nested Covenant in Genesis 2-3
The second account of creation, and the account popularly known as the human fall, describe less the beginning of humanity and more the humanity of our beginning. God makes the earth and the heavens and humanity, but makes ‘the man’ from the earth, establishing the very fact of his making as separate from the rest of heaven and earth as a whole. No other creation is from creation; no other creation is given a specific task. These details are neither coincidental nor unrelated.
Human is created by the creator for created purpose; as purposed, human nature and human options nest uncomfortably between broad permissions and specific prohibition. The difficulty for the humans and the tension of the narrative consist in the inherent dilemmas of choice: freedom is at once broad, giving permission to sample the trees in the garden, and narrow, denying one specific tree as a good-faith option for those living in the garden. Negotiating this tension results in human vocation, at first harmoniously, and then, through breach of relationship, in hardship and contention.
The creation of the garden comes after the creation of the human primarily as a gift but also, perhaps, so that God can present the world’s oldest profession, gardening. God plants the trees in Eden and then causes them to grow and then waters them; one can almost imagine God demonstrating the object lesson, albeit on a grand scale. The four rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Pishon and the Gihon, are interesting not because of their mysterious locations but because they are not the first streams mentioned; the one in 2:6 springs from the earth to cover the whole face of the ground, while it still doesn’t rain. In the four rivers then, which presumably come from that stream and go specific places and lay bare certain lands, we witness God’s own act of irrigation.
The garden is set; the man is now set in it to till and keep it, likely in something of the manner God has done. But the man must also eat; “You may freely eat of any tree of the garden,” says God the gracious gardener. Before there is prohibition, there is gift. With vocation, there is gracious permission. All of this, the entirety of the work, has been done simply for the human. That the man is purposed, then, does not mean here that the man fills a niche in the garden, which God could certainly do without the man’s help, but perhaps does imply that the garden fills a niche in the man, or begins to. The fruit of the trees of the garden are in synecdoche the graciousness of the creating and gardening God – they are for him.
But that permissive generosity, while cosmic, is not without limit; in fact, the mere delineation of the garden placed for the man sets bounds on the realm of human activity, just as it establishes the possibility – eat of any tree of the garden does not mention anything outside the garden. But even in the garden is a poisonous plant; “on the day that you eat of it you shall die,” says God, suggesting a reality recognizable to ancient peoples. Eating can kill. From the many plants humans find good and necessary to eat a few will in fact end your life; while eating, the act itself, is good, not all food is good in its results. All of this comes matter-of-factly, perhaps because the nature of the poison does not matter overmuch to the dying person.
Not all food is good for the man; neither is all good within the man. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” says God. The bestiary God presents to the man does not suffice. In naming the animals the man sorts and identifies them and names none of them a helper and a partner. From a broad array of possibilities, none are suitable; the text leaves us with a surfeit of choices that are not good – at least not yet. But if the man is created from creation as purposed, both like the rest of creation and set aside from it, then the woman created from the man is doubly so; bone of his bones, she is like and unlike him, woman from his man. Here, from many false starts, is the one good choice in the garden, and to her he presumably clings.
The serpent at this point should not be surprising; we have already seen the limits of goodness in a poisonous tree and in the isolation of the man. This promising garden threatens to become something more like a jungle, and the serpent’s words do seem tangled as any skein of vine. The serpent begins by asking if God denies the humans to eat of all trees in the garden, making God’s prohibition as broad as God’s permission. No, says the woman, “but God said ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden…or you shall die.’” And one would wonder here, perhaps, if the humans could eat of any tree instead of none of the trees, why they would not be permitted to eat of one of them.
The thinking is serpentine, though both God’s command and human vocation were manifestly simple. But it is through confounding the fields of prohibition and permission that the serpent leads the woman astray, confusing her and perhaps her image of God – is he gracious in possibility or pernicious in complication? – up to the point where she sees that the fruit is good to eat, the one thing it is manifestly not. And while the serpent is right that she will not die, no one dies in this text, the poison of this fruit is not of the stomach but of the heart and mind and mouth.
Tilling and keeping by this point have long been forgotten for an intellectual dissection of God’s given gifts. God’s prohibition, by psychological conflation, has been made to seem larger than God’s permission, which has somehow vanished from the text. Everything established has been undone. The cleaving and helping and partnering is no more. While the woman offers the man her fruit, she does not offer him her opinion or ask for his advice in her discussion with the serpent; he of course does no better, and they both resort to divisive accusations when both of them stand before God. Consequently, the man once placed in the garden is sent out of it, and the woman with him. The vocation the man was once given to do now plagues rather then pleasures him, and the ground from which he was created will reclaim him, and he and she will indeed die.