Genesis: The Book of The Promise

We have been exploring some of the beauty of the Genesis text and what it has to teach us about life (Genesis: The Book of Life), about married life and love (Genesis: The Book of Love), and about our life chosen apart from God (Genesis: The Book of Life and Death). Let us now explore what it means for Adam and Eve to live their life outside of the garden and how they shall be returned to God.

We have read up to the point where Adam and Eve had hidden themselves from God and, by their own choice, prevented His contact with them. Then we read of some of the consequences of these actions. To the woman it is said,

“In pain thou shalt bring forth children, and thy submission shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3.17.

This text seems harsh more than anything else. For those familiar with childbearing, they know it is often a painful process in and of itself, indeed this common human experience is referred to in the Scriptures,

“A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” John 16.21

However, is this all the text is speaking to us about? Or is there more here? We read later in the same text of Genesis that the woman is called the mother of the living,

“And Adam called the name of his wife Life, because she was the mother of all living.” Genesis 3.21

Eve, life, has now become mother of the living and all generations shall proceed from her. But what sort of life shall her children enter into? Will they enter into the paradisiacal life initially gifted to Adam and Eve? If we read further in the text we see that there is more in the text that teaches us of the ‘pain’ of childbearing.

“This is the genealogy of men in the day in which God made Adam; in the image of God he made him: male and female he made them, and blessed them; and he called his name Adam, in the day in which he made them. And Adam lived two hundred and thirty years, and begot a son after his own form, and after his own image, and he called his name Seth.” Genesis 5.1-3

The text of Genesis clearly contrasts Adam and Eve made in the image and likeness of God and in relationship to God (let us recall the inbreathing of the Divine Spirit into them) with their own children who are born into an entirely different condition. These children are born after the form of Adam and Eve and in their image (although the image of God is not destroyed in them). This text from Genesis 5 comes shortly after the first instance of death, the murder of Abel, has been known in the world and is followed by the genealogy of generations to come after Adam and Eve. One notable thing comes out from the genealogy: the lifespan consistently decreases with each successive generation. Separated from God, the human being, corruptible and mortal, successively goes towards the nothingness from which they were created. This is the summary given in the same text from Genesis 3 which we have read part of,

“For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3.20.

This life, surrounded by deadness (recall the coats of dead animal skin) is the life into which the children of Adam shall be born. St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches,

“Now the human being who had turned away from the rich assortment of fruits that are good was filled, because of this disobedience, with the fruit that works corruption (whose name is “sin the death-dealer”); and for this reason humanity was straightway done to death as far as the higher existence is concerned, having take on the non-rational and brutish life in place of the more Divine. And once death had been mingled with human nature, deadness, in step with the successions of offspring to parents, made its way everywhere. Hence a dead form of existence enfolded us, since life itself was, in a certain sense, dying; for as soon as our life is deprived of immortality, it is a dead thing.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily XII on Song of Songs. Translation as in Gregory of Nyssa: homilies on the Song of Songs. Vol. 13. SBL Press, 2012. pp 369-371.

Abba Bulus al Bushi (ca. 1170-1250) will say similarly,

“The hope of two lives was cut off from him completely—by this I mean eternal life with God and temporal life as well. And he lived a life just like that of the beasts and was deprived of the glory and beauty that he had had in the beginning. Then he died and returned to his dust, just as God had said. In the same way, his descendants who come after him turn to dust just like him, following their father.” Abba Bulus al-Bushi, On the Incarnation. Translation as in Davis, Stephen J. Coptic Christology in Practice: Incarnation and Divine Participation in Late Antique and Medieval Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2008. pp 304-305.

Life itself was, in a certain sense, dying. This decaying life, signified by the text’s mention of the form which Adam and Eve’s children will take and by the ever shorter life-spans in Genesis 5 is the life into which the children of Adam and Eve will be born into. Thus, Adam and Eve’s descendants are born into a decaying life, signified by the text’s mention of the image into which they are born. In this way Eve shall bear children in pain for she shall know that her children will not persist forever, in fact they may precede her in death. This is ratified within one chapter of its announcement as we read of Cain’s killing of his brother Abel. The sorrow of this mother is the pain in which she will bear children knowing that her children shall be threatened for their existence at every turn. This same sorrow will be experienced by another mother as she sees her Son being killed at the hands of His own creation.

This same struggle for existence, in a world wherein we shall all die, effects the newly overturned structure of human marriage and love. The woman shall submit to her more physically gifted husband as the very real threat of death, predation, starvation, etc take hold of them. Being surrounded with these physical obstacles, the woman is entrusted to the protection of the physically gifted man. In the structure of existence that envelops them, this takes on a character that is not the intended end (telos) of marriage but comes out in their fallen, threatened, existence.

It is this same struggle that is made evident in the words spoken to the man,

“Cursed is the ground in thy labours, in pain shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread until thou return to the earth out of which thou wast taken, for earth thou art and to earth thou shalt return.” Genesis 3.18-20.

The man too shall struggle for his existence and in doing so shall partake of food in the pain of his mortality. There appears here to be not an etiological statement but rather a summary. Because Adam and Eve have done this, everything changes, their condition is now very different. They will no longer live in harmony together; rather the man will dominate woman, but this is not what was intended.

To the serpent it is promised that the human being shall not be left desolate by God,

“The Lord God said to the serpent: Because you have done this, you are cursed above all cattle and all the beasts of the earth! On your breast and belly you shall go and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. 16 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He shall attack your head and you attack his heel.” Genesis 3.15-16.

The next thing we read of in this text is the departure of Adam and Eve from paradise. This is at first an almost confusing passage,

“And now, for fear that at any time he might stretch forth his hand and take of the tree of life and eat and thus live forever… So the Lord God drove him out of the garden of delight to cultivate the ground out of which he was taken. He cast out Adam and caused him to dwell outside the garden of Delight. And God stationed the cherubim and the fiery sword that circles around to guard the way of the tree of life.” Genesis 3.23-25.

Perhaps we might question why it is that Adam and Eve, told that they shall now be subject to death, are forbidden to partake of this tree of life. What is this mysterious tree that bestows life anyways? The fathers of the Church speak about this and proclaim that this was out of God’s mercy and love that He does these things. St. Gregory the Theologian teaches,

“Alas for my weakness, for that of my first father was mine; he forgot the commandment which had been given him, and yielded to the baleful fruit; and for his sin was banished at once from the tree of life, and from paradise, and from God; and put on the coats of skins, that is, perhaps, the coarser flesh, both mortal and contradictory. And this was the first thing which he learnt—his own shame—and he hid himself from God. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus, his punishment is changed into a mercy, for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 45, Second Oration on Easter, 8.

St. Ephrem the Syrian similarly teaches,

“God did this, lest this life-giving gift that they would receive through the tree of life become misery and thus bring worse evil upon them than what they had already obtained from the tree of knowledge. From the latter tree they obtained temporal pains, whereas the former tree would have made those pains eternal. From the latter they obtained death which would cast off from them the bonds of their pains. The former tree, however, would have caused them to live as if buried alive, leaving them to be tortured eternally by their pains. God, therefore, withheld from the the tree of life. It was not right either that a life of delights be allowed in the land of curses or that eternal life be found in a transitory world.” St. Ephrem the Syrian Commentary on Genesis, Section 2, Chapter 35 as in, McVey, Kathleen E. “St. Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Prose Works.” (1994).p 122-123.

St. Ephrem the Syrian has brought forward a principle that may be lost upon us. If God is simply to bestow some artificial form of life upon the first human beings so that they would live forever but apart from Him, then this is no life at all. For St. Ephrem this would be as though living buried alive, being eternally tortured by their pains. An artificial life is not what is needed for the restoration of the human being but rather a coming back to God, a re-entry into the Divine Life which itself will be the death of death. St. Irenaeus speaks to this effect,

“Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease (Rom 6.7), putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.

For this end did He put enmity between the serpent and the woman and her seed, they keeping it up mutually: He, the sole of whose foot should be bitten, having power also to tread upon the enemy’s head; but the other biting, killing, and impeding the steps of man, until the seed did come appointed to tread down his head,—which was born of Mary, of whom the prophet speaks: “Thou shalt tread upon the asp and the basilisk; thou shalt trample down the lion and the dragon (Ps 91.13);”—indicating that sin, which was set up and spread out against man, and which rendered him subject to death, should be deprived of its power, along with death, which rules [over men]; and that the lion, that is, antichrist, rampant against mankind in the latter days, should be trampled down by Him; and that He should bind “the dragon, that old serpent (Rev 20.2)” and subject him to the power of man, who had been conquered (Luke 10.19) so that all his might should be trodden down. Now Adam had been conquered, all life having been taken away from him: wherefore, when the foe was conquered in his turn, Adam received new life; and the last enemy, death, is destroyed (1 Cor 15.26), which at the first had taken possession of man. Therefore, when man has been liberated, “what is written shall come to pass, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? (1 Cor 15.54,55)” This could not be said with justice, if that man, over whom death did first obtain dominion, were not set free. For his salvation is death’s destruction. When therefore the Lord vivifies man, that is, Adam, death is at the same time destroyed.” St. Irenaeus Against Heresies Book 3, Chapter 23, Tracts 6,7.

St. Irenaeus speaks similarly to what we have seen above. The tree of Life is not envied to Adam and Eve. Rather it is cut off from them that they may not abide forever in the same condition which they had newly embarked upon. Again, for those wondering whether it would be enough for the human being to simply be granted ongoing existence, the answer is no. Perpetual existence is not the Good we pursue, rather it is the life with God who is the only and true Life. Partaking of an artificial life would not re-orient our existence to Him Who is Life, without Whom all other things do not have any real value. So what is the tree of Life which our forbears are forbidden to partake of? For the fathers of the Church it seems that it indicates the life lived with God whom we are averse to (as indicated in The Book of Life and Death). Our whole life had to be brought back to God and brought into union with The Divine Trinity, becoming sons of The Father in the likeness of The True Son by His sending the Holy Spirit of The Father into our hearts (cf. Rom 8, Gal 4). With this is mind it becomes more clear as to why the fathers of the church would identify either the Cross of Christ or The Lord Jesus Christ Himself as the Tree of Life which we are to partake of,

“He was baptized as Man—but He remitted sins as God (Matt 3.13)… He was tempted as Man, but He conquered as God;… He hungered—but He fed thousands (John 6.10) yea, He is the Bread that gives life, and That is of heaven. He thirsted—but He cried, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink (John 7.37)… He was heavy with sleep, but He walked lightly over the sea (Matt 8.24). He rebuked the winds, He made Peter light as he began to sink (Matt 14.25,30)… He prays, but He hears prayer. He weeps, but He causes tears to cease. He asks where Lazarus was laid, for He was Man; but He raises Lazarus, for He was God (John 11.43). He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26.15) ; but He redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was His own blood (1 Pet 1.19). As a sheep He is led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53.7), but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also. As a Lamb He is silent, yet He is the Word, and is proclaimed by the Voice of one crying in the wilderness (John 1.23). He is bruised and wounded, but He heals every disease and every infirmity (Isaiah 53.23). He is lifted up and nailed to the Tree, but by the Tree of Life He restores us; yea, He saves even the Robber crucified with Him (Luke 23.43); yea, He wrapped the visible world in darkness. He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned the water into wine, who is the destroyer of the bitter taste, who is Sweetness and altogether desire (Song of Songs 5.16). He lays down His life, but He has power to take it again (John 10.18); and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise (Matt 27.51). He dies, but He gives life, and by His death destroys death. He is buried, but He rises again; He goes down into Hell, but He brings up the souls; He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead, and to put to the test such words as yours. If the one give you a starting point for your error, let the others put an end to it.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration XXIX, The Third Theological Oration, Chapter 20.

St. Gregory the Theologian has cited the Tree of the Cross as the Tree of Life by which we are all restored. This passage comes in a lengthy chain of images which St. Gregory employs to speak of Christ’s assumption of our humanity as the Divine Logos. The One Who is the giver of life is the one who enters into death, there is no separation in The Incarnate Logos. The cross is the tree of life because it signifies the entire assumption of our humanity by the Logos in all of its weakness. This is not to say that He was not God-made-man prior to this but rather to emphasize that through His death on the cross, The Logos made man has entered into the very depths of our existence and, being above it, overcomes our chains. This life-giving union with God in the very depths of our existence is what it is to partake of the tree of life. Inasmuch as the cross becomes synonymous with the very reality (and the complete and total union that comes about) of this life-giving union, it is said to be the tree of life. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in similar language speaks about The Lord Jesus Christ, The Incarnate Logos as Himself the tree of life,

“But we seek to know clearly where He has been buried. Is His tomb made with hands? Is it, like the tombs of kings, raised above the ground? Is the Sepulcher made of stones joined together? And what is laid upon it? Tell us, O Prophets, the exact truth concerning His tomb also, where He is laid, and where we shall seek Him? And they say, Look into the solid rock which ye have hewn (Isiah 51.1). Look in and behold. Thou hast in the Gospels In a sepulcher hewn in stone, which was hewn out of a rock (Matt 27.60, Mark 15.46, Luke 23.50) And what happens next? What kind of door has the sepulchre? Again another Prophet says, They cut off My life in a dungeon (Lam 3.53), and cast a stone upon Me. I, who am the Chief corner-stone, the elect, the precious (1Pet 2.6), lie for a little time within a stone—I who am a stone of stumbling to the Jews, and of salvation to them who believe. The Tree of life (Gen 2.9), therefore was planted in the earth, that the earth which had been cursed might enjoy the blessing, and that the dead might be released.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 13, 35.

Here the tree of Life, the Incarnate Logos, is planted in the earth for His death is His total entry into human existence. This also hearkens our attention to the descent of The Lord into Hades whereby His economy extends even to the heart of the earth. This tree of life is available to all through Christ’s life-giving union with our humanity. This is the tree of life which is now offered to all of humanity by The Logos’ taking on our humanity. St. Cyril of Alexandria speaks of this life-giving union and says,

“It was not otherwise possible for man, being of a nature which perishes, to escape death, unless he recovered that ancient grace, and partook once more of God who holds all things together in being and preserves them in life through the Son in the Spirit. Therefore his Only-begotten Word has become a partaker of flesh and blood (Heb. 2.:14), that is, he has become man – though being Life by nature, and begotten of the Life that is by nature, that is, of God the Father – so that, having united himself with the flesh which perishes according to the law of its own nature… he might restore it to his own life and render it through himself a partaker of God the Father. . . . And he wears our nature, refashioning it to his own life. And he himself is also in us, for we have all become partakers of him, and have him in ourselves through the Spirit. For this reason we have become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2. Pet. 1:4), and are reckoned as sons, and so too have in ourselves the Father himself through the Son.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 14:20. As translated in Weinandy, Thomas, ed. The theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: a critical appreciation. A&C Black, 2003. p.151-152.

To partake of the tree of life is no abstract tale told in a storybook. This it what it is to partake of the life of God once more. The human being, choosing a different path and seeking gods in other physical realities, or even in themselves, simply cannot partake of this tree of life. It was needed that God reorient us and return us runaways back into the Life of The Trinity that we might be ‘refashioned to His own life’. The Athanasian scholar, Fr. Khaled Anatolios shows us the beauty of this as described by St. Athanasius in On The Incarnation,

“The configuration of salvation-history according to these polarities [life with God and life turned away from God] is given dramatic scope throughout the De Incarnatione. By falling into sin and turning away from God, humanity was heading straight for non-being, toward utter corruption. Thus, in the context of sin, the ontological gulf between the humanity created from nothing and the uncreated God acquires an ominous dimension; it becomes a radical separation which subverts the very purpose of human creation, which is communion with God. Simple repentance from the human side, or a mere nod from the divine side, is not enough to reverse humanity’s orientation toward corruption, precisely because this orientation constitutes a confirmation of the ontological pull of its own nature. It was needful, therefore, that God should take dramatic action to re-orient humanity from one side of the polarity toward the other: “Therefore the Saviour fittingly put on a body, so that the body would be joined to life and would no longer remain mortal in death, but having put on immortality, it would then rise up and remain ‘immortal’ (DI 44).” Khaled Anatolios. Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. London: Routledge, 1998. pp. 37-38.

Where the human being had plunged itself into the grips of death, Christ enters in to join this being to The True Life of The Father. Because He descends into the depths of our existence, He can renew it once more to His own Life. This is why the cross, the depths of humanity’s frailty and brokenness, that which is said to be a curse (Gal 3.13) (by which it is said that Christ has ‘become a curse for us’ Gal 3.13) has become to us a Tree of Life offering Life for all. Christ’s total entrance into humanity to rescue the broken human being by His becoming all that it is to be broken is put in beautiful by St. Gregory of Nyssa,

Discussing the Inscription of the 70th psalm, ‘Concerning the former captives’,

“But let us understand more clearly from the teaching of the great Paul how He who has been dragged down into the depth by the burden of sin is brought back again from the depths by means of the one who went down into the depth on our account. Paul says about this, ‘ Say not in your heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? that is, to bring Christ down; or who shall descend into the depth? that is, to bring Christ up again from the dead. For from what source death entered the world (Rom 5.12), from that source was it again banished. It entered through man, and through man is it also banished (Rom 5.12-17). The first man opened the entrance to death; through the second man life was introduced again, whose entrance causes the destruction of death. For this reason, when the captive was restrained in the depth of death by death, he descended through suffering into this depth, wherefore he gathered the deep to himself again above. For the great word of the apostle has pointed these things out with precision. After he has said many other things on these subjects he also says this, ‘Just as in Adam we all die, so in Christ shall we all be made alive (1 Cor 15.22).’ Because the inscription, ‘For the former captives‘ cries aloud that the economy of the Lord through flesh is occurring.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, On The Inscriptions of the Psalms, Part 2, Chapter 8, Tract 85 as in Gregory, Saint, Nyssenus Gregorius, and Ronald E. Heine. Gregory of Nyssa’s Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms. Oxford University Press, 1995. p. 148.

The Tree of Life, planted in the earth, is once more available to all of us. Christ has descended into the depths even crying out on the Cross (My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?). “He took what is ours and gave us what is His” as is said in the Friday Theotokia of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The tree of Christ, the crucified Incarnate Logos is the fruit of which we may all partake unto Life eternal for He has returned us unto Himself and the bosom of The Father.

It is perhaps in this light that we can understand St. John’s Gospel which opens with “In the Beginning” much as the first lines of Genesis. Subsequently we see the Lord proclaim that, “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself. (John 12.32)”. St. John’s gospel is only the only account which transmits the very last words of the Lord on the Cross, “It is finished”. In the Greek this word would have meant literally, “It is brought to perfection”, “it is completed”. The complete co-identification of The Logos with us in all that we are has come to its peak in the crucifixion and death of the Lord by His descent into our condition. His descent there is simultaneously His destroying it for He cannot be held by death and resurrects from the dead.

“This manifold form of wisdom, resulting from the plaiting together of opposites, is now clearly taught through the church: the Word becomes flesh, life is mixed with death, by his own bruises [Christ] heals our wounds, by the weakness of the Cross [he] overthrows the adversary’s power … he is in death and life does not depart from him, he is mixed with slavery and remains in kingship.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on Song of Songs, 8.

God has come to us and become a new tree of Life planted for us that we are ever invited to approach. We must continue this journey and it is to this end that we have the ascetical practices of the Church, fasting and feasts, vigils and prayers, icons and incense, The Eucharist and the life of prayer. This is so that we, returned to The Father’s house by The True Son, may abide truly as sons and daughters of Him Who loves us. These practices become an entrance into life inasmuch as they constitute our partaking of Life rather than to serve as an abstract discipline. Let us pursue God for He has pursued even into the depths of the heart of the earth that He may reconcile us to Himself (2 Cor 5.19), we who once alienated ourselves from Him.

We should not be surprised to see the next story recounted to us in the Scriptures of the destructive power of sin in Noah and the flood. Thereafter we see the life-giving and sustaining power of leaving one’s ‘own land’ and journeying with God in the person of Abram (later Abraham). We too are to embark on our own journey from the land of sin (as the Israelites would escape from Egypt) to rise to communion with God which is offered to us through the Church which He has established.

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