Monday, December 20, 2010

The Essay Formerly Known As "The Myth of The Fall"

One of the reasons I chose to study Financial Mathematics and Economics was that I wouldn't have to write any essays. Other reasons were that I wasn't sure what else to do and it had a cushy number of lecture hours. A degree frought with danger from the outset, some might say.

Between finishing my first undergraduate degree and starting my second (you mean you've only ever done one?), I've taken up the art of writing. Of course it could be well argued that blogging is one thing, the art of writing another, and never the twain shall meet. But legitimate grievances aside, words are words and writing is writing.

Nevertheless, writing a blog post and writing an academic essay present two very different challenges. It's like moving from writing text messages only to writing a proper email. Gone are the "c u sn"'s and "l8r"s, hello to the "see you soon"s and "later"s. The same brain is doing the work, but it is being forced to refine its way of expressing itself.

The problem with this is that you can easily end up being untrue to yourself. An email, or an essay, becomes generic -- the literary equivalent of paint-by-numbers. The only thing to distinguish it as your work is that it has your name attached. I haven't avoided this pitfall in my opening attempt at writing an essay. But I am trying to write in such a way that the words come out of me rather than me re-arranging words from external sources. That's not to say I'm attempting complete originality. Rather, the goal is to soak myself in the words of others and then to express myself as only I can given this rich heritage that is slowly becoming a part of me.

Though I avoided them like the plague in the past, essays are a gift. The opportunity to write one and have it graded by somone who knows more than me is one that should be treated with a healthy mix of seriousness and joy. This first one that I've attached below was a labour of love. It was for a module called "The Biblical Story", so I tried to make it as story-ish as I could. Have a read and see what you think.

Setting the Scene

Primal Conflict
“A major feature of any story is its central conflict.”[1] The Biblical story is no exception. What’s surprising is how soon conflict appears on the scene. Genesis opens with a poetic retelling of God’s creative action, climaxing with his creation of human beings – bearers of imago dei (Gen. 1:26-27). This new human life is characterised by “vocation, permission, and prohibition.”[2] Living under God’s wise and loving rule, Adam and his wife enjoy an existence free of shame (Gen. 2:25). They are at peace with God, with one another, and with the whole of creation. Conflict arises, however, when the vocation, permission and prohibition given by God are neglected in favour of autonomy. Curse is introduced to a world that had previously only known blessing. Which of these two will triumph?

This story of primal conflict is merely the first in a series of connected rebellious episodes[3], culminating with people constructing a tower in Babel to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:1-4). With humanity subsequently scattered throughout the earth in a state of confusion, the stage is set for God to make a fresh promise to Abram.

The Faithfulness of God
Though the authorship of Genesis is inconclusive[4], two things are known – Genesis was written by the people of Israel and for the people of Israel. The implications of this have not always been appreciated by modern readers of the text.[5] If we approach the Scriptures with ears to hear, however, “The Fall” becomes more than a story of the human predicament and the origins of evil. It becomes, like the rest of Scripture, a story of God’s desire to be faithful to his creation even in the face of unfaithfulness.
The Story

Reading a story as Story 
The story of Adam and Eve has been read as a minefield of theological and anthropological truths since the dawn of Christianity.[6] While there is legitimacy to such reading, it is my intention to read the story as precisely that – a story. This is not to eschew theology, but rather to merge story and theology so that they become indistinguishable.

In Israel’s Gospel, John Goldingay writes, “It is the essence of Israel to be a people with a story….The Old Testament tells us who God is and who we are through the ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel.”[7] While Goldingay’s assertion is valid, I find it striking that Israel’s Scriptures do not begin by telling the story of  God’s relationship with Israel. They begin, rather, with a much broader scope – God’s relationship with humanity, as told in the story of Adam and Eve. Is there a deep connection between the two stories? Does the story of Adam shape the story of Israel, and vice versa? An imaginative reading of the text suggests so.
Adam’s story moves in four scenes – creation, call, disobedience, and exile. Since no scene can be properly understood without relation to the other three, all four will be briefly examined.

Scene I – Creation
Genesis 2 focuses on God’s creation of man: “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:6).

In Israel’s faith this stands not as a historical/scientific statement, but as a theological proclamation: Man is only rightly understood as the creation of God -- and not just any God, but Israel’s God, Yahweh. The life that man has is a gift from Yahweh, and can only be truly lived in relation to Yahweh. This is what being Yahweh’s creation meant for Adam. This is what being Yahweh’s creation meant for Israel.

Isaiah uses creation language as he speaks to exiled Israel: “But now thus says Yahweh, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel” (Isa. 43:1, emphasis mine). As children of Abraham, Israel was a people created ex nihilo; the handiwork of a God “who calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). While the faith of Israel declared that Yahweh was the maker of everything, the account of Adam’s creation evoked for Israelites their own special status as a people not only chosen by Yahweh, but intimately formed by him for a unique purpose.

Scene II - Call
An overlooked detail in Adam’s story is his relation to Eden. Adam was not born into Eden: he was brought into Eden by Yahweh. The text mentions this twice.[8] The garden was Yahweh’s gift, and he chose Adam to enter into it as his partner, his vice-regent.

The Exodus – Israel’s foundational narrative -- is not only a story of escape from Egypt. It’s the story of a people who were formed by God and called to enter the Land that Yahweh would give them.[9] In this land they would embody the reign of God as his “kingdom of priests”.[10]

As a guideline to this embodiment, Yahweh gave Israel Torah. He set before them life and death – which would they choose? This choice reflects the choice facing Adam – Live in obedience to the Source of Life, or “you shall surely die”. What choice would Adam make, and how would future generations of Israelites identify with it?

Scene III - Disobedience
Conflict emerges in the form of a serpent. Adam’s wife engages in a “tutorial with this strange theological professor”[11], who questions the goodness of God’s purposes for his human creation. “Eat the fruit”, says the serpent, “and you will be like God.”

Adam and his wife succumb to the temptation. Life in relation to Yahweh is replaced by a life concerned only with self. Trust is abandoned in favour of unhealthy suspicion, and equality with God is considered a thing to be grasped (Phil. 2:6). And so they grasp.

Adam’s disobedience can be read as a prophetic exhortation/warning to a people who were prone to “do what was right in their own eyes.”[12] The message to Israel was clear: Trust in the goodness of Yahweh; respond to his graciousness with obedience, not grasping. If the people of Israel understood themselves as the renewed humanity – or even the ones through whom all humanity would be renewed – then they could ill afford to re-enact Adam’s story scene for scene.

And yet they did. Yahweh’s grace was met with disobedience at almost every turn.[13] Would “God’s-single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world”[14] fail? Had the people chosen to set right the story of Adam not also fallen short? Had Adam and Israel’s faithlessness nullified the faithfulness of Yahweh (Rom. 3:3)?

Scene IV - Exile

The consequences of humanity’s original disobedience are extensive, but the focus here is on their exile “East of Eden”. Faithlessness to their vocation leads to a loss of Yahweh’s special presence. Adam and his wife are “driven out” from the garden. Is there any hope of return?

For exiled Israelites reading Adam’s story, the parallels would be regrettably complete, yet the story would feel unfinished. They knew Yahweh as Creator and Caller, they knew themselves as disobedient covenanters deserving of exile.[15] But who would have the last word, and what would it be?

It is significant that in Adam’s story, judgement and gospel intertwine. Curse is pronounced, but clothes are provided.[16] Moreover, the expulsion from Eden itself is an act of judgement and grace. God sent Adam and his wife away not only as a punishment, but also as an act of mercy. Yahweh would not have them eat of the tree of life and live forever in a world with curse. Adam naming his wife Eve – which ‘resembles the word for “living”’[17] – also injects hope into the drama as the act draws to a close. A future of life, not death, is prophetically imagined.

Exiled Israel held fast to Yahweh’s desire for blessing – a desire which undergirds the story of Adam.[18] They knew that their exile was punitive (e.g., Jer. 7:14-20), but hope that it could also be restorative began to emerge. Jeremiah captures this hope. Like Adam, he prophetically imagines that life and not death, presence and not absence, will have the last word:
11For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. – Jeremiah 29:11-14

The Climax of the Story
A New Story Emerges
During Israel’s exile a new story was told amongst the people: The story of a Servant.[19] Would Adam’s story of “falling short of the glory of God” – a story embedded not only in the conscience of the nations, but in Israel herself -- be put to rights through a righteous Servant?

The Return Home
It is into the yoked stories of Adam and Israel that Jesus of Nazareth fits. Indeed, he forms the climax of these stories and in turn weaves one new story for all of humanity to participate in: the story of cross-resurrection; the story of “new creation”. Israel’s Messiah becomes the “second Adam”. The exile is over. Access to the “tree of life” is once more available (Rev. 22:2). The Father is calling for his sons and daughters to return home.
Has Israel’s faithlessness nullified the faithfulness of God? Me genoito! Through the faithful Israelite Jesus, “God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” is brought to fulfilment. Blessing triumphs over curse.

1 C. Bartholomew and M. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 22. Screenwriter Robert McKee takes this truth one step further in his Law of Conflict: ‘Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.’ – R. McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, 210.
2 W. Brueggemann, Genesis, 46
3 Cf. J. Goldingay, Old Testament Theology Volume One, Israel’s Gospel, 147: ‘…Genesis 1-3 only begins the narrative’s portrayal of the origins of human wrongdoing. It is Genesis 1-6 or Genesis 1-11 as a whole that offers the total portrait.’
4 See the discussions in R.B. Dillard and T. Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 38-48 and T. Fretheim, Genesis, 322-324

5 Cf. D. Alexander, “Pentateuch” in The IVP Introduction to the Bible, 54: ‘As readers we need to attune ourselves to what these ancient authors wished to say and not impose our present-day agenda on their writings. We must not expect the biblical text to answer questions that its authors were not addressing.’
6 The origin of this Christian reading is Paul’s Adam/Jesus typology in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. As a guideline for its continuing practice, it should be noted that Paul was more interested in making proclamations about Jesus than about Adam, and that the Old Testament itself has little or nothing to say about Adam and “the fall” other than what we find in Genesis 2-3.
7 Goldingay, Israel’s Gospel, 30

8 Genesis 2:8 and 2:15
9 Cf. Genesis 15:7; Exodus 6:8
10 The language of “priesthood” evokes Israel’s calling to be a “light for the nations” (Isa. 49:6). This point is well made in D. Peterson, Engaging With God, 28: “As a priestly kingdom, [the Israelites] were to serve the LORD exclusively and thus be a people through whom his character and will might be displayed to the world.”
11 Goldingay, Israel’s Gospel, 131. Cf. H. Thielicke, A Little Exercise For Young Theologians, 34: ‘Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded “Did God really say?”’

12 Judges 17:6; 21:25
13 See, for example, the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32, about which Terrence Fretheim asserts “It is Genesis 3 all over again.” T. Fretheim, Exodus, 279
14 N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 105

15 See Leviticus 26:27ff. for an Israelite understanding of the link between disobedience and exile.
16 Cf. Ezekiel 16:8-14 for an interesting parallel between Adam and Israel.
17 T. Fretheim, Genesis, 364
18 Cf. Goldingay, Israel’s Gospel, 139: “To describe God as blessing but not directly cursing suggests that blessing is Yhwh’s natural activity, while cursing is less so. It parallels the implication that light and mercy are nearer to Yhwh’s true nature than darkness or anger. While Genesis can imagine the possibility that Yhwh might curse and get angry (Gen 5:29; 18:30, 32), it sees that as not Yhwh’s first nature. In Yhwh’s nature blessing has priority over cursing, love over anger, mercy over retribution.”

19 Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

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