Genesis 3: 22-24
Reading Genesis is hard for many reasons. We are often blind to the assumptions we’ve been schooled in. It’s so easy to read any familiar passage of scripture, automatically returning to yesterday’s manna, chewing over the same aspect of the truth that spoke powerfully to us in an earlier Day. Sure, there is room for varieties of interpretation, which is healthy. However, we should be alert to the possibility that our teachers have led us into entrenched and rather one-dimensional interpretations. I wonder if this is one of those important cases.
22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.Genesis 3: 22-24 ESV
Who wants to be an outsider? Any volunteers for being locked out? I don’t see any hands. Some of us are rather happy in our own company, while others crave pretty much constant connection. We can move up and down that scale as we please- at least we thought we could, until the pandemic. We find we can’t go out – we certainly shouldn’t meet with people. We ought to stay in. After a year of this, even the hardest of hard-nosed loners realise its not quite so healthy to be cut off from society, even if you can read more books and write a blog. Mental health is moving up our scale of social priorities, and it will be there for a good while. Though even in the digital realm, I am not really alone. It’s great to ‘meet’ fellow bloggers here and find that some of you even like to ‘follow’ me for a while. Thanks!
But our present circumstances are not at all those described in our scripture passage, which is highly unlikely to be selected as the text for a spiritually-comforting wall poster. Meditate on this for five minutes, and if you’ve kept it up for that long, you’re at the edge of weeping, if not actually crying.
This closure sounds very permanent. “The Way is Shut!”1 To attempt to re-enter God’s Garden that Way is a hopeless quest. Though such a mission is not possible, the implication- if we could attempt it- is of total refusal, if not immediate death, which is what was warned the first time in God’s garden 2(Gen 2:17), though God’s mercy was unexpectedly extended.
Which is why we need not weep for long. Because God’s surprising unexpected mercy continues! The cherubim and the flaming sword are not chasing us down. They are guarding the Way. Now this is crucial. Do you notice that the text does not say, ‘Destroy the way…’ or ‘Remove the tree…’ Why the emphasis on ‘guard’? This is a clear sign of ultimate hope, as Revelation confirms: the Tree of Life endures and it will be found in the New Jerusalem. J.R.R. Tolkein had it absolutely right in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ when he has the king of the Dead say [spoiler alert!] to the future king Aragorn that the way is ‘kept.’ My own house and garden are full of things that I am keeping in hope for use on a far-off day that, frankly, I cannot see! It seems that God’s garden is just the same. The different is, His foresight is better than mine.
Well and good. But that’s in the distant future- the certain future that God is keeping for us on the ‘other side.’ At this point in Genesis, the outlook seems rather bleak, because there is a great deal of the book of Genesis and the whole of the rest of the Old Testament to go before much ‘Way’ and ‘Life’ is in evidence.
While presently our lives do go on, our so-called ‘global’ society is bearing the open wounds of division at all sorts of levels. You can see the signs even when nobody is about. In the provincial neighbourhood of Kent in the UK where I live, 30 miles or so from London, there is growing evidence of the desire to barricade oneself inside; to keep various ‘undesirables’ out. More streets and neighbourhoods have become ‘gated communities’, with artisan produced metal gates guarding closed driveways only accessed by an electronic key code. The better-off and well-to-do have opaque fences, high walls and CCTV, with terse signage that makes it abundantly clear that one is not welcome.
OK, so I’ve not seen alligators in drainage ditches yet, but it’s only a matter of time, what with climate change and all that.
I love castles. They are quite simply beautiful piles of stones, veritable gardens of architecture that once enclosed a complete functioning community. Created from reorganised rocks, occupying prominent geographic positions, they were built to withstand weather, time and assaults of all kinds. Now generally abandoned, though intermittently maintained by benign historians, they offer the imaginative an enticing doorway into the distant past. I’ve parted with more than a few pounds to get past the gatekeepers of English Heritage with my growing family to roam amongst many ruins, exploring long-abandoned dungeons; then clambering tight spiral staircases to lofty rooftops and battlements. Our kids would chase around with abandon, hiding from each other for a few moments before peeking out from some orifice, wanting to be found again. The laughter of many children would echo back and forth between imposing walls as they frolicked with little caution and completely without fear.
From such historical distance, it is rather easy to nurture two conceits. The first is that when loitering within the curtain walls of a tumble-down medieval castle I am meaningfully close to the royal folk- the actual kings and queens of England and Scotland and Wales- who most certainly used to frequent such places. The second is that the likes of me and my crowd could actually have seen the inside of such places at all when they were really alive. To be close to them and to have the same perspective on things as their inhabitants- to be somewhat equal. Both conceptions are bogus. Whatever and whoever was considered to have been of value back in those days would most likely not have included me. I suppose I might have seen the castle walls from a distance- from the outside! The message sent by this huge pile of dressed stone was very clear. Keep out! Stay away! Any hopes I might have nurtured for admittance could -at best- only have been realised as an unequal: as a very temporary, merely tolerated servant.
So I will now turn to much more recent example in history to further consider the predicament we find in Genesis 3: 24. As the political temperature rose alarmingly in Europe in 1938, the news was full of dread and earnest talk- talk about avoiding both international squabbling and the dreaded fighting it would otherwise lead to. There had been the Great War just a couple of decades previous, killing 20 millions and wounding a similar number. Mr Chamberlain returned to Britain from the Munich conference in September, triumphantly waving a white piece of paper, to much popular acclaim both in Britain and across Europe. Time would prove whether the words written on that paper were worth the trouble taken to secure them. Was the promise to be trusted? Would it be believed? Most prayed both would be so, but tragedy, not triumph, followed. The military build up by Germany was followed by a merciless campaign of conquest across Poland, then the Low Countries, and on, just as rapidly, into France. The massed tank charge was coupled with dive bombing from the skies: ‘Blitzkrieg’ entered the vocabulary of the English and the world.
So while Belgium had been overrun, France surrendered before the invading tanks were able reach Paris in anger, and the British Expeditionary Force completely abandoned its armour and sailed away across the Channel on an improbable fleet of ‘Little Ships.’ This escape was only possible because the German tanks paused outside Dunkirk. Military historians cannot fully explain this aversion of final disaster for the BEF. Some say that, coupled with the courage of the ‘Little Ship’ captains, a national call to prayer was in fact the last effective weapon that brought a third of a million British and French back to the English coast unharmed. Heaven only knows.
Now there was a standoff between the opposing forces, separated by the best defence that Britain has ever boasted of: the English Channel, or La Manche, as our French friends call it. Even the Nazis were begrudgingly awed by this barrier, or the theoretical threat it might allow, so they chopped down every tree near the north French coast to form concrete shuttering for constructing their Atlantic Wall to keep us out. The Nazis kept detailed paperwork through the war, maintaining the German habit. I read that just the French section of the 6200km wall then cost 3.7 billion Reichsmarks. In the air, the Battle of Britain raged, and, as well as Hurricanes and ‘The Few,’ PM Winston Churchill sent the English language into battle against Herr Hitler and the ‘Nazi menace.’ If that wasn’t amusing enough as a military strategy, British plans for D-Day also included divisions of inflatable rubber tanks and aeroplanes that were deployed in Kent to fool German reconnaissance into thinking the main invasion would be in Calais, not Normandy. Again, Britain prayed, and the combination of courage and subterfuge paid off.
Perhaps I digress. My principle point is about the imposing line of concrete gun emplacements and defensive structures built from 1942 all along the coast of France to discourage any attack by sea on Nazi-controlled France, in which, by 1944, a prodigious quantity of static weapons and energetic soldiers were installed. Behind all this were divisions of highly mobile Panzer tanks, able to deploy quickly to defend weak points at will. I am asking you to forget that you know what finally happened- for a long time the cause seemed hopeless. It was hopeless. Britain was alone, and her defences could not be expected to withstand the gathering storm of an apparently inevitable Nazi invasion- just as soon as the RAF had been cleared from the skies by the Luftwaffe. The fight was not at all equal. Even if the Nazis did not invade, the odds against a successful breaching of the Atlantic Wall were overwhelming.
This calculation was only changed when the Americans fully joined the war after Pearl Harbour. Then it was the Nazi’s turn to be afraid. It might take a long time, but with resolve, there could now be countering of Hitler’s aggression. Repeated massed bombing raids were carried out, day and night, against the German war machine.
The Great War has become known as the war of trenches, the first tanks, and most horrifically of all, the machine gun. The leaps in technology applied to warfare which multiplied in World War Two are legion, though surely one of the most significant was the production of concrete, deployed effectively since Roman times, but now on an utterly prodigious scale. Concrete is a composite material – its effectiveness structurally and in resisting explosive impact results from the ground of cement, sand and stones on the one hand, and the rods of steel into which the wet slurry is poured before it chemically reacts and sets permanently, enclosing the framework. You can see some of the steel reinforcing bar is now exposed in the photograph above, where a just a little of the concrete has cracked away due to weathering. The steel confers tensile strength, while the concrete resists compression. What was so effective in the Atlantic Wall defences is seen here in the bomb-proof metres-thick walls of this vast U boat factory. You see one of the few openings in the walls, though now lacking its doors and active defences. In recent years it was wondered whether this Nazi-designed monstrosity could be finally demolished and removed from landscape, but this plan was finally abandoned. Even in peacetime, the technical challenge and costs are simply prohibitive. This realisation emphasises the conclusion I have been leading you toward: if you aren’t supposed to be there, if you are not welcome, you won’t be getting in. The building itself- I hope it is not disrespectful to ask you to focus on that, though we are very conscious of the ghastly historical context- remains a model of impregnability. If I had seen the Atlantic Wall in the 1940s, I would most likely have died there. If I had seen the walls of the Bremen bunker, most likely I would have died- either inside or out. Passing unopposed was not a likely option. Without a very significant change in the odds, all ways are shut.
I wonder if it is the kindness of God that spares us much description of just how much has been lost by the first couple in Genesis chapter three. They had been as much insiders as it is possible to imagine. The most vociferous critics of Judeo-Christian spirituality are not shy to accuse us of laughable wishful thinking in suggesting that after an incomprehensible pause in heaven, where God has apparently been keeping company with Godself, that for no explicable reason God decides to create everything, and put little us in the middle of this cosmos- apparently just because God decides to be more friendly. How naively anthropomorphic- how conceited?! Well, such is the mysterious logic of Divine Love. God doesn’t need to, but God chooses to. I suppose it would be foolish- worse; embarrassingly narcissistic, if it wasn’t true. The truth is revealed in Genesis: God decided to make a cosmos and creatures and a particular creature, made in God’s tselem and demut; in God’s ‘image and likeness‘, which, in some bordering-on-the-heretical manner means ‘equal‘.
We find we are in God’s garden. With our King; like our King!
Fresco and enlarged view of The Expulsion (of ancestors) from Eden (Cacciata dei progenitori dall’Eden) by the Italian Early Renaissance artist Masaccio, around 1425, on a pillar in the the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. Masaccio was a forerunner to the teacher of Michaelangelo.
Where was the ‘Garden of Eden’? What happened to it? Could it be searched for, perhaps as archaeologists might track down the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’? These are not trivial questions, and they are not put to the text in a disrespectful manner, but they do nevertheless misread what Genesis is offering to us- what it reveals. One of my main aims in this blog is to explore what the Genesis ‘worldview’ really consists of, and I propose that this is found in the focus of the whole book on the relationships between God, God’s creation and God’s human creatures. More significantly that Eden as an identified place is what happened there; what it represents; what therefore is being said when the first couple are sent out. Eden is where God placed and related with God’s own companions- they are royal companions, in the royal circle, though not exactly equal with God. Not mini-gods or minor deities or any of that sort of thing. If you study Classics you will know why I say that. ‘Eden’ is the realm of intimate relationship between God and God’s humanity. The Garden is an inside space, analogous to the court of heaven, though distinct, where God allows, invites, enjoys, revels in fellowship unity with God’s chosen and elect. ‘Special,’ which is another redeemable word. The Genesis picture of the ‘Royal Eden Garden’ is a means to an end, making the nature of this first relationship understandable in human terms. It deftly paints a core part of the Genesis worldview.
And so it is this relationship, in so many of its beautiful facets, that is being severed in God’s words in chapter three. But God is restrained in His anger, in judgement and in decree. God is much pained by the impasse which we must face under God’s sovereign justice. There has been Sin, and there must be Penalty, yet somehow God finds mercy for our parents. ‘Dying you shall die‘ somehow becomes transformed into exile. It is still unutterably painful for the human couple, who do not speak. They have to do as they are told. God speaks and decrees; God acts, just as in chapter one, and so Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of fellowship, for if they ate of the second tree there would be, God reveals- only God can know this, and what a wonder that it is revealed to us- a final cosmic disaster would follow if they were allowed to do so. I am still musing on how much freedom was conferred on humankind in Genesis, but here the text is clear. You will not be allowed to take of the Life fruit, though it seemed, theoretically, to have once been possible.
In chapter one, God’s spoken Word of Creation was quite enough, but for emphasis, now there is a multi-layered seal placed over the Divine decree. Cherubim are stationed at the exit- that’s plural, you realise, just in case one is not sufficient. Whatever cherubim are, I doubt that any expedition to argue with them is likely to succeed. As if that’s not enough however, God also sets up a flaming sword. Now the text doesn’t say the sword was held by the cherubim- we rather get the impression that it was not held by any agent. God’s word, God’s will, God’s decree, His army, His weapons: all add up to an utterly impregnable mystery. This is what is wonderful about the revelation of the Genesis text. It says things that cannot be easily said in representational pictures, though in the 1400s in Florence, not so many people could read, or were even allowed to read, so pictures were encouraged to assist the telling of biblical narrative. When Masaccio and other friends decorated all the internal surfaces of their local church buildings with frescoes, we got one burly hovering cherub in a big red dress trying to look elegant while pointing a very long cold sword in the general direction of the fleeing couple, waving vaguely towards the east with its other arm. My research tells me that Masacchio’s skilful handling of pigment and plaster was significantly inspirational to the generations of artists that followed, not least a certain Michelangelo. Unfortunately the text itself is not handled so luminously. The couple are portrayed naked, which is not at all what Genesis tells us. There we read that God is the first to kill and thereby institute animal sacrifices by clothing them in skins before sending them away. This detail also passed by the embarrassed Florentine rulers, who later had the image of the nude pair festooned with trailing ivy, to spare their own blushes. 3 That amateurish addition was eventually removed from the fresco in recent restoration and cleaning, so now we see Masacchio’s work as it was expressed some six hundred years ago.
What is this scene about? A singular painting such as this is unlikely to speak in the same multidimensional manner as the text which it relates to. The artist is obliged to foreground certain aspects and leave others aside. I think Masacchio has it absolutely right; we are not paying much attention to the flying cherub on door keeping duty in the background. We are gripped by the faces of the tragic pair: one; Adam, still truly naked before his God, his face down and again hidden behind his layered hands- just as he had been hiding in the garden when the Lord came calling his name. The other, Eve, is openly wracked by grief, loss, her shame and the acute present pain of loss of relationship- of all relationships. They walk together, slowly, yet apart, as the Word of banishment broadcasts from the doorway behind them, to them and to us. God’s voice, the Word of the Lord, is what sends them away. They are insensible to the heavenly warrior watching from above.
What effect does this meditation have on us? If we are also pained, we should remember that pain can be a gift in this sense. A wounded soldier knows that what hurts is still alive. It might, eventually, even heal.
Perhaps I have also convinced you that even the banishment itself is not devoid of hope. Some relationships break down when strong words are spoken, and their force is long remembered and dwelt upon in our hearts. We ask ourselves, ‘Do they still mean it? Would they say that now, knowing the impact it’s had?’ In this case, our Covenant Creator God leaves us in no doubt, confirming His words with cherubim on permanent active duty,. Furthermore, the Providential mercy of God is spectacularly demonstrated in the constant turning of a flaming sword. If any hand could be said to wield it, it can only be the Lord’s own Hand. He still means it.
The truth should be clear to us all. The penalty was, and is, entirely deserved, and a great deal more lenient than first warned. God’s holiness is not negotiable. And this episode is timeless and applicable to us all. We are all sent away, and yet this is not motivated by base selfishness in God. There are several clear hints that God is setting up barriers for the protection of God’s original intention. The spiritual exile we are all in is an exile of hope. Unlike some of the folk who barricade themselves behind unfriendly walls and surveillance systems, the Lord bears us no ill will.
As the couple walk off into the future, the implications for future generations begin to dawn on Adam and Eve. Those of us who are parents will certainly have travelled this journey, as we realise that the mistakes we make can have profound impacts on our own children. My big mistakes have big consequences, and those consequences can fall particularly hard on those I love the most. We can find forgiveness, though important things may well not go back to the way they were.
In Genesis chapter four, we meet the children of the next generation, and are accelerated to one crucial moment in their relationships. Cain is at the point of considering his fundamental attitude toward both his brother Abel and his God. His parents lost their fellowship relationship with God- we don’t know what they said about this to their two sons. Having been exiled by the Lord from His royal realm, we might imagine that Cain would find himself left very alone in his moral decision making. But this is not at all the case! Having gone to such lengths to garrison the Garden against the return of God’s human creatures, the Lord Himself has sprung a great surprise on us all. How can I put this? God has, well, jumped over the wall! We are not yet welcome back, but that doesn’t mean that God is any less interested in us. At least at this significant moment, Cain finds that the Lord is just as close to him as the Lord was with his parents, speaking clearly and directly into his own ears.
There is a sound on the path close behind me.
And suddenly, I notice I am being followed!
The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.Rowan Williams
(c) Stephen Thompson 2021
- 1 Gen 2:17 Young’s literal translation ‘and of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou dost not eat of it, for in the day of thine eating of it — dying thou dost die.’
- 2 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/114361-the-way-is-shut-it-was-made-by-those-who J R R Tolkein. The Return of the King.
- Pictures 1-4:
- 124507320_0061cf1f98_h gaylon keeling CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
- 910272_54d4b667 Evelyn Simak CC BY-SA 2.0
- alligators-resting-1420383625WfN publicdomainpictures
- Okaska castle moat. water-river-canal-construction-reflection-landmark-621704-pxhere.com
- Leigh pill box, near Tonbridge. Pillbox by the River Medway 3091643_a8d04d2e CA BY SA 2
- Black & white war images:
- docsteach.org images primary md_16578076_26246
- pill-box-1910070_960_720 pixabay
- Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-719-0240-05,_Pas_de_Calais,_Atlantikwall,_Panzersperren wikimedia commons
- Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-263-1580-13,_Frankreich Atlantikwall Wette wikimedia commons CC-BY-SA 3.0
- Bunker Valentin. architecture-house-building-old-wall-arch-506196-pxhere.com
- Masaccio,_The_Expulsion wikimedia
- 3 For example, see here: https://rlv.zcache.com.au/expulsion_from_paradise_by_masaccio_best_quality_postcard-r7b5f397abb374fc7ad1afa16301463e5_vgbaq_8byvr_540.jpg
- Masaccio_-The_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden_detail-_ wikimedia
- Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy, c.1426–27. photograph Steven Zucker. flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
- Wall image modified from: scott-webb-yekGLpc3vro-unsplash AND R3270e845b6ba1b395964bf7965bfd236 bing CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
- Couple walking into mist: sebastian-pichler-6kJGjk3eANA-unsplash
- Modified from: light-night-dark-recreation-sparkler-darkness-932518-pxhere.com