God’s cosmos, creation and free will.

This article seeks to address the following questions:

  • Does the creation account of Genesis give confidence to the claim that God has given us free will in a meaningful and valuable sense? Or are believers, at best, fooling themselves, since whatever ‘freedom’ they might claim is too limited to be of value?
  • Are there other agents in God’s cosmos that have meaningful freedom to will and to act? If so, how might their freedoms be constrained compared with ours?
  • Is my free will a gift of God I am squandering?

At Gen 2:9 we are told that ‘the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground- trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.’ And we read that two particular trees were placed in the middle of the garden.

In Gen 3:6, the woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some… and also gave some to her husband… then the eyes of both of them were opened.

Do you see that their ‘seeing’ was transformed – they both had perfectly good eyes, but they are said to be ‘opened’ into another mode of seeing. At first, their physical eyes could see trees and people- well, one other person anyway- and all the other wondrous things in God’s garden. We have also been given a ‘heads up’ view, a revelation no less, of ‘God’s own eye view’ of the trees in the garden. The scripture [ie God] tells us that the trees of the garden were good for food– that is a category of goodness recognised by biologists. All the proper nutrients available in a readily digestible manner, and on an ongoing and reliable basis. Good food! And the scripture further adds that the trees are pleasing to the eye. They are beautiful. The fruit isn’t merely nutritious, as a field of brown wheat, full of plump seeds ready for harvest. Sure, grass seeds are packed with starchy carbohydrate, and you might rub off the husks to glean a few dry morsels to chew on a summer day’s walk. But no one scans the deli counter for a cereal bar.

So the text is telling us that God has imbued the human couple with a certain range of senses, and these span the categories of physiology and psychology. Like the animals, we can see what we need to walk around and not into, what might be good for food, and what is not. But there is more to being human than the qualities possessed by brute beasts. In making beautiful trees, God is blessing us with an aesthetic appreciation of His world that is beyond the appraisal of a balanced diet with the proper daily provision of calories. For sure, God’s own creativity is in view in the vast range of flora and fauna and all that is in this world and beyond, but we were at the first given a capacity to not merely assess but to appreciate the artistry as well as bioengineering competency of our fellow creatures. Is it this aesthetic sense that transform functional supplies into a gift? And this description of the beauty of the trees is a placeholder for wider aesthetic sensibilities, as we shall see.


But Gen 3:6 tells us that the woman’s ‘seeing’ has been changed in some ways- and in a crucial way for the worse. The deceptive and diverting questioning of the serpent was listened to and allowed to override the cautionary instructions [precautionary instructions perhaps] the Lord God gave to the ha’adam [the Hebrew word is better read here as human rather than as ‘Adam’]. Her assessment of the tree and its fruit is now different to what the text asserts on God’s behalf at 2:9, and the stern warning God gave at 2:17 is set aside. ‘You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat if it you will surely die.’ The serpent bluntly contradicts God’s ordinance, though this treason is only an act of speech. It is the woman who chooses to act contrary to God’s instruction, which is another way of saying that the man does the same and all at once. The text says she has ‘some’ and she hands ‘some’ to her husband, who acts as one with his wife, and eats, without words being spoken [though 3:17a might undermine my argument just there]. The text does not say directly, but does it not seem to you that he was ‘seeing’ the same things that she did, and consciously and deliberately made the same free choices? I think so.

God indeed knew the import of what He had chosen to reveal to the man, and what he had retained. God is God, which is to say, He exercises His freedom in creation and in relational ordinance. God decides what to make, and how it functions. In regard to conscious and intelligent creatures- that’s us- the ‘how it functions’ is not limited to the realm of instinct or physiological feedback loops that automatically regulate the natural urges of all organisms to minimise discomfort and maintain homeostatic balance. Our parents teach us language and give us instructions, persuading us from experience and wisdom what not to do and what to do. Don’t put your fingers in the electric socket. Do walk carefully around the yellow sign because the floor is slippery- no dear, more slowly than that! Oopsie… Oh deary dear. Come here- Mummy kiss it better. Now off you go, but carefully this time. Learn to walk before you can run!

In the story, Adam and Eve don’t have any parents, so God handles that responsibility. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden…” That’s pretty generous. The first instruction starts with the most amazing criterion: You are free! Now we are all smart enough to know that will be followed in some way by a ‘but.’ The way the serpent talks, any such a ‘but’ will be cast as a negation of God’s decree for freedom. If you insist on taking such a suspicious view, so be it. We may part company at this point. But if you are willing, let’s take a more generous approach and assume that God intends for us to respond in good faith, just as Genesis 1-2 shows that God is acting in good faith in creating and sustaining God’s own cosmos. Is it reasonable that the sovereign creator, Who by nature is capable of exercising so much potential creativity that theologians categorise God as being omnipotent, should decree limits even to the gift of freedom for God’s most capable creatures? I don’t see anything controversial here. God is not in the business of creating co-gods, a pantheon. God is interested in imparting a meaningful degree of god-likeness to us, which must include a significant degree of agency. That agency, to be like-as-to-God, can only be indeterminate- not constrained according to a rigid list of instructions. That would be a computer program, and then we would be robots, not humans at all. Surely freedom with limits isn’t really freedom, you might object? Well really? Can God do whatever God might like to do? Can God do anything at all? Is God not constrained also? Apparently so: God has instituted a cosmos that operates according to what scientists call laws, which are really descriptions for how the cosmos operates, though we haven’t a clue what that means in terms of how they actually work. And while our knowledge of these ‘laws’ has increased massively in the last couple of centuries, the knowledge we do have does not exclude the rare possibilities we might categorise under the heading of miracles. What I mean to say is that whatever science has to learn about miracles, they are rare2. They don’t usually happen. Newtonian physics is what usually happens. That’s rocket science. And once in space, our satellites need to tell the time, and that means correcting for the big things that happen across spacetime, which Einstein told us about in his relativistic theories. This is all normal and determined and predictable and God doesn’t mess with it.

Napoleon: You have written this huge book on the system of the world without once mentioning the author of the universe.
Laplace: Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.
Later when told by Napoleon about the incident, Lagrange commented: Ah, but that is a fine hypothesis. It explains so many things.

Quoted in A De Morgan Budget of Paradoxes. 1872 ref 3

Whatever truth may lie behind the above apocryphal account3, God agrees that God’s omnipotence should not be used as basis for asserting that God can do whatever God likes, according to whimsy, which might change from one day to the next. In this important sense, God freely chooses to be constrained. So we ought not take offense that the Creator of us and everything should straightforwardly set out constraints around our freedom. God made birds with wings (Gen 1:20), and insects, as well as pterosaurs, to enjoy the freedom of the air, but we don’t have wings, so we can’t fly. The dreams of Icarus imitating the birds remained just that- fanciful dreams. Even at the time of the first reports of the success of the Wright brothers hard-headed and down-to-earth folk found it impossible to believe4 that technologies might be developed to overcome the boundary of insufficient power-to-weight ratio. But they were, and now those who learned to walk and run could now fly- using machines.

“The Baron crosses the Thames without the assistance of a bridge, ship, boat, or balloon, or even his own will.” 1809 Thomas Rowlandson artist, British (1757–1827) pic 5

But the account of the two trees in God’s garden is not of this mode. Do we take seriously the idea that there was a tree with fruit that would confer knowledge on the persons who ate it? What of the second tree? A deathless life? If the animals that were given all the plants and fruit to eat had eaten of that tree, what would the effects on them have been? Immortal llamas? Eternal elephants? Might there even have been a troop of undying and very clever chimpanzees whooping around God’s garden the week after Adam and Eve had been dispatched on their east-of-Eden walking trip?

Better surely to accept what we know very well to be the case: it is complex socialisation and education that makes us smart, and however rich and varied our diets may be- whatever privilege we enjoy- none of us would have lived for ever. What we are being told in simple words is that there is both truth and meaning in the hunch that we have that our life might just reach beyond the here and now, and that we need the rich wisdom of God to navigate the moral challenges of community life. These particular trees in the Genesis text may be symbolic, as is much in language, but the God who speaks through them to us is not, and nor is our need for intelligible boundaries: God’s intent is toward us and his world such that our freedom remains sustainable so that order rather than chaos is the rule of society as well as science. Order in a society of free agents necessarily requires boundaries. Free agents can say ‘Yes’ to all kinds of possibilities, but needs must also learn to say ‘No’. We don’t like this lesson, and make all manner of excuses. As the Lord Jesus put it to Saul when they met on the Damascus Road, ‘ I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’ [Acts 9:6 AV]6

Perhaps inevitably, that was rather long-winded, so we can sum it up like this. We are made in the image and likeness of Yahweh God, and the Garden Rule [‘but you may not eat…’] is a prefiguring of the Sinai laws of the Exodus, which are themselves prophetic. What is really at stake is whether we are prepared to take God at His word. To trust Him. To trust in Him, when we know that the words we use can’t explain the mysteries and profundities of what is nevertheless absolutely true. That a good life must certainly be lived on God’s terms, and we cannot just do as we please.

But having said that, and much ink has been spilt in this discussion by competent and erudite experts in philosophy and theology, we must conclude that human free will is real and significant. Such that God can place His trust in us, His human creatures, to do good things in His world. Even to be co-creators of the future, in junior partnership with the Sovereign God.

The scripture addresses the question of the origin of evil in a mysterious manner. In brief, God makes the world well: it is very good, God then declares. Yet there is a malign influence at large, somehow associated with the serpent creature that God made. Are we supposed to understand that there was a talking ‘snake’ in the garden of God? I think not, just as we understand that the two trees are symbols of mysterious realities. What is clear, it is generally agreed, is that whatever interplay there may be between this earthly and creaturely realm and some other invisible realm of elohim-spiritual beings, they are not the prime agents of concern before the Lord. We are. The woman is tempted, we understand, but it is she who acts. It is the man who was with her who acts, and it is they whom God holds to account first of all. God does deal with the treasonous serpent, and also prophesies that its final fate will come through the seed of the woman- a further endorsement of the primacy of our agency over whatever agency might be exercised by other spiritual personalities. So in reviewing the difficult question of theodicy- the whereabouts and wherefores of the creation and thriving of sin and evil, the scripture points our attention to ourselves first of all, and reinforces this by asserting that the final resolution of this great dilemma- how we wilfully flawed creatures might yet enjoy full fellowship with God- will come about through a policy and programme that God institutes through humanity itself. In short, through the obedient partnership of the virgin woman Mary, becoming the mother of Jesus Christ, Saviour.

It seems that Genesis has more to say about the agency of human creatures versus other spiritual personalities, which we can see in the challenging passage of chapter 6. I will not rehearse all the possibilities here, as my focus is on God’s endorsement of our free agency as his particular creatures, charged to represent Godself on earth, doing what He would do if the role had not been delegated to us.

Verse 2 of chapter 6 reads thus7a:

6:2 That the sons 1121 of ´Élöhîmאֱלֹהִים430 saw 7200z8799x853 the daughters 1323 of men 120 that x3588 they 2007 [were] fair2896 and they took 3947z8799 them wives 802 of all x4480x3605 which x834 they chose977z8804

I am not at all the first to notice that there are structural similarities7b between this portion of the text and what we read just before in chapter 3. The highlighting and emphasis draws our attention to certain similarities.

3:6 And when the woman 802 saw 7200z8799 that x3588 the tree 6086 [was] good 2896 for food, 3978 and that x3588 it 1931 [was] pleasant 8378 to the eyes, 5869 and a tree 6086 to be desired 2530z8737 to make [one] wise, 7919z8687 she took 3947z8799 of the fruit x4480x6529 thereof, y6529 and did eat, 398z8799 and gave 5414z8799 also 1571 unto her husband 376 with x5973 her; and he did eat398z8799


the sons…. saw…that…were fair… and they took… they chose

the woman… saw…that… pleasant to the eyes… she took… and he did eat.

I note that there is not a direct parallel in 6:2 to the clause where the woman ‘sees that the tree is to be desired to make wise’ (3:6). Perhaps you agree we can see the characteristic of desire similar to that in the phrase ‘came in unto’ later in 6:4…

6:4 There were x1961 giants 5303 in the earth 776 in those x1992 days; 3117 and also x1571 after 310 that, 3651 when 834 the sons 1121 of ´Élöhîmאֱלֹהִים430 came in 935z8799 unto x413 the daughters 1323 of men, 120 and they bare 3205z8804 [children] to them, the same 1992 [became] mighty men 1368 which x834 [were] of old, 5769x4480 men y582x376 of renown. 8034

Part of the puzzle of Genesis 6 is that verses 2 and 4, which I have presented to you first, are interspersed as follows (shown in italics). Note that in the ESV, the opening two sentences are run together,

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in[a] man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim[b] were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.

I highlight that the particularly difficult/challenging lines (v2 and 4) that have been taken by some to mysteriously assert not merely contact but interbreeding between (masculine) supernatural entities and (female) humans are interleaved with sentences that are much less ambiguous, referring directly and solely to humans. Whether the identification of ‘nephilim’ is sufficient to evidence the claim that there was hybridisation beyond the human species I am not attempting to give a final adjudication on7c. My hunch is that this passage is, like Gen 1-3, also to be considered as polemic rebuttal of ancient Near Eastern cosmological myths. ‘You might have have about things being like this, but instead I suggest you think in this way.’ We can see God exercising divine agency in this passage. There is narrative in v1-2, God expresses His will in v3 and then in v5 we are told what it is that God can see. Of course, God’s eyes did not need to be opened, but at this nadir of theological history, we are given a direct report from God’s perspective. In this analysis, my attention is drawn to this question: what is God looking at? Is God concerned about the expressed desires or actions of the sons of elohim? Is God attentive to the Nephilim? No, in both cases. God is directly concerned with human beings only, and God comes to a reasoned conclusion, based on His assessment of the moral state of mankind, that He has had enough. He determines to undo His Creation and blot out both mankind and animals.

Fresco of the giants and human women by Niccolò di Tommaso. Pistoia, Tuscany : Cappella del Tau, the church of Sant’Antonio Abate. pic 8

What will the effect of this be? Whatever may or may not have been alluded to be the case in verse 2 and 4, God will resolve it finally by decreating all human beings. Even if there have been ‘hybridisations,’ they will be wiped out along with everything else. In the brevity of its treatment, the scripture does not add to speculation on such suspicions that ancient cultures might have had about any such interplay between nonhuman and human persons. But what it does do is draws a line under the possibility of its continuation.

In this text, God says that human agency is given priority, in terms of significance before God, over the (hypothetical) agency of any other (potential or real) agents. Judgement will come because of human lives and choices, the exercise of our freedoms, in priority to any other judgments.

Then see this: God then admits that He has not told us everything that He can see. Noah, we are told, with simple drama at the end of this cosmic assessment, finds favour in the eyes of the Lord! God had determined to wipe out both men and beasts, saying that He had come to a final repentance for creating us all in the first place, but now repents of that repentance. What has made the difference; what is the cause of this change in God? Noah’s life agency, the consistent exercise of his free will, put into action in deeds.

It is Noah’s agency that is given the last word in the judgements of God, over the questions of extra-human influences or even the general perspective of Godself.

What extraordinary affirmation of the profound meaning that God allows to emerge from the free agency of one single individual. Do we ever wonder what the value of a single life might amount to in the eternal scheme of things? Here is our answer.

We have investigated the significance of the syntactical similarities7b between the way Genesis reports that the woman saw in chapter 3v6 and what ‘the sons of Elohim’ saw in 6v2. I suggest that what follows in verses 5-8 continues to develop the same theme8:

6:5 ¶ And Yähwèיָהוֶה3068 saw 7200z8799 that x3588 the wickedness 7451 of man 120 [was] great 7227 in the earth, 776 and [that] every x3605 imagination 3336 of the thoughts 4284 of his heart 3820 [was] only 7535 evil 7451 continually3117x3605

6:6 And it repented 5162 z8735 Yähwè יָהוֶה 3068 that x3588 he had made 6213 z8804 x853 man 120 on the earth, 776 and it grieved 6087 z8691 him at 413 his heart. 3820

6:7 And Yähwè יָהוֶה 3068 said, 559 z8799 I will destroy 4229 z8799 x853 man 120 whom x834 I have created 1254 z8804 from x4480 x5921 the face 6440 of the earth; 127 both man, 120 x4480 and 5704 beast, 929 and x5704 the creeping thing, 7431 and x5704 the fowls 5775 of the air; 8064 for x3588 it repenteth 5162 z8738 me that x3588 I have made 6213 z8804 them.

6:8 But Nöåç נֹחַ 5146 found 4672 z8804 grace 2580 in the eyes 5869 of Yähwè יָהוֶה3068

In Genesis 3 God comes back to the couple in God’s garden to appraise the situation directly, and then in vv14-19 God pronounces judgements over the serpent, then the woman and finally the man. The man is told that he will have to work harder at the ground, as whatever fruitfulness can be gained will be at the expense of his sweat. At least humans are not brought down as the serpent to crawl along the ground- perhaps this is some gentle allusion to the divine imaging-nature of the humans which they retain, compared with the serpent. God immediately acts to bring temporary rectification to all their relationships by clothing the couple in animal skins, after which God then securely exiles the first couple from God’s own garden. Life everlasting is a prize and purpose in the heart of God that is being retained for a later Day, suggesting that by whatever means God’s judgement will finally be satisfied, it will not be an unmitigated tragedy. However, everything that happens in the accounting and resolution of Genesis 3 is very clearly entirely at God’s sole initiative. The God who freely created, without assistance, is the same God who adjusts and mitigates. All agency and will is with God: none with man or the serpent.

In Genesis 6, there are some significant similarities with the Genesis 3 episode. God comes near to properly appraise the situation. God discerns the actions and responsibilities of all the various agents; God perceives the heart attitudes of those God holds most responsible- human beings. God also notes that the ‘sons of Elohim’ took… [and] came in, but withholds any further direct comment. The overall judgement God reaches is explained to us, with deep feeling. The structure and tone of these lines, though longer than 3:6, is surely not much dissimilar to it. We might imagine, at the end of verse 7, that God’s will is now determined and that the inevitable action will follow. The woman reached out and took… and gave. God is pained, and repents, and will now, finally, judge, for the cause of God’s mercy and patience has now been shown to be hopeless.

But Noah found grace in the eyes of Yahweh.

I hope you agree that this point bears repeating. Most of us will know that when a young person crosses their parent or teacher with a speech that begins, “But..!” it doesn’t end well. The child is going to be shouted down- in fact, they are likely to be in more trouble than they were in to start with.

But that’s not what happened, as Noah doesn’t speak. The ‘but’ comes not from his mouth, nor even from his imagination (6:5). It comes from the text.

There are a handful of instances where but is used in the English translation of Genesis. Here are the early instances from the English Standard Version:

However, a quick comparison of alternative translations shows inconsistent use of this coordinating conjunction across various English translations. What caught my attention is that Genesis 3:1 isn’t in this listing. On examining various versions, I find that while the majority of translations give Genesis 3:1 as Now/And/[T]he serpent was more cunning/crafty/shrewd/subtle than… only a small number of older texts begin with, ‘But the serpent…’ which is how the verse has stuck in my mind. For example10,

Wycliffe Bible 1382 to 1395

But the serpent was feller than all living beasts of [the] earth, which the Lord God had made. The which serpent said to the woman, Why commanded God to you, that ye should not eat of each tree of paradise?

Coverdale Bible of 1535
Bvt the serpent was sotyller then all the beastes of the felde (which ye LORDE God had made) and sayde vnto the woman: Yee, hath God sayde indede: Ye shall not eate of all maner trees in the garden?

Tyndale Bible of 1526
But the serpent was sotyller than all the beastes of the felde which ye LORde God had made and sayd vnto the woman. Ah syr that God hath sayd ye shall not eate of all maner trees in the garden.

Or in the next case, a synonym for but is selected;

Catholic Public Domain Version
However, the serpent was more crafty than any of the creatures of the earth that the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Why has God instructed you, that you should not eat from every tree of Paradise?”

As our Bible teachers will remind us, if I have an idea about something in the Bible that has no grounding in the original languages, then I’m likely making stuff up. So let’s see what the Hebrew says. (The Hebrew reads right-to-left, with the pronunciation shown above one word at a time, left to right, and the English underneath, following the same pattern.) You can skip this bit if you are prepared to trust me. Following the top three rows from Gen 3:1f is one row showing Gen 6:8. The Hebrew translated ‘But‘ in 6:8 is shown by the arrow, and you can see the same word in the text of 3:1, also with an arrow.

So it is the same word in both cases. I’m going to have to get help12 to find out why this is not the preferred option since the early Catholic era of translations. It seems to me that ‘wə’ was given as ‘But’ by the Wycliffe translation team and others at 3:1 for the same reason it is given at 6:8 in the Interlinear Hebrew-English above- because it is the best word! What might be being said theologically at this point? In Gen 3:1, we are introduced to the new character of the serpent who is going to throw a spanner in the works of God’s very good creation. The question will be, how will the mechanisms- the true agents- of God’s good creation cope with this challenge? ‘But…’ alerts us to this mysterious challenge, the deeper origin and evolution of which is permanently shrouded from our view. As I have already explained, the crucial disruption to God’s purposes does not come from the questioning words of the serpent, but rather from the confirmed imagination and decisive actions of the first couple. Judgement on the treasonous serpent would doubtless have followed the refusal of its temptations, had they been refused, without much consequence, we might imagine. Obviously, I would not have refused the temptation, and sadly it is not what the first humans did.

Two miniatures: Eve and the Serpent and Adam and Eve eating the apple. With text, initials, linefillers, placemarkers, fol. 6v 1390 CCO 1.0 pic 13

So I propose that we ought to see Gen 6:8 as a reference back to Gen 3:1. ‘But the serpent…’ begins the episode of the tragedy of the first fall. The problem at issue is not the existence of the ‘serpent’, but the exercise of its agency contrary to God’s image-creatures and God’s Word. To what extent is the serpent a free agent? I don’t think we can really say. It was surely inevitable that the first couple would face some significant test of their will and agency. What we read is the way that the biblical account chooses to give it- as God’s eye view on humanity. In the Genesis account, the figure of the serpent is the means by which the crucial question of trust is put to the woman and the man. [The statement that the serpent is one of the animals ‘that the LORD God had made’ is another polemic rebuttal, against a miscellany of prior beliefs that the earliest beings, including divinities, had various and independent origins.] We note that the consequences of the choices to see in a certain way, and then to act in accordance with that mindset, are cosmic in scope, not just affecting the two individuals. We know how God then chooses to avert final judgement in preference for the merciful alternative of salvation that is even now still in process. As I have already said, what is decided in chapter 3 is entirely the product of God’s sovereign agency. God freely decides to set aside the judgement which He had warned of, selecting a new path for God’s creation. If any are inclined to complain, rather foolishly in my view, that God has allowed us to think less of His character as appearing to be inconsistent and, well, not very Godly, then more fool them. How else would we be here?!

Thus we come to Genesis chapter 6, and hear that God has finally decided what we really knew in chapter 3- humanity is a hopeless case. Whatever we may believe, following Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and the other Church Fathers, regarding the first fall of our first parents, a handful of generations later it is now confirmed by evidenced appraisal and reflective divine judgment that we are an altogether bad lot. The court report has been compiled and published. God has had enough. Thus we come to Genesis chapter 6, and hear that God has finally decided what we really knew in chapter 3- humanity is a hopeless case. Whatever we may believe, following Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and the other Church Fathers, regarding the first fall of our first parents, a handful of generations later it is now confirmed by evidenced appraisal and reflective divine judgment that we are an altogether bad lot. The court report has been compiled and published. God has had enough. The moral prognosis is terminal. Divine patience has been exhausted. The Creation project is over! If we reflect on what we have heard and seen, what might we say? Has God been too hasty? Should humanity get a second chance- oh, hang on, that was in chapter 3. There have been umpteen extra chances in the following three chapters, and very little has gone well. However unqualified a jury we might be, can we reasonably object that God’s judgment is unreasonable?

Of course it isn’t.

But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

‘But’ alerts us to a change of fortunes. In the earlier case, ‘But…’ introduced the serpent, though it turned out that the human creatures were the ones who made the decisive moves. Their agency was what necessitated God’s intervention, while it was God’s free agency that determined that we would be given a means of grace, a future route to rescue, which would come through divine-human partnership (Gen 3:15). I must not rush on too quickly: this mysterious promise of a subsequent human-divine partnership is only possible because God gave a spectacular degree of agency and freedom at the outset.

In this case, ‘But’ announces a most unexpected change in the destiny of the entire cosmos. When all seems lost, on our account at least, God sees in this single person a basis for favour to be extended once again, not just to him (as in the case of Enoch, Gen 5:24, Heb 11:5) but to the whole creation project, excluding the unrepentant generation at the time of Noah. Only a seed family would be preserved, to continue the species, without any contamination which might have been implied in 6:1-5.

File:God Summons Noah and His Family into the Ark MET DP820494.jpg
God Summons Noah and His Family into the Ark, drawing by Joseph von Führich 1827 Metropolitan Museum of Art. pic 14

Whose will and agency is actually in operation at this point? Grace means unmerited favour, so we ought not assume that God was particularly impressed with Noah. Or, therefore, that Noah was a man of exceptional moral quality or outstanding responsible action and good works. There again, given his subsequent obedience, and the testimony of the letter to the Hebrews (11:7), perhaps I am being rather obtuse in this judgement. We should all know well enough- there is no reason why God should be impressed by our righteousness, and certainly not to the extent that the destiny of the cosmos would be changed as a result of God’s assessment of us. What else should be expected of a humble creature? And yet, as the image-and-likeness creatures of the Deity, we are surprised and delighted that this is in fact the case, because God wants it to be that way. What is clear is that we cannot maintain our integrity with any reliability to deserve any reward or justify a position of influence. God says that our creation with agency is meaningful to Him- and Noah was found to be a faithful man- and yet we must still rely on His grace, the unmerited favour of God toward His weak and inconsistent creatures. As Cain found before he went to the fields with his brother, God extends more than mere pity when the temptation came to his door (Gen 4:7). ‘You must master sin!’ God expects us to make good in such circumstances, to prove that our freedom is of consequence and that our choices will do justice to our status as the Deity’s ambassadors on earth, as co-creators of the future.

It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Noah has shown a significant degree of mastery over his moral progress. He and his wife prove to have brought up obedient and industrious sons who cooperate in the ark building project. This is all a convincing testimony to meaningful free will and good character exercised in consistent moral agency. By the grace of God, this is leveraged with an impact of cosmic dimensions. The world that was does not end after all, though there is a terrible judgement in the Flood. And so the seed of the woman may yet be seen to crush the serpent’s head.

So we must finally conclude that human agency is elevated to an unexpected degree within the free will and agency of the true God who creates us and chooses to keep covenant with us, generation after generation.

God sets his will to a final course of action; a double repentance, says Genesis 6. It is not that God has changed as such, but through the changes of the narrative of our-life-with-God-in-God’s-cosmos we have discovered God’s deeper nature, something of the qualities of Godself, which God has even shared with us creatures in a generous measure, including free agency that might transcend the boundaries of our mortal lives and fundamentally influence the choices of Godself. God is prepared to be surprised by us.

I have not spent time considering alternative possibilities, but this much ought to be clear. We are not in the false position of Pascal’s wager, where the exercise of putative free will is approached by each individual as a crude gamble- if there is a God who will hold me to account, then I’d better be good and act in ‘good faith’ simply for my own eternal survival. If faith was a fantasy, then I have lost nothing as I disappear into the void at my death. I think I have shown that the God of the Bible has created us with much more dignity than this poor narrative offers. The covenant making YAHWEH says we each have a significant calling with co-creative potential.

To summarise,

In 3:6ff, God’s will is not respected; the will of the humans is given priority. The measure of will and agency is significant: whether the first couple choose wisely and obediently, or irreverent hubris, the consequences will be cosmic in scope. God could, but choses not to assert his prior warning. As James Barr15 puts it, God wants life to go on. Judgement comes to all, starting with the serpent, though it is much restrained from what was first pronounced, especially regarding God’s human creatures.

In 6:2 and 4, (perhaps) the will and actions of the sons of Elohim are noted but not respected by God, who rather gives priority to His image-and-likeness creatures. Through the scriptural account, God makes clear that what happens in God’s cosmos is under God’s sovereign will and agency, and significantly prioritised with regard to humanity, not any other (putative) entities.

In 6:8 we again find God delaying His very much warranted judgement, and embarking on a different course of action that ensures that life can go on in a manner in which covenant can continue and, ultimately, redemption can be made good. The proven character, ie free agency of just one man, Noah, is valued by God as the motivation to change the course of history and the destiny of God’s cosmos. His choices for submissive obedience are the flip side of the choices made by the first couple at the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. God’s sovereign will and freedom to act out God’s agency is framed not in terms of law, promise or even covenant, but ultimately in terms of grace. Thus love triumphs over judgement.

So what manner of people should we be? Am I squandering the free gift of G-d? Do I value my own free will and empowered agency in the proper way that this analysis seems to demand?

My thoughts settle on this passage later in Genesis. See how it is that the older brother Esau values his birthright and destiny when he returns from the fields16:

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.[e]31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Genesis 25: 27-34 ESV

Let’s reflect on this in the next posting.

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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