The Gospel in the Garden
Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman
It used to bother me that we have to suffer the death penalty because of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden (Rom 5:12-13). He “should have known better,” and he didn’t even have a sin nature before he chose to disobey…it kind of reminds me of Marlon Brando’s classic line in A Streetcar Named Desire: “I coulda’ been a contenda’.” But I had to remind myself that God’s plan for Creation and Redemption wasn’t “Plan B” (just because Adam sinned)—it was his foreordained “decree” (“And God said…”). How does all this relate to John 3?
To Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews used to reading the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament (OT), it seems that the allusion to the “snake” or “serpent” in John 3:14 would very likely “call back” not only the events in Numbers 21 and Exodus 4 but also the original account of the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1). Although there are several possible names for “snake,” the Hebrew nāhaš occurs in each of these OT citations, and the LXX Greek translation is the same as “serpent” in John 3:14: ophis. I am convinced that Jesus—the consummate Rabbi—would have expected Nicodemus to recall the entire setting of Genesis 3 as the backdrop for his teaching in John 3:16-21.
From a “Rabbinic” perspective, the account of the Fall in the Garden is brilliant in setting the stage for the Gospel. The original hearers of the account would have been schooled in Torah. Since the names of everyone and everything in Genesis are key to understanding the intended referents for these names in Torah, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:9) are not just a fairy-tale curiosities, like the props and characters in Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass. They set the stage for the story.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Law, Conscience, & Guilt)
In a classic move characteristic of narrative genre, God’s instructions to Adam in 2:17 provide the first sense of foreboding that should lead the hearer—Genesis has been oral tradition for most of human history—to ask not if but when the breech would surely occur. Moses is far more explicit by the end of Torah when he actually predicts Israel’s disobedience (Deut 28-30), but the intended sense of foreboding is no different in Genesis 2:17.
From this Torah-oriented perspective, then, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a transparent allusion to Torah itself. The stipulations of the three iterations of the Law in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are nothing less than God’s formalizing of “the knowledge of good and evil” for his chosen people as his intended ambassadors to the nations. The purpose of Law was that they might know when they were “doing righteousness and justice” to reflect God’s character to the surrounding nations (see Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, IVP, 2005). Hence, the Law was intended as a “compass” that would guide their behavior as his representatives. The problem with this “picture” is that indwelling sin precluded the effective demonstration of this righteousness, and the account in the Garden explained for them why.
Adam was given the choice of eating of any tree in the Garden (Gen 2:16), including the Tree of Life, but with the serpent’s insinuation that the benefits of self-sufficiency were superior to those of obedience, Adam ate of the one tree that God had proscribed (3:1-6). In the same bold stroke, the first Adam---“who knew no sin”---thus became aware (3:7) of good and evil (i.e., conscious of Law, cf. 3:5) and of the reality that they were naked (i.e., “ashamed” or guilty of sin, cf. 2:25). This is nothing less than the birth of conscience, such that all who are “snake-bitten” in Adam—just like the originals—are intuitively aware of their own sin the moment they become aware of “good and evil.” This is exactly the same sequence that Paul describes in the first person the moment his conscience matures in Romans 7:7-12, just as for all people in Romans 2:14-16 (cf. also Eccl 7:20-22).
Conclusion: Conscience is instilled by God in all humanity from Adam on as an “internal repository” for their intuitive awareness of Law, sin, and guilt, exemplified by awareness of their nakedness (Gen 3:7). This in turn provides the foundation for our first Gospel tenet in The Basic Thesis on the introductory post to this series: God has projected into human conscience that we are dead in trespasses and sin.
Fast forward to John 3: This “guilty conscience” was precisely the situation for corporate Israel when John the Baptist arrived on the scene, and it is perfectly exemplified in John 3 by “Nic at night”; hence, his need for baptism by “water and spirit” (John 3:5). However, a “seared” conscience is “dulled” to this awareness by habitual disobedience, so that humans can falsely convince themselves they are conforming to the standard of “good and evil.” The imagery of “darkness” in John 3 is therefore representative of a seared conscience that resists the Light and can no longer understand either Torah or the Word that incarnated Torah (1:14), the same One who had been with God and was God (1:1-3).
The Tree of Life (“Eternity in Their Hearts”)
The sure result of Adam’s disobedience of Genesis 2:17—just as in Deuteronomy 28-30 for disobedience of Torah—was death. This is confirmed in Gen 3:16-19, which addresses Adam and the woman as representative of all humanity. However, this “death” is not immediately physical; in essence it is a three-dimensional alienation from God and from each other. It starts with shame and condemnation (3:7-13), afflicts our entire physical lives (3:16-19), and then culminates in eternal separation from God in the Garden, with barred access to the Tree of Life (3:22-24). What we need, therefore, is restored access to this Tree—a three-dimensional life that can reverse this three-dimensional alienation that is death for humanity.
If we examine what has been called the “proto-evangelium” (i.e., the “first version of the Gospel”) in Genesis 3:15 for this same audience, there is an implicit promise of life in the “seed of the woman.” Adam’s faith that the curse will be reversed and result in life is attested by the name he gives the woman, “because she was the mother of all living” (3:20). However, that “life” depended on the “seed of the woman” overcoming evil and restoring access to the Tree of Life. So when Eve gives birth to her first son, Cain, she believes that her son will be their savior (4:1)—the verse literally reads “I have gotten [acquired] a man, the LORD,” implying that she expected he would “reopen” the way to the Tree of Life. In effect, then, the same conscience that became the “repository” of Law, guilt, and condemnation is now also seen to house an “intuitive awareness” of the promise of life. That this intuitive awareness extends to all humanity is exactly the contextual sense of Eccl 3:11, “He has made everything appropriate in its time; he has even set eternity in their hearts….” (my translation, emphasis added).
Conclusion: The Tree of Life in the Garden represents the promise of eternal life. Consequently, humans have an inborn awareness of something eternal that is beyond their ability to secure it. Belief in the promised seed of the woman as the source of this life “seals” the promise, “putting it on layaway” (as it were) until the advent of the seed who would accomplish the requisite blood atonement (see below, cf. Rom 3:25-26). This provides the foundation for our second Gospel tenet in The Basic Thesis on the introductory post: God has promised life after death forever to those who believe Him for it.
Fast forward to John 3: This sets the stage for Jesus’ promise of eternal life that restores access to the Tree of Life and is available to anyone who believes him as the specified one-of-a-kind “seed of the woman” God “gave” (3:14-16). This “eternal life” will reverse death with a three-dimensional quality that transcends mere justification or imputation.
God Provides a “Covering” (Blood Atonement for Sin)
It may at first surprise us that the Lord God made the promise in Genesis 3:15 to the serpent rather than to Adam. But the serpent is addressed in 3:14-15, because the primary intent is to affirm that God will deal decisively with the “author” of sin on man’s behalf. Few in this discussion would fail to recognize the promise of Messiah in the “seed of the woman,” whose “heel the serpent will bruise” but thereby crush the serpent’s head (at the Cross, cf. John 3:14-15; 16:11). However, the initial hearers certainly would not have known the Cross or the specific identity of the “Seed”; thus the Gospel in the Garden is not “complete” in 3:15 alone, because Adam has not yet been informed of the means by which the “seed of the woman” will destroy sin in order for mankind to have life after death.
Enter the animal skins (warning: some Hebrew grammar ahead): Genesis 3:20-21 may seem at first to be a series of unrelated events following the curse in 3:16-19; however, while each of the verbs in 3:15-19 is in the imperfect (i.e., future) tense, each of the verbs in 3:20-21 is in the preterite tense and thus has “consequential” significance. IOW, Adam’s naming of the woman—believing that she would be “the mother of all life”—was a direct result of knowing the predictions in 3:15-19 of both the consequences of sin and a future “seed” who would reverse those consequences. Similarly, God’s provision of coverings was a direct result of Adam’s act of faith in naming Eve. We could thus paraphrase 3:15-21 as follows: “God promised that sin would be defeated through a future ‘seed’; meanwhile, humans would eek out a miserable existence and then would die, so then Adam named his wife Eve, because God said she would bear the ‘seed’ that gives life, so then God made them skins to cover them.” This implies that God replaced their worthless self-made coverings for their “nakedness” (metonymy for sin) with efficacious coverings from animals that had to be killed and skinned to supply them. Again, the initial audience was fully aware of the requisites for animal sacrifice in Torah and would have understood implicitly that blood would have to be shed and the gift of skins accepted in order to furnish these coverings.
Conclusion: The means by which God would cover sin would be through a ransom by shed blood offered to and accepted by those who need it to escape the final consequence of death for sin. This provides the foundation for our third Gospel tenet in The Basic Thesis on the introductory post: God has provided a human ransom that will “buy us back” from death to life.
Fast forward to John 3:16: When Jesus tells Nicodemus that God gave his one-of-a-kind son, the connection between the imagery of John 3:14-16 and Genesis 3:15-21 entails God’s implicit provision of a ransom by shed blood (the unique promised “seed” of Gen 3:15) to cover sin. Hence, the gift of a ransom is implied by the phrase “God gave,” and rational people should at least be intuitively aware of this implication in the message of John 3:16.