(03) Harmony Disrupted–Genesis 3–4

Ted Grimsrud

The first two chapters of Genesis portray creation as good, harmonious, the pieces fitted together by a loving, good creator.  Such harmony will not last.  Already in 2:17 we see that human beings have limits, boundaries.  They are created in God’s image but they are not God.  The limit placed on them here is the command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The text does not tell us exactly why God gave this prohibition.  The key point, though, is that this prohibition symbolizes human limitations.  Though endowed, as beings created in God’s image, with great power and potential for intimacy with God, these creatures have limits.  They are finite and subservient to God.  To be whole, they need to defer to God, to trust in God, to live within the framework God has provided.  Human beings are limited and finite.  They are not meant to be autonomous from God.  They are created to serve God.

This prohibition provides a wedge for doubts and questions to enter. The serpent asking Eve questions exacerbates her uncertainties and doubts.  The questioner is the craftiest of the wild animals, and he asks some troubling questions.  However, his questions reflect several distortions of the situation.

The serpent distorts the situation in these ways:  (1) The prohibition is rephrased as an option – though God had given it as a command.  The serpent says you can eat from the tree if you want to.  (2) God is not talked to or with, but simply talked about.  God is not part of this conversation.  God is removed from the picture and becomes an object “out there.”  (3) God had spoken of death in 2:17 simply as describing a boundary.  This is the cause-and-effect consequence.  The serpent presents this as a threat from God.  (4) The serpent misquotes God (God has not said do not eat from any tree).  The woman corrects the serpent.  However, with the serpent’s planting the seed of doubt, the possibility is now opened that she could, if she wanted, go a different way than the way of God.

These seeds of doubt quickly come to fruition.  Adam and Eve reject their limits.  They try to deny their finitude and seek to be like God (Gen. 3:6).  In doing so they shatter the harmony, the ordering of creation.  They bring brokenness into the relationship with God.

As a result of Adam and Eve giving in to the temptation to eat, numerous consequences follow.  They are now afraid of God.  They feel shame at their nakedness.  There is established a hierarchy between the man and the woman, he ruling over her.  She will now experience pain in childbirth.  A new struggle with bringing fruit from the earth ensues – battling with weeds and thistles.  In the next chapter, we read of further consequences – Cain murdering his brother Abel.  In the following chapters there are more – the widespread sinfulness which leads to the Flood, the human arrogance contributing to the construction the of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11, and the barren condition of Sarah, who is unable to have children.

Since then, we can see two major consequences for the story told in the rest of the Bible.  On the one hand, one consequence has been the continued expression of sin and evil – wars and rumors of wars, other conflicts, the deterioration of the environment, and so on.  Yet, on the other hand, the other consequence has been God’s ongoing work to bring about salvation and reverse the damage done by Adam and Eve’s act.

Adam and Eve are said in 3:10 now to be afraid of God, one of the more poignant effects of their fall.  What does this fearfulness indicate?  Their failure to trust in God, their awareness that their relationship with God has been greatly damaged, their instinct to protect themselves, and their movement from “we” to “I.”

As a result of this fearfulness, we see anxiety, distance between the people and God and the people and each other, hurtfulness toward other people.  Blaming others.  Loss of creativity.  Dominance of creation rather than caring stewardship.  Exercise of coercive power over other people.

We do well to notice the sequence of events immediately following the eating of the fruit.  Prior to that moment, we are told, God regularly joined Adam and Eve in the Garden, reflecting the closeness and mutuality of this relationship in its created intent.  Then, after the fruit is eaten, God, as normal, seeks to commune with Adam and Eve.  And they hide.  They are afraid.  We are not told that God’s initial response to the violation was anger and revulsion.  To the contrary, the step away from the previous intimacy comes from the human side.  They now are afraid; God remains the same.  God still seeks intimacy.

In the longer biblical story that follows, we may receive some mixed messages about God’s side of this relationship.  God certainly at times is portrayed as angry, judgmental, harshly retributive.  However, if we are attentive to the overall direction the story takes, we will notice that time after time we are shown a picture of God that fits with this initial response to Adam and Eve’s step away. 

God continually seeks out human beings to offer fellowship and a chance for healing – and time after time, with some key exceptions, human beings respond with fearfulness, anxiety, decisions to distance themselves from God.  According to this initial picture, the problem between human beings and God primarily rests on human fearfulness.  The way to wholeness, genuine peace, restored intimacy with God (and God’s creation) lay essentially with the simple call to trust God, to accept our dependence and be confident in God’s ultimate care for us. 

As we will see, in a nutshell, this call to simple trust in God’s persevering love lies at the core of Jesus’ message.

Certainly, we see God exercising judgment here in Genesis three – in the sense of allowing actions to reap effects.  Adam and Eve face severe consequences for their action.  However, even more, God expresses mercy.  Contrary to what seemed to have been implied in Genesis 2:17, Adam and Eve are not killed.  They are allowed to live.  They are given time and space.  We can look ahead to Jesus’ teaching about mercy in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and Paul’s teaching about God’s love even of God’s enemies in Romans five.  Genesis, chapters one through eleven, teaches that there is always room for a future with God.

Adam and Eve’s break with God resulted from their unwillingness to accept their finitude, their limits.  They refused to live consistently as creatures and to recognize that only God is God.  This refusal led to their breaking of their trusting relationship with God.  When God comes to walk with them, they hide.  The result for them, and for all who have followed them, has been struggle, alienation, and brokenness.

As if to make absolutely clear the consequences of Adam and Eve’s movement away from their trusting relationship with God, we read on to learn about the fate of their two sons. 

The story from Genesis 4:1-16 is a troubling account of these two brothers, Abel and Cain.  God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice seems arbitrary.  We receive no justification for it; actually not even a hint of a justification.  God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice seems somewhat parallel to the prohibition of eating from the tree in Genesis 2:1.  The key in both places is may be that each symbolizes the challenge God gives us to recognize our finitude and dependence (along with our power).  Each limitation also symbolizes the struggle human beings have in accepting our limits and our need to trust that only God is God and that consequently our responsibility is to defer to God.

From the perspective of the story, the requirement placed on Cain is seen as fundamental, arbitrary as this may seem to us.  The big issue in the first part of chapter four turns on how Cain will respond to bumping up against these seemingly arbitrary limitations.  In particular, Cain is alienated from Abel, whose sacrifice was accepted.  Cain complains to God, and God tells Cain that Cain will indeed be accepted by God “if you do well” (Gen. 4:7).  God appears to be challenging Cain to be reconciled with his brother.  It is as if God says, the point here is not the justice of my acceptance or rejection of the sacrifices, the point is how you, Cain, will respond to having your limits made clear to you.  Will you trust, even when it is hard, or will you insist on your own autonomy and seek to be a god yourself, with the power over life and death?

Cain gives in to his anxiety, fearfulness, and frustration.  He murders his brother.  We see here the terrible consequence of Adam and Eve’s break with God.  The lost harmony leads to heightened anxiety and fearfulness.  Cain bumps up against his limits and responds not with trust but with violence.  The spiral of violence is set loose.

For our purposes in this book, considering the biblical story as an entirety as a resource for Christian pacifism, this story has enormous significance.  We see here that when trust in God, tied as it is with an acknowledgement of human limits and finitude, is replaced with a decision of human autonomy and self-assertion, the paradigmatic consequence invariably turns out to be human beings acting violently toward other human beings.  The basic problem for human beings is the brother (and sister) problem.  Distrust in God expresses itself in human actions that harm other human beings. 

In the prophets, we will see, idolatry and injustice are two sides of a single coin.  You don’t have one without the other.  In Jesus, we will see, the very capability of worshiping God is tied inextricably with finding reconciliation with one’s alienated brother or sister.  Cain sets the tone for what happens throughout the biblical story (and human history in general).  We basically have a choice – trust in God, accepting our fundamental finitude, or live in constant fear, alienation, and an ever-heightening spiral of violence.

In Genesis four, importantly, we have an echoing of what happens with Adam and Eve.  God remains committed to the relationship with Cain.  God disciplines Cain, allowing consequences to take effect, but God also shows a measure of mercy.  God allows Cain to live gives him a new home.  God gives Cain given time and space.  Cain still has possibilities for a future.

The book of Genesis begins with the goodness of creation but continues on to tell a sad story of brokenness and alienation, of human beings turning from God.  It seems, logically, as if God has three possibilities in the face of this brokenness:

(1) Massive punishment.  Human beings getting their just desserts.  They rejected God so God could simply reject them.  God could simply end this project.  As we will see in our next chapter, the Flood story can perhaps be interpreted as God doing just that and then realizing that that was not what was needed after all—that God’s commitment to the relationship with humankind was too important.  So God vows never to inflict massive punishment again.

(2) Coerced conformity.  God could simply force people to do his will.  However, that too would defeat God’s purposes in creating human beings to have free relationships of love and respect.

(3) Healing without coercion.  This is what God chooses.  It is a long, long process by which human beings will voluntarily return to their relationship with God.  Humans will be lovingly persuaded to turn to God, not in response to coercion and force, but in response to God’s never-ending compassion and mercy.

This choice of God to pursue healing without coercion is basically the story of the rest of the Bible—culminating in the work of Jesus Christ.  Admittedly, we do find a few cases where coercive actions (or at least intentions) are attributed to God in the Bible (e.g., the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 1–15, various warnings of the prophets).  However, the overall thrust of the Bible’s portrayal of God’s healing works clearly shows us patient, persevering love as the core of what God does.

2 thoughts on “(03) Harmony Disrupted–Genesis 3–4

  1. Jim Folsom

    “Distrust in God expresses itself in human actions that harm other human beings.”

    I like this. The question then becomes “Does trust in God express itself in actions that do not harm other human beings?” I’m asking this one as I continue to read your posts.

  2. Christian Adams

    I would love to hear more about how idolatry and injustice are two sides of the same coin! I have had intimidation ( fear) paired with idolatry (and sometimes impatience) for years now and both in contrast to humility. Really looking forward to your reply. Please respond by email ( also) Not sure if I will remember to return to this site.


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