Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic. – W. H. Auden
Quick note: I’ve skipped a few sections in this series, but I felt compelled to write about this sooner rather than later. So like Starwars, some of these posts will be out of order. Thanks 🙂
There is nothing more sobering than the death of a loved one. When someone dies, it is the perfect time to deeply reflect on the value of life, purpose and destiny. Why does death exist? Why do we all have to die? After we die, then what? Important questions and the answer largely depends on what you believe about humanity, God and the Bible. It’s taken me a while to write this post because I’m constantly challenged on my perspective of death. Growing up, death was a reasonably foreign idea. I had a cat that died, but apart from that, I didn’t really have any relationship with it. It probably wasn’t until my dad died just a few years ago that the reality of death kicked in.
In the Bible, the first place we come across the idea of death is in Genesis 2:15-17. Here God has placed mankind in Eden to work and keep it. Then God tells them that they could eat from any tree in the Garden except the tree of knowledge of good evil; otherwise, they’ll die. What an odd story. Eat fruit from any tree except this one, or you’ll die? Is the fruit poisoned? Does God really like this one particular tree? Are they allergic to its fruit? What’s going on here? A careful reflection on the story might lead one to consider that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. First, there are two main trees in the Garden here (Gen 2:9). The tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Don’t eat from one, but you can from the other. In the story, these trees were representative of important and more profound realities. Wisdom/knowledge and eternal life. Let’s focus on the tree of life for a moment.
In the ancient near eastern world, these kinds of trees are associated with youth and the reversal of age. In the Gilgamesh Epic, there is a plant called “old man becomes young” that grows at the bottom of the cosmic river. In the rest of the Bible, the tree of life is portrayed as offering life and new life (Prov 3:16-18; 15-4), and can also be found in Revelation (2:7; 22:1-2, 14-15, 18-19) where the tree of life and the river of life are associated. For me, this sheds a bit of light on the meaning of what’s going on here in Genesis. A new creation is happening in Revelation. Renewal of the earth and the removal of sin and corruption where creation is finally united to God in the complete sense of that phrase. In Genesis 2, something similar is happening, unity, flourishing and absence of sin.
Furthermore, the mention of rivers in Genesis 2 flowing out from the Garden coupled with the tree of life says to me that this is where all life and goodness comes from, this Garden, this sacred space. Except for one crucial difference. In Revelation, there is no tree of knowledge, there is no presence of sin.
Now for the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The name given to the tree is counter-intuitive. Knowledge is good, right? Isn’t gaining the ability to discern between good and evil something we should have? Obviously, something more is at play in the story. First, it’s important to note that the Hebrew word for evil here is different from the way we use it today. Western philosophy is loaded with a certain ethical definition that isn’t necessarily in the original Hebrew word. It’s probably better to understand the word evil as bad or not good for you. For example, the word can also be used of things God does (Jdg 9:56-57; 2 Sam 12:11; Isa 45:7). However, we know that God is good and that in Him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5), so the word doesn’t always have to have the same philosophical definition that we have for it. I suppose my point is; this tree represents knowledge to distinguish between what’s bad for us and what’s good for us in the world. We call this wisdom. Essentially, eating from the tree meant choosing to live by our own wisdom (this is the definition Genesis 3 gives for defining to be like a god), rather than living by Yahweh’s wisdom. Let’s just stop for a moment. It’s not like Adam and Eve didn’t know what the right thing to do was. They certainly believed that they were going to die if they ate the fruit from the tree. It wasn’t until the serpent tempted them that they decided to become gods themselves.
So now to death. God said, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). The thing is Adam and Eve don’t die when they ate the fruit, at least not in the conventional sense. Adam lived until he was 930 years old. He had a long full life, longer than ours. So then death needs to be understood as something more than simply not existing. First, the plain meaning of death here does incorporate physical death. Adam might live until 930 years old, but he does end up dying, and I believe that’s something that’s not apart of God’s good creation (Gen 3:19; Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:55). However, the kind of death emphasised here is a relational separation from God who is the source of all light and life (Gen 2:7; Job 33:4; Neh 9:6; John 1:3-4; 1 Tim 6:13). Like I argue in my post on Genesis 1, Moses’ audience and the later Exilic audience would have understood Genesis 2-3 as their current experience, being separated from the land, sacred space, and God’s presence as a result of human rebellion.
To conclude, death is two-fold. It is separation from God’s presence and the ceasing of one’s physical existence. One inevitably leads to the other. Because Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden (God’s presence), so was all of humanity in Adam. Because the inevitable consequence of rebellion and separation is physical death, all shall die. But there is good news. God makes all things (including death) work together for the good of those who love Him, according to His purposes (Rom 8:28). Though we all may die, those who turn to Christ will actually find their life (Matt 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; John 11:25-26), and will take part in His resurrection (John 6:39; Rom 6; 1 Cor 6:14, 15:20-23; 1 Thess 4:16; Rev 21:1-5). We’re all exiles now (1 Peter 1:1-2), but one day, those who have bowed the knee to Christ and given Him their allegiance will be raised up on the last day and rule alongside Him in a New Heaven and a New Earth in perfect harmony with God, one another, and creation. So let’s choose to eat from the tree of life (God’s wisdom), rather than choosing to decide what’s good for us. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10), and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God indeed (Heb 10:31).