Lifting the Curse on the Ground (Genesis 3)

Genesis 3 tells a story of woe in idyllic paradise. After the sneaky snake tempts the woman, both she and the man eat fruit from the tree that Yahweh God had forbidden to them. Consequently, the couple now find themselves with the stark realisation of their nakedness, and dread over what the deity will think of them. And so, when they hear his steps in the garden which they are supposed to tend, they hide in fear and shame.

After a quick interrogation, Yahweh God determines the guilt of all involved, and issues curses upon them—on the snake, the woman, and the man.

The curse on the man involves a curse on the ground:

“Damn the ground on your account!
With hardship will you eat of it
all the days of your life.
Both thorn and thistle will it sprout for you,
so that you must eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your nose will you eat bread,
until your return to the ground.
Since you were taken from it
—for dust is what you are—
then to dust will you return.”

— Genesis 3:17b–19 (my translation)

As a result of this curse, the man and the woman are expelled from the paradise garden they were tending, with its variety of fruit-bearing trees. They are sent out into a barren world (cf. Gen 2:5–6), in which the ground is their enemy. Their efforts at toiling no longer yield them the lush fruits of paradise, but the thorns and thistles of frustration. They are forced to work harder than they ever have before, with the sweat of their exertion pouring down their nose. Even then, they will collapse into the hostile ground, or earn the measliest of crusts that will send them foraging for any wild plant in the open field that they can find. And in the end they will die a miserable death.

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This sorry situation explains why God found Cain’s offering of the “fruit of the ground” despicable (Gen 4:3–5). Cain could not cultivate anything meriting the status of an offering. He simply brings to the altar whatever he finds sprouting from the ground, rather than what he works to produce. Abel, on the other hand, evidently figures out a way to earn a crust while the curse is in effect: don’t eat the grass, but rather raise and eat the animals that eat the grass. And of these, he offers the firstborn of his flock—the most significant product of his personal work. For this entrepreneurial and respectful effort, he earns Yahweh’s favour.

Yet, the curse on the ground remains, and life for humanity is bitterly harsh. It is a wretched existence that, generations later, leads Noah’s parents to wish (or prophesy) of their son,

“May this one give us relief from our work,
from the hardship of our hands,
from the ground that Yahweh damned.”

—Genesis 5:29 (my translation)

I’ve often heard preachers say that we still live with the effects of this curse today. After all, the curse on the ground was just one of several that Yahweh pronounced. Snakes still slither along the ground, as the curse upon the snake stipulated; women give birth in the most horrendous pain, as the woman was cursed in the garden; and the grave is the destiny of us all, as the man’s curse promises. So the earth is also cursed, and the frustration and futility of work are reflective of this.

However, this is not quite right.

To think that the curse on the ground is indicative of our reality today is actually a mistake. For when we read on in Genesis, we find that Yahweh lifts the curse on the ground. After the “uncreation” of the flood, Noah emerges from the ark into a renewed, pristine world, and offers Yahweh a sumptuous sacrifice.

Noah now built an altar to Yahweh, and took some of all the clean animals and some of all the clean birds, and offered them as incinerations on the altar. Yahweh now smelled the appeasing aroma, and Yahweh said in his heart, “I no longer curse the ground on account of the man, even though the intent of the man’s heart be evil from his youth. And I no longer strike down all life as I have just done.”

— Genesis 8:20–21 (my translation)

The lifting of the curse on the ground means that the earth no longer functions as a source of utter frustration for humanity. On the contrary, the earth begins to respond to human cultivation as fruitfully as it did in Eden. Humanity’s agricultural pursuits no longer yield unpalatable brambles. Instead, with human endeavour, the ground can explode in fecundity, allowing humanity to continue the task for which Yahweh originally employed the man in the paradise garden: cultivating the ground. No longer are humans forced to forage for the odd wild plant. The hardship of the past is gone.

Just to underscore the point, with the curse now lifted, Noah decides to become a novice farmer. Evidently, the earth responds to his rookie efforts a little too well:

Noah now began to be a man of the ground. He planted a vineyard, drank some of the wine, and got drunk.

— Genesis 9:20–21a (my translation)

The wish of Noah’s parents, that he give them relief from the hardship of the curse, came true. Accordingly, from Noah onwards, humanity pursues agricultural farming and pastoral farming with great success.

From this, there are three implications I’d like to reflect on.

  1. The earth is not cursed. It is, rather, a source of wellbeing for humanity, and it is a human responsibility to care for it. The current environmental issues we face on the planet are not because of God, but because of our own irresponsibility.
  2. Work is not a curse. When Yahweh put the man in the paradise garden of Eden, he commissioned him to work it. There was no sense that the man simply had to snap his fingers to achieve his work goals. There was, rather, the expectation of hard work, but with commensurate reward. As the man cultivated the earth, so it would yield to him, and reward his efforts. The curse that God placed on the man was that the earth would no longer yield to him, making his work futile (“the sweat of your nose” could also be translated as “the sweat of your frustration”). But this situation was temporary, as the Noah narrative indicates. Work is part of God’s good intention for humanity, and decent reward for decent effort should be the way we operate. Indeed, as Abel’s example demonstrates, God is pleased when we work well and honour him.
  3. We need to stop preaching that the earth is cursed. This includes rethinking the meaning of passages like Romans 8:18–21:

For I think that the sufferings of our present time are not equal to the future glory that is to be revealed to us. For the expectation of creation is awaiting the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was subjected to aimlessness, not willingly, but by the one who subjected it, in the hope that that same creation will be liberated from its servitude to decay into the liberation of the glory of the children of God.

— Romans 8:18–21 (my translation)

This passage is often preached with reference to Genesis 3, and it’s not hard to see why. But if Paul knew his Bible (and he most certainly did—especially the early chapters of Genesis!), he was probably not arguing that the earth continued to be cursed into his own day. Perhaps Paul was specifically looking at the curse on the earth in a typological manner—a precedent, rather than an ongoing reality. Or perhaps Paul saw creation as having an inherent nature of aimlessness—cycles of life and decay, which imbue it with a metaphorical desire to break out of the cycle—to attain an eternal destiny that can only be achieved in God’s greater purposes in Christ. Perhaps there is another explanation. Either way, I don’t think it’s tenable to view Paul as arguing that the curse on the earth was ongoing.

All this is not to suggest that humanity and the world is not “fallen.” Once sin entered the world, it could not be taken back, and we continue to live with the consequences of sin—our own, as well as that of others. Rather, it’s simply to say that we should read the Bible more closely than we do, and base our theology on its entire witness, not just parts of it. As we read Genesis, we see God lift the curse on the ground, and so we should distinguish that curse from the evident tendency to death and decay that we (still) see in the world around us.

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Genesis 19: Has Lot Lost The Plot?

Have you ever been shocked by Lot’s suggestion to the mob at Sodom in Genesis 19? Have you ever been puzzled by why he would ever do such a thing? Well, it’s because the narrative has such a magnificent twist that even our modern translators have been fooled by it. All is not as it seems, folks!

I’ve written an article for Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, titled ‘Has Lot Lost the Plot? Detail Omission and a Reconsideration of Genesis 19.’ The article examines this plot twist. Here’s the abstract:

In Genesis 19, Lot tries to stave off the predatory mob of Sodom by offering his daughters for pack rape. Scholars treat this ‘shocking offer’ in various ways, but a common thread is an appeal to ancient Near Eastern codes of hospitality. This article examines some of these treatments of Lot’s proposal, both positive and negative. It then puts forward the case for a new understanding of the narrative on the basis of ‘unknown detail omission’, in which the narrator deliberately withholds information from the reader, only to reveal it at a later point in the narrative. The narrator of Genesis 19 exploits ambiguities in the narrative and a reaction of disgust at rape to fool the reader into viewing Lot’s words and actions a particular way. However, when the narrator reveals a key detail later in the narrative, the reader is surprised and forced to re-evaluate the entire episode. This then frames Lot’s shocking offer in a new light, and the reader comes to a new conclusion about Lot’s character.

Click HERE to read the article.

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Is there a covenant at creation?

Following on from my blog article, ‘What is a Covenant?’, comes the next instalment. It asks, ‘Is there a covenant at creation?’

To whet your appetite, here’s a short excerpt:

If there is a covenant at creation, sin is an infringement and salvation is about being assigned a new status. But if there is no covenant at creation, sin breaks humanity’s inherent nature and fractures the entire relationship between God and creation. This requires nothing less than God becoming human flesh and recreating humanity.

You can read the whole article HERE.

The Nature of Creation

In the lead up to a seminar on Genesis 1–2 I recently gave, I did some reading about creation in biblical texts and science. One book in particular stood out: Mark Harris’ The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (Durham: Acumen, 2013).

This is the most intelligent and theologically consistent treatment of the topic of creation and science I’ve come across. It examines creation texts in the Bible, carefully bringing out what they do and don’t claim. This is done within a carefully articulated Christian theological framework that understand the Bible as authoritative revelation. It looks at the challenge of science, explaining some of the most pertinent ideas affecting a biblical doctrine of creation, such as the ‘Big Bang’ and evolution. It then seeks to bring the two alongside each other, not in a harmonistic manner, nor in a competitive manner. Rather, Harris seeks to explain what each contributes to an understanding of creation.

The book has ten chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Creation According to Modern Science
  3. Creation According to the Bible I: Genesis
  4. Creation According to the Bible II: The Creation Motif
  5. The Framework of Biblical Creation
  6. Creation–creation: How can a Relationship be Described?
  7. The Fall
  8. Suffering and Evil
  9. Scientific Eschatology and New Creation
  10. Conclusions

There are three things that really struck me about this book:

  1. Harris does not gloss over difficulties or try to explain them away. He superbly describes both theological and scientific issues in a way that gives adequate voice to both, thus fostering understanding. He is well placed to do so, being Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He capably brings both theological and scientific expertise to bear on the issues in a very constructive way. The result is an articulation of problems that gives more clarity to the issues than anything I’ve read before.
  2. Harris’ theological method is not proof-texting. He discusses biblical texts with a good eye for their texture, and also how they contribute to an overall theology. In his own words, he ‘explores how the Bible’s creation texts may be integrated into modern discussions in the science–theology field, first by discussing ways of understanding the scientific framework of the biblical texts, and then the theological framework‘ (p.83). He is not trying to align his exegesis to a previously determined conclusion, but rather seeking to survey the theological ‘lie of the land’ before picking the best trail across it. He is guided by a good Christian theo-logic that appreciates revelation, Trinitarian theology, soteriology, and eschatology. His conclusion is that the Bible has many complex things to say about creation and the creator. Each of these complexities needs to be appreciated and understood rather than flattened out into a single homogeneous notion. Only then can we bring the Bible into dialogue with science in a fruitful way.
  3. Harris’ handling of scripture is rational, respectful, and riveting. He knows his biblical scholarship and his theology. And because of the first two points above, his discussion is able to blaze some new trails that are productive and profound. Not everyone will agree with some of the ideas he puts forward, but I don’t think Christians can ignore what he says either. He exposes some key flaws in previous thinking that need to be addressed. Harris pushes into new directions, but not for novelty’s sake. He is, rather, seeking to move in the direction that the Bible itself suggests, and seeing how these new directions intersect with science. He is not being a radical—he’s being reasonable.

Mark Harris

I particularly liked Harris’ exploration of the concepts of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), creatio continua (ongoing creation), and creatio ex vetere (creation out of the old). He sees creatio ex nihilo as a necessary theological conclusion, but not the end of creational discussion. The fact of creatio ex nihilo means that God created a world that is other than him, and therefore not divine. It is, rather, wholly contingent for its being on him. This therefore critiques the concept of Deism (the notion that God created in the beginning, but takes no further part in creation), and necessitates creatio continua—God’s ongoing acts of creation in sustaining and propagating life and the universe. This concept opens the door for a dialogue with evolutionary biology, though Harris recognises that there are difficulties in this dialogue that aren’t easy to digest. Then, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, Harris talks about creatio ex vetere—creating something new out of the old. This is the essential redemptive dynamic involved in framing an understanding of the age to come. Eschatology thus becomes an important factor in considering the nature of creation and should act as a guiding concept in any dialogue between theology and evolutionary science. He does not want to collapse the supernatural act of God into a scientific naturalism, but nor does he want to sideline science. Rather, he sees science as offering valid, though incomplete and constantly updating, perceptions of the world that God has created, sustains, and will ultimately redeem. And though science creates difficult theological questions, Harris’ three concepts of creation provide some good stakes in the ground for focusing the dialogue. For example, the possibility of death and suffering in a ‘good’ world, as proposed by evolutionary biology, should be informed by the nature of life as contingent rather than perfect, and redemption as regenerative. It may not solve all the difficulties, but it certainly moves the discussion beyond an apparent impasse. It gets us to consider the nature of God and the nature of creation, rather than judge the issue purely on how closely it approximates a biblical text.

Some further quotable quotes:

If the science-religion dialogue has proceeded with little engagement so far with Scripture then that is perhaps because Scripture’s cutting edge has not been brought to bear with sufficient accuracy (Heb 4:12). [p.9]

 

These texts [in Genesis] may be controversial in our modern times, but they are of enormous significance to the Bible, since they set out basic features of its worldview…If we fail to appreciate this point, and unthinkingly impose our own worldview on the text, we will quickly misunderstand them, along with their claims about key worldview issues such as cosmology, (ancient) science, and the human condition and its relationship with the Creator and other creatures. Without awareness of this point, we will learn relatively little from the texts. [pp.56–57]

 

[S]cience has played an important part in renewing appreciation of biblical ideas of creation, even if it is unable to shed much direct light on these ideas themselves. Ultimately the texts say rather little about the physical makeup of the world, but much about God’s creative relationship with it and about who God is. [p.186]

In short, this book is profound and intensely thought provoking. Any Christian discussion of creation and science should be engaging with Harris from now on. It’s not always an easy read, because the subject matter is complex. However, it is a very worthwhile read. I particularly recommend that Christians read this book immediately after reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).

Did the Camel Break the Bible’s Back?

I’ve written a short response to the recent excitement about claims that ancient camels have disproved the Bible. It’s specifically in response to Sam de Brito’s article in the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. You can read my response at ABC’s Religion and Ethics site.

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