East of Eden

Thursday, 31 Dec 2015

We taught them to worship God and to accept their place as creatures, without trying to know or be more."

So, this is death. My son’s body, yesterday strong and lively, is lying listless and cold in a pool of blood.

I have seen animals dying, even back in the Garden, when the Lord replaced our inadequate leaf coverings with animal skins, sacrificing an animal for our protection. But this is different. Death has come to the human race’a race made in the image of God, a race that could have lived forever. It’s here, the fulfilment of God’s warning: “You shall surely die.”

Why didn’t I believe it? The serpent seemed confident. “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

I have relived that moment many times, trying to understand it, to justify it, to erase it. The serpent’s questions were unexpected and confusing. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” I knew that was not the case. There was only one fruit we could not eat nor, I added, touch. Touching the fruit was not in the prohibition, was it? I looked at Adam, who had related God’s law to me. He was silent.

As wonderful as the Garden was, the serpent convinced me we could have much more, right then and there, without waiting for God’s timing. The serpent appeared to be our friend, but he was strange. He could speak our language and seemed to know more than we knew, but I didn’t give it much thought then. It was an enticing prospect of having our eyes opened, of being like God and knowing more than what God had revealed.

The fruit was beautiful and looked delicious. I held it in my hand for a few moments, and then picked it from the tree. Nothing happened. I took a bite. Still nothing, except for a new feeling of uneasiness. Adam didn’t react. What was he thinking? I called him, but not to ask for help. I handed him the fruit, and he ate.

We looked at each other. I could see on his face the same questioning anxiety that was tightening my chest. Our eyes were opened, but not to wonderful new worlds of knowledge and power. We knew something new’it’s true’but it was only fear, guilt, and shame. We were certainly not like God! We were just frightened and confused. We had changed, but not for the better.

The Day of Reckoning

We heard the Lord approaching, while a cold gust of wind swept through the Garden and left us shivering. Before that moment, God’s presence had always been good news. Now it was dreadful.

We tried to hide, but even in the thickest patch of trees we felt exposed. We became conscious of our nakedness, which had never bothered us before. We grabbed some leaves and sewed them together to make a skimpy covering. We could barely look at each other.

New, uncomfortable feelings continued to surface in our minds’feelings of resentment and anger toward each other. I knew I had done wrong, but why didn’t Adam stop me? Why didn’t he stop the serpent? Why had he kept quiet? Wasn’t he supposed to guard the Garden?

After evading God’s questions for a while, Adam placed the blame on me. He sounded as if having me as a companion had been a bad idea from the start. His words pierced me through: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

Did he see me as a mistake? Would it have been better for him to be alone, since I had not been “a helper fit for him”? How far away now was the song he had sung at my arrival, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!”

Finally, and thankfully, he admitted his guilt, “I ate.”

When God turned to me, asking, “What is this that you have done?” I felt so sick I thought I would die right then and there. It would have only been right. My eyes welled up with what I know now to be tears. I grasped at my only excuse: “The serpent deceived me.” My justification sounded as lame as it was. How could I have believed a creature over the Creator? Finally, like Adam, I had to confess, “I ate.”

The Lord didn’t give the serpent a chance to speak. He didn’t ask him what he had done. He started with the obvious: “Because you have done this…” and pronounced his curse against him. It was expected. Then God said the most unexpected thing: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

I didn’t fully understand, but it was a promise of life. This wasn’t the end. We had sided with the serpent and declared our enmity against the Lord, rebelling against his rules, but God was not leaving us in this condition. He was turning things around, reversing the enmity we had no power to reverse, and promising life and final victory through my offspring.

The Lord added specific punishments for Adam and me. We heard new, unfamiliar words’pain, sweat, thorns, thistles. As surprising as it sounds, the Lord didn’t destroy us for our insubordination. He didn’t send us naked and helpless into a dangerous and hostile world, but he clothed us with animal skins. He cursed the ground, but he promised we would still “eat the plants of the field.” He predicted hard labor, but he added we would “eat bread.” He instituted pain in childbirth, but that very sentence implied we would still have children and descendants.

Adam’s expression changed, as if he had just understood something. He gave me a new name: not simply Woman, someone like Man and “taken out of Man,” but Eve’a name communicating life because I was “the mother of all living.”

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Outside of the Garden, the unmistakable signs of the death penalty have become increasingly obvious, as our bodies are now subject to illness, injury, and decay. Even worse has been the decay of our hearts and minds and the realization that we no longer need an external source of temptation to sin against God. The desire to do evil has become part of us, while faith, goodness, and love are no longer natural responses. They require a struggle.

My relationship with Adam has also become strained. If accepting God’s rule over me has been difficult, accepting the rule of another sinful human being’God’s judgment after my sin’has at times seemed unbearable. Besides, the same feelings of mistrust and resentment we first experienced after sinning resurface at times, magnified by the frustrations of this imperfect and taxing life. Because Adam had rebelled against God, now the ground is rebelling against him. His work is hard. By God’s grace, however, we have been able to share many joys and satisfactions, including the excitement of reaping a good crop and the joy of seeing children come into the world.

I still remember the thrill of feeling, for the first time, a new life developing inside of me. Every turn and kick of the baby in my womb was a further reminder that the promise of life was as sure as the reality of death’that death, struggle, and pain would continue for a while but would not have the final word.

As God decreed, childbirth was painful. In fact, it was frightening, since there was no other woman who could share her experience and assist me as I am planning to do with my daughters.

In the end, however, the joy of holding the very first baby in my arms made me forget all the pain. He was so small and weak, more helpless than most of the animals I had seen at birth, but I could see in him the prospects of a great future’the renewal of the human race Adam and I had ruined. “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord!” I said. I called him Cain, “Acquired.” His name reminded us that God keeps his promises.

After Cain, God gave us another son, Abel, and other children followed. With time, I learned that God’s words “In pain you shall bring forth children” were not limited to the moment of birth or to the hardships of gestation. Raising children has been difficult and has required much effort. The deepest pain has been that of watching them replicate our sins.

As soon as our children could understand, we told them about our first, fateful sin and then about God’s wonderful promise. We taught them to worship God and to accept their place as creatures, without trying to know or be more. Most of the time, the Lord has sustained us. The shadow of death, while certain, had started to seem remote.

Until today.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Adam has dug a hole in the earth where we are burying our son. As God predicted, man is returning to the ground, “For out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Abel’s name (“Breath” or “Vapor”) comes to mind, reminding me of the brevity and frailty of our lives. It seemed like only yesterday that he was playing in the fields and running back to hug my knees. He is now gone like a breath on a cold winter’s night’visible only for a brief moment.

Remembering God’s warning about death and seeing animals die never prepared us for this moment’for our last look at our son as the ground covers his body, for our fear of the unknown’nor for this new, seemingly inconsolable pain that tears our hearts apart, paralyzes our responses, and dulls our senses.

I remember Abel’s patience and diligence with the sheep, his smile, his kindness’every good thing I had taken for granted, because I didn’t imagine they would come to such an abrupt end. I already miss him more than words can say.

Remembering the reality of sin could never prepare us for Cain’s act of murder, or the look of absolute terror in his eyes during his fretful departure from us. In him, I see our first attempt to run from God. I look desperately’but in vain’for a sign of my son’s repentance.

I try to make some sense of what happened. How could it be? Cain tells us he can’t stay’he can’t continue to work in the fields, because the ground will no longer bear fruit for him. He protests the punishment God has inflicted on him, making him “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” I recognize the same voice that had told me God was unfair.

A shudder runs through my veins when I hear God has cursed Cain. My heart sinks in the horrific, devastating thought that the offspring of the serpent may include my own son, this son in whom we had placed all our hopes!

But how did any of this happen? The two brothers lived side by side, raised the same way. Both of them had been hard workers and a great help in our daily struggles’Cain in the fields with his father, and Abel with our sheep. They both gave us joys and heartaches and made us proud and discouraged at different times. They both worshiped God, although’looking back’I see that Abel worshiped with greater faith, sincerity, and humility, bringing the very best, the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions.

Over the past few weeks, Cain had been especially quiet and sulky. I could sense something brewing in his heart. He seemed especially jealous of Abel. I feared for him, having known firsthand how deceitful these thoughts can be. Still, I never imagined his feelings would escalate to this, because this’this act of murder, this abrupt and violent termination of someone’s life’had never entered my mind.

Could we have prevented it somehow? Could we have stopped Cain? My mind replayed past events over and over, probing into every recess of my memory, trying to detect my faults and to play out a different outcome, but it returns me inevitably to our first, fateful insurgence against our Maker. A surge of guilt engulfs me, again.

If Adam and I could rebel against a Lord we knew as most loving and gracious, in the most perfect and ideal circumstances and when we had the full ability to obey, then this manifestation of sin shouldn’t surprise us. But it does. I recoil when I remember the times Adam and I allowed our anger and resentment to escalate. Only our Lord, by his mercy and grace, has prevented us from this and other terrible acts.

But now what? Now that all our hopes for Cain seem to have vanished and Abel is gone from this earth, what will become of God’s promise? What will become of the human race?

I thought I had it figured out. So often I have succumbed to the delusion that we can interpret and command our own lives, but this unexpected, overwhelming tragedy threw all my thoughts and plans into disarray. I can hardly breathe, and I can’t even think of eating or sleeping. Will this pain ever subside? Will life ever be the same?

And what will become of Cain? My heart wavers between a natural motherly love and a feeling of horror and dread. Living alienated from the true and living God and in perpetual enmity against him is the worst possible condition. I know, because I came dangerously close to that point of no return. But God didn’t destroy Cain. In fact, he placed a mark on him to protect him.

There is so much that makes no sense at all. Part of my heart lies buried under the ground, while my eyes still search for Cain, hoping to see him return, repentant. What’s left for us? Am I still the “mother of all living”? Is my offspring still going to crush the serpent’s head? Once again, I am tempted to know more than what God has revealed, and I am brought to my knees. In this unaccountable and bewildering turn of events, only God and what we have known about him and heard from him stand firm and sure.

If I have learned anything from our rebellion in the Garden, it is that God keeps his word. He said, “You will surely die,” and we did, in more ways than one. We have tasted death every day since that fateful day, although now it stares right at us.

But God also promised life and victory. Inexplicably and graciously, he moves me to look beyond the grave. As crushing and agonizing as this tragedy is, in God’s larger scheme of things’a scheme still difficult to grasp’this is only a bruising of the heel.

I can’t even think of having more children. I am afraid to place my hopes in another son. If I could, I would choose death for myself, but the Lord is giving me life. I don’t have the strength to go on, but God’s purpose is greater and stronger than I can ever be. I remember a similar feeling of hopelessness and inability when we left the Garden and’to a lesser degree’many other times until now. But the Lord supported us through it all. Somehow, by God’s strength, I will rise from the edge of this grave and walk back to my house. As unmanageable as it seems, I will continue to feed and support my family. As inconceivable as it sounds, I might smile again.

Somehow, sooner or later, God will appoint for me another offspring instead of Abel. These weary arms will again hold a child and this aching breast will again nurse him. Somehow, God will continue to sustain us, until a new offspring will inflict the final blow to the serpent’a blow that will defeat death, sin, pain, and anguish forever.

I don’t know how the Lord will do it. I don’t even fully understand what it means, but I don’t have to. God’s merciful words still ring in my ears and the memory of the Tree of Life, which is now protected but not destroyed, is imprinted on my mind as I wait for the One who will give us the right to enjoy it. And that’s enough for now.

Sitting by death, I cling to these promises of life for us, for Abel, and for the rest of the offspring God has appointed to give me. I can do no other.

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