Last week, crammed into a house far to small for all of us, my (ever-expanding) family of origin gathered as a whole for the first time in two years. We relished the in-person hugs and the introductions of family members who hadn’t yet met. We caught up on the kind of news that gets forgotten or breezed over during Skype and Facetime chats. We laughed about the same old stories and made fools of ourselves playing ridiculous games. We sat around for hours over breakfasts, lunches, dinners. More than once, we wore pajamas well into the afternoon.
Since the last time we were together, we have added three members: two babies and a fiancée. We’ve changed for the better: degrees begun and completed; jobs changed; promotions earned; homes rented, purchased and sold; engagements announced; babies born. In all this change, there has been much to congratulate and celebrate.
But we are also the same as we were before, so there is still plenty to mourn. In this little family alone, hearts are heavy under aches that haven’t gone away, unmet desires that haven’t faded, strains that haven’t been eased, questions that haven’t been answered, and griefs that haven’t worn fully away. And we can still hurt one another in the same tired, old ways. And we can still be our most selfish, spiteful, ugly selves when we’re together.
When I’m with those who know me best, I let myself get away with being cynical. I let my conversations have the occasional crude edge. I criticize far more often than I should. When I’m with those who know me best, I let my sinful heart bubble up rather readily. I’m sure my husband, my parents, my siblings, and my close friends could give you the details better than I could. Yet here they are with me, putting up with it.
They hug me tightly after long absences. They call and receive calls when we can’t see one another. And once a year at least, they lavish me with kindnesses and thoughtful gifts I don’t deserve.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22-24, ESV)
A detail that often goes unappreciated in Genesis 3’s story of The Fall is the reality that there are two special trees in God’s Garden of Eden, and that apparently it’s no good for humans to eat of them concurrently.
We learn of the first tree in Genesis 2:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but 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” (verse 16).
The second tree comes into play in the Bible’s text only after God’s command about the first tree is broken. We learn in Genesis 3 that Eden includes a tree with eternity-fruit: the tree of life.
Here is the interesting thing: when the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not touched—when people trust that God is God, and accordingly obey his straightforward command—it seems they are welcome to unending life. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.” But when the forbidden fruit has been bitten, God blocks the way to eternal life. What he is saying is: You can’t have it both ways. He says it with a white-hot sword.
Why would God expel his finest creatures from the good life he had made for them? Why would he remove them from all that provision and deny them the best part of it? What kind of God is this?
If your basic assumption is that God is a banishing God, arbitrarily handing out punishments and wielding his power with little care about who gets hurt or rejected in the process, you’re not surprised by these questions. But you’re also missing a key moment in the story. It happens between the trees.
After Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but before God sends them away from the tree of life, God makes a promise. It is a big one. It’s the one that makes sense of the banishment and reveals it to be an act not of cruelty or indifference but of supreme love and mercy:
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
Here, in chapter 3 of everything, we have Jesus. He is the bruiser and the bruised, already, and already for our sake.
The total trust that existed between God and humanity has been broken, and it’s the people’s fault. Adam and Eve have missed understanding God’s character, though the evidence was there in obvious supply. He had given them everything they needed to live and thrive: bountiful food to eat, beautiful surroundings to live in and enjoy, work to occupy their hands and minds, and perfect love from their creator. He had given them only abundance and a single command.
Abundance, because he is a sharing God whose love is so unending that it must overflow.
The command, which gave them opportunity to show some piddly display of love back to him.
Yet they doubted his goodness at the slightest suggestion from a measly snake.
God’s response, though, is more love. He refuses to let the humanity he loves continue on, forever, in this state of brokenness brought on by their sin. He wants them to live forever with him, but not like this. So he plans, already, to incarnate himself and spill his own blood, redeeming what they shattered. He will make it right, unfolding a story of good news over millennia until the last chapter, where there stands again a tree of life. This tree grows in a city and yields fruit abundantly, a different kind each month. With Christ’s redemption in play, there is never a season when God’s eternity fruit cannot be eaten.
I don’t understand why God would choose to unveil his gospel story over such a long course of history. I don’t understand why he would begin it with two people so easily fallible. I don’t understand how a world that started without evil could turn out like this. But I know that I am cynical at times, and crude and critical and cruel. I know that at the heart of each of those actions is a core doubt I have, about God’s generous goodness to me.
I look at my surroundings and wonder if they’re enough. In the midst of bounty, I am distracted, asking myself whether God might be withholding something better. I see others who have what I don’t, and my trust wavers instantly. I am always just a second away from blaming God for all of it. God, who volunteered himself to be bruised for my sin. Yes, it seems that if eternity were up to me, I would fall for the snake’s suggestion too.
Here is the astonishing beauty of the gospel story: I am redeemed, despite having the taste of forbidden fruit still all over my tongue. After I defy God in the garden, with his own death he buys me a key into his eternal city. He is the one who knows me best, taking my worst punishment, and in response lavishing me with the one gift I deserve least. Praise him, he is banishing my sin far from me.