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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Garden as Metaphor

 The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.
Genesis 2:8


I will plant them in their land,
And no longer shall they be pulled up
From the land I have given them,”
Says the Lord your God.

 Amos 9:15 

It is well-known, or should be, anyway, that from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells the Story of Israel, along with the downfall of many as well as the exaltation of a few, but what if the creation stories, including the Beginning of what is known as the Garden of Eden, were not so much literal as literary? In other words, they weren't actually places or occurrences, but were simply literary devices, common to that place & time, to convey a certain Story, the Story of Israel!

You may have heard that a better interpretation of the Hebrew phrase 'בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָֽרֶץ׃', or, 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth', goes something like this, 'in the summit, Elohim fattened the heavens and the earth'. Why the translators didn't use this translation rather than saying 'created', probably has something to do with historical & or religious bias, but really, the answer is neither here nor there. The Hebrew word translated 'created', according to Gesenius' Hebrew Lexicon, means literally 'to cut, to carve out, to form by cutting'. This fact, in itself, would be enough to point to these words as more of the creation of a covenant rather than the formation of material things.

'If we can't read the Garden Story as actual, literal history, then who's to say that the rest of the Bible Stories are?' Among others, this is one question that might be offered up when someone puts forth the idea that maybe we're not looking at the text from the right angle. Maybe if we read this Ancient Near Eastern text from the point of view of the Ancient Near Eastern culture instead of from our Western point of view & Western culture, we would gain a better understanding of this text & others like it.

The Story of the Great Flood is another narrative that plays tricks with our Western minds! When we read the Story of Noah's Ark from a purely Western perspective, we tend to see the Flood as literally having covered the tallest mountains on earth-a good 30,000 feet-which doesn't really match up with the biblical narrative. One could get into some major disagreements ( arguments ) here, but that's not what this is all about; what it's all about is, as the apostle Peter made clear ( I Peter 3:18-22, II Peter 2:5 ), that the Ark of Noah's day was a picture of the Salvation that the Christ brought.

Geologists & historians, for centuries, have toyed with the notion of an actual, literal place, the location of the fabled Garden of Eden.  The Garden has been placed anywhere from the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley to the Persian Gulf Delta. Answers in Genesis, among others in the same boat, seem to have settled the issue by claiming that we might never know because of Flood Geology, which posits a global flood that changed the course of history. All this is quite interesting, but again, beside the point! Whether the Flood was global or local, it pictured the destruction of the enemies of God & through the Ark, the Salvation of the Israel of God.

Since the Story of Scripture is the Story of Israel, it only makes sense that all the stories in the Scriptures are ultimately about Israel, both their salvation & destruction. Even the Story of Daniel in the Lion's Den is about Israel & their salvation from the enemies of God. The same could be said of Sampson's interesting encounter with a lion-obvious metaphor there. The Flood Account is simply a metaphor for the destruction of the enemies of God & through the Ark, the salvation of the Israel of God.

The apostle Peter again makes clear in his second letter ( II Peter 3:5-7 ) that the same creation ( 'heavens and earth' ) which perished by a flood in Noah's Day would again be decimated in the New Noah's Day, this time by fire! By 'the New Noah', I of course mean Jesus, who was the Great Antitype of all those Old Covenant types. Jesus, in His Olivet Discourse ( Matthew 24, Luke 21, Mark 13 ) makes some obvious allusions as well, to the Flood. In verse 37 of Matthew 24, we read 'But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be'. Luke 21:35 records Jesus as saying that, like the Flood, 'it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth'. These words of Jesus, when read from our Western point of view, seem to point to both a global flood as well as a global destruction by fire, but it should be noted that, just as the first Moses wrote of the Creation & Weeding-out of Israel in the first book of the Bible, so the New Moses ( the Last Moses ) referred to the Recreation & Final Weeding-out of Israel in His Final Revelation.

The Story of the Fall is echoed numerous times throughout the sordid history of Israel, leading up to the Assyrian Captivity & the final one, under the Romans, the one Jesus was born into. Exile from the Garden, for Adam & Eve, was simply a foreboding of the Exile that Israel found herself in throughout her history. Is this to say that there never was a Garden of God, a Great Flood, that Daniel never spent the night in a lion's den & that Sampson never had that fabled encounter with a lion? No; the Garden, the Flood & these incidents with lions could have all taken place, but it is just as likely that they are literary devices used to tell the tale of Israel in pictures, so to speak!

The location of the Garden of Eden is really a moot point then, as it merely points to the Story of Israel who, from four camps in the wilderness, then into the Promised Land ( also metaphorical, though literal as well ), were to become a River of Living Water to liven all of God's Creation. The Garden of Eden is a metaphor for what the Israel of God would become in the Latter Days, as witnessed by John in the Revelation ( 21:1 & 2 ).

Much time & money has been spent in trying to prove that the Garden actually existed, money that could better have been spent elsewhere, such as doing what Jesus did, in caring for the poor & needy! If they had spent all that time & money in spreading/sharing the True Gospel of Jesus the Christ, maybe we would be living in a more Edenic world! However, since they thought better to 'prove' themselves right, we have warring factions among those who claim to be followers of the Christ! If only people would take note that it IS all about the Christ & not about some fabled Garden with a talking snake; it's not about whether the Cataclysm of Noah's day was local or global & it sure isn't about lions who had just eaten.

What if all those Bible Stories that we loved to hear in Sunday School never really happened ( at least, not like our Western ears hear them )? Would that necessarily make a difference when it comes to the Christ? If the Garden of Eden never really existed, per se, does that mean that Jesus Himself was simply a metaphor? Since it all pointed to Jesus & ultimately, to the Christ Within, we can safely say that Jesus was not 'simply' a metaphor!

If indeed the word 'bara'' might just as well, or better, be translated 'fattened', the picture of Israel as the Christ makes good sense, for was not Jesus 'an offering and a sacrifice' ( Ephesians 5:2 )? As followers of the Christ, in fact, as little Christs ourselves, did not the apostle Paul say we should offer our bodies as a 'living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God' ( Romans 12:1 ). We are, whether one follows the biblical Story or not, on this good earth, not to pursue the American Dream, nor to make as much money for our children's inheritance before this biology fails, even; we are here to live in symbiosis, not as an island unto ourselves, but in covenant, in community with each other, sharing the Life & Love that we have been given, that we in fact ARE!

Again, does it really matter all that much if the Garden really existed, especially as the biblical witness attests to? No, not really! The fact that it's merely metaphor does not detract at all from the Story of Scripture & in actuality, strengthens it, if anything. The Garden is really a metaphor for the human heart, the innermost being, with the choice between two trees. Will we continue to eat of the Tree of Life & live forever, or will we partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil & die? It's your choice; choose wisely!

Charles Haddon Shank

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