GeoScriptures — Genesis 3:17-18 — Thorns, thistles, cats, dogs, and hyperliteralism

And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.”
Genesis 3:17-18 (ESV)

Suppose I were to tell you, “Sometimes it rains cats and dogs in St. Louis.” How would you interpret my statement? If you didn’t know English idioms very well, you might be quite confused by what I said, or come to the conclusion that I was—intentionally or unintentionally—speaking nonsense. Because you know it does not really ever rain cats and dogs, you probably would not take me as actually believing that cats and dogs fall from the sky.

Now suppose that the biblical account of Noah’s flood (Genesis 6-9) contained a verse that said, “And Noah looked out of the window of the ark and saw that it was raining cats and dogs.” How would we interpret this statement? The most natural way to interpret it would be to assume there was some sort of idiom or metaphor in use, and to interpret it as “it was raining very hard.” Unfortunately, we would not be able to look up “raining cats and dogs”  in the 1400 BC edition of Hebrew Idioms for Dummies, so we might have to do some educated guesswork.

On the other hand, if we had little stomach for idioms or other literary devices as we read the Old Testament, we might come to the conclusion that the deluge was so cataclysmic that, in this instance, cats and dogs must have been sucked up from the watery surface by strong updrafts, and then hurled down upon the deep, as witnessed by Noah. This would be a reading that goes far beyond seeking the literal, or intended, meaning of the passage. This would be an example of what some call hyperliteralism; a reading of the text that allows for no figures of speech whatsoever.

Now Genesis does not contain the phrase “raining cats and dogs,” but it does contain examples of non-literal writing. Take for example the phrase “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” in Genesis 3:18. This is part of the curse God pronounced on the ground after Adam and Eve sinned. After humanity’s fall into sin, God pronounced a curse on the serpent, Satan; and spoke words of discipline and judgement (and promise) to Adam and Eve. Rather than experiencing the blessings of Eden, Eve would experience, among other things, pain in childbirth, and Adam would experience “thorns and thistles.”

What is the meaning of the phrase “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you?” One common interpretation of this passage is that it teaches that there were no thorns or thistles on the Earth until God made this pronouncement. In Eden, so the interpretation goes, there could not possibly have been things like thorns and thistles; not only do they cause pain and draw blood when they prick our skin, they are specifically mentioned as part of the curse on the ground here in Genesis 3. In other words, thorns and thistles did not exist until they became part of God’s curse on the ground.

Following this line of reasoning further, we have to consider the fact that the fossil record contains plants that have thorns and thistles. If one holds to the “literal” interpretation, then it is clear that these plant fossils could only have formed after Adam sinned. Therefore, the fossil record—and by correlation this would mean just about any rock of Phanerozoic (Cambrian and more recent) age—had to have formed after Adam. This is one of the supposed Biblical foundations for young-Earth creationist “flood geology.”

But is this the best way to understand God’s “thorns and thistles” curse? A better interpretation is that there is a figurative aspect to “thorns and thistles.” If so, the young-Earth interpretation is an example of hyperliteralism, an over-reading of the text caused by focusing on the literal words on the page rather than the main thrust of the section. A broader view of the text is that God was removing his blessing on mankind’s work. The intention at creation was that Adam and his descendants would be fruitful; not just in reproduction, but in their stewardship and dominion over the rest of creation. There would be shalom between man and his Creator, within each person, between man and wife, between individuals, and between humans and nature. This was all frustrated by Adam’s rebellion, and we have been living with the consequences ever since. Thorns and thistles may have existed before, but with the advent of sin they could now have dominion over humanity rather than humanity having dominion over them. All of our work is now frustrated to one degree or another by figurative thorns and thistles, whether it be the weeds in our garden, the broken relationships with coworkers and clients, mistakes we make in our work, or bugs in the latest software on our computers.

Genesis 3:18 is not about thorns and thistles any more than Genesis 3:14-15 is about how snakes lost their legs. Genesis 3:18 is about how our work in general is frustrated because of sin, and Genesis 3:14-15 is about the humiliation of Satan, grovelling in the dust just as defeated enemies of some Mesopotamian ruler would be forced to do. It is much better, in terms of the literary imagery of the passage, to take thorns and thistles as having a broader meaning in terms of our work and relationships rather than narrowing the meaning down to the appearance of weeds in Adam’s garden.

The undoing of the curse on our work is found in the work of Christ, who bore a crown of thorns as he suffered on our behalf. We live in confident hope that all of creation will one day come under the healing rule of Christ, and that our broken bodies will be resurrected whole. In the new (or renewed) Earth there will be gardens, and I won’t be at all surprised if we find roses growing there.

Grace and Peace

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Notes:

The Phrase Finder has an article about the origin of “raining cats and dogs.”

The ESV Study Bible comments:

Gen. 3:17–19 God’s punishment of the man involves his relationship with the very ground from which he was formed (see note on 2:5–7). Because he has eaten that which was prohibited to him, he will have to struggle to eat in the future. Given the abundance of food that God provided in the garden, this judgment reflects God’s disfavor. Adam will no longer enjoy the garden’s abundance but will have to work the ground from which he was taken (3:23; see note on 2:8–9). The punishment is not work itself (cf. 2:15), but rather the hardship and frustration (i.e., “pain,” itstsabon; cf. 3:16) that will accompany the man’s labor. To say that the ground is cursed (Hb. ’arar, v. 17) and will bring forth thorns and thistles (v. 18) indicates that the abundant productivity that was seen in Eden will no longer be the case. Underlying this judgment is a disruption of the harmonious relationship that originally existed between humans and nature.

Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Genesis (p. 72 of 1967 printing), writes,

Thorns… and thistles are eloquent signs of nature untamed and encroaching; in the Old Testament they mark the scenes of man’s self-defeat and God’s judgment, e.g. in the sluggard’s field (Pr. 24:31) and the ruined city (Is. 34:13). They need not be envisaged here as newly created, but as henceforth a perennial threat (as the unconquered Canaanites would be to Israel, Nu. 33:55); for man in his own disorder would never now ‘subdue’ the earth.

GeoScriptures — Genesis 2:16-17 — The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the fruit of sin

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” — Genesis 2:16-17 (NIV 1984)

According to Genesis, God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden. He commanded that they tend the Earth, and that they be fruitful and multiply. They walked in fellowship with God as they worked; it was a paradise, but not an idle paradise. He provided the tree of life that they might live forever, but forbade them from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

In Genesis 3, as we  know, Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God and they ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Was this a good thing or a bad thing? The correct answer, of course, is that this was a bad thing. That doesn’t stop some from twisting the story; consider the following from paleontologist L. Beverly Halstead:

Here [in Genesis] we have man being given an instruction by the supreme Authority, and he was expected to accept this quite uncritically—he was not expected to question it, he was certainly not expected to defy it, he was expected to obey it. Let us consider what this means. Here is a situation where you are placed in an environment where you have everything, all you must not do is think.

Samuel Butler in the last century wrote “The Kingdom of Heaven is the being like a good dog.”

A good dog does what he is told, gets a pat on the head, and that is all. This is a prospect that no real human being should ever stand for. But we are very fortunate in this story—we have the hero of this entire episode, the serpent, and he gave very good advice (Gen 3:5-7)

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened.

That, to my mind, is the most inspiring passage in this entire volume.

That was the original sin, the defiance of the Lord God was original sin, and this sin is the one which every scientist worthy of the name is dedicated to uphold.

(quote from Halstead, L. Beverly, “Evolution—The Fossils Say Yes!”, in Montagu, Ashley (ed.), 1984, Science and Creationism, pp. 241-242. )

Halstead simply distorted the passage for his own purposes. God did not forbid them from eating fruit from a “tree of knowledge,” as if knowledge were bad, but from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

“Knowledge” can mean knowing about something, such as knowing about European history or invertebrate paleontology. I think that is what Halstead had in mind; that somehow God wanted Adam and Eve to live in some sort of ignorant bliss. The passage, however, implies that God wanted Adam and Eve to have a kind of scientific knowledge about their world; how could they have dominion over the garden as God’s representatives on Earth if they were clueless about caring for the Earth?

There is another kind of knowledge that is experiential rather than just the intellectual knowledge inherent in science. We see this in Genesis 4:1 — “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” Adam did not just know about Eve as an intellectual exercise, but had a deep, intimate, emotional knowledge of her expressed in sexual intercourse.

This is the kind of knowledge that Adam and Eve would gain through eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They did not just gain an intellectual understanding  about the world, or a textbook knowledge about ethics, but they knew good and evil, and this was a horrible thing to gain intimate knowledge of.

Think of what they “gained” through their submission to Satan, or as Halstead put it, the “hero of this entire episode, the serpent.” Here is what we have as the fruit of disobedience:

  • A broken relationship with God.
  • Broken relationships with one another.
  • A broken relationship with the creation.
  • Frustration in work.
  • Pain in childbirth.
  • Shame.
  • Physical death.
  • Decaying bodies.
  • Disease.
  • Murder.
  • Poverty.
  • Oppression.
  • War.
  • Famine.
  • Hatred.
  • Abuse.
  • Rape.
  • Exploitation.

All because of one piece of fruit. Was it worth it?

Grace and Peace

Death before the fall — an old-Earth Biblical perspective

The topic of death before Adam’s fall into sin is a common area of debate between Christians who accept an old Earth and those who insist that the Bible requires a young Earth. Old-Earth creationists (whether or not they are theistic evolutionists) have to accept animal death before the fall. After all, the fossil record records hundreds of millions of years of animal fossils, all of which are certainly quite dead. Young-Earth creationists (YECs) say that there was no death before the fall, and this is part of their theological proof that Earth must be young.

So what does the Bible say? Here is my Biblical defense of animal death before the fall:

  1. Neither Genesis 3, Romans 5, Romans 8, nor 1 Corinthians 15 (the passages most commonly used by YECs) say anything at all about animal death. These passages refer specifically to human death being the result of Adam’s sin. Reading animal death into these passages is an unnecessary extrapolation.
  2. YECs point to the curse in Genesis 3 as the origin of animal death. But just like in the other passages, Genesis 3 does not say that animal death is a result of the fall. Again, this is something that YECs read into the passage, rather than something that they draw out of the passage. The curse had some sort of effect on the human relationship with creation (the futility and difficulty of work), but it was not necessarily a radical re-ordering of the creation as YECs insist. A related passage is Romans 8:20-22, which states that the whole creation groans. Just like in Genesis 3, the passage does not state the nature of that groaning, and it doesn’t necessarily include death.
  3. YECs often seem to assume that the entire Earth was the Garden of Eden, or that it was Heaven. On the other hand, the opening chapters of Genesis depict Eden as a limited geographic place somewhere in Mesopotamia, set apart from the wild lands outside of the garden. The lands outside of the garden could certainly have been a place where death (and predation) occurred as a warning to Adam and Eve of what would happen if they disobeyed. Without this visible illustration of what it meant to die, God’s statement that they would certainly die if they disobeyed could have been meaningless to Adam and Eve.
  4. We assume that in the pre-Fall world, God was only glorified by cute, gentle things like bunnies and daisies. But in the Scriptures, predation is portrayed as something that glorifies God (Job and Psalms (e.g. Ps 104:21)). There is no indication in these passages that something is wrong with the creation.
  5. Another indication from the Garden of Eden that animal death could have occurred before the fall is the nature of the Tree of Life. In Genesis, the Tree of Life is provided so that humans could eat of it (one time? on an ongoing basis?) and live forever. There is no indication that the Tree of Life was provided also for animals. So, if we listen to the YEC line of reasoning, humans needed the Tree of Life to live forever, but animals did not.
  6. Even after the curse of Genesis 3, God never revoked the “goodness” of creation (1 Tim 4:4). We live in a world with animal death, and yet God calls it “good.”
  7. What would carnivorous animals have eaten if they were forbidden to eat other animals? Many carnivores are very specialized for eating and digesting only other animals and would die on a plant-only diet. Consider animals such as the leach, anteater, or T-rex (no, I don’t buy the YEC ideas that T-rex teeth were designed to crush thick-rinded melons). As I said earlier, predation in the Psalms and Job is something that brings glory to God. Additionally, there is no Scriptural indication that there was a massive re-creation of animals either after the fall or after the flood to make them into predators.

I haven’t even touched on the scientific problems of there being no animal death before the fall, even within the YEC scenario.

These arguments may not convince hard-core YECs, but I hope I have at least shown that “no death before the fall” doesn’t necessarily flow out of the pages of Scripture, and that other Biblical understandings of animal death are possible.

Grace and Peace