God Went Away: Reflections on Genesis 3

by Phil Johnson

Whenever I get involved with the Genesis, the story of our beginning for which we each have a text, I become very active inside. It never fails to be stimulating and absorbing.

For example I've noticed before and I've become very interested now in how the story reveals that God was a parent who left his children to go do other things. It was while God was gone that something happened which many people regard as awful, some would even say catastrophic. God's children got in trouble while their parent was away.

Since God's Fatherhood is a divine characteristic and since this is the first example of God's parenting, I propose that we examine the story with the fact in mind that God left his children, Eve and Adam, alone in the Garden. Our hope will be to learn to know God better from the experience of parenting which we too experience.

Imagine exactly how you would feel if you were God in this story trying to be the most loving parent possible. Think how you feel when you must leave your child or children. Think of how you feel when you want to get away from your children. Think of the pain you feel when things go wrong with your children. Base your identification with God on your own experience and feelings as a parent, if you are one. If you are not, use your vision of being a parent. In this way you can evaluate how successful you think God is as a parent. Let us proceed freely and with a light heart to see what we can learn about God.

You may have noticed that I did not ask God's blessing or help to proceed freely and with a light heart. Do we have God's blessing? Do we have parental approval? Or, do we need to ask before we proceed

I suspect that there are very fruitful yes answers to the question, "need we ask?" and t hat there are very fruitful no answers, but that the final answer is no, there is no obligation, especially at our age. Neglecting to ask parental approval or blessing does not mean that there is no blessing. We know this from our experience as the parents of our children

The conviction that we need not ask is supported by the fact that God went away. The story suggests that he did it regularly. Adam and Eve needed to grow in responsibility and personal resourcefulness. Only the independent personhood of each could provide God with the loving intimacy God was seeking and with satisfaction as a parent.

While their parent is gone, Eve and Adam experience something ecstatic and wonderful. Did they make love, they have done something together which was at least as good and they have done it for the first time. Maybe they had their first philosophical conversation or discussion. By that I mean that they may have discovered the love of wisdom. They may have become conscious of their ability to reason.

The story tells us that they sought, and apparently obtained, the knowledge of good and evil. This, then, is an event of consciousness rather than of sexuality. I suspect that sexuality had been around for some time before the events of chapter 3. This would mean that sexuality is one of the wonderful experiences of the Garden of Eden. Whatever it was that Adam and Eve specifically did on this day, they discovered that they were arum. (See David Hawkinson's article in this discovery if their parent had been present, regardless of how good their relationship with their parent was.

God faced the same problem many of us have faced. We have to go away from our children like he did and just as our parents did. Like them we must do so before we are completely satisfied that we have done as much as we think necessary to prepare them to survive, to love life, to be happy, to achieve something, to have their own families, to preserve our tradition, to preserve the human race and to live the life of the Spirit.

We have to go away. Our parents did. God did. It's not easy for the parent in us to do this willingly because our children are precious. Fortunately, we have other things we must do. If nothing else we must provide for these wonderful children of ours. Just a tax deduction will not cover the costs. So, in the course of things we go away and come back to our children or we send them away and they come back to us. Parents do this daily. The experience of this story is now very common and it happens every day. Genesis is the story of the first time it happened.

The story reveals that as well as enjoying a walk in the Garden in the cool of the day, God has other business. Some of that business, much more than any one person can ever know, is evident. I mean the wonders of creation which we see around us. Eve and Adam had begun to gain some knowledge of God's work in the Garden and in creation. Humans since have learned much more about God's work in creation. Yet, beyond our quite extensive knowledge, God has still more business which is not evident. We do not know what further business God goes away for.

I think it is important to take the story literally.1 This is the story of God going away and the story of the first time a parent was disobeyed by his children. I don't think we should take this story as a representative story which deals with disobedience of children in general. If we do that the story would not be a story of genesis. It is a particular story of the first time these things happened.

As the story begins, Eve is alone. Her parents are gone. (We can think of God as both Mother and Father since God says "us" in verse 26 of chapter 1 and in verse 22 of chapter 3.)2 She is a brilliant young woman, brilliant, innocent, and filled with life.

Luther thought that this act of disobedience occurred the very next day after Adam and Eve were created. "As for the historical event of which Moses gives us an account in this present chapter, I stated my opinion before, that this temptation appears to me to have taken place on the Sabbath; thus Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day, Adam earlier and Eve toward evening. In this way Adam and Eve, resplendent with innocence and original righteousness, and abounding in peace of mind house of their trust in God, who was so kind, walked about naked (arum) while they discoursed on the Word and command of God and praised God, just as should be done on the Sabbath. But then, alas, Satan interfered and within a few hours ruined all this, as we shall hear."3

There is no certain ground I can see for concluding that Luther was wrong, but it seems to me that the sense of the story suggests that this couple's life in the Garden was longer than a day. It can be argued that chapter 3 begins in a way which suggests that some time has passed since the original work of creation. Verse 3:8 gives the feeling that the Lord God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day was something with which God's children were familiar, The story seems to require more going and coming, more naming, more loving and more experience then one day allows. Further, we know now how exceedingly condensed the story of creation is. Verses 2:5 to 2:9, for example, represent a very very long time. It makes us think of what a day is to God.

It has seemed important to me not to be rushed along too quickly in this story. Even if it were only a day before God went away and the children disobeyed, it should be profitable to reflect on the nature of their life in the Garden however long it was. Spending some time on this will help us distinguish more clearly between what is a part of life in the Garden, and thus truly human, and what is not. What is the image of God in us and what is not.

A prevailing interpretation of these things among many Christians over the centuries has condemned human life. Jewish interpretations have been less condemning. There is the point of view that human life is a poor, mistaken fiasco. The vision of the Garden is one of ideal, deathless harmony. What i s offered by that vision in my opinion is a plastic perfection which has no correspondence in reality including the reality of the Garden of Eden. The way of faith is in the opposite direction. Faith finds God's presence and work in the actuality of experience and of daily life.

For fresh insight and fruitful theological play, it might be profitable to consider these questions. Is human passion the result of the couple's disobedience? Was there no passion in the Garden before Aden and Eve ate of the fruit? What precisely did God curse? What remains? We have been thinking about God as an actual parent. Thinking like this may help us realize in a fresh way how much God loves us. The exegesis which David Hawkinson gives us in this issue helps to liberate our thinking from stereotypical interpretations that do not allow us to take the story seriously in itself or allow us the play of theological imagination. I hope that you find this fragment of such play stimulating.

1. Northrup Frye, "It is only when we are reading as we do when we read poetry that we can take the word "literal" seriously, accepting every word given us without question." The Great Code, The Bible and Literature, p. 61, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1982.

2. Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1-5, pp. 58ff. LWI, Vol. I,

3. Luther, Ibid., p.144.