The Radical Theology in Genesis 2:16-17
Human Freedom: The First Covenant
John C. Rankin
In Genesis 2:16-17, we have the first words spoken by Yahweh Elohim to the first man. They are “etymologically radical” (a word history at the root level).
I translate the Hebrew text this way (emphasis added to designate the parallel grammar): “And Yahweh Elohim commanded the man, ‘In feasting you shall continually feast [akol tokel] from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the moment you eat of it, in dying you shall continually die [moth tamuth].’ ”
The use of “command” is unique (tsavah), and in intensive emphasis; whereas the normal language when Yahweh speaks (particularly vis-a-vis covenant) is shema (“hear,” “listen,” “consider”). In other words, an apparent oxymoron: we are commanded to feast, to be free, to enjoy the good. But there is no oxymoron, for their is no coercion in the nature of Yahweh‘s command, but rather, his authority and power to fulfill the promise of the command is the nature and focus.
These two parallel opposites in the text define the two choices given, both being in the qal infinitive absolute imperfect. Which is to say, this is the dynamic of a continual and unending reality that is more dynamic than the active participle in the Greek, Latin or English: a feasting always fully present that never ends, versus a dying always fully present that never ends.
Most simply: “Feast or die.”
This is the first covenant in the Bible, that of human freedom, and its implications are huge. For starters:
1. Only the sovereign Creator can give true freedom. Namely the first words in the Bible are words of God’s sovereignty: “In the beginning Elohim created …” as Genesis 1-2 defines the good order of creation. The first words of Yahweh Elohim to the first man are words of human freedom, of informed choice; thus the first covenant in the Bible is that of human freedom. [In noting the balance between the grand design of Genesis 1, and the first covenant of Genesis 2 that occurs theologically in the sixth day of Genesis 1, this means that Genesis 2:16-17 precedes Genesis 1:28, since woman is not made until Genesis 2:21ff.]
2. Sovereignty defines choice.
3. Pagan deities, on their own literary terms, reflect the broken trust of demonic and human sin. These are fatalistic and manipulative demons that enslave man and woman: misinformed choice. Indeed, the ancient serpent reverses the definition of terms from Genesis 2:16-17, where in Genesis 3:4 he states lo moth tamuthon, literally: “in dying you shall not continually die.”
4. Or to put it this way: True definition of terms leads to freedom and life; false definition of terms leads to slavery and death.
5. Thus, any theology that says the one true Creator somehow limits human freedom in creation, reduces him to the limited and enslaving nature of pagan gods. Sin limits, Jesus comes to set us free again, and we are all accountable for the choices we make.
6. We are made in the image of Yahweh Elohim, and he is free. Freedom is the power to do the good, and to do evil is to be a slave. In the covenant of human freedom, we are invited to receive the gift true freedom, but unless we are free to say no to it, we cannot say yes. To be forced to do the good is to be a slave, by definition not possible, and if Yahweh Elohim were to do so, he would neither be free nor be the one true Creator, and thus creation could not exist.
7. As image bearers of God, we cannot be creative and good stewards apart from exercising informed choice. And part of informed choice is to judge between good and evil – to choose the former and oppose the latter.
8. Here lies a great mystery, and mysteries are ultimately that which only Yahweh Elohim – being greater than space, time and number – is able to grasp. Since he is good, and since freedom is the power to choose the good, his freedom only does the good. God does no evil. If he were to try and force us to choose the good, we would not be free, we would not be made in his image, and thus he would be evil, which is not possible. Thus, since we are limited creatures, we must have the freedom to choose good or evil.
9. The origin of evil thus lies in the fact that Yahweh Elohim is not a slave-master, and thus he takes the “cosmic risk” in giving us freedom to choose good or evil, life or death. If we cannot choose evil, this posture says God must choose it for us, and this is idolatry where God is made into a false and evil god. And the first false choice is made by the ancient serpent when he was an angel who rebelled against goodness out of his own self-apotheosis. He who becomes Satan looks at his own beauty not as God-given, but self-realized, and thus, narcissism and solipsism follow.
10. Thus, there is no judgment apart from chosen deeds. In Ezekiel 23, Oholah (Samaria) and Oholibah (Jerusalem) are both are given over to whom they have loved, those whom they listed after – utter justice. This is the same reality as in John 3:17-21 – those who love darkness instead of light.
11. Good defines evil, freedom defines slavery, life defines death, and feast defines famine.
12. The language of hell, as used by Jesus, is rooted in the Greek gehenna as transliterated in the LXX from ge’hinnom in the Hebrew. It refers to the always burning trash dump where child sacrifice occurrs at the height of Judah’s pre-Babylonian apostasy. “Hell” cannot be understood apart from moth tamuth, which cannot be understood apart from akol tokel.
13. Heaven defines hell, and both are communities of informed choice (the former is real, and the latter is ersatz, centrifugal and always shrinking).
14. The feast of Genesis 2:16 defines human freedom in the community joy of a banquet, a metaphor that covers all the Bible, from Hebrew feast days to the Lord’s Supper to the wedding supper of the Lamb.
15. Moses, Joshua and Elijah each appeal to the power of informed choice strategically, and Jesus fulfills it all as the Redeemer, and thus, as the apostle Paul says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” There are only two biblical theocracies in history, from Moses to Jeremiah, and when Jesus returns. Both are communities of informed choice.
16. The only healthy political order in this age is that which is rooted in the original covenant of human freedom. Liberty is given in Genesis, stewarded in the Law of Moses, redeemed in Jesus, given to the church to give to the world, and enfranchised in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.
17: Thus, in the language in Genesis 2:16-17: 1) freedom defines slavery; 2) feast defines famine; 3) good defines evil; and 4) life defines death.