Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Making it Harder Than it Really Is

The other evening in a brain-straining philosophical/theological conversation with a couple of friends, one of the guys brought up a verse of Scripture scrutinized in a Bible study he once attended. The verse in question was Genesis 3:22, which reads:
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--"

Apparently the folks at this study were getting their beltloops hooked on the first clause: "the man has become like one of us." The point was that (the argument goes) the Fall of mankind was about Adam and Eve actually becoming "like God." Naturally this leads to two rather non-traditional interpretative consequences: the serpent wasn't lying when he told his prey they'd be like God and God's punishment of them was out of jealousy.

The way the tricky verse was brought up pretty much directed the way we ended looking at the text. I basically went into Genesis 3:22 trying to solve "the riddle." As a result, I ended up not really reading what it said.
It is like those optical illusions, in which, depending on how you're looking at it, you see a pretty young woman or a ragged old crone. It can take a while, some minute adjustment, to stop seeing the one you're presently seeing and make yourself see the other.

The plain reading of Genesis 3:22, in my estimation, is that when God says man has become "like us," He means "in knowing about good and evil." Because before the Fall, man had no knowledge of sin. So the Fall was not an actual elevation, but, well, just what the traditional understanding says -- a fall.

This reminds me of a time I spoke to a family member about a Bible passage that had intrigued him. He was studying in 2 Chronicles and came across the following verse:
[I]f my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

I emphasize the phrase “then will I hear from heaven,” because that’s the phrase my relative was hitting on, thinking it was saying something peculiar.
He asked me, “What do you think that means, ‘I’ll hear from heaven’?” The implication was that God was saying He would heal their land, but first He’d have to hear from someone in heaven. To get permission? Counsel? I don’t know.

I explained that I thought that was definitely reading too much into the text. I think it just means “God in heaven will hear the cries of His children below.” He’s not saying He’s going to hear from another in heaven. A more earth-bound analogical example would be if I told my neighbor, “Hey, if you need anything, just yell from your house, and I’ll hear from my house.”
My family member said he was still going to look it up.

The Bible says plenty of hard things on the surface. I’m not sure why we have this need to invent more hard things between the lines. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I've spent plenty of time looking into things like whether or not hell actually has fire in it, whether people's names are really written in the Book of Life to begin with, whether Jesus was saying non-Jews were dogs, whether Jesus was saying the kingdom of God comes with physical violence, etc. And all of these textual inquisitions were based on two things: a) reading too much into the biblical text, and b) coming to the text like it is a puzzle to be solved. Ever treat the Bible like a literary X-Files and yourself as an exegetical Mulder? (Or Scully? :-)

How easy it is to forget that the Bible is not just a book to be read, but a Book that reads us. (More on that in an upcoming blog post.)
Sometimes I get so busy reading between the lines, trying to fill in gaps I've imagined, that I miss what the lines actually say. And the gap is not some crypto-theological riddle to be unraveled, but the deficiency in my spirit that causes me to think of the Bible less as Spurgeon's wild lion uncaged than I do myself as its lion tamer.

You know, sometimes it just says what it says.


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