What has always “tainted” mankind and kept people from living ethical, inclusive, and caring lives? The answer is what drives our contemporary enormous cultural divide: Bad choices often rooted in tribal-based anger and hatred.
The Real “Beginning”
The first four chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-4, contain parable-like ancient stories containing profound truths. They are best considered ahistorical “etiological” accounts of beginnings. How did we begin and then start to go wrong?
How Many Creations?
Genesis 1-3 includes two creation accounts from separate sources: 6-steps/days in chapter 1, and then the Garden of Eden and banishment in chapters 2 and 3. I grew up with a conservative literal emphasis on the Garden of Eden and the so-called “fall of mankind.” This approach makes Adam and Eve disobeying an arbitrary rule about avoiding certain fruit on the advice of a snake result in the “need” for Jesus to make things right on the cross.
As a Christian, I believe Jesus makes things right in showing and teaching us how to live. Further, I believe his death and resurrection can result in forgiveness, profound peace, and enablement to help us make good daily choices. That is what life and the kingdom of God are all about now – people making good behavioral choices. Jesus’s teachings and life provide a basis for an inclusive, love-centered life for Christians and everyone else.
A Fresh Way to Look at the Beginning and the First Bad Choice
The well-known 6-step creation culminates in God’s creation of humankind:”…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, emphasis added). Further, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (verse 31, emphasis added). Thus, the climactic lasting truth of this archaic and profound account is that from the very start, humans were very good, and the only distinction was gender. The story does not even hint at groups, races, or any tribal or other differences.
Broad-jumping the separate Garden of Eden account and linking this complete equality of human beginning with the account of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-10) is illuminating. Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, were a farmer and shepherd, respectively. Cain perceived that God preferred his sibling’s offering. This made Cain “very angry” (verse 5). He acted on his anger by murdering his brother (verse 8). Importantly, this is the first mention of “sin” or wrongdoing, which God indicated to Cain was “lurking at the door” when Cain was angry before deciding “not [to] do well” in killing Abel.
The account of Cain and Abel is in part an etiological anecdote of tribal hatred, here between shepherds and farmers, running so deep that it destroyed blood brothers by blood-shedding. The summit of this ancient story is Cain’s post-murder answer to God asking the whereabouts of Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). The divine answer in this formative anecdote is a resounding YES – from the beginning and for all time.
So, What About the Garden of Eden?
Combining Genesis 1 and 4 results in a practical and life experience authenticated truth characterized by equality and goodness actualized in good choices and spoiled by bad decisions. The mysterious Garden of Eden account derives from a different source. Yet, the Eden story clearly teaches us that we are mortal and our lives will not be easy. This enhances the importance of how we live and relate to other people. Time is of the essence to live each day with good choices rooted in loving and caring for our sisters and brothers, regardless of differences. This is what God ordained as “very good” from the beginning.
Prioritizing Justice: Jesus “Got it” and So Should We
The earliest Gospel, Mark, quickly shows us what Jesus was all about in his life. Mark summarizes Jesus’s teaching as the “kingdom of God is at hand;” thus, it is time to “repent” (Mk. 1:15). Repent means to so radically change that it is like turning around and following a different path. Jesus went in the opposite direction of many prominent and powerful leaders of his own Jewish tradition by championing people who were habitually despised and oppressed. For example, shortly after summing up Jesus’s teachings, Mark tells us that a leper begged Jesus to help him: “If you choose, you can make me clean” (verse 40). Many healthy people oppressed the ill, erroneously thinking illness meant God rejected them. No one dared go near a leper, yet Jesus immediately seized the opportunity by “touching” and helping him (verse 41). Jesus showed us the power of a good choice.
The Gospel of Luke offers a strong example of Jesus’s relentless pursuit of justice for the needy and ill-treated. Full of God’s spirit, Jesus announced in a Nazareth synagogue (Lk. 4:16) that God had “anointed [him] to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind [and] to let the oppressed go free….” (verses 18-19). Another example is from the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (Mt. 5-7). Jesus declares at the outset of this longest collection of his teachings that the “poor,” “meek,” hungry, “peacemakers,” and “those who are persecuted” are in fact the “blessed” ones (Mt. 5:3, 5-6, and 9-10).
Like Jesus’s actions and the pure intention of every decent human being of any stripe, our choices should be “anointed” and consistent with how God intended and made us from the start – with equality and special concern for those who suffer or have suffered through oppression. The time for our return is beyond ripe. Let’s not delay in actively making a lasting difference in how we choose to live.