You may surely eat of tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
One little command. How hard could that possibly be? Look, here’s a beautiful garden full of trees. God made it just for you, so it has to be pretty amazing. You have all the food you need and more enough work to keep you busy. But there’s just one little thing. You see that tree over there? Don’t eat anything from that tree. All the other trees are fine, but that one is different. Just trust me on this. The only thing you’ll get from that tree is death.
Is that so hard?
Building a Better Mousetrap
Why did God give that command? Why not just leave Adam and Eve alone? Why put a tree in the garden and then tell them not to eat from it? Isn’t that kind of like putting a big red button in the garden with a sign that reads, “Don’t push this button.” Why would you do that? What possible purpose could it serve? God had to know that Adam and Eve were going to push the button. And admit it, you’d have done the same thing.
I was sitting in a friend’s living room once when a mouse scurried across the floor right in front of us. Being fearless young men, we immediately set about trying to catch the poor mouse. But we were sadly ill-equipped. Looking quickly around, I grabbed a tennis racket, and my friend armed himself with a baseball glove and a spatula. I can only imagine what that poor mouse must have thought when it was suddenly attacked by two crazed humans wielding athletic equipment and a kitchen utensil. Whatever it thought, it didn’t stick around long. It doesn’t take a very smart mouse to escape from a trap like that.
A more effective trap would work like this. The mouse walks out onto the kitchen floor. It’s been there many times before, but this time, something is different: a lovely chunk of cheese right there on the floor. That’s unusual. Thinking back to Scavenging School, the mouse remembers how often he’d been told that suspicious pieces of unguarded food were usually a trap. But that cheese looks delicious. And it would taste so good. How could something like that possibly be dangerous? So, despite the warnings, the mouse creeps over and steps up next to the cheese.
That’s much more effective. Bait the trap with something beautiful, yummy, and good. Then, sit back and wait for the trap to spring.
And that is how many people view God’s commandment in the garden. We know from Eve’s reaction that the tree “was good for food, that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). So God found something yummy, put it in the trap, and then sat back and watched to see what would happen. And what comes next?
Surely that was more effective than attacking us with a tennis racket.
3 Reasons the Command Was a Gift
But God’s commandment was not a mousetrap. It wasn’t any kind of trap. It was a gift. Yes, you read that right. God gave us this commandment as a gift. And, as a gift, it was ultimately given with our best interests in mind. Because of the terrible consequences that will come as a result of breaking this commandment, we find that difficult to believe. But it’s true nonetheless.
1. The command was a reminder of God’s glory
First, the commandment was a gift because it was a clear reminder that this story is about God’s glory. It’s about him. He’s the Creator; he’s in charge. There is no negotiation here, no haggling over details or working out the provisions of a contract. There is only God saying how things will be. This is a story about God’s glory, and the commandment makes that clear from the very beginning.
And, as a reminder of God’s glory, the commandment declares our purpose. We are God’s image bearers in creation. We are here to manifest his glory, not ours. The commandment is a gift, because it reminds us of our calling, our purpose throughout creation.
2. The command proclaimed God’s grace
But the commandment is also a gift because it proclaims God’s grace. “I am God,” it declares, “and everything that you have comes from me.” He provided Adam and Eve with existence; he gave them a place to live; he blessed them with relationship, sustenance, and beauty. In all of this, Adam and Eve are receivers. We will see shortly what happens when we forget this truth and try to take control of the story. But for now, the commandment makes it clear that this is how things were supposed to be: God gives and we receive.
3. The command established a meaningful relationship
And, finally, the commandment is a gift because it is through this commandment that God’s established meaningful relationship with humanity.
God cares about what Adam and Eve do. He has expectations. I have all kinds of relationships in my life. Some are pretty casual; others are more meaningful. And expectations make all the difference. If there’s some guy that I see occasionally in my favorite coffee shop, my expectations are pretty low: don’t talk loudly on your cell phone; don’t spill hot coffee on me (or cold coffee for that matter); and please, oh please, don’t talk to me. That’s about it. Casual relationships don’t come with much in the way of expectations.
Meaningful relationships, though, they’re different. My wife and I have a meaningful relationship, and that means that we have high expectations of each other: expectations about how we’ll treat each other, how much time we’ll spend together, and how we will not ever have chickens (sadly, that one has already been violated). We have these expectations we care about the other person. If my wife didn’t have any expectations of me, that would be the same as saying that I didn’t really matter to her. All of our most important relationships come with significant expectations and responsibilities. Any relationship that actually means anything works like this.
When God spoke to Adam, he communicated his expectations. And, in the process, he made it clear that this was a relationship that mattered.
So, far from being a trap, the commandment was a gift, an amazing gift. Through the command, God clearly proclaimed what creation is all about (his glory) and the basis on which he will always interact with his creation (his grace). At the same time, he identified his people in creation as the ones with whom he would enter into a very particular and meaningful relationship. God’s people, in God’s creation, to God’s glory. That’s what it’s always been about.
Granted, we didn’t respond well to the commandment. But rejecting a gift doesn’t make it any less of a gift.
[This is an excerpt from a book that I’m writing about the gospel, Good News for the Living Dead: A Fresh Take on the Gospel Story. You can read the other excerpts and keep track of new ones as they become available on my blog.]
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.