Creation: A Tale of Two Trees
May 5, 2014
Updated April 16, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Genesis 2:4-25, Deuteronomy 30:11-20
Beginning in Genesis 2:4 we have another account of the creation of the world which is different from the one that can be read in Genesis 1. We should not simply read this text as a continuation of what is already said in Genesis 1. We can see this from the fact that verse 4 of our reading says, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” More literally, the Hebrew text says “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” This phrase indicates a new story that is introducing a different focus on the beginning of the world. In this account we read about the creation of Adam from the dust of the ground, and Eve from the rib of Adam. We read about rivers and the Garden of Eden, and two trees that stand in the middle of the garden. None of these things are mentioned in Genesis 1. Therefore, this text is not simply a closer look at Day 6 of the first creation account, it’s another account of the Beginning. That being said, we should not read Genesis 2 apart from what we are told in Genesis 1. These two accounts of the creation belong together and we need to hear them both. The Holy Spirit has given us both texts so that we might know our Creator and our place in the Creator’s world as the ones created in his own image. Gordon Spykman in his book “Reformational Theology” writes,
The creation story as recorded in Genesis 2 is oriented to the earthly scene. Creation is given its finishing touches, climaxed in the appearance of humankind, Adam and Eve. They are appointed - and in them we, too, - as stewards, caretakers, and administrators of this bounteous visible kingdom of God, called to serve as the Creator’s representatives among his other creatures. It is a very down-to-earth narrative.
The creation is really all about the Kingdom of God. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” means, “In the beginning God created the Kingdom of God.” We will avoid falling into a lot of peripheral arguments about “science and creation” if we keep the Reformational perspective in mind when we read Genesis 1 & 2: It’s about the Kingdom of God. This is God’s world. God created it; God directs it; God is to be glorified in it. John Calvin calls creation the “Theatre of God’s glory” and the psalmist in Psalm 29 calls it the “Temple of the Lord”. So do not look to Genesis 1-2 to explain how the Grand Canyon was formed or why dinosaur bones are found in South Dakota or marine fossils in the bedrock of Iowa. This is a Kingdom oriented text that ultimately points us forward to Jesus Christ in whom we inherit the Kingdom. On the Creation narratives John Calvin in his commentary writes,
Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor is this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont to boldly reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.
So what is being revealed to us in Genesis 2:4-25? What do we learn about our place in this universe? In the end, this is a gospel oriented text that speaks to God’s grace in choosing to create the world and a people for his own pleasure and glory. It’s about the Kingdom of God and our role as human beings who have been created for life in this place, in this universe.
With regards to this second creation account in Genesis 2, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “The destiny of human creation is to live in God’s world, with God’s other creatures, on God’s terms.” The last phrase of that quote is of particular importance as we now study Genesis 2. Human beings are called to live before the face of God on God’s terms, that is, according to God’s Word. This is the perspective that takes us to our focus for today. But where is God’s Word in this story? Adam and Eve did not have a Bible. Christians who hold to a Reformed theological understanding of the faith say that we have two means by which we know God. We know him, says Article Two of the Belgic Confession, by the “creation, preservation and government of the universe” - that is, “General Revelation”. And we know him even more through “his holy and divine Word” - that is, “Special Revelation” Humanity in the beginning had the universe displayed before them in all of its perfection and glory. But, they not only had “General Revelation”, they too had “Special Revelation”.
God’s Word comes specifically in our text from Genesis 2:15-17. It is spoken, not written; and it is symbolized in order to be realized. There are many things that we could consider and explore from Genesis 2, but today we hear the Word of the Lord which says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” These words are the central part, the climax of the first half of Genesis 2. Look carefully at these three verses. According to Walter Brueggemann our place in God’s world consists of:
1) Vocation (verse 15) - work in the garden and take care of it.
2) Permission (verse 16) - you are free to eat from any tree.
3) Prohibition (verse 17) - you make not eat from one particular tree.
The Word of God is spoken, not written; and it is symbolized in order to be realized.
The Special Revelation of God and its instructions to humanity seem rather simple in the text. However, living life on God’s terms in God’s world turns out to be an exceedingly difficult thing for us as human beings to do. We fail and the second account of creation in Genesis 2 is one that leads to the fall of humanity in Genesis 3. Most of us are familiar enough with this part of the Bible to know where it will all lead. We mess up.
It’s really a disturbing narrative that begins in Genesis 2. We can accept our vocation in verse 15 and we love the permission and freedom that is given in verse 16. It’s that cursed prohibition in verse 17 that gives us trouble! It seems that from the very beginning the story is simply on course to lead us to our eventual fall from God’s favour into God’s wrath. And this should annoy us because it seems that the story is fixed. Adam and Eve don’t stand a chance. Everything is fixed! Even though God calls them to obedience to his Word, failure is always on the horizon. We fail because we are failures. We sin because we are sinners. But is this what we are to take away from the story? Do Reformed Christians take a perverse delight in their inability not to sin? We won’t if we remember the gospel that is embedded into the very act of creation. Before the great fall there was and still is the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.
You see, the very act of creation ought to tell us that God has a greater purpose in mind than our failure. God will not be without his Kingdom and the Creation by its very existence sings out the praise and wonder of God the Creator. God does not want us to fail even if on our own we are all failures. Adam did not walk around the Garden of Eden with a big “L” for “loser” on his forehead! There is another Name written on his forehead. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God and this means that they were created for a relationship with their Creator. We know from Genesis 1:26-28 that written on the faces of humanity is the “signature of God” in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Genesis 2:4 the Name of the Covenant Lord “Yahweh” is used for the first time and that tells us this is a covenantal text that proclaims the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. God is in a covenant relationship with the world and all living things. And God is in a special covenantal relationship with the ones created in his own image. This Word of grace given to humanity is symbolized in the text by two trees that stand in the middle of the garden. The end of verse 9 says, “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Two trees and one Word of the Covenant Lord who has given Vocation, Permission, and Prohibition to humanity. Our relationship with the Lord is defined by this Word. The “Tree of Life” and the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” both speak of God’s grace which will be realized through obedience. Both trees are good. One tree gives life and the other tree gives a warning for how to maintain that life. The “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is not evil in itself. Both trees serve to make the Word of the Lord - a word of blessing - a reality in the life of this world. In his Word God sets before Adam and Eve life and death, a blessing and a curse. They are to choose life. Two trees: one Word of God!
If we fast forward many years to Deuteronomy 30 the same Word of God is in essence set before the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land which was to be like another Garden. The Word of the Lord comes near and says to the people, “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.” “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” The words of Deuteronomy 30:11-20 are an echo to Genesis 2:15-17. Life in the land, just as life in the garden, would be possible only in covenant relationship with the Lord. Obedience to the covenant is the only option that brings life and freedom to Adam and Eve, Israel and even to us. So who will be obedient?
The tale of two trees is a gospel word for life in the Kingdom of God. We have a purpose and nothing in this world is a mistake. Whether you are in the height of your career or retired after many years of working. Whether full time at home or in the classroom, God the Creator calls on us to live and grow and develop this world that he has entrusted to our care. The world of Genesis 2 is a world of freedom and life. Adam and Eve are called on to choose life by fulfilling their vocation as God’s caretakers of the Garden. They are free to use and enjoy the gifts that God has given in Eden. We should not regard this as a text that sets humanity up for failure. We are set up for life as can be seen in the symbol of the Tree of Life. This tree speaks to the binding of God to his covenant with humanity and the Creation. Yes, Adam and Eve will fall and through them all of us will fall too. But this is not the final word. You see, the tale of the two trees is speaking just one Word and that is “Christ”. Even before the creation of the world, God had chosen for our salvation and the redemption of Creation in Christ. In John 15:5 Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (ESV)
From the very beginning, the Tale of the Two Trees symbolized the Word of God: his blessing and his curse. Together they come to their fullest meaning in Jesus Christ and the tree on which he was crucified. Christ chooses the path of obedience that leads him to the tree. At the cross of Christ, the blessing of God and the curse of God come together in one great climactic moment in the history of the world. As the wrath of God is poured out on his Son, the blessing of God’s grace goes out into the whole world. For Adam and Eve in the Garden; for Old Testament Israel in the Promised Land; for us in the world today, God sets before us life and death; a blessing and a curse. “Choose life” says the Lord. We do not seek a tree in a Garden or a cross on a hill; what we seek and what by grace we will find is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh in whom a New Creation has been born. The Word of the Lord that was spoken has now been written; the Word that was symbolized has now been realized. The Word is Christ and in him we know who we are and what our life is meant to be. Amen.
Prayer of Application
Father in heaven, we thank you for your revelation—revealed already to your people in paradise. We acknowledge the covenant blessing and the covenant curse that is also placed before us today. May we heed the invitation to come to Jesus Christ. May we live in him. May we grow in him. May your Kingdom come in all of its fullness. In Jesus name we pray. Amen
Order of Service
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Opening Hymn: “The Ends of all the Earth shall Hear” LUYH # 594, PsH # 542
Prayer for God’s Greeting: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen”
Hymn of Praise: “O God beyond all Praising” LUYH # 557
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Call to Confession: Psalm 51:1-12
Hymn of Penitence: “God Be Merciful to Me” LUYH # 623, PsH #255
Assurance of Pardon: I Peter 1:3-9
Hymn of Assurance: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” PsH # 486
WE HEAR THE WORD
Prayer for Illumination: “God our helper, by your Holy Spirit open our minds and lead us into your truth for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:4-25, Deuteronomy 30:11-20
Sermon: “Creation: A Tale of two Trees”
Prayer of Application
WE RESPOND TO SERVE
Hymn of Response: “There is God’s Garden” LUYH #684 or Sing a New Creation # 138 Verses 1,2,4,6
Closing Hymn: “Psalm 117: From all that dwell below the Skies” LUYH # 570
Prayer for God’s Blessing: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Love of God the Father in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
Quotes are taken from…
Gordon Spykman, Reformational Theology (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI: 1992)
John Calvin, The Pentateuch. (Associated Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI)
Walter Bruegggemann. Interpretation Series (John Knox Press)
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