Bible study 1
By Jione Havea
Translation: New Revised Standard Version
4In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but 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 die.”
The text for this reflection opens the second biblical narrative (Gen. 2:4b-3:24), which explains to humans what is expected of them: to care for the ground from which they were formed (i.e., their origin) and to which they will return (i.e., their destiny), and to value and protect life and living. The text therefore calls for the protection of life, and for this to be done justly.
Life is God’s gift breathed over the ground (land, ’adamah) and its waters, and into human (’adam) and other living creatures. Gen. 2:4b-17 is part of a narrative that serves the same functions as the myths of origin found in all cultures: they help people make sense of who they are, how and why they think, value, desire and act in the ways they do.
The text in its context
Tilling Genesis. Gen. 2:4b-17 opens that second biblical myth of origin and is part of a larger story (Genesis—2 Kings) and scriptures (Old Testament, Bible). It tells of Yhwh God kindling life from and on the ground. This is not the story of a manicured garden, but of a wild one. Like a tree in a healthy forest, this narrative too grows wildly.
The first biblical myth of origin (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) separates things—light from darkness, night from day, dry land from sky and water, and so on—but this second one weaves things together—land, water, humans, plants, animals, and so forth. The second narrative invites readers to look for what is needed for the ground to come to life, to green up. It develops toward closure with the expelling of humans in order to protect the Tree of Life (3:23-24).
No plants and no herbs had yet grown because Yhwh God had not yet sent rain and there was no ’adam to “till the ground” (2:5). The lack of rain is resolved in the next verse, and the English translations are suggestive: the amount of water provided ranges from “mists” and “streams” to “flow” (NJPS – New Jewish Publication Society) and “flood” (NEB – New English Bible). NEB implies that ’adamah was “cracking up,” so dry that a flood was needed to quench its thirst. A flood would be a blessing if that were the case, but floods are devastating in other biblical (e.g., Gen. 6-9) and contemporary settings.
The lack of water was resolved not from above (rain from the sky) but from below (the ground). The narrator carefully describes the river that flowed from Eden to water the land, then branched into four directions over what might have been the world as known by first readers (2:10-14). Water was crucial for life and living then, as it still is now. Water is the soul of the sky, land and sea, and it flowed freely in God’s garden. These days, water is commoditized, contested and controlled in many places, and brackish in island wells.
The lack of ’adam to till the ground is met in 2:7. Yhwh God formed ’adam out of the dust of the now watered ground, then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being. With water and ’adam available, Yhwh God made all kinds of plants, pleasant to look at and good for food, to grow. Yhwh God then placed ’adam in the garden so that he might “till the soil” (NJPS) or “work the ground” (NRSV – New Revised Standard Version). Yhwh God is the landlord and gardener, with ’adam as an assistant, like a caretaker or hired labourer.
In Gen. 2:5 ’adam was to till/work the ground, and in 2:15 he is to also “care” for (NEB), “tend” (NJPS) or “keep” (NRSV) the garden. NRSV prefigures the response Cain gave later, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9). Juxtaposing these two narrative moments suggests that ’adam was placed in the garden in order to make it live, rather than to kill it off. The Geneva Bible is suggestive: God placed ’adam in the garden to “dress it” (clothe, heal, bind, nurse). Fulfilling these expectations brings peace to the ’adamah. The text thus closes with a picture of what peace on earth can look like—all kinds of pleasant and edible plants and herbs grow wild, water is plentiful, and ’adam is there to till, keep and dress the ground. If humans do our part, life will prevail and peace will endure. Peace, here, is about fulfilling responsibilities to life and for living.
Yhwh God also placed two trees together in the middle of the garden (2:9): the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowing Good and Bad. The Tree of Knowing Good and Bad was good to look at (cf. 3:6) but not good for eating (2:16-17). A limit is stated, but no reason is given. There is a hint only: To violate this limit is to break the peace with God and with ’adamah. We humans are free to sustain or break the peace with God and ’adamah. Our freedom, however, is not limitless. Our freedom allows us to be responsible to God and to ’adamah. It is therefore worth asking: Do we use our freedom responsibly in what we, as believers, citizens, relatives and companions, do and say? What about our churches? our societies? our nations?
What is deadly about knowing good and bad? If knowledge is power, this text is critical. The text implies that knowledge is not for the sake of controlling lands, minds and peoples, but for understanding how to affirm life. The fruit of wisdom in the Tree of Knowing is death, and death becomes the destiny of life. Humans are destined to return to the soil from which ’adam was taken. The cycle comes full circle, with death woven into the fabric of life. Dying is not the denial of living, but the destiny of life. In this connection, the limit that God set upon the first human couple suggests that God preferred life for humanity.
The Tree of Life was not off-limits (until 3:24), and so it was available for picking. Its fruits too were free! “The narrator leaves us asking: what if the first humans had chosen the fruit of the tree of life rather than the tree of knowledge?” 
Placing Genesis. This narrative comes from around the time of King Solomon, the apex of whose reign was the building of the temple, establishing Jerusalem as the city of David and the religious-political centre of Israel. Solomon’s was a time of political and economic stability, of social peace and confidence in God’s power. The fruits of Solomon’s garden, so to speak, were pleasant to behold and good for consuming.
There is an elevated view of humans in this patriarchal narrative. Humans started from dust and end up not much “less than god” (Ps. 8), with the responsibility to care for God’s garden. The world (the garden) is like a huge Christmas tree dressed with many ornaments and gifts, and streams of lights flow like rivers through it. The world was dry, but now it is satisfied. It was barren, but now it is greened. It was deserted, but now it is teeming with creatures. Humans are placed in the world to keep it ticking, flashing and greening.
The New African Bible  affirms that the world was good when created, that human labour (including peasant farming) is dignified collaboration with God, that humans belong to ’adamah and to God’s breath, and that all living beings are equal in dignity. Humans were created to partner with God in “dressing” life and living. “Together, God and humans are responsible for preserving the earth; God sustains and humans maintain.”  Solomon’s religious and imperial building projects were banging in the background, and he needed taxes and forced labourers for his building projects. Solomon was not too different from King Ahab in 1 Kings 21. Peace and justice in his time were selective., So, by contrast, this narrative is a backhand way of saying that human hands are for tending the ground (the origin and destiny of both water and humanity) rather than for making bricks out of clay (as in Egypt). In the rhythms of Amos and Micah, this narrative challenges the building of empires and instead encourages tending the ground, life and living. The same critiques apply to nations that build walls to divide people or wage war out of fear, or threaten to use nuclear weapons. Open for critique, also, are faith communities that tame believers into apathy, that do not work to make justice roll and God’s peace available to all.
The text in our context
Gendering Genesis. Many questions suround the matter of gender because the man’s network of relations, in which power is played out, extends from God and the ground, plants and herbs, toward woman and animals. A woman does not appear until later in the narrative (2:18-24), but her impact is never far from the minds of readers.
Constructive attention to sex and gender is not a recent yearning. Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–254 CE), who was ousted by church authorities, so that he lived as a refugee in Caesarea after 231, understood texts to have multiple meanings and asserted in his Homilies on Genesis that each person is both male/spirit and female/soul. While Origen was conditioned by his patriarchal setting, he did not reject women as evil and fallen.
A thousand years later, Christine de Pizan (c. 1364–1430), a lay poet and author who challenged misogyny, affirmed that God created woman as “a most noble creature.” The woman had the rightful claim to Paradise because she was created in Paradise, whereas the man was created before the place became Paradise. Christine chastises men who think less of women. Those men distort their nature and are “merciless” and “lacking any thought of thanks.”
In 1506 Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo (1475–1564) to “colour” the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The central section of the ceiling consists of nine frescoes depicting three scenes each from the Creation, Garden, and Flood narratives in Genesis (see http://mv.vatican.va). The best known is the depiction of the creation of ’adam, in which the hovering God points to a naked man’s drooping hand as if to zap him into life. In the depiction of the creation of the woman, she comes out of the side of the man with her hands pointing prayer-like toward God, while the man awkwardly falls onto a dead stump. The man has fallen, and at least one tree has died in the garden. In the fresco where the serpent gives a fruit to the woman, the man is upstanding. His left hand flexes and holds strong, while his right hand reaches to the Tree of Knowing Good and Bad, as if to pick its fruits. The man is neither passive nor unknowing.
The so-called fall of humanity has often been blamed on the woman, a view held firmly in many quarters on account of the garden narrative. Michelangelo’s frescoes suggest a shared blame, thus inviting us to reconsider our readings. If we read the narrative as having to do with gaining wisdom (knowing good and bad) rather than sin, then apologies are owed to the woman and the serpent. Michelangelo’s “colourings” invite us to see how readers have not done justice to the text, and to the character of the woman.
Questions about identity and gender will continue to well up, more intensely in some reading communities than in others. It is necessary to engage those questions because they bring our attention to the issues of peace and justice. Do we account for the experiences and realities of women when we define life, justice and peace?
Colouring Genesis. There is another “colouring” aspect to this narrative. Seeing that all kinds of plants and herbs grew wildly in the garden, we may safely assume that the soil was rich. Its colour would have been black (as rich soil is in my context). What colour would someone created from such soil be? The narrator did not consider my question, but it is important in my contexts.
This is not a question about race and ethnicity, but about colour and the tendency to discriminate against people of darker skin colours. Indigenous and marginalized people have darker skin colours, but fair skin is favoured (in Oceania too). From where and why do we buy into colour-based discriminations? To which colour(s) are we blind? How might we, in our readings, break the chains of stereotyping so that we may build communities that are just and inclusive?
In Oceania, skin colour is associated with work. Labourers of the land have blackened skin, while workers of the sea have darker golden skin. As natives of darker complexion, they face the worst of colour-discriminations. The garden narrative, on the other hand, locates the origin and destiny of life in the blackness of the ground, and in work.
The narrative returns again and again to the ground, and so does this reflection, this time to the Tree of Life. It is named but not delimited. What does it signal? At the end of the narrative, Yhwh God felt that it was necessary to protect the Tree of Life. God does not come across as being stingy, as if God did not want to share. Life and the Tree of Life were, after all, freely given at the beginning of the narrative. The end of the narrative testifies that life and living were important to God, and it was necessary to protect them. The narrative thus asks of us, How do we tend, keep and dress our settings so that all creatures receive God’s gift of life? What do we do to protect life and living? Whose life do we protect?
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
For further engagement, in light of the foregoing reflection, these questions are starters:
- What encourages and protects life and living in your home settings?
- What forms of labour dignify life in your home settings?
- With what views on women and gender are you [not] at peace, and why?
- What default position toward people of dark skin colours are just to you, and why?
- If you had the opportunity, what might a fresco based on Gen. 2:4b-17 look like?
God of life, give us the courage
to value and protect life
to commit, act and live justly
mindful of differences
for gender and colour divides are deep
but deeper are the currents of inclusiveness
and to do more than pray
for life is your gift to us
for living is our gift for all
God of life, courage and destiny
lead us to justice and peace
that we may affirm who we are. Amen!
Jione Havea, a native minister in the Methodist Church of Tonga, encourages readers to engage scriptures critically and imaginatively. Jione reads and presents literary texts as rhythmic, visual and performative events. He is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at United Theological College, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
 Norman Habel, The Birth, the Curse and the Greening of Earth (Sheffield: Phoenix, 2011), 51-52.
 The New African Bible (Nairobi: Paulines, 2011).
 Miguel A. De La Torre, Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 48.