Iron sharpens iron
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. (Genesis 3.6-7)
The ancient Greeks told a story very similar to this, usually called Pandora’s Box. In that myth, the chief god Zeus commissions the manufacture of the first woman, Pandora, as a punishment for man’s acquisition of fire. Not content with the severity of that punishment—yes, they envisioned woman as a curse upon man—Zeus also gives Pandora a container which he orders her not to open, knowing that sooner or later her curiosity will get the better of her. When it does, the woman finds the jar contains every evil thing, and she is unable to stop them from escaping and filling the world. This is obviously a much later retelling of the account of Adam and Eve. The similarities are striking, with the first woman being formed by God and presented to pre-existing man as a gift, the woman’s choice to disobey God’s simple instruction, and thus the entrance of all evil into the formerly safe, peaceful, and innocent world.
The differences, however, can tell us a lot. The motivations behind the details even help us to better understand what God tells us in Genesis. In contrast to the Greeks’ re-imagined story, God didn’t give Eve to Adam as a curse pretending to be a blessing. The verses leading up to Eve’s creation demonstrate that Adam is incomplete, without Eve.
Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. (Genesis 2.19-20)
We could’ve missed it, but comparison to the corrupted Greek myth makes God’s true motivations all the clearer. Adam is alone, and that is not good. He sets out to rectify that situation, and Eve is the result.
Another difference is that, while Zeus used a reverse-psychology approach to get Pandora to open the source of all evil, God didn't do this. He provided the choice, of course, and knew that they would eventually choose rebellion, but he meant what he said, and punished Adam and Eve for disobeying. The entrance of evil into the world wasn’t his goal—it was a tragedy.
Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, while the Greeks weren’t shy about blaming everyone else for what goes wrong with man, God makes it clear in Genesis that all humans are responsible for evil. The Greeks blamed woman—that silly twit just had to know what was under the lid, and now everything’s ruined. But while Eve was deceived and was the first to eat the forbidden fruit, is Adam any better? He knows the command as well as Eve does, and can’t even claim he was tricked. “She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Ge 3.6). He’s not exactly an unwilling participant, and he’s certainly not the model of a patriarchal head of his household, who’s in charge and responsible for not just himself but those in his care. No, instead when God confronts him about his sin, he responds, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Ge. 3.12).
Funnily enough then, the Greeks are simply telling the story from Adam’s perspective, without a shred of awareness that Adam is part of the problem. Adam blamed Eve. These Greeks blamed Pandora, and women in general, for all their misfortune and suffering. Adam, in his quest to shift the blame from his own shoulders to anyone else, also blamed God himself, by calling Eve, “the woman whom you gave to be with me.” That fact only bears mentioning in this conversation in order to imply God is really the one responsible for this catastrophic turn of events. We’re meant to roll our eyes at Adam’s weaseling, and then upon reflection to see his faults in ourselves, too. That lesson seems to have been lost on the Greek storytellers, who instead take Adam’s idea of blaming God and run with it, so that they assign evil motives to Zeus every step of the way and cast these poor, innocent primordial men as victims—of Pandora’s foolishness, and the gods’ malice.
This is not a good way to look at the world, for many reasons. Look where it got Adam:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3.17-19)
God doesn’t much care for excuse-making and blame-slinging, no matter who’s doing it. The road to redemption starts with acknowledging your need for it. Rather than blaming each other and God for all that is wrong in the world, look at your own contributions to evil. We must acknowledge our guilt, or we won’t obtain forgiveness.
Interpreting a written document is difficult, and the stakes go up, the more important the document is. There’s a reason lawyers are very well paid for their work: it involves learning to properly interpret and apply a vast body of text, written over a long period of time by many different hands, in a form of language not used by the common people. They do all this in order to help their clients comply with the law and defend those clients before a judge, if necessary, who is often compensated even more generously for his expertise. In the Bible, we’re dealing with a collection of incredibly important texts, and many people have an interest in reading God’s words and especially his instructions in one particular way or another.
As a result, some have devised systems of interpretation and application, just as lawyers have done with the law. One of these principles occasionally thrown around is called the Law of First Mention. The idea here is that the first time a word or topic shows up in the Bible, it is the touchstone—the clearest, simplest, most authoritative expression of the idea, and therefore the key that unlocks all of the other instances.
We see Jesus doing something like this to settle the debate over divorce:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19.3-6)
There it is—an important issue, subject to competing interpretations by the lawyers of the day, settled by a simple appeal to “the beginning.” The first time it’s mentioned, God’s intent for marriage is clear. He himself joined the first husband and wife into “one flesh,” and thus the argument is settled.
There’s value in going back to the beginning. Examining anything’s origins is a good way to better understand its core meaning and more fully comprehend its development over time. For example, the creation account teaches us many things about God’s purpose and intentions for his creation.
However, it’s foolish to make the first mention of a topic the authority at the expense of everything else God has said. That would be to deliberately ignore later and perhaps more precise instructions from God, on the basis that we liked the old ones better. Worse than that, it would throw us wildly off the trail in many areas. For example, consider the passage from which Jesus was quoting when he settled the divorce question. He quoted Genesis 2.24, and the very next verse says, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” This is the first appearance of both the word and the concept of nudity in the Bible, and to use Jesus’ language, “from the beginning,” there was nothing remotely wrong or dangerous about flagrant nakedness in daily life. Ok, now we clearly have a problem.
In case you find this argument appealing, let’s note that Adam and Eve realize they are naked after eating the forbidden fruit, and immediately fashion a crude covering of their more vulnerable areas. Shortly thereafter, God finds these to be insufficient covering, and provides better clothing for them even as he’s busy banishing them from their original home in Paradise: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Ge 3.21). Whatever happened to the “first mention”? There’s still something important to learn from the origins, but it’s a terrible standard for our behavior today.
This approach would also have us continuing to follow many obscure Old Testament laws that don’t pertain to us anymore. Tassels are first mentioned in Numbers 15.37-40, for one example. They are not an optional fashion accessory, but a requirement. For another example, pigs first appear in Leviticus 11.7, and while Jesus later made it clear (Mk 7.18-20, Ac 10.13-15, and Ro 14.14) this is not an issue under his covenant, we’d conclude from the “first mention” that pork is forbidden for human consumption and always will be.
We haven’t even discussed yet, which arrangement of the books holds sway? This doesn’t matter until you move past the book of Judges, but after that point the Hebrew arrangement differs from the Greek Old Testament, and both differ from our modern arrangement. The same books are included, but in a different order—what comes “first,” then? This may seem like a silly question, but the doctrine of first mention would demand we reach a firm answer to it, in order to establish priority, and thus authority.
We’re barking up the wrong tree. While there are good reasons to pay attention to origins, the real answer is to consider all that God has said, not to pick and choose based on some man-made standard that would have us walking around both naked and also wearing tassels—but free from defilement brought on by bacon consumption. Even if you like that idea, it makes little difference in God’s eyes, and he’s the one who gets to make the rules. Pay attention, and don’t just obey the ones you like, or the ones you think are important.
One of the most tragic developments in the history of the Israelite nation in the Old Testament is found is 1 Samuel 8. It’s far from the saddest—there are times of great rebellion and great retribution that lay a much stronger claim to that title. The Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32, the grotesque moral and societal decay seen in the final five chapters of Judges, the horror story of two starving women descending into remorseless cannibalism of their own children in 2 Kings 6, Athaliah’s slaughter of her children and grandchildren in order to seize power in 2 Kings 11, and still others, easily surpass what amount to a political misstep in 1 Samuel 8; however, this story is more tragic. This is because the main characters are—unknowingly and with seemingly good intentions—bringing about their own downfall, despite protests from a prophet.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” (1 Samuel 8.4-5)
The elders have a point—Samuel’s sons are terrible judges, failing to uphold God’s law, or even any sense of justice at all. The people are right to chafe at this situation. On top of that, the Law of Moses explicitly allows them to appoint a king with God’s permission: “you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose” (De 17.15). But Samuel can see that appointing a king will make matters worse for the average joe, in the long run. At God’s direction, he warns the people,
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (2 Samuel 8.11-18)
Note that God and Samuel both permit the people to do this. Nowhere do they call it sinful, wrong, a transgression, unlawful, or any such thing. There are also benefits to be had from a king: a judge whose decisions are final and binding, a single authority responsible for the defense of the realm, and also a sense of fitting in—although that last one is a benefit only in the people’s shortsighted estimation. But they were giving up much of their own freedom, by handing over some of their responsibilities to someone else.
Throughout the course of history, practically every major power has been ruled by a monarch, even when called by a different name. Technically Nero was the “Princeps,” the first among equals in the Roman senate, and that title carried no constitutional authority. Yet, when Peter wrote “honor the emperor” (Greek βασιλεύς-basileus-“king”) in 1 Peter 2.17, everyone knew he meant Nero, or whoever would come to occupy his office in the future. Even representative governments over time move increasingly toward rule by a few or even one person, because people are so willing to give up responsibility for themselves, in exchange for a feeling of security and order.
What does all of this mean? There are political lessons to learn from it, but the spiritual lessons are more important. Sometimes we pursue something that’s not sinful in and of itself, but leads us down a dangerous and perhaps painful path. We often can’t see the end of that path as we walk along, and we may ignore warnings from wise people who care about us. It’s often said that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” and like most tired platitudes, there’s a lot of truth in it. The Bible tells us the same thing: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Pr 14.12 & 16.25—a proverb important enough to be included twice!).
Instead, we must walk by the narrow way illuminated by Christ and his apostles, and accept him as our king. He’s in charge whether we admit it or not, but it’s far better to be his friend, than his enemy. Back in 1 Samuel 8, the most tragic aspect of the story is easily seen in the following two verses: God says, “they have rejected me from being king over them” (v7), and Samuel warns them, “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you” (v18). It’s all their own fault. They pushed God away, saying he wasn’t good enough a protector and judge to them, and that trusting him didn’t allow them to fit in with their neighbors. They’ll all complain about their kings for as long as they have kings—and even when foreign kings like Nebuchadnezzar or Nero rule over them, for that matter—but they’ve brought it on themselves. Don’t make their mistake. Don’t reject God as your king. Don’t make your own path harder.
I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.12-14)
This passage is particularly appropriate at the end of a year and the beginning of a new one, and even more so when the outgoing year is 2020. The whole world is happy to see a new start, and many assume the sun will shine brighter, food will taste better, the air will smell cleaner, the pandemic will go away, our political divisions will heal, and a new era of peace and harmony will begin, in which “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;” and “the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Is 66.25).
If this is your impression, then I hate to be the one to spoil it for you, but it’s not going to happen. Strife, tribulation, oppression, and disease may subside in 2021, but they won’t go away completely until all things are subjected to Christ. The question isn’t whether these troubles will continue, but how we will react, when they do.
When Paul wrote the words of Philippians 3 quoted above, he was facing trial and possible execution due to his faith. Even with the axe hanging over his head, he didn’t give in, didn’t give up, and didn’t see any reason sit back and relax. He didn’t dwell on the struggles of the past, nor did he rest on his laurels, but instead continued to press forward, answering Christ’s call to heaven. The reason Paul mentions this is not to make his readers think more highly of him, but to encourage them to adopt the same mentality, and to continue pushing forward themselves, as he says in verse 17, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
It’s not that God doesn’t want us to learn from history or our own experiences—otherwise we wouldn’t know where to go, what to do, how, or why. But we shouldn’t dwell on the troubles of the past. We shouldn’t relive the past at the expense of the present and, more importantly, the future. As we enter into a new year, we shouldn’t become stuck in the old one, but we should learn from it, and use that knowledge to better serve God and his Kingdom today and tomorrow.
Some of this learning and pressing forward is mostly informational, such as what tactics work, and don’t work, in preventing outbreaks of a particular virus. But much more consequential than that, is the moral dimension. Were you perfectly righteous in the year 2020? Perhaps a handful of people would claim to have been, but they should take a look at 1 Corinthians 10.12: “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall,” as well as James 3.2: “we all stumble in many ways,” and 1 John 1.8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Most people are either humble enough or tactful enough to admit to imperfection, but we ought to go beyond that, as John says in the following verse, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1.9).
Yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t dwell on our past sins, or relive them so that they hinder our progress today. That’s not what Jesus wants—he wants to forgive and cleanse us! He wants to give us eternal life! He wants us to join him beside his Father, as he says, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Re 3.21). We must not continue to live in past sins. On the one hand, simply continuing to behave in unholy and harmful ways puts a barrier between us and God, because he does not allow anything unholy in his presence. On the other hand, even a person who is sorrowful and repentant can ruin his own efforts to clean up, as Paul says of himself, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Ro 7.15). He takes it even a step farther a few verses later, saying, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (v18). Just thinking of yourself as the sort of person who would do that awful thing, makes it easier to give in and do it again. This inward struggle with fleshly desires is a part of the human condition, ever since Adam and Eve opened the door to the knowledge of good and evil, and took themselves and their descendants out of the realm of innocence, and into captivity under sin. None of us is guiltless. In fact, our awareness of the past and our own actions’ physical consequences, is part of what makes us accountable for those actions. We knew better, or should have known better, yet we did it anyway.
That is why each of us must die to sin and “put off the old self with its practices,” putting on “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Co 3.9-10). The year 2021 will not be your perfect year. The New Year does not miraculously make a New You. But there is something you can do—refuse to dwell in past sins and mistakes, and focus instead on pushing forward with all of your strength, learning from the past and imitating those who walk according to the example of Christ and his apostles. Confess your sins and seek forgiveness and cleansing, and pursue the prize of eternal life with Jesus in his Father’s home, where evil can no longer tempt you, and no longer hurt you.
“The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded” (1Pe 4.7). As this crazy year winds down and we anticipate a new beginning in just a few days, it’s even more appropriate than normal to reflect on what a year it has been, and remember what really matters.
Obviously, the pandemic steals the show. It had already been an interesting couple of months before the virus reached us, and from there it just got weirder. We spent months with a locked down economy and remote work, worship, shopping, and relationships. This was followed by fights in practically every arena of life, and while most of those have since simmered down, there remains a deep division in society, and even in the church, over The Science. Sadly, this division has contributed to broken relationships, including between Christians who really should know better how to bear with and forgive each other (Co 3.13).
That’s not to mention the death toll. Currently, there have been roughly 1.7 million deaths globally from this virus. About 320,000 of those were in the United States, about 7,200 in the state of Indiana, and about 270 have been local. We’re nowhere near the point of saying, “there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Ex 12.30), but all of us at least know someone who lost a loved one to covid, and all of us know several who have survived the disease. For comparison, note that the total number of people who died in World War 1 was about 20 million, at a time when the world’s population was less than a third what it is today. The world has seen far worse, and it’s worth noting as well that this country alone kills nearly a million babies in the womb each year. Nevertheless, for most people this has been an awful year.
This serves as a strong reminder that the world is far from perfect. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Ro 5.12), and as much as we hate the suffering and death of this world, it’s clear that these problems are really our own fault. It’s not that we inherit guilt from Adam and Eve, but we do inherit their curse, and incur our own guilt by making the same choice to rebel against God. Death, in the big picture, is a consequence of sin.
While this year often felt like the end of the world was approaching, it can’t compare to the real end of all things. We don’t really know that much about what to expect there. The main thing we know for sure, is that no one knows when it will come: “the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Lk 12.40). There are other tidbits shared with us, however, for example that
the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3.10)
That only affects the physical world, but while the physical is temporary, the spirit is eternal. This world will be destroyed, but we “will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1Pe 4.5). In that world, everything changes. God
“will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21.4)
How wonderful, to do away with all of the things that made this year so miserable, and instead live in the city where
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22.3-5)
But that’s not the only option, of course. As noted a moment ago, the Son of Man is appointed to judge, and judging involves distinguishing between different categories. “And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Mt 25.33). If the sheep get to enter the kingdom, what happens to the goats? “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (v41).
What a contrast! One option involves eternal relief from all the things that have plagued us this year. The other involves far worse suffering, with no chance of relief, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mk 9.48). Are you prepared to face the end?
Every year, we look forward to a fresh start as December rolls around into January, but the reality is usually disappointing. Just consider how optimistic we were as 2020 began! This world will never live up to our hopes, and it’s our own fault. We keep getting new chances to start the year off right, and we keep ruining it. A time will come when you no longer have the opportunity to write another chapter. How do you want the book to end? How do you get to that point?
There is only one path to life. It’s through Jesus, “the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (He 10.20). Make sure that, even as we put this long year out of its misery, you’re prepared for a much more consequential ending, that will determine the state of your soul forever.