Sunday, November 05, 2023

Jungles and Gardens

There is a big difference between a jungle and a garden.

Gardens have gardeners. Jungles do not. In the jungle, vines and weeds grow everywhere, sometimes strangling new growth and keeping desirable plants from blooming. Trees you don’t want block the sun from reaching those you do want. The root systems of vegetation that produces nothing useful suck up water needed by fruit-bearing growth. If you want a garden and not a jungle, it won’t happen naturally. Somebody has to tend it.

Eden was a garden, not a jungle. Those “somebodies” were Adam and Eve.

Gardens and Gardeners

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” That was man’s first job, and it involved Adam getting his hands dirty. Later, when it became evident one gardener working alone was suboptimal, God brought Eve into the world. What was Eve’s mission? To assist Adam. She was the “fit helper” the animal kingdom could never provide. Gardener 2.0. She had no independent mandate from God to do her own thing in Eden. Eve did what Adam did: planting, cutting, digging, trimming, tending, maybe even grafting. She too was hands-on, as God intended.

Presumably, this mandate to tend the garden included the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If other fruitful trees needed tending, then surely so did the tree upon which grew the forbidden fruit. It would be odd if it turned out to be the only tree in the entire garden that did not require the human touch to prosper.

Neither Shall You Touch It

I bring this up because I was in a Bible study this summer where one participant suggested the solution to original sin would have been for Eve just to stay away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not to even touch it. If Eve didn’t touch the tree, this person reasoned, then she couldn’t possibly eat its fruit. God’s commands would be kept effortlessly, and all would be well. So then, when Eve quoted the Amplified Version of God’s word to the serpent in the garden (“God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’ ”), the suggestion is that she was not so much adding to the word of God (a practice not recommended in scripture) as she was substituting a more helpful command for a less helpful one.

Possibly. Except Eve’s job was tending trees. Eden was a garden, not a jungle, and Eve was responsible to tend it along with her husband. Tending invariably involves touching, and touching was not a sin. The sin was eating.

Adding to the Word

Legalism is a practice that involves the amplification of God’s word. The intentions behind it are good, of course. We want to avoid sinning, displeasing God and causing injury to ourselves, to others and to the world. So legalism substitutes a broader commandment for a more specific one in the effort to put some helpful distance between temptation and the tempted.

Legalism turns “Do not get drunk with wine” into “Never touch alcohol under any circumstances.” It turns “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” into “Never go to the theater.” It turns “in the world” and “not of the world” into “Engage with the world as rarely as possible so as not to become worldly.” Certainly, keeping the broader, rewritten command constitutes a technical fulfillment of God’s word as written, but it also turns “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” into something a little heftier and more stifling.

Legalism also has a nasty way of turning from “I made this little extra rule for myself because I have trouble in this area” into “This new rule is so helpful everybody else needs to follow it too.” “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” so easily becomes “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” That’s not a good look. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders.” Respectfully, that’s not my job, and it’s not yours.

Serving Safely

More importantly, legalism keeps us from engaging with the world. Purity is an excellent value, and scripture teaches it, but purity achieved by never going to work in the morning defeats the purpose for which we are in the world in the first place. Maybe it saves you from a little cleanup at night, but cleanliness achieved by never breaking a sweat produces nothing for God. The Lord did not ask his Father to take the disciples out of the world, but rather to “keep them from the evil one”.

This world is a jungle. Our job is to turn our own little corner of it into a garden for the glory of God. That’s a hands-on job, and we can’t do it by making rules for ourselves and others that prioritize safety over service. The word of God as written is sufficient to every temptation. It was designed by one who knows us best to enable us to serve safely. The Lord doesn’t need our help rewriting it to keep ourselves out of trouble.

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