It has become almost a commonplace in modern evangelical theology that not only man himself is regenerated in the purpose of God but also the world in which he lives along with him. It has long been held in the church that Genesis 3:17-19 indicate that the consequence of Adam’s sin was a universal or cosmic curse on his environment, and that once sin has been dealt with by Christ at the end of the age, then creation itself will be renewed (or restored, redeemed, renovated, repristinated, purged, transformed or recreated) and made fit for regenerate mankind’s habitation (Rom. 8:19-25; 2 Pet.7,10-13; Rev. 21:1). However, in view of a great deal of specific biblical evidence militating against it, including arguably the very references just used, it is more than doubtful whether this scenario can be substantiated. What is more, it presents us with a worldview, which on the face of it seems completely unreal, even absurd.
No less a conservative traditionalist than Murray mentions almost casually in comment on Romans 8 that we are not able to understand the implications of the vanity arising from the curse for creation as a whole, but insists that all is affected (p.303). A.K.Ruler puts the matter much more bluntly when he suggests that the notion that events in human history like sin and redemption might affect inanimate nature can only seem ‘superstitious and bizarre’ (p.710, col.1). For all that, he adopts a restorationist stance (cf. L.Berkhof, p.399; H.Berkhof, p.523; Erickson, p.655; Grenz, pp.52, 110ff., 588, 644ff.; Wright (2), etc.). Elsewhere I have argued at some length that Romans 8:18-25, which passage does not even allude to sin, bears no relation to Genesis 3 and hardly teaches what nearly all commentators, apparently on the basis of Augustinian theology, assume it does.
The very idea of a cosmic curse is rendered suspect at the outset by the cultural mandate expressed in Genesis 1:26,28. Why, if the earth God has created is perfect or complete is man called on to exercise dominion over it? This question becomes all the more acute when we consider that in Genesis 2:5,15 the distinct impression is given that creation cannot attain to its full potential unless it is inhabited (cf. Isa. 45:18) and tilled (cf. Ezek. 36:33-36). Clearly the earth, even Eden (cf. Gen. 2:5,15), is not entirely an autonomous benefactor. It would appear that just as God has played his part, finished his work of creation and imposed order on the original chaos (Gen. 1:2), man, as God’s vice-regent, is now required to play a similar role and impose order on the earth (Ps. 8:6-8). Failing this, presumably the land will languish and remain a wilderness (Isa. 6:11, etc.). This view is supported by an appropriate comment by Stott: “’Nature’ is what God gives us; ‘culture’ (or cultivation) is what we do with it. Without a human cultivator, every garden or field quickly degenerates into a wilderness” (p.193, cf. p.133). An uninhabited land is desolate (Isa. 6:11; 27:10; Jer. 51:29; Zech. 7:14, etc.).
Admittedly, these verses are difficult to understand; verse 18 certainly gives the impression that the ground as such is cursed (cf. Gen. 19:24f.; Dt. 29:20-28; Jer. 7:20). However, this prompts at least three questions: What is meant? Is the curse permanent? And, is it universal as has traditionally been maintained?
It needs to be recognised that we are dealing here with primitive material and the immediate text and context are not all that helpful. But in light of what is taught in clearer terms later in Scripture we should be able to make some plausible deductions.
What appears to be fundamental is that on the one hand the ground is recalcitrant, fails to respond autonomously and needs a responsible tiller, and on the other it remains relatively fruitless and unproductive to man, the law-breaker or sinner (cf. Lev. 26:18ff.). In view of the fact that it inherently requires habitation and cultivation (Gen. 2:5,15; 3:23; 4:2), it suffers from the disruption or failure of Adam’s rule or dominion arising from his moral disorientation (cf. 6:11-13, where the earth is said to be corrupt because all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth, but contrast Dt. 26:14f.; Ps.128:1f.; Prov. 12:11; 28:19). The earth, like the flesh which derives from it, though not evil in itself (it is ‘good’, that is, useful, Gen. 1:12, etc., in the sense of Eccl. 3:11 NRSV, etc., cf. Dt. 20:19; Job 5:6f., Ps. 85:11; Hos. 10:4,8; Hab. 3:8), is no longer subjected to his control as it was before (Gen. 2:15,19f.) and still less, in fact not at all, once he is cast out (cf. Jer. 4:25f.; 44:2f.). Though its failure to respond as it did before the law was broken (cf. 4:12) easily gives the impression that the fault lies with the land rather than with its tiller (contrast Prov. 24:30f.; Isa. 24:4ff.; Jer. 23:10; Hos. 4:1-3), the truth is that the earth, like our physical bodies (cf. Col. 3:5), has been subjected to futility by God himself in hope (Rom. 8:19ff.) and is by nature unprofitable (cf. John 6:63). Only when it is directed by spirit, that is, man made in the image of God, does it become useful (Gen. 2:15, cf. v.5). Thus we are called to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20, cf. Rom. 12:1). (It perhaps needs to be made clear before I go any further that in stressing the role of man I am not trying to downplay God’s own part as evinced, for example, in Lev. 26:3ff.; Dt. 11:13-17; 29:20-28; 1 Kings 8:35f.; Isa. 5:6; Ezek. 34:25-27. Ultimately God’s providential sovereignty is universal and lies behind everything, cf. Mt. 28:18 and note 1 Cor. 3:6, but we need to recognise that from the human point of view he frequently acts in response to our actions in both blessing and curse, in life and death. Note Ps. 107:33-38.)
Secondly, that the curse is not permanent is proved by reversals that are said to take place elsewhere in Scripture when blessings flow from repentance and renewed law-keeping. Passages like Leviticus 25:18f.; 26:3ff.; Psalm 107:33-38; Isa. 32:14f.; 41:17-20 and Ezekiel 17:24 suggest that blessings and curses in general are perennial possibilities confronting all human beings throughout history. Whichever eventuates depends largely on the fluctuating conduct of the contemporary local inhabitants (see Isa. 7:23-25; 24:4ff.; Ezek. 15:8; 33:29; Mic. 7:13 for curses, and Dt. 7:13; 28:4,8,11; Pss. 67:6; 107:36-38; 128:1f.; Isa.1:19; Jer.23:3; Ezek. 34:13-16,25-27; 36; Amos 9:11-15; Hos. 2:21-23; Zech. 8:9-13 for blessings).
Thirdly, the so-called Adamic curse can hardly be universal or the picture would be monochrome, as we shall see below when dealing with Hebrews 6:7f. (1* The fallacy of a universal curse and a fallen world can be inferred from Hebrews 2:8 where we learn that Jesus’ victory over the world (cf. John 16:33; Heb. 2:9) did not lead to its overall subjection. The necessary inference is that Jesus, as second Adam, overcame as an individual representing his people and was, since he was confined to one place at one time, successful only in his own environment and immediate sphere of influence. If this is denied, we must conclude that he came short of the complete reversal affecting the whole cosmos which was required to rectify the alleged consequences of Adam’s fall and the subsequent curse on creation. On the basis of this reasoning, we are forced to conclude that the curse that followed on Adam’s sin was confined to his own restricted surroundings (Gen. 3:17, cf. 4:12; Prov. 24:30ff., etc.) (cf. 2*). The idea that the sin of one individual human being could have a catastrophic impact on the entire creation seems to me to be intrinsically absurd. We need to bear in mind that the word Adam normally refers not merely to an individual but to the race, mankind as a whole. And it was the latter who were called to exercise progressive dominion over all creation. In the twenty-first century after Christ we are seeing irrefutable evidence of this dominion before our very eyes.). But while Cain (Gen. 4:11f.) and perhaps Noah’s father (5:29) are said to suffer the curses resulting from their own ungodliness, Noah himself and his family are blessed despite their relative sinfulness (Gen. 8:21-9:17, cf. Ps. 78:21ff.). Perhaps more to the point, Genesis 13:10 (cf. Dt. 6:10f.; 8:7-10; Jud. 18:7-10 and note esp. Ex. 16:3; Num. 11:5; 16:13; Isa. 36:17) indicates that despite the curse associated with Adam in Eden, land like it remained unaffected until the Sodomites ran riot (Gen.19) and righteous Lot had to be rescued (cf. 2 Pet. 2:5-10). Clearly, if the earth was universally affected, it would be impossible to distinguish good land from bad, and the questions of the nations, such as those found in Deuteronomy 29:23f., could never be posed. Wenham (p.82) writes that land blessed by God is well-watered and fertile, and alludes to Deuteronomy 33:13-16, comparing it with Genesis 2:8-14 – a rather odd point to make if the curse operates universally. In comment on 3:17, he also points out that land, a key word, is mentioned at the beginning and close of the curse “until you return to the land”, thereby forming an inclusion (v.19), which suggests that it does not operate permanently but only during Adam’s own lifetime. The inference is that, though his progeny will be affected by the conditions he has established (cf. Dt. 29:22ff.), the curse as such is not forever (Num. 14:3,18,31-35; 32; Ex. 20:5; 34:6f.; Dan. 9:17-19, etc.). On the other hand, when Adam’s posterity repeat his sins, curses will surely follow (Isa. 24:5f.). In light of the above we can readily concur with Kidner who, commenting on Genesis 3:18, maintains that thorns and thistles are “eloquent signs of nature untamed and encroaching”, and pointedly alludes to the sluggard’s field in Proverbs 24:30-34 and Job 31:38-40. They are clearly a sign of man’s moral degeneracy and his childlike inability to discipline and control himself in order to exercise his proper dominion. And as Kidner (1) further intimates, thorns and thistles become a perennial threat like the unconquered Canaanites to the Israelites (Num. 33:55).
(See further below on the defiling of the future land flowing with milk and honey by the Canaanites and their being vomited out like Adam out of Eden. This reversal alone, apart from other considerations, surely gives the lie to the permanent universal curse of traditional theology.)
Genesis 3:19 also teaches us that Adam, the sinner, is now at odds with creation as well as with himself and his wife, for work has become a burden as it apparently has with Noah’s generation (5:29; Eccl.1:18). So while the earth itself is not “morally sensitive” (Motyer, p.200, cf. p.220), it reacts either negatively or positively in relation to the (moral) attitude of the one who rules over it. Thus the first Adam stands in strong contrast with the second Adam who committed no sin (1 Pet. 2:22) and whose very food was to do his Father’s will (John 4:34, cf. Heb. 2:9). Yet even he experienced natural or fleshly fatigue (John 4:6, cf. Luke 8:23).
Finally, in verse 19, apart from his exile or expulsion from the Garden, Adam learns that the wages of sin really are death (2:17) despite what the devil told Eve (3:4). This again prompts the question regarding his descendants: Is his sin also theirs as tradition would have us believe? Do they inherit both his sin and his curse? The answer must be a firm negative on both counts. As we shall see even further, the curse is not universal but is repeated in some form wherever there is disobedience (cf. Heb. 2:2 and note “trans-generational inclusiveness” referred to below). If the wages of sin is death, then death must be earned (Rom 6:23), and this is precisely what Paul intimates in Romans 3:23 and 5:12 and implies when he says in accordance with Scripture in general that judgement is by works (Rom. 2:6, etc.). To say this is, of course, not to deny a la Pelagius that Adam contributed to his descendants’ sin and death as Paul unequivocally insists (Rom. 5:12-21). But this is what all parents do in some measure (Ex. 34:6f.; Num. 14:18; Ps. 106:6; Jer. 9:13f.; Dan. 9:16, etc.). As Cole pertinently comments on Exodus 20:5, “Since this is God’s world, and since we are all involved with one another, breaches of God’s law by one generation do indeed affect those of future generations to come. Slavery, exploitation, imperialism, pollution (one might say in this context ‘defiling the land’!, cf. Isa.24:5), immorality are all examples of this principle” (p.156, cf. p.228 and see also Andersen, pp.69f., and Wenham, p.91).
The Inadmissibility of the Imputation of Adam’s Sin
There are numerous reasons why the imputation of Adam’s sin must be disallowed, though only four need be mentioned here. First, imputed sin is at once a free gift and/or a natural endowment for which we cannot be held responsible; second, we are told not to imitate our sinful forebears (2 Chron. 30:7; Ps.78:5-8; Zech. 1:4) – an impossibility if sin is imputed; third, children must not be punished for their fathers’ sins (Dt. 24:16; Ezek.18) unless they repeat them (Num. 32; Jer. 3:25; Mal. 3:7; Luke 11:47f.; Acts 7:51, cf. Job 31:38-40), and, fourth, Jesus himself was a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) but lived a sinless life as the second Adam.
In view of this, to go no further, we can safely conclude that what Paul is intimating in Romans 5:12ff., where he repeatedly distinguishes between the free gift (of righteousness) and the effect of Adam’s sin, is that the latter is determinative (for us in our fleshly weakness) but not fatalistically deterministic (so that even Jesus was born a sinner and hence under a curse).
This conclusion is bolstered by another consideration. Before we leave Genesis 2-3, it is important to note that during the time of his moral innocence (not righteousness and holiness, as Augustine and his followers have mistakenly taught, since the commandment had not been given, cf. Dt. 6:25), Adam was blessed. This being so, we can safely conclude that the subsequent and repeated stress on what Thompson (1) calls the ‘genealogical continuity’ of the covenant (p.281, cf. Robertson, pp.34ff.), involving the blessings of obedience and the curses of disobedience throughout the OT, has its origin in the pattern established in Genesis 2-3. In other words, just as the commandment applied to Adam and Eve in their childlike immaturity, so it applies to all human beings in theirs (cf. Rom.7:7-12). Just as Adam was taught the commandment by his divine Father (Gen. 2:17; cf. Gen.5:1-3; Luke 3:38), so our parents teach us (cf. Dt.4:9; 6:7; 32:46f.; Ps.78:5-8, cf. Eph.6:1f.). It has been said that the first thing we understand is the word ‘no’, and it is the first commandment we all disobey. In other words, the commandment of Genesis 2:17 is paradigmatic, just as the Mosaic law was for Israel (cf. Dt. 31:12f.), and as such it is repeated and re-applied to every generation throughout history. (Thus Wright (1) refers to the ‘trans-generational inclusiveness’ of the covenant, p.287). Once we see this, we can abandon the Augustinian dogma of original sin, fraught with insoluble problems as it is, as superfluous, for we all become sinners by committing sin personally (John 8:34 contrast 1 Pet. 2:22, Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 1 John 3:4). It is a question of repetition, imitation or recapitulation, not generation (pace Art. 9 of the C of E).
Adam and Moses -The Choice between Life and Death
What conclusions can we draw from this? Surely the arrangement God had with the first Adam (Gen. 2:17) was the Mosaic covenant in embryo. The choice that Adam made was repeated by the Israelites in Moses’ time (cf. Ex. 32). They too had to choose between blessing and curse (Dt. 11:26-32), between life and death (Dt. 30:15-20, cf. Isa. 1:19f.; Jer. 21:8, etc.). This choice is perennial: it is one that faces every individual, community and nation throughout history at different stages of their existence. But if both sin and curse were permanent features of life set in concrete, there would be no room for choice. The sinless life even of Jesus would be impossible. As it is, while all with One exception do sin and fall short, by the grace of God repentance (note 2 Kings 22:19), separation and life are real possibilities. What is more, as history and experience amply demonstrate, there can be a real change from desolation to fruitfulness. As Thompson (1) expresses the matter, “The primary requirement of the (Mosaic) covenant was complete obedience to the covenant obligations as expressed in the law. In the wake of obedience followed blessing, prosperity, security, continued possession of the land, etc…. Sin among the people defiled the land and as a result nature failed to yield her abundance among the crops, the flocks and the herds (28:16-18,38-42; cf. Am. 4:6-9, etc. Moreover the land which was the gift of Yahweh and upon which Israel had no claim, might be taken away and Israel exiled (28:25,47-52,62-67)” (pp. 73f.). Again he writes in comment on 11:1-9, “There is a close link between obedience and the successful development of the land of promise (10-17,22-25). Children should be taught these important facts (18-21). The final choice before Israel was obedience or disobedience, blessing or cursing (26-32)” (p. 151). If he had been writing, making the necessary changes, about Adam we would hardly have known the difference. Genealogical continuity of covenant and promise (Acts 2:39), however, is one thing but that of sin, blessing and curse is another. As it is, the choice between good and evil and their results, far from being foreclosed, remain open throughout the OT and especially in the NT where repentance and faith are the foundation of blessing and eternal life (2 Tim. 2:11-13; James 2:8-10, etc.). So we are surely right to maintain that God’s dealings with mankind (Adam) in his infancy established a pattern from which we can expect increased sophistication but hardly deviation.
Ultimately, then, we all imitate good or evil, obey or disobey, and choose either God or the devil, life or death (John 8:31ff.; 1 John 3:4-10; 3 John 11). But if we, as the descendants of Adam, were born sinful into a world under unmitigated curse, choice would be impossible. Apart from the spillover that inevitably occurs through our solidarity with the race – no man is an island – our sins and curses, like those of Adam and Eve, are our own (cf. Ps. 106:6; Jer. 4:22; 11:10; Dan. 9:5,11,16, etc.). If this is indeed the case, it will be borne out by biblical teaching in general. It is important therefore to examine it, if somewhat briefly, to see if my contentions receive the support they need.
In Genesis 4:7 it is implied that for Cain there is a choice between obedience and sin. In the event, we learn that, having murdered his brother Abel, he is cursed from the ground. It will no longer yield its best for him (v.12), not least because he becomes a wanderer and is alienated from it. It is noticeable, however, that the curse is a direct result of Cain’s own action not that of Adam, and, as Wenham notes, Cain likens his expulsion from the face of the ground to that of Adam and Eve from Eden (p.108. 2* Though I have long held this view, it was not until I read W.J.Dumbrell’s essay “Genesis 2:1-17: A Foreshadowing of the New Creation” in “Biblical Theology” ed. Hafemann, that I found scholarly support for it (though see Thompson (1), p.151 quoted above). Dumbrell writes, “ … it seems preferable to suggest that what is impaired as a result of the Fall is human control of the ground, not the ground itself” (p.64).). The implication is, therefore, as Hebrews 2:2 indicates, that every individual transgression produces its own effect (‘just retribution’), and does not hark back to one original or universal Adamic curse (cf. Job 31:38-40. For a rather awe-inspiring tabulation of the Mosaic covenant curses, see Stuart, pp.xxxiii-xl. The succeeding list of covenant restoration blessings is rather small in comparison (pp.xlif.). Cf. Dt. 28). So even at this stage of the argument we are in a position to cast doubt on the validity of a procedure that moves from the particular to the general without express warrant. What holds with regard to Adam’s sin, which cannot be imputed to his offspring until they repeat it (Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18, etc.), also holds with regard to the curse except insofar as the child inherits the physical and spiritual conditions fashioned by its father. Having said that, however, sayings like father like son and like mother like daughter are not empty proverbs (Ezek. 16:44; cf. Neh. 9:32; John 8:44; Acts 7:51).
In 5:29 the traditional contention regarding a permanent Adamic curse enveloping all would appear at first sight to receive more plausible support. But does it? As suggested above Lamech appears disinclined to accept the divine mandate to work and perhaps responsibility for his sin. On the other hand as a Sethite, he might simply have been caught up, like Lot, in the effects of the sins of his contemporaries or, as Exodus 20:5 suggests, been suffering the results of curses imposed on one of the generations immediately preceding him. Whatever the case, he looks to Noah, as we look to Christ, for relief. In light of what follows in 6:5ff. it is reasonable to conclude that Noah’s contemporaries in general were suffering, as Cain did, from the consequences of their own evil actions and moral degeneracy. Indeed, this is precisely what 6:5-7,11-13 would lead us to believe, for the curse of the flood stems not from Adam’s sin but from their own ungodliness (cf. 2 Pet. 2:5).
This conclusion is supported by what is said in 8:21 where we learn that God in his grace, despite continuing sin, will never again curse the ground with a similar flood while the earth remains (v.22). In fact, it is roundly asserted that the evident blessings of seedtime and harvest will continue to the end of the age apparently unaffected by any universal curse purporting to emanate from the time of Adam (cf. Luke 17:27). (It perhaps needs to be remembered that prior to the covenant with Noah, creation was uncovenanted, that is, lacked a covenantal guarantee, and hence from man’s point of view was under threat as the flood demonstrated. In the event, Noah and his descendants are given confidence in the long-term future of creation until God’s purposes are fulfilled.) In view of this, other considerations apart, is it not better for us to assume that cursing and blessing are part and parcel of the permanent pattern that God established in nature as is surely implied by what is taught in those two crucial chapters Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28? That obedience leads to blessing and ultimately to (eternal) life (N.B. Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Mt. 19:17) and disobedience to punishment and death is re-iterated time and time again in the OT (Ex. 34:6f.; Lev. 26:3-5; Dt. 7:12-15; 8:7-10; 11:8-17,26-32; 28:1-5; 30:9f.,15-20; 31:16f.; Jos. 23:14-16; 1 Kings 9:1-9; Isa. 1:19f.; Ezek. 11:19-21, etc.). But the mere fact that blessings, like Exodus 23:25, Leviticus 25:18f.; Deuteronomy 6:11, 8:7-16, 11:10-15, 14:22-29, 15:4-6,10,14,18; 26:15; 28:4,8,11; 30:9f.; Jud. 18:7,10; Pss. 65:9ff., 104:10-15 and Mal. 3:10ff., feature prominently at all, alongside indisputable curses (e.g. Lev. 26:18ff.; Isa. 24:6; Mic. 6:10ff.), constitutes a serious problem for those who argue for an Adamic curse, since, if the latter is still in operation, blessings are difficult to account for. Why, on its assumption, should or could there ever be a land flowing with milk and honey (Num. 13:27) and a type of Eden, especially one that had earlier been defiled (Lev. 18:24-30) by the lawless Canaanites (Ex. 3:8, cf. Isa. 36:17; Dt. 6:11; Jos. 24:13; Ezr. 9:12 and Neh. 9:8,25,36, cf. Gen.13:10)? (3* As I have intimated above, this view is clearly supported by the ‘history’ of the Promised Land. For while it vomited out or exiled its sinful inhabitants, the Canaanites (Lev. 18:24-28), as Adam had been banished from Eden, it was nonetheless a land flowing with milk and honey and an exceedingly good land (Num. 14:7f.) for the Israelites (Lev. 20:23f.) so long as they remained subject to the covenant (see especially Lev. 26 and Dt. 28). When they were not, they too in their turn were exiled. As a consequence God’s vineyard, a type of Eden, in its untilled state became a desolation, the home of briers and thorns (Isa. 5:5f.; 7:23-25). On the other hand, when they repented they were enabled, in contrast with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:24), to return once more to enjoy the fruits of their still fertile though inadequately cultivated land.
An interesting question is, Why was the land not cursed while it was inhabited by the highly immoral Canaanites? The answer surely lies in the fact that as nature worshippers they proved worthy tillers of the soil and provided the Israelites who replaced them with a fine inheritance (cf. Dt. 6:10f.; 8:7-10). However, it was on account of their sin that the land vomited them out (Lev. 18:24f.; 20:22ff.) as it had Adam and at a later date did the same to the Israelites themselves (cf. Lev. 20:22). This again suggests that it is not the land as such that is cursed (cf. the flood), but that it becomes a desolation when it is uninhabited or is inadequately managed. It is worth noting that even Egypt is described as a land flowing with milk and honey in Numbers 16:13, cf. 11:5f. After all, it had had Israelite slaves to work it!). The truth is, of course, that man’s ability to control both himself and nature fluctuates throughout history. It usually depends on religious and/or philosophical motivation. Commitment to truth and justice brings blessing (Prov. 14:34); submission to idolatry or false religion, secular philosophies of materialism and meaninglessness leads to moral and in time to personal and national disaster (Isa. 42:24). The decline and fall of Rome was no accident and arguably neither was the rise of the West, to be followed in turn, doubtless, by its collapse. History may not repeat itself but it is certainly recapitulated. The pattern recurs in one form or another time and again (cf. Judges). But while man has amazing potential to control external nature (James 3:3,4,7), as is evident in this modern technological age, his failure to control himself remains a perennial threat (James 3:2,5,6,8).
Improper or Inadequate Dominion
It is man’s perpetual inability on account of sin to exercise his dominion adequately that leads to the constant repetition of ‘curse’. A farmer who does his work well and conscientiously can expect to be rewarded (cf. 2 Tim. 2:6; Prov. 12:11; 28:19); the one who neglects his land through drunkenness, for example, reaps a wilderness (Prov. 18:9, cf. 28:24). This assessment of the situation is supported by various biblical references. Proverbs 24:30ff. (cf. 10:4f.; 15:19; 20:4,13; 22:5), as we have seen, refers to the sluggard whose vineyard is overgrown with thorns and his ground covered with nettles (cf. Isa. 5:6; 7:23-25; 32:13; 34:13; Jer.9:11; 12:13; Hos. 10:4,8; Zeph. 2:9). The same picture is painted in Psalm 107:33-38 (cf. Isa. 32:9-20): wickedness leads to desert (cf. Dt. 29:22f.; Job 12:24), goodness (implied) to blessing (Lev. 26:3ff.; Isa. 41:18) and even rejoicing (Lev. 23:40; Dt. 12:7,18; 14:26; 16:11; 27:7 and note Acts 14:17). We are reminded in these verses, as Kidner (2) points out (p.386), of the land vomiting out its corrupt inhabitants (Lev. 18:28) and of blessing in Deuteronomy 28:1-5 along with the idyllic Isaiah 35:6f. Again, Psalm 128:1f. (cf. 67:6; 85:11f.) inform us that those who fear the Lord eat the fruit of the labour of their hands (cf. Pr. 6:9-11; 20:13; 28:19; Isa. 1:19 and note Neh. 9:36f.; Dt. 28:30-33). According to Isaiah 30:18ff. blessings follow repentance (cf. Amos 9:13f.). Though some references are apocalyptic and eschatological (see Webb’s tabulation of the contrast between Isaiah’s first, ch. 5, and second songs, ch. 27, p.113), their message for the present is clear.
Leviticus 18:24-28 and 20:23
These verses, which refer to the vomiting out of the inhabitants of Canaan on account of their sin, are reminiscent of God’s casting Adam and Eve out of Eden on account of theirs. It is interesting to note, however, that the land, like Eden, is seen as a land flowing with milk and honey in 20:24 leaving us with the clear impression that the land itself was not cursed as we might expect (cf. Isa. 24:4ff.; Jer. 23:10). Perhaps the Canaanites, despite their relative sinfulness, were committed to the working their land under the aegis of their fertility gods (cf. Ps. 105:44). However, in light of the general instruction of Moses regarding future fruitfulness (see espec. Lev. 25,26 and Dt. 28), it is plain that the land must be inhabited and properly tilled or it will indeed become a desolation (cf. Ex. 23:29; Dt. 7:22) and enjoy its Sabbath rest as at the time of Israel’s exile.
Much is made in the OT, in Leviticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for example, of the desolation of the land (Isa. 6:11, cf. Mic. 3:12; 7:13). Leviticus 26:31-35 (cf. 18-20) especially is rich in allusions to it. Again as elsewhere (e.g. Jer. 44:2,22), what is striking is that what might be termed ‘absentee landlords’ bring it about. As I have just indicated, the earth needs cultivation apart from which it becomes a wilderness (Lev. 26:43; Isa. 5:6; 6:11f., cf. Ex. 23:29f.) or reverts to chaos (Isa. 24:10; 34:13, etc.) as does the fleshly body without the spirit (Jas. 2:26; Gen. 3:19; 2 Cor. 5:1). This is further brought out in Jeremiah 4:23-28 (cf. Ezek.38:18ff.). Thompson (2) says nature in its entirety seems to be involved here and suggests a reversal of the Genesis 1 account (p.230). Ezekiel 33:23-29 is yet another passage which fails to refer the reader back to an Adamic curse, though in 36:33-38 it is noticeable that the reversal is back to the idyllic Garden of Eden (cf. Jer. 31:12; 33:10-13; Isa. 51:3; Joel 2:3; Zech. 7:14). On the human level, another picture emerges: according to Isaiah 62:4, when God redeems Israel, he (she) will no longer be likened to a desolate woman (cf. 2 Sam. 13:20), that is, one who is without a husband and without children, the fruit of the womb, but Beulah, married, hence ‘sown’ and prolific (cf. Isa. 54:1; Gal. 4:27 and note Isa. 56:4f. re the eunuch).
Hosea also provides us with more evidence of Israel’s fluctuating fortunes and of the connection between current conduct and consequent blessing or curse as 2:8f.; 4:1-3; 5:11f. and 10: 4,8 make clear.
In Isaiah 24:4 (cf. v.6), 33:9, Jeremiah 12:11, 23:10 (cf. 24:9; 26:6; 29:22) and Hosea 4:3 the land is said to mourn on account of the sins of its contemporary inhabitants, not that of their distant progenitor, Adam.
The mention of reversal above raises an interesting question. Further to Genesis 1:26,28, Psalm 8 leads us to believe that man made in the image of God was intended to rule over the physical creation and ultimately be crowned with glory and honour. Once he failed, as he did from the beginning, he forfeited his high calling and has done, with One exception, ever since.
Hebrews 2, however, informs us that Jesus, in contrast with Adam, did in fact succeed and was consequently crowned (2:9). But the author pointedly adds that we do not yet see everything subjected to him. In view of this we are bound to infer that Jesus’ victory in the flesh did not bring about a reversal of the alleged cosmic curse which was supposedly the result of Adam’s sin. To express the issue alternatively, though Jesus overcame the world (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9, etc.), he did not change its God-ordained constitution. In fact as incarnate, he himself was subject to corruption and inevitably grew older (John 8:57, cf. Heb. 1:11). It is difficult therefore not to conclude that such a curse never existed in the first place. As was maintained above, both curses and blessings, far from operating mechanically on a universal scale, relate primarily to the individuals, communities and nations who receive them either by faith and obedience or earn them by disbelief and disobedience. Again it must be insisted that this is not to deny that there is a spillover arising from our solidarity and involvement with others (cf. Rom.5: 12-21; Ps. 106:6; Lam 5:7,16). But personal choice and separation are by no means negated in any community as numerous biblical examples illustrate (Dt. 30:15-20; 3 John 11, etc. The perennial openness and trans-generational nature of the promise is made particularly plain in Hebrews 4:1ff.).
Having said all this, however, we need to remember that there is nonetheless a problem. For just as sin and/or righteousness are not always directly, or mechanically, related to the apparent blessing or punishment of people – a point laboured by Job, Ecclesiastes and the Psalmist (e.g. 73), so the same can be said with regard to the land. Moral issues do not apparently figure in the seven years of plenty and seven years of drought in the Egypt of Joseph’s day (Gen. 41:14f., cf. 2 Kings 8:1; Ps. 105:16; Hag. 1:11; Acts 11:28). So far as the seven good years are concerned, they, like the promised land itself, would seem to belie a universal curse, as, for example, does Abraham’s, and even Hagar’s, remarkable fertility (Gen. 16:10; 17:1-6,20, cf. 9:1,7) and the emphasis on fruitfulness in general (cf. Isa. 32:15f.; Ezek. 36:8-11; Mt. 5:45; Acts 14:17) not to mention the time of Jubilee (Lev. 25:21f.; 26:10). All that is evident here is that both good and bad are in the purpose of God (Gen. 41:32; Lam. 3:37f.) reminding us of what is said about Joseph himself (45:5,7; 50:20, cf. 1 Sam. 2:6; Isa. 45:7).
If there is no direct connection with specific sin as the OT writers tended to assume, what is the problem? Why are there famines, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, diseases and the like? It is worth considering that Moses’ defective speech (Ex. 4:11), and Hannah’s (1 Sam. 1:5f.) and the eunuch’s (Mt. 19:12, cf. Dt.23:1; Isa. 56:3f.) infertility are not attributed to sin (cf. Lev. 21:16ff.; 22:19-25). In the blind man’s case this is positively disallowed (John 9:3) since his lack of sight, like Lazarus’ death, is for the glory of God (John 11:4. Cf. Sarah’s barrenness.). If sin is not the answer, it must lie ultimately, as has just been hinted with regard to Joseph’s Egypt, in the purposes of God (cf. Rom. 8:28). Creation is neither eternal nor perfect but, as Paul taught in that most misunderstood of passages, Romans 8:19-25, inherently subject to futility and decay, despite being, or better, because it is pregnant with hope for something better (cf. Gen. 2:17). Being intrinsically temporal (Gen. 8:22; Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 34:4; 51:6,8; 54:10; Mt. 5:18; 24:35, etc.), it is in the pangs of birth (cf. Mark 13:8). And once it has served its purpose and produced its harvest, it will be dispensed with like the body of flesh (2 Cor. 5:1). (Traditionally Christians have made much of the goodness of creation, see Gen. 1:4 passim. It is seldom, if ever, pointed out that the Greek LXX word that is used is ‘kalos’ meaning beautiful or useful, cf. 1 Tim. 4:3f. and Col. 2:22, not ‘agathos’ which relates to the moral goodness of God, e.g. Mark 10:18. Admittedly the two words are often used synonymously, cf. Mounce, p.32, etc. The problem that has to be faced by the advocates of a universal curse is that according to Paul creation is still ‘good’ or useful, Acts 14:17; Rom. 14:14,20; 1 Cor. 10:26-33; 1 Tim. 4:3f., cf. Mark 7:19; 1 Chr. 29:14, even though it is also clearly perishable, John 6:27, etc.) Indeed, the sheer ‘shakability’ of creation is fundamental to Scripture (Isa.13:13; Hag. 2:6,21; Heb. 12:27). There is no security or permanence in it and it threatens to engulf us at any moment (cf. Luke 13:1-5). This very fact is meant to teach us to look elsewhere, to heaven and not to earth, to God and not to man (Ps.118:8f.; Jer. 17:5, cf. Isa. 13:19) for our ultimate salvation. Not for nothing is God said to be our refuge in time of trouble (Ps. 40:17; 46:2ff.; 121:1; Jer. 16:19; 17:17; Hab. 3:17-19).
Many, however, refuse to entrust themselves to their transcendent Creator. Despite the admonitory plagues that he encountered in Egypt, Pharaoh simply hardened his heart. Writers have often maintained that the Egyptian plagues were basically natural phenomena more miraculous for their timing than for their content. The same remains true today: the ‘plagues’, natural disasters and the like which man encounters in our own time and has had to encounter throughout history, are meant to teach us, warn us and lead us to repentance (Luke 13:1-5; Rev. 9:20f.). But they are not usually recognised as warnings even in the churches (Mt. 24:7f.; Mark 13:7f.); and modern man still worships idols, perhaps not of wood and stone but certainly the work of his own hands – the false gods of science, technology, created things in general (cf. Rom. 1:25). But in this he is doomed to disappointment since these gods cannot save either (Isa. 57:13). They belong very much to this world which itself is headed for eventual destruction and removal (Heb.12:27-29; Rev. 20:11; 21:1-4).
All this is heralded in the OT in Isaiah 24-27, the little apocalypse, for example, where the earth is defiled by its present inhabitants and languishes under a curse of universal proportions. Its background is apparently the flood of Genesis 6-9, but gradually God’s unfruitful vineyard people (Isa.5:1-7; cf. Luke 13:6-9), having been involved in the cataclysmic judgement, resurface to be regathered ‘in that day’ (27:12, cf. 24:21; 25:9; 26:1; 27:1,2) and saved as in the later apocalypse of the NT, the book of Revelation.
The Day of the Lord
Mention of the day brings to mind another OT theme – the day of the Lord (see Am. 5:18-20; Isa. 2:12-21; 13:34f.; Zeph. 1-3; Joel 1-3). Though salvation is present here, judgement dominates and on a universal scale (see esp. Zeph. 1:18;3:8). As Martens says, “The cosmos will go into convulsions … the sun will refuse to give its light, the moon and the stars will cease to shine (Isa.13:10). Joel, preoccupied with the subject, cites wonders in heaven and on earth, including the moon turning to blood (Joel 2:30-31)” (p.146). The day of the Lord spills over, of course, into the NT (see e.g. 1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6,10) and appears perhaps most significantly in 2 Peter 3:12. But the question is, While judgement is clearly in evidence here, does it arise from an original curse on the cosmos stemming from Adam’s sin? Hardly so. For, as was intimated above, the creation was destined for destruction from the start, for if in contrast with its Creator it had a beginning, it will certainly have an end. It has never been a safe and permanent haven for man (2 Cor. 5:5). So, while evil does not spring from the ground (Job 5:6f.) and God is not angry with it (Hab. 3:8), he will doubtless use its final destruction to punish the world of wicked men (Isa. 2:9-11,19 cf. Rev. 6:15; 13:11ff., 24:1ff.; 26:21, etc.).
The Fulfilment of the Creation Mandate
It is at this point that we are forcibly reminded of Hebrews 6:7f. which clearly sees disbelieving men and women as thorns (cf. Num. 33:55; 2 Sam. 23:6f.; Isa. 9:18f.; 27:4; 33:12; Nah. 1:9f.; Mic. 7:4; Mal. 4:1 and note Isa. 5:1-7; Mt. 3:10,12; 13:42; Luke 13:6-9; John 15:6) and has the early history of man as its background (Gen. 3, and perhaps, as Lane, p.143, suggests, Gen. 13:10 and 19:24, cf. Joel 2:3) as well as a future ban or curse involving fire and total destruction. What should be noted here is that, despite Adam’s sin, nature as a whole was not and is not cursed and could not have been without sabotaging the entire plan of salvation (pace Hughes, p.223, and cf. Gen. 8:21f.; Jer. 31:35-37; 33:19-26). Rather, both history and the Bible prove beyond dispute that the creation and cultural mandates expressed in Genesis 1:11 and 1:26-29 (cf. 8:21; 9:1,7,19) were largely if not wholly fulfilled (cf. Gen. 8:22; Lev. 26:3-5; Dt. 11:11f.; 28:1-14; Ps. 136:25; Mt. 5:45; Acts 14:17; 1 Cor. 10:26) as we in the West at least, as beneficiaries of nature’s bounty and our forebears’ industry ought to be thankfully aware (1 Cor. 10:30; 1 Tim. 4:3f.). The earth has yielded its increase (Gen. 8:22, cf. Ps. 67:6f.) and God has worked salvation in it (Ps. 74:12). But for this its eventual spiritual harvest would be impossible (cf. Gen. 12:2f.; 15:5; 17:2,4,6; Ex. 1:7,20; 1 Kings 3:8; 4:20; etc., cf. Rev.7:9). If the curse had been universal and all mankind born sinful, then the earth in general would have been given over to thorns and thistles and been fit only for burning (cf. Gen. 8:21f.). Yet in fact, it has proved remarkably fruitful (Pss. 65:9ff.; 67:6; 85:10ff.; 104:14ff.) when properly ‘tilled’ and not ravaged by its greedy destroyers (cf. Isa. 33:1; Rev. 11:18). An earth that can support six billion people and could, according to certain estimates, sustain twice that number is a long way from being cursed as has been traditionally maintained in the church (cf. Gen. 1:28; 8:17; Lev. 26:9).
The Real Cosmic Curse
So we come to the final tragic irony. Under the influence of Augustine in particular, our forebears, in teaching about an original universal curse, put the cart before the horse. They did the same when they talked of an original perfect creation (including Adam!) which they failed to see was the goal not the starting point of history. In reality, the nearest approach to a universal curse was the flood (cf. Gen. 6:11-13; Isa. 24; 2 Pet. 3:5f.); but even it was only a shadow, like the curses of Sodom, Jericho and Ai, of the one to come. Clearly it was not the “full end”, referred to repeatedly by Jeremiah (4:27; 5:10,18; 30:11; 46:28, etc.). This one, the real one, the truly cosmic curse or ban (herem, see Gen. 19; Dt. 13:16; 29:22ff.; Jos.6-8; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Mal. 4:6, etc), still lies ahead of us, and it will come with the end of the age (Mt. 28:20) on the day of God (2 Pet. 3:12) when, despite, or even because of, a surfeit of material blessings (cf. Dt. 31:20; 32:15-18; Mt.24:38; Luke 17:27-30; 1 Tim. 4:3f.; Jas. 5:1-5), faith will grow cold and disobedience become rampant (Mt. 24:12; 2 Tim. 4:3f, cf. Rev. 18:4ff.) prior to the return of Christ. Then, as Peter intimates, the heavens, the earth and its works will all be burnt up in a universal conflagration (2 Pet. 2:7,10-12; cf. Heb. 6:7f.; 10:27; 12:17-29; Mt. 13:37-42). And far from coming back to dwell on the earth our Saviour, who will return in the glory of the Father (Luke 9:26, cf. Ex. 24:17; Dt. 4:24; Heb. 12:29), will be instrumental in destroying it (2 Thes. 1:8; 2:8; Rev. 20:11; 21:1) and ushering in what is variously called the kingdom of God (or heaven), the regeneration, the new creation or the new heavens and new earth, that is, heaven itself, the eternal world of the age to come (cf. Mark 10:30) that already exists (Heb.6:5) and awaits our entry (cf. John 14:2f. See Carson (1), p.25, (2), pp. 488f., and especially de Silva, pp.28f.). And from it the ban (herem) will be banned forever, for God himself will be there (Rev. 22:3, cf. Ezek. 48:35).
To sum up, as Genesis 1 and 2 imply and Romans 8:19-25, along with 1 Corinthians 13:10, 2 Corinthians 4:18 and Hebrews 1:10-12, for example, clearly teach, the present creation, being temporal, is imperfect by nature. Far from being in the grip of an original and universal curse it is subjected in the divine purpose to futility and decay in hope quite apart from sin (which only exacerbates the situation). It is hence designed to point us to heaven, the new Jerusalem and the presence of our eternal God in accordance with the original, if somewhat cryptic, promise of Genesis 2:17. Like a pregnant woman it groans in anticipation of something better (Rom. 8:22f.; cf. John 16:21f.), that is, the liberty of the glory of the sons of God for which it was created. And as its product we should groan too (cf. 2 Cor. 5:2,4) in accordance with the plan of God himself (2 Cor. 5:5).
The repetitive or recapitulatory nature of blessing, sin and curse is very evident in the Bible (see especially Ezra 9; Neh. 9; Jer. 3:24f.; Dan.9; Joel. 2:3; Zech. 1:1-6; 5:3f.; 7:8ff.), not least in Genesis:
Adam/ blessing/ sin/ curse/ exile (cf. Ezek. 28:12-16; 31:1-11)
Cain/ blessing/ sin/ curse/ exile/
Noah’s generation/ blessing/ sin/ curse/ destruction in the flood
Whole earth (Gen. 11:1)/ blessing implied/ sin/ curse/ exile, i.e. scattering
(Babel or Babylon, the very symbol of human pride finally destroyed. See Isaiah 13; Jeremiah 50ff.; Revelation 18)
Sodom and Gomorrah/ blessing (Gen. 13:10)/ sin (13:13) curse/ total destruction by fire, i.e. ban (Gen. 19:15-23; cf. Dt. 29:22ff., Jos. 6-8. Note Lot’s exile involving separation and rescue. Cf. 1 Thes. 4:14ff.; 2 Thes. 1:7ff.; 2:8 (4* This underlines the difference between an ordinary and limited curse, from which there can be renewal, and the ‘ban’ to which Jesus implies the earth will finally be subject (Mt. 13:36-43; Luke 17:28-30; 21:25-35; 1 Thes. 1:7; Heb. 6:7f.; 12:25-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). In contrast, the threat of the ban in the eternal world has disappeared (Rev. 22:3).
This note could, of course, be vastly expanded and elaborated, but what is said in Deuteronomy 11:26-28; Isaiah 1:19f., and Jeremiah 21:8, for example, holds good in essence throughout the Bible. At the end of the day, as individuals, as nations and as a race we reap what we sow. Ultimately, there is no future in either the flesh or the creation from which it stems (Gal. 6:8; John 6:63). Both are destined for destruction (2 Cor. 4:16-5:5; Heb. 12: 15-29; 2 Pet 3:7,10-12, etc.). Our only hope is in God who has made ample provision for us in Christ (1 Pet. 1:3f., etc.). We do well therefore to ask with Martens (p.149): in view of the coming day of the Lord, what kind of people ought we to be (2 Pet. 3:11, cf. Jer. 5:31)?).
Canaanites/ blessing in the land which is later portrayed as flowing with milk and honey (cf. Dt. 6:10f./ sin/ curse/ exile/ slavery and destruction, cf. Lev.18:24f.; 20:23).
Land preserved under the Israelites and rendered fruitful.
Israel/ blessing/ sin/ curse/ city destroyed and people exiled into slavery (cf. Dan. 9).
Sabbath rest of seventy years.
Reversal in contrast with Gen. 3:17-19 and Joel 2:3: Israel/ sinning/ cleansing/ inhabiting/ tilling/ Eden (Ezek. 36:33-36). For the modern reversal see Lambert, pp. 46ff.
To sum up, it is safe to say that both Adam’s sin and his curse are paradigmatic.
This is clear from Genesis 4:11f.
The same is obviously true of the ban exemplified by Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke 17:22-37).
Since beginning this piece, the sporadic, temporary and ‘plague-like’ as opposed to permanent character of curse in this world has been driven home to me by a number of horrific accidents on land and in the air here in Australia. These have been put in the shade, however, by a massive earthquake involving 30,000 ‘innocent’ lives in northern India and a further 3,000+ in the Muslim attack on New York on 11 September 2001 (cf. Luke 13:1-5). They, like others including the tsunami and the New Orleans disaster, prompt further comment on the present theme.
By positing, on the one hand, the original perfection of both man and the creation over which he was intended to exercise dominion (cf. Gen. 2:5,15) and, on the other, universalising both sin and curse over all subsequent history, traditional theology has seriously vitiated our understanding of the gospel.
First, though Adam clearly left a moral legacy of evil in violent contrast with that of good by Christ (Rom. 5:12-21, cf. Gen. 22:18; 26:4f., etc.), it could not and did not involve the imputation of his sin (Dt. 24:16; Job 21:19-21; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18) or a curse on the whole creation.
However, the unwarrantable assumption that it did has blinded our eyes to the real problems of life: the essential temporality and natural futility of this present imperfect creation (cf. Mt. 24:35; Heb. 7:3,16; Isa. 54:10; Hab. 3:17-19) on the one hand, and the repetition of the sins of our forebears for which we are personally accountable (2 Chron. 30:7; Jer. 3:25; Dan. 9:16; Acts 7:51, etc.) on the other. If Adam had never sinned, he would have gained the perfection and fullness of eternal life only by being transformed and elevated to heaven. Since flesh and spirit, earth and heaven are fundamental antitheses, and the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable, this would have been indispensably necessary. And so it is for us; for God’s intention has always been to glorify us in his presence (Rom. 8:30; Eph. 1:4f.; 2 Cor. 5:5, etc.). In the event, One and only One has succeeded in overcoming this world (John 16:33; 17:4f.; Heb. 2:9; Rev. 5:5) where sin’s inevitable consequence is death (Gen. 3:19), and it is through Him that we who believe also overcome (1 John 4:5). Had universal imputed sin and curse operated from the time of Adam, the plan of salvation could never have been put into effect. For the seed of woman would himself have been implicated and his work rendered impossible (Gen. 3:15; Gal. 4:4).
There can be little doubt that traditional theology has tended to reduce all to a flat uniformity and hide both the development of the race, so clearly telescoped and reflected in the individual, and the progressive nature of the plan of salvation in the forward march of history. In the event, however, the earth that was formed to be inhabited (Isa. 45:18; Gen. 13:16; Mt. 5:45; Acts 14:17, cf. Gen. 8:22) will achieve its purpose and both good and evil come to maturity. When this occurs, the Lord will return, first to deliver his people (Heb. 9:28), then to destroy both the wicked and their habitat as he did at Sodom (Gen. 19:24f.; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Luke 17:28f.), Jericho (Josh. 6) and Ai (Josh. 8), all of which were consigned to the ban or curse and set on fire (cf. Hess, p.169). Thus earth will give way to heaven, where there is no more curse (Zech.14:11; Rev. 22:3), the present age to the new, the impermanent to the permanent (2 Cor. 4:18, cf. 3:11 and Luke 18:30), the perishable to the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50, etc.), the imperfect to the perfect (1 Cor. 13:10, cf. Heb. 1:11; 8:13b; 10:9), the first to the second (Heb. 10:9, cf. Rev. 21:1) and the shakable to the unshakable (Heb. 12:26-29, pace Webb, p. 110).
See also Supplement to ‘Cosmic Curse?’
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It was not until after I had written practically all of the above that I read Christopher Wright’s NIV commentary on Deuteronomy (Peabody, 1996). One of the most notable features of the book is the author’s stress on the blessings and joy of an obedient covenant people (see e.g. p.270). Certainly nothing he says gives me reason to change anything that I have written above. In fact, on p.283, cf. p.289, he explicitly denies that the curses are ‘fated’ as surely a supposed cosmic curse stemming from Adam would be so far as his posterity is concerned.