Understanding the Curse

 

If the individual man recapitulates the history of mankind, the race, or, alternatively, is regarded as the race in miniature as Jesus, the second Adam, was, then we can assume that man was created as seed (cf. 1 John 3:9) and was placed by God in the Garden of Eden or womb (Gen. 2:8,15) mutatis mutandis to gestate. On this assumption that the Garden of Eden is the womb of the race into which man(kind) was placed (Gen. 2:8,15) (1* Cf. the individual man who is the glory of God, 1 Cor. 11:7 placing his seed, cf. Heb. 7:10, in the womb of his wife where it gestates.), the period between his ‘birth’ (or ejection from the womb/Eden) and his childhood under Noah (i.e. Gen. 3-9) is the cradle period or infancy of his life. If this is in fact the case, it helps to explain the nature of the curse that God imposed on the ground. How?

First, all sin or transgression of (the) commandment is subject to a penalty (Heb. 2:2, cf. Heb. 10:28; Rom. 4:15) and the penalty for Adam and Eve after expulsion from Eden, or ‘birth’ (cf. Job 3 and Jeremiah 20:18), was the world outside the Garden and the curse on the ground. In light of Genesis 3:17-19 life outside the Garden, the real world as we know it, far from being an automatic or autonomous benefactor is hard going, intractable and unco-operative by nature and so intended by divine design to be subjected to dominion (cf. Job 7:1). (2* Not without reason, both Job, see 3; 5:6f.; 10:18f.; 14:1, and Jeremiah 20:18 who suffered much wished they had remained in the paradise of the womb!) But for those who, as adults in contrast with real babies (cf. Rom. 9:11), had been aware of the idyllic, blissful nature of Edenic paradise where all their basic animal needs were painlessly and pleasantly met, life outside was particularly difficult by contrast.

Why was this so? If we say on account of the curse we need to establish the nature of the curse for the sinless Jesus himself came into such a world where difficulty was endemic, for he too as a real man had to exercise dominion in the midst of tribulation in order to overcome the world (John 16:33). In light of this we need to unravel what is at stake.

 

The Nature of the Curse

First, we need to recognize the fact that man in his moral innocence was called to exercise dominion of a kind (Gen. 1:26-28) even in Eden itself (Gen. 2:15). Like an animal Adam had free access to all its trees (Gen. 2:16) until the commandment finally registered on his developing mind. This suggests that effort, though minimal (cf. a baby at it mother’s breast), was necessary from the start quite apart from the so-called cosmic curse. Thus I have contended in my Romans 8:18-25, etc., that the world which requires the exercise of dominion on the part of man is subject to futility and corruption and hence recalcitrant by nature: that was the way that it was made by divine fiat. The idea that it was once perfect but was cursed when Adam sinned is not borne out by the facts. Creation is intrinsically transient (Gen. 1:1; Mt. 24:35; 28:20; Heb. 1:11; 2 Cor. 4:18) and will eventually be destroyed irrespective of sin which is an exacerbating factor. This it clearly was in the lives of the antediluvians who were threatened by the flood.

So what in fact did the curse on the ground involve? Did it involve constitutional cosmic transformation or merely change in the environment and locale (cf. Gen. 13:10; Num. 14:7 and note especially Num. 11:5; 16:13 and 2 K.18:32)? Or was something else involved?

It is noticeable in Genesis 4 and 5 that both Cain and Lamech react negatively to the work that dominion of the earth involved. When we compare Genesis 3:17-19 with Proverbs 24:30-34 (cf. Isa. 5:5f.; 7:23-25, etc.), and note that the sluggard is faced with the same scenario as Adam, it is difficult not to conclude that failure to exercise dominion or to work brings ruin. Just as creation was made to be inhabited (Isa. 45:18), so, since for man it is not an automatic benefactor as the Garden womb had been, it was made to be cultivated. In other words, untilled land is barren and unproductive like an untended garden or a wilderness. Since it is unproductive and derelict, a desolation in fact, it is fit only for destruction of man and beast (Heb. 6:7f.). And this is surely implied by the curse of Genesis which culminated in the flood. As indicated above, however, God’s purpose in creation was not so easily frustrated (cf. Ps. 8; Heb. 2:5-9) and so the covenant with faithful Noah which like the covenant with David (Jeremiah 31:35-37 and 33:25f.) guaranteed the continuation of creation until the plan of salvation is fulfilled (cf. Gen. 8:22) when its harvest is reaped (cf. Mt. 13:36-39). In support of this we can appeal to other strands of evidence.

First, the sinless Jesus, the second Adam, came into this world with the express intention of working (Mark 10:45, etc.). Not only did he keep the law and seek the glory of God and thus overcome the world (John 16:33) but he explicitly refers to his works which like his signs indicate that he is intent on fulfilling the purpose of his Father. And at the end of his life on earth despite all his trials, tribulations and temptations he finishes to perfection the work that his Father has given him to accomplish (John 17:4; 19:30). For him his very food was to do the will of his Father (John 4:34).

If we go back to Genesis at this point we soon discover that in contrast with Cain and Lamech and their contemporaries, Noah the man of faith was like Jesus himself concerned to be obedient (Gen. 6:22; 7:5,9,16). This, however, raises the question of Abel and Enoch. They both prove that while sin, which is based on knowledge of law, is possible, by the same token so is faith (Rom. 10:17). And in a faithless generation, they were plainly faithful (Heb. 11:4f.). (At this point we might further ask why Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable in contrast with that of Cain. The conclusion may well be that it was offered in faith and hence obedience. On the other hand Abel’s animal sacrifice involving death, cf. Gen. 3:21, contrasted with Cain’s vegetable matter, cf. Gen. 3:7b, which was unacceptable because it was inadequate.)

 

The Importance of Work

Apart from the stress on the work of Jesus who contrasts strongly with the first Adam and general human failure to keep the law, work and the condemnation of idleness is prominent in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15. While Morris on the basis of his exegesis of this passage concludes that work is obligatory (p.255) (and not merely necessary), Bruce in reference to Paul’s assertion that he who refuses to work should not eat pointedly suggests that this may have been a proverbial saying based on Genesis 3:19. The inference I draw from this is that the curse on the ground is not so much that the ground itself is at fault (cf. Job. 5:6; Hab. 3:8; 2 Pet. 3:7) since it is naturally futile but that it is useful (‘good’) only when properly tended and tilled. This conclusion would seem to be supported by numerous other references in Scripture (e.g.  Lev. 26:31-35; Isa. 6:11f.; Ezek. 35:9) which suggest that desolation is the result of inaction (cf. Gen. 2:5) or lack of care as at the time of the exile.

An important distinction must be made here between sin and idleness. After all, while the apparently hard-working Canaanite nature worshippers left an enviable legacy for the incoming Israelites (Dt. 6:10f.), they themselves were nonetheless vomited out of the Promised Land on account of their wickedness (Dt. 9:4f.) and certainly not on account of the righteousness of the Israelites who were warned of the danger facing them if they imitated the behaviour of their predecessors (Dt. 8:20). (I understand from various modern writers that the land of Israel has prospered under the energetic regime imposed by the Israelis since 1948. Even they, however, continue in general to reject their Messiah and remain vulnerable.) What is clear, however, is that Canaan, the Promised Land, like Egypt (Gen. 13:10; Num. 11:5; 16:13, which was worked by the Israelite slaves) and Assyria (2 K. 18:32) was not involved in a putative cosmic curse (Num. 14:7; Dt. 8:7-10).

(3* It is worth meditating here on the situation which confronted the Israelites in their seventy-year exile. As I indicated in my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?, Jeremiah strongly urged them to knuckle down and work in their new surroundings, Jer. 27:11,27; 29:5,28. Jeremiah 29:5f. are reminiscent of Genesis 9:1,7. On the other hand, 29:28 ought to remind us that in NT times our exile may be long and we have to work while we await the Parousia, cf. John 6:28; 1 Cor. 15:58; 2 Tim. 2:14-26; 2 Pet. 3:14. It is also during the exile that the Promised Land became a desolation because it was uninhabited, Jer. 7:34; 44:2,22, cf. Lev. 26:31,33, etc. God did not, however, make ‘a full end’ of it, Jer. 4:27; 5:10,18, etc., and the people eventually returned as promised to make it fertile again. This will not be the case at the end of the world when there will be no going back. See further my No Going Back. )

At this point we are prompted to ask what the difference is between the fleshly antediluvians (Gen. 6:5-7,11-13), the immoral and sexually deviant Sodomites (Gen. 18:20)  and the nature-worshipping Canaanites (Dt. 9:4, etc.) who were all equally wicked. First, the evidence suggests that the antediluvians as ‘infants’ were lazy, unproductive and totally dominated by the flesh (cf. 2 Pet. 2; Jude); second, the Sodomites were immoral in a land fertile and prosperous enough to attract the somewhat materialistic Lot (Gen. 13:10, in contrast with the more spiritual Abraham) and especially his wife, while, third, the Canaanites were noteworthy for worshipping false gods in the delectable Promised Land itself. But it is their punishment that brings out the difference. Though the unproductive antediluvians themselves were destroyed to be replaced by the sons of Noah, their land after undergoing the curse of the flood was guaranteed productivity under the terms of the covenant.  The Sodomites by comparison suffered both personal loss of life and the total destruction of their land and so became proverbial for their paradigmatic punishment throughout the rest of Scripture. On the other hand, the apparently hard-working but idolatrous Canaanites were vomited out of the Promised land flowing with milk and honey leaving a wonderful legacy to the incoming children of Israel.

The question now is: are these differences important? I think so.

First, I would argue that the antediluvians are like the man with only one talent in the parable of the talents (which occurs noticeably in Matthew 25 where the last judgement is depicted). He is described by Jesus in verse 26 as both wicked and lazy and in verse 30 as being worthless.  As the parable implies, God himself is a hard taskmaster (cf. Job 7:1,17f.) who requires us to make our contribution limited though it may be. By contrast, Enoch and Abel are commended for their faith and Noah for both his faith and obedience not least in building the ark (cf. 1 Pet. 3:20f.).

Next, the Sodomites like the antediluvians appear in Luke 17:26-30 as examples of how things will pan out at the end of the world. They will lose all for in their case both inhabitants and habitat alike are destroyed (cf. 2 Pet. 2; 3:1-13; Jude).

So what about the Canaanites? Judging by the parable of the unrighteous steward (Luke 16:1-13), they serve as illustrations of those who have shown considerable shrewdness and dedication in managing this world’s affairs but on account of their idolatry and immorality suffer total loss at the end. They and their modern spiritual descendants by their hard work and industry may well become materially prosperous in this world but lose everything when they fail to enter the heavenly Promised Land. As the parable implies, God is a hard taskmaster who demands his just return with interest. Material prosperity, however, is incapable of compensating for spiritual poverty. You cannot buy your way into the kingdom of God. This point is stressed in Psalms 49 and 73 where the prosperity of the wicked is a problem, not to mention elsewhere as in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The situation is the same today. Many in our own society cannot be faulted for their lack of industry and their management of worldly affairs, but they can certainly be charged with faithlessness, gross immorality and evil. Indeed, it will be precisely because of material prosperity and lawlessness that faith grows cold (Dt. 6:12; 8:11-20; 2 Tim. 3; 2 Pet. 2,3; Jude). According to Jesus himself this will be the end-time scenario when in the midst of widespread material wealth disaster will strike (Luke 12:13-21; 16:19-31; 17:26-30, cf. also the story of the Tower of Babel). If nothing else, global warming should remind us all of the inherent fragility or shakability (Heb. 12:27) of creation. Terra is not so firma after all!

 

Conclusion

If this scenario is correct, my contention that creation is naturally subject to futility and corruption as opposed to a cosmic curse is vindicated. In the circumstances as every farmer and gardener knows, where there is no work in an ultimately futile and corruptible cosmos, there is less than adequate fruit fit for the consumption of man (cf. Lev. 25:18f.; 26:3-5, etc.) as opposed to mere animal. (4* John Stott’s comment that nature is what God gives us, ‘culture’ (or cultivation) is what we do with it and that without a human cultivator, every garden or field quickly degenerates into a wilderness is highly important at this point. The tragedy is that he himself did not seem to appreciate its relevance to the so-called cosmic curse which, conditioned by his Augustinian worldview, he readily accepted.) While nature given its providential ecology may temporarily support the animal world, unaided it certainly will not support man, least of all seven billion of us in the 21st century. Needless to say, being inherently temporary, it is quite incapable of providing for us eternally.

 

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References

F.F.Bruce, WBC 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Waco, 1982.

L.L.Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, Grand Rapids, 1959.

J.R.W.Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, London, 1999.

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RECAPITULATION

Mankind (the race)
Man (the individual)
God the Creator (Acts 17:26) Adam the father (cf. Heb. 7:10)
Placed in the Garden (2:8,15) Placed in the womb
Gestation to physical maturity and infantile knowledge Gestation to babyhood
Actual sin Inactivity (Rom. 9:11)
Ejection from the womb Birth
Infancy outside Eden (harsh reality) Infancy in cradle (blissful ignorance)
Refusal to work – curse culminating in flood Parental nurture
(1) Covenant with Noah Eventual recognition of rainbows
Hunter gatherers (Gen.10:9) Childhood
Builders (Gen. 10:10f.) Childlike faith
Abrahamic covenant of promise Childhood slavery (Hos. 11:1; Mt. 2:15; Gal.4 :1f.)
(2) Mosaic covenant of law School (adolescence, cf. Gal. 3:24f. KJV)
Rampant sin and rebellion (e.g. 2 K. 17) Rebellion
Davidic covenant of promise Ambition
(3) Christian covenant of hope Regeneration
Work ethic and prosperity Work and sanctification
Decline and physical death Decline and physical death
Death and judgement (Heb. 9:27) Death and judgement

                                   

 

In light of the above, man(kind) was first created, placed to gestate as (animal) flesh in the womb (Eden), was born, experienced infancy, childhood, adolescence and mature manhood and in Christ is perfected and transformed in preparation for heaven. As made in the (potential) image of God, he begins as flesh and reaches maturity (is perfected) in spirit (1 Cor. 15:46). The ascent of man is intrinsic and the absurd idea that he began perfect and fell bringing a curse on the entire universe must be rejected out of hand. Sin of course is an exacerbating factor in an otherwise ‘good’ but futile world. It prevents man’s naturally necessary escape (2 Cor. 4:16-18) from this ‘evil’ age (Gal. 1;4) with the result that we are all totally dependent on the sinless Jesus who alone met the condition of life by keeping the law (Lev. 18:5; Mt. 19:17; Rom. 10:5, etc.).  He alone as our pioneer in the flesh achieved perfection for himself (Heb. 5:9; 7:28) and in his love and compassion atoned for the sins of the rest of us. In this way, having been glorified himself (John 17:5; Heb. 2:9), he will bring us to glory in our turn (John 17:24; Heb. 2:10; Rom. 8:30).

 

Notes

Cosmic Destruction

If the conclusions reached above are correct, they explain something else. Just as the curse of the flood occurred despite evidence of faith in such isolated characters as Enoch, Abel and Noah, so the final universal conflagration (Mt. 7:19; Heb. 6:7f.; 12:25-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12), the destruction of the created cosmos, will occur despite the faith of what is perhaps a comparative few, a remnant,  at the end (Mt. 24:12; Mark 13:19f.; Luke 17:26;18:8; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Heb. 6:7f.; Jude 18, etc.). Some at least will be brands plucked from the burning (Amos 4:11; Jude 23). Despite this, the material creation will have served its basic purpose and produced its intended harvest of the people of God (Mt. 24:29-31; Rev. 7:9-17, etc.). (On this see my The Harvest of the Earth.)

 

Desolation

An uninhabited land (or house/ temple/body) is desolate or deserted and thus of no further use. Just as a ‘hand-made’ and deserted temple (cf. Mark 14:58) is destroyed (see e.g. France, pp.884,886,888), so is land. At the second advent when almost all that the earth produces is thorns (2 Sam. 23:6) or fruitless branches (John 15:6), its end is to be burnt (Heb. 6:7f., cf. Mt. 22:7; Luke 17:29f.). This clearly points to the graphic picture painted in 2 Peter 3:7 (cf. 2 Thes. 1:7f.). Fortunately, as Beale says, architectural temples on earth were but copies of the heavenly temple (p.352), and though the former like the cosmic temple (cf. p.402) may fail (p.401), the latter  since it is God and the Lamb (Rev. 21:22, cf. Ezek. 48:35) remains forever free from anything accursed  (Rev. 22:3). Christ’s kingdom will never be destroyed (Luke 1:32f.; John 12:34). (Regrettably, on the basis of a false understanding of Romans 8:18-25 Beale seems to think that the new heavens and earth where righteousness dwells is the old creation redeemed, pp.153,227. He fails to realize that all ‘hand-made’ temples are defective and transient by nature and face inevitable destruction even apart from sin before they give way to the Lord of Glory himself, note especially Mark 14:58 and 2 Cor. 5:1. According to Hebrews, when the true or real reigns supreme, the shadow disappears (8:1-7,13, cf. 2 Cor. 3:7-11.)

 

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Reference:

R.T.France, The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, 2007.

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