Command, relationship and freedom

Someone has lent me Creation by Claus Westermann, a name familiar to me from my days of biblical studies in the psalms. In some ways it’s a bit disappointing, dating from 1971 and therefore, hailing from Germany, rather too assured of the “assured” results of the documentary hypothesis and history of religions theory. He actually uses that adjective “assured” – I’ve been looking for some source that didn’t use it merely ironically for years!

However there are some good insights, and one that struck me was in his dealing with the command to Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge in the garden. Westermann writes that it is only this command that makes relationship possible, and that in this way it constitutes the gift of freedom:

The freedom of this relationship arises only from the command; without the command there would be no freedom.

Now this is a particularly bold statement in that he has just quoted Gerhard von Rad’s words about the preceding permission to eat from any tree of the garden:

God begins by allowing man complete freedom.

And it is true that these first words of God’s address give man his first taste of “autonomy” – and autonomy is how most people nowadays regard “freedom”. But Westermann argues that because this permission is so utterly reasonable in freeing the man from any risk of privation, it is not freedom at all. It is the “unreasonable” command to abstain from the tree – only intelligible through trust in God that eating it will, in fact, lead to death with no understanding of why or how – that actually creates a meaningful relationship with God. And that is because obedience must be based on trust, with freedom either to bestow that trust on the Lord or not. And the basis of the trust is that it is placed in the same God who created both Adam and the tree.

This is pretty profound, when Adam is compared to the the new Adam, Jesus Christ, whose radical freedom consisted in being entirely committed to obeying his Father in everything. Westermann is right in saying that relationship with God is built on obedience, and that this obedience brings true freedom – and that was as true of Jesus as it would have been of Adam, and as it should be of us.

Westermann distinguishes three kinds of societal restriction on people: the taboo, the command, and the law, of which only the second is truly personal, making command “something essentially different from law.” “There can only be command where there is speech” (and so, properly speaking, freedom is confined to rational beings), and “the voice of him who commands must be there so as to command.” Command is, necessarily, in the second person.

This to me gets to the heart of the Eden narrative as, necessarily, bespeaking a personal encounter between man and God, in which God speaks, as God, to the man. Paul speaks to this in Romans 5:17ff, who distinguishes the breaking of a command by Adam from the sin and death that reigned, without such a command, between Adam and Abraham. Perhaps Paul also makes a similar distinction to Westermann between “law” and command”, not only in that passage, but in Romans 2:17ff where he speaks both of Jewish disobedience to the law of Moses and gentile disobedience to the “law” of conscience as rendering them without excuse: and yet law is not the personal command which, in the garden, established a true covenant relationship with Adam for the first time.

And maybe it also establishes why Adam is held accountable to God for the consequences of the first sin, rather than Eve, who first ate the forbidden fruit: she had not received the command directly from God, but only through Adam (and Gen 3:16 shows how that relationship was marred).

Westermann sums up his argument thus:

The command in the Creation narrative has a completely positive meaning, It is an act of confidence in man in his relationship to God.It takes him seriously as man who can decide in freedom and it opens to him the possibility of loyalty.

Such relationship is profoundly different to even the most sophisticated system of religion. I have argued in a previous series of posts (see here) that Adam may have been called for the first instance of such a personal relationship with God, from an existing human race which might well have had all the features of culture, and even religious practice, that appear in the archaeological record and ancient texts. But valuable though religion is, it is not relationship of the kind that came to Abraham through the voice of God, to Moses through the burning bush and to every born-again Christian through the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

It could not come through the Israelites delegating Moses to receive laws, commandments and ordinances on their behalf at Mount Sinai, except in the most attenuated way, as Israel’s subsequent history of faithlessness shows. And it could not come through any conceivable evolutionary process or any “natural” development, for faith comes only from hearing the voice of God:

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?… So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (Rom 10:14,17)

And sin comes only through disobeying that voice and breaking relationship… though sin’s effects of death and evildoing might well, in the right circumstances, be a consequence, as Paul says in Romans 5, of another’s broken relationship.

The garden of Eden then, on Westermann’s reasoning, seems to me to be a unique and very important place.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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