In the Shade of Two Trees # 1: Genesis and the Two Trees

by Scott Anderson

A weekly reflection on a seminal scriptural question: What does it mean to be created in God’s image? Because there are two ways of thinking about this image-bearing capacity, it is understandable that we might get confused about our relationship with God and to God’s creation. The series argues that the key to solving our image problem begins with a reconsideration of Adam and Eve’s choice between the two trees at the center of the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve’s paradise may have been comfortable, but it was not carefree. Although they luxuriated in the Garden of Eden, in the warm, comforting presence of God, the first couple also lived in the cool, foreboding shade of two trees. God had designed all of Eden Park around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. And God used those trees to offer a central choice to God’s human creation. The couple could eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and die, or they could eat from the Tree of Life (and any other tree in the garden, for that matter) and live. Adam and Eve ingested the capacity for moral discernment and were infected with the capacity for death.

Each retelling of the Genesis story brings frustration. We are appalled by the couple and their foolish decision. How could they choose death over life? How could knowing the difference between good and evil be more important than living in paradise with their Creator? Before we get too upset by the couple’s choice and its consequences, though, we should consider the God who gave them the choice in the first place. What kind of God gives this life-and-death choice to the culmination of one’s creative enterprise? And how did Adam and Eve view this choice-giving Creator? What was their understanding of the nature of God and of their nature as humans?

Genesis alludes to the nature of God and of humans as it illustrates God’s creative mindset. God speaks: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26, NRSV). Here, there seems to be a direct link between the nature of God and the nature of humans—an “image,” a “likeness.” But the statement is ambiguous. It is not clear that making humans “in the image of God” is the same act as making humans “in the likeness of God.” Maybe Adam and Eve’s fateful decision was prompted by this ambiguity.

Think about what a likeness is. A likeness is a representation. The concept includes two distinct items: the object and the thing that represents the object. An example might be a photograph. For example, a photograph of the Eiffel Tower is not the Eiffel Tower. It is a small, two-dimensional representation of a large, three-dimensional structure in Paris. The photograph has a completely separate existence from the thing it represents. In other words, my photograph does not rely on the continued existence of the Eiffel Tower for its own existence. The Eiffel Tower could be obliterated tomorrow, and my photograph of the Eiffel Tower would still be there, representing what the Eiffel Tower looked like on the day I snapped the photo.

The same cannot be said of an image. An image is a reflection. An image is dependent on its objects’ continued presence for its own existence. An example might be a mirror. As long as I am looking in a mirror, my image exists. But when I walk away from the mirror, my image no longer appears. The mirror’s only function is to reflect what it “sees” in the object, to contain the image for as long as the object is present. The mirror has no purpose apart from reflecting its object.

If I understand myself as being made in the likeness of God, I will view myself—and God—differently than if I understand myself as being made in the image of God. If I am made in the likeness of God, then I am God’s representative on earth. I represent God’s heavenly will and authority on earth. I am God’s agent. On the other hand, if I am made in the image of God, then I am God’s reflection on earth. I am not God’s agent, actively pursuing God’s interests on the planet in God’s absence. I am the mirror reflecting God’s presence.

So, what would we expect if Adam and Eve envisioned themselves as being made in the likeness of God? We would expect exactly what the story presents. Adam sees himself as God’s representative on earth. He has been given dominion over every living thing and has been charged with subduing the earth. He has been given power over all creation. Adam sees himself as the culmination of God’s creation; he is the CEO of Earth, Inc., acting on God’s behalf while the Entrepreneur-Deity retires in Seventh-Day Heaven. And if Adam is God’s agent, what kind of power does he most need? The power to rightly make decisions on God’s behalf, the power to discern right from wrong in exactly the way God would. If Adam and Eve are God’s representatives on earth, then they need the power of moral discernment to make sure they enact God’s vision correctly. Even if they will die trying.

What would have happened, though, if our founding father and mother had chosen to see themselves as created in the image of God, as God’s reflected presence on the earth? Perhaps the story would have ended differently. Perhaps Adam and Eve would have grasped the notion that God animated them with the Breath of Life, the same Spirit with which He created the world. Perhaps they would have envisioned themselves as embodying that same Spirit in the world and as emanating that Spirit to all creation. They could have become spiritual creators, instead of moral agents. They could have been fruitful and multiplied God’s Spirit in everything they touched, everything they reflected His love onto. Adam could have seen the gift of his beloved, Eve, as a model for his being the beloved of God. He could have chosen to be sustained by the Tree of Life, instead of succumbing to the Tree of Death.

Genesis offers us a lesson in the ancient teaching method of “the two ways”: you are at a crossroads of two known paths; which will you take? The decision here is between the ethical and the experiential. And the question is a live one, as meaningful for us as it was for Adam and Eve. Will we choose to follow God according to a moral, discriminating imperative, bringing death in our wake? Or will we choose to follow God according to a spiritual, loving imperative, creating the conditions for abundant life?

Next week’s series installment: God-the-Creator

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