Part 2 of Rory Shiner’s Advent series offering a biblical theology of food and eating
The first meal in the Bible is as perplexing as it is tragic. The humans eat fruit they were told not to, and the whole world falls apart. What kind of fruit did they eat? Why was a prohibited tree there in the first place? What, exactly, did they do wrong?
A crucial clue to understanding the meal in Genesis 2–3 is the mention of food in Genesis chapter one. There, God gives grain, fruit, and green plants to all the creatures of the earth for food. The first two (grain and fruit) are particular associated with the humans, and the green plants with “every living creature.” (Genesis 1:29)
Why are grain and fruit highlighted as human food?
The clue, I believe, is in the human vocation. Humans are commissioned to be God’s image bearers. But what does that mean?
There is an image of the queen on every coin. God has done that with us. We bear his image in that sense. We remind creation of his rule. We are God’s argument for the existence of God.
In Australia, there is an image of the queen on every coin, reflecting an ancient tradition of rulers reminding their subjects of their rule via the currency. God has done that with us. We bear his image in that sense. We remind creation of his rule. We are God’s argument for the existence of God.
Part of our image-bearing is in discovering the world’s possibilities. Discovering grain and working out how to make bread. Discovering grapes and working out how to make wine. Both are hard to make. Both involve settlements, communities, fire, knives, trial-and-error, division of labour, transport, and knowledge.
To quote Andy Crouch, grain is good, but bread is very good. Grapes are good, but wine is very good. One day, the humans will work that out. But things begin, not in a settlement, but in a garden.
Food in the Garden
Chapter two of Genesis is not about the whole world; it’s about a place called “Eden”. And it’s not even about all of Eden, but a garden within it, the Garden of Eden. And that garden is specifically an orchard, planted by the Lord God (Genesis 2:9).
The meaning of fruit
Let’s think about fruit for a moment. Imagine a basket full of apples, bananas, grapes, mangoes, and watermelon. Got that picture? Good. Think about what you can see.
The first thing you’ll notice is how colourful it is. We are not imagining the deep-fryer yellow of chips and fried chicken, nor the dark brown of a stew, or silvery-grey of fish. It’s a burst of primary colours—yellows, greens, and reds.
Many of the fruits will be shiny, round, and voluptuous. Children, who often need encouragement to eat vegetables, will happily run toward a fruit platter. You may well have a painting of a fruit-bowl on your wall at home. And fruit is a stock-image of sensual and erotic poetry. In short, fruit is beautiful. It is “pleasing to the eye”(Genesis 3:6).
Fruit is also good for food. It’s edible. But more than that, it is sweet. It is enticing. We want to eat fruit. We eat it out of delight, rather than duty.
And fruit requires no cultivation before we eat it. Grain needs to be harvested, milled, combined with water and yeast, kneaded, left to rise, kneaded again, and finally cooked before it becomes the magical product we call bread. Not so with fruit. Fruit can be plucked off the tree and eaten then and there: no processing required. Most fruits aren’t even improved with processing. Sultanas are as disappointing to eat as they are ugly to look at. Fruit cake remains the scourge of the western wedding banquet. And whose idea was glacé cherries? Cherries were awesome to begin with. Messing with them made them worse.
Fruit is gift. It comes to us from the creation as unbidden generosity. The tree heavy with fruit appears almost to lean toward us to offer us its bounty.
The Innocence of Eden
Put all that together: God made a fruit-garden in Eden. Fruit is beautiful. It is sweet. And it requires no processing before eating. What does all this mean?
Eden was a nursey. It was a playschool. A training-centre. Eden was a safe space in which humans could learn before going out into the world. Filling and subduing the world was the end-game; bread and wine was the goal. But in Eden, they began with their L-Plates on.
Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
This helps us to make sense of the forbidden tree. If God wants them to flourish, why does he put a forbidden fruit-tree in the centre? It seems like such a bad idea! It’s like putting a knife in the middle of a nursery and saying, “Kids, don’t play with that knife.”
Why not just get rid of the knife?
I believe God put the tree there, not to tempt them, but because, eventually, at the right time, it was his purpose that they should eat from it.
I believe God put the tree there because, after their training, they would have been invited by God to eat and to gain wisdom. I have three reasons for believing this was the case.
1. Trees as Wisdom
First, in the Bible, trees often stand for wisdom. Psalm 1 pictures the righteous as trees; Proverbs 3:18 pictures wisdom itself as a tree. Trees are associated with wisdom.
2. “The knowledge of Good and Evil”
Second the tree is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” What does that mean?
Deuteronomy 1:39 talks about children as those “who do not yet know good from evil”. In 2 Samuel 14:17 a servant compliments the king by saying “…my lord the king is like an angel of God in knowing good and evil.” Israel’s great king, Solomon, on becoming king is invited to ask God for whatever he likes. What does he ask God for? The ability to discern good from evil (2 Kings 3:9). That is, he prays for wisdom.
Let’s put that together. What is the “knowledge of good and evil”? It’s something children do not yet have. It’s something kings need, and angels possess. It’s something Solomon prayers for so that he will not be like a little child.
To know “good and evil” is to be able to rule like God. Which is exactly what the humans were called to do.
What is the ‘knowledge of good and evil’? It’s something children do not yet have. It’s something kings need, and angels possess. It’s something Solomon prayers for so that he will not be like a little child.
3. The Effect of the Tree
Third, notice what happens with they eat of that tree.
The snake enters the garden and says to Eve that when she eats of the tree that her eyes will be opened and she will be “like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:4).
The snake is a notorious liar, but, like all good liars, he flirts with truth. And at this point, what he says is true. When they eat, God says that they have indeed “become like us, knowing good and evil.”
The immediate effect of eating is realising their nakedness: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked.” (Gen 3:7)
I suspect you, like me, have had that dream. You’re presenting in front of the class, pitching to investors or preaching at church. You’re all ready, except for one small detail—you have forgotten to wear clothes. In the dream you face the embarrassing challenge of getting through your presentation naked.
That dream is about unpreparedness. It is about doing a task out of sequence. It’s supposed to go shower … get-dressed … do the presentation. That dream is about the horror of doing the task before you are ready: shower … (skip getting dressed)… do the presentation. It’s about doing the work of an adult when you are dressed like a baby.
Which is exactly what Adam and Eve did. I believe the tree knowledge of good and evil was the fruit that God intend them to eat—eventually. They needed what it promised for their work as God’s vice-regents. It was forbidden to them in their apprenticeship. The ate with permission of the wrong person (the snake), and at the wrong time (before their training was complete), with disastrous consequences (shame and alienation).
Jesus: A Life in Sequence
This understanding of what happened in the garden helps us to make sense of Jesus:
- The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Jesus grew in wisdom. He grew in such a way that both humans and God became more pleased with him.
- In Hebrews 5:8 we are told that Jesus “learned obedience through what was suffered.” He learned obedience.
- Or consider the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted by Satan to do what, exactly? To turn stones into bread; to jump off the temple and be rescued by angels; to worship Satan and so receive the kingdoms of the world.
These are all temptations to receive early what God promised him in the end. They are temptations to take now what God would give later.
Jesus, the last Adam, waits where the first Adam grasped. Adam and Eve reached out before their time. But Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. He made himself nothing. And then God lifted him up.
The key virtue of Advent is patience. It is a time to reflect on the Spirit-enabled ability to wait for God. To wait for his vindication. To refuse to grasp what he has promised to give.