The Covenant with Adam

The Text

Be fruitful and multiply; replenish the land, and subdue it*; and take stewardship over the fish of the sea, and over the winged creatures of the sky, and over all the animals that crawl above and below the ground. [.....] Behold! I have given to you every seed-bearing plant across the face of all the land, as well as every tree which has seed-bearing fruit on it; let them be food for you. And to every wild animal, and to every winged creature of the sky, and to every reptile and insect on the ground which has the breath of life in it, I give every green plant for food.” (Gen 1:28-30)

You can eat whatever you want from any tree in the garden; but as for the tree of the awareness of good and evil you must not eat from it, for on the day that you eat from it you will surely die. (Gen 2:16-17)

 

footnote *:

a different pointing of the Hebrew וכבשה renders ve-khivshuha (‘and subdue it’) as

ve-khivsuha (‘and make it abundantly fruitful’). This is derived from the unused meaning of the root kaf-veyt-sin to mean ‘to make abundantly fruitful’. However, it would actually make more sense – to have God instruct us to make the earth fruitful, rather than commanding us to oppress the earth!


The terms of The Covenant

What God will do: give us every fruit and seed-bearing plant as food; give all animals the seed-bearing plants as food.

What humans must do: be fruitful, increase in number, rule over everything on earth (or alternatively, make the earth abundantly fruitful).

Blessings: You are free to eat of any tree in the garden Restrictions: You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.

Curses: the day that you eat of it, you will most certainly die.

Now, on the whole, we do not believe literally in Adam and Eve (genetic Adam and genetic Eve also lived at different times). We do not believe that the earth was created literally in six days. However, this story is part of our tradition, and it still has a message for us. How shall we re-interpret the Covenant of Adam?

  1. That we have been given sentience, intelligence and power, greater than any other creature on earth. Nowhere in this covenant does God say that we should abuse or oppress the earth. “Subdue the earth” has been taken too literally by some people (I would prefer the interpretation of make the earth abundantly fruitful). Rather, we should be stewards of God’s earth, looking after it and caring for it.
  2. God gave us every plant that produces seeds for food. Now, in nature, the vast majority of plants produce seeds. Yet some scientists have bred plants that do not have seeds. Does this not make us stop and wonder how far we should go in changing nature? That God has created things to be a certain way, and we make them other than what they truly are?
  3. It is because we are sentient that we are able to tell the difference between good and evil (the biblical story says that this discernment came as a result of eating the forbidden fruit). To other creatures, good and evil are irrelevant; they do what they do because that is what they are. Now that we know the difference, we have a responsibility to act wisely and with caring regard to the people, creatures and the world around us.

The Covenant is broken

But Adam and Eve broke this covenant, so God sues for compensation:

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:16-19).

Wow! That isn’t very nice is it? In this passage, God punishes Adam and Eve for breaking the treaty or agreement he made with them. For the religious moderate, this sounds like God behaving like a vindictive tyrant – incompatible with our experience of a God of mercy, forgiveness and compassion.

How can we re-interpret this to make it relevant to the modern mind?

Sentience is again the key. All creatures experience pain. However, because we as human beings have the capacity to understand the origin and nature of pain, we are all the more keen to it. We can learn by it. We can understand that our actions cause others pain, something that lesser non-sentient creatures don’t understand. We must be sensitive to what we do.

When God is described as saying that, post-disobedience, everything man and woman do will be in pain, God isn’t saying that before this there was no pain. Rather, knowledge of good and evil brings with it an ability to experience pain even when the physical source of pain is absent.

 

We worry about looking for the means for our survival, even in those moments when it is not an immediate issue. We worry about our children, even when they are not in immediate danger. And we worry about growing old, and about the frailty of our own mortality, long before our final time comes.

 

For me, this is what this part of the story makes us think about – not what happened, but rather about the upsides and the downsides of being sentient, human men and women. With knowledge of good and evil comes responsibility – we cannot just do what we like, like other animals can – like our primitive ancestors once did.

 

I also think that, the moment we achieved sentience, all those thousands of years ago, it would not have been too great a step for us to go on to develop spirituality. Sentience must have brought with it fear of the unknown, but it also might have brought with it a realisation that we human beings cannot just do as we please. For if we do, we will hurt others, and in turn, we ourselves will suffer.

 

   
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