The Foundations of the Covenant (Genesis 2:4-14)

About 3500 years ago, in the middle of the night, a prophet named Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. He had promised to lead them home, to the land God had promised to their ancestor Abraham.

But instead of leading them north into the fertile country of their homeland, Moses led the people eastward into the Arabian desert, to a mountain called Sinai.

And this was not fertile country.

And a lot of the people began to say, “Hang on, Moses: this is not what you promised us! This is not what we signed up for!”

And Moses had to say, “Uh, yes, I understand how all this looks. But trust me, we are on track. We just had to make this detour because God asked us to meet him here. He wants to explain a few things before we travel northward.”

See, during their 400+ years in Egypt, things had really changed back in their homeland. The people there had become more and more corrupt. They had always worshiped idols, false gods, even when Abraham first moved there 600 years before this. But now those religions were reaching their logical conclusions. Their lives and their worship had become obsessed with two things: sex and wealth. They were sacrificing their own children! They were corrupting the environment spiritually. And as everyone knows, spiritual corruption always leads to physical environmental corruption.

In other words, if God allows them to continue, these will end up destroying — not just themselves — but the land also.

So God has decided that now is the time for him to take the land back from them and give it to the people of Israel.

But before he does that, God wants to make sure the people of Israel do not end up following that same destructive path. He wants them to understand clearly what he is calling them to do.

He wants them to take what is already a beautiful, orderly, fertile land, and he wants them to protect it from further corruption. He wants them to maintain it. He wants them to expand it, gradually transforming the corrupted nations around them into beautiful, orderly, life-giving countries where God is worshiped, where people are free to love one another without fear.

Now the people of Israel have already heard Moses’ story of creation. They already understand that the universe is God’s temple, and the earth is his footstool. They already understand that it was all consecrated and made holy over the course of a seven day process.

They also understand that somewhere, somehow, this revelation was lost to mankind. People have not maintained the holiness of God’s footstool. They have not brought the earth into ever-increasing orderliness and worship.

The people of Israel also understand that God has a restoration plan. God has a plan to re-consecrate his footstool, to make the earth holy again, and set it back on course toward orderliness and worship. He has a plan to reveal himself to mankind once again.

What they do not understand — yet — is that this land God wants to give them is the beginning of that restoration plan. They do not understand yet that they, as a nation, have a part to play in that plan. As they enter the land, and re-consecrate it, making it holy — driving out the spiritual corruption, saving the soil from environmental corruption — they will be reclaiming the centre of the physical cosmos, and setting off a reaction that will one day transform the earth.

This is what Moses wants to share with them next. He is going to tell them how mankind lost this revelation. And he is going to spell out God’s plan of restoration…by going back to the start and revealing God’s original plan: God’s original covenant.

And he begins this new revelation in Genesis, Chapter 2, verse 4: This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Now, to us this is just a sentence. But for Moses this sentence is a major transition marker between Book 1 and Book 2. They did not use numbers back then; instead they used key phrases to mark transition points. Moses’ key phrase is this one: “This is the account of…” If you look it up, you’ll find that this phrase happens 10 times in the book of Genesis. Which means that Moses really intended for us to read Genesis as a series of 10 books.

He also signals this transition by repeating the words “heaven” and “earth” twice — but flipping their order the second time. The first half of the sentence says this is the account of the heavens and the earth. The second half of the sentence says when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. This is Moses’ way of telling us that we are now going to shift our perspective. Chapter 1 was the Creation Story told from the perspective of heaven looking down to earth. Chapter 2 will be the Creation Story told from the perspective of earth looking up to heaven.

The third way Moses signals this transition is by changing what he calls God. All through Chapter 1 he has called God “God” — just the ordinary Hebrew word for God. But here, for the first time, he calls God “the Lord God” — he calls him Yahweh God, which is the name of the personal, covenant-speaking, covenant-keeping God of Israel. Moses is highlighting for his people that the Almighty Creator God of the Universe is also their own Personal Covenant-Speaking God.

So what we are seeing here is that Moses’ Book 1 was the creation story told from a timeless, eternal perspective, from God’s perspective. It focused on God’s relationship with creation as a whole.

But Moses’ Book 2, which begins here, will be the Creation Story told from mankind’s perspective. It will be focused on God’s relationship with mankind, with us.

So Book 1 was the Story of God’s Apocalypse.

Book 2 is the Story of God’s Covenant.

So, after signalling his transition to a new book, Moses zooms in to God’s footstool and sets the scene for us:

[5] Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground.

Moses is beginning just like he did in Book 1. In Book 1 the physical universe was formless and empty, a cosmic ocean with the Spirit of God hovering over it. Here, in Book 2, the physical earth is formless and empty: it has not produced any cultivated plant life, the kinds of edible crops that people can eat.

And we are given two reasons why: first, because the Lord God had not sent any rain; second, because there was no man to cultivate the ground and produce crops.

But,” Moses tells us in verse 6, “streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.”

Now, I’d better explain these streams that come up from the earth, because Moses is not just describing fresh-water springs. I mean: he is describing fresh-water springs, but for ancient people these springs from underground had a special significance to them.

Remember how, in the Creation Story, we discovered that Moses and his people believed the earth was like a flat plate with a roof over it. They viewed the earth as a bubble of life and order submerged in a cosmic ocean of chaos: ocean above the sky, and ocean under the earth. Well, sometimes, through cracks in the earth beneath us, the subterranean waters could leak in from outside. And these would show up on the surface of the earth as fresh-water springs.

So when ancient people saw water bubbling up from the depths of the earth, they didn’t just think, “Oh, nice! Fresh water!” They thought, “Oh, fresh water from the realms of chaos, the world of gods and sea monsters other spiritual beings. Divine water!”

That changes things a little bit, don’t you think?

Of course, Moses — even though he would agree that these springs really are leaks from the cosmic ocean outside — Moses believes God rules over that outer chaos. So for Moses, these streams that come up from the earth are gifts from God. They are divine waters, but they’re not magical or spiritual, they are simply from God.

So what Moses is describing is an untamed wilderness planet, without rain, without useful crops. There is vegetation, but it is wild vegetation. It is not the nutrient-dense seeds and fruits that only come through careful and deliberate cultivation.

But everything is ready for cultivation. In certain places, water is bubbling out of the earth and flowing downward out of the mountains, making the rich soil of the plains deep and rich and wet.

The only thing missing is a farmer.

And at this point I think I’d better pause and address a question that many, many people have asked over the years. And that question is this: in Genesis 1, the land produces seed- and fruit-bearing plants on Day 3, but only produces mankind on Day 6. But here in Genesis 2, the land cannot produce seed- and fruit-bearing plants without human help.

Isn’t that a contradiction?

Well, it would seem so, if we insist on reading these chapters as if they are some kind of science textbook on how creation came to be.

But these chapters are not meant to tell us exactly how. They are literary works, designed to tell us why and what for.

Remember, Book 1 is told from the timeless perspective of God; Book 2 is told from the Time and Space perspective of earth. Book 1 is about God’s consecration of the cosmic temple for heaven’s sake; Book 2 is about God’s covenant with mankind for earth’s sake.

So, for instance, just because the plants are consecrated on Day 3, and mankind is consecrated on Day 6, does not necessarily mean that plants existed before mankind. They could have existed together previously, they just had not yet been officially named and given a particular job to do in God’s cosmic temple.

We can see this idea clearly in the creation of the tabernacle. It took the craftsmen many months to create all the different pieces of the tabernacle. All the parts existed physically at the same time, but the tabernacle was not officially “created” until Moses had consecrated each part, sprinkling them with blood or oil, naming them and giving each piece a job to do in the tabernacle.

In fact, we can actually see this idea clearly in our own modern practice of weddings. Tell me, when the pastor says, “I now pronounce you Man and Wife,” do we believe he just created a man and a woman? No. We understand very well that the man and the woman have existed physically for many years already. We also understand that when the pastor says, “I now pronounce you…” he is taking that raw material of man and woman and creating something new: a Husband and a Wife.

That is a consecration process, which is also a creation process. The groom and bride enter the ceremony as a man and a woman; they leave as a husband and wife. They are a new creation! And we all recognize the truth of that, we’re not confused by it. So if you were telling someone the story of your friends’ wedding and they listened to it and then said, “But but but wait! What I really want to know is this: who was born first!” — we would say, “Uh, you’re kinda missing the point of my story here. I’m not telling you how a man and a woman were created, I’m telling you how a husband and wife were created.”

So Book 1 described a consecration-creation process performed in God’s Time, in God’s Space, from God’s perspective. Book 2 is describing a covenant-creation process performed in earth time, in earth space, from earth’s perspective. Book 1 and Book 2 are both about creation, but they are about different kinds of creation. We do see some of the same elements in Book 2 that we saw in Book 1, like plants and people. But we are going to miss the point of the story if we try to force all these elements to fit each other. It just won’t work.

This is why it was important, at the beginning, for us to realize that Moses wants us to read these as Book 1 and Book 2. The stories are related. But they are not identical. They are not actually the same story. And that is why Moses signalled that transition as strongly as he could with his first sentence of Book 2.

It’s just that we tend to miss those transitional cues…and that is too bad, because it has just led to us asking a lot of the wrong kinds of questions and missing the real richness of what is going on here.

So anyway, here we are with water, soil, but no plants because: no farmer.

Then — verse 7 — the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

In Book 1, God simply spoke and “made” mankind in his image. And all the way through Book 1 we saw that connection between God’s speech and God’s breath, his Spirit.

Here, we see that moment in greater detail: God breathes into the man’s nostrils, and the man becomes a living being. The man takes on God’s image. That is a very good description of a consecration process. Just like a pastor at a wedding, God breathes — God speaks — and creates something new out of something that already existed.

And what is this thing that already existed, that he breathed into? Well…apparently it was a man-shaped object. So this confirms that something man-shaped existed before it was consecrated as the Image of God. Which also confirms that the Image of God is not a physical image, it is a spiritual one, an image that is breathed in, an image that is declared, just like in marriage, or in baptism.

And what was this man-shaped object made out of?

Dust. Dust that God formed slowly and personally, like an artist crafting a masterpiece.

Which is strange, because we would think that an artist would want to work with something a little more lasting, something a little easier to work with, like clay. But Moses tells us God did not use wet clay from the fertile lands where the rivers are flowing. He uses dry dust from the mountains, from the deserts. Why?

Two main reasons:

First, this man is being formed for a particular purpose: to help the dust produce plants. So it makes sense that he should be formed out of the dust he is called to cultivate.

Second, as we will discover later on, being formed from dust is a reminder that man is potentially mortal. Just as the earth needs God’s water in order to produce life, man-shaped dust needs God’s breath.

The concept Moses wants to teach us here is this: man is a creature formed of both soil and Spirit. He is a mediator, standing with his feet rooted in the earth and his head among the heavens. God is not a farmer; the man does not provide rain. But, when they work together — when God provides the rain from above and the springs from below, and when the man guides those waters to where they need to go by digging irrigation channels in the earth — then together they create new life.

To be clear: of course God could fill the earth with edible plants if he wanted to. He could do it just by speaking. God could make everything happen all at once! But Book 1 taught us that God loves to slow down and use a process that involves others, because the process reveals who he is more completely.

So instead of filling the earth with plants in an instant, and stealing the joy of accomplishment from the man, God begins with just one tiny point. He plants a garden in the east, in the land of Eden — which means the land of Delight — and there he put the man he had formed.

[9] The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [10] A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. [11] The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. [12] (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) [13] The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. [14] The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

We are going to talk about the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil next week. For now we are just going to focus on this garden as a whole.

First, we are told it is in the east.

Which makes us wonder: east from what starting point? Egypt? Mount Sinai? London?

But, again, that’s actually the wrong question to ask, because for ancient people there was only one East, with a capital E. Remember, ancient people thought they lived on a central supercontinent surrounded by a circular sea which extended to the edges of the earth disk. So they understood that, if you walked as far as you could in any direction, you would eventually come to the sea. And then, if you got in a boat and continued to sail as far as you could, after many months — or even, perhaps, years — you would come to the pillars of the earth: the ring of mountains that holds up the sky itself. But if you made this particular journey in an eastward direction, eventually you would come — in the uttermost East — to the greatest mountain of all: the mountain of God, with a door behind it through which the sun would enter every morning to begin its journey across the sky.

C.S.Lewis used this concept in two of his books from the Narnia series: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair. If you have not read those books, I highly recommend them.

Anyway, when Moses says that the garden was planted in the east, he is not necessarily saying that the land of Eden was in the utter east, on the mountain of God, in the place where the sun rises. Everyone understood that you could not actually get there, you would run out of food and water before you could sail that far. But Moses does want us to understand that the land of Eden is a high and holy place, filled with the presence of God.

Second, we are told that in a hidden valley on that high and holy mountain, God made the ground produce all kinds of trees: trees that were beautiful, useful, and good to eat.

Third, we are told that those trees were able to grow because a stream of divine water — remember that concept? — bubbled up to the surface in the high country of Eden, and flowed down into the garden valley, and from there split up into four rivers which flowed out of the garden and down through the lands outside.

And this makes us wonder if we could perhaps find those rivers and follow them back to the garden of Eden. The Tigris is still around, and so is the Euphrates: they both flow down through Iraq into the Persian Gulf. And if we were to follow both rivers up into the mountains of Afghanistan where they begin, we would find that their sources are only a few kilometers apart.

Ooooo! That is promising! But…where are the other two rivers? The Pishon and the Gihon are missing. Some scholars have suggested that those rivers are long since dried up, but that they used to flow north and west and empty out into the Black Sea in Russia. So they would argue that Moses is giving us a literal road map to a literal garden that once existed in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Other scholars, however, have suggested that the Gihon is actually the Nile River in Egypt, which does flow through the land of Cush — what we now call Ethiopia. And they suggest that the Pishon is the Ganges River in India, which is a land famous for its gold, spices, and precious stones. So they would argue that, since these four rivers don’t actually have the same source, Moses must be talking about a mythical garden in a mythical land, using the names of real rivers in order to give his myth the flavour of reality.

But — once again — those are actually the wrong questions to ask about the rivers and about the garden. If we met Moses and we asked him, “So, were those rivers real, or mythical? Was the garden of Eden real, or mythical?” he would probably look at us and say, “Both? Neither? I don’t think I understand these fixed categories you are using.”

See, ancient Hebrew prophets did not just make stuff up: they always tried to root their prophecies in reality, in history, as much as possible. Which means that Moses is talking about a real land of Eden.

But, even though ancient Hebrew prophets liked to root their prophecies in reality, they were also very willing to pack that reality with poetry and metaphor and symbols in order to give that reality as many layers of meaning and emotion as they could jam in there. They liked to take their reality and then make it ultra-HD, making it even realer than real life, in order to communicate the deeper spiritual truths underneath the physical reality. Which means that while Moses is talking about a real garden connected to real history, the details he packs in here are like special-effects designed to deepen our understanding.

Now, Moses believed the garden was a real place. He believed it was the cradle of infant humanity. But he also understood that its details and location have long since been lost. Just like the Mountain of God in the uttermost east, the garden was connected to this world, but you cannot get there from here. The mountain is out of reach across a sea of waters that no human being can cross; the garden is out of reach across a sea of years that no human being can retrace.

So when Moses describes these rivers, and even names them, he is not trying to tell us where the garden was; he is trying to tell us what the garden was like and what it was for. It was a hidden valley on a holy mountain, bursting with life, overflowing with living waters — which flowed out of the garden and descended in every direction to give life to the wilderness outside — even to the pagan lands of Cush, in Africa; even to the pagan lands of Havilah, in Arabia and India; even to the pagan lands of Ashur and Babylon, in Iraq.

This picture of the goodness of the garden spilling out into the world is a preview of what the man is called to do. The four rivers are not a road map meant to lead us back to the garden; they are a road map meant to lead the man out of the garden. They are a living example to the man, a living vision of what he is going to be doing over the next few centuries and millennia: taking the orderly, life-giving goodness of the garden and expanding it to fill the world with the knowledge of the Covenant-Speaking God.

As Moses told this story to the ancient people of Israel, they would have seen the connections to their own situation at once.

Just as the man was formed out of the dust of the desert and then brought to life by the breath of the Covenant-Speaking God, so also the Israelites have been formed into a nation in the desert, and brought to life by the sprinkled blood of God’s covenant.

Just as the man was placed in a beautiful, orderly, fertile valley, safely hidden in a high and holy place, so also the Israelites are going to be placed in a beautiful, orderly, fertile land where in the centuries to come they are going to discover the mountain of God: Mount Zion, in Jerusalem.

Just as that primordial valley in Eden spilled over with life into all the surrounding physical wilderness, so also the Israelites’ promised homeland is going to spill over with life into all the surrounding spiritual wilderness, all the surrounding pagan nations.

And they would have seen one more connection to their situation:

When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, God spoke to them directly, and he said this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

This was the first part of a covenant ceremony.

Now, all covenant ceremonies in those days had three basic parts. Part 1 said: this is who I am and what I have done for you already. Part 2 said: these are the expectations we will have for each other. And Part 3 said: these are the blessings if you keep this covenant; these are curses if you break this covenant.

And the ancient people of Israel, listening to Moses tell this story, would have realized that what they have just heard is the opening part of a covenant ceremony. Just as God said to them, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” so also God has just said to the man he created, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the ground, out of the wilderness…This garden is what I have done for you already. These trees, these rivers, all this life I have provided for you.”

So the ancient people of Israel already know that Part 2 is coming, where God is going to say, “These are the expectations we will have for each other…”

But you’re going to have to come back next week to hear that part.

In the meantime, though, what does this story have to do with us? How is this supposed to change our lives today?

Well, as modern Christians our situation is not so different from the situation the ancient people of Israel found themselves in. We have been delivered from slavery. We have been baptized into the people of God. We have been promised a country of our very own, where we will live in peace and perfect safety. Some of us were even told that if we became Christians all our problems would be solved, we would never suffer or get sick or anything like that —

But we’ve all found that we are not there yet. In many respects we are still in the wilderness, and sometimes we are tempted to say, “Hang on, God: this is not what you promised! This is not what I signed up for!”

This ancient story tells us that, yes, this is what we signed up for. Even the first man did not begin his life in the garden: he was formed out of dust in the wilderness, and then placed in the garden. And Moses does not give us any time frame for these events. We are only told that God breathed into the man over here, while also planting a garden over here — but how long does it take for trees to grow? How long does it take for a spring to cut its way through rock and grow into four rivers? Did all this happen at once, miraculously, or is this the result of years? Moses doesn’t say! though the language he uses is very ordinary, non-miraculous language: God “plants” a garden, he makes “trees grow out of the ground”. We don’t know how long this process took because Moses doesn’t care about that!

What does Moses care about? He wants us to understand that whenever and however God prepared that garden — the man had nothing to do with it. God grew it, and God gave it to him. Whenever and however God finally brought the man into that hidden valley, the man walked in and found everything ready for him.

In exactly the same way, God prepared the promised land for ancient Israel — they had nothing to do with it. They simply walked in and found everything ready for them: houses built, fields planted, fruit ripening in the sun.

We are the heirs of that same promise. Jesus is famous for telling his disciples, “You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going!”

Jesus is preparing a place for us. We are not given any time frame here. We only know that the Covenant-Speaking God has breathed his Spirit into us over here, while also planting a Garden-City over here. We don’t know when or how our Father is going to bring us into those new heavens and new earth, but we do know that, when we get there, we will find everything ready for us. And as Jesus just said, we do know the way to that place: Jesus is the Way.

And all that is Good News!

But what is our practical application? What does this Good News lead us to do in our everyday lives?

Well, let’s do this: every time the stress and futility of modern life closes in upon us, first let us fix our eyes on what our Father has already done for us. In Christ we have been set free from slavery to sin and death and judgement. Remember what our Father has already done!

And second, let us fix our eyes on what our Father is going to do for us. When we arrive at the gates of the New Jerusalem on the Mountain of God, we are going to come to a place overflowing with life and light. The Prophet John tells us that a river will bubble up from beneath the throne of God and will flow down the middle of the great street of the city, with the tree of life growing on both sides of it. The Prophet Ezekiel tells us that this river will flow out of the city and down, toward the east, into the wildnerness, and where the river flows everything will live.

And that is when our real work will begin. We will realize in those moments that all of this creation — all of this life — is just a preview of the things to come. The river of life is going to flow outward in every direction into the universe, and it is going to guide us into what we are supposed to do for the next millions of years or so: take the orderly life-giving goodness of Christ’s kingdom and expand it to fill the cosmos with the revelation of the Covenant-Speaking God.

So when this life feels like it’s too much, let us remember what our Father has already done, and let us look forward to what he is going to do.

And let us pray. 

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