When we talk about ‘the first commandment’ we think about Exodus 20 verse 3, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ This is, of course, the first commandment in the Decalogue and is a reminder to God’s newly redeemed people that God alone is God. It seems that God’s people have always needed reminding of this. In Genesis God gave man the most privileged status in creation; made in the image and likeness of God, with god-like dominion over and responsibility for the whole created order (Gen.1:26) charged with stewarding the earth as would God were he to take direct control. This is illustrated in the story of Adam naming the animals in Genesis 2:19-20.
There is only one commandment to regulate them; ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Gen.2:17 ESV) Everything else is instruction to the stewarding of the creation. ‘Knowledge of good and evil’ is popularly understood as moral discrimination, often involving sexual awareness. This makes little sense in light of the fact that a) the man and the woman were instructed to procreate -‘multiply and fill the earth’ Gen.1:28 and b) given a moral choice regarding this tree, which would make no sense if they had no moral compass.
‘Knowledge of good and evil’ is a literary device called a merism. A merism expresses totality by reference to polarity. Examples are heaven and hell, east and west, near and far. When Jesus declares, ‘people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God,’ (Luke 13:29) he means people will come from everywhere. The points of the compass are the polarities, and everything in between is everywhere. When Paul writes of preaching peace ‘to you who were far off and peace to those who are near’ (Eph.2:17) he means preaching peace to everyone, far, near and in between.
The knowledge of good and evil is knowledge of everything, from the greatest good, to the greatest evil. One act of man, of course, cannot automatically endow him with omniscience. He doesn’t come to know all things in an instant, this doesn’t mean simple perception of abstracts. Reaching for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents man seeking a creaturely source of discernment, an independence from God, a ‘knowing’ that doesn’t involve God. We see this in Genesis 3 where Eve acted independently of God’s command. At the serpent’s prompting Eve, having clearly understood God’s injunction that eating this fruit would be a bad thing, decided, ‘I’ll be the judge of that!’ In his book, Remaking a Broken World, Christopher Ash describes how man’s disobedience made man ‘a rival to God.’
At the centre of the garden are trees representing life and knowledge, the kind of life (eternal) and knowledge (omniscient) that God alone has. If we want life it is to him we must go, and God’s provision of life depends on man’s dependence on God. If we want knowledge it is to God we must go, and man’s seeking to ‘know’ as only God can know is man’s attempt to put himself at the centre. This first command is God reminding man that he is a creature, that his privileged position, his god-like status, should not blind him to the fact that he is not God. ‘Do not make yourself the judge of what is good and what is evil.’
Not only were the Hebrews of the Exodus reminded that God alone is God, in the New Testament we find the exact same command. Jesus, ‘in whom was life’ (John 12:4) and to whom all judgement is given (John 5:24-27) re-enacts this episode as he begins to initiate the new creation saying, ‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged’ (Matthew 7:1-2) Jesus is not talking about our every day value judgements, how we decide the course and company of our lives. Just as Adam was given god-like discernment to wisely steward the earth, so we are to be discerning in the conduct of our lives (Mt.6:1,5,16 c.f.) What we are not to do is put ourselves in the place of God, to judge one another, to ‘know’ good and evil as only God is able to do.
Charity, Mercy, and Scapegoats
In a recent Bible study we looked at Romans 9:1-29, a passage about God’s sovereignty. I put this scenario to the group:
Ten people are guilty of exactly the same crime. The judge decides to show mercy to and pardon all but one, who serves the full sentence. How would you evaluate the judge’s decision? (Life-builder Series, Romans, Jack Kuhatschek)
Everyone thought this unjust. ‘If one is punished, all should be punished!’ they insisted, ‘If nine are freed all should be freed!’ One declared, ‘If that was my husband I would not call that justice.’ Some speculated that perhaps the judge knew things we didn’t, even though I had said all were guilty of exactly the same crime. Others thought the judgement achieved something in making the one pay the price as an example, even suggesting this one was a scapegoat. I reminded them that the man was guilty, while the only thing the scapegoat was guilty of was being a goat.
What fascinated me was that the question was put in terms of mercy, while the discussion revolved entirely around justice. We are not God, to know good and evil. I told the story of a refugee family we knew whose daughters were high achievers but their family could not afford to send them to university. The local newspaper picked up the story and charitable provision was forthcoming to send them to Oxford. Typically, some people were not happy with this, insisting that ‘home-grown’ students must surely be more deserving of this charity. Just as in the discussion about the merciful judge, people completely missed the point that it is in the nature of charity that it is undeserved.
As we worked through those 29 verses we began to see that it is God’s sovereign choice that decides who benefits from the promises of God. That human descent is not the deciding factor. That, in choosing Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, God is exercising mercy and sovereignty, a mercy that culminates in Christ, in whom all, Jew and Gentile, may come to know the riches of his mercy (Romans 9:24)
‘Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved,’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called, ‘sons of the living God.’ (Romans 9:25-26)
Mankind has god-like qualities, attributes of God that God himself has graciously gifted to us. Hamlet soliloquises:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!
This is heady stuff and the very first command ever reminds us of our creaturely nature. And when man forgets who he is before the one true God neither mercy, nor justice are served.