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Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life

Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life

by John Arnold

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How can we come to understand more fully our own story of sin and redemption? This beautiful series of meditations addresses that need. Each chapter moves us one step along the path, and we're also guided by the author's metaphors of wood, trees, and the cross of Christ as we travel. We start in the garden of Eden, and end at the Tree of Life in the New


How can we come to understand more fully our own story of sin and redemption? This beautiful series of meditations addresses that need. Each chapter moves us one step along the path, and we're also guided by the author's metaphors of wood, trees, and the cross of Christ as we travel. We start in the garden of Eden, and end at the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem.

Along the way, we encounter biblical passages, pictures by Rembrandt, and insights from such great works of Russian literature as 'A Tree Falls in Siberia' as the author brings important questions to our attention. John Arnold has created a series of contemplative readings that will remain with the reader long after reading them.

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Life Conquers Death

Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life
By John Arnold


Copyright © 2007 John Arnold
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-27976-1

Chapter One

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Creation and Fall

* * *

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up-for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground-then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ... The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; butof the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.' Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.' So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.' Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 'Did God say, "You shall not eat from any tree in the garden"?' The woman said to the serpent, 'We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, "You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die."' But the serpent said to the woman, 'You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.' So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, 'Where are you?' He said, 'I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.' He said, 'Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?' The man said, 'The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.' Then the LORD God said to the woman, 'What is this that you have done?' The woman said, 'The serpent tricked me, and I ate.' The Lord God said to the serpent, 'Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.' To the woman he said, 'I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.' And to the man he said, 'Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, "You shall not eat of it," cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.' The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, 'See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'-therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 2:4-9; 2:15-3:24)

A favourite cartoon of mine shows a serpent in the Garden of Eden twisting round a tree and whispering in Eve's ear: 'Play your cards right and I can get you onto page three of the Bible.' I invite you to look in your Bibles at Genesis 2, and there on page 3 is Eve, except that here she is simply called 'the woman'. Being called Eve, the mother of all living, comes later after the story of the fall, in which she, unlike Adam, is anonymous.

That is only one of many oddities about this story, which, perhaps more than any other since the dawn of time and of consciousness, has haunted the imagination and furnished with imagery the minds of men and women seeking to make sense of the human condition and to answer questions like: Why does everything go wrong?-indeed, Why does anything go wrong? What is the peculiar position of humankind in the scheme of things and what are our responsibilities? Why, unlike the animals, do we feel shame and wear clothes? Why are the sexes so strongly attracted to each other? Why do women put up with men and why is childbearing so painful? Why do we fear snakes and find them loathsome? Why do we blame each other when things go wrong? Why are we always on the move? And, finally, what shall we say when God asks, 'Where are you?'

The answers, in so far as there are any, are given not in the form of a treatise, or a formula, or a code, but a story-a special kind of story, technically called a myth. I say 'technically' because in everyday speech the word 'myth' is taken to mean an untrue historical story, whereas its real meaning is a true non-historical story. It tells the truth in narrative form, just as poetry or drama or the tales from the Arabian Nights do, in a way which is at once psychologically profound, economical in form and above all memorable. The problem is that we tend to remember selectively; and this story has often been misused as primarily teaching, for example, the origin of clothing, the relationship between men and women or the role of sex in the transmission of sin. Such uses of this story rob it of its real power and inner truthfulness.

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world and all our woe With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, Sing heavenly Muse.

That is Milton, not me; and just as I began by saying 'Open the Bible at page 3 and read on', now I say 'Open Paradise Lost at page 1 and read what Milton actually wrote, rather than what you might think he wrote.'

Note that Milton, right at the start of his epic, before even depicting the primeval chaos which itself preceded creation, looks forward already to the 'one greater Man' (with a capital M) so that the possibility of redemption predates captivity, and the antidote to sin and death is prescribed before anyone has fallen ill or contracted the fatal malady. So also, in Genesis this story does not end without the prediction that a descendent of Eve will strike at the serpent's head. That passage may be taken as hinting at a preexistent Son, the Word who was with the Father before the world was made, by whom the world was made and who, in the fullness of time, was sent not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved (John 3:17). Cut into the apple of the Bible at any point and it will always disclose this pattern; the story of our fall is inseparable from the story, not only of our creation, but also of our salvation.

The Gospels do not mention Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and nor do any New Testament writers except St Paul, and then only fleetingly, not to explain sin or recount the fall but to insist on the unity of the human race first in Adam and in mortality, then in Christ, whom he calls the last Adam, and in the resurrection.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Jesus in his recorded utterances never once mentions Adam or refers to this story. He, and with him the whole New Testament, pays little attention to the account of sin in Genesis 3; but he takes for granted and as common ground the psychological and theological account in the story of Noah in Genesis 6:5 and 11, 'every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually,' and 'The earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.' Thus, for example, we find Jesus teaching his disciples, 'It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice ... these evil things come from within, and they defile a person' (Mark 7:21-23). The disadvantage of these profound insights of Genesis 6, even when retold by Jesus, is that they come to us as a statement, followed by a list, so that they do not form images in the mind; they are thus less memorable than the parables of Jesus and the picturesque story in Genesis 3.

The point about forming images in the mind is where we approach the heart of the mystery and the beginning of the answer to the psalmist's question, 'What are human beings?' (Psalm 8:4). On page 2 of the Bible, in a different story, it is said, 'God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them' (Genesis 1:27). Men and women are creatures, like everything else in the universe; but uniquely they are in the image of God.

What does this mean? Certainly not that any of our faces is like the face of God so that he could be picked out in an identity parade-at least not until the coming of Jesus and the development of icons, which is another story. Almost certainly the image of God means upright posture. Men and women are God-like when they stand up and stand tall-homo erectus. This brings enormous advantages and some disadvantages. It would take an anthropologist to catalogue them all. One of the advantages is that men and women became immensely more attractive to each other, capable of bonding in more inventive and intricate ways, homo ludens; one of the disadvantages is that they need clothing not only to cope with extremes of heat and cold but also to simultaneously enhance and subdue their beauty, homo pudens.

Upright posture makes us more vulnerable to pain and suffering and to 'the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to'. The narrow pelvis, which makes possible walking on two legs, also makes childbearing difficult, dangerous and painful (Genesis 3:16); and we are liable to backache, especially if we till the soil (Genesis 3:19); but we can set against that the freeing of the hands for making and using tools-homo habilis.

It is also along these lines that some of the questions 'Why?' may be answered. The most important consequence of upright posture, however, was that it made possible the enlargement of the central nervous system, a large brain, with capacities far in excess of anything else in the universe, not only in quantity but also in quality. Conscious thought, imaginative thought, the ability to make images or pictures in the mind, to think God's thoughts after him, and to be loving, creative, spontaneous and free-this is to be human, gloriously and uniquely human in the image of God, homo sapiens.

Like upright posture, the human brain brings its own problems with it. No matter where you go, you find human sin; theologians speak of the 'universality' of sin. To be free to think good thoughts is to be free to think evil thoughts; and the immense advances in skill and cunning, in co-operation and adaptability, which enabled humankind to become such a successful species and colonise the whole globe, are precisely the disadvantages which we now see everywhere at work. The human ability to master nature and dominate every other living thing has turned into the ability to destroy nature and exploit every other living thing.

The fall is not just something which happened long ago, in the beginning, in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden. The fall is happening now, in the historic present, all over the world, in every aspect of individual and corporate life, in the relationships between men and women, humankind and nature, humankind and God. It is now that the Lord sees that the wickedness of humankind is great in the earth and that 'every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually'; it is now that 'the earth is corrupt in God's sight and full of violence'. We have only to read the newspapers or watch television or, better still, look inward into our own hearts and minds, to be acutely conscious of the consequences 'of man's first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree'.

One of the most remarkable changes in general attitudes over the past 100 years-and especially in the past 20 or 30-has been in our view of human beings and their relationship to the world. A hundred years ago many, perhaps most, sensitive and educated people were appalled at the apparent wastefulness and indifferent cruelty of nature-'nature red in tooth and claw'-while being generally optimistic about humankind and its capacity for progress through the application of industry and science. Now the great-grandchildren of those sensitive and educated people are appalled by the wastefulness and indifferent cruelty of human beings, while being more than ever appreciative of the economy and efficiency of nature and of the natural environment that sustains life.

The picture which is sketched in the first chapters of Genesis is not a scientific account of the origin of species in the past, but it does seem to fit our experience of life on earth today. That is not surprising. As Joseph Butler wrote in The Analogy of Religion, 'Nature and scripture tell the same story, God Himself being the author of both.'


Excerpted from Life Conquers Death by John Arnold Copyright © 2007 by John Arnold. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Arnold is Dean Emeritus of Durham Cathedral. The Very Reverend Dr. Arnold also served as the President of the Conference of European Churches, which unites Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches in common causes, from 1992 to 1997. He was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz (German Order of Merit) in 1991 and the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 for his lifelong work devoted to Christian unity and reconciliation in Europe.

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