A Pepper Grinder Post

God: Sheriff or Father?

My oldest son, recently attended a youth group basketball night.  He was almost 32 and went as a guest of an adult leader of the group, so he was kind of a fly on the wall during the teaching time.  The leader started out his devotion for the evening by talking about Christ’s message to the church in Ephesus in Revelation chapter 2.  This is the church that Jesus commends for doing some good things, but then warns for having fallen from its first love.  So far, so good.  The part that made me a little sad came when he asked the kids to give examples of ways they could do better at following Jesus.  The examples they came up with were:  going to church more often, and cussing less.  I suspect that if they had been more open, they might have come up with some others like not getting drunk, not fooling around with their girlfriends, and not looking at pornography. 

I’m not trying to say that these aren’t all perfectly fine goals, but something struck me: the mindset of the kids seemed to be that what God wanted them to do was the opposite of what they wanted to do.
This is the way many people see serving God—it’s doing the things we know we should do but don’t want to do, and not doing the things we know we shouldn’t do but want to do.  In a way this is true.  Because of our sinful nature, we often DO want the opposite of what God wants for us.  Certainly there are plenty of times we need to exercise self-control to force ourselves to do or not do things that we know are right or wrong.  I started to wonder, though, if many people, including Christians, think of God as someone who does not want us to have fun.

badgeYou can even see this in the way people talk about some things that they want you to think are really good.  The chocolate pudding is not just good, it’s sinfully good.  This bed is so comfortable, it’s almost sinful.

As I was trying to think about how to investigate this, it occurred to me that I could look at the first place where God gives a prohibition.  To find that, we need to go all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  Here is my translation of Genesis 2:15-17.

And the Lord God took the man, and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it.  The Lord God commanded the man, “You shall eat from all the trees in the garden, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, because the day you eat from it you will certainly die.”

(Note: I’ve translated the phrase that is literally Yahweh God [God’s name AND his title] as Lord God just because I thought Yahweh God sounded so odd, even though I liked it better as a translation.)

To my mind, there are two ways that we could see God’s command NOT to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

  1. It could be like an old west lawman talking to the bad guy.  “If you aren’t out of town by noon, Black Bart, I’ll put a bullet through your heart.”
  2. It could be like a father giving his son a warning.  “See this stuff in the bottle with the skull on it?  Don’t touch it; it could kill you.”

To tell which interpretation is right, I want to look at how God acts toward Adam before he gives the prohibition, and how he acts afterward.

EveIn any Western I ever saw, the sheriff and the bad guy were not on good terms before the sheriff gives his ultimatum.  How do we see God acting toward Adam before our passage?

Adam was God’s creation.  In at least one genealogy, Adam is referred to as the son of God.  God didn’t just create Adam and abandon him; he placed him in a beautiful garden that was full of good things to eat.  He gave Adam the meaningful task of caring for the garden, and in the final act of creation, made a companion perfectly suited to complete and complement Adam—a woman.

Did God give any command besides the one not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  He certainly did.  Here are the ones I see:

  • “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28, NIV)  He is telling Adam and Eve to have babies, which clearly means that he is telling them to have sex.  This would be sex without any shame; without any of the sin or unhappiness that taints every intimate relationship now.  This would be perfect sex, producing perfect children who would bring joy and richness to the relationship, never hurt and alienation.
  • “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:28, NIV)  God made an abundant and glorious creation that still knocks our socks off, even in its fallen state, and placed Adam and Eve in charge of all of it.
  • “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.’” (Genesis 1:29, NIV).  OK, this isn’t really a command, but it is something we should take into account for our evaluation.  He gave them a diverse and abundant vegan (or at least vegetarian) diet.  I know that some of my meat-loving co-workers wouldn’t be too excited about this, but keep in mind that as far as we know, there were no meat-eaters amongst humans or animals until after the Flood, and pepperoni had not been invented.
  • And finally in verse 16 of our passage, God tells Adam and Eve that they may eat from any tree in the garden.  Again, this doesn’t sound like a command, but in the Hebrew it is phrased in an emphatic way.  It’s a Hebrew idiom that literally translated would be something like, “Eating, you shall eat from any tree in the garden.”  The warning in the next verse about death coming from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil uses the same type of construct (“On the day you eat of it, dying, you shall die”).  This way of saying things in Hebrew adds force to what is said, so that it is often translated as “you shall surely” or “you shall certainly,” which sounds pretty commanding.  Basically, God is commanding them to enjoy the fruit of all the trees of the garden.  Note that, at this point, there is NO prohibition against eating from the tree of life.  So God is commanding Adam and Eve to enjoy all kinds of different fruit that he has provided for them, including fruit which gives life itself!

sherriffLet’s try to fit the data we have so far with the steely-eyed sheriff version of God.  The bad guy comes to town.  The sheriff puts him on a lush plot of land with abundant food.  He doesn’t tell him to get out of town, but to enjoy all the food and take care of the land.  Then he puts a gorgeous naked woman with him and tells him to have a great time with her.  Finally, he makes him mayor of the town.  After all this, he gives him one single prohibition: don’t rob the bank.  Huh?  If there was ever a Western with a sheriff like that, I certainly missed it.  It sounds much more like a loving father who delights in providing everything he can for his son.

So far the father theory certainly seems to be winning out.  But how about after Adam and Eve violated the single prohibition they were given?  Maybe God was operating under an extreme version of, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”  If God is the cosmic sheriff, then this should be the place where the showdown occurs.  God shows up and says, “Adam, I gave you everything a man could possibly want.  I only told you to keep your hands off one thing, and you couldn’t even do that.  Now you’re gonna pay.”  At this point, the sheriff whips out his six shooter, shoots Adam dead, spits on the ground, and turns and walks away.  Do we see something similar in Genesis?

poisonYou might be able to argue that when God comes and pronounces judgment on Adam and Eve in Genesis 4:16-19, this is the equivalent of pulling out the six shooter.  It could be.  On the other hand, it could also be God telling them what the result of their decision would be.  “You drank the poison I told you not to drink; here are the symptoms you’ll have.”  I have to admit that the way the passage is worded, it sounds much more like a punishment than a simple statement of results.

What I think will really be telling is seeing how God acts after he pronounces the curses on Adam and Eve.  Does he destroy them completely?  Does he turn and walk away in disgust?

For starters, even before the curse is pronounced, he seeks them out.  I have to believe that God knew what Adam and Eve had done, and yet he wants to talk to them.  Also, the very first thing God is recorded doing after the curse is spoken is making clothes for them.  This is not because God is some big prude.  He’s the one who created them naked and who pronounced his creation “very good.”  He made the clothes because Adam and Eve now felt ashamed about their naked bodies and couldn’t stand not to have them covered up.  Just like those dreams so many of us had as kids where we got to school and found that we were in our pyjamas, Adam and Eve wanted to be clothed, and God did it. 

Man ruined the perfection of God’s creation (and I have no doubts that God, not being bound by time, saw the full effects of that ruination), and God stepped in to help mankind with the shame which they should never have had to feel.  God provided clothing for Adam and Eve, not by running out to the Gap, but by killing another part of his creation.  What is more, thousands of years later, he provided the ultimate solution to the misery and shame Adam and Eve had brought into the world by allowing his only begotten son to be killed.

I know that the sheriff/father dichotomy is artificial.  Although I think the evidence is clear that God behaved much more like a father to Adam and Eve than like an old west sheriff, it IS true that God is a just and righteous judge as well as a loving father.

eager childGetting back to our original point, though, I can’t understand how we can look at the way God acted in Genesis and think that God’s highest desires for us are a bunch of thou-shalt-nots.  It is a sad truth that life in a fallen world is much more perilous than in the Garden of Eden.  Instead of one dangerous tree, there are many beautiful-looking bottles that are filled with poison.  Do we need to avoid those?  Absolutely.

But should our mission in life be the avoidance of bad things?  If so, then it is a sad mission indeed, and one that not one of us will perform 100% successfully.  Shouldn’t our greatest focus be on doing the positive things that God said to do?  What has God called you to do to fulfill his purposes on this earth?  Do it with joy!  What good things has he provided for your enjoyment?  Enjoy them!

If we remember that God is our father, it can change our attitude about  many things in life.  Is there something we want to do that he does not want us to do?  It is poison, and he knows that if we drink it, it will cause intense suffering.  Let us instead, seek out the things he wants us to do and to have, and let us revel in them.  They are gifts from our father.


*Photo Credits: sherriff badge by