I am always telling the students that when we read the Bible, it’s not the random thought that strikes them, that they should primarily take away (much as God sometimes does use random thoughts), but the main point that God (through the author) wants to convey. And so often how we find out the main point is through the usual literary examination of the text, in dependency upon the Spirit to open our eyes to the intimacy of His words as they act in our lives.
So when repeated phrases come up, alarm bells should start ringing and we should take note. So it is in Genesis 3-14 with the words “east” of Eden (3:24; 4:16; 11:2; 12:8; 13:11). It’s not a major riff, but still it’s repeated often, and in particular seems to be something that symbolises a people moving away from God’s land – the place where God’s presence is.
In Genesis 3, it appears Adam and Eve exit stage left, to the east, or at least that’s where the angels are guarding. This banishment is an act of judgement, for sure, but also an act of grace, as no-one would want a place of God’s holy presence to be spoilt by sin. And so long-term, this is a gracious act, to remove the horrors of evil from a paradise.
In Genesis 4, after a similarly horrific act of human independence, pretending to be the one who has authority to take life, Cain packs his bags and heads east to the land of wandering. It’s judgement again, but it’s also grace, as Cain is allowed to live, even after murdering his bro. His brother’s blood would temporarily cry out for judgement to follow (Heb 12:24) but would be silenced by the blood of another that would cry out to greater effect in grace.
In Genesis 11, we see the people moving eastward still, which gives us a flavour that what is to come in the story will not be wonderful news. More judgement because the people want to de-God, God (thanks to DA Carson for this helpful phrase), by making a name for themselves. Ironically whoever they are, their names aren’t recorded, and instead we get the list of names (“the account of Shem”, I’m told in Hebrew means “a name”) of a bunch of nobodies who God graciously builds His lineage through. It’s judgement and grace intertwined again. And I wonder whether his scattering of the people across the earth after Babel is another gracious act, as they’re no longer said to be moving east all the time.
Instead it’s the start of God setting the scene for the promises He’s about to make to Abram in chapter 12, that He’ll bless all nations and all peoples through Him. Abram is recorded as not having gone as far east as Ai, and stops in verse 8 of chapter 12 to build an altar and call “on the name of the Lord” – quite a contrast to those who wanted to build themselves a name.
And the only other eastern mention in these chapters is sadly that of Lot, who chose foolishly to live in the east, and suffered the consequences of it.
These riffs of judgement moving east (away from God’s land, and His presence and perfect rule), and yet grace intertwined, bring a few things to mind:
- if we are aware of our history, we cannot draw any comparisons to modern day east/west divisions. Throughout history this has not been true.
- how quickly we, even as Christians, love to build a name for ourselves, our denominations, our organisations. I was reminded recently by someone that if we shape our lives by opening the scriptures with people, there is little place for them to see us as amazing, or to build our own Kingdom. God’s words will do what He has purposed them to do – to act, despite our weakness. It’s sad that most churches/individuals won’t touch with a bargepole anything that isn’t controlled by them and originated from them. The celebrity pastor is an unknown quantity in the scriptures. Sadly not in Cork today or in the Christian church at large.
- how marvelously gracious God is, to always give us grace, even in the midst of judgement and rebellion
- how foolish we are when we try to only bring grace, and not expect judgement to also be brought. On every page of the scriptures the two go hand in hand. The very speech acts breathed out by God in the scriptures are one’s which do this (Isa 55 – Words will never do nothing – instead they’ll accomplish all that He desires). At the cross we see this, that the very judgement of God is grace to a needy world. And in us holding out the Words of life to people we can expect this to be the case too. We are bringing good news, but we will also be bringing judgement.
15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?
(2 Corinthians 2:15-16, NIVUK)
(PS: I’m sure Pete Lowman’s book “A long way East of Eden” probably says far more and far better what I’ve said. I haven’t read it [recently??], but could imagine it might!)