A Theological Phrasebook entry.
There are many paths that can be traced across the map of theology. They diverge and intersect in different ways, trying to describe the indescribable landscape of God and his relationship to his creation. God will always exceed our capacity to describe him. If God is perfectly captured by our understanding we have reached a point where what we are exploring is no longer God.
Creation is the affirmation that the universe contains music and not just noise (or at least that was how I described it in my earlier riff on Proverbs 8). But there are other ways of trying to describe creation. In the first chapters of Genesis, we are told a story of a garden, of a good world spoken into being, but also a specific place: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Genesis presents both God-all-powerful creating by speech alone, and God-the-gardener planting trees and shaping human beings from the mud of the earth.
The garden of Eden is a place marked by abundance. It is a place where there is enough – where hunger is satisfied. There is food, there is intimacy, there is purpose, there is ultimately God, the source of this abundance, walking and talking with human beings in the cool of the evening. As already mentioned, this happy state of affairs ends. Adam and Eve disobey God’s command and are made to leave the garden. They no longer experience a life marked by abundance but are made to toil in a world marked by scarcity and division. It is not purely a material loss. Adam and Eve lose access to the garden and to the intimacy with one another and with God that they previously enjoyed. They hide from one another and from God. They become never-enough creatures.
The story describes a fundamental change in who human beings are. The solution to the human predicament could not have been solved by figuring out, Indiana Jones style, some clever way to get around the flaming swords which guarded the entry to Eden. The loss Genesis describes is not the loss of some magic trees. The loss that Genesis describes is displayed in the moment when God arrives and Adam and Eve feel they must hide. No amount of magic fruit can fix that problem.
The motif of God as provider and source of abundance shows up repeatedly throughout the Bible. The Israelites are fed by manna from heaven on their desert journey to a land flowing with milk and honey. God makes sure they know that this miraculous abundance comes from him (he is visible as a pillar of smoke/fire, and if anyone gathers more than they need for the day, it rots). Later, one of the ways in which Satan tempts Jesus in the desert is by suggesting that he turn stones into bread. “Wouldn’t this be a very God-like thing?” Satan asks, “Isn’t this exactly the sort of thing God does?” The grace Jesus provides is a restoration of abundance – of relationship to God – memorialized by a meal that extends through time and space. And, in the first days of the Christian community, one of the things that marks them out is their provision for those in need, “sharing everything they had” (Acts 4). God’s community, the early church, is a place where the hungry are fed.
It is a long way from the garden of Eden to the part-time food pantry run out of the parking lot of the neighborhood church with the grimy “Jesus Saves” sign. A can of off-brand chicken soup is no glowing fruit from the tree of life. There is almost an element of parody in it. But, the abundance the church offers cannot be contained in grocery bags. The abundance we are trying to imitate, like clumsy children playing house, is the gracious abundance of God.