Human relationships

In Genesis 2 we see man at the center of a network of relationships. These define the meaning of life. The relationships have three dimensions: to that which is below us, to that which is above us, and to that which is alongside us. Or, to put it another way, we have a vertical relationship to nature below, a vertical relationship to God above, and a horizontal relationship with other people and ourselves. Let us look more closely at these three dimensions.

Our relationship to nature.

The first dimension is the relationship we have to the other creatures God has made. This relationship is one of subjugation – animals are given to serve mankind. This does not mean we have a license to be cruel or to make them extinct, but it does mean that animals are further down the scale of value than human beings.

This is an important point to grasp in an age when more value seems to be placed on the protection of baby seals than on preserving the sanctity of the human foetus. Jesus was willing to sacrifice 2,000 pigs in order to save one man’s sanity and restore him to his family. In Genesis 9 we read that animals were given to provide food for mankind after the Flood. In relation to nature below us, therefore, we are to have dominion, to cultivate it and control it.

It is interesting to note also in this context that human beings need an environment that is both utilitarian and aesthetic, both useful and beautiful. God did not put man in the wilderness, but planted a garden for him, just as old cottage gardens in England were a mixture of pansies and potatoes – the useful and the beautiful alongside each other.

Our relationship to God.

The second dimension is the relationship we have to God above. The nature of this relationship is partly seen in God’s command to man concerning two trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. One made life longer and one made life shorter. These trees are not magical trees, but they are what we might call “sacramental” trees. In the Bible God appoints physical channels to communicate spiritual blessings or curses to us. So eating bread and wine at communion is for our blessing, but eating bread and drinking wine incorrectly or to excess can lead us to be sick or even die. God has appointed physical channels of both grace and judgement. The tree of life tells us that Adam and Eve were not by nature immortal, but were capable of being immortal. They would not have lived forever by some inherent quality of their own, but only by having access to the tree of life.

No scientist has yet discovered why we die. They have discovered many causes of death, but no one knows why the clock inside us starts winding down. After all, the body is a wonderful machine. If it is supplied with food, fresh air and exercise it could theoretically continue to renew itself. But it does not and no one knows why. The secret is in the tree of life: God was making it possible for human beings to go on living forever by putting that tree in the garden for them. Man was not inherently immortal, but was given the opportunity to attain immortality by feeding on God’s constant supply of life.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil is very significant in relation to this. When we read the word “knowledge”, we need to substitute the word “experience”. The concept of knowledge in the Bible is really “personal experience”. This idea is present in older versions of the Bible which say, “Adam knew Eve and she conceived and bore a son”. “Knowledge” in this sense is a personal experience of someone or something. God’s command not to touch this tree was given because he did not want them to know (experience) good and evil – he wanted them to retain their innocence. It is similar even today. Once we do a wrong thing we can never be the same as we were. We may be forgiven, but we have lost our innocence.

Why, then, did God put such a tree within their reach? It was his way of saying that he retained moral authority over them. They were not to decide for themselves what was right and wrong, but had to trust God to tell them. Furthermore, he was underlining the fact that they were not landlords on earth, but tenants. The landlord retains the right to set the rules.

The passage also underscores the importance of horizontal relationships, which we shall examine more closely below. Man not only needs to relate to those beneath him and God above him, but also to those alongside him. We are not fully human if we just relate to God and not to other people. We need a network. This understanding is reflected by the Hebrew word Shalom, which means “harmony” – harmony with yourself, with God, with other people and with nature.

In Genesis 2 we have a picture of that harmony and God warns Adam that if he breaks this harmony he will have to die. This will not necessarily be with immediate effect, but his personal “clock” will begin to wind down.

Some have questioned the severity of the penalty. Death seems a harsh punishment for one little sin. But God was saying that once man had experienced evil, he would have to limit the length of his life on earth, otherwise evil would become eternal. If God allowed rebellious people to live forever they would ruin his universe forever, so he put a time limit on those who would not accept his moral authority.

Our relationship to each other.

Man needed a suitable companion. However valuable and valued a pet is, it cannot ever replace personal friendship with another human being. God therefore made Eve to be Adam’s companion. We are told in Genesis 1 that male and female are equal in dignity – and we shall see later that they are equal in depravity and in destiny too.

In Genesis 2 we learn that the functions of men and women are different. The Bible talks of the responsibilities of the man to provide and protect, and of the woman to assist and accept. There are three points to note in particular, which are all picked up in the New Testament.

1. Woman is made from man. She therefore derives her being from him. Indeed, as we have already seen, woman is named by man just as he named the animals.

2. Woman is made after man. He therefore carries the responsibility of the first-born. The significance of that will become clear in Genesis 3, where Adam is blamed for the sin not Eve, since he was responsible for her.

3. Woman is made for man. Adam had a job before he had a wife and man is made primarily for his work, while woman is made primarily for relationships. This does not mean that a man must not have relationships or that a woman must not go out to work, but rather that this is the primary purpose for which God made male and female. The fact that man named woman also shows how the partnership is to work: not as a democracy, but with the responsibility of leadership falling to the male. The emphasis is upon cooperation, not competition.

Genesis 2 also deals with other areas fundamental to human relationships. It is clear that sex is good – it is not spelled S-I-N. It is beautiful, indeed God said it was “very good”. Sex was created for partnership rather than parenthood (an important point which has a bearing on the use of contraception, which plans parenthood without proscribing partnership in intercourse.). Two verses, one in Chapter 1 and one in Chapter 2, are in poetry and both are about sex. God becomes poetic when he considers male and female created in his own image. Then Adam becomes poetic when he catches sight of this beautiful naked girl when he wakes up from the first surgery under anaesthetic. Our English translations of the Hebrew miss the impact. Adam literally exclaims, “Wow! This is it!” Both little poems convey the delight of God and man in sexuality.

It is clear too that the pattern for sexual enjoyment is monogamy. Marriage is made up of two things, leaving and cleaving, so there is both a physical and a social aspect which together cement the union. One without the other is not a marriage. Sexual intercourse without social recognition is not marriage – it is fornication. Social recognition without consummation is not a marriage either and therefore should be annulled.

We are told that marriage takes precedence over all other relationships. There would be no jokes about parents-in-law if this had been observed throughout history! A person’s partner is their first priority before all other relationships, even before their children. Husband and wife are to put each other as absolutely top priority. The ideal painted here in Genesis 2 is of a couple with nothing to hide from each other, with no embarrassment and a total openness to each other. This is an amazing picture and one to which Jesus points centuries later.

Genesis 2 depicts the harmony that should exist in the three levels of relationship between human beings and the created world, God above and our fellow humans. There are, however, some scientific problems to do with the origin of man which must be considered.

Where do prehistoric men fit in?

Evolutionary theory has developed the argument that human beings are descended from the apes. Geological finds suggest that there were prehistoric men who seem to be related to the modern homo sapiens.Various remains have been found, specially by the Leakeys, both father and son, in the Orduvi Gorge in Kenya among other places. It is claimed that human life began in Africa, rather than in the Middle East where the Bible puts it.

What are we to make of this evidence? How are we to understand the relationship of modern man to prehistoric man? Is it possible to reconcile what Scripture and science say about the origin of man?