Last year we moved from urban Chicago to a remote setting in the Rocky Mountains. I find myself missing the characters in our old neighborhood: the can collector who called himself Tut Uncommon, the mental patient who sat in a coffee shop all day pretending to smoke an unlit cigarette, the man who roamed Clark Street with a plaintive sign that read, “I NEED A WIFE!”
In our new location, we see more animals than people. Elk graze on the hill behind our house, woodpeckers pound on the wood siding, and a red fox we’ve named Foster drops by every evening in search of handouts. The other day Foster sat outside the screen door and listened to an entire program of Garrison Keillor’s American Radio Company as I wallpapered my office. He cocked his head quizzically a few times during the bluegrass music, but all in all he seemed to enjoy the show.
Not long after the move I began a Bible reading plan, starting with Genesis, and soon discovered that the Bible takes on a different tone in new surroundings. I read the Creation account during snow season. Mountains gleamed in the morning sunlight, and every Ponderosa pine wore a mantle of pure, crystalline white. It was easy to imagine the joy of original creation, a time when, as God later recalled to Job (38:7), “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” (all quotations from NIV).
That same week, however, a loud thump interrupted my reading. A small bird, a pine siskin with a notched tail and yellow chevrons on each wing, had crashed into the window. It lay stomach-down on a clump of snow, gasping for breath, with bright red drops of blood spilling from its beak. For 20 minutes it lay there, its head nodding as if in drowsiness, until finally it made one last fluttering effort to rise, then dropped its head into the snow and died.
The chasmic change
As tragedies go, I had witnessed a small one. On the noon news I heard of slaughter in Bosnia and bloodshed in South Africa. Somehow, though, a single bird’s death, enacted just across the windowpane, brought home the gravity of my reading for that day: it captured in miniature the chasmic change between Genesis 2 and 3, between paradise and fallen creation.
The author of Genesis was a master of understatement. A flat report, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array,” sums up the stupendous process that brought into being quasars and nebulae, blue whales and dwarf shrimp, penguins and pine siskins. Although presumably written long after the Fall, the first two chapters of Genesis give the merest hints of any tragedy to follow. “They felt no shame,” the author says of naked Adam and Eve, a comment that only makes sense to readers acquainted with shame.
Genesis 2 includes one more editorial comment, one I had never before noticed. In a remarkable scene, God parades the many animals before Adam “to see what he would name them.” What a strange new sensation for Omnipotence! The Creator of the universe in all its vast array assumes the role of Spectator, waiting “to see” what Adam would do.
We humans have been granted “the dignity of causation,” said Pascal, and the next few chapters of Genesis prove causation to be both dignity and burden. In short order, human beings master the basics of family life, agriculture, music, and tool-making. But they also master the art of murder, fornication, and other deeds drearily characteristic of the species. Before long, God “regrets” his decision to create: “The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (6:6).
Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to alternate between Spectator and Participant. At times, when blood cries out from the ground, when injustice grows intolerable, when evil overruns all constraints, God acts—decisively, even violently. Sparks fly, the ground yawns open, multitudes die. The New Testament, though, shows the God who has shared the dignity of causation descending to become its Victim. He who had the right to destroy the world, had nearly done it once in Noah’s day, chose instead to love the world, at any cost.
The agony of re-creation
I had always thought of the Fall in terms of its effect on us humans—the penalties outlined in Genesis 3. This time I was struck by its effect on God. The Bible devotes only two chapters to the glories of original creation. All that follows describes the agonizing course of re-creation.
The Bible begins and ends with similar images. In Revelation the garden has been transformed into a city, but a river runs through it, and on each side of the river stands the tree of life. No angel with a flaming sword now guards the tree; its fruit abounds, and even its leaves help “the healing of the nations.” Recalling Genesis 3, Revelation sums up the new reality with these simple words: “No longer will there be any curse.”
We live out our days between memory and foretaste. The view out my window, whether it is of the Rocky Mountains or the characters on Clark Street, gives mere glimpses of what God had in mind in Genesis 1–2, and of what he has promised in Revelation 21–22. I stand in awe at the enormous effort required to restore what has been spoiled. All because God stepped back to see what Adam—and what you and I—would do.
Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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