The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:2)

It was a tree that damned us. It was a tree that redeemed us. And it will be a tree that heals us in the age to come—time beyond all time.

Trees are not the central motif of the Bible. But trees figure directly in the grand story of Scripture, and we do well to keep our eyes on them in theological terms. Where we find the three great epochs of all time, we find trees. I do not mean that we spot a tree, somewhere in the background, visible only to the especially alert. I mean that we find trees in the very middle of the metanarrative. It is not too much to say that the great shifting plates of biblical history turn on trees. God makes trees. God, we can fairly say, loves trees. He is the original forester. And wherever God has history on a hinge, turning according to his divine will, he places trees front and center.

But we have run slightly ahead of ourselves. Before the trees even take root and flower in all their glory, the Bible begins with peace—peace that we can scarcely imagine in our fallen world. All around us war rages, people fight, and nations rise and fall. We ourselves are little centers of war as well: as Christians, though made into a new creation by the grace of God, we wage daily war in a self-contained sense (Gal. 5:24–25). Knowing the truth, we nonetheless battle false thoughts. Re-created by the Spirit, we nonetheless experience the surge of ungodly desires from within. Remade emotionally, we yet feel powerful but wrong emotions. War goes on out there, absolutely. But war also rises and falls in here, in our own soul.

The creation knew no such conflict in its earliest days. In six days the Lord God made the heaven and the earth. The Spirit played midwife to creation, aiding in the execution of the Son’s sking unto God. He lived and ruled under the divine regency of his Maker. His wife, Eve, came into existence from Adam’s own body. God made the first couple, married in the flowering garden of Eden, to unite in marriage and carry out a mission of dominion on the earth (Gen. 1:26–28).

From the start, the existence of man was a purposeful one. God the working God made the human race to fill the earth with children, steward the creation, and honor his great name by living under his perfect rule. Man did not chart his own course or determine his own fate; from the beginning, man was under rule, the rule of God, and a glad obedience it was.

The Beautiful Beginning

The first chapter of Genesis is the beginning of a glorious adventure story. The second chapter of Genesis is a love story between Adam and Eve. The third chapter of Genesis is a horror movie, at least much of it. To understand the tragedy that unfolds in chapter 3 of Genesis, we should briefly consider God’s mandate for Adam specifically.

We read this mandate in Genesis 2:15–17. First, we hear that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (v. 15). Adam had a charge from God to cultivate Eden as a garden, showing that he had to work unto God as a constitutive element of his manhood. Eden was made well by God; it was “very good,” as with all the earth, per Genesis 1:31, but the garden called for tending, stewarding, and care. Adam was in truth a priest-king of creation, and as such had to cultivate and protect Eden.

G. K. Beale helps us understand Adam’s priestly role here: “The two Hebrew words for ‘cultivate and keep’ are usually translated ‘serve and guard [or keep]’ elsewhere in the Old Testament.”[1] As priest of Eden, Adam had to tend the garden in terms of getting his hands literally dirty; he also had to guard this terrain. Eden was unspoiled, but Eden needed protecting.[2] Beale nails this down: priestly service “in Israel’s later temple included the duty of ‘guarding’ unclean things from entering (cf. Num. 3:6–7, 32, 38; 18:1–7), and this appears to be relevant for Adam, especially in view of the unclean creature lurking on the perimeter of the Garden and who then enters.”[3]

Eden at this time had no marring or pollution from sin. But this does not mean that Eden was perfect in the sense of being impenetrable by evil. In fact, the man himself was warned of the possibility of falling away from God, as Genesis 2:16–17 shows: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” Eden was a paradise, but Eden had a real danger in it: apart from the snake that we soon meet, it was the danger of Adam’s own heart wandering from God and eating of the forbidden tree. From the start, God sought faithfulness on the part of his people through testing. He gave them a forest-garden overflowing with beauty and gladness, trees spilling unblemished fruit, but he also gave them a prohibition—one delivered under the starkest terms: death from disobedience.

In giving this warning, God taught Adam about his gracious and holy character. In truth, the first word spoken here is a generous one, steeped in kindness. Too many trees to count existed to feed Adam.[4] Here is a God of tremendous love, filling the life of his image-bearer with delicious goodness.[5] But here too is a God of real moral solidity, dictating terms to his creation. Before we know the name of God the Father, we witness the nature of a father here: directing his loved one toward blessing, but also warning him of real danger and peril. Joy would not come from moral autonomy (via eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Joy would come from moral submission, living under the rule of God by rightly exercising self-rule.

The Lord gave Adam yet another gift: a wife. The Lord made the man and the woman equal but distinct. She was of his flesh and bone and as such deserved great cherishing and care. She was made to partner with Adam in fulfilling the dominion mandate, and her role was vital: to bear and nurture children in a distinctly maternal way. For all time to come, the man would pursue a woman of beauty like Eve, leaving father and mother to make a new family. She would be his “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and would demonstrate that role in too many ways to count, aiding and strengthening him by her wisdom, grace, and skill. He would “hold fast” to her, counting her life dearer than his own, leading her and their children to know the Lord by divine grace (v. 24).

The Attack on the Image-Bearers

First came peace; then came war. In the mysterious appointment of God, a cunning snake entered the garden. God placed the first couple under the reign of his inerrant word, but the snake—Satan in slithery form, per Romans 16:20 and Revelation 20:2[6]—offered a counterrevelation and a counterrule. The serpent targeted the woman, bypassing the man, who had been constituted the “keeper” of Eden. Creation order mattered nothing at all to this devilish snake. As we see in Genesis 3:1–5, the serpent upended everything that God had established to this point:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

This was no ordinary animal. It could both talk and exercise shrewdness. The devil in his first manifestation is no bumbling fool but a very “crafty” twister of words. His first question implicitly accuses God of ungenerous stinginess, which is the opposite of what is true about the character of God. The woman does not answer with full specificity here, and she adds a detail about touching the forbidden tree that is not recorded in the original prohibition.

The passage truly explodes with audacity, however, when the satanic snake directly counters God’s own word: “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). The serpent entices the woman to make the very mistake he made: to put herself on the level of God, and judge God, and go against God, seeing herself as the rightful authority of her existence. Here is the creature rebelling against the Creator, trying to jump the gulf between them. God made Satan and invested him with great power and agency. But Satan could never stand in heaven on the level of God. Satan was, is, and always will be a created being. Satan found no comfort or peace in this truth. Satan despised this truth and rebelled against it. He wanted to “be like God” (v. 5).

Eve’s temptation proceeded from Satan’s fall. Hating his natural state and wanting to be like God, Satan convinced the woman—and the passive man by her side—to make the very same decision and enact the very same fall from grace. Commenting on the human rebellion here, Henri Blocher says it nicely: “what is at stake is independence from the Sovereign Father. To seek to have it meant revolt for mankind.”[7] Emulating the fall from grace of Satan, the woman believed the wicked snake over the wise Creator. She rejected divine revelation and embraced the devil’s antirevelation. She trusted the wicked promises of a malevolent being over her gracious Father. She took the fruit, ate it, and gave it to Adam. He ate it without a word recorded in the biblical text, offering no rebuke to the snake, no protest, and certainly no head-crushing response.

Immediately, the curtain fell. The man and the woman acquired self-knowledge that was not theirs to unlock. They felt shame instantaneously about their nakedness, and undertook a physical remedy—leaf coverings—for a spiritual malady (Gen. 3:7). All this transpired because the serpent had waged war. We talk today about culture war, but that is a distant fragment of the conflict that rages beyond: it is cosmos war, which began in earnest in Eden. All history to come will unfold as a great battle between God and the devil, a clash impossible to overestimate in spiritual measure.

As the book of Revelation will unveil, Satan has become “the deceiver of the whole world,” a description that helps us unearth a great truth about his accusation: it is a deception as well (Rev. 12:9). God gives truth, but Satan brings only deception. Instead of the reign of reality as defined by God, Satan ushers sinners into a shadow realm, an empire of lies built on crafty counterrevelation. As in heaven, as in Eden, so now: the war of the worlds is truly a war of words.

When the Lord Comes Around

In Genesis 3, the snake spoke first. But the snake did not have the last word in Eden, just as the devil will not have the last word in history. The God of heaven and earth came down and spoke second. He showed something vital about his character: the biblical God is the God who is there. This God judges the earth, just as he said he would; he does so by coming close. This God is transcendent but hair-raisingly immanent.

The true God sets up a courtroom in the garden. He does so, though, by engaging his image-bearers in a series of questions and answers—a process by which they retain their dignity and return to moral responsibility. There is no escaping this; God will have justice whether Adam wants it or not. Indeed, Adam did not want it, for he hid with his wife from the Lord, fully aware of his transgression. So God called Adam to the stand, not letting him shirk responsibility any longer: “Where are you?” The “you” here is singular in the Hebrew, and the Lord issued this call “to him” (Gen. 3:9). This matters theologically: though both Adam and Eve sinned, Adam was held to account in a representative sense. This mirrors creation order: Adam was made first by God, and Adam was the “head” or authority of his wife, as the New Testament will substantiate (Eph. 5:22–33).

Adam could not hide from God. He responded to the Lord by indicating fear and shame over his nakedness (Gen. 3:10). The Lord then asked two more questions, asking Adam who had told him of his nakedness and whether he had eaten of the forbidden tree (v. 11). Adam answered by blaming the woman and the Lord himself: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (v. 12). A more shameful sentence we can scarcely imagine. The man who had relinquished his divine call to protect his wife and his home was still, even in the presence of God, relinquishing it. It was the woman’s fault, first, and God’s own fault, second, and only at the end of the sentence did Adam’s role in the whole awful affair emerge.

The Lord next addressed the woman, asking what she had done. The woman blamed the serpent, putting his action first and her action second, though she spoke truly—far better than she knew, in fact—when she said: “The serpent deceived me” (Gen. 3:13). Yes, deception won out, and has been advancing ever since. It was just one scene in Eden, but the dynamics of sin that played out in that garden have yielded nothing less than an entire cosmos under bondage, every living thing affected, every square inch now fallen.

Owen Strachan is the author of The Warrior Savior: A Theology of the Work of Christ.

Owen Strachan (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is provost and research professor of theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He is the former president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, the former director of The Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a senior fellow of the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council. He has authored books on a wide range of topics; his works include Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of MankindThe Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (coauthored with Kevin J. Vanhoozer), and The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian (coauthored with Douglas Allen Sweeney). He is married and the father of three children.

[1] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 66–67.

[2] Raymond Ortlund Jr. suggests that the sense of “keep” here is best understood as “guard.” Raymond Ortlund Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 100 (see chap. 2, n36).

[3] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 69.

[4] R. Kent Hughes addresses the richly kind nature of this word to Adam: “God’s word to him was first permissive: ‘And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden”’ (v. 16). Adam was to partake of everything in the garden to his heart’s content, which included the tree of life. This is lavish, extravagant abundance, and Adam could take from the tree of life if he wanted it. Everything was there for him—everything he could possibly want.” R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 54–55.

[5] Henri Blocher concludes, “All the trees of the garden represent all the riches of the earth, placed at mankind’s disposal.” The God that the biblical text reveals is a God of great kindness: “God reveals himself in this first provision as the God of superabundant grace, the opposite of the castrating father of our pitiful fantasies, the bestowing Father who rejoices in the happiness of mankind.” Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 121.

[6] These texts read: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom. 16:20) and “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:2).

[7] Blocher, In the Beginning, 137.