Peeling the Onion

By Ben Swift

We’ve all heard the analogy of an onion having many layers, each one ready to be peeled back only to reveal another below its surface. It’s difficult, however, to find a better way to describe what it’s like to read and re-read the Bible as the ‘living Word,’ through which the Holy Spirit never ceases to have something to say, something to teach, something to reveal!

It’s true that as we open the pages of scripture, we all bring a lifetime of personal experience and presuppositions which may hold us back from peeling away a tightly- held layer of understanding and keeping an open mind for what may be discovered in an underlying layer. Being surprised by scripture may, however, expose a new gem to add to the wealth of understanding that exists in these ancient pages.

Take for example, the well-known and heavily discussed passage of Genesis 2:5-25;3. Through this profound piece of writing, God exposes truths that dig deep into God’s creative intention for humanity and the wider creation, the human condition as we fell into rebellion against our creator, our place before God and importantly, the grace and mercy he continues to offer us all the same. These, in a nutshell, are the more commonly discussed themes arising from this passage, BUT what if there’s more to be revealed? What if after years of chewing on these ideas, a new layer of the onion is just waiting to be revealed? Will a new discovery rock our theological worlds or make them even more profoundly rich? Let’s start peeling, shall we?

Firstly, we would need to consider the relationship between the date that this passage may have arisen, the original audience it may have been addressing and the purpose it would have served in this context.

Many Old Testament scholars argue that this section of Genesis was written following the Babylonian exile of the people of Israel. To an ancient Israelite audience, specifically those who lived in the context of this exile, the narrative speaks directly to their consequences, speaking powerfully to their situation through brilliantly constructed symbolism familiar to an Ancient Near Eastern people.

Genesis 3 exposes the human desire for power through wisdom that sits independent of God. It teaches that the wisdom to discern between good and evil belongs exclusively to God, the ultimate and only king. The narrative shows that when human beings desire to discern good and evil for themselves (the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), it will lead to separation from God who is their only source of life (the tree of life). When human beings (and particularly in the context of the exile, Israel as God’s chosen people) make the choice to no longer trust God as their King and therefore their source of wisdom, seeking power through wisdom for themselves, there will be consequences. Life will become a struggle in many ways, although, the God whom they no longer live in a perfect relationship with does not destroy them, but rather shows mercy, care, and grace.

And here’s where a new layer of onion is exposed.

To the original Hebrew exiles, the message would have been reminiscent and symbolic of their removal from the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, in which they could worship God who’s presence was in the Temple in Jerusalem, the centre of the garden. God had warned them in earlier times (1 Samuel 8) that being ruled by an earthly king, one with the right to discern good and evil for themselves, would not end well. Yet, in their determination for a king, one like those of the surrounding nations, they took a bite of the forbidden fruit, no longer satisfied with trusting in God, and suffering the consequences of being banished into Babylonian exile, east of the garden, the Promised Land.

Surely, in interpreting this passage through the eyes of these ancient Israelites in exile, a new layer of understanding emerges. A question then arises. Does this new insight into a familiar text require us to abandon previously held insights? Is the text no longer really teaching us about truths that dig deep into God’s creative intention for humanity and the wider creation, the human condition as we fell into rebellion against our creator, our place before God and importantly, the grace and mercy he continues to offer us all the same?

The beauty and power of God’s Word is that it is living and has the power to speak into contexts of any generation. Peeling back a layer of the onion to discover something new does not necessitate the abandonment of previous layers. This is what is so amazing about God’s Word, it continues to read us as we read it, it continues to speak into our lives and always continues to draw us to seek our wisdom in our creator.

So, let’s keep peeling the layers, forever having our understandings being transformed through the power of the Word; an onion that never ends.    

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