Sunday, March 31, 2024

Passing Over to Faith

It was their last night in the land of their oppression. The midnight of judgment was nigh. Every house of Israel had, four days earlier, carefully selected a lamb or kid, keeping it near (Exodus 12:3-6). A destroyer was on his way, on his way to rip away every firstborn son in all the land. But in the lamb, Israel would find protection. At twilight on the designated day, every head of household was deputized a priest, sacrificing the lamb (Exodus 12:6). All Hebrew homes used hyssop to paint their entryways with blood like altars (Exodus 12:7). Inside, with feet shod and staff in hand, each family ate the roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8-11). Of each in Israel it would be said, “by faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them” (Hebrews 11:28). In faith, each ransomed their families by the lamb, and this destroying power passed quietly over them as gods, men, and beasts were judged (Exodus 12:12-13).

Stricken in the midnight judgment, the Egyptians were keenly eager to send Israel away, to bribe Israel to leave with whatever it took (Exodus 12:29-35). “The LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians so that they let them have whatever they asked; thus they plundered the Egyptians,” receiving reparations for their generations of forced labor (Exodus 12:36). As Israel and a mixed multitude journeyed under cover of darkness to Egypt's borders (Exodus 12:37-38), Moses declared that every firstborn of this redeemed people was to be consecrated to the LORD (Exodus 13:2). Reaching the sea, threatened by destruction at an Egyptian hand, yet the LORD parted the waters from the waters to create a new way, and the people had no task but to believe – and then to walk through in faith, themselves passing over the seabed to freedom (Exodus 14:21-29). Safe on the far side, they sang a song of sweet salvation, and how every pagan power would tremble “till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased” (Exodus 15:16).

Every year, planted in the sanctuary their Lord had established, all Israel would repeat the sacrificial meal that heralded their salvation. And so there came an hour when Israel's Messiah – who had been “foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20) – reclined at a table with his disciples in an upper room which had been furnished for their yearly observance of that Passover meal (Luke 22:7-14). For, he told them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). That evening, “he took bread and, when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood'” (Luke 22:19-20).

Less than eighteen tumultuous hours later, as the sun reached its noonday heights overhead, the fists of callous Roman soldiers were smashing nails through his hands and feet, hauling his battered and bloodied body upright on the cross, all while the crowds smugly jeered and mocked him as a failure, as ineffectual to help himself as the Egyptians. How little they understood, though the heavens scowled black and the earth shook in fright. Three hours later, having embraced the depths of suffering and shame, the Messiah offered up his life to his Father: “Christ, our Passover Lamb” – “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” – “has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7; John 1:29). It was an act of perfect divine love, an act of perfect human hope, an act marrying perfect divine faithfulness to perfect human faith.  It was the highest worship ever rendered in heaven above or on earth below, purer than every hymn of cherubim and seraphim.  It was the costliest work ever brought to a conclusion, more taxing than to swat down all the flames of hell barehanded.  It was the culmination by the holiest death of the liveliest life ever lived in all of God's creation.

That next sabbath, so silent on earth, was all uproar below. As the Hebrews had plundered the Egyptians, so he plundered the whole realm of Death of its treasures: the holy souls once imprisoned there. Then came the next morning, the morning which is this morning. Just as Israel began to ascend from Egypt before sunrise, so ere the darkness had fully lifted off the land, the stone had been rolled away by angel hands (Matthew 28:2). There within lay the linen shroud and the face cloth, two relics abandoned to the glorious emptiness. And why was the stone-cold tomb discovered vacant? Why, when God put the sun in the Sunday, did its light not shine in on the corpse of a crucified man? Because, as Simon Peter would testify, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it!” (Acts 2:24). “God... raised him from the dead and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:21), “and of that,” the apostle preached, “we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

For late that afternoon, the deathless Messiah, cloaking his identity and his glory, had walked the miles with two grief-gripped doubters, who only belatedly recognized their Salvation at the parting of bread from bread (Luke 24:30-35), a truth which lit their hearts ablaze and made their “sorrow and sighing flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). That very evening, as disciples quaked in hiding, the risen Jesus invaded their midst – defying all we understand of time and space – and bade them peace (John 20:19), gladdening their hearts with proof that the one they'd seen slaughtered was the very one standing before them in the living flesh, his open wounds of scarring pain transfigured in the radiance of triumphant love's beauty (John 20:20-21).

And so, breathing on them a foreshadowing of his own Holy Spirit (John 20:22), he “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” including the true meaning of the Passover now fulfilled: “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:45-47). For “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,” so it was God's will that in Christ “we too, won from every people and tribe, from every nation and tongue, might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Therefore, the good news one day reached your soul and your body that “you were ransomed from futile ways... with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Through Jesus Christ our Passover Lamb, we've been set free at last from “the passions of our former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14), liberated from our age-old slavery to sin as surely as Israel was liberated from slavery (Romans 6:17-18). And it is “through him,” through the risen Messiah, that we whose ancestors bowed to idols now “are believers in God,” our hearts and souls infused with a gift of faith we couldn't concoct of our own volition (1 Peter 1:21).

So we no longer live in the house of slavery. We no longer live in the house of sin. We no longer live in the house of disbelief. We no longer live in the house of despair. We no longer live in the house of wrath. We no longer live in the house of death. We live in a house painted with the blood of the Lamb! We live in a house of faith, of hope, of love! We live in a house of Passover! We live in a house where death reigns no more! We live in a house of freedom! We live in a house of resurrection! We live in a house of gladness! For we live as the house of the Lord! Therefore, the Apostle Peter preaches, “your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:21). Having been redeemed, we are consecrated to God through Christ: “having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22), “conduct yourselves with fear” (1 Peter 1:17), being “holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). For we are a people who have passed over to faith, to hope, to the love which is greater than victory, to the open door of life eternal!

And what does our risen Savior proclaim to us now? Hear him: “I set free the condemned, I give life to the dead, I raise up the entombed. … I am he who destroys death and triumphs over the enemy and crushes Hades and binds the strong man and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights. … So come, all families of people adulterated with sin, and receive forgiveness of sins. For I am your freedom. I am the Passover of salvation, I am the lamb slaughtered for you, I am your ransom, I am your life, I am your light, I am your salvation, I am your resurrection, I am your King. I shall raise you up by my right hand, I will lead you to the heights of heaven; there shall I show you the everlasting Father.”1  

And so, as the prophet promises to us all: “You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept, and gladness of heart as when one sets out to the sound of the flute to go to the mountain of the LORD, the Rock of Israel” (Isaiah 30:29).  Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:21)“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). For in this faith, in this joyous hope, have we “passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Hallelujah!  Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Dawn of Sacrifice

The oldest civilization in the known world had a story. In that story the Sumerians told, once upon a time, when humans had no crops or livestock, they lived like mere beasts: they “went about with naked limbs..., ate grass with their mouths, and drank water from the ditches.”1 But then the gods invented sheep and grain, two great blessings, and shared them with humanity, “they gave them to mankind as sustenance.”2 The Bible tells the tale rather differently: in the beginning, yes, humans were naked, but rather than just the grass and the puddles of ditches, we lived in God's own garden, enjoying every herb and every fruit and water pure from the source. Our departure was not so much a rise into civilization and plenty as a fall into hardship, want, and sin. Still, outside the garden, we find ourselves with these same two gifts to hand: sheep and grain. Genesis 4 offers us what one scholar dubs “a mixed subsistence economy of stockbreeding and agriculture” – in short, the world Israel knew.3

That world is a world with division of labor: different things need to be done, and it makes sense to specialize a bit. And so between them, Cain and Abel have divided up the two most basic things there are to do outside the home.4 Cain follows in the footsteps of Father Adam as a worker of the ground (Genesis 2:15; 3:17-18). To Cain belongs the grain. St. Cyril paints a beautiful portrait of Cain's pleasure in the earth's beauty and fertility, in the opportunity to pour his energy and force into the world, how farming was God's calling on his life.5

His little brother Abel does not also put his hand to the ground, like a normal son of Adam. Abel chooses a life that's different but no less rooted than Cain's in the mission which Father Adam was given, to “have dominion over... every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Abel, in God's image, herds flocks of sheep and subdues pastures underfoot. Perhaps, some said, Abel was moved to this work by his delight in the tender lambs, his yearning to be a gentle caregiver.6 The cost is that, where Cain's farmland keeps him tethered close to home, Abel's sheep need to move, thus distancing Abel from the family network and from stability in life.7

So “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground” (Genesis 4:2). Nearly every man in ancient times could relate to one of those jobs.8 But the Sumerians knew they didn't always play well. In that old story, they imagined grain saying to sheep, “Your shepherd on the high plain eyes my produce enviously; when I'm standing in the furrow in my field, my farmer chases away your herdsman with his cudgel.”9 In modern Nigeria this same dynamic lurks behind a lot of the violence, as land that's good for pasture or agriculture is in shorter supply. “Farmers labor by tilling the soil to grow produce; sheep consume and destroy that produce.”10

But that's not what today's passage is really about. It's the backdrop for the real scene. Because here we get the first mention of sacrifice in the Bible. Early Christians marveled that Cain and Abel “show clearly enough just how ancient the practice of worshipping God by sacrifice is.”11 Earlier-still Jews pushed it back even further, assuming that Adam had “offered a sweet-smelling sacrifice” the very day he left the garden.12 By the way God created us, he implanted us with a natural desire for him. We were made to recognize and relate to God from the very depth of our souls. It's simply “natural that human beings recognize the Creator and his gifts.”13 So is it natural that we respond positively to gifts we receive – that's a general rule, but especially for gifts of God.

After all, we ought to be people of justice, which is just “the habit whereby a person, with a lasting and constant will, renders to each his due.”14 But there's no limit to what God deserves as “our unfailing principle and... last end.”15 That's the special kind of justice called 'religion,' and “religion is a virtue because it pays the debt of honor to God.”16 Human nature inclines us to this kind of religion: whenever we're able to recognize that there's a God above us, we're naturally inclined to “tender honor and submission” to him in worship.17

But “since man is made up of soul and body, both must be used for the worship of God.”18 “Therefore, natural reason dictates that man use sensible signs, offering them to God as a sign of due subjection and honor” – some outward tokens of our place in this one creation under God.19 We therefore have “a law of divine knowledge that is innate” which pulls us “to present thank-offerings... to the God who gives us every good thing.”20 In any kind of offering, we “offer in God's honor some of what belonged to him, as if in acknowledgment that they all came from God.”21 But a sacrifice, strictly speaking, is an offering which permanently “becomes sacred and is consumed” in fire.22 That's why sacrifice is the chief act of worship any creature can give its Creator,23 because sacrifice – the translation of our treasure to make it humanly irretrievable, transferred to God's realm on our behalf – is our most radical way of proclaiming God as the First Source and Final End of all things.24 Our heart screams with a natural human “impulse to sacrifice.”25

Paganism would later twist that impulse, making up the idea where the gods actually needed our sacrifices so as not to starve. The Sumerians reckoned that the gods couldn't handle sheep and grain on their own, that they “were not sated,” and so it was “for their own well-being” that they “gave them to mankind.”26 The Bible refuses to abide by such delusions: the real God doesn't literally feed on sacrifices, and even if he could get hungry (which he can't), he sure wouldn't need to rely on us to feed himself (Psalm 50:12-13).27 But graciously God chooses to act as if he hungers and thirsts like us, as a way of giving us a concrete and understandable outlet for this yearning to serve him, because we need such an outlet if our relationship with him is going to get outside our own heads.28 So even before the Law, God initiated or at least accepted a sacrificial system, a way to channel our impulses into an expression of genuine worship.29 And all the “ceremonial precepts” that accrue to it are different tools to turn us toward God “in many different ways and more continuously.”30 God allowed this, even before the Law, to be a sort of patch on original sin.31 But the sacrificial system wasn't actually about sin, not mainly about atonement; that was just one piece in a bigger system about, simply, worship.32

So Cain and Abel, farmer and herdsman, share “a sense of duty,” knowing that they “owed gifts in exchange for God's providing the fecund earth and fertile flocks.”33 So at some unspecified point in their lives – eventually, it says, “at the end of days” – Cain and Abel each bring God an offering, answering that sense of duty (Genesis 4:3). The word Genesis uses for 'offering' here is a Hebrew word for tribute, the kind subjects were supposed to bring their king (1 Kings 4:21) or which ambassadors might carry as a way to curry favor and grease palms (2 Kings 20:12). It was a pledge of loyalty, a way of boosting goodwill relations.34 In the Law of Moses, it's a technical term for the grain offering that accompanied each meat sacrifice (Numbers 15:2-10) and sometimes also could just stand on its own (Leviticus 2:1-16). The point of this offering was “to express one's allegiance to the Lord.”35 But the word could also be used to cover even animal sacrifices (1 Samuel 2:17), and in the Greek Old Testament it usually got translated with the common Greek word for 'sacrifice' in general.

So Cain the farmer and Abel the herdsman each bring God a tribute offering, a sacrifice, derived from their own labors: the results of the work they do in the world.36 One brings animal, the other brings vegetable – both of which will remain valid and necessary once the Law of Moses is given.37 For Cain's part, he toiled in the earth by the sweat of his brow, using stone and wood tools at best, to cultivate his grain; he labored hard for each sheaf, watched as God gave it the growth, pulled it out with his own two hands, and now he's going to give some to God.38 Abel's offering is probably the result of less physical strain; his work is a kind of secondary task, suited for the younger and weaker of the brothers.39 Yet he, too, relied on God's mercy to provide and care for his flock so they could increase and multiply under God's blessing. And now, where Cain's hands are brown with soil, Abel's offering is the harder part: his hands will be red with blood. Both make their offerings, so far as we see, in gratitude for God's gifts and in hope that God's faithfulness will yield even better things ahead.40

We have to imagine they're making these offerings around the same time, probably in the same place, which may mean some sort of prehistoric religious assembly and festival. Some ancient Jewish readers thought it was a foreshadowing of the Feast of Passover.41 Some modern scholars suggest instead a foreshadowing of the Feast of Firstfruits, when both barley sheaves and lambs were offered the same day (Leviticus 23:10-13).42 Whatever the occasion, to it Cain and Abel “both come as priests, worship the same God, and desire God's acceptance.”43

When the time comes, what does Abel give as an offering, what does Abel sacrifice to the LORD? He “brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:4). On both counts, Abel is intentionally giving God the most valuable thing to come out of his work: “the fat portions were considered the best meat, and the firstborn animals were the most prized.”44 That's why, when Israel reaches the land of promise, God calls for “the firstborn of your herd and of your flock” (Deuteronomy 12:6). “The firstborn of a sheep... you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle the blood on the altar and shall burn their fat as an offering by fire, a sweet-smelling aroma to the LORD (Numbers 18:7), for “all fat is the LORD's” (Leviticus 4:19). So Abel anticipates the Law in being “willing to part with his choicest possessions” for the sake of God's glory.45

So we expect to read here that Cain brought the firstfruit of his fruit of the ground, or something like that. After all, when Israel enters the land of promise, they're told to “take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you harvest” and present it to God in thanksgiving (Deuteronomy 26:2). So we expect to read of Cain anticipating that here. Instead, we read simply that “Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3). Maybe moldy or stale, maybe unripe, or maybe just a random sampling from what he's got, chosen unthinkingly and uncaringly. Whatever it is, we're given no indication that these are his firstfruits.

Abel's offering was the best Abel had, which honored and pleased the LORD. Abel did by nature what the Law would one day require, God having written his will on Abel's heart (Romans 2:15). But Cain's heart didn't pick up the message. Cain “owed to God the firstfruit of his crop.”46 Yet he didn't bring his first or his best, just what was close at hand.47 Perhaps he'd even already gobbled down his firstfruits, saving God only his leftovers.48 Cain's offering suggests no correlation, however remote, to the infinite value of God; it communicates nothing of God's grace, goodness, holiness, honor. The problem isn't that Cain doesn't give what Abel gave; it's that Cain doesn't give Cain's own best, since, like Paul says, an offering is “acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he doesn't have” (2 Corinthians 8:12). If Cain had brought his own best, his firstfruits, then the gift itself, at least, would've been totally pleasing to God.49

For God actually does care deeply what it is we offer him. “We ought to offer something special to God,” a gift that communicates God's supreme worth.50 So Israel was given standards: “You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you” (Leviticus 22:20). Such gifts symbolically contradict who Israel knows God to be. Yet they sinned, “offering polluted food on my altar.... When you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil” (Malachi 1:7-8), “an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 17:1)? So “honor the LORD... with the firstfruits of all your produce” (Proverbs 3:9), “offer right sacrifices” (Deuteronomy 33:19). It matters that we give God the best of what we've done, the best of what we have.51

God also cares how we offer what we offer. Moses gets a truly massive list of instructions of sacrificial details, without which an offering “shall not be accepted” (Leviticus 7:18). For each of the appointed feasts, God sets the menu at his altar down to the prescribed quantities (Numbers 28-29). The point is that not everything in worship is up to us. There are right ways and wrong ways – ask Nadab and Abihu, if you can find their ashes (Leviticus 10:1-2). That's what it means that God is holy. Holiness must be approached carefully, by the book.

And in the Greek version of Genesis, this is the explanation added for what Cain did wrong: he failed to 'divide rightly' his sacrifice, he committed a cultic blunder, he botched the ritual protocols52 – some technique misapplied, some rule overlooked or defied.53 As one early Christian poet put it, “the crude farmer... brought his bungled, unsalted offerings of earth.”54 St. Ambrose says that “in every case where there is disorder, there is room for precision,” so our worship “should follow a precise pattern.”55 “Guard your steps when you go to the House of God: to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools,” as Cain did (Ecclesiastes 5:1).

So Cain's offering and Abel's offering differed in the quality of the gift, and maybe even the quality of the giving. But these are a window into the two brothers themselves as people, and that's what makes the deeper difference.56 Through his prophets, God tells Israel that he can't enjoy their sacrifices, no matter how plentiful or fine or artfully offered: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts!” (Isaiah 1:11). “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and tribute offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 5:22). Why not? Because the sickening nature of unrepented sin spoils the quality of any gift: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD (Proverbs 15:8). Before sacrifice, “make yourselves clean! Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17). “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3).

And herein lies a difference between Cain and Abel. The Apostle John offers a simple summary for why Cain's gift is rejected and Abel's is accepted: “Cain's own deeds were evil, and his brother's were righteous” (1 John 3:12). In some way not spelled out in Genesis, Cain hadn't been living rightly. He'd imitated the worst he found in Father Adam and Mother Eve. Before the fires were ever lit, there was something Cain needed to fix about himself. And until it was, God didn't care how plump Cain's veggies had grown. Cain's works, Cain's life, was distasteful enough to make God lose his appetite just looking at Cain; his deeds were cockroaches in the kitchen. Not so with Abel, though. John and Moses give no hints what Abel had done right: maybe helping Adam and Eve, maybe nursing an injured lamb, maybe some thankless act of kindness for Cain. But Abel's deeds were already righteous. So when he brought his offering, there was nothing unappetizing in the kitchen of his life, nothing there to gross God out.

But if “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, how much more when he brings it with evil intent!” (Proverbs 21:27). It's not just about who you are outside the altar; it's about who you are in it, about what the worship means to you on the inside. “The sacrifice is effectual,” one commentator writes, “only for those who will offer it with a believing and contrite heart.”57 It calls for the offerer's heart-motive, heart-attitude, to be pure and attentive and sincere. That's because, as St. Augustine put it, every physical act of worship “is the visible sacrament of an invisible sacrifice” we make on the inside.58

Jewish readers of Genesis took Cain to be “thoroughly depraved,” saying he “had an eye only for gain.”59 Cain gives a wrong gift, Cain leads a wrong life, because Cain has a wrong heart. And so his mentality in worship is transactional, just as he was raised to see the world. For Cain, worship is an automated thing, a bribe that will necessarily pay off in favor.60 For him, it's just going through the motions: put the thing on the altar, tick all the boxes, close the deal, then move on with your day. No wonder he presumes on the outcome, no wonder he takes no greater care, no wonder he doesn't expose his heart in what he does. It wasn't just his gift or his ritual or his works that are rejected here; it's his heart, his attitude.61 Cain suffers from a lethal poverty of love.62

On the other hand, the New Testament tells us it was “by faith” that “Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous” (Hebrews 11:4). That faith has to do with what Abel's heart and soul were like. “The exterior sacrifice,” it's said, “signifies an interior sacrifice by which the soul offers itself to God.”63 All the outward actions of worship were supposed to “represent the ordering of the mind to God, stirring up the offerer to this end.”64 Because Cain wasn't giving any interior worship of God, because he refused to allow his heart to be stirred, his outward actions of sacrifice were empty and vain. But Abel's faith did offer God interior worship from the heart and soul, and that faith gave life to his outward acts of sacrifice, investing them with meaning, enriching them with love. And indeed, “anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him,” as Abel was (Acts 10:35). To live rightly and worship God from the heart with reverence for his holiness – that's what is takes to be a person who can be accepted.

For Cain and Abel, for you and me, “both giver and gift were under the scrutiny of God.”65 Cain brings God whatever's cheap; Abel brings whatever's costly. Better said, Cain brings God worship that's convenient; Abel brings God worship that's carefully considered. Cain approaches the altar with proud and careless disregard of his conduct; Abel approaches the altar with a clean conscience. Cain regards worship as an tidy routine, and presumes on his success; Abel regards worship as a daring undertaking, and is humble before God's freedom. Cain takes a lazy and casual approach to worship; Abel takes a thoughtful and serious approach to worship.

At the root, Cain has an “evil and unbelieving heart” (Hebrews 12:2). He professes to know God, but denies him in the way he lives and even the way he worships (Titus 1:16). “To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15). Unsurprisingly, Cain's sacrifice can't be accepted by God; it has to be declined, refused, rejected (Genesis 4:5). Abel, on the other hand, “cleanses himself from what is dishonorable,” making his life “a vessel for honorable use..., ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). Abel has “a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). Wonderfully, Abel's sacrifice is freely accepted by God (Genesis 4:4). In Cain, we have problems with offerer and offering, all the reasons worship might fall short.66 But in Abel, we have a picture of worship unimpeded: the right offerer, the right sacrifice, the right way, the right God.

On Palm Sunday, hailing the Lord by cloaks and branches, the pilgrims to the city of worship sang him their festival hymn (Mark 11:8-10), longing to “give thanks to the LORD (Psalm 118:19). But tomorrow, in outrage, that same Lord will condemn the Cains who plug up the temple courts with their obstructions to worship. He'll remind them what was spoken through the prophet: “The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD..., their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-7; cf. Mark 11:17). Then, on Friday, the words of the pilgrims' psalm were fulfilled: the festal sacrifice was bound with cords, up to the horns of the altar – the cross (Psalm 118:27). There, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). All acceptable sacrifices that came before, from Abel's down, “prefigured... the mystery of Christ.”67 “This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).

There, on that day, is all of Christian worship: Christ the Giver, Christ the Gift. “Every priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this Priest to have something to offer” (Hebrews 8:3), “himself making the offering as well as being the offering.”68 He is “Christ the Firstfruits” (1 Corinthians 15:23), “Firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). And to whatever extent Christian worship is really about Christ giving Christ to the Father, then that worship is infinitely more acceptable than the sacrifice of Abel, which couldn't perfect his conscience but was only a first “shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 9:9; 10:1).69

Whatever we add in our worship is accepted by God insofar as we and it are fittingly joined to Christ's sacrifice. In Christ, “the Church (since it is the body of which he is the head) learns to offer its very self through him.”70 Those who belong to the gospel are “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures... through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (James 3:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). “Whoever serves Christ” with “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” is “acceptable to God” (Romans 14:18). And the purpose for which we've been saved is, says Peter, “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). That's the point! “Through him, then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).

And we have every advantage here, brothers and sisters, over rejected Cain and even accepted Abel. In our worship, the central thing is already being done by Christ, because he did it once for all and continually presents it to God. All we have to do is join rightly in who we are, what we do, what we bring, and how we bring it. In who we are – that is, Christians whose hearts have been claimed by faith and changed by the Spirit of Truth. In what we do – that is, Christians whose lives are turned again and again to walk by the Spirit and not according to the flesh. In what we bring – that is, whatever gifts of praise and service and substance are the best we can muster from what we have. In how we bring it – that is, with a sincere care and devotion to the astonishing holiness of the God we approach. So, to close in the words of Scripture: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a Consuming Fire!” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Skins and Sins and Sons; or, Restating the World

Over the course of Genesis 3, we've witnessed the slow-motion downfall of humankind from being God's image to God's exile. It's been a tragic and degrading path that the first sin put the man and the woman on. And now that the garden has vomited us forth, now that cherubim and burning blade firmly bar our way back in, we have little choice but to begin looking at the world from a new perspective – a perspective from outside the garden of God. With today's passage, we begin to consider, in Bede's words, “the deeds of this world and of mortal life.”1

First, though, “the LORD God made for the human and his wife garments” (Genesis 3:21). Earlier, the man and woman had sewn together fig leaves into skimpy girdles to conceal their nakedness, but in neither durability nor size were they up to the task. God generously provides replacement clothing, something larger, “something more durable, more suited to the hard lives they will face outside the garden.”2 The kind of garment pictured here is a long tunic that reaches down at least to the knees, maybe even the ankles.3 Unlike flimsy fig leaves, they're stiffer stuff, able to not only visually obstruct their bodies but also protect them from the elements, from “blazing sun, chilling wind, or pouring rain.”4 Now, God doesn't have to do this. He could just let them spend their whole lives doing little more than stitching leaf to leaf! But generously, before he sends them out to face the consequences of sin, he provides something to ease the harshness of the world. And to that end, having stopped his work of 'making' on the seventh day, God goes back to 'making,' all for the sake of mercy.5

Not only are they a protection, though, they're a privilege. The word for 'garments' here is used by Moses for the 'tunics' that Aaron and his sons will wear as their priestly vestments (Exodus 29:5-9; Leviticus 8:7).6 These vestments given to Adam and Eve are more than just the customary clothes of a caveman; they show that the man and woman go forth invested as priests who maintain a relationship with God. The LORD God stooped down and peeled the fig leaves away, destroying the covering they've tried to make for themselves; he exposed their shamefully bare nature. But then the hand of the LORD gently “clothed them” in what they had no way to get themselves (Genesis 3:21). By God's “caring authority,” he shows his commitment to not give up on us, to cover us when we confess we're naked and poor, to welcome us, to dignify us.7 We're rightly moved when the father runs to the prodigal son and throws a robe over him as he comes home; but this is the Father giving the fine robe as the prodigal son leaves in the first place! These vestments are astonishing symbols of the authority and dominion that the man and woman will still bear in the world beyond the garden as God's images and as God's beloved.8

But this intimacy and power of grace, while free to the man and woman, still has its cost. These are, we're told, “garments of skins” (Genesis 3:21). And to make body-length tunics for two, no animal has that much skin to spare and then just go about its day. God's provision comes at the cost of some animal's life.9 Something had to die in order for the man and woman's shame and vulnerability to be covered, in order for them to be reinvested with status and authority, in order for them to be equipped to still minister to God outside the garden.

Sin is a costly thing that can't merely be papered over or dismissed. To get by in the world will be painful and messy and at least a little bit brutal. For even here, in this dawning moment, some beast has died for our sake. And whatever it was, it won't be the last. The priest who slew a guilt-offering was entitled to its skin (Leviticus 7:8). And so, as they say goodbye to the garden of God, man and woman wear the skins of a dead beast over their own naked skin, a constant reminder of “the profound consequences of their choice for disobedience.”10

Now “the human called his wife's name 'Eve,' because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). Adam and Eve – their names mean 'Human' and 'Make-Alive.'11 And to call her 'Mother of All Living' is a profound gesture Genesis makes; among Israel's pagan neighbors, that kind of title was reserved for mother goddesses.12 He calls her that in advance. But now, in the world outside God's garden, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and she bore” (Genesis 4:1). They were told to “be fruitful and multiply,” and the original blessing remains intact despite the curse (Genesis 1:28). In fact, this conception and labor are carried out “with the LORD (Genesis 4:1). Despite how challenging and uncomfortable Eve finds the process, “with God all things are possible” after all (Matthew 19:26).13 God “makes her the joyous mother of children” (Psalm 113:9).

And so “she bore Cain, and she said: 'I have gotten a man!'” (Genesis 4:1). It's a curious thing for her to say. The verb she uses, qānîtî, is used elsewhere for acquiring wisdom (Proverbs 1:5), owning livestock (Isaiah 1:3), buying a field (Jeremiah 32:44), buying a lamb (2 Samuel 12:3), buying clothing (Jeremiah 13:2), even buying a slave (Exodus 21:2). It's a commercial word, a property word, an ownership word. Eve's claiming what she's conceived and birthed as her purchase, her property, her possession. In more special circumstances, though, this is also the word used for God as the Producer of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:19), as the one who created Israel (Deuteronomy 32:6), as the one who forms our innermost parts before we're born (Psalm 139:13). Eve's laying credit to forming, fashioning, forging, manufacturing a man.14

In Genesis 2, the woman was depicted as derived from the man (Genesis 2:23); now she, as woman, asserts her womanly power as the source of man from henceforth.15 She concedes, at the end, a role for God – “I have gotten a man with the LORD (Genesis 4:1) – but casts herself as his colleague, as though Cain were the fruit of a group project they'd worked on.16 But it's almost like she's his competitor as well: “Now it's not just you who manufacture men, LORD; what you do, I do too!” She “puts herself on par with the Lord as creator,” and so Cain's very name is testimony to the same grasping after godhood that led her to snatch the forbidden fruit.17 It isn't a sign of a healthy attitude: in her son whom she manufactured and owns, she has a man, she thinks, like a new husband, who won't disappoint in the way Adam does; he'll be “the apple of his mother's eye.”18

“And she added to bear his brother Abel” (Genesis 4:2). He comes across as an afterthought. His name gets no comment, because its meaning is obvious to anybody who speaks Hebrew. It's a pretty common word in the Old Testament, often translated 'vanity,' but really meaning 'breath' or 'mist' or 'vapor.' It refers to something so fragile it can easily be blown away, something on the verge of dissipating the moment you see it,19 “something insubstantial and evanescent.”20 It's a pretty odd name for a baby boy; perhaps he was a small and weak child, not expected to last long, the kind for whom Adam might've stayed up late into the night praying for a miracle.21 And, of course, there's no doubt some foreshadowing here: Abel's really won't be a long life on earth.22 “Leave me alone,” Job tells his friends, “for my days are a vapor” (Job 7:16). Abel could've said that just as well.

The fact that Genesis only mentions once that Adam knew his wife or that she conceived, and then narrates two births, has led many to suggest that Cain and Abel might be implied to be twins.23 If so, they make quite the contrast: one born so robust he's portrayed as a full-grown man straight from the womb, and his brother born so frail he was practically named 'Temporary,' 'Don't-Count-on-It,' 'Here-Today-Gone-Tomorrow.' And together they paint a portrait of the world as we find it outside God's garden. Cain shows us the world through the lens of pride and possession. He tells us there's no limit to human potential, nothing to thwart our glory. In Cain's world, the way to get by is to get ahead, to work hard, to put yourself first and achieve all you can imagine. His whole life will be stamped by the dynamic of owning and being owned. His is the world viewed by economists, industrialists, technologists; he's the manufactured man, the quantifiable man. To live in Cain-world is to live for grabbing and getting, a world of invention and production, of seeking salvation on an assembly line. It's a world bought and sold a trillion times a minute, a world we demand to reshape and repair and remortgage, a factory model of markets and might, suffused with objects and efforts, a world we imagine we can master through ingenuity and elbow grease.

But then Abel is born: “Vapor of vapors! Everything is vapor! What profit does an adam have by all the toil which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). So says Ecclesiastes, which might as well be called the Book of Abel. Everything Cain represents is unmasked therein as an “ultimate emptiness and fruitlessness.”24 “All toil and all skill in work,” everything Cain was all about, “come from a man's envy of his neighbor: this also is vapor and grasping after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). “So I hated life, because what was done under the sun was grievous to me, for everything is vapor and grasping after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17). “Adam is like a vapor; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). “Surely every adam stands as entirely vapor” (Psalm 39:5). Human life turns out to be 100% Abel. All we are is dust in the wind. And so are all these nice things that share this Abel-world with us. Things fall apart. If Cain shows us the world through a lens of pride and possession, Abel shows it through a lens of peril and pointlessness. Nothing in life is certain but death and taxes. “Time and chance happen to [us] all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Nothing we can do amounts to more than children building sandcastles on a beach holiday, or a fool trying to shoot down the moon with bow and arrow.25

As one author puts it, “where the name 'Cain' speaks of grasping after divinity, then, the name 'Abel' signifies the transient nature of human existence.”26 The hopes of Cain are thwarted by Abel every time, and Cain will make sure of it. Here we have the world outside the garden: pride raising its own peril, possessiveness proving pointlessness, and the vicious cycle locks us into a desperate combat to secure the impossible. The more we see that nothing lasts, the more anxiously we crave to cobble together something certain; and the more frantically we try, the more we damage the world and hasten its dissipation. Now that's a Cain-and-Abel world we're in.

It wasn't meant to be that way, of course. In the beginning, we were made originally righteous, innocent, by “a definite gift of grace divinely bestowed upon all human nature in the first parent.”27 If Adam and Eve hadn't sinned, then at the moment of our conception God would've given each of us that same added gift of a total rightness inside and out, key to operating human nature the right way.28 In Genesis 3, we watched Adam and Eve lose that innocence, but we might hope that when their children are born, they'll enter even the world outside the garden as innocents who have the same inner health Adam and Eve had.

But it turns out that the answer to that is no. As St. Augustine put it, “the transgression of those two,” of Adam and Eve, “ought to be understood as so great a sin that it could change for the worse the nature of all who are born of man and woman and could bind them with a common guilt.”29 Original righteousness was ripped off human nature violently, leaving human nature itself naked and wounded in all who are born to it, starting here in Genesis 4. In Cain and Abel alike, Adam and Eve “begat sons who still carry with them the original sin of their unfaithful progenitor.”30 Or, to use the Bible's own words, Cain and Abel could both look back and sing in unison the psalm: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).

The Apostle Paul explains that “by the one man's disobedience, the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19). Each one of us can say, “In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of paradise..., in Adam I am guilty of sin.”31 It's right there in the Bible: “the trespass of one led to condemnation for all humans” (Romans 5:18). “As an inheritance, Adam left his children... not freedom but bondage..., not salvation but destruction.”32 Paul says it without mincing words: as Adam's descendants, we are all born “children, by nature, of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

So the early Christians recognized that “every soul... born in Adam... is unclean,” and “sinful, too, because it is unclean.”33 That includes Cain. It also includes Abel.34 And me, and you, and your great-grandkids. Not only after they grow up, but from the very beginning. “All the children of Adam were in him infected by the contagion of sin,”35 hence why the birth of every child in Israel called for a sin-offering (Leviticus 12:6).36 “No one is without sin, not even an infant one day old, although he never committed a sin” in his own person,37 they said, for a newborn baby “has not sinned at all, except that, born carnally according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the first death from the first nativity.”38 “All souls, even those of infants..., contract original sin.”39 That's because “the human nature in which each of us is born of Adam... is not in good health,” because it has a “defect which darkens and weakens” it.40 This “defect stemming from the origin remains in the offspring to make them guilty.”41 So “no one is born of Adam who is not bound by the chain of sin and condemnation;”42 “absolutely everyone who has been born is held guilty.”43

Those aren't my words; they're the words of Christians from the first four centuries of the faith, before Patrick began to evangelize Ireland. As sons of Adam, as daughters of Eve, “we are invariably fellow-travelers away from God” even as he forms us in our mother's womb.44 We have an obligation to be in a right relationship with God, to be at peace with God, but we are born outside that relationship, born inheriting a fallen state, born as heirs of a war declared on God.45 Even though we didn't choose it, we're born guilty of being on the wrong side of it. From our first infant cry, Adam's generating influence is reaching down through the ages, connecting us to his sinful will.46 Since Adam represented us all before God, human nature itself was declared guilty in him, and so what we inherit is guilty, even before we've had a chance to will anything sinful as newborn individuals.47

It's not just a silly outdated idea, either. John Wesley reminded us that “all men are conceived in sin and shapen in wickedness,”48 so that each person born in descent from Adam and Eve is “justly punishable for it.”49 Our own denomination's articles of faith confess this, too. Each one of us suffers from a “disordered disposition,” a “corrupt habit of sorts” through which “the various powers of the soul strain towards conflicting objectives.”50 That inner disorder we're born with and guilty of explains why “human nature is now defective so that we are all prone to [actual] sin.”51 Original sin doesn't coerce us into putting sin into practice – we have free will – but, living with the effects of original sin, universally we actually sin once we get the chance.52

That might sound like an incredibly gloomy, dreary, and offensive message – that we should look into an infant face and see not only the precious image of God but also the presence of disorder, guilt, sin, judgment. But the reason why the Church came to so strongly insist on this original sin idea is because, if original sin isn't true, then “not all would be in need of redemption through Christ.”53 The Church came to this deep understanding of original sin by reasoning backwards from the beautiful reality of our redemption in Jesus!

It all adds up from one practice and two convictions. First, the practice: the early church baptized babies. We can't find a time when we see Christians unwilling to baptize babies. Our earliest witnesses say the Church got it as “a tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to little children,”54 and the New Testament itself shows us cases of whole households being baptized together, babies and all (Acts 16:33). If “no one is prevented from baptism and grace,” one early bishop said, “how much more should an infant not be prohibited?”55 Second, the first conviction: there are not two different kinds of baptism. They got that straight from the Apostle Paul, who says outright in the Bible: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Third, the other conviction: baptism is an answer to sin and guilt. They got that from the Apostle Peter, who “baptized... for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), and from Ananias who baptized Paul to “wash away [his] sins” (Acts 22:16).

So, they reasoned, babies are baptized, and baptism is to wash away the guilt of sin. Could they be baptized for some other reason? No, because then there'd be two different kinds of baptism, but we know there's only one. So if babies are baptized, then “the Church certainly baptizes” them “for a true forgiveness of sins.”56 For “if there were nothing in infants that ought to pertain to forgiveness..., then the grace of baptism would appear superfluous.”57 But what in infants could need forgiving, if they haven't committed any sins of their own? The early church answered: “In the case of little children, original sin is removed by baptism.”58

Whether we accept all their premises or not, that's how the early church reasoned their way there. “The first birth holds human beings under the condemnation from which only the second birth sets them free.”59 That's why Jesus says, “You must be born again!” (John 3:7). “Who will be so bold,” they ask, “to say that Christ is not the Savior and Redeemer of infants? But from what does he save them if they don't have the disease of original sin?”60 So, they concluded, on account of original sin, “it is necessary even for infants to be reborn in Christ,”61 to be “released from the bonds of sin through the grace of Christ the Mediator.”62

This dark doctrine of original sin is actually meant to cast into relief the bigger truth that “every human being, even the littlest, is called to the knowledge and love of Christ.”63 And if that's true of even a baby at her first breath, if it was true of infant Abel and child Cain, then how can any of us ever doubt that we're called to Christ, that salvation is meant for the likes of us? For the Lord's faithful grace “has the same fullness of power... in the action, confession, and forgiveness of sins in every sex, age, and condition of the human race.”64

Just as the sin of Adam and Eve was covered by garments God made, so Cain and Abel, though born naked and poor, need not stay that way. Even out of God's garden, Adam and Eve could knit and sew clothes of cotton and wool and animal skins for their children, and undoubtedly they did. But spiritually, Cain and Abel don't have to stay naked and poor either. They, like every child, like every adult, can be clothed by God. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ” – even if in the very hour you opened your eyes outside the garden – “have put on Christ” as a vestment infinitely nobler than what Adam and Eve wore (Galatians 3:27). And so we can thank God that, though we're out in this world of pride and peril, of possessiveness and pointlessness, although we're born in sin and all we grasp at is only chasing the wind, Christ welcomes us one and all with this same promise, even in our Cain-and-Abel world: “Let the little children come unto me” (Matthew 19:14). Amen.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

The First Gospel

We've listened in as the serpent whispered his power of confusion into the woman's ear. We've gazed at the fruit in all its delectable allure. We've tasted with the woman, and the man, the sweetness of sin and its rot. We've endured the spiral of shame, the growth of guilt, the frantic force of fear. We've panicked and bellowed blame every which way. We've toiled under the catastrophic weight of the curse. We've said a tearful goodbye to our paradise lost, and ventured out to the land of thorns and thistles where our tombs will be. But in the course of wringing all these tragic meanings out of Genesis chapter 3, there's one little note we've passed by, one glimmer in the dark. For this all began with a serpent, and before our penalties are even mentioned, he's got to get his.

The LORD God said to the serpent, 'Because you have done this'” – because you deceived the woman who did you no wrong, because you twisted and mocked and spread doubt, because you cast the holy name of God into disrepute, “cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14). Now, the surface meaning is that God has a problem with the animal we call a snake.1 Formerly, the snake was the most cunning of wild beasts; now, it's the most cursed of wild and domestic alike, an exile from the animals.2 The snake gets around not by flying, swimming, walking, but slithering, wriggling its body over the earth. Their tongues flicker in and out to augment smell; it looks like they lick up dust as food. As far as “enmity” goes, even infants instinctively are wary of snakes,3 and “many species of primates are deeply afraid of snakes.”4 By some estimates, over 150,000 people die each year from snakebites, making them the most deadly animal to us besides mosquitoes and each other.5

But if we're content to leave things at that level of understanding here, we're missing out. As we've mentioned, the serpent here isn't just an ordinary snake, as if snakes were cunning conversationalists. We're dealing with a spiritual power behind the surface of the snake. Many of Israel's neighbors told stories about cosmic serpents who set themselves up against the gods. In Egypt, the sun god was under threat each night from a giant serpent of chaos, and a great deal of Egyptian religion revolved around keeping this serpent at bay. Among the Hittites, the storm god had once been defeated by the serpent, and only with human help was he able to kill this serpent and its offspring.6 Among the Canaanites, their god Baal was said to have faced “Litan the Fleeing Serpent..., the Twisty Serpent, the Potentate with Seven Heads.”7 The Bible uses that same language: “Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent..., the Dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1), “king over all the sons of pride” (Job 41:34). “No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up” (Job 41:10).

So this isn't simply a common, everyday snake in the first place. This is that serpent, a spiritual power opposed to divinity, just as the Egyptians and Hittites and Canaanites and others all could've recognized. Here, “the nature of the serpent was a symbol of the devil.”8 This is 'the Serpent' with a capital S. The snake seen on the surface is hiding a fallen angel, an adversarial Satan, a force of disorder and disruption and danger, the sinuous wellspring of pride, a Leviathan full of venom that corrodes the soul. And that's whom God is judging.

Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the beasts of the field!” (Genesis 3:14). More than any other creature, God curses the devil. The Serpent is tolerated only for a time. A cosmic war has begun: the Serpent picked a fight with God, dragging his name through the mud; in turn, God skewers the Serpent with the words of his curse (Isaiah 27:1).9 In the end, this Serpent will be destroyed, which will mean creation's salvation.10

In the meantime, “on your belly you shall go,” the LORD announces to the Serpent (Genesis 3:14). The devil – once a lofty light in heaven, momentarily absorbed in the contemplation of the perfect good which is God – is now condemned to earthly obsessions, the muck and the mud of baseness.11 For the devil to be cast onto his belly is to be a pathetic figure slithering through the world, since he “forfeited the dignity accorded him in the beginning and was cast down to earth.”12 The devil is here being restrained, bound from being the menace he'd otherwise be; cowardice strikes his heart, forced into submission by God before the war really begins.13

Dust you shall eat all the days of your life,” God announces (Genesis 3:14). Just like crawling on the ground, licking or eating dust was a posture of extreme humiliation in the ancient world.14 To 'eat dust' was a Near Eastern way of describing what it was like to be dead: people in the underworld were pictured as “those who long for light, who eat dust and live on clay.”15 No matter how much of our dust he eats, no matter how much destruction he causes, it doesn't nourish or satisfy the devil: he's starving on this dusty diet, frustrated, pained.16

God goes on: “I will put enmity between you and the woman” (Genesis 3:15), that is, the devil “with the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14) will be made an enemy to “the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). “I will make the woman your implacable enemy,” God's saying.17 For a moment in the story, it seemed like the Serpent had won the woman for his partner, his ally, virtually his vessel in leading humanity astray. But now that budding alliance is blessedly ripped asunder, divorced, turned into burning hatred, as the scales fall off her eyes and she at last can recognize all the Serpent's abuse for what it is – and she will be his furious foe.18 This is no merely mild mutual dislike; it's a state of war, a hatred on which life and death hang.19 And this hostile condition, this bold antipathy, this open enmity between the Serpent and the Woman, is enforced by the word of God.20

I will put enmity,” the LORD elaborates, “between your seed and her seed.” Not only are the Serpent and the Woman personally opposed, but from each will descend dueling lineages locked in a mortal combat throughout time: “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). There is, there must be, an instinctive opposition between everything truly human in us, everything that comes from the mother of life, and the darkness that roams the world. There's common grace hereby placed in us that, despite our sinfulness, will burst through and resist the dark. “Reconciliation with the Evil One is harmful... Accordingly,” St. Basil said, “the devil has remained our opponent because of the fall that came upon us due to his abuse long ago. So the Lord has planned for us wrestling with him so that we would wrestle through obedience and triumph over the Adversary.”21 This long war is part of God's curse against the Serpent, who expected no resistance from us.

And that means, for one, a long spiritual warfare. One old commentator observes that “the seed of the devil are apostate angels, who were corrupted by the example of his pride and rebellion.”22 For all human history, we've been under siege by subtle powers of corruption, seed of the serpent which slither behind the scenes. These are spirits oppressive and possessive, unclean spirits that stink up all they waft through like a sewer breeze (Mark 1:23), harmful spirits that wear down our living (1 Samuel 16:14), lying spirits that aim to propagate that old mission of deception (1 Kings 22:22). And they were quite successful: through the ages, as the line of promise narrowed and narrowed, “demonic deceit was thus overshadowing every place and hiding the knowledge of the true God.”23 Yet we could always resist them through obedient openness to being taught by God's Spirit.

But it isn't only spirits who are the Serpent's seed. Down through the ages, the devil has been able to draw away many of those descended physically from the woman. The Serpent's seed includes all “those captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26), into whom he implants his sly craft, onto whom he imprints his low-down ways, through whom he reproduces his faithlessness and wickedness.24 In the grand field of this world, humans can be either “sons of the kingdom” or “sons of the Evil One” (Matthew 13:38). Just as the woman's seed will live in the direction of humanity's mission to spread life and order and flourishing, so the Serpent's seed will go the other direction, to disrupt and disorganize and dismantle that which God wanted to see in the world.25 For “whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil” (1 John 3:8). But just as the Serpent can corrupt the seed of the woman into his own, anyone who's lived as the Serpent's seed can be renewed as the Woman's seed, can “turn... from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive the forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith” (Acts 26:18). The question is, whose side will you take? Whose seed will you prove to be?

Skipping past how this plays out in the rest of Genesis (we'll get there), at Sinai the LORD chooses to take Israel under his wing as a young bride (Ezekiel 16:8). She became “a Woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). And so the Children of Israel are, from that perspective, the promised collective seed of this Woman, Mother Zion.

When they enter the promised land, the city of Gibeon decides to be “cunning” – now there's a serpent word (Joshua 9:3-4). They manufacture false evidence that they've traveled from a distant land that isn't in Canaan, and so when they speak flattering words and seem harmless, Joshua and the Israelites make a hasty covenant with these Gibeonites (Joshua 9:4-15). After realizing the truth, Joshua asks them why they “deceived” Israel (Joshua 9:22). He uses God's words to the serpent against them, announcing “Cursed are you” (Joshua 9:23), and he relegates them to servants under Israel's foot, debased like a serpent slithering in the dust (Joshua 9:24).26

In the days of the judges, when a Canaanite general named Sisera menaced Israel, a woman named Jael lured him into a false sense of security in her tent and, as he slept, hammered a tent peg through his skull (Judges 4:21). “Most blessed of women,” they sang of her who “crushed his head” like a serpent's head (Judges 5:24-26).27 Later, the Children of Israel demanded a king, so they got a promising young man named Saul (1 Samuel 10:17-27). His first real test of leadership came by a confrontation with the Ammonite king Nahash – 'Serpent' (1 Samuel 11:1-4). So Saul mustered an army, marched to the rescue, and struck at King Serpent's army until salvation was won (1 Samuel 11:8-11). Only once he'd shown himself a true seed of the woman (for now), able to lead Israel in crushing the serpent's head, did they accept him fully as king (1 Samuel 11:15).28

Eventually, as Saul began to take a more serpentine path in life, Samuel anointed a boy named David to one day take his place. And it's no coincidence that, when the Philistines sent their champion to intimidate the Israelites, Goliath was wearing a helmet made of bronze – (the Hebrew word for 'bronze' sounds a lot like 'serpent') – and, literally, a “coat of scales” (1 Samuel 17:5). Goliath was costumed as the seed of the Serpent, so what was David to do as the seed of the woman? Smash a stone square in the giant's head, that's what (1 Samuel 17:49)!29

The prophets promised his descendants that “the nations... shall lick the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth..., and they shall be in fear of you” (Micah 7:17). But even within Israel, “whoever does not practice righteousness” could find themselves numbered among “the children of the devil” (1 John 3:10). Be they Jew or be they Gentile, “the wicked... go astray from birth, speaking lies; they have venom like the venom of a serpent” (Psalm 58:3-4), “plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually; they make their tongue sharp as a serpent's, and under their lips is the venom of asps” (Psalm 140:2-3). No wonder, then, that as Israel grew more and more venomous to each other, more and more serpent-like, Jeremiah heard the verdict: “Behold, I am sending you among serpents..., and they shall bite you, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 8:17).

The rabbis looked back and said that whenever Israel forsook the commandments, the serpent “will aim and bite on his heel and make him ill. For [Israel's] sons, however, there will be a remedy; but for you, O Serpent, there will not be a remedy, since they are to make appeasement in the end, in the days of King Messiah.”30 To bring a climax to this conflict, a woman would bear the Messiah, the One destined for the promise. Until then, Israel – Mother Zion – endured the agony of her combat like labor pangs, “and the Dragon stood before the Woman who was about to give birth, so that, when she bore her child, he might devour it” (Revelation 12:4).

Eve, an undefiled virgin,” they used to say, “conceived the word of the serpent and brought forth disobedience and death.”31 But in answer to that, there's a New Eve in town, a Woman who hears an angelic voice announce to her good tidings that she's conceiving the hope of the world.32 And so “the knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience.”33 We probably don't give Mary nearly enough credit or honor; the Bible she every generation must celebrate the matchless blessing God gave her (Luke 1:48). It was with unstained faith that she carried God in her womb, was tethered by an umbilical cord to the Infinite, the Immortal, the Consuming Fire. It was through her that Mother Zion's birth pangs came to their blessed fruition. If Eve the Disobedient was the “mother of all the living” in a natural sense (Genesis 3:20), Mary who gives birth to the Body of Christ is the new “Mother of All the Living” spiritually. As the New Woman carrying the Promised Seed, she's the woman whom the Serpent most completely hates, and who most abhors him as her enemy, wanting nothing to do with him but to see him destroyed by her Son (Genesis 3:15).34 Her childbearing is curse-breaking, world-saving, all because it brings our Savior to us. It's as the Seed of this woman that Jesus is here to save.

Legend had it that, from the moment the Virgin Mary gave birth, the darkness shuddered in terror and confusion – for, in a moment, “all magic was vanquished, all bondage of evil came to naught, ignorance was destroyed, and the ancient realm was brought to ruin.”35 Looking back on everything that came before, Christians could say that the Serpent had “bit and killed and hindered the steps of humanity until the Seed came who was Mary's Child, who was destined beforehand to trample on [the Serpent's] head.”36 This Child, this Jesus, was born with a mission: “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), whether demonic or human.

And so Jesus “commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27). Famously “he cast out many demons” wherever he went (Mark 1:34). And he enlisted his apostles as officers in that same campaign: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven! Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10:18-19). The demons, seed of the Serpent, were trod down by Jesus. But Jesus was also opposed by those to whom he thundered back: “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good when you are evil?” (Matthew 12:34). “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44). “Serpents, brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?” (Matthew 23:33). The scribes, the Pharisees – they'd become seed of the Serpent, full of devilish venom against the Woman's Seed.37

Ultimately, though, the Seed of the Woman wasn't sent just to live out his enmity with the seed of the Serpent. His fight, in the end, was to be against the Ancient Serpent himself. And it all came down to the moment when he allowed the devil to bite his heel, to lash out with all his venom and fury, to hurl him down to the dust of death from the cross. Little did the Serpent realize that it was in biting Christ this way that his own head would be smashed. At the cross, Christ “disarmed the principalities and powers and put them to open shame by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15). It was a costly victory, since the Son of God, wearing the fragility of our flesh, had to be bitten by everything the devil could muster; but it was the only way for God to make this a truly human victory.38 “On Good Friday,” it's been said, “a holy heel took aim with all the power of heaven.”39 Now are fulfilled the words of Job: “His hand pierced the fleeing serpent” (Job 26:13)! Now are fulfilled the words of Asaph: “You crushed the heads of Leviathan” (Psalm 74:14)! Now is the Serpent trodden down!

But though the Promised Seed has triumphed decisively, the fight isn't over. The Woman has been reborn in him, and her name is Church. Meanwhile, the devil limps along, crippled and enraged: “The Dragon became furious with the Woman and went off to make war on the rest of her seed, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17). Someone being baptized into the Church would declare: “I renounce you, Satan, and all your works, and all your pomp, and all your worship!”40 In saying that, every person baptized into Christ, abandoning the Serpent to become the seed of the Church, pledged enmity against the Serpent and all his seed. One Christian said this about the Church as the Mother of Christians: “Do you not see these weapons, unconquerable and unbreakable, with which she shatters and removes the head of the serpent? I am speaking of the cross, the body, the blood of Jesus, and the vows, prayers, vigils, and other weapons that fight against the serpent.... Here is evidence of the God-given hatred this pious woman has gained against the serpent: she removes the idols..., she raises the churches, and the nations acknowledge God.”41

Still we have demons to resist by our resolute faithfulness to God; still we have demons to cast out in our Lord Jesus' name. Still we have false teachers to beware, for until the end, “some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1), “who do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ but their own belly, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” even now (Romans 16:18). “Satan, through his works of wickedness, has driven some from the Church and formed heresies and schisms.”42 “May a hatred of the serpent be granted you that, as they lie in wait for your heel, you may crush their head.”43

Still, too, we have persecutors and critics. Given that the seed of the Serpent on earth oppose the cause of Christ, we should expect to feel a sharp nipping at our heels if we're truly the brothers and sisters of our Master. Be sure you're not the one cozying up to the devil, of course! “Let none of you suffer as... an evildoer” (1 Peter 4:15). But “rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13). Rejoice when they hiss derogatory things, when they coil around and squeeze your life tight, when they spit venom, when they bite, “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). “Do not repay evil for evil..., but, on the contrary, bless” (1 Peter 3:9). Pray for those who imitate the Serpent, that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). It's through prayer and blessing and good news and the outpouring of love – only through these – that we can crush what the Serpent has done in them.

Ultimately, in having chosen to tempt us, chosen to pick a fight with God through us, the Serpent did so much more harm to himself than he's done to us. We have a promise: “The God of Peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Even now, “when you gather frequently as a congregation, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and his destructive force is vanquished by the harmony of your faith.”44 And so “if you turn to the Lord with your whole heart and do righteousness..., you will be empowered to rule over the works of the devil. Do not fear the devil's threat at all, for he is as weak as a tendon on a corpse.”45

Already we bear witness that “the Dragon, that Ancient Serpent who is Devil and the Satan,” is “thrown into the pit... so that he might not deceive the nations any longer” (Revelation 20:2). “Just as it was decreed against the serpent that he and all his seed were to be trod upon, so it was also decreed against him who was in the serpent that he go to the fire together with all his hosts,”46 into “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). And so at last “the devil who had deceived them [will be] thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur,” to “be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).

And thus, by Jesus the Woman's Conquering Seed, “God destroys both the Serpent and those angels and humans who have come to resemble the Serpent; but frees from death those who repent of their sins and believe in Christ.”47 That's what God, in a veiled way, announces in advance here in the Bible's third chapter, amidst all these curses – indeed, before we hear a word of our punishment, we hear the protevangelium, the first gospel! The war may be long and hard and costly, but evil will run out! Evil will be beaten! Evil will get its head caved in and be done away with, and the death-blow to the Serpent's head has already been dealt by Christ crucified and risen! And because of him, humanity – all those who, in the end, prove to be the Woman's seed – will live to trample down the ruins of evil, thanks to Jesus Christ the Serpent-Smasher! Thanks be to God! Amen.