I just received my monthly newsletter from Biblical Horizons, the ministry of theologian James B. Jordan. Jordan is a typologist and – while believing some funky things – is viewed by a number of people as an insightful interpreter.
One of his big claims is that when God killed the animal in the Garden and clothed Adam and Eve with the skins (Gen. 3:21), this was a foreshadowing of Israel’s sacrificial system, of course presumed to be penal substitutionary in nature. He’s not the only one to make this claim, but he puts a lot of weight on this reading of the passage. In the mail this month came a lengthy defense of this reading, which I found to be rather specious.
The first observation I make is that we’re not required to take this interpretation. That is, the text doesn’t require this reading and nothing is endangered by deciding that we don’t agree with it.
But let’s start with noting what the text itself says: “Yahweh God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them,” (Gen. 3:21). This is all the information the text itself gives us. After the fall, God killed an animal and gave the skins to Adam and Eve to replace the garments of leaves they had made for themselves.
That’s everything the text communicates, but efforts have been made by Jordan and others to fit this passage into a penal substitutionary atonement paradigm. Jordan explains the connection in this way:
God killed an animal and from it provided tunics for Adam and Eve. (“Skin” is singular, which at least implies only one animal for both tunics.) God had said that in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit they would die, and they did in the sense that the human race lived under the shadow of death until the resurrection of Jesus. God taught them that this half-life was possible because a substitute dies in their place.
I think this goes far beyond what we can say is the meaning of this action by God. It certainly is not the obvious meaning of the passage when looked at in the context of Genesis 2-3. There’s no reason that I’m aware to see the promise of death as anything other than physical death which was commuted by by God out of his forgiveness and mercy. The “dying you will die” is often taken by evangelicals to mean they did not die physically on that day, but they died spiritually. But the clearest reading of the passage is simply that God said, “If you eat of it, you will die that very day,” and then decided not to enforce His promise of the death penalty. Likewise, the curse of Genesis 3 can be interpreted either descriptively or prescriptively – that is, it can be understood to be a description of what is going to happen because Adam and Eve are enslaved to the Satan, or as a proscriptive curse which God puts upon them. The proscriptive is the side many evangelicals have embraced, and would make a substitutionary act in v. 21 more reasonable. But there aren’t really many compelling reasons to understand the curse prescriptively. The only two parts of the curse imposed by God is the enmity between the woman and the Serpent and the increase in travail during childbirth (Gen. 3:15-16).
So to say that God “taught them” that their life was spared because of a substitute that died in their place is to go far beyond the intended meaning of the text. The text simply indicates that God provided for them. He sent them out of His Garden-Presence, yes, but this was an act of mercy. What this passage teaches Adam and Eve is that no matter what they do, their loving and merciful Father will provide for their needs. This same mercy and provision is seen when God not only refuses to kill Cain for murder, but actively protects him from retaliation (Gen. 4:10-16). And Jesus frames this same mercy as the central characteristic of the Father as well: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matt. 5:45). “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” (Luke 6:35-36).
Jordan then says,
Only skin made from an animal’s death would be enough to make a wall between humanity and the wrath of their father.
It is at this point that the logic of Jordan’s essay starts coming apart, because this simply is not true. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Heb. 10:4). Far from being able to put up a wall (or covering, or cleansing or whatever term you’d like to apply to it) between humanity and the wrath of God, an animal’s death actually did nothing of the sort at all. We see this example in the very next story in Genesis. Cain kills Abel, a sin which (according to the penal substitutionary view) must require the blood of a substitutionary atonement is simply forgiven without any sacrifice at all. God does not need blood in order to remain in communion with humanity. The idea that God would run away from sin and brokenness is the attitude of Cain himself: “I will be hidden from your presence,” (Gen. 4:14). God’s answer is surprising under the penal view: “Not so!” (Gen. 4:15). God will not abandon the sinful.
Moreover, the making of the animal skins in Genesis 3:21 does not even match with the sacrificial system which penal substitution has developed. The PSA paradigm states that only the blood of a substitute can cleanse sin and restore us to fellowship with God. Jordan acknowledges this himself: the animal death here is “offered as a way to restore broken communion with God.” Under the sacrificial system this permitted the Israelite to come back into God’s presence in the Temple-Tabernacle. And, as Jordan has repeatedly pointed out, the Garden functions as a proto-Temple. Being clothed in the skins means that “Adam and Eve are allowed to begin again as priests.”
But if sacrifice restores communion and recommissions as priests, then why were Adam and Eve not permitted to re-enter the Garden? If they were indeed priests serving in the Garden-Temple, and their sin exiled them from serving in this way, and sacrifices restores them to that service, then they should have been free to reenter the Garden. But they aren’t. They’re sent away. To my mind this casts doubt upon the whole interpretive enterprise.
To recap, 1) the interpretation is not required, 2) it depends upon the penal substitutionary atonement paradigm, and 3) it doesn’t even fit the facts according to adherents’ own system. This indicates the whole business has overcomplicated a beautiful statement about God’s mercy and compassion and provision of those who have broken fellowship with Him.