A Biblical Theology of Judgment and Mercy: The Fall

salvationThe interplay of judgment and mercy in the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin sets the tone not simply for our understanding of God but for our reading of all the salvation motif across the cannon. Salvation comes through judgment. Both are present, both are essential to the character of God, and yet they are more than just about God’s holiness and love. This interplay is about our salvation. Judgment and mercy mix here in Genesis to create a paradigm for salvation reiterated across the Scriptures.

Most of us know the account of the Fall. We know of Adam and Eve’s rejection of God and their eating of the forbidden fruit at the tempting of the serpent. God’s response reveals how seriously he takes their sin. He pronounces judgment on all involved. So, the man will labor for his livelihood, the woman will have pain in childbearing, and all men will return to the dust of the earth. Furthermore, they will be removed from the Garden and the intimate presence of the Lord. But only the serpent is completely condemned. He will crawl on his belly, lick the dust of the earth, and ultimately be crushed. While man and woman receive judgement, God does not completely condemn them. They receive mercy too.

Mercy abounds in the text of Genesis 3. Despite being told that they must die, God gives them life too. In giving judgment on woman’s childbearing he also promises that they will have children. Life will continue. They will not immediately die, and the human race itself will continue to move forward. Adam even names Eve “mother of all living” (v. 20). Furthermore, though the land will rebel against its master it will still produce fruit. In addition God covers their shame with clothing from a sacrifice, and promises one day an end to their enemy. We read the beautiful text of the protoevangelium, where God curses the serpent nad predicts its destruction:

“Because you have done this,
    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.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.”

In this first gospel message we see the combination of judgment and mercy so clearly depicted. God judges sin and yet promises victory. The serpent’s head will be crushed.

This theme becomes a motif for discussing salvation in other parts of scripture too. So, in Numbers 24:17 we read of salvation in the language of a “crushed head”:

I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
    and break down all the sons of Sheth.

In Isaiah the enemies of God’s people will “lick the dust” of the ground:

Kings shall be your foster fathers,
    and their queens your nursing mothers.
With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you,
    and lick the dust of your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord;
    those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.” (Isa. 49:23)

In Zechariah 10:5 the language of “trampling under foot” is used to describe salvation:

Kings shall be your foster fathers,
    and their queens your nursing mothers.
With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you,
    and lick the dust of your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord;
    those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.”

In each case the paradigm of the serpents crushed head is utilized to describe God’s salvation of His people. These are just some of the places where this theme is picked up. Jim Hamilton very helpfully cataloged the uses of this motif across the canon.Imagery from Genesis

 

Notice the broad range of references to this initial motif. The Law, the writings, the prophets all point to the original interplay between judgment and mercy. This judgment becomes a thematic descriptor of God’s saving work.

Salvation comes through judgment, and even in judgment there is mercy. The Fall sets the stage for this interplay. God is both just and merciful. He displays such character in salvation across the redemptive story of the Scriptures. What started in the Garden carries all the way forward to the cross, where wrath and mercy meet.

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