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Obedience to God: Man's Ending Destination

By Jason Paul Jones


Obedience is the act of dutiful and submissive compliance. To reach the crux of this
concept, it helps to examine obedience in three different forms: to men, to parents,
and to God. Today, the concept of obedience to men can have a negative connotation,
as it conjures images of submissive slaves bowing to and heeding the every beck and
call of their masters. Similarly, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the Jim Crow
Laws of the American South forced Blacks to remain inferior to whites, and an
obedient black at this time was derided as an "Uncle Tom." The word is ominous for
others because it is associated with totalitarianism. Psychiatrist James A. C. Brown
asserts that "communism and fascism or Nazism, although poles apart in their
intellectual content, are similar in this, that both have emotional appeal to the type of
personality that takes pleasure...in submitting to superior authority." Along the same
line, men hesitate to view obedience favorably because the concept implies that an
obedient man is lacking inner strength. F. Scott Fitzgerald argues that "either you
thinkor else others have to think for you and take power from you.
The world does agree, however, that obedience has at least one positive side. The
texts of the three Abrahamic religions demand that children obey their parents. The
Fifth Commandment states that children should "honor their father and mother."
Ephesians 6:1 takes the commandment a step further by saying that children should
"obey their parents in the Lord: for it is right." Similarly, Surah 29:8 asserts that
obedience to one's parents is ideal, but "if they [parents] strive to make thee join with
Me that of which thou hast no knowledge, then obey them not." In these latter two
verses then, a child's obedience to his or her parents is required provided the parents'
commands are not repugnant to God's Word.
The aforementioned descriptions of obedience to men and to parents, whether they
portray the concepts positively or negatively, share one thing; each depicts obedience
as a means by which you reach an end. They show that men do see obedience as a
way to get somewhere or to attain something. For example, slaves in the Southern
states and Germans who lived under the Nazi regime willingly submitted to the
authority of a superior party. Also, even the most disgruntled worker obeys his boss so
that he can keep his job. Finally, a son initially does not touch the fire because he is
obeying his father. With age, he understands that if he touches the fire, the heat will
burn his flesh. While obedience in his younger years has the immediate effect of
preventing injury, heeding his father's word helps him to develop the virtue of self
control, which then lays the foundation for his maturity.
While obedience to God can bring material blessings, worldly prosperity, and eternal
reward, men obey because disobedience can equal death; a discussion of the Fall of
Adam can extend this message. His fall from the grace of God has many implications
for mankind. A careful study of the narrative reveals three interrelated ways that
obedience to God is different than it is to man. First, it is God's will that one is able to
disobey so that men are able to not only know the true implications of their
disobedience but also of their obedience. Second, Adam disobeyed and became
mortal, and for this reason, disobedience can mean death. Third, Adam and Eve's
determination to live again and thus to return to obedience indicates that obeying God
is something for which all men must strive regardless of their circumstances. This is
perhaps the most important theme of the narrative, for while they were the first
humans, their message to today's man is not how to begin living, but how to begin
living again. A combination of the previous three points presents obedience to God as
a destination rather than a means to an end. The wisdom that Adam and Eve acquired
after disobeying reveals that disobedience is perhaps a means to understanding the
value of obedience. Finally, from Adam and Eve the lesson was transmitted to Cain
and Abel and then to all of mankind, as it is a dominant theme of both the Qur'an and
the New Testament.
The Bible devotes only four chapters to describing Adam's life, which consist of a few
facts, a few encounters with God, an adventure with Eve, and then exile. By Genesis
2:15, God has granted the Garden of Eden to Adam. The human is not native to the
land, but God puts him there to serve him in the garden and to keep it. God tells him
to prosper, to reproduce and fill the earth, and to take charge. He gives man
responsibility for "the fish in the sea and the birds in the air, for every living thing that
moves on the face of the earth" (Genesis 1:27-28). Then God says, "I've given you
every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth and every fruit-bearing tree, given them to
you for food. To all animals and all birds, everything that moves and breathes, I give
whatever grows out of the ground for you (Genesis 1:29-30).
Later, God returns with a command, but His command is different from what
normally constitutes a command in that His language implies freedom, not only
restriction. God commands the man, "You can eat from any tree in the garden, except
from the Tree-of-Knowledge of Good-and-Evil. Do not eat from it" (Genesis 2:16). In
regard to this passage, theologians Kessler and Deurloo refer readers to the Ten
Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, in which God says "I am YHWH, your God,
who led you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." In other words "you are free
and (now after receiving my commandments) you may live in that freedom" (Kessler
45). Kessler and Deurloo assert that the following negatively formulated Ten
Commandments only exist to protect humankind in the freedom that He granted.
Coming back to the Adam and Eve narrative, the commandment that Adam is given in
Genesis is a gracious grant, which implies "you may!" The prohibition is given to
protect all that the human is allowed to do (Kessler 45).
To illustrate the significance of the commandment, Kessler and Deurloo use a familiar
verse from Deuteronomy: "See I place before you today life and the good, death and
evil...choose life that you may live...to love YHWH, your God, to hear his voice and
cleave to him, for that is your life..." (Deuteronomy 30:11-20). "Life and the good"
are the fruits from all the trees that Adam is allowed to eat. "Death and evil" is the
fruit from the Tree-of-Knowledge of Good-and-Evil. God's command that Adam "eat
from any tree in the garden" means that he is completely free. Obeying God's
command and not eating from the Tree ("to hear his voice and cleave to him") ensures
the continuance of this complete freedom. Adam lives under the protection of this
commandment (Kessler 46).
Commenting on Genesis, John Calvin provides further elaboration and helps to
explain why the Tree-of-knowledge was prohibited. Concerning the Tree of Good and
Evil, Calvin holds that it is prohibited to man not because God would "have him stray
like a sheep, without judgment and without choice." Instead the prohibition serves to
prevent man from relying on his own understanding, casting off the yoke of God, and
constituting himself judge of good and evil. God alone, in His infiniteness, is capable
of totally grasping the concept of good and evil. In abstaining from the tree of
knowledge of good and evil, Adam is free to live because he is not burdened by the
limitations of his finite mind. He does not rely on his own prudence but instead
cleaves to God alone (Calvin 118).
As the narrative continues, readers can grasp the implications of Adam and Eve's
disobedience to God. By linking his nakedness with his fear, Adam's response to
God's questioning indicates that his exposure raises a barrier between himself and
God (Gelander 30). In his book Messengers of God, Elie Wiesel uses midrash to
show that God chases them from paradise, and at first, the consequences of their
disobedience are merely physical. Later, the spiritual ramifications become apparent.
They no longer radiate light, and they discover the meaning of anguish and fear.
Before, Adam stands proudly erect as he listens to God, but now he tries to escape His
voice. In his midrash, Wiesel asserts that Adam and Eve see death everywhere. They
fear the sunrise because it had the potential to burn and cause pain. The sunset is
feared too because they interpret it as a sign that the end is drawing near. So, from the
beginning of the day to the end, the two live in fear (Wiesel 25, 26).
Shamai Gelander argues that despite the break between man and the Deity, God
continued to play the role of the "good creator." God's response to Adam should not
be understood as a pronouncement of divine punishment but as representing God's
guidance. Here God foretells of a woman's pain at childbirth and condemns a man to
hard work against the forces of nature. Gelander, however, says that God's response
"bespeaks reconciliation rather than anger or disappointment," and points to the
portrayal of God clothing Adam and his wife with garments that He makes (Gelander
30, 31). In other words, God is saying "yes, all these things are a result of your
disobedience, but I will provide in spite of them."
Thus far, the Adam and Eve narrative shows that the ultimate implication for Adam's
disobedience is that there is now a barrier between man and God. Also, it shows how
God manifests divine goodness by demonstrating His preference for free will with
regard to man's obedience to Him (Gelander 30, 31). Adam benefits from his ability to
disobey: only through the consequences of disobedience can Adam comprehend that
obedience equals life. Accordingly, men have the freedom to choose between good
and bad. While there is no longer a perfect bond between God and man, God's
clothing the couple can be seen as an indication that He will continue to care for
mankind despite any disobedience.
Fortunately, the Genesis narrative does not end with the exile. While one is permitted
to see only a tiny glimpse of what Adam and Eve experienced outside of the Garden,
this perspective is crucial. Wiesel argues that Adam and Eve show the world the
meaning of starting anew. His interpretation of Adam's story is "The Mystery of the
Beginning." Wiesel begins by pointing to a Talmudic passage that tells us that no man
resembles another, yet all men at every age resemble Adam. However, we possess one
thing that Adam does notmemories torn from yesterday's world. To correct for this
unfairness, God allows Adam to see mankind in its totality. Accordingly mankind is
destined to imitate him, and he is destined to teach mankind. Wiesel says "we are as
he was," and "we behave according to his example." Adam's image will be in men to
the last of his descendents (Wiesel 5, 6).
In his life outside of Eden, he becomes real, and because he is rejected by God, he
draws closer to Eve. The couple grows intimate with each other and has children.
Suddenly, they discover a purpose to their existence: to perfect the world. They find
an ideal location to raise their family and build a house on their shattered existence
(Wiesel 28). Eve is responsible for tending to the house and the food while Adam toils
to cultivate the fields and fends off the wild animals. Both, remembering the joy in
Eden that came in their complete obedience to God, condition their children to live
life in complete submission to Him.
In the book of Genesis, however, one learns of the feud between Adam's sons, in
which Cain, in a rage of jealousy, kills Abel. God punish Cain severely for his
disobedience. Still, Genesis 4:15 once again shows God as the "good creator" when
He puts a mark on Cain's head so that no one who meets him will kill him. God is
once again providing for the disobedient. Cain then is able to follow his parents'
example. Having received his parents' love and affection and having heard their
stories of the perfection in the Garden of Eden, Cain understands that obedience is
essential. And while man will inevitably stray, perfecting the world requires
communicating not only the ramifications of disobedience but also revealing that
God's guidance can help him start anew.
Disobedience is inherent in man's fate. Adam and Eve are able to use their experience
to communicate the lesson of starting anew to their children. They communicate by
deed and word. The Qur'an says "I have not created the ginn and the men but that they
should know Me and worship Me" (LI: 56). Mirza Ghulam Ahmad interprets this to
mean that the essence of man's life is to acquire a true knowledge of God and to
become obedient and resigned to His will so that whatever is said and done is for His
sake only. Ahmad interprets that man has no choice in this matter, and he
accomplishes total obedience and resignation by seven means; first, in the recognition
of God a man should tread upon the right path and have his faith in the true and living
God (Ahmad 149). A man should also be informed of the perfect beauty that the
Divine Being possesses. In addition, one should strive to realize the great goodness of
God. One should additionally call upon Allah in prayer, and Allah will assist him.
One should seek God by spending one's riches, exerting one's whole power,
sacrificing one's life, and applying one's wisdom in the way of God. A man should be
indefatigable and untiring in the way that he walks. He should not be deterred even in
the hardest trials. Finally, a man should imitate the righteous (Ahmad 152, 153, 156).
Altogether, these concepts demand that a man give over his entire self to the path of
God. The necessity of being undeterred in even the hardest trial acknowledges that our
inherent tendency to disobey is a part of everyday life. Perhaps Adam is the righteous
example for men to look to in starting again after succumbing to this tendency. It is
only after being disobedient that Adam and Eve realize that obedience to God is the
right path. Before then, they do not know that other paths exist. Moreover, Adam
could not have appreciated the beauty of the Divine Being without seeing the ugliness
of something that is separated from that beauty.
The second passage is John 7:17. Here Jesus is teaching in the temple courts, and the
religious scholars ask him how he knows so much without having a proper theological
training. Jesus responds to them, "My teaching is not of my own. It comes from him
who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my
teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." Though Christ taught
before the Qur'an, their message is similar. The scholars are shocked at the truth found
in Jesus's teachings; Jesus is saying that the essence of true life comes through
obedience. If anyone comes from disobedience to a life of obedience, he will discover
for himself what it means to live in truth.
It is evident then that obedience to God is the essence of living; it is the end that men
struggle to reach. Adam and Eve discover this only after eating from the Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil and only because of God's gift of free will. Wiesel's
Midrash helps one to understand the Adam and Eve's actions after the fall. They do
not wallow in self-denial. They have courage and began anew with the help of God.
Their lesson is transmitted to their sons. Cain disobeys and starts over under Gods
protecting hand. This theme resonates in both the New Testament and the Qur'an, as
the authors of these texts recognize the life that comes only through obedience. These
scriptures show that obedience is not easy. If it were, there would be no need for so
much emphasis in scripture. However, it is the end for which one must strive.