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The book of Genesis has multiple instances of God applying medicinal punishment on humanity. Many of God’s punishments are considered medicinal because the aim of the punishments is not for God to simply get his frustration out on the people but rather it is an attempt by God to apply justice in a way that helps human beings become better.
One example of medicinal punishment is God’s reaction to Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:6-7) which God forbade them to the fruit of (Genesis 2:17). By eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and by disobeying God’s commandments, Adam and Eve brought disorder into the ‘system’ of the world.
In response to their disobedience, God imposes punishments on Adam and Eve. For Eve, God “intensified [the] toil of childbearing” and he established an inequality between genders where Eve’s “urge shall be for [her] husband, and he shall rule over [her]” (Genesis 3:16). For Adam, God cursed the ground, forced Adam to have to work the land in order to eat, and eventually face death where he shall “return to the ground, from which [he was] taken” (Genesis 3:17-18).
On their face, these punishments appear to be harsh and certainly not the actions of a good God. However, on further examination, one comes to realize that these punishments are, in reality, a call from God to humanity to work to correct disorder. In increasing the pain of childbearing, humans are called to develop medicine and techniques to lessen the pain and counter it. In cursing the land, humans are called to develop agriculture techniques and give order to a way of farming. In having Adam and Eve face and endure disorder, God teaches them the pain and cost of disorder while at the same time calling them to be part of the solution and not the problem. God is like the good parent that desires that his children know what is good and what the value of good is. God punishes them so that humanity is motivated to bring order to the world and not to bring more disorder into it.
Another example of medicinal punishment is God banning Cain from the ground and forcing him to be a wanderer after him murdering his brother Abel. God said to Abel,
“Your brothers blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are banned from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the ground, it shall no longer give you its produce. You shall become a constant wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:10-12)
God’s punishment against Cain for murdering his brother seems to be a death sentence when Cain says, “My punishment is too great to bear…Anyone may kill me at sight” (Genesis 4:13-14). But God “put a mark on Cain so that no one would kill him at sight” (Genesis 4:15).
In putting a mark on Cain and protecting him, God makes clear that he still cares for Cain’s wellbeing. If God wanted to apply ‘eye for eye’ or ‘tooth for tooth’ justice, God would have simply let Cain be killed. But God cares for Cain and the punishment is a reflection of that care. God desires that Cain ‘learn his lesson’ and specifically, learn the value of life. God blighting agriculture is God once again demonstrating the cost of causing disorder in the world. In this case, the murder of another human being, one of the most severe forms of creating disorder, creates a ripple effect to other living things. The ground, which soaked in the murdered blood of Abel, is also affected. Just as Abel lost his life, the blood-soaked ground lost its capacity to bring forth life. Through Cain’s punishment God calls humanity, specifically Cain, to relearn the value of life and the cost of its loss.
In reading the Old Testament and comparing it to the way God is portrayed in contemporary Christian literature, it seems as if the portrays of the divine in the Old Testament don’t fit with our understanding of God today. However, when the deeper meaning and motivation underlying the text is revealed it becomes clear that there is a common idea linking the Old and New Testament: God calling and challenging humanity to become a better version of itself; to learn the value of God’s work and values. When humanity is blind and believes that which is evil is good, like a good parent God comes to teach humanity a lesson—not out of malice and anger, but out of love and care. God wishes us to understand the pain of disorder so that we can join him in bringing order to the world.
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