Genes, Genome and Genesis

One of the fundamental goals of genetic research is to understand who we are and how we can enhance and extend human life. Can an ancient text offer insight in this scientific quest?

What bearing could the first book of the Bible possibly have on the information explosion about our genes and chromosomes—the genome?

Genesis comes from the by now familiar-sounding Greek root genes (“born”). But many dismiss the Genesis account on the assumption that the advances of science and the theory of evolution have now safely consigned it, and the rest of the Bible, to the realm of fiction and mythology. After all, what relevance can the outpourings of an apparently rudimentary and insignificant race struggling for identity and survival—or of its God for that matter—have on us as we are carried forward on the wave of immense advances in scientific and biological knowledge?

Genesis was so named because it describes a beginning, but it was not written as a scientific treatise. It is far more concerned with life in the future—in all of its physical, moral, spiritual and, yes, eternal ramifications—than it is with a past act of creation.

If we will give it due regard, Genesis provides some otherwise unobtainable information about our origins that no amount of probing into the genome will ever deliver. How did we get to where we are now? Why is our complex and confusing society as it is—with such great potential to deliver that which is wondrous and magnificent, yet burdened with so much unnecessary pain, suffering and downright evil?

According to the Bible, it’s all because of a fateful decision made by our earliest ancestors. Unfortunately, early ideas about the serpent and the fruit that was eaten (probably not an apple), as well as negative associations with sex, have done us no favors in terms of understanding the real implications of this narrative. If we can set aside the many assumptions and misconceptions that are deeply rooted in Western culture, we may begin to understand the beginnings of what is truly the central drama that has been played out on the stage of human history ever since.

Every Tree But One

Genesis states: “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:8–9). God gave the man a simple instruction, accompanied by a warning: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (verses 16–17).

The trees were symbolic of a choice the man and the woman were going to have to make. 

What did these two trees look like? We don’t know, except that the account tells us the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “pleasant” to the eyes. The word translated “knowledge” implies experiential knowledge—having to do with awareness and intelligence. What is important is that the trees were symbolic of a choice the man and the woman were going to have to make.

Satan, here in the guise of a serpent, appeared on the scene and cunningly appealed to the woman’s ego. He told her the first recorded lie: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of [the tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4–5).

It was flattering bait—to know what God knows, to be able to determine for oneself, to be in control. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate” (verse 6).

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (verse 7). Of course, there was absolutely nothing wrong or shameful about their nakedness or sexuality. It was how they now saw it that was the problem. Eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had changed their thinking. They were now beginning to see things from the mixed perspective of evil intent and use as well as the potential for good. So they were ashamed of their nakedness, became fearful of God, and hid themselves (verse 10). As a result of their sin, Adam and Eve died, and humankind was cut off from access to that other tree, the tree of life.

God’s reason for cutting humanity off from the tree of life is very illuminating: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken” (verses 22–23, emphasis added throughout).

Adam and Eve took to themselves some of the prerogatives of God—powers they were not equipped to handle. And their decision to disobey God set humanity on the course it has been traveling ever since.

Sinking to New Heights

Adam and Eve’s descendants multiplied rapidly, and after about 2,000 years they reached a critical low point of utter evil and depravity. “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Genesis 6:5–6). This was the reason God gave for sending the flood and reducing the human population to just eight.

Over time, civilization began to reestablish itself. Sadly, however, people quickly reached the point where their ideas about how to do things were again diametrically opposed to God’s: “Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. . . . And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth’”(Genesis 11:1–4). This may have seemed like a unifying and worthy project, but it was in direct defiance of God’s instruction regarding the colonization of the whole earth (Genesis 9:1).

The account in Genesis 11 goes on to say that “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ‘Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (verses 5–9).

A number of fascinating insights about God’s perspectives on humanity are bound up in these few verses. Genesis unequivocally states that it was God who directly caused the original linguistic barriers between the races. He had a number of reasons for doing this: first, to fulfill His purpose for humans to populate the whole earth; second, by implication, to slow the acceleration of knowledge—especially, it seems, of the scientific, developmental kind.

This raises the interesting question of where God saw this would lead. Quite apparently, if He had believed that humanity’s power to do anything it proposed was for the common benefit, He would not have intervened.

While allowing humanity to continue discovering and creating—going its own way—God was working patiently on His own plan. He now moved to raise up a nation through the genetic descendants of one couple, Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is often considered, narrowly, as merely the father of the modern-day Jews. In fact, he fathered the much larger 12-tribed nation of Israel (the tribe of Judah, from which the word Jews is derived, was just one of the 12), as well as certain Arab nations. And God’s intention was far loftier than to bestow mere national blessings or to raise up a national religion. He certainly promised Abraham great blessings for his descendants. But He also had in mind—through a direct descendant of Abraham—the ultimate reconciliation of all humanity to Himself (Genesis 22:18).

Spiritual Continuum

What does all of this have to do with where we stand today, with immense advances in scientific and biological knowledge opening up a whole new world of opportunities for us?

The answer is, a great deal. Science and material progress are seen as the means by which humans will perpetuate and improve their existence. Scientific discovery now instantaneously crosses the borders of nations and languages. The common use of internationally understood scientific symbols, the English language as today’s lingua franca, the awesome calculating speed of computers, and the possibility of instant communication via the Internet, together add a slingshot effect to the accelerating speed of advancement.

Yet in all of this, humanity as a whole is making the same choices that it made back in those first recorded days of its existence. The issues that sprang from the decision to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil won’t go away. With the acceleration of scientific understanding and capacity, the implications of those two early observations by God (“behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil,” and “this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them”) are receiving all the magnification of an electron microscope.

Metaphorically, we also reach longingly toward that other tree, the tree of life. But we are doing it in the same fashion as those who began the tower of Babel back in the mists of our earliest recorded history. God is not involved or acknowledged; in fact, He is most decidedly unwelcome at the victory party of scientific and biological advancement.

True religion is not antiscience, neither is true science antireligion. 

Lest these words be misunderstood, we should state clearly that true religion is not antiscience. Neither is true science antireligion. But as we begin to understand the chemistry of life as never before, two disconcerting things are apparent.

First, when we should at least reflect on the awesome complexity and design of the human species, there is generally a deafening silence regarding even the possibility of a creator.

Second, and as a corollary to the first point, there is a dangerous moral vacuum regarding the use of newly emerging information. Every invention or discovery in human history so far has had its troubling side. Seemingly unanswerable moral questions have arisen in matters ranging from the splitting of atoms to the splicing of genes.

Laws for Life

We have not been left without moral instruction, however. As God began to deal with humanity after those early years of Genesis, He consistently taught rules of behavior that were ultimately codified into a set of laws that had the Ten Commandments at their core. His purpose was entirely loving. He wanted humankind to flourish and prosper but knew that they could not do this without guidance.

As God began developing a nation, He reminded them that there was no life apart from His benevolence: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing,” He said; “therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:19–20). As this new nation embarked on a new life, in new circumstances, God wanted the people to be equipped for happiness and longevity. But life and death were choices—choices between two ways of doing things.

Sadly, in their day the nations of Israel and Judah strove to find prosperity, peace and happiness apart from God and His way—and they failed miserably. The application of the experiential knowledge of good and evil, as opposed to the way of life revealed by God, proved to be a poisoned chalice. The painful moral and national descent of Israel and Judah is recorded in much of the rest of the Old Testament.

God had foreseen this, and His plan moved into its next stage, to be played out on a completely different level. Through the descendants of that same nation, the promised Messiah came offering life—as God had offered it to their forefathers. But this time it was on an individual, selective basis, transcending the boundaries of race and nation.

Perhaps if there is any one verse in the Bible that even nonreligious people are familiar with, it is this one: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Here was a truly staggering concept: God’s Son would freely give His own life in order to reconnect humanity with the opportunity to eat from the tree of life.

Here was a truly staggering concept: God’s Son would freely give His own life in order to reconnect humanity with the opportunity to eat from the tree of life.

There are numerous pointers to the sacrifice of a Messiah throughout the Hebrew Scriptures—even very graphic descriptions of the kind of death and humiliation He would suffer, such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. But the first indication of that hope of salvation was given much earlier—in Genesis—at the very time when humanity was cut off from the tree of life: “And I [God] will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed [Christ]; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” [predicting the crucifixion] (Genesis 3:15). The translators knew who “her Seed” (her descendant) was to be, which is why they capitalized that word.

The Hope and the Fear

Today we are understandably fascinated as humankind’s genetic “book of life” becomes accessible to research by science. Undoubtedly, stunning discoveries lie ahead in the field of genetics as in others. Indeed, God’s prognosis—“now nothing they propose to do will be withheld from them”—increasingly characterizes our age.

Who cannot share the hope for cures and perhaps prevention of painful and debilitating diseases? For more effective treatment of injuries? For safer and more effective vaccines and medicines?

On a wider front, we humans hope that a greater understanding of how our environment works and of the underlying principles of nature will deliver great bonuses in the conservation of resources and the reduction of pollution.

But the voices of concern about opening Pandora’s box should be considered too. What if something goes horribly wrong, either by a deliberate act of aggression or through a mistake in a laboratory or production plant? Will someone somewhere take an overconfident step too far into the unknown and unleash a biological nightmare? Mistakes, after all, do happen.

Like Genesis, Revelation—the final book of the Bible—is much concerned with the giving of life and the tree of life. But Revelation has received a lot of bad press because it doesn’t depict humans working out some rosy future by dint of their great progress and ingenuity. Rather, it paints a sobering scenario of humanity reaching a point of no return, ravaged by diseases, wars, famines and ecological disasters.

The essential message of Revelation, however, is that humankind will not end up being utterly destroyed: an ultimate doomsday scenario will not occur. Humanity will be delivered—in spite of its best efforts, not because of them.

The essential message of Revelation is that humankind will not end up being utterly destroyed. 

God has not forgotten the need for healing in His plan for humankind. It involves making that tree of life available at last to everyone (Revelation 22:2). But each person, on an individual basis, must learn the lesson that our forefathers, with very few exceptions, refused to assimilate. Before we have access to that tree of life, we must learn at last to do it God’s way: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14).

A Tale of Two Choices

The Bible makes it plain, from cover to cover, that when human experience is boiled down to its fundamentals, there are really only two ways of living.

One is symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—going our own way, experiencing the mixed results of human progress with God firmly sidelined.

The other is symbolized by the tree of life. The Bible frankly states that only a few choose this way (Matthew 7:14). To choose this tree we must make a decision that is different from—in fact, opposite to—the one our early ancestors made. We must, in the words of God to Israel, “choose life.”

The apostle Paul set out the two alternatives plainly: “For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (Galatians 6:8). Life, in God’s terms, is a choice we make ourselves, not an option we hope will be given to us by science before we die of an illness or, inevitably, of old age.

Genesis, which records the two alternatives God placed before humanity, holds the key.

God has, in different ways and at different times, continued to patiently hold out the real answer to human ills. All of the great scientific and material advances notwithstanding, each one of us will die. Reading the human book of life—the genome—cannot, in fact, deliver life. At best, it can only extend it.

Perhaps it’s time to look at that other Book—and choose life.