Obedience to God: Man's Ending Destination

Number 2.1       
July 2009      


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 think—or 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 not—memories 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 God’s 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.



Ahmad, Mirza G. The Teachings of Islam. Delhi: M. C. Mittal, 1978.

Gelander, Shamai. The Good Creator: Literature and Theology in Genesis 1-11. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997.

John King M.A. Calvin, John. Genesis. The Banner of Truth Trust. Carlisle      Pennsylvania.

Kessler, Martin and Karel Deurloo. A Commentary on Genesis. New York: Paulist Press,2004.

Wiesel, Elie. Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1976.