November 21, 2013

The Imperative Comes First

Category: Theology :: Permalink

As many people have pointed out, in Christian ethics, the indicative precedes the imperative. First God says, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” and then he gives the Ten Words (“You shall have no other gods before me…”).  First Paul tells us what Christ has done and who we are in Christ, and then he summons us to act accordingly.  First comes the good news of what God has done for us and then comes the summons to respond in faith and love and new obedience.

But when we look at the very beginning of Scripture, what we discover is that the imperative came first.  God creates the heavens and the earth, and then the first word God speaks is a command: “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3).  Now, that’s not the first word in the Bible — first comes the narration, the story of God creating the heavens and the earth, and the description of the earth at the time of creation — but it is the first word recorded that God spoke with regard to that creation.  He creates the world.  It’s dark, unstructured, and unpopulated, and the Spirit is hovering over the deep.  The narrative reminds us that there’s always an indicative implicit in and before the imperative, so that the imperative assumes and develops a personal relationship between commander and commanded, so that the imperative is never mere imperative but rather is a vocation.  Nevertheless, in terms of God’s speech in history, the imperative comes first, and surely that’s significant.

With regard to man, something similar is the case.  In Genesis 2, which develops and expands the account of Day Six in Genesis 1, we learn that when Yahweh God placed Adam in the Garden, he spoke to him: “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.”  Here, the first thing Yahweh God says is indicative (“Of every tree of the garden you may eat”), but it’s an indicative indicating permission (as opposed to a mere statement) and is tied to the next clause in the sentence, which is an imperative disguised as an indicative: “you will not eat” is indicative in form but imperative in force, meaning “don’t eat.”  So the permission given in the first clause also shares something of that imperatival character.  Again, there is a lot of implicit indicative here, including the personal relationship of Adam to Yahweh God who is his creator and the commander.  But the first thing Yahweh God says to Adam has the force of a permission and a command with regard to the trees, something imperatival in force.

Returning to Genesis 1, we find that God’s work with creation takes the form of a series of imperatives, moving through the days of creation up to the sixth day, when man is created, male and female.  While the events in Genesis 2 take place first, before the creation of the woman, in Genesis 1 the first word of God to the pair, to man as the image of God, male and female, again takes the form of an imperative.  God’s first word to Man (male and female) is not a description of creation, not a presentation of all of God’s goodness, not a report about how God made man in his image, not a promise of what God would do for Adam and Woman.  Instead, it’s a command.  Sure, it’s a blessing, but it’s a blessing in the imperative: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28).  Only after that does he go on, in the indicative, to say that he has given man the green plants and the trees for food (1:29).  The first thing Adam and Woman heard from God was an imperative, and surely that’s significant.

In fact, we can go back before the creation of man to the first word God spoke, and again it is an imperative: “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3).  That’s not the first word in the Bible — first comes the narration, the story of God creating the heavens and the earth, and the description of the earth at the time of creation — but it is the first word recorded that God spoke with regard to that creation.  He creates the world.  It’s dark, unstructured, and unpopulated, and the Spirit is hovering over the deep.  But then comes the imperative and things begin to change (“And there was light”).  Again, the imperative comes first, and surely that’s significant.

What does an imperative do?  Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s observations are helpful here: 

The imperative not only commands the listener; it at the same time lights up an alley of time into the future.  A trail into time is beaten by the logic of any order given.  A high tension current places the moments following the order under the expectation: will this command be followed up and fulfilled?  The term “fulfillment” used in this connection is significant.  By the imperative, time is formed into a cup, still empty but formed for the special purpose of being filled with the content demanded by the order.  The action following the order is not a blind accident of the moment.  By having been ordered, it has become organized into one “time span” which stretches from the moment in which the order was given to the moment in which the report is echoed back: “order fulfilled.” Orders connect two separated human beings into one time span, of which the imperative forms the expectation, the report the fulfillment (The Origin of Speech, 46-47).

When God speaks to man for the first time and uses the imperative instead of the indicative, he is creating what Rosenstock-Huessy calls a “time cup.”  There is now a dramatic tension in the story: Will Adam and Woman obey God?  Will they be fruitful and multiply?  Will they have dominion over the animals?  What will they do in response to God and to his commanding word?  His order now orders their lives, revealing to them their calling, their responsibility, their relation to God and to the world– revealing how they are to use and order time.

The imperative creates the story that follows: by creating the expectation and setting the standards for judgment, it makes the story that follows what it is.  Without the imperative, it would just be a story of God creating man and then man doing, well, whatever he felt like.  There would be no tension, no expectation, no hope, no sense of satisfaction at a job completed, no disappointment in failure and rebellion, and no corresponding joy at redemption and restoration — by which I mean: restoration to the original task and calling, the calling of maturation, fruitfulness, multiplication, and dominion.

But there was an imperative, an expectation, an impetus forward, creating the story.  It’s a story in which, in an important sense, the indicative does precede the imperative: God takes the initiative (as he does even in the Creation narrative) and man responds; God acts on our behalf so that we then can and do respond to him in trust and obedience.  In all imperatives, there’s at least an implicit indicative that underlies it, as I’ve said above.  But what makes it a story is that it’s a time cup, an imperative-created expectation awaiting fulfillment.  We still look forward to man’s fulfilling of the mandate given in Genesis 1 (and so does God), with the joyful certainty because of Christ (here’s the all-important indicative!) that it will be fulfilled.  In fact, even the imperative that was God’s first word in his creation (“Let there be light”) has not yet been fulfilled to the fullest extent, and all of history — and all of our lives — are meant to be aspects of that fulfillment until the earth is full of God’s glorious light.

History — the history of the world, and our history — is a time cup, formed by God’s imperatives.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:38 pm | Discuss (1)