|Sunset at Montmajour, Vincent Van Gogh|
Same as it ever was . . .
Same as it ever was . . .
- Once in a Lifetime, by Talking Heads
Fall, or Folly? (4): As It Was in the Beginning . . .
November 13, 2014
This has been an interesting week for me at Internet Monk. As I’ve studied, thought, conversed, and prayed my way through these posts, I’ve gained a new clarity in my understanding about what the early chapters of Genesis are trying to communicate. Ever since my days in seminary, when Dr. John Sailhamer blew my mind with perspectives on Genesis that I had never conceived of, much less considered, I’ve come back to these chapters over and over again. As I have, I’ve been particularly impressed with how so many western Christian traditional views of Genesis are divorced from the original Jewish nature and perspective of the text.
For example, the concept of “the fall,” not just of Adam and Eve, but of the whole human race through them, is one of those aspects of Christian teaching, particularly in the Augustinian tradition, that I find hard to square with the actual stories we read in the Hebrew Bible.
Many Christians have this notion that the day they sampled fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the world underwent a dramatic change. Before that moment, all was not only “good,” not only “very good,” but pristine, perfect. Adam and Eve were the only humans in the world. They were perfect and immortal. Animals were not predators or carnivorous. There was no pain or death or disease. No such thing as a natural disaster had ever taken place.
One bite, and the previously sanitary and fragrant solid waste hit the fan.
|Memory of the Garden at Etten, Vincent Van Gogh|
The very nature of human beings changed. Not only did Adam and Eve cover up and hide and make excuses, but at that very moment, seven deadly impulses began coursing through human veins. The hospitable natural world around them — in an instant — became fraught with dangerous conditions and creatures. Tigers grew teeth and big birds morphed into vultures. People began to age (although slowly at first — look at the ages in Genesis 5!). They developed sniffles and headaches and diseases because bacteria and viruses (which apparently before that had either been non-existent or beneficent) became hostile. Accidents started occurring — a broken limb here, a bloodied brow there. No one had ever known fear before or a whole host of other emotions which protect the human psyche. Nature began its never-ending cycle of death and rebirth through the changing seasons. Previously lush landscapes started turning arid. Trees fell. Fruit rotted on the ground. Naked vegetarians whittled spears and knives and began hunting for their supper and new wardrobes. For the first time, tears. Arguments broke out where never a cross word had been spoken. The first grave was dug. The first poet sat under a tree and in her melancholy asked, “What’s it all about?”
This absolute transformation of humans, animals, plants, nature, and the entire cosmos began to happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” when Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit. People fell from the heights of immortality and perfection to the depths of depravity (at least in their hearts). Nature doubled over and groaned as the birth pangs commenced.
If that is anything like what happened in Adam and Eve’s “fall,” then their story is of extremely limited interest to me. It is a relic that merely informs me about something that happened long ago (and something rather inconceivable I might add) to two people with whom I have little in common.
That’s not how the Jewish people have read this story. Nor is it how many Christians, particularly those in the Eastern Church, have read it.
Broadly, they have read it as a story of wisdom, as an exemplary tale given first to Israel and then to the world.
We, all of us, are Adam and Eve. We are brought into the world not as perfect people, nor as depraved sinners because of some inherited sin nature which makes us totally corrupt. We are born simple. That is, human beings are personally, morally, and spiritually unformed, naïve, and susceptible to temptation and making bad choices. We are children who need to grow up. It is our duty to trust God and gain his saving, transforming wisdom, which “is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (Prov. 3:18).
Someone will ask, “Are you saying then, that people naturally have the potential to make the right choices and lead sinless lives?
I will answer: No. I believe in the universal sinfulness of humanity. No person who has ever lived, save Jesus, has been free from sin. No baby born from this day on will be without sin. The simple will always fall short. The simple will blow it regularly and often. The simple cannot avoid all the pitfalls life throws at him. The simple will invariably succumb to some temptation, fail some test, transgress some boundary.
On the other hand, sometimes kids amaze us with “wisdom beyond their years.” The image of God we bear is also visible in human experience. I’ve always been attracted to Scot McKnight’s description of people as “cracked Eikons” (“eikon” being the Greek word for “image”). Beauty and brokenness. Foolishness and wisdom. Good choices as well as bad. Responsibility as well as recklessness or rebellion.
If the point of the Adam and Eve story was that they inaugurated an entirely new situation in human experience, that they were transformed through their act into hopeless sinners and began passing that on to their children so that all people are born without any ability or capacity to do what is right or to engage in behavior pleasing to God and good for their neighbors, then why did the Jews not pick this up? Why does the Hebrew Bible continually call them to pursue wisdom and do what is right? Why does the Pentateuch, which begins with the story of Adam and Eve, end with Moses using words from that very story to tell the people that they should avoid the poor decision their ancestors made and choose the way of life instead?
For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor
is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven
for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond
the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us
hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in
your heart, that you may observe it.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity [good], and death and adversity [evil];
in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep
His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply,
and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it.
- Deuteronomy 30:11-16
Adam and Eve teach us that every human being is on this road from simplicity to wisdom, from being unformed to mature, from naïve to discerning. The full Christian answer to our human condition involves turning from our own ways to becoming united with God by his grace through faith in Christ and engaging in the process that the Eastern Church calls "theosis" - in which Christ becomes fully formed in us as “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1Cor. 1:30).
|Thistles, Van Gogh|
What about the creation? Did the very world we live in, the very cosmos that houses us, undergo a dramatic transformation from “paradise” to “nature red in tooth and claw”? Yesterday, one of our commenters asked about Romans 8:18ff:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with
the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly
for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly,
but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free
from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we
know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.
- Romans 8:18-22
The question is whether this passage supports the common interpretation that nature itself was transformed by the “curse” that God announced after Adam and Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:14-19). Although it is common for some interpreters to link this text with Genesis 3, it is by no means a universally accepted position. For example, C. John Collins, who sets forth fairly conservative interpretations of the Genesis narratives in his book, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary, doesn’t think this interpretation holds up.
He notes that there are no explicit allusions to Genesis 3 here. There may be allusions to other OT texts, such as the word “futility,” which looks back to Ecclesiastes. Collins observes that the key term in Romans is “decay” (Gk. psthora), translated in some versions as “corruption.” The passage that uses this term in the Greek OT is Genesis 6, which describes the world’s condition in the days of Noah. Collins draws out the implications of this:
Seen this way, the creation is “in bondage to decay,” not because of changes in the way it
works but because of the “decay” (or “corruption”) of mankind, and in response to man’s
“decay” God “brings decay to” (or “destroys) the earth to chastise man. The creation is
“subjected to futility” because it has sinful mankind in it, and thus it is the arena in which
mankind expresses its sin and experiences God’s judgments. No wonder it “waits with eager
longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” for then the sons of God will be perfect in
holiness, and sin will be no more. Paul here sees the resurrection of the sons of God as a
blessing not only for themselves but also for the whole creation. (p. 184)
Human sinfulness definitely has effects on the world and creation as a whole. However, I don’t think Scripture supports the notion that the world changed in its very nature or workings in the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s transgression.
We, and this world we live in, have always been mixed bags. As it was in the beginning, it is now and will be until the day Christ makes all things new. Until then:
The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom;
And with all your acquiring, get understanding.