Paradise Lost or Outgrown? Genesis 3, Original Blessing, and Original Responsibility

1 Now the serpent said to the woman, “Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Note: This sermon is part of an ongoing series tracing “The Book of J” strand of Genesis.

In many Christian circles, conventional wisdom holds that humans were “cursed” with original sin when — approximately 6,000 years ago — the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, ate the forbidden fruit. The alleged result was the so-called “fall” of humanity from Paradise. There are places in the Apocrypha and in the New Testament that support this view, although a theology of the “Fall” and “Original Sin” did not become dominant until the writings of Augustine in the 4th century, more than three centuries after the life of Jesus and more than a thousand years after the story of Adam and Eve was first recorded. But the original authors and audience of Genesis 3 did not understand the story in this way. Also, neither Judaism nor the Eastern Orthodox strand of Christianity has a tradition of reading Genesis 3 as being about a “Fall from Grace” or about “Original Sin.”

Indeed, although we will not get to the story of Cain and Abel until next week, it is important to note that the Hebrew word for “sin” is not used at all in the first three chapters of Genesis, and eating from the tree is never declared “sinful” in the text. The word “sin” first appears in Genesis 4:7 about the first murder. Many of us in the West have inherited a way of reading the Bible that is heavily influenced by both Augustine and Martin Luther, who imposed their own issues with guilt and sin onto the Bible’s earliest chapters. So, what I want to invite us to experiment with laying aside what we think (or have been taught) that Genesis 3 is about, and closely read for ourselves what the text actually says.

For example, if I asked, “What kind of fruit did Adam and Eve eat?” The most common response would be “an apple.” But look closely: the text talks generically about the “fruit from the tree.” It never specifies the type of fruit. It could’ve been a banana! Or perhaps more likely a pomegranate. But the immediate image in our minds of an apple comes from centuries of religious art depicting the fruit as an apple. This artistic choice, in turn, perhaps came from the linguistic coincidence that the word “evil” in Latin is a homonym for the Latin word for “apple.” Although Genesis 3 was originally written in Hebrew, about the same time that a reading of this text as about Original Sin and the Fall was being popularized, Rome was also conquering the world and establishing Latin as a lingua franca.

In my opinion, which I had inherited from the scholarship of many others, Genesis 3 is a deeply true universal story about the human condition, even though this precise series of events never happened historically. It’s a story about growing up, becoming aware of good and evil, and learning that our actions have consequences. It’s a tale about that instant when the veil of childhood innocence drops away for the first time and we realize our mortality; it’s about that moment in time when we realize that we too are someday going to die.

The story in Genesis 3 has this and so many more universal resonances. The text says that, “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Rabbi Harold Kushner has written about how this story speaks a universal truth of the experience of parents everywhere: “how frustrating it is to be like God, to create something and then give up control of what you have created, to want something to turn out as perfectly as you pictured it in your mind and then see how far short the reality falls from your original intention.”

So we can begin to see these early chapters of Genesis as attempts to explain why the world happens to be in the curious state in which we find it. Genesis 3 seems written to explain questions like, “Why don’t snakes have legs?” “Why are humans afraid of snakes?” “Where did sexuality come from?” “Why do humans wear clothes?” “Why do women have labor pains at childbirth?” “Why do we have to work?” “Why is their good and evil?” and “Why do we have to die?”

If we read the text closely, especially in Hebrew, there are many more subtleties. The Hebrew word for knowledge — as in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” — is yada. That word yada can also be a euphemism for sexual intercourse, such as in Genesis 4:1, “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain….” So this tale in Genesis 3 about biting into the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is also about that transition into puberty, when our bodies come to fruition. At adolescence our bodies thrust us — without our consent — from the innocence of carefree childhood nakedness, running around in a sprinkler in the front yard without any clothes on and without shame, into the carnal knowledge of sexuality. Suddenly our bodies are changing, we’re growing, there is hair sprouting in places we didn’t have hair before, and we become self-aware of our nakedness in a way that we weren’t before. Through this lens of sexual awakening, we can see fresh meaning in this classic story: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew [yada] that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” Genesis 3 is a deeply true coming of age story that happens everywhere, even though this precise series of events never happened historically.

Having called into question the validity of Genesis 3 as legitimizing a theology of “Original Sin” or as describing a historical “Fall from Grace,” I invite you to remember our Advent study of Matthew Fox’ seminal book Original Blessing. Along these lines, interpreters have written about how we can understand Genesis 3 for the twenty-first century:

If we embrace the idea that humans are not originally sinful but rather originally blessed and endowed with the ability to choose good over evil, then how we live our lives must change. We must be held accountable for the wrongs we do. The defense of “I’m only human” never has been an adequate excuse. Rather, when humans choose the evil over the good, the accusation should be: “How could you do this?  After all, you’re human, you’re created in the image of God?”  We must hold ourselves to a high standard, living as those who reflect the Divine in the world.”

These prophetic words are a prime example of how Genesis 3 is a story that continues to be relevant to our lives in the twenty-first century. This reading is a strong example of how we can take the Bible “seriously, but not literally.”

As we continue to move through these early chapters of Genesis, I will be inviting you to consider that the first part of Genesis, specifically chapters 1-11, are myth, not history. They are primeval stories meant to answer questions such as “How was the world created?” “Who were the first humans?” “Why do we live in cities?” and “How did we get so many languages?” And there is deep universal wisdom still to be gleaned from these ancient myths. As biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan likes to joke, starting with the Enlightenment, “We began to think that ancient peoples told dumb, literal stories that we were now smart enough to recognize as such. Not quite. Those ancient people told smart, metaphorical stories that we were now dumb enough to take literally.

Rabbi Harold Kushner in an excellent book How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness has said similarly:

I don’t take the story of the Garden of Eden as a newspaper report of an actual event (although I know that some people do), describing the human race as beginning with two full-grown, Hebrew-speaking adults and a talking snake. But I do believe that the story of the Garden of Eden tells us something profoundly true about the emergence of the human race….  The Garden of Eden is a tale, not of Paradise Lost but of Paradise Outgrown, not of Original Sin but of the birth of consciousness.”

This metaphorical, mythological, and archetypal way of reading the Bible’s earliest chapters is so much more exciting and compelling than more literal approaches. It also makes much more sense than asking question like, “Did Adam have a belly button? or “Where did Mrs. Cain come from?”

In closing, as a way of continuing to experience how these stories can still be sacred stories even if they aren’t historically true, I invite you to listen again to the relevant wisdom these stories still speak:

If we embrace the idea that humans are not originally sinful but rather originally blessed and endowed with the ability to choose good over evil, then how we live our lives must change. We must be held accountable for the wrongs we do. The defense of “I’m only human” never has been an adequate excuse. Rather, when humans choose the evil over the good, the accusation should be: “How could you do this?  After all, you’re human, you’re created in the image of God?”  We must hold ourselves to a high standard, living as those who reflect the Divine in the world.”

 

For Further Study

 

Notes

1 For more on “The Book of J,” see the first sermon in this series, “Preaching “The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible?” Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/preaching-%E2%80%9Cthe-book-of-j%E2%80%9D-are-there-hidden-books-in-the-bible/.

2 “there are places in the Apocrypha and in the New Testament that support this view…of the “Fall” and “Original Sin” — To briefly trace some highlights of this passage’s “reception history,” Sirach 25:24 (c. 180 BCE) says, “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” The apostle Paul (c. 60 CE) wrote in Romans 5:12 that “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” and in Romans 5:18 that, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” 2 Esdras 7:118 (late 1st century, early 2nd century CE) says, “O Adam, what have you done?  For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants.”

3 Neither Judaism nor the Eastern Orthodox strand of Christianity has a tradition of reading Genesis 3 as being about a “Fall from Grace” or about “Original Sin.” — For many Jews, all people are subject both to the evil impulse [yetzer hatov] and to the good impulse [yetzer hara].  We cultivate a tendency toward choosing the good impulse by observing the commandments [mitzvot].

4 “inherited a way of reading the Bible that is heavily influenced by both Augustine and Martin Luther.” — For a landmark study of this influence, see Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), 199-215. For a more contemporary perspective, see Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.

5 “how frustrating it is to be like God” — see Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, 24.

6 The manuscripts from the sermon series on Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality are available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/02/sermon-series-retrospective-matthew-foxs-original-blessing-a-primer-in-creation-spirituality/.

7 interpreters have written about how we can understand Genesis 3 for the twenty-first century — The block quote is from Lisa Davison, “Saved from ‘Original Sin” DisciplesWorld, Vol 3, Issue 5, April 2004, 3-5.

8 “seriously, but not literally” — see Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.

9 John Dominic Crossan, A Long Way from Tipperary : What a Former Monk Discovered in His Search for the Truth, 148.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg
  • Warren Clifton

    I am curious to know if you can explain your agenda in preaching about the J source material as a “hidden” book of the bible as opposed to the E, D, or P source material? Is it that you, as a “Protestant Pastor in a Postmodern World” assume the “Jahwist” biblical text and message is more palatable for Postmodern thinkers?

    A Jahwist reading of Genesis is relatively more attractive to Postmodern thinkers than say a Priestly reading, especially since throughout the J texts God is depicted in anthropomorphic (humanlike) terms. As you say in the first sermon in your series, “God continues to get God’s hands dirty in the business of Creation; and, “In The Book of J, as we will see repeatedly, God is often capricious, makes mistakes, and changes God’s mind.” Given this focus on God as humanlike, I am curious to know if you present a low Christology when discussing New Testament texts.

    I think it is a much easier to convince Postmodernists that Genesis 3 is “a deeply true coming of age story that happens everywhere” or “a story about growing up” or a “story [that] speaks a universal truth of the experience of parents everywhere” than it is to convince your audience that it is an historical account of the original sin of all humankind. Your telling makes the Garden sound like a metaphor for childhood. Childhood, under the watchful eye of a protective parent, is a comfortable, even idyllic, existence. Adam and Eve find out that they are no longer immortal, but bound for death. Who doesn’t remember coming to the realization that we’re not “bulletproof” along the way to maturity? Even the acts of childbearing and physical labor that lay ahead of them at the end the story have become rites of passage from childhood to adulthood. According to Arnold van Gennep, rites of passage have three phases: separation, transition, and reincorporation. In separation, people withdraw from their current status and prepare to move from one place or status to another. In Genesis, Adam and Eve withdraw; in fact, they hide (3:8). The transition (liminal) phase is the period between states and is often called the “threshold” stage. It is interesting to me that a threshold is also called a “reveal.” In this way, reveal can be a noun as well as a verb. In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve’s nakedness is revealed (3:7), so their revelation could be seen as the threshold from childhood to adulthood. Reincorporation is characterized by rituals and ceremonies, and by “outward symbols.” When God makes garments for Adam and Eve to wear (3:21) the rite of passage is complete. An anthropological study that answers the question of why life is the way that it is certainly seems more appealing from a Postmodern perspective than would a conversation of moral absolutes.

    Thank you for tracing this passage’s “reception history,” as a story about the “Fall” and “Original Sin” through the Apocrypha and the New Testament. I understand that Postmodernists gravitate towards inclusive faiths and denounce the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ as being the only way to God, but I also wonder how far we can go as Protestant Preachers before we do harm. According to Kugel, “the New Testament understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection as God’s remedy for the ‘Fall of Man’ depends on such a ‘Fall’ actually having taken place” (57). If I understand correctly, your point of view is that the first murder (Genesis 4:7) was the “Original Sin.” Is that right?

    You say we are not “only human” but rather “human, created in the image of God and called to live in such a way as to reflect the Divine in the world” and “endowed with the ability to choose good over evil” but you never discuss the consequences for not choosing good over evil. Just as your sermon suggests a low Christology (a robust affirmation of Jesus’ humanity but not a preexistent divinity), it suggests a high anthropology (inherent Divine-like goodness or potential for good) of humankind. I am willing to accept that Genesis 3 is just a story about growing up and making good choices, but let’s be careful not erase the problem of sin completely from the biblical text. Otherwise, why did Jesus have to die?

    • Carl Gregg

      Warren, I’m not sure I have the time to adequately address your many concerns in this comment section. I encourage you to scroll down on the right-hand side of my blog to see the various “Categories” of my many other posts, which can lead you to places where I have already addressed most, if not quite all, of your questions. For more on the basic “progressive Christian” perspective from which I am writing, I would recommend, as an accessible starting point, a book such as “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith” by Marcus Borg (http://amzn.to/sM73dP).

      • Warren Clifton

        Thanks for the book recommendation. I have been reading Marcus Borg’s “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.”

  • Diane

    Romans 5:12-21 makes it clear that it was literal sin that entered the world through Adam, and that sin/death DID exist since Adam. Adam is literal, and so is Jesus.

  • Bob Cahill

    Did I see reference to an essay with a title similar to “Budha is the reason I’m Christian” on your site? Can you direct me to it?

    • Carl Gregg

      Gladly. It’s an excellent book that I highly recommend by one of my favorite theologians: “Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian” by Paul F. Knitter. See: http://amzn.to/OjQnVm.

  • http://www.tiffanyjane.tumblr.com Tiffany Taylor

    Hi – I know this post is a bit old now, so I may not get a response but I have a couple questions maybe you could give your opinion on?

    I find this very interesting and a lot of it makes sense and illuminates these writings in new ways for me. My question is, how does the fact that the story says God forbade them from taking the fruit play into this?

    Why would God forbid the inevitable if this is about a coming of age/conscientiousness for us as individuals and/or as a people? It seems the story paints that this movement into consciousness/awareness of good/evil is a movement away from what God wanted (which I’ve never understood personally)

    I understand that the death & leaving the garden aspect of the story doesn’t need to be seen as punitive as much as it is our eyes being opened to the reality of mortality and leaving the garden of innocent ignorance – however I don’t understand the perceived intention of God here to want us to ‘stay in the dark’

    Thoughts?

    • Carl Gregg

      Tiffany, the most interesting contemporary response I’ve seen to the good questions you are asking is “The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion” by Jeffrey J. Kripal (http://amzn.to/JANceV). For more traditional (but still fascinating) responses see “How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now” by James L. Kugel (http://amzn.to/1gfZXrK).

      • http://www.tiffanyjane.tumblr.com Tiffany Taylor

        Thanks for the reply – will check them out :)