Telling Our Story – The Story of Genesis (RJS)

Last week David Opderbeck posted some thoughts on A “Historical” Adam? on the BioLogos blog Science and the Sacred.

The second paragraph of his post puts forth a concern of many:

My concerns are theological. Significant parts of the Christian Tradition have always taught that human beings are incapable of not sinning; that this incapability is a form of corruption and not an inherent human weakness that can be overcome by merely human effort; and that this corruption was passed on organically from Adam to his descendants. If we elide any historical Adam and any “real” mechanism for the transmission of original sin, this raises some important difficulties for many Christians. In the recent past, this move has often led to Pelagian views of human nature, and then to merely existentialist views of Christian faith that cease to be meaningfully “Christian.” In addition, whatever approach one takes to the question of Biblical “inerrancy,” it seems to many Christians, including myself, that the Biblical narrative is difficult to hold together without a “real” primal event of sin by humanity’s progenitors.

David continues on in the post to give a plausible view containing a historical Adam – not a single pair – but a unique Adam within a larger community. After all, he suggests, “Biblical genealogy  … primarily concerns spiritual-representative relationships.” Israel is descended from Abraham and Sarah – but not Abraham and Sarah alone. Can we all be descendants of Adam and Eve – but not Adam and Eve alone?

The scenario David considers is an interesting one – and one I consider to be possible. In shorter form I have made similar suggestions in the past. But the post, and especially the opening paragraph gave a twist to my thinking about the story of Genesis.

What is the point of the story of Genesis 3? Is it a story that explains the corruption of humanity from that point forward? In other words – is this the story of Original Sin?

I would like to put forward an observation and open a discussion.

The idea of Original Sin is wide spread, but not universal, in the church. Peter Bouteneff, in his book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives argues that the western view of original sin is not found in the early church Fathers. The reading of Genesis did not include this view of corruption introduced by Adam’s sin. The Augustinian view is not found in the Eastern church.

Genesis is our story – the story of beginnings. It is first and foremost a story of God’s interaction with his people created in his image. Genesis 3-11, and in fact the entire Old Testament, is in essence a story of failure after failure. God is faithful – humans are not. Sin has consequences.  Adam and Eve are placed in a garden in a covenant with God – and they fail. In Genesis 4 Cain fails and he is cursed from the ground. In Genesis 6 everyone has failed – except Noah. In Genesis 11 mankind fails. The cycle continues throughout the Old Testament. No one in the OT ever blames Adam — or posits connection to Adam for sin — all it does is blame humans for sins, for failure to maintain faith with God.

I agree with David – human beings are incapable of not sinning and this is not an inherent human weakness that can be overcome by merely human effort. But does scripture really teach that it is a form of corruption brought about by the sin of Adam? After all, the sin of Adam and Eve was not the first sin. They didn’t get the bright idea on their own – they were tempted. The serpent had already fallen and evil was already in God’s creation – a creation he declared “very good.” If we follow Revelation and see the serpent as Satan – well Satan had already fallen. It is also worth noting that all snakes were cursed for the role of the snake in Genesis 3. The physical snake is considered culpable – and his earthly offspring bore the consequence. The story gives no indication that this was a “demon possession” without responsibility. With respect to the topic of this post it brings me to an important question.

Could Adam and Eve have remained in a state of innocence? Could they, by human effort, have not sinned?

I suggest not – and that Jesus Christ was part of the story from the beginning. We tell the story starting not with Adam but with Jesus in line with John 1.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. … And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The story of the New Testament – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – is a story of God’s action breaking the cycle of human inability. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves – what no created sentient being could do for themselves – and breaks the cycle of failure. As Paul, said, For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. How this works out – and there is more to it than a one line sentence can relate – is worth much discussion.

What do you think?

If you wish you may contact me at rjs4mail[at]

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  • “Could Adam and Eve have remained in a state of innocence? Could they, by human effort, have not sinned?
    I suggest not.”
    If this is the case, then God created human beings imperfectly, and, if so, they cannot be justly punished for acting the way God created them. Therefore, there is no such thing as “the fall,” and no possibility of redemption/restoration since there was never a time when human beings had the ability to be sinless.

  • JoanieD

    “The story of the New Testament – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – is a story of God’s action breaking the cycle of human inability. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves – what no created sentient being could do for themselves – and breaks the cycle of failure.”
    I like this post very much, RJS, and give a hearty “Amen” to the quotation from you above.

  • RJS

    I don’t think the argument that God then created “imperfectly” makes any sense. The fall was not unexpected – and didn’t require introduction of a contingency plan. Any argument that fall = imperfect creation is a problem whether Adam and Eve “could” have remained faithful or not. Nor does an inability to remain faithful mitigate guilt – or we would bear only corporate guilt not personal guilt as fallen humans.
    Any way around we need redemption and restoration, corporately and individually – and this was always part of God’s perfect plan.

  • John Byron

    You make a good an important observation when you note that God declared creation good, yet evil already existed and was present in the world (cosmos?). I think we have defined “paradise” as an absence of evil, temptation, pain and sorrow. But the narrator of Genesis 3 (whether historical or allegorcial) seems quite confortable with the idea of both existing without contradicting one another.

  • Your Name

    How would it impact our understanding of Gen 3 if we put a header above it that read as follows:
    “This man, this father, hated it when he had to discipline his son. He hated it because he loved his child so much. And he could tell that his boy, now leaning, cuddling into his Father’s side after being punished, was sincerely repentent for the thing he had done. The love between parent and child was palpable.
    “Now the boy looked up to him and said ‘Papa, I didn’t mean to disobey you. Tell me that story again…why is it that even if we want to be good, somehow we end up being naughty? Why is it like that in the world God made?'”
    The Father smiled at his son and said…
    (insert Genesis 3 here)

  • I know the Gilgamesh Epic has elements that parallel the fall story. I wonder if understanding what significance that story played within the epic and in what ways the Genesis story differs would enlighten us? Has anyone studied this?

  • Russell Roberts

    I have a profoundly mentally retarded son who is incapable of sinning. Is he guilty?
    If not, explain why using something taught in the Bible, not some sort of invented doctrine to get around the implications of the doctrine of original sin (which is not taught in the Bible by the way).

  • MarkP

    It’s sometimes pointed out that the mechanism of evolution is primarily about the survival of a particular configuration of genetic material and those most closely related to it — so, evolution only works if we want to survive (and help our most closely related family members to survive) and reproduce. This understanding of the mechanism of evolution always occurs to me when I hear Jesus say things like “Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends” or “who are my mother and my brother and my sister? those who do the will of God” or his words about people who have become “eunuchs for the Kingdom of God” — all of which are profoundly anti-evolutionary ideas. Maybe the “selfish gene” is a good stand-in for Original Sin. It’s passed along from generation to generation through sexual congress, and it’s a force against which much of Jesus’ teaching seems to be directed.
    Of course, this suggests there never was a “pre-lapsarian” state, but maybe the stories of Genesis could be seen as a vision (one which makes no sense from within the evolutionary paradigm) from beyond the evolutionary system — from God, in a Word, in whose Image we were created.

  • MarkP

    ‘Maybe the “selfish gene” is a good stand-in for Original Sin.’
    Sorry, what I meant here is not the gene itself, but the centrality of survival and reproduction to our genetic programming — the “mechanism” that allows evolution to work.

  • While I’m not an adherent to Reformed theology, it’s hard to get around the idea that sin really did enter the human sphere of life in Genesis 3 and spread like a virus to every human after this event, even without appealing to Romans 1-5 (which teaches this fact explicitly, and which I’m surprised was not mentioned in the article above at all).
    The ‘mechanism’ for how sin was transmitted may be debated, but the reality of human in beginning with the first humans should be pretty clear. And even trying to find a mechanism for its transmission starts to get one away from the text because when Sin is first mentioned in the Bible, it is described as an animate entity “crouching at the door” of Cain and it “desires” him. Sin is more than just wrong or bad behavior. It’s an enslaving captor that Jesus came to deliver all of Adam’s descendants from.

  • RJS

    Interesting thoughts. Romans 5 plays into the discussion of course, but it is not clear that Romans 5 teaches the kind of corruption that is often taught in a doctrine of “Original Sin.”
    The reality of Sin and beginning from the beginning is clear in scripture. So is guilt – both corporate and individual.

  • Brianmpei

    It seems to me that if we say that we were created by God – whether through a process of evolution or special creation – with an inability to choose Him over ourselves we create serious problems. Free will is illustrated by the choice. Once the first choice was made for us and against God it opened a door in creation that, as caretakers/stewards/image-bearers, we could have kept closed. Sin, a corrupting, enslaving force enters the world and taints creation from the DNA up.
    Genesis 3 tells the story of free-will exercised against God and all the fruit that comes of it. The rest of Genesis unpacks it. The Greek version is Pandora’s Jar.

  • RJS

    An inability to choose Him over ourselves creates problems – but there are problems with any scenario.
    Suppose Adam and Eve had not fallen – would their offspring have been capable or incapable of sin? Incapable makes no sense. Capable would mean eventually someone would fall (Satan wasn’t likely to take defeat lightly). Would we then have a mix of fallen and unfallen humans?
    Or was this a test? If Adam and Eve had remained faithful we have a leap from creation to what?

  • RJS, Incapable and inevitable are, to me, to different things. Maybe that’s just semantics, I’m not sure. And it’s probably moot since from God’s eternal perspective (apologies to Greg Boyd and Open Theism)he knew the outcome before the creation.
    Still, I think it does matter. Did Jesus live a sinless life because he had a divine edge at the DNA/virgin birth level or because he had a divine edge at the God/man level? What Jesus did seems a sham if he was just God slumming and incapable of sin while we humans are God wannabes incapable of NOT sinning – even in the original design.
    My take would be that the story would’ve picked up with whoever opened the door to sin whenever the door was opened if ever the door was opened.

  • Norm Voss

    Again I want to reiterate that Adam is a picture of Israel just as all the Genesis stories are types regarding Israel including Abraham, through Joseph who is a type of Christ feeding the world. The key is to realize that Adam broke a Covenant and that only occurs within those within relationship with God. Notice that Hosea equates Adam with Israel (by the way Adam does not represent humanity at large here in Hosea because humanity at large is not in covenant with God).
    Hos 6:7 ASV But they (Judah & Israel) LIKE ADAM have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.
    Notice again below the covenant aspect of sin and the reference to thy first father sinning. I don’t believe we are to infer Abraham but Adam as their first father in regards to Sin since Abraham is equated with the Promised Seed.
    Isa 43:22-27 KJV But thou hast not called upon me, …O Israel. … but thou hast made me to serve WITH THY SINS, thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities. (25) I, even I, am HE THAT BLOTTETH OUT THY TRANSGRESSIONS for mine own sake, and WILL NOT REMEMBER THY SINS …
    (27) THY FIRST FATHER HATH SINNED, and thy teachers have transgressed against me.
    Finally at the establishment of the coming Messiah the transgressions and sins will come to an end. This is confirmation that through Christ that it is not a biological removal but a covenant cleansing for those within covenant. This is how we make sense of Rom 5 concerning ALL have sinned and ALL shall be made righteous. We need to understand Paul’s frame of reference instead of ours.
    Dan 9:24 KJV Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to FINISH THE TRANSGRESSION, and TO MAKE AN END OF SINS, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.

  • RJS

    The role of Jesus is profound to consider. Fully God and fully man is hard to fathom and hard to understand. I don’t think either fully man resisting temptation or fully God providing a substitute seems to describe the whole situation.
    But “sham” is a rather prejudicial phrase.
    How do you interpret Philippians 2 (Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.) or Colossians 1:13-20? These are key passages in my opinion.

  • Numerous Hebrew Bible scholars have demonstrated that Genesis 3, in its original context, had nothing to do with a “fall” as conceived by later Christian theologians. This is a theological interpretation read back into the text by later Christian readers.
    For a perfectly valid Christian reading of Genesis 3 that doesn’t rely on a historical Adam, check out Paul Tillich. These are mythic stories that describe the reality of the human condition with no need for historical grounding.

  • Travis Greene

    The comments weren’t working yesterday, so I hope you’ll all take it as read that I tried to post something brilliant and insightful.
    All I have today however, is the observations that I don’t think we can know, nor is the Bible interested in addressing hypothetical questions about whether Adam & Eve could have avoided sinning. Since we’re speculating, I would have to say that Jesus’ passing the test in the wilderness and in Gethsemane indicates they (whoever “they” were) could have, otherwise the Incarnation is a trick.
    Similarly, I’ve never seen the need to speculate about mechanisms of original sin, or posit some kind of physical genetic transferral. We are social beings. Once one of us sinned, we were all claimed, regardless of specific parentage. So I have no problem with the idea of an “Adam” as representative head, in the sense that his sin lead to the ruin of all, without being a literal progenitor of the entire race.

  • Brianmpei

    RJS, what I intended to say with my comment was that if Jesus’ sinlessness was something only he was capable of because of his nature then it’s unreasonable for God to hold any of us sons of adam or daughters of eve responsible for our actions.
    Part of the power of what Jesus did is found in Hebrews 2 “16 We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters,[h] so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.”
    Not much of a test if he couldn’t fail, not much of a test if we couldn’t pass it.

  • RJS

    But Brian – whether you think Adam was or was not capable of sinlessness, we all agree that we are incapable of sinlessness. Yet we are held accountable for our sins – not just for the corporate sin of Adam. Many believe that this infant in arms will be held accountable for their “nature” independent of any actual action.
    Unless you hold to a universalism, we all believe as Christians that some will be condemned as guilty for a nature they could not control – were absolutely incapable of controlling.
    Why is it important that Adam could theoretically have kept the covenant?

  • RJS

    By the way – I don’t mean to single you out. I would really like to know what people think about these issues and why.
    The captcha snafu was frustrating – because I think it stopped what could have been a good conversation on this post.
    (New system now working is better than the old system though.)

  • Travis Greene

    “Unless you hold to a universalism, we all believe as Christians that some will be condemned as guilty for a nature they could not control – were absolutely incapable of controlling.”
    Do we? Even setting universalism (a valid option, imho) aside, that’s not quite how I would describe it.

  • Norm Voss

    How do you reconcile Paul’s treatment in Rom 2?
    Rom 2:12 ESV For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

  • Brad

    Norm #23,
    Does Romans 2:12 address the question of whether humans are capable of controlling their sin nature? I assumed from his question in #22 that Brian was addressing the “we all agree that we are incapable of sinlessnes” part of RJS’s previous argument. If so, are we revisiting the debate between Augustine and Pelagius?

  • RJS

    How would you put it?
    I, at least, am not intending to revisit the debate between Augustine and Pelagius. But I am intending to question some of Augustine’s arguments and positions.

  • dopderbeck

    Great post. While it’s true that the particularly Augustinian view of original sin may not have been present in the early Church fathers, there always was a sense that “sin” was a form of “corruption” that spread from Adam to the rest of humanity. A good example: Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.
    Athanasius says human beings were created by God “after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own word.” Even though humans were “by nature mortal,” they were capable of immortality because the “likeness” of God would “stay [their] natural corruption.” But men turned away from God and thereby “became the cause of their own corruption in death. . . .” The effect of man’s rebellion was a sort of feedback loop of corruption: “the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution.”
    So, however we suss this out, to preserve the integrity of the Christian story I think we need to be very careful to see sin as a “corruption” of “true” humanity. Not only the satisfaction and penal substitution views of the atonement, but also the Christus Victor and recapitulation models, are linked to this view of sin as a “unnatural” corruption.

  • Norm Voss

    My question was to gather more clarity from Travis to see how he developed his position.
    The sin nature seems pretty straightforward as outlined by Paul here in Romans but I’m always open to a better insight into Paul’s application.

  • Norm & RJS,
    I guess my problem is with the phrasing “condemned as guilty”. That’s thinking in purely legal terms, which are among the scriptural images, but not the only or even most prevalent. Admitting my biases, I am probably an annihilationist (who believes God’s kingdom is opt-out, not opt-in), which I guess is a kind of soft universalism. But the idea of God condemning people for what they cannot control does not sit well with me. Yes, I am aware there are passages which say, or seem to say, just this. But the overwhelming witness of Scripture is that we have a choice.
    I’m not sure a sin nature is what Paul is getting at in that verse, Norm. He’s talking about those who sin, which is everybody, whether under or apart from the law. I take no issue with the claim that we all bear the scar of sin, as long as we also remember we also all bear God’s fingerprints of creation.

  • Norm Voss

    Travis thanks for the reply.
    I believe what Paul is laying the ground work for is an idea concerned with those who are attempting to appropriate relationship with God under their own efforts or means (those still enamored with the Law of works). The principal is laid in this section that the only way for either Greek or Jew to approach God is through Christ. When the Gentiles do so they are coming outside the law and their means of coming through Christ is a “law unto themselves” as they do not come through the established Law as the Jews have. It does not infer that somehow the Gentiles developed their own natural Law which sustains them in lieu of Christ.
    The sin nature in context is exposed only when attempting to reconcile their own Godliness. This is verified later in Romans when Paul says that when the Law came I died (spiritually).
    Rom 7:9-10 ESV I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
    Sin is a covenant and not a biological manifestation in Paul’s view and Israel being the old covenant church is being transformed into the new covenant church and the Gentiles are added as new branches to the root of Christ. Unfortunately Paul also details that those Jews rejecting Christ will be removed from God’s presence by becoming branches cut off. Those Gentiles that are not interested in God are irrelevant to Paul’s discussion except to be noted that they will perish without benefit as part of God’s people.
    One other note to make is that through faith in Christ we are baptized into His Spirit which indwells us and there is no sin therein.

  • RJS

    Isn’t the message that we have a choice to follow God or not, but also that everyone who chooses to follow will at times fail? There is no indication in the Genesis story that Adam and Eve walked away from God permanently. Nor did David – who failed miserably as times. Or Moses.
    We will break covenant – and are powerless to keep the covenant perfectly. This is the point I was trying to make. The inability is a kind of inherent corruption. Even Paul noted that he did not do what he wanted to do.

  • RJS,
    Yes, I agree. Maybe this was a semantic disagreement. But if we think of it as corruption, or illness, and God as a doctor who offers medicine, which some of us decline, if we die, it’s not because the doctor condemns us. I realize these are all metaphors, which each have their limitations.
    Interesting idea that sin is a covenant. I suppose it is, after its fashion. Maybe more of an anti-covenant.

  • Norm Voss

    The Jews viewed the Gentiles as Sin personified in their separate corporate existence. The purpose of the covenant with God was to lift those faithful to God in covenant out of the darkness and chaos of the Gentile sin world. Due to the weakness of the fleshly nature to sustain this initial arrangement the Jews/Israel under the headship of Adam existed until Christ in a fallen Covenant existence in which the “sin” reanimated itself. That is the nature of Paul’s discussion in Romans 7 which is a communal (body of Israel) application with individual ramifications for those within the collective faithful. This is why in Daniel the prophecy is made that “Sin” will be ended or sealed up at the time of the Messiah. This “sin” is a covenant/Israel embodiment that pertains to the weakness of the Old Covenant system, thus the reason for its end and replacement through the New Covenant.
    Dan 9:24 ESV “Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to FINISH THE TRANSGRESSION, TO PUT AN END TO SIN, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.
    This is also followed up in Dan 12 with the recognition that Israel will be raised/lifted corporately as a body faithful out of this mortal existence into the new Spiritual existence.
    Dan 12:1 “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince WHO HAS CHARGE OF YOUR PEOPLE. … But AT THAT TIME YOUR PEOPLE SHALL BE DELIVERED, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. (2) And many of THOSE WHO SLEEP IN THE DUST OF THE EARTH shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. …7 …”HOW LONG SHALL IT BE TILL THE END of these wonders?” … that when THE SHATTERING OF THE POWER OF THE HOLY PEOPLE comes to an end all these things would be finished.
    However in Romans 9 we see that Paul starts defining who true Israel really is and points to Abraham and the children of the promise as the offspring and not the biological offspring and we see further on that the faithful Gentiles are added into this Root of Israel. (Rom 11:17)
    There is no “sin” for those in Christ Jesus because the mode of existence under a new headship in the covenant of God has been addressed and changed. It was always the plan from the beginning for men to enter into covenant with God and escape the natural world of sin which puts men outside of God. Notice that Paul considered the Gentiles lost and without God and were formerly the epitome of “Darkness” the very position that God created covenant men out of in the beginning. It just took a while for the plan to unfold to completion.
    Eph 2:12 ESV remember THAT YOU were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, HAVING NO HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD IN THE WORLD.
    Eph 2:3 ESV among whom WE ALL ONCE LIVED in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were BY NATURE CHILDREN OF WRATH, like the REST OF MANKIND.
    Eph 5:8 ESV for at one time YOU WERE DARKNESS, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light
    In 1 Cor 15 Paul deals again with this in more detail in which he explains Israel’s existence through the prism of Adam’s Body and their rise to Life or immortality through the Body of Christ the second Adam.
    1Co 15:45 ESV Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became A LIFE-GIVING SPIRIT. …
    47 The first man was from the earth, A MAN OF DUST; the second man is FROM HEAVEN. (48) As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. …
    53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this MORTAL BODY MUST PUT ON IMMORTALITY.
    Hope this little synopsis helps.

  • Melanie Stephan

    Adam and Eve are representatives for all of us. God is telling us two stories with the words of one. The following is my interpretation of the story about Adam and Eve. And this story is about the present not the past. I start at Genesis 2:17

    Gen 2 : 17 But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.”

    Trees don’t grow knowledge so I know God is talking in symbols. Knowledge comes from Books. Books are made from the pulp of trees. So the Tree is a Book. A Tree is a metaphor for a Book. This book has knowledge of good and bad. The Book is the Bible. The Bible contains the knowledge of good and bad. Besides I took this verse right out of the Bible. You can’t eat from a book and gain knowledge, but you can digest a book . As in Readers Digest. You are taking the words in, like food. God says, you will positively die. The Book has poison in it. The poison is the fruit on the tree.
    What is the fruit on the tree that we must not eat? Or, What is the fruit in the New Testament? We know that a Cross is also a Tree and Jesus was nailed to the tree. The fruit from the Bible is Jesus.

    The Tree bears Jesus