something this Protestant learned from a Jew about reading the Bible: a story

TBTMSAs I was working on The Bible Tells Me So, I became conscious on a more present level of the debt I owe Judaism in my own reading of the Bible, a process that began while in graduate school.

One day I was eating lunch with a Jewish classmate who grew up in Israel. We were both in our first year, and somehow the topic turned to the story of Adam and Eve.

Many Christians understand this story’s meaning not only to be quite obvious, but absolutely foundational to the Christian faith. Even the slightest movement one degree to the left or right threatened to shrivel the gospel like cotton candy when it hits your tongue.

Every Christian just “knows” the Adam and Eve story is about the “fall” of humanity from a blissful state of perfection into a state of sin subsequently passed down from parents to children, the root cause of every conceivable ill on earth, from tyranny to taxes to the fine print in your cell phone contract.

So my classmate and I were having lunch talking about this story and I mentioned casually the “fall” of humanity.

“The what?

“The fall of humanity. You know, Adam and Eve’s sin plunged all subsequent humanity into a state of alienation from God.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Really? That’s odd, since it’s so obvious.”

“No it’s not. The story nowhere says what you just said it says.”

“Well then what do you make of Satan tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit….”

“Who?”

“What do you mean ‘who?’”

“Satan? There’s no Satan in the story. There’s a serpent, just a serpent. He’s called the most ‘crafty’ of the creatures that God had put into the garden. He’s a serpent. A crafty creature. That’s what the text says.”

“But the serpent is talking.”

“Because it’s a story.”

It came as a bit of a shock to me that what I thought I “knew” the story of Adam and Eve was about wasn’t really “in” the story itself, but how I had been taught to interpret the story. The dominant Christian reading is rooted in the apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, where Paul seems to place at Adam’s feet (not Eve’s, curiously) the blame for human misery.

Many Christians have understood Paul this way, and by “many” I mean more or less the entire tradition of western Christianity, especially as it has been steered through the influence of Augustine, the fourth century CE Church Father and his rather disastrous reading of Romans 5:12. (You can get the gist of Augustine’s mistake here.)

Augustine concluded that all humanity sinned “in” Adam, and that state of sinfulness was passed on biologically (through sex) to their children (which isTEA why Cain killed Abel), and so on and so on. (See more here.)

This post isn’t about original sin. It’s just happened to be the topic of our lunch conversation. My point here is that my Jewish classmate–who knew his Bible, in Hebrew, backwards and forwards–didn’t get.

Jewish theology doesn’t depend on Augustine (or Paul), and so they read the story differently. Rather than being born in sin because of something Adam did, humanity has an “evil inclination,” meaning humans are, for whatever reason, prone to disobey God.

That’s why Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the first place (before there was a “fall”), Cain followed his father’s pattern, and on and on all the way to story of the Flood, which is where the problem is explained and the reason for the Flood is given: The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. (Gen 6:5)

In the years that followed, I’ve come back to that moment and perceived its importance.

All it took to rock my certainty about what what I “knew” the Bible “says” was one lunch with someone who, like me, was committed to understanding his scripture but who didn’t think like me and took a moment to point out what the Bible says.

It got me thinking: I wonder how much else I think I know about the Bible might be less what I actually read in the Bible and more what I bring to it?

A key factor in my own growth as a Christian is something that wasn’t even on my radar screen during seminary or when I began my doctoral work: hearing Jewish voices talk about their Bible.

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  • Eutychus X

    The lack of reference to Adam’s sin and “the Fall” in the prophets and even in Jesus’ teaching makes one wonder how much Christian hamartiology and soteriology should be based on these ideas. ISTM the Jewish view would present a challenge to Paul and his gospel.

    The same goes for Revelation’s (12:9; 20:2) equating the serpent with Satan. Should Christians continue to do this? I don’t think Jesus ever did. Even Paul’s reference to the serpent in 2 Corinthians 11:3 doesn’t mention Satan.

    • Rick

      “The Jewish view does represent a challenge to Paul…”
      I am not disagreeing with your overall point, but keep in mind that Paul was Jewish, and trained under Jewish leaders, so his view cannot be immediately discounted as “not Jewish”, so to speak.

      • Eutychus X

        Agreed. It would be interesting to see what intertestamental developments occurred re: these topics. Perhaps there were strands of Judaism which identified the serpent of Eden with Satan and that placed greater emphasis on a “Fall” linked to the actions of Adam and Eve. I don’t recall what Kugel might say about these things in his The Bible As It Was http://www.amazon.com/The-Bible-As-It-Was/dp/0674069412

        I would love to be able to afford the lengthier scholarly footnoted edition, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era.

    • http://www.redtheology.com/ Mark Edward

      I think Paul’s blaming of Adam in Romans 5 for sin is blown too far out of proportion to claim he taught a ‘sin nature’; he says Adam brought death to all, but then also says all die because all sin. It’s very similar to a statement in the apocalypse 2 Baruch, which says Adam sinned and introduced death, but also that each of us is ‘the Adam of his own soul’.

      Paul (and John the revelator) was speaking symbolically (typical of apocalyptic thought), to explore the meaning of sin and death. But I don’t think either of them meant for those symbolic figures of speech to be read as literally as Christians have been doing.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Agreed. Augustine took Paul’s statements steps further because he was looking for a solution to theodicy that rationalized with his own conceptions of good and evil. That evil existed because humans sinned in the Garden solved that puzzle, and the proof of our sin was in our -gasp- sexual desire (and if anyone had hangups over sex, it was Augustine), which through the creation of children-which required the sin of the sexual act- ensured the sin transferred from one generation to the next.

    • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

      Some of us don’t believe Paul had “a” gospel.

  • James

    Good point. So the Bible is story with intrinsic meaning we can read for ourselves. And the story of Jesus modifies, contradicts and fine-tunes the Jewish story, right? And the Grand Story, encompassing both stories, interacts dynamically with a billion small stories of our individual lives. Am I stretching the point in a way you intent?

  • http://anebooks.blogspot.com James Spinti

    Look out! You might become a Wesleyan-Arminian if you jettison Augustine’s misreadings! : )

  • Norm

    Spent 45 minutes in Jerusalem, listening to a Jew explain what he believes and why. That sent me off on four months of questioning. I came out understanding his faith better and mine better as well.

  • Muslima

    Very interesting.

  • Steve

    The overarching point I think you are bringing to the table here applies greatly for our generation and generations to continue. Put simply, many of past generations widely didn’t use logic paired with emotion to truly understand all facets of their faith because there were gaps left, where “spiritual” ideals simply filled the holes (aka the hard questions of faith).

    But, your main point here is the use of deductive reasoning by which, if all premises are true, and terms are clear, and rules of deduction are followed, then a conclusion is true. Many of us are taught our faiths using inductive reasoning, whereby we decide to use premises to support evidence that a certain conclusion is true. The second is almost certainly easier to use to learn any topic since at any point a premise can be tossed aside if it doesn’t support the overall argument. It’s why the church is in dire need of deductive thinkers. Mostly, because deduction in this case lends itself to starting where many Christians fear to tread: the idea that there is a universal “climb of the mountain” of each’s faith that leads to the same place in the end. However, for Christ to really have the Truth, our understanding of what Jesus said and exactly why all of it is true has to start with every way of life on Earth being valid, and then we work backwards from there.

    It’s hard, and yet so very and completely necessary to erase our doubts and more greatly understand what it really means to have a relationship with Jesus.

    • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

      Reminds me of this.

      • Steve

        Thinking deductively is nothing new – it’s seen in pop culture and history almost everywhere. How is it BS?

  • Farris Gruver

    I guess I do not see a big difference between the mainstream Christian view and the Jewish view. Though I realize that some do not, I have always understood the Adam story as a myth to explain our sinful nature — and I grew up a Southern Baptist (and am now a Methodist). In other words: perhaps there was an Adam and perhaps there was not, but the identity of Adam is not what the story is about. For me, the lesson of Genesis is always that we are all Adams in the Garden everyday. It appears that Jewish people also see the story as an example of the sinful nature of humans (in Christian-speak, our fallen-ness).

    I also quibble with the connection between sex and the passing on of original sin. I realize that that view was in vogue once-upon-a-time (thus the need for Mary’s miraculous conception). But do any Christians today really believe that children conceived through artificial insemination are somehow free from original sin? In a (non-literal) way, our fallen-ness is inherited like our eye color, height, and propensity for certain diseases. Sex is optional (though recommended — lol!).

  • http://www.gentlewisdom.org/ Peter Kirk

    Thank you for the link to my blog Gentle Wisdom. I wondered why I was suddenly getting five times my usual traffic!

  • tortugas

    Original sin makes perfect sense, if the story is to be taken literally. Up until the time of Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit, there was no death. Death
    literally, comes into the world as a direct result of their actions. But, if I except that as literal, I must also except every other detail as literal, as well. Namely, there was a time when serpents could talk. This requires a good deal more than vocal chords. It also requires a very different brain. One that is much larger and is essentially human. Either that, or I must believe that Adam and Eve were incredibly naive, in spite of their perfection and simply didn’t realize that talking serpents weren’t normal.

    This says nothing about what would be required to have a life-permitting
    atmosphere that simultaneously doesn’t cause “Matter” (the stuff that all things are comprised of) to decay. Our current scientific understanding tells us that life and death go hand in hand. Such is the nature of living in a life-permitting universe. One where material resources are necessarily limited by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

    Furthermore, by reading the story literally, I’m forced to reevaluate all of the evidence that is not merely abundant, but everywhere. Either that, or I must begin to read the story as a myth. One that was intended to tell a much greater truth about what human nature degenerates into, in the absence of God.
    Since myth is primarily how ancient people apparently told their stories, the latter seems a good deal more reasonable. What it doesn’t do, is give a simple answer, with a simple formula; recite a few prayers, acknowledge a few theological “Truths” and voila, I never again have to worry about hunger and want, to say nothing about my own mortality. Is it surprising, then, that people reject what is difficult, for what is easy?

    It isn’t Jesus, then, that is the problem for many Jews, it is a gentile Jesus separated from his culture that is the real stumbling block. And that would seem to be similar problem for the rest of us, as well.

  • Rob

    Jesus acknowledged a real Adam and Eve.

    Jesus also acknowledged a real devil, who John calls that old Serpent. Paul acknowledges the same and is more specific to explain how that happened in Genesis.

    Jesus explained real sin by saying that out of the heart come all sorts of wickedness. It’s an internal problem. And he doesn’t say it’s a propensity, like certain theologies do.

    All have sinned. All have mercy, if they want it.

    • AHH

      Jesus acknowledged a real Adam and Eve.
      What source of Jesus’ teaching do you have that the rest of us don’t? All we have is the Bible, which says no such thing.
      If you are referring to Matthew 19:4, Jesus just affirms that God made humans “male and female” from the beginning. That is not at all the same as saying the two characters Adam & Eve in the Genesis 2-3 story are historic individuals.

      • Daniel Fisher

        Technically you are correct. Given, however, that Jesus begins by saying “have you not read…”- and he’s referencing and quoting from genesis 1 and 2 specifically – as he directly quotes Genesis there, and from the very quote that is explaining the consequence of the creation of the Adam and Eve, i would give Rob the benefit of the doubt; it seems a legitimate extrapolation. Who else would Jesus be talking about right in the middle of his appeal to Genesis 2?

        • AHH

          Sure, there is reference to Genesis 2 (and Genesis 1) in that passage. But nothing Jesus says affirms “a real Adam and Eve”. He invokes these Scriptures to make the point that God has made humans male and female, and that marriage should be something where God joins them together. Nowhere in there is an affirmation of a literal nature of the characters in Genesis 2; Jesus’ point (like the point of Genesis 2) doesn’t depend on whether the story is literal history, or whether it is inspired fiction like, say, the story of Jonah or of the Good Samaritan.
          If I say “We should love our neighbor like the Good Samaritan did” I am not affirming the historicity of that character.

          • Daniel Fisher

            I hear you, but there does seem something categorically different since, as you said, he seems to be making the (literal? historical?) point that “God has made humans male and female.” Or would you say that the “creator making them male and female” is “just” a story in the same category as Jonah or the Good Samaritan?

          • AHH

            I agree that Jesus makes the point that “God has made humans male and female”. But my point in these comments was, and remains, that affirming the truth of “male and female from the beginning” (and that marriage should be something where God joins two into one) does not at all equate to affirming a particular interpretation of the historicity of the male and female characters in the Genesis 2 story.

  • Ross

    Thanks for this post Pete. I’ve personally found that hearing about the bible from a “Jewish” perspective has often given an “aha” moment, particularly with bits which have long made little or no sense. I think we are in an age where input from a Judaic approach is clearing a lot of stuff which has been clouded for a couple of millennia.

  • Dr. Dee Tee

    The questions are: Did the Bible teach everyone to read it like the Jewish people read it?

    Did Jesus teach his followers to read the Bible as the Jewish people read it?

    Did the disciples teach the Church to read the Bible as Jewish people read it?

    The answer to all those questions is a resounding ‘no.’ Jesus taught in John 14 & 16 to follow the HS to the truth for he would lead us to the truth. Jewish people, who do not accept Jesus, the NT or the HS, do not have the truth and they are not the people we are to follow in learning how to read the Bible.

  • Daniel Fisher

    I really do appreciate reading the Bible for what it is and trying to remove our lenses… Concur Genesis only mentions the “serpent” and there is no explicit statement about “humanity’s fall.”

    At the same time, i imagine that even the most objective and dispassionate reader would recognize some sort of “fall” (or downward step, or degradation, or devolution) in Gen 1-3.

    We move from the bliss of being “naked but without shame” to “they covered themselves with leaves”; from being unashamed in Gods presence to hiding from him; from having harmony with God to being “cursed” by him, from being free to eat any (other) tree to being newly restricted from eating the tree of life, from being in God’s garden to being exiled from it, with a security guard to make sure they don’t get back in….

    Even if we take this story completely out of any Christian theological or New Testament interpretive framework, it still could be nicely summarized with the those immortal words… “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”

  • Tim

    Excellent.

  • A_Sound_Bite

    I’ve read a book titled _The Gospel according to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me about Jesus_ by Athol Dickson (Brazos, 2003). It was very interesting, as I’m sure Enns’s book is, although there are some ideas in Dickson’s book that I don’t agree with. Seems to me that my reading the Bible without bringing SOMETHING to it is almost impossible. For me to say that my interpretation of passage X was brought to me by nothing/no one else than the Holy Spirit seems a bit preposterous. There’s only one Holy Spirit, so we would think that He leads all of us to the identical truth. As far as I can tell, we aren’t all Calvinists…or all Arminians…or all Dispensationalists, right?

  • Seraphim Hamilton

    Dr. Enns, I just don’t think readings of Genesis 2-3 that don’t see it as a Fall do proper justice to the text. I’ve read James Kugel articulate this view and was unimpressed. Here’s why:

    1. There were two trees in the Garden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God only forbade the Tree of Knowledge- unless we have a strong reason to think otherwise, this seems to lend credence to the traditional view that Adam was immortal before the Fall and lost that immortality when He was cast out of Paradise.

    2. The language used to describe the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is later used to describe kingship in the Bible- Solomon, for example, is given the wisdom to discern between good and evil, and the first thing he does is render a proper judgment. I reject the idea that this is simply a merism. Take the incident with Jacob and Laban. God forbids Laban from saying anything “good or evil” to Jacob. But Laban goes ahead and talks. What he refrains from doing is passing an authoritative judgment on Jacob. He says he’d like to, but that Jacob’s God has appeared to him and forbidden it. So we should read Genesis 2-3 as having more depth than Kugel reads it. I actually think that Adam was meant to eat of the Tree of Knowledge after a period of submission (since the language of wisdom and discernment is later used in the book of Genesis for Joseph, but only after he submits to God for a long period of time).

    3. Genesis 4-6 (I don’t buy source criticism, but this works even if you just take the ostensible J sections) appears to describe a progressively degenerating world until the whole creation has to be killed and resurrected. Cain kills Abel and violence increases until the Earth is “filled with violence.” In other words, it appears that what started going horribly wrong in Genesis 3 continued through Genesis 4-6. This makes a lot of sense if you read Genesis 3 as the Fall of Man, but Genesis 3 seems out of place and irrelevant (even within the J source) if it merely describes a hunter-gatherer becoming a farmer.

    4. Concerning the Serpent, I’ve been stimulated by Michael Heiser’s work arguing that the translation of nachash should be “bright one.” That is, this is a bright, heavenly being who is serpentine in appearance, which makes good sense, given the serpentine appearance of angels elsewhere. Furthermore, language for the divine council is used in Genesis 2-3, as Heiser proves. Just one example, when God curses Adam, he addresses His council and says that man has become “like one of us, knowing good and evil.” The “us” is the council, and “knowing good and evil” refers to royal judgment. This is why, I believe, Psalm 82 later alludes to Genesis 3. “You are gods, but nevertheless as men you shall die.” They are stripped of their rule.

    5. The book of Numbers speaks of the serpents which bite Israel as “flying seraphim.” This draws a connection between the Serpent and the angelic hosts.

    6. Samuel also draws a connection between the Serpent and a Satanic figure. Saul’s first test is to fight a king named “Serpent.” David has a similar first test, except his “Serpent” is Goliath, who is evidently a Nephilim- he’s a giant, and he comes from Gath, which Joshua specifies as a Nephilim residence. Goliath is then described with allusions to the high priest, but his armor is scaled- given the parallel with Saul’s battle with “Serpent”, we should see Goliath as a Serpentine High Priest. And what does David do? Crushes his head. I understand that you don’t accept the idea that the authors of Samuel were aware of Joshua, but there seem to be just too many coincidental connections for me to be persuaded by that.

    Dr. Enns, with all respect, I’ve become truly cynical towards the great majority of Old Testament scholarship. I didn’t start out with this conclusion. I was open to source criticism, documentary analysis, and revisionist readings of Scripture. But after soaking myself in the Bible, the work of modern scholars, and the work of truly radical exegetes such as James B. Jordan and Peter Leithart, I have to say that I’m just unconvinced.

    Thanks for reading the long comment.

    • peteenns

      You’re certainly free to adopt such creative readings of texts, S.H. And if it brings you a sense of peace with God and others, all the better.

    • Andrew Dowling

      It doesn’t give you pause that the huge number of Jewish Rabbis who perused these texts their entire lives . . over centuries . . didn’t come to your same conclusion?

      • Seraphim Hamilton

        Andrew, a couple things. First, traditional Jews do have a doctrine of the Fall. For example, Chaim Luzzatto in his “Way of God” talks about how the fall of Adam radically reconfigured the whole nature of creation according to the pattern of death. Perhaps you’re referring instead to the identity of the Serpent as Satan. The role of Satan in Jewish literature is something that has interested me but which I have not yet studied. It’s quite clear that many (if not all) Jews in the Second Temple period recognized Satan as a malevolent rebel against the Creator. Some scholars ascribe this to Zoroastrian influence. I’ll set that question aside for the moment. The rejection of Satan as a malevolent being within Judaism is an interesting question, and I need to study it more deeply in the future.

        Regardless, to answer your question directly- people come to different conclusions all the time. I’m only bothered by that if I’m not satisfied that I have studied an issue. You might laugh at this, but Christ said that the gospel opens the eyes who have ears to hear and blinds those who don’t. As a traditional Christian, I believe this. How could it be otherwise? It would be manifestly inconsistent for me to profess belief orthodox Christian doctrine and then deny this rather offensive point. But from an intellectual vantage point, I’m very, very satisfied with where I am right now. I feel like I’ve given modern scholarship a fair shake, and I’m not persuaded. Some people feel like that’s impossible, that I must just be deceiving myself. I’m not sure what to say to those attitudes.

        • CB

          Hi Seraphim, not sure that the Rt Hon Anthony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia would appreciate you using his image for your blog comments, unless of course you are him, or his twin brother.

          • Seraphim Hamilton

            Lol, sometimes I forget that my Facebook profile picture shows up on these forums.

  • Doug

    I love this post! Thank You! To read the Bible out of the context that is a Jewish book, written for the most part by Jews, to a Jewish audience, of there time, is utter nonsense. Jew’s don’t have a concept of Satan as a “person” or a fallen Angel, but as the dark side of human nature that’s in all of us.

  • buricco

    Has the idea that the serpent of Gen 3 is Satan appeared in Scripture anywhere outside of the Apocalypse of John? I think it’s a relatively recent innovation by comparison.