Revisiting Adam and Eve

“Apple” by KSI Photography, Flickr. Used according to Creative Commons license.
“Apple” by KSI Photography, Flickr. Used according to Creative Commons license.

“The snake was the most clever of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. The snake spoke to the woman and said, ‘Woman, did God really tell you that you must not eat from any tree in the garden?’ The woman answered the snake, ‘No, we can eat fruit from the trees in the garden. But there is one tree we must not eat from. God told us, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden. You must not even touch that tree, or you will die.”’ But the snake said to the woman, ‘You will not die. God knows that if you eat the fruit from that tree you will learn about good and evil, and then you will be like God!’ The woman could see that the tree was beautiful and the fruit looked so good to eat. She also liked the idea that it would make her wise. So she took some of the fruit from the tree and ate it. Her husband was there with her, so she gave him some of the fruit, and he ate it. Then it was as if their eyes opened, and they saw things differently. They saw that they were naked. So they got some fig leaves, sewed them together, and wore them for clothes.”

~ Genesis 3:1-7

The classic interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is original sin. By tasting from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve become the first sinners on Earth. Through their actions, sin enters into the world and now plagues every single human.

However, this classic interpretation misses a key component: Adam and Eve were the first creatures on Earth to be sinned against. They are not the original sinners. The original sinner is the snake, who uses deception to groom his victims. Adam and Eve are the target, and he succeeds in causing them harm.

I think this missing component is crucial to understanding the story of Adam and Eve. It opens up a child-centric and survivor-centric reading of the story where we can view Adam and Eve as innocent children being groomed by “the most clever” of predators. This missing component also helps us understand han, the idea of original wounds that is discussed in Korean liberation theology (minjung theology).

The traditional reading of Adam of Eve focuses on the guilt and willfulness of the characters. In doing so, it minimizes the role of the snake. If we envision Adam and Eve as like children, we can better understand the story. Adam and Eve are truly like newborn children: they have never experienced sin in their lives. Specifically, they have never experienced someone trying to use their greater status to take advantage of them. They have no understanding of what it means to be manipulated.

Along comes “the most clever of all the wild animals.” Like a predatory adult, the snake targets the children and their natural desires: to be like their parent, God. “God knows that if you eat the fruit from that tree,” he says, “you will learn about good and evil, and then you will be like God!” What children do not want to be grown ups, to be like the parents who made them? By appealing to their natural desires to be like their Godparent, the snake grooms them to be the perfect victims.

In her book We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Abuse, theology professor Elaine A. Heath focuses on this interpretation of Adam and Eve as the original survivors of sinful abuse. “Instead of reading it as a story about guilty sinners,” Heath writes, “we read it as a narrative of abuse. In this story of violence against God’s children, we found a paradigm for how original wounds of all kinds, not just of sexual abuse, eventually lead to the bondage of sin. Most importantly, we saw how God looks at sinners first and foremost as those who have been sinned against. Before Adam and Eve ever sinned, they were sinned against. Their sin emerged from the wounds they received from the serpent and its deception” (p. 16-7).

To be sure, Adam and Eve do misbehave, whether we envision them as children or adults. But thinking about them as victims of the snake’s grooming gives us a greater understanding of the nature of sin—that it is both the willful actions of predators (like the snake) and the reactions of those preyed upon (like Adam and Eve) to the accumulation of wounds. This brings us to the idea of han, which is discussed in Korean minjung theology.

Han is explored in depth by theologian Andrew Sung Park in his book The Wounded Heart of God. Park draws from minjung theology, which sees han as “the accumulation of bitterness, shame, anger, despair, and other destructive attitudes and feelings that result from experiences of being sinned against” (Heath, p. 186). Minjung theologians see han as a way of viewing sin that provides an antidote to the Western tendency to think of sin on a purely individualistic level. Han, in contrast, looks at systemic oppression—classism, racism, sexism, etc.—and how these stratified levels of marginalization cause pain in the lives of individuals. Thus han helps us distinguish between individual sin (willfully hurting another being) and suffering (being wounded).

Pamela D. Couture explains the idea of han in the following manner in her book Seeing Children, Seeing God: A Practical Theology of Children and Poverty:

“The concept of han from Koren minjung theology offers helpful distinctions that augment our traditional language of sin, evil, and depravity. Han refers to the suffering that is accumulated in the victims of sin, burdening them with agony. For our purposes, han describes the ‘abysmal experience of pain,’ of the child, for example, who is abused, neglected, or sexually exploited; who is torn from friends, family, and school by homelessness; who is separated from her parent because of the parent’s incarceration at a distance; who watches his parent deteriorate from alcohol or drug use; whose sibling or close friend is killed in meaningless violence; who is hungry or sick with inadequate care. Han focuses on the pain of the victims and reserves the language of sin for willful acts that victimize others” (p. 62).

When we think about Adam and Eve’s han, we see that they are the victims of abuse. They have been taken advantage of by a more cunning, mature individual. Yes, they misbehave, but their misbehavior comes not from a willful action, but because they have first been sinned against. As children who have been sinned against and hurt, their misbehavior is understandable. This calls to mind how abused children often act out because of the pain they have experienced. As Couture says, “Godchildren sometimes suffer, often intensely, and behavioral problems result from this suffering. A theology of children….faces the complicated task of describing, without minimizing, the agony, that many children bear and the behavioral problems that become symptoms of that agony” (p. 62).

“At the bottom of han,” Couture writes, “is the deeply wounded heart” (p. 63).

Envisioning Adam and Eve in this manner allows us to think about the Fall as paradigmatic of abuse victims and survivors in general. Rather than being a blame game about how Eve first tempted Adam or how both caused the downfall of the entire world, the story can be viewed as a tragic morality lesson about how han has entered into the lives of children and survivors. It is the story of shattered trust. It is a story of growing up in a world that sins against us, grooms us to fall, that leads to generational trauma. As survivors, we bear the scars of these experiences and we sew together fig leaves to hide our shame.

Yet shame is not the end of the story. Shame is only the beginning, and salvation has the final word.

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  • Connie OI

    Wow. I’ve had a complete shift in how I think about the Adam & Eve story. Thank you so much.

  • Wheezy1952

    Certainly a more thoughtful narrative than the literalist one that we learned in Sunday School.

  • Annette

    What a fascinating article. It draws out aspects of the Adam and Eve story that I have never heard before. It is so helpful for working alongside children as well as adult. It addresses a balance in our thinking and sheds light on us as broken people, not just willfull sinners.

  • To revisit Adam and Eve, visit Google and do a search for “first scandal.” This search will not give you any information about apples. But, it will give you some info about Adam and Eve.

  • Jim

    Anyone who believes that snakes can talk will believe anything.

  • Christopher F.

    Yup, I’ve said this for years.

    The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge gave Adam and Eve the knowledge of “good and evil”. Since evil is basically defined as being anything that goes against God, they basically were intentionally created incapable of knowing the consequences of their actions.

    God played up how awesome the fruit was, he made it appealing to the eye, gave it a central location, and did the “I’m leaving now, make sure you don’t touch it!” thing.

    You don’t put naive children in a room with a delicious looking cake, tell them not to eat it, leave, and then have somebody else there saying “Its really good, you should totally eat it!” and NOT expect that cake to be GONE when you get back.

    Adam and Eve were a SYMPTOM of corruption, they were not it’s cause.