Original sin, part 3: What really happened in Eden?

On many movie DVD’s, there is an option to watch the film with a running commentary from the director and the actors. I often feel like we’re watching the “with commentary” version of the film whenever we read the story of Eden in Genesis 2-3, because the actual words of the text are usually drowned out by the background noise of the Reformers reading Augustine reading Paul reading Genesis. For Eden’s commentators, the focus is entirely upon Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God. Every other detail is mostly superfluous. When I read the story, however, I see the accent falling in a very different place, because Adam and Eve “die” when their eyes are opened to their nakedness (Genesis 3:7).

It may be justifiable to interpret the text canonically and perhaps even to give priority to Paul’s uses of Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, but in order to do this with integrity, we should at least grapple with what the text says at face value. So in that interest, here are several troubling observations we must confront.

I. God doesn’t entirely tell the truth

In Genesis 2:16-17, God says to Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat of it you shall die.” There are two significant things about how this instruction is given.

First, Adam and Eve do not die in a physical sense “on the day” that they eat the fruit. If we are to operate under the assumption that God doesn’t lie, then whatever God calls “death” in Genesis 2:17 must be something that happens “on the day” the fruit is consumed and not as a future punishment (which is the mainstream interpretation).

Secondly, because God’s instruction has been given with a justifying explanation, it can be interpreted as a warning rather than a command. God could have said, “Don’t eat from this tree because I say so and I’m God.” Because God framed His instruction to Adam in this way, then Adam and Eve’s response is more the failure to heed a warning than the disobedience of a command.

II. The serpent actually does tell the truth

The serpent tells Eve two things in Genesis 3:4-5: “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The first part of what the serpent says is corroborated by the fact that Adam and Eve don’t die after eating the fruit. The second part is corroborated in the justification God gives for throwing Adam and Eve out of the garden: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22).

III. God seems threatened by humanity’s power

Genesis 3:22 is perhaps the most embarrassing verse in the whole Bible. God doesn’t kick Adam and Eve out of the garden as punishment for disobedience; He kicks them out because they might eat from the tree of life and live forever. That is the justification given in the plain meaning of the text, and your only recourse if you don’t like it is to dismiss it eisegetically.

Whenever God displays less than perfectly Hellenistic eternal characteristics in conversations with humans, we can explain those conversations as a condescension to human nature (e.g. God wasn’t really about to kill the Israelites in Genesis 32; He was just testing Moses to see whether Moses would plead for his people; same thing when He pretended to negotiate with Abraham over Sodom and Gomorrah or with David over the consequences of his census; etc).

But when the Trinity is talking among themselves, you can’t explain it away as condescension to human nature. The same problem comes up in the story of the tower of Babel when God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). You cannot say that God confuses the languages of the Babel tower-builders as punishment for their pride (which is the ubiquitous interpretation) because God doesn’t say that. According to the writer of Genesis 11:6, God is threatened by what humanity might “propose to do” in the future, just like in Genesis 3:22, God is threatened by the prospect of Adam’s immortality.

These two verses pretty well force us to choose between having an impassive, omnipotent God and preserving the inerrancy of the Biblical text. I’m not uncomfortable with the story of Eden being an allegory that may have borrowed from other ancient Near Eastern myths in which gods worry about humanity’s encroachment upon immortality the same way the Greek gods worried about Promotheus’s discovery of fire.

The Bible can still be “God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) without us having to choose between the text’s inerrancy and God’s omnipotence. The sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in preserving the text does not need to be brought into question; and I would argue that these wrinkles have been retained in the text by the Holy Spirit in order to smack down (!) the interpreters who try to usurp too much authority for themselves with their claims of absolute inerrancy and perspicuity. All right, so back to Eden…

IV. Adam and Eve “die” when their eyes are opened

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). This is the decisive moment of the story. Both God and the serpent have spoken truthfully about the same event. The serpent said, “Your eyes will be opened.” God said, “You will die.” The only knowledge that Adam and Eve possess that they didn’t have before eating the fruit is a self-awareness that creates shame and fear. Gaining this knowledge kills the existence that they had before it and curses human existence thereafter.

Adam’s explanation to God for why he hid in the bushes is important: “I was afraid, because I was naked” (Genesis 3:10). This nakedness is not superfluous. God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit because they would die. It is steamrolling over a critical distinction in the text to describe Adam and Eve’s fall as mere disobedience; their disobedience resulted in consequences that God wanted them to avoid and articulated for them in the simple terms of the word “death.”

Look at the consequences God gives to Adam and Eve. Both have to do with self-awareness. For Eve, he says, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). God could not “increase” her pangs in childbearing if there were no procreation before this moment in time (as many virginity-obsessed church fathers presumed). The Hebrew verb here is ravah which means “multiply.” This leaves us with the choice that Eve either would have had or already had children without as much pain if she had not experienced the death of having her eyes opened.

Can animals be said to suffer pain in childbirth? Certainly they have nerves throughout their body no differently than humans die, but the key difference is their level of consciousness. Certainly they have some semblance of memory, but they aren’t able to willfully bring their memories back into their minds the way that humans can. Childbirth happens and then it’s done. For humans, it is a pain that can be remembered and thus dreaded in anticipation the second time it happens. Because our eyes have been opened to our nakedness.

Regarding Adam’s punishment, God says, “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return to the ground; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). In other words, Adam will no longer be able to live as a hunter-gatherer wandering through the forest without a care, picking fruits and eating them when he feels the urge. He will have to take up farming and manipulate nature to his advantage.

Now one way of interpreting what God says here is that the earth suddenly became a wasteland in the instant of God’s pronouncement of this curse on Adam. Or that this curse describes God’s eviction of Adam and Eve from Eden. But Genesis 3:22 shoots down this interpretation if we’re exegetically faithful to the text. It is not just a pronouncement of Adam and Eve’s eviction from the garden, but God’s deliberation about the threat they pose that subsequently leads to His decision to evict them.

Thus, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the Garden of Eden turns into a plantation of scarcity because of the way Adam’s eyes have been opened to his nakedness and mortality. Instead of lackadaisically walking through the forest to grab fruit and eat when he’s hungry, a self-aware Adam worries whether the fruit will run out and thus must plant crops in order to have control over the future. If Adam and Eve would have had to eat the fruit of the tree of life to become immortal (Gen 3:22), then they weren’t immortal before their fall. When God says, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” this is not God changing Adam’s mortal fate but rather throwing it in his face.

Animals in their natural condition (as opposed to domesticated animals) are immortal because they are not individually differentiated. Some die; some are born; and the herd lives on. It is with individual self-awareness that mortality gains its true meaning. Instead of living like the “birds of the air [who] neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns” (Matthew 6:26), Adam must contend with the dread of the dust that he will become and spend all the days of his life fighting thistles and thorns by the sweat of his brow in the desperate, ultimately futile quest to postpone the day of his death.

But Adam and Eve could have remained like the birds of the air: procreation without the dread or memory of pain, companionship without the gendered power struggle that gives man dominion over woman because she can be impregnated, and sustenance without the anxiety that one day the trees might not have any more fruit. Because their eyes were opened to their nakedness, they died from the life of innocent dependence upon God and entered into the frightful, defensive existence of self-preservation.

V. Implications for Original Sin

Perhaps there are places in which my interpretation was not strictly exegetical. But I think it is a plausible reading of the text and moreover a reading which does not conflict with the references to Adam and Eve made in Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 15 by Paul (who as far as I know is the only New Testament author who talks about Adam and Eve at all). The death instilled by Adam’s trespass is a very real death that causes our default state of existence. You can call it punitive, since God does say to Eve, “I will increase your pain” (although the Hebrew is very strange here – ravah is repeated twice with a hey and aleph prefix, the aleph indicating first person qal singular, the hey indicating third person hiphil singular). If the curse is punitive, that doesn’t preclude it being a consequence of the self-awareness that the fruit creates.

Since I interpret the story as an allegory, I see it representing two decisive moments simultaneously: 1) the primordial historical “moment” at which hominids became sapient humans who were self-aware enough to hoard resources and engage in planned, not solely instinct-triggered conflicts with each other to this end; 2) the point in our childhood development when our eyes are opened to our nakedness and we start to worry about defending ourselves and justifying our actions to other people.

I realize some readers might be offended by my interpretation because it doesn’t sound “moral” enough. I just don’t see Genesis 3, or Paul for that matter, to be as invested as post-Augustinian theologians in making Adam and Eve’s fateful choice into the greatest crime of human history. What Adam and Eve’s choice represents allegorically is the foundation for all sin, not because of some infinite culpability on their parts, but because all sin has its origins in self-awareness.

This may sound too benign, but the deceptive benignity of sin is actually a critical recognition to make about it. We all think we’re being reasonable when we choose the lesser good of self-gratification that is more immediately present to our consciousness over a greater good of justice and harmony in our community that seems abstract from our field of vision. The more self-focused we become, the more benign we feel engaging in truly evil deeds.

In any case, every single one of us needs deliverance from the self-worship that we inherently fall into. We are all caught in a plight that we didn’t choose for ourselves; it chose us before we were mature enough to make our own decisions. The fact that we can blame our ancestors for the existence we inherited is why we call it original sin, but our lack of original responsibility doesn’t nullify our need to be delivered. Pointing out that “we didn’t start the fire” doesn’t change anything about our condition and need.

We can accept the terms of God’s rescue through the mysterious atonement provided by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and thus be empowered to live rich, authentic, unselfish lives as members of the liberated human community called the body of Christ. Or we can persist forever in protesting the “injustice” of being born into a species of self-worshiping creatures and spend eternity separated from the One we refuse to trust in the outer darkness of our own personal galaxies.

21 thoughts on “Original sin, part 3: What really happened in Eden?

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  5. Great post as always! 🙂 Apologies for very lengthy response…

    I really like your reading, and particularly agree that the Fall was more the effect of disregarding God’s warning rather disobeying God’s command.

    I think the Garden of Eden story asks to be read allegorically, with factual elements set into a myth to convey deeper truth. E.g. I don’t believe that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was ever an actual species of plant.

    I accept biological evolution, with its implication that humans share millions of years of evolutionary history and heritage with other animals – including the instinctive mechanisms of lust, greed, aggression and selfishness vital for survival in a competitive world of limited resources. Our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are frequently violent and sexually promiscuous, and we don’t hold them morally accountable for it.

    My hypothesis is that ‘Adam and Eve’ were already evolutionarily predisposed to these traits, but that in making them human God somehow set them spiritually/morally apart from other creatures, offering them the chance to rise above the legacy of their brutish evolutionary past. Their failure to do so is not only their story but the story of all their descendants, including us.

    However, I’m not sure *how* God set them apart – or what characteristic truly sets humans apart from animals. Was it moral conscience/responsibility, the ability to distinguish between good and evil and act accordingly? Plausible, but isn’t that exactly what the fruit offered, robbing us of our former moral innocence (or ignorance)? Was it consciousness – awareness of ourselves and of God? Perhaps, but in your suggestion this was the *effect* of the Fall. Or was it simply the ability to love freely, in a way that transcends mere survival instinct?

    Whichever is true, I’m not convinced that self-awareness was the result of the Fall or is the source of our problems. Indeed, I find it hard to see how we could be truly human without some forms of self-awareness and moral conscience.

    Looking at our chequered history, many of our worst problems seem to have come from our cleverness outstripping our moral and relational sense. We have amazing abilities which could be used in service of others and the world, but we use them in service of our greeds and lusts. But this is not a result of our self-awareness – chimpanzees also use tools selfishly and destructively. Rather it’s a failure to love, to care, to empathise, to see the bigger picture and act responsibly.

      • I’ve not read Girard directly, just read a little about him and the acquisitive mimesis theory. So just to clarify, are you suggesting that the ‘Fall’ happened when Adam & Eve’s new self-consciousness led them into the cognitive/behavioural patterns of acquisitive mimesis, resulting in cycles of competition, aggression and scapegoating etc?

        Certainly an interesting idea if so, though I’m not sure I find it fully convincing as an explanation of the Garden of Eden story. I certainly don’t see self-awareness as an inherently bad thing or as inevitably leading to acquisitive mimesis – or to any other model of human competition/rivalry.

        One of the pictures I find helpful is that in C.S. Lewis’s “Magician’s Nephew”, where he essentially writes an alternative Eden myth set in Narnia. Aslan selects pairs of animals from among the dumb beasts and bestows them with the power of rational thought, speech and love. He calls them to care for each other and the world, and warns them not to return to the ways of the dumb animals from which they were taken. So in Lewis’s myth, the creatures are given self-awareness (or rationality) and moral responsibility – these are not the results of the Fall.

        • Everything changes when/because (?) their eyes are opened and they see that they’re naked. What term would you use for that?

          • Good point, and I don’t really have an answer at this stage. I’d suggest that there might be more than one way of becoming self-aware; that in realising their ‘nakedness’ (which I suspect may be symbolic rather than literal) they are becoming conscious of an aspect of themselves in a way that is unhelpful or that they aren’t yet ready for. (Lewis again suggests something of the sort, in ‘Perelandra’). That doesn’t necessarily mean that all forms of self-awareness are bad… but at this point I need to go away and think some more. 🙂

          • There’s one self-awareness which refers to knowing your strengths and weaknesses. That’s the positive quality we develop actually as we grow closer to God. When Adam and Eve have their eyes opened, that represents to me the moment when a child realizes that the world isn’t a purely safe and wonderful place because people will judge and attack you so you have to defend yourself. It’s paradoxical because it instantiates self-delusion and defensiveness but before that moment you don’t have a self to defend in the same way; you simply exist without ruminating on your standing with other people.

  6. Thank you for the analysis. I think it’s excellent. Particularly the way you explain the problem of self-awareness. I’ve been trying to think of how to understand what happened at the fall with regard to that for a while and your explanation helps a lot.

    I have a really deep fascination with the creation stories and the story of the fall in particular. One of the issues which I think gets overlooked by a lot of people is the nature of the interaction between Adam and Eve and the serpent. As I’ve come to understand it, Adam and Eve weren’t these perfect, amazing people living in constant communion with God as many Christians would have us think. Instead, they were babies. Too young to care that they were naked even. Their actions after the fall ought to let us know that these were not sophistocates. They act like a couple of toddlers – draping vines around themselves, trying to hid from God like kids hiding behind the drapes next to a broken vase, responding “she did it first!” when confronted. They were perfect the way that babies are perfect – because that’s what they were.

    Enter in the serpent – the “craftiest of all the creatures”. The imbalance between Adam and Eve and the serpent was huge. I really think that this story is a story of abuse by a more intelligent, powerful creature against a couple of babies. I really think that what happened was akin to sexual abuse of a child. And Adam and Eve do react much like kids in such circumstances often do – the shame, the guilt, the hiding, the discomfort with themselves, the lashing out at each other.

    I’ve always wondered why God had put the tree in the garden in the first place if it was so dangerous and tempting. But I’ve come to think that the tree was much like the adult world is for kids. It would be unhealthy for kids not to know that there was something more to life beyond their childish existance. When Adam and Eve were hanging out near the tree, it seems to me a lot like kids on the stairs spying on the grown-ups. They weren’t going to eat. They were just checking it out. And along comes the serpent saying, “don’t worry – join in. God’s just trying to keep you from all the fun.” The presence of the tree wasn’t a danger to Adam and Eve on their own. Rather it took the unexpected and completely inappropriate behavior of the serpent to make it so dangerous to them.

    I think it’s also telling that it was the fruit which was forbidden – not the whole tree. The fruit is something which takes time to grow – it is the end product of long process. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit it’s as if they received the result of a process they hadn’t yet gone through. Like being handed a surgeon’s scapel without ever having trained in surgery. Kids who get caught up in things meant only for adults. It catapulted them into a way of being which they simply weren’t prepared for and didn’t know how to do. I kind of think that the “curse” was actually meant to point us in the direction we needed to go in order to figure out how to live this way. “This is what you’re going to do and in the struggle of it, you will learn the things you need to know in order to survive.” Not so much that it’s right or desirable for man to rule over women or for survival to be so hard and the rest. But just that the process of it will lead us forward. If that makes sense. I also wonder about God giving Adam and Eve the animal skins. It’s often portrayed as an act of compassion, but I can’t help thinking it must be deeper than that. Perhaps it was meant to point them in a certain direction or teach something. I’m not sure.

    Anyways, I’m rambling. Clearly I’ve put more than my fair share of thought into the issue. But I love what you have here. I will be thinking about it for a while, that’s for sure!

    • Yeah it’s totally ridiculous on the basis if the story to say that Adam and Eve were fully developed rational human beings. That’s Augustine letting his theological polemical needs eisegete the text for him. I think the story really illustrates the innocence with which we often fall into sin. We can do things that have devastating consequences just by stumbling along and not having any willpower. Evil often happens not as the result of willing evil but because of a lack of discipline in willing good which of course we can’t do without God’s empowerment. Just because we “don’t mean to” hurt people doesn’t make it not hurt.

    • Rebecca Trotter, I kind of follow your line of thoughts and rumblings. Often, when I look at the curse placed on Eve and I remember the “A for A” according to the Law of Moses…which is “An eye for An eye” If the fruit that was ate by Adam and Eve in the garden was a “literary fruit” then, what about “what goes into a man bellies does not defile him?” or shouldn’t the curse be on the mouth that ate the fruit rather than placing it on the sexual reproductive organ of the woman and her emotion. For me, I think its actually beyond just eating a mere fruit which has no name. I think the innocent’s Adam and Eve was actually robbed by a grown up Serpent by that (Sexual Abuse), that action created a kind of Self-awareness in them.
      Take for instance, when a guy for the first in his life begins to romance a lady(who also has not gone through the process of been sexually involved), which now leads to sexual intercourse, the first thing that happen to them is “eye-opening (A realization of themselves)”…at first they may even hate themselves, feel ashamed of what they have done or should they be caught in the process, shame and guilty abound, thereby they may start shifting blaming on one another….Such was the scenario that’s painted in Genesis 3.
      Just my thought though……… 🙂

      Secondly, Morgan…. I could see your points and all I could say is Well Done brother.

    • The Hebrew word for death is מות. It’s a primary root so I’m not sure we can say much about its figurativeness or concreteness relative to the English word death. It gets used figuratively often enough.

  7. Morgan, do you think our lost of innocence was out of disobedience or that our disobedience is a loss of trust and our innocence is the casualty?

    • To me, the emphasis in Genesis 3 seems to be on the consequence rather than the infraction. I realize most of Christian tradition disagrees with me. I think we’re giving Adam and Eve too much credit to call their falling for the trickery of the serpent a decision not to trust God. The serpent was the first authority to come along other than God. He contradicted God and Eve said oh okay. The point of the story to me is to set up how we gain this quality of self-absorption that we have to be liberated from which we can’t blame on God.

        • I need better vocabulary. Adam and Eve discovered that they had selves. Without that discovery, there is no such thing as knowledge of good and evil. You simply react out of instinct to stimuli and your lack of consciousness means you lack spiritual consequences.

          Self-awareness from our vantage point post-fall is a positive thing which generally means that we recognize our weaknesses and flaws.

          They’re two different things. Perhaps I should call what happened to Adam and Eve self-discovery instead or self-absorption. The key moment is when their eyes were opened to their nakedness. Our curse is when we are obsessed with protecting and gratifying our flesh.

  8. Morgan, this is brilliant. I really like your insights about self-awareness being the basis of all sin, and therefore the gateway through which spiritual death entered the world.

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