This entry is part 2 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
I must admit that I’m not sure about where to place Genesis 3 on a scale between the two extremes of ‘literal history’ and ‘pure fiction’. Here’s a summary of some the options:-
An historical account of a ‘Fall’
Traditionally, this account has been understood as a more or less literal description of an historical event in involving a ‘fall’ on the part of our first parents from a state of innocence. According to Kreeft & Tacelli, for example, ‘there are three reasons why the Fall can’t be mere moral parable or fiction:-
First, if the Fall is not historical at all, then its effects—suffering and death—also are not historical. If sin is historical in its effects, it must be historical in its cause.
Second, if Adam’s fall didn’t really happen, then Christ’s salvation need not have really happened either. Paul deliberately juxtaposes and parallels these two in Romans 6, calling Christ the New Man or Second Adam. If “the first Adam” was not historical, why must the second Adam be? If the disease is merely mythic, not historical, then the cure can be merely mythic, not historical.
Finally, if the Fall didn’t really happen in history, then God rather than humanity is to blame for sin, for God must have created us as sinners rather than innocents. If there was never any real unfallen state, then we were sinners from the first moment of our creation, and God was wrong to declare everything he made “good.”’
Even if we do wish to stress the historical dimensions of this story, we should recognise various symbolic or paradigmatic elements: the names ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ are both personal and generic; universal themes such as marriage, childbirth and work are introduced; and, as Wenham notes, the garden is linked with later biblical accounts of the sanctuary.
A ‘Just-so’ story
However, various revisionist readings have been offered. The notion that this is an aetiological story, explaining the hostility between snakes and humans (becoming a ‘Just-so’ tale about ‘How the Serpent lost its legs'( is advanced by Gunkel, von Rad, Sarna, and others. However, does not begin to do justice to many aspects of the text itself (including the judgements meted out to the man and the woman).
A graduation story
For Harold Kushner (How Good Do We Have To Be?), writing from his background as a Rabbi, Gen 3 is not about rebellion, but evolution from animal to human existence. God’s prohibition against eating the fruit is a kindly warning about the difficulties ahead. Eve’s decision to eat is seen as a courageous step into the unknown. The latter part of the chapter is not so much about divine judgement as an indication of what it means to be human – that there is more to human life than eating and mating. After all, the Hebrew Bible never calls Eve’s act ‘sin’, and it is only in the hands of later thinkers such as Paul and Augustine that the story becomes an account of ‘original sin’. These later writers have misrepresented God as a cruel tyrant who makes people imperfect only to punishment as soon as their imperfection becomes apparent. In Kushner’s hands, then, Gen 3 becomes an account of a graduation ceremony. (See Richard Gibson’s review in The Briefing, 202, May 5 1998)
A non-essential addition
Paul Ricoeur maintains that ‘in every way the addition [of Adam] is belated and, in certain respects, non-essential…The Prophets ignore him…Jesus himself never refers to the Adamic story.’ And Paul’s contrast between Adam and Christ in Rom 5 is regarded by Ricoeur as an artificial device. Blocher (Original Sin, p32f) regards these arguments as ‘paper tigers’. He asserts that the Eden story is
‘no peripheral anecdote or marginal addition; it belongs decisively to the structure of Genesis and to that of the Torah. It has a major aetiological intention, with the following chapters showing the results of the inaugural tragedy, and chapter 11 recounting a kind of socio-political deduplication of that tragedy after the flood (similarities in language between Gen 3 and the Babel story are striking).’
Moreover, allusions to the Eden story are quite plentiful in the OT, and the book of Ecclesiastes might indeed be seen as almost a commentary on Gen 1-3. There are also echoes in the NT – both in the Gospels and in Paul (in addition to Rom 5).
A wisdom story
Peter Enns (The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins) has distinguished between the Augustinian view, which regards the story of the garden as the story of humankind’s fall into sin, and that of early theologians such as Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, according to whom ‘the garden story is not about a descent from a pristine, untainted original state of humanity (which is how the Adam story is popularly understood). Rather, it tells the story of naïveté and immaturity on the part of Adam and Eve and the loss of childlike innocence in an illicit move to grasp at a good thing, wisdom, represented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve are like children placed in a paradise, where they are to learn to serve God and grow in wisdom and maturity, to move toward spiritual perfection.’ This view, says Enns, continues to be advocated by the Orthodox Church.
Enns notes neither Genesis 3 nor the rest of the OT appears to make Adam responsible for human sin generally. This connection will be made, much later, by Paul, who will be found reading back into Genesis meanings that were never there originally.
For Enns, the story has much in common with the wisdom literature of Proverbs. This, he claims, makes good sense of the half-truth promised by the serpent – “You will become like God” (Gen 3:5). Becoming like God in knowing good and evil is a good thing; ‘the problem is the illicit way in which Eve tries to attain wisdom—quickly, prematurely, impatiently.’ In Proverbs, too, godlikeness is seen as a good thing, but it is to be developed eventually, and through training, by means of ‘the fear of the Lord’, Prov 9:10. In Proverbs, as in Genesis, wisdom leads to life; indeed, ‘wisdom is a tree of life’, Prov 3:18. When Adam and Eve depart from the true path, they are barred from eating of the tree of life.
We have, suggests Enns, two complementary ways of reading the garden story: first, it reflects Israel’s story of leaving the true path of godliness and ending up in exile; second, it reflects Israel’s wisdom tradition which says that if God’s people do not follow God’s way then disastrous consequences will follow. The story of Cain asks the same wisdom-related question: will you follow God’s way, or your own? Will you choose wisdom, or folly?
The notion that Genesis does not teach an historic Fall receives support (suggests Enns) in the observation that subsequent sin (e.g. in the case of Cain) is not related back to the sin of Adam. Furthermore Adam himself receives scant attention elsewhere in the OT: if his disobedience was as critical to the human race as is commonly thought, it might be supposed that this would referred to more often and more explicitly than is in fact the case. As Enns fully recognises, this reading of Genesis has a significant knock-on effect regarding the teaching of Paul in Rom 5. Enns agrees that Paul clearly teaches a doctrine of an historic Fall, and that the apostle believed that an historical Adam was responsible for this. But, argues Enns, Paul felt free to read this meaning back into the text of Genesis, partly because, for him, everything must now be seen in the light of Christ and his achievement, partly because the ‘solution’ offered by the gospel requires a matching ‘plight’, and partly because such a way of interpreting the ancient Scriptures was within the accepted norms of his own day.
Paradigmatic and protohistorical
Wenham notes (apparently with a measure of agreement) the view that ‘under the guidance of the Spirit the author of these chapters identified the origin of the problems that beset all mankind—sin, death, suffering—with a primeval act of disobedience of the first human couple. Whereas a modern writer might have been happy to spell this out in abstract theological terminology—God created the world good, but man spoiled it by his disobedience—Genesis puts these truths in vivid and memorable form in an absorbing yet highly symbolic story. It is argued that such an understanding of the story’s composition can account for its use of mythological motifs from neighboring peoples and its points of connection with other parts of the OT, particularly the covenant and wisdom traditions. The validity of this hypothesis, like most critical suggestions, remains open to debate, but its validity or otherwise in no way impairs the inspired truth of the present narrative.’
Wenham concludes that, notwithstanding the symbolic elements within the story (many of which link it with the later sanctuary) there are others that point in an historical direction: the heading, ‘these are the generations of…’ (ch. 2); the genealogy linking Adam with Noah (ch. 5); and other factors. Wenham therefore prefers to regard these chapters as both paradigmatic and protohistorical.