Snake in the Grass?

Woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860. Julius Schnorr von CarolsfeldFor some Christians part of their difficulty in accepting evolution is that in evolution death and violence occur in creation before the appearance of  humans and what Christians call “the Fall”. In some classical accounts of the Fall  the pre fall world is a place without death and without suffering. Death enters the world because of and as a consequence of the actions of Adam and Eve. 

I think  there is a problem with this notion of a sinless, perfect pre fall world. Even a literal reading of Genesis 3 doesn’t appear to support this. What’s the problem? The serpent. The serpent, made by God (v1), who exists in pre fall Eden.

Take a moment and re read the story. It’s a rich and wonderful story full of divine wisdom and truth about the human condition.  But the text doesn’t explain how sin entered the world, it assumes that it is present. For the Genesis writer, the serpent simply exists. It is part of creation. There is no explanation about why the serpent acts the way it does. There is no explanation about why Eve and Adam listen to the serpent.  Notice in the text that the presence of a talking serpent doesn’t seem to surprise Eve. She carries on a conversation with the serpent as if that were a normal occurance.

The Bible assumes many things. For example Genesis one doesn’t  explain the existence of God. The Scripture assumes God exists. The Bible also doesn’t explain some things. Like how sin entered the world. Or why evil exists. As John Calvin and others have noted, God doesn’t explain everything to us. Some things are beyond our comprehension.  But we humans like to try to fill in the gaps.  We need to be careful, as we all know, when we read the Bible that we read it carefully with attention to the culture of the original audience and with the awareness that our reading is shaped by 2000 years of Christian theology- some of that theology better than other. 

As I read the story, it seems to me that unless Adam and Even knew what death was, the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit is unintelligible to them. If you don’t know what death is, how can death be an effective deterrent? Also notice Genesis 3: 22ff. Human mortality is assumed here. Human kind must be stopped from eating from the tree of life and thus living forever.  The Biblical text does not assume that pre fall humanity never died.

Is the story about Original Sin? Of course. But remember “original”  doesn’t mean the first sin. When theologians talk about original sin they  mean the universality of sin. Original sin refers to the inescapable nature of sin. Genesis 3 has much to say about sin and how sin works in the world – it’s out there, it can be difficult to recognize, it can sound reasonable and sin has tragic, far reaching and unexpected consequences.

Is this story about the Fall?  Yes, the Fall as a description of  the human condition. Estranged from God. Deciding not to trust God but rather deciding to trust the things of the world.  It’s a story about the human inclination to idolatry, putting something (in this case the word of the serpent) ahead of God.

Genesis 3, like the first two chapters of Genesis is a text full of meaning. Christians and Jews have spent millenia pondering this text. We could spend weeks on Genesis chapter 3, it is that rich and complex.  I only focused on a small part of the storyhere- carefully and faithfully I hope.  

So that objection to evolution, that there originally was a perfect pre fall Eden free of death well, I have trouble finding that in Genesis.  Perhaps we can  give that up. In fact let’s give up trying to read Genesis 1-3 as science altogether. It simply doesn’t work. As I have said before and will probably say again, to change our interpretation of the text  is not to claim the text is wrong or untrustworthy or untrue. To change our interpretation of the text is to admit we are human and need to grow and develop and sometimes that means we need to rethink the way we interpret a part of the Bible.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

12 thoughts on “Snake in the Grass?

  1. Interesting. I’ve always thought original sin meant wanting to be like God. Satan wanted to be like God (I think that’s found in Ezekiel) and that’s how he approached Eve in the story. If she ate the apple she’d be like god in that she’d know the difference between good and evil. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but it’s a temptation for me. And don’t we want to be like a god every time we go after what we want rather than after God’s goodness?

    I don’t think the Bible should be a science textbook, either. But I believe it’s scientifically accurate–we just don’t read it right. Metaphors and images are always grounded in reality. Otherwise they don’t resonate.

  2. Solveig, In my faith tradition, we tend to say (after John Calvin) that all sin is at root idolatry- putting anything or anyone, including ourselves in the place of God. So in a way its both “original” as first and “original” as ubiquitous. Original sin is one of those interesting phrases that has a particular meaning for theologians and it has the meaning everyone else assumes it has. The problem is of course, that when the phrase is used with respect to this story in the non theologian sense, it shifts the way we think about the story.

    You might find “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John H. Walton interesting (you too Ben) He is an Old Testament Prof at Wheaton College. He points out that Genesis reflects what we might call the science of it’s time. The text reflects the way people viewed the cosmos.

    Ben, As much as we all want to fill in the gaps, I’m not sure there is too much we can or probably should say about that. Theological speculation has been robust, but Scripture less forthcoming.
    by the way I really enjoyed the series on vegetarianism on Not One Sparrow, well done theologically and kindly written.

  3. Thanks, Nancy, that’s actually the book I mentioned to you which I saw advertised on Facebook a while back. I actually had Walton as a professor at Moody, a grad level history class at an undergrad institution. As for Satan’s fall, I agree, a lot would ride on his specific nature, or some would say lack thereof. I do continue to lean towards a personal being of some form, but perhaps the consistent lanaguage to that effect throughout the New Testament was context-appropriate as well. If in fact a personal being, perhaps his own fall was a gradual development as well.
    And thanks for the kind feedback on Boyd’s vegetarian series and the related posts, I really appreciate it – Ben

  4. Thanks for the response. You’re going to think I’m a nemesis, but I have to say I don’t believe “original sin” can possibliy mean diffrent things to a theologian and other Christians who study God’s Word. If so, and if only theologians are capable of thinking rightly on this key doctrine, God’s Word is not fully effective for the laity. This is contray to everything Luther taught–and I can’t believe Calvin thought otherwise, either. Perhaps you’re saying the theologian has more terms available.

    And I admit I might not have expressed myself by going into all the ramifications of my thoughts on original sin. I believe all idols are a form of self-worship because they all reflect the creative abilities and thoughts of a person. To extend that idea a bit further, idols are gods formed in human images–even when given other forms–because they’re created by human minds. I hardly have a catalog of various pagan practices, but if I remember correctly, the Greeks fought with their gods. They wanted to prevail–to be like a god themselves. Generally, I think it’s all about control. If we fulfill the “god’s” obligations, we have entered into a bargaining relationship. Then we assume God-like powers because we also control our destiny. Isn’t that knowing good and evil–and assuming god-like qualities? And Satan tempted Eve by telling her she’d be like God if she ate the apple. That thought is consistent throughout Scripture.

    As for the “cosmos of the time,” I haven’t read Walton’s book but I have read on the subject years ago–including texts that did not agree with my present stance. It was a major hurdle for me before coming into faith. Later, at some point I decided I couldn’t come to a conclusion and I guess I’m set in that position. At this point we don’t fully understand the text and we certainly don’t have all the scientific data. We simply cannot make an informed decision–even when considering probabilities, etc.

    And I’m not going to back away from the accuracy of the Word just because I don’t understand everything. It’s proved trustworthy. Do I think the world was created in six 24-hour days? Hardly. But that doesn’t mean God’s Word isn’t accurate. One day I heard someplace that there was light before anything else. My personal opinion is that scientific data will gradually fall into line with God’s creation account in ways that will astound both the scientists and the fundamentalists. I suppose I won’t be around to see it, but those will be interesting times.

    I’m sorry if I’m coming across as argumentative. I’m afraid I enjoy this sort of exchange and I’m sitting here with a grin on my face. I guess I think you’re informed enough for me to step out without causing damage. Perhaps I need to let God refine this area of my inner man. I’ll try to contain my glee over the opportunity to be a bit antagonistic.

  5. Solveig, I don’t think your being a nemesis or antogonistic. I know from reading your blog we come from quite different faith traditions and experiences. So it’s good for us to talk even if its only on a blog. And pushing each other about what we think and believe can help both you and I think more clearly about what we each believe and why. ( by the way, Ben the other commenter on this post and I have had similar exchanges ) One of several things I hoped to have happen at this blog was that we would discusions among folks who take their faith seriously. One of the things missing in alot of the blogging world and in our society is general is the ability for people to have spirited discussions that stay focused on the topic and don’t degenerate into mean spirited nastiness. So far, while there’s often not alot of comments, the comments have been appropriate and respectful.

    All that said, I’m really tired tonight and I’ll do a better job of responding to your other comments after a good nights sleep.

  6. I want to lift up what you said in the following,
    “When theologians talk about original sin they mean the universality of sin. Original sin refers to the inescapable nature of sin.

    Original sin refers to the inescapable nature of sin. Genesis 3 has much to say about sin and how sin works in the world – it’s out there, it can be difficult to recognize, it can sound reasonable and sin has tragic, far reaching and unexpected consequences.”

    This is a fascinating point of view. Theologically, I am in the tendency that sin is sin, none the less or better, yet ‘original sin’ is the explorative of the human condition for which Christ came to fulfill our completeness. How we ‘temper’ our response to the Bible is important, not in response to each other, but in our response to God himself.

    I’m haunted by the confusion in the face of a confirmation student, who desperately ponders how the world was created. It will never leave me, as I think his anguish was a ‘call’ to me… that these discussion absolutely must happen. Not to show diviseness, but to see we are all bound by the same condition and no “one’s” ‘theology’ is complete, as only Christ was complete in this world.

    My theology, what I understand, is not what we think really happened, but what our response is to it. If we simply interpret, ‘Faith’ only has purpose in the other side of life, and I can’t bring myself to believe this life means nothing. Yet, to the contrary, Faith without explorative foundations in the Bible is especially susceptible to the world. So how far do we take it??? I’m really asking….

    When does throwing verses around begin to stunt our growth spiritual and veil the truth??? When does go from enticing some into conversation, and repel others from it?

  7. Thanks to all of you for such thoughtful comments. Much blogging “fodder” here.

    Cindy your comments about the confirmation student touch me too. How sad that we turn a particular reading of one text into a litmus test of faith. That is part of what fuels this blog. We need to talk and explore the life of faith together, as companions on the way. Not to divide ourselves into little groups but to help each other and to encourage each other. No one human’s perspective is complete and correct. So we talk- we try to talk- with humility and love.
    Your comments about balance between “knowing” and “doing” are important. Faith is more that agreement over doctrine but without some “doctrine” how can we know what to do? It comes back to conversation, relationship, helping each other along the way. Or so it seems to me.

    Soveig, John Walton and I both agree that Genesis One has nothing to do with science and he and I would both also like to refocus that entire conversation away from science and toward God and God’s activities in the world. Its a topic I’m this blog will return to again and again.
    As for your comments about differing interpretations of what original sin is (between theologians and laity) – that got me thinking and the result is the next post.

  8. thank you for commenting and I look forward to the next post!

    I have to laugh, at one of the Bible studies I attend, (I’ve been neck deep in Paul’s writings lately) I said that I am positive Paul and I would have gotten along well…. as long as I didn’t say anything! ; )

    All kidding aside, he was a brilliant teacher and did an amazing job at conceptualizing a ‘church’ for all those he had to leave behind him, but forgot that the world might change, much less did he realize the mess we’d be in today. theologically speaking.

    maybe that is too strong. certainly the prisms of christianity are not the mess we make it out to be, nor are they all Paul’s fault!!

    My first prayer is for the body of Christ to realize its true potential. conversations like this are beneficial.. thank you for the forum. I realize this pulled waaay from the old testament discussion. I’ll try harder next time!!! : )

  9. You might be surprised by this, but I don’t think Genesis 1-3 had much of anything to do with science, either. I just don’t think it’s inaccurate. That’s the core issue that bothers me. I don’t think we can throw out a portion of Scripture because it doesn’t agree with latest trends in the scientific community.

    (I know there are many other passages that, if interpreted literally, would also seem to disagree. Passages about trees clapping their hands, etc. They’re obviously metaphors. Interpretating them as such is consistent with Biblical scholarship. For some reason I can’t do that with the creation account–perhaps because it is the focus of so much controversy.)

    Before becoming a Christian I had only a nodding acquaintance with evolution. Yet I was fearful of committing to this God who would require I give up a rational approach to life–who might require I accept something that made no sense. So I spent months searching and meditating on the subject. One day I realized much of the Genesis 1 account provided the sequence of the evolutionary teaching. Not all, but much. With that in place I began to read more and more of Scripture until God met me and I came into faith. Recently, I was blessed when learning about the Big Bang theory because, according to it, light came into being before the creation of the suns or planets, etc. One more piece in place.

    Would my faith falter tomorrow if this were disproven. No. I don’t think it will be proven or disproven. Although I freely admit I don’t have a scientific mind, my husband does. His focus is math, physics, and electronics rather than biology, but he has been amazed in recent years at the changed understanding of theories everyone accepted as firmly in place. Even Einstein’s theory of a universe that always existed has been proven wrong. By a Catholic priest, if I remember right. (A Catholic priest who was a scientist, of course.)

    I hope writing this isn’t my need to get the last word. I just feel so strongly that people do not need to choose between science or the Bible. Children and adults alike need to know as much. It’s not an either/or. And I’m not talking about separating the approach so they exist as parallel but separate truths. We just don’t have a handle on a huge subject.

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