Last Sunday morning I heard a sermon on Genesis 3 that didn’t really sit right with me. The preacher was one of those nice, blameless, soft-spoken guys whose integrity no reasonable person would want to question. This wasn’t the first time I found his preaching to be somewhat lacking intellectually, but he has a certain moral standing that I don’t, and he plays a valuable role within his community of faith, so from my personal ethical perspective it would be wrong for me to tear him down for being too simple about his approach to faith. And I don’t mean it in any condescending way when I say that his style of faith is probably the best thing for him –– personally, psychologically, socially, etc. If I were to try to “fix” his approach I’m sure I’d do more harm than good.
But then I hear him preach in his own soft, matter-of-fact way about all our problems in life coming from historical mistakes made by our shared ancestors, how people would have just been so incredibly much more intelligent without the curse that came with the Fall, how the devil tricked humanity into wanting to be like God the same way he did, how gender role differences are based on this historical event, how bloodshed becomes necessary as a means of dealing with guilt… and I wonder, is this really the most constructive perspective to have on Christian life… or on life in general?
Theologically, particularly among Evangelicals, this is the ultimate “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation: Anyone who would dare to question such teaching is considered thoroughly unfit for their job, or for any responsible role within a respectable Christian society. If you start to question or to deny the importance and implications of the Fall of mankind into sin, you are inevitably belittling the extent of your dependence on God’s mercy. You may be setting out on a path of making excuses for your own sinful practices, and you have certainly fallen into the sin of pride, if nothing else. Left unchecked in this error, you could spread the “leaven” of your ways through the whole church, and cause others to enter into all sorts of sin. In the worst case you might cause anarchy to spread through the community by reducing people’s fear of God and respect for the authorities he has placed over them! So anyone who doesn’t see the obvious necessity of believing in the Fall as a literal historical event in order to be a Christian –– and anyone who is uncomfortable with the implications that Biblical literalists draw from this portion of the scriptures –– generally knows enough to stay quiet about it at least.
But it takes more than feeling like a little boy with no reputation to lose to solve this one. Complaining about the implied censorship does not answer the question, how should we look at the story in the third chapter of the Bible? What lessons would someone like me –– not having much of a moral reputation left to defend, but deeply interested in learning to better connect with others and with whatever transcendental realities are out there by way of the Christian tradition –– hope to draw from this portion of scripture?
Let’s back-track a little ways on this. How do we know that these events actually happened? Well, basically the record tells us that about 3500 years ago, give or take a century or two, a guy named Moses became the first literate member of the Hebrew slave community in Egypt, and after he led a successful revolt by way of which these slaves gained their freedom, he put their oral history into writing.
Now there is room to doubt exactly how close the book of Genesis as we have it today, in its original Hebrew language, is to the original writings of Moses on the matter. Some would go as far as to say that Moses is quite likely the same sort of mythical figure as King Arthur: someone made up to fulfil a need for a hero to build national pride around. But let’s set aside those reservations for the time being. Let’s assume for the moment that there really was a Moses who really did put the basic records given in the book of Genesis into writing. How do we know that he got the story straight historically?
It is entirely plausible that the legends of Jacob’s family, the four mothers of his children and the power-struggles between them, could have been accurately passed down from generation to generation to the time of Moses. The further back we go from there though, the more speculative the record becomes. There isn’t any specific record, for instance, of what happened between the breakdown of the unified civilization of all humanity in Babel and Abraham’s family’s move away from Ur, or what caused them to move. If that information was unknown to Moses, there is little reason to believe that he knew anything chronologically prior to that with anything resembling critical certainty, no matter how charitably we view the rest of his writings in historical terms.
So the basis on which Jews and Christians believe the stories in the first ten chapters of Genesis to be historically accurate is an assumption that God revealed to Moses, entirely flawlessly, what had happened in the time before the living memory of his people. Why should we believe that? Why would we suspend disbelief in this improbable sounding narrative being true? Standard answer: because God wanted us to be able to know these things with certainty. That’s why he revealed them to Moses as flawlessly as he did. Yet here comes the irony: The desire to know things with certainty is the precise bait which, in Genesis 3, the serpent used to convince the woman to eat the forbidden fruit. The forbidden fruit was not promiscuous sex, not some form of drug, not violence, but knowledge itself. So the belief that the story of the Fall is unquestionably historically accurate is in itself a form of grasping for the power of knowledge, which is exactly what the story itself is a cautionary tale against doing!
It’s easier for Christians to see the rational flaws in this way of thinking when those of other religions do it. The narratives in the Qur’an are the easiest example to give. Many of the stories there are re-tellings of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, a.k.a. the Old Testament. Yet the details of these stories are in many cases significantly altered, often without any historical or theological reason for changing them. Take, for example, the story of God commanding that the army be reduced in size by checking the manner in which the men drank from a stream. The Bible’s version goes like this:
“But the Lord said to Gideon, ‘There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, “This one shall go with you,” he shall go; but if I say, “This one shall not go with you,” he shall not go.’
So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, ‘Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.’ Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.
The Lord said to Gideon, ‘With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.’ So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others.” (Judges 7:4-8)
The Qur’an, on the other hand, tells the story like this:
“And when Saul went forth with the soldiers, he said, ‘Indeed, Allah will be testing you with a river. So whoever drinks from it is not of me, and whoever does not taste it is indeed of me, excepting one who takes [from it] in the hollow of his hand.’ But they drank from it, except a [very] few of them. Then when he had crossed it along with those who believed with him, they said, ‘There is no power for us today against Goliath and his soldiers.’ But those who were certain that they would meet Allah said, ‘How many a small company has overcome a large company by permission of Allah. And Allah is with the patient.’ And when they went forth to [face] Goliath and his soldiers, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour upon us patience and plant firmly our feet and give us victory over the disbelieving people.’” (Surah 2:249-250)
While it seems obvious from a Jewish or Christian perspective that the Prophet of Islam was retelling a story from the Bible that he heard during his years travelling around the Arabian Peninsula as a camel driver, only in rather mixed up form; the Muslim explanation is that God revealed a perfectly historically accurate version of the events to Muhammed, correcting the corruptions which had crept into the Old Testament version of things. They don’t explain how or why the deeds of Israel’s first king would have come to be attributed to one of their otherwise less important theocratic warlord judges instead, or how or why a victory over the Philistines would have been altered in the historical record to be a victory over the Midianites. To all but dogmatic Muslims themselves the Muslim dogma put forward in this debate sounds like very weak excuses for their prophet’s flawed memory in recalling stories he had heard in his youth as he integrated them into his poetic message about God not allowing the people of ancient Israel to take credit for the military miracles he performed for them. The moral of the story remains entirely the same; it’s just the historical details that are entirely mixed up. Still for the overwhelming majority of believing Muslims it is essential to believe that the information they have received via their scriptures is flawless, as this gives them confidence in their exclusive claims to the power that goes with certain forms of knowledge.
It is easy for Fundamentalist Christians to see this as a problem in Muslim thinking, but not in their own. If Muhammed could get the story of Gideon mixed up and add in his own details that have little to do with the historical account, why couldn’t Moses have done the same? Is there any reason why the “because God says so” argument works better in one case than the other? Just because we don’t have older versions of the story of Adam and Eve to compare Moses’ version with doesn’t mean that his mystical revelation insures that he got all the details historically right there. Rather than faith in the infallibility of the telling of the story, I believe that the important issue is to see what the story is trying to tell us about how we should relate to God and each other.
We still have to bear in mind that this came from a source which justified genocide as a valid form of obedience to God’s will (e.g., Deuteronomy 20:16-17). Therefor there’s no escaping the fact that either a) God has changed over the millennia, b) God is still a bloodthirsty psychopath or c) Moses made some mistakes –– not only in describing pre-history but also in articulating what God desires of mankind. Of these alternatives the third would seem to be the least problematic, especially given what we know about the low priority given to knowledge as such in the story Genesis 3.
So where does that leave us? Why don’t we try re-reading the story from a state of innocence, like we’re hearing it for the first time, knowing that it is a literary classic but not knowing much else about its message or truth-value. If it came up in this sort of way as a reading text in your book club, what would you think?
We start out with a talking snake… which already tells us that we have to suspend our everyday perspective and allow ourselves to enter into a world of magic. Nothing is said about this snake being a devil or anything. It’s just a snake: a particularly crafty animal, at worst perhaps somewhat of a phallic symbol that the woman finds herself attracted to. So the snake starts to wear down the woman’s resistance to the idea of acquiring knowledge in general by testing her knowledge of God’s prohibitions, which amounted to a grand total of one: Don’t eat from that tree right in the middle there. She embellishes the command a bit: Don’t touch. So obviously she doesn’t know much good from evil so yet. Umm… duh!
So the snake then continues with the seduction. He says that the death risk is exaggerated, and that the reward of being autonomous more than makes up for it. The problem is that God sets rules because he’s jealous and insecure. At that point, so the story goes, she notices three things about the forbidden fruit: it’s nutritious, it’s pretty, and it leads to wisdom. Now taken literally that makes little sense. She wouldn’t have been able to say much one way or the other about its nutritional value just by looking, and the path through to wisdom would have been even less obvious. But if we think about this as a feminine contemplation of the pros and cons of gaining an education, it becomes a little less absurd. Looking at the object not as some fruit, but as the process of gaining knowledge… yes, she might see where that knowledge could lead to better physical well-being; yes, that knowledge might have its own aesthetic rewards involved; and yes, that knowledge could lead to the greater benefit beyond itself of attaining wisdom.
Now what the snake didn’t say was that knowledge always involves separation, comparison… the fish-out-of-water thing that I’ve talked about in previous blogs this summer. But that’s adding in a level of interpretation that keeps us from reading the story from a position of innocence. Then again, we’ve arrived at the point in the story where innocence is lost: The woman dives into the learning process, and starts teaching her husband a thing or two as well. The immediate result of the effort to gain power through knowledge: a fear of vulnerability –– they came to see themselves as naked and exposed, and they tried to hide their most vulnerable spots from each other using the comically hopeless measure of sewing fig leaves together.
Then God comes by, just on an afternoon stroll. Now if you had to suspend disbelief to go along with the talking snake, you really have to stretch your imagination to think of God as just this regular guy enjoying his casual afternoon walk in the garden and looking for someone to hang out with and talk to. Had God not really become God yet, in the sense of being the massive power that made the whole universe? Was he not omniscient and omnipresent yet? Anyway, somehow God is just wandering around in the garden looking for Adam to hang out with him like his big buddy, but he’s a bit confused about not finding Adam hanging out there the way he usually is (another strange detail), so God finally gives a yell: “Yo Adam, where ya at?”
Adam comes out of hiding and says, “Sorry, heard you coming and I felt funny about coming out with my bits down there just dangling in the breeze like this.”
To which God says, “Why should that bother you all of a sudden? You’ve been getting into that fruit I told you to stay away from, haven’t you?” Pwned. Then the blame-game starts.
“This woman that you gave me, she made me do it.”
“OK, woman, what have you got to say for yourself?”
“Well, the snake tricked me…”
Next the story tells of God starting to dish out the curses: The snake gets to be face in the dirt for the rest of time, with continuous tension between its head and the feet of humanity. The woman gets to have childbirth in the same pain category as kidney stones, and gets to be told what to do by men all the time. For the man, working life really starts to suck, and things start never going the way we want them to. Briars come up where we’re hoping for grain, and dealing with that is never going to be easy.
So the question is from there is would these things have been otherwise if mankind had never, on account of a female initiative, taken an interest in education? Do these things happen just because our ancestors fundamentally screwed something up by try to get an education? That seems a bit unlikely, in spite of Fundamentalists’ claims to the contrary. More likely is that this goes with a lesser sort of God dishing out these proclamations –– the sort of god who gets confused and pissed about not finding his afternoon drinking buddy at their regular spot –– who decides that he wants people to feel like all of the problems that go with life being what it is are now their fault. This goes together with the line given to God in verse 22: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
Who the “us” is there is another interesting question. The natural answer would be that the original story teller here was thinking of God as part of a community of higher beings who resented this pair of “subjects” or “pets” of theirs getting too close to their level. God and his comrades decided that humans needed to be kicked back down the ladder by a few rungs. In other words, according to the ending of the story here, the snake was in fact entirely right in everything he said in verses 4 and 5!
In between there are a few more little details given. First, it’s only after they have received the forbidden fruit of education and been cursed for it that Adam bothers to give his wife a name. Second, God decides to give them animal skins as a more suitable form of clothing than fig leaves. Third, they are driven to the east, with an angel stopping them from going back to where life was better, in the west. You can work out your own theories of why those factors were considered important here.
So where does this story leave us? Like any literary classic it provides us with a bigger collection of metaphors to use in talking about the human condition, but more than that what? One thing that jumps out at me is that Moses, or whoever her borrowed the earliest version of this story from, was prone to being a bit pissed at God every now and again. It sort of goes together with the message of the book of Job: Sometimes God just doesn’t seem to care, and just because someone is suffering doesn’t mean that they’ve acted dishonestly, rebelliously, hatefully or cruelly towards others; it could just as well be that God was in a capricious mood –– or more charitably, He has his own purposes that we don’t understand.
But rather than playing blame games with some primitive image of God, we can stop to consider the question of what we really want to learn and why. Are we trying to use knowledge as a means of controlling each other and getting to the top of the competitive pile; or are we trying to use knowledge to increase our thriving in non-competitive ways (it being “good for food”), find new ways of appreciating beauty (it being “pleasing to the eye”) and eventually achieve true wisdom (it being “also desirable for gaining wisdom” –– all from Genesis 3:6)? The God I worship is not threatened by my attempts at achieving knowledge for these latter purposes, and I actually consider it to be an act of worship to help others to attain knowledge for the same purposes.
Admittedly it is hard to separate these types of motivation from each other. Perhaps the best litmus test in the matter is to see how ashamed and vulnerable our knowledge makes us feel. The more “fig leaf” cover-up it makes us prone to see as necessary, the greater the potential evil of the knowledge in question. Thus it is particularly important to avoid the sort of “scriptural knowledge” which some use as a means by which to condemn and shame others. I strongly believe that God has kept himself a mystery from us in so many ways specifically to prevent us from having a legitimate claim to divine sanction in our attempts to use our knowledge to overpower each other. I don’t see him as being really insecure about our creeping up to a level where we could be a competitive threat to him, as Genesis 3:22 would imply. The issue is that getting into power struggles and holy wars with each other in order to get that wonderful feeling of being victorious in the end is not part of God’s plan for our lives.
I have probably now succeeded in alienating myself both from those who take the Bible or the Qur’an as the final word in spiritual truth, and from those who believe that the whole idea of a spiritual world is dangerous abstraction developed by silly, fuzzy thinkers. So be it. I do in fact reject both strictly materialistic atheism and all forms of religious fundamentalism. But to the extent that it is up to me, I hope to live at peace with all on either side who would be willing to live at peace with me –– without feeling it necessary to for us to either convert or dispose of each other. My goal –– while carefully avoiding any form of sexual harassment –– is for my learning processes to enable me to be ever more “naked and unashamed” in the sort of way that “Adam and his wife” were before their particular learning processes screwed that up for them. Building that sort of redemptive love and trust indeed requires a bit of a miracle, but that’s a whole different sermon.
Go in peace.