Friday, 12 June 2015

Reconsidering The Fall

In this essay I reconsider the Biblical teaching about the Fall. This is especially relevant in the light of interpretations of the garden story in Genesis 2-3 that do not regard Adam and Eve as the very first humans. Is the teaching of the Fall compatible with the view that humans were around long before 4000 BC? I focus on the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 as well as the Pauline understanding thereof. This is the fifth part in the series on the Book of Genesis.

The first story about humans in the Bible does not end well. It is a story about wrong choices which severely impacted on the lives of the main characters, Adam and Eve, their descendants and even the whole of mankind. It is the story of the "fall" of man. The author tells how they lost the earlier care-free life of innocence and ended up outside the garden of delight; they and their descendants were forever prohibited from entering again.

The story of the Fall and the doctrine derived from it, is of special importance in Christian teaching. One can even say that all Christian teaching is grounded on this basis - the fall of mankind underlies God's plan of salvation in accordance with the hope already announced in the story of Adam and Eve, namely that the "seed" of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent. The salvation that came through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ removed the stain of the Fall - it brought forgiveness from sin. Eventually Jesus will be victorious over all the remnants of the Fall, including death itself.

In this essay I discuss the doctrine of the Fall with special reference to the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. In this regard St. Paul's understanding of those events takes center stage - he was the first to formulate the doctrine of the Fall in the context of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection in his Epistle to the Romans, chapter 5-7. Often this doctrine is understood in terms of Adam and Eve being the very first humans: through their wrong choices the whole human race (who is taken as descending from them) and the whole of nature became fallen and death became part of life. One can, however, ask if this is the best way to understand St. Paul's writing on the topic? In this essay I propose that both the story in the Book of Genesis as well as St. Paul's writing suggest that we should not understand the Fall in such terms.

The Temptation of Adam and Eve by the Italian painter Giulio Romano (Orbetto) (1499-1546)

Problems with a simplistic view about the Fall

Christians often assume that the doctrine of the Fall is a rather straight-forward matter. This is, however, not the case. Although the casual reader - before careful consideration - might think that Adam and Eve's disobedience was the reason why human nature as well as nature as a whole became fallen and death entered the world, there are certain red herrings that should warn against that position. We, for example, find in the garden story which tells about Adam and Eve's fall from grace, that the serpent who tempted Eve is already depicted as one who works against God! This means that the author obviously did not want to say that the world became fallen because of Adam and Eve's disobedience. In fact, it seems that he assumes that some aspect of the world was fallen long before Adam and Eve enters the picture!

The context and background of both the creation and garden stories confirm this view. Of special interest in this regard is the fact that certain words and expressions that reflect imperfection occur right from the beginning of the story, for example: "without form", "void". This seems to imply that the cosmos was in some sense already "fallen" at that early stage. We also find that some of the things mentioned in the creation story symbolize sin and fallenness in the rest of the Bible, for example "night" and the season of Winter. Winter has since the earliest times been taken as a typical symbol of death.

Together these things give the distinct impression that the Fall did not originate with Adam and Eve! It rather suggests that there is a wider context in which the Fall should be understood, namely within the framework of the conflict between God and some other gods (i.e. fallen angels; Gen.3:5). In the garden story this is manifest in the conflicting roles of God and the serpent. Even among those Christians who view Adam and Eve's disobedience as the cause of the Fall, there are many who believe that this should be understood within the broader context of the fall of Lucifer (Satan) which happened (long) before the fall of Adam and Eve. This means that some aspect of creation was already fallen before Adam and Eve's fall from grace!

At this point the manner in which we regard this earlier fallen nature of the world (the cosmos) would depend on our view of creation and of Adam and Eve. If one holds to the young earth view (see [1] for a discussion of the different views) and think that Adam and Eve were the very first humans, then one would probably think that all humanity and even the earth became fallen (and that death entered the world) because of their disobedience. If, however, one holds another view (maybe the old earth, the polemical view or the view I presented in [1]) and interprets Genesis 1-3 as saying that there were other humans before Adam and Eve [2] (or take them as mere archetypal forebears), then one may assume that those early humans were already fallen - and would have died - long before the time of Adam and Eve.

I previously showed (in part 2 of the series) that we should distinguish between the 'adam (man) mentioned in the creation story, who includes both males and females and refers to mankind (Gen. 1:26-29; Gen. 5:1-2) and the central personage in the garden story who is later identified as Adam (Gen. 3:20). We read, for example, regarding 'adam: "Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name 'adam" (Gen. 5:1-2)  This implies that humans may have been around for a long time before the time when the story of Adam and Eve unfolds. This would also explain the presence of the people whom Cain feared beyond the boundaries of his home. (These people shared the fallen human condition as is clear from the fact that Cain feared for his life.)

The view that humans and animals existed and died long before the time of Adam and Eve is consistent with archaeological and biological (DNA) evidence. It rejects the idea of the Fall as the event through which all humans and nature as a whole became fallen. But how is this view to be reconciled with Adam and Eve's fall from grace and especially St. Paul's understanding of those events? Before I engage with this question, we should first consider the relevant motifs in the garden story.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil

There are various motifs in the garden story that are closely connected with Adam and Eve's disobedience and fall from grace. Among these are the strange name given to the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden, namely "tree of the knowledge of good and evil' (Gen. 2:17; 3:2-3), 2), the manner in which their disobedience is connected with death as well as the depiction of their awareness of their nudity. We should carefully consider these when we want to understand the Fall.

We can ask the question: Where did the name of the forbidden tree originate? According to the speaking serpent (see [3]) Adam and Eve's "eyes would be opened" once they ate of the fruit of the tree and they would be as gods, "knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). Does this mean that they would only then know the difference between good and evil? That they were originally innocent like small children who cannot distinguish between right and wrong? It seems to me extremely unlikely that this is what is meant. How could a just God punish them if He knew that they do not have the ability to decide between right and wrong? But this immediately suggests the next question: If they had the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and had an uncorrupted nature, why did they make the wrong choice? This question has haunted all interpreters of this passage. It seems to be a contradiction to say that their uncorrupted nature gave in to temptation (see James 1:14). 

There may be another way to understand the expression "knowledge of good and evil". I have previously proposed that the material in Genesis 1-11 reflects a very old tradition handed down in Abraham's family (who came from Sumeria to Canaan). As such the garden story should be understood in the context of ancient shamanistic practice [3]. I argued that the close connection between the serpent and the tree that bears this name - with the qualities of the fruit of the tree aligning with the serpent's purpose - goes back to ancient shamanistic contexts in which the cosmic tree plays a central role (regarding the fruit of the tree, see [3]). In such contexts a serpent was typically depicted at the bottom of a very large and beautiful tree. Although the Bible does not mention it, an eagle is also typically depicted in the top of the tree (I argued that the eagle corresponds with the Biblical cherubim). In the ancient world these symbols represented opposing cosmic powers.

How would that relate to the knowledge of good and evil? Since one can assume that it was general knowledge at that time that these realms stood in opposition to each other, it is unlikely that "good and evil" refers to the mere knowledge regarding these opposing realms. Rather, the knowledge of "good and evil" seems to be something that became known (knowledge) through their choice: they did not only made the wrong choice regarding these realms; it seems that their choice revealed something that goes much deeper, namely that they had an inclination (previously unknown to them) to disobey God. Although they knew what was right (good), their disobedience revealed something else, namely their fallen nature - it revealed something "evil" in their human condition. As such they became like the gods who presumably knew this (which explains why the serpent tempted Eve in the first place). In this interpretation of the garden story, Adam and Eve's disobedience did not bring about the Fall; rather, it reflected the Fall.

Since the Fall is so closely connected with death, we can now also reconsider the relation between Adam and Eve's disobedience and death. According to the story, God said that "in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die" (Gen. 2:17). The speaking serpent also mentions this when it said that they would not die when they touch the fruit of the forbidden tree as God has said (Gen. 3:3). On the surface it seems that the serpent was right after all; they did not die when they ate the fruit. This may suggest that physical death is not in the first place intended here. So, in what sense would they die?

Of special interest is the ancient Akkadian and Sumerian traditions according to which the serpent ruled over the realm of death. Not only is the symbol of the serpent closely associated with death; we find in some ancient Mesopotamian stories like that of Etana that the serpent controlled a deep pit at the bottom of the cosmic tree, which signifies the realm of death [4]. The serpent in the garden story also seems to represent the interests of that realm. As such the serpent seems to have known that Adam and Eve's human condition had a tendency to go against God, i.e. that it would align with the interests of the realm of death. That means that the realm of death had some hidden power over them which became manifest when they disobeyed God. Their choice therefore resulted in their "death" once they recognized the implications thereof. The reason why humans end up in that realm after death could then be ascribed to the power that Death (the realm of death) has over them due to their human condition.

This interpretation may explain why Adam and Eve's nakedness is so accentuated in the story. Their wrong choice revealed the deepest essence of their nature - it laid them bare before God. Their efforts to cover themselves with fig leaves reflect their shame in this regard. This also explains why they could no longer share communion with God. As sinful creatures (who are no longer in a state of innocence regarding this), they could no longer live in the presence of God in his garden close to his holy mountain (see [5]). They were expelled and the only way in which God could be approached in future would be through the atonement brought by sacrifice.

In the story shamanistic practice (which follows from the context) is rejected: Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree - which is now named after the events involving Adam and Eve. Instead another form of worship is introduced. Although shamans might operate as spiritual leaders in the context of the spiritual realm of the gods (i.e. angels), the mountain of God can only be approached through sacrifice. In the story God seems to have been the one who introduced sacrifice: He is said to have made Adam and Eve coats of skins to replace the fig leaves. This would have involved the slaughter of animals (Gen. 3:21). Furthermore, God did not require an offering of the fruit of one's labor which symbolizes one's own effort, but of animal sacrifice.

In this regard, it may be possible that the story had a particular purpose, namely to provide a divine model for the right kind of sacrifice (in the same manner that the creation story provides a divine model for the Sabbath; see [1]). This would mean that the author included this story in his narrative not merely to recount the earliest remembered interaction between God and man (i.e. to start at the known beginnings of that relationship), or to tell how this involved the discovery of man's fallen human condition (which seems to be the logical outcome of their first encounter with God), but especially the implications of this, namely that God rejects certain practices (i.e. to come into contact with the spiritual realm) and requires others to atone for sin.

As such God rejects those practices that are grounded in shamanism - practices like those ascribed to Balaam which involved enchantments (Num. 24:1; although such practices may also involve sacrifice that is not in the manner required by God). We find this rejection of occult practice throughout the Pentateuch. Instead, God requires certain animal sacrifices like those which Moses is said to have introduced into Israelite practice after the exodus during their time in the desert. The story therefore serves to confirm the validity of the Mosaic ceremonial laws. Such a context of writing would constitute a strong argument that the Book of Genesis was indeed written early as has been traditionally accepted [6].

In the final instance, we can say that this interpretation of the garden story places it at the transition from early hunter-gatherer society, which often involved shamanistic practice, to farming society. This transition involved various changes in society which are here taken as the outcome of Adam and Eve's exclusion from the garden: more decent clothing (replacing near-nakedness), domestication of animals, introduction of agriculture etc. The author also reinterprets certain things as the cursed outcome of Adam and Eve's fall: the snake would go on its belly, Eve would bring forth children through sorrow and Adam would work the ground in the sweat of his face. Although these things were present long before that time, they now became symbols of man's fallen (cursed) state. We find something similar later, when the rainbow is reinterpreted after the Flood as a symbol of God's covenant with man.

St. Paul's interpretation of the garden story

The fallen nature of man is never discussed in any detail in the Old Testament - it is merely accepted as a fact of life (see Job 14:4; Ps. 91 etc.). The first Biblical author who discusses it in some detail is St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans where he presents it in the context of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. In this regard he contrasts the first Adam with the second Adam, namely Jesus Christ. It was through the first Adam that sin entered the world, and with sin, also death: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses..." (Rom. 5:12, 13). The second Adam dealt with this problem though his free gift of salvation.

Readers often understand this passage as saying that Adam was the first to sin (in accordance with Jewish custom Adam is taken as the responsible party) and that through his sin all humanity became fallen - which is manifest in the fact that all die. But is this the best way to understand it? In my view we should understand it differently: through Adam came the knowledge of our sinful human condition through which death has power over us (see above). When St. Paul says that through Adam "sin entered into the world" he is merely saying that our knowledge about sin (as a human condition) goes back to Adam. What does this knowledge consist in? That all humans share that condition, which results in them dying. As such physical death can be understood as the consequence of sin.

Nowhere does St. Paul says that all humans became fallen through Adam's sin! He does not even hint at that. At most we can say that through Adam's sin the human condition was first revealed. (The arguments that all humans became fallen through Adam are based on the idea that God created him, as the first human being, sinless, that he in direct contradiction to his supposed sinless nature sinned, and that his subsequent fallen condition is shared with all humanity who descends from him - none of these reasons are given by St. Paul!).

One should note that St. Paul's discussion is about the role of the law. According to St. Paul the role of the law is to reveal sin for what it really is, i.e. that the human condition constitutes a law (namely, that of sin) which is only discovered though God's commandment (the Mosaic law). When the law came, "sin revived, and I died" (Rom. 7:9), that is, when humans recognize that they are ruled by the law of sin, then they become aware that they are under God's punishment: the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

When we assume that St. Paul applied the same logic throughout his discussion, including when he first introduced sin, then we can accept that he most probably thought (even though he never states it explicitly) that the fallen human condition was originally revealed in the same manner, namely when God gave Adam a law, i.e. not to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree (as precursor to the Mosaic law). Although sin and death then in some sense "reigned" from Adam to Moses, it was only when the Mosaic law came that God spelled out in detail what constitutes sin (previously humans had to rely in this regard on the law written on their hearts, i.e. their conscience - see Rom. 2:15). So, through the Mosaic law sin became "exceedingly sinful" (Rom. 7:13). It is in this context that St. Paul introduces the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as dealing with the problem of sin.

From this discussion it is clear that the idea that the Fall happened at the time of Adam and Eve is closely connected with a particular interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (a young earth, etc.). This is a view that does not reflect a good interpretation of the text (see [1, 2]) and which assumes many unwarranted things when interpreting what St. Paul says. Once we remove all this fog from the text, we can clearly see that the Fall and death that accompanies it, go back far in history. This is not only the better reading of the text, it is also in agreement with all scientific evidence (death goes back far beyond 4000 BC!). Christians who believe that Adam and Eve were real historical persons (see [2] for a discussion) may understand Adam and Eve's fall as the moment when the fallen human condition was first revealed. Christians who take them as mere archetypal figures may also regard their story as revealing the fallen human condition. As such, the death of Jesus Christ is the solution to that condition.


In this essay I discuss the Fall. I show that Christians often hold a simplistic view of the Fall which they accept without due consideration. Once we carefully consider the story of Adam and Eve as well as St. Paul's writing in this regard, it is immediately clear that the simplistic view creates more problems than it solves. How could Adam and Eve have sinned if they did not have a sinful human condition? Where did the people who lived beyond the area where Adam and Eve established themselves, came from and why did they share in their fallen condition (Cain feared for his life in this regard)? A careful analysis of the creation and garden stories show that the Fall went far beyond Adam and Eve - all earlier humans shared the same fate. Once we accept this, there is no reason why we cannot accept that it was merely the effect of the Fall that was revealed through Adam and Eve's disobedience.

My view of the Fall does not in any manner contradicts good Biblical teaching. It does not undermine the work of Jesus on the cross. In contrast, it does more to affirm that than the simplistic view. It accommodates more views. It shows that the Bible does not (radically - according to the simplistic view) contradicts science. In this manner it confirms the credibility of the Bible, as a book that guides us spiritually but which is also a credible source of history.

[1] See part 1 of the series
[2] See part 2 of the series
[3] See part 4 of the series
[4] In the story of Etana the symbols of the eagle and the serpent are associated with the realms of heaven and death. The eagle in the top of the tree is called Anzu, which means "to know heaven/God" whereas the serpent is associated with the "pit" at the bottom of the tree which signifies the realm of death. The conflict between these creatures may therefore reflect the conflict between these realms - very much as we find in the garden story in Genesis. The conflict between these realms (and the gods associated with them) is already present in a very early strata of ancient Akkadian/Sumerian tradition. 
[5] See part 3 of the series
[6] I have previously argued (in part 1 of the series) that we have good reason to think that Moses was the author of the Book of Genesis. I argued that the divine model of creation given in Genesis 1 would have served (as is typical in the ancient Middle East) as basis for introducing cultural practice, i.e. the Sabbath (see Gen. 2:3) as part of the Mosaic law. The most logical time for this kind of writing would have been when the Sabbath was first introduced. Since Moses is so strongly associated with the introduction of that law, we can take the claim that he was the author of the book serious. Now we find collaborative evidence: the divine model of sacrifice given in the context of the garden story in Genesis 2-5 would have served as basis for introducing the ceremonial laws. This means that this story would have been written when these were first introduced.
In the series on the Book of Genesis I have so far given many other reasons why this book should be considered as very old: lots of Sumerian motifs are included without any sign of post-Old Babylonian influences; the garden geography, the singular tree in the middle of the garden that bears fruit, the shamanistic context etc. involve ancient motifs going back to the pre-Akkadian period in Sumeria (i.e. 2350-2150 BC). There is absolutely no reason to ascribe a late date to the book - or the supposed sources used in it [8]. Obviously later editing, like the wording "of the Chaldees" (Gen. 11:28), should not be taken as evidence for a late date of the book itself!!.
[7] In my view we should read St. Paul's comments in 1 Cor. 15 regarding death and resurrection in the light of Rom. 5:14-18. We read: "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:21-22). In what sense do we all die in Adam? In my view St. Paul does not say that we all die because Adam has died! Through Adam sin entered the world (i.e. our knowledge of our fallen human condition) and through that came death (i.e. the awareness that death is the punishment of sin). We all die in Adam in the sense that it is through Adam's deed of disobedience that we became aware of the sinful human condition through which we were bound by the claws of death (previously kept in captivity; 1 Pet. 3:19, Eph. 4:8-10). Our resurrection is not merely from the state of death to that of life, but includes deliverance from the power of the domain of death to share in Christ's victory over sin and death (see also 1 Cor. 15:54-57).
[8] Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical approach.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. (Ref.
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Op soek na Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a scientist (PhD in Physics). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

Read also the other parts of the series on the Book of Genesis:
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