This is a continuation of the discussion started in the post titled The One Who Walks in the Garden.
There are, of course, other ways to look at the second and third chapters of Genesis. The “sin and fall” interpretation is about two thousand years old. Its interpretation of the Genesis story goes like this. God puts the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the center of the garden and tells Adam not to eat its fruit. Later, the serpent tells Eve that she and Adam can and should eat the fruit. Eve shares the fruit with Adam, who eats it without much protest. This eating of a piece of fruit constitutes “the Fall,” an act of profound disobedience to God that not only effects all of humanity, but all of the rest of creation as well. Carnivorous animals and flesh eating bacteria are the result of this fall, as much as human evil is. The story offers an explanation for why evil exists even though a loving God made a good creation that should, by definition, include no possibility of evil.
But there are many problems with this interpretation. For one, the second and third chapters of Genesis probably date from the 10th to 8th centuries b.c.e., and no one suggested that the story had anything to do with a fall from grace until the 2nd century b.c.e., meaning that this wasn’t an interpretation that anyone used for more than half a century. If an interpretation is obvious, it shouldn’t take six hundred years for anyone to arrive at it. But the interpretation also has its own logical flaws, as scholar Lyn Bechtel brilliantly points out:
“If the man and the woman are created immortal, why are they created sexual?…Or, the human is supposedly created immortal, yet the human is created from finite material, the ground of the earth. Or, if the garden represents a ‘paradise,’ it should, by definition, be devoid of binary opposition and have only life, goodness, permanence and prosperity. Why has God placed a tree for discernment of good and bad and a snake of evil and death in this paradise? Or if the woman is responsible for bringing evil and death into the world, why is she given the honorable and positive name ‘hawwa/Eve/Life, mother of all living? Why does the human not question the eating of the fruit?…Why, after eating the fruit, do the human and woman not fear sin and death but, instead, fear their nakedness? And why is it considered punishment for the human being to be sent out into the world to cultivate the ground from which the human is taken when it has been stated (in 2.5) that humans are intended to cultivate the ground of the earth?Lyn Bechtel, Rethinking the Interpretation of Genesis 2.4B-3.24
Bechtel proposes that Genesis 2-3 is not a story of the “Fall of Humanity” but is instead a story about human maturation. We mature mostly through differentiation, and the story knows that. When God creates Adam, Adam’s first job is to name the animals. He uses language to categorize them, and as he names each of them he asserts that they are different from him, in a separate category from his humanity. After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they become aware of their nakedness, which they have been indifferent to up until that moment. Indifference to nakedness is part of early childhood, and awareness of it is part of our sexual differentiation. We are different from God, as well, and part of this difference is that God is eternal and sees and understands everything. Eating the fruit gives humanity a piece of the divine knowledge, but the fact that we die means that we remain different from God.
The story uses these differentiations to comment on and illuminate fundamental aspects of human life. Human life is strange, many of our encounters with other people are mysterious, and the choices we make will have unforeseen and sometimes costly consequences. Death is real, and is in constant conversation with life. Having children is one of the main ways in which we both oppose and accept death. We will die, but our progeny will live on, and that assurance, and the love we feel for those who will come after us, helps us reconcile ourselves to death. We are sometimes in synch with other people, and sometimes we are deeply separated from them, and accepting this dance of intimacy and alienation is part of a mature life. We have a great deal of potential and are also very limited in what we can do, and everything has its moment. Sometimes a limitation becomes the wellspring of new potentials, and sometimes our potential is so diffuse that we can’t figure out what to do and feel that our choices are constrained by our confusion. We consider some things “high” and other things “low.” Like Adam, we categorize much of life into these two polls, and then we find ourselves unbalanced when something we thought of as “high” becomes “low.” The disciples were certainly unbalanced when the person they followed as a teacher and messiah was crucified as a common criminal. Their response to this imbalance was to change their categorizations. Part of maturity is to willingly accept this shift in categorization — to allow room for new knowledge and to shift one’s worldview to accommodate this new knowledge. Many things are under our control, and we can use our intelligence and creativity to cultivate relationships, ideas, and habits. But some things remain wild, beyond our control, and we become mature when we accept that we can be humbled through our encounters with wilderness.
I really like Bechtel’s idea that the story in Genesis 2-3 is a kind of field guide to human maturation, but of course it’s only one of many possible interpretations. The “Fall of Humanity” interpretation has its uses as well. It’s deeply ingrained in the worship of the Episcopal Church, and when I’m leading the Eucharistic Prayer, and come to the line “in your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ” I always experience a very visceral reaction. The deep sadness of our world overtakes me, and I need to remain present to that sadness if I hope to work to heal it. And the idea that Genesis 2-3 is a story of nostalgic mourning, told as humanity left hunter-gatherer ways behind, helps me to want to reintegrate my life with the earth, and to imagine other possibilities for ways of living. All of these interpretations have value, and by raising several possible ways of understanding the story I hope to expand its influence on our lives, rather than limit it. It is a great story, and one that invites all of our ideas, conversation, piety and wit.