It is taken as such in the theological tradition of which I am a part. When the Bible is read in this tradition, the first three chapters of Genesis or, to be generous, the first eleven chapters, are read as containing the first two crucial movements of the plot often ascribed to the Bible, Creation and Fall, with the third movement, Redemption, occupying most of the rest of the Bible, and the book of Revelation providing the fullest statement of the final movement, Consummation.
The weight given to the early chapters in Genesis in this scheme seems out of proportion not only to the space they occupy but to the importance they are given in the rest of the Old Testament, which never refers to the story of Adam and Eve again. True, the story of the garden is important in the New Testament, but that comes after the expansions of the story in the books of Enoch and Jubilees and the theological reflections on the story in books like the Wisdom of Solomon. If we want to read the Bible the way it lies rather than impose on it our theological scheme, we might want to step back and consider what these chapters are doing here and why they were placed where they are in the Bible. To do so is to raise the question about whether Genesis 3 is in fact a fall story.
With that in mind, let’s turn to the story itself. In interpreting these stories, we must always stay close to the text. Problems arise when we drift off from the text into theologies that don’t arise out of the text but are imposed on it. We soon end up asking questions of the text that are not answered in the text. Most famous of these is where Cain got his wife. We could and should begin with chapter 2 which tells the story of creation and tells it differently from Genesis 1, but for our purposes here, we’ll start our reading with Genesis 3.
When we come to Genesis 3, all the principal actors are on the stage: the man (called “Adam,” which in Hebrew means “humanity”), the woman (named in Genesis 3:20 by the man as Ḥavvah or, in English, Eve, which perhaps means “mother”), the animals, represented by the snake, and, of course, Yahweh God (called this only in these stories).
The story opens with the snake, “the cleverest among all God’s creatures” (3:1). We should note two things about the snake: first, that the snake is in fact a snake. One might expect in this context one of the mythological dragon figures that populate the rest of the Bible, including the book of Revelation, the tannîn (dragon) or Leviathan, but that is not what we get. We get an ordinary snake—a snake that talks, granted, but still a snake. It’s only later that the snake becomes the red dragon we meet, for example, in Revelation 12. The second note is related: the snake is said to be one of God’s creatures, not evil personified, an animal among other animals, even if “the cleverest of them all.” I take the snake to be a kind of representation of the world of nature. More on that in a subsequent post.
The story does suggest that intelligence is not confined to the human race. In the story, it’s the snake who presents the central issue, the issue framed by two trees. The two trees have already been presented in chapter 2. The one is the tree of life, a motif found often in Mesopotamian iconography. The second is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The focus at this point in the story is on the second tree.
It’s important to note that “good and evil” do not in this instance denote moral good and evil. It’s not the tree of the knowledge of righteousness and sin. If it were so, the writers would have used quite different terminology. “Good” here and “evil” are words that refer primarily to good and bad experience. Clearly, as we soon discover, “good and evil” is related to sexual experience. Having eaten the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve become aware that they are naked. In the same vein, old Barzillai the Gileadite uses the “the knowledge of good and evil” when David offers him a place in the king’s court. He says, “I am now eighty years old. How can I tell the difference [literally, “know”] between good and evil? Can I still taste what I eat and drink?” His ability to enjoy the royal court is, he thinks, beyond him.
It is more than this, the knowledge of good and evil. It is the root of human consciousness. It’s not just the experience of good and evil. Animals are quite capable of that. It’s the “knowledge of good and evil,” which means reflection on our experiences. Reflection, it’s important to add, not just on life but on death, good and evil. Evil here is ra` in Hebrew. ra` often means something like “disaster.”
Reflecting on good and evil, life and death, brings us to the second tree, the tree of life. Although the story doesn’t tell us explicitly, it’s likely that eating the fruit of the tree of life does not grant eternal life wholesale but is restorative along the lines of the Fountain of Youth. What’s clear is that in the garden humans can have one or the other but not both: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the fruit of the tree life. Once having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the door is shut to the tree of life.
Why is this the case? In the theology I learned as a child and later in seminary, it’s perfectly arbitrary—a test of obedience. This puts the Lord God in the position of being a bad parent. Parents know (or will soon discover) that setting an arbitrary rule as a test of obedience is not likely to turn out well. What’s more, the idea that this is just a test of obedience suggests that we can’t trust the story itself. What kind of God would do this?
Not, I think, the God of the Bible. No, the issue here isn’t obedience; it’s human life. It’s the meaning of human life. What Eve is reaching for when she reaches for the fruit is what we regard as the essence of human life. Human life is distinguished from both animal life—represented by the snake—and divine life. It is distinguished from animal life by precisely “the knowledge of good and evil”—the capacity to reflect on life and life’s experiences. It is distinguished from divine life by our dying. And God is determined to maintain the difference. As God says: “Since the humans have become like one of us [i.e., divine] in knowing good and evil, we cannot now allow them to reach out their hands and also take the fruit of the tree of life, and eat and live forever” (Genesis 3:22).
When Eve reaches for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she is reaching for that which defines us as human beings—this knowledge, this awareness. It comes, of course, with death. But, as the conservative Bible scholar John Walton has noted, death was always there. What’s key to the story is what God says to Adam in chapter 2. He says, “In the day you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
At least, that is how interpreters have taken what God said. It’s how the snake takes it in chapter 3, saying to Eve, “You will not surely die.” It appears at first that the snake is right, but the snake has profoundly misunderstood what God is saying. The grammatical construction in Hebrew, the infinitive for dying followed by the verb “to die,” can mean “surely die,” as it is most often translated, the infinitive intensifying the verb. But it can mean something else. It can mean “you will become aware of dying in a whole new way:” you will know what death really is. It’s that meaning I think God has in mind in the story. As a direct consequence of knowing good and evil, they will come to know death in that new way.
There is nothing arbitrary about this. It represents a real choice, a choice that in the dim past the human race has made, for our wisdom comes with the terrible knowledge of our dying. And yet this is what it means to be human. This is both our glory and our peril.
The story in Genesis 3 is not alone in pondering the mystery of human life in this way. There is an older story, fascinating for its own sake, that raises some of the same issues. The story is of Adapa, a legendary sage of ancient Mesopotamia. The story raises the themes of human power and human destructiveness, of human life and life eternal. In the next post, I’ll look at that story for the way it sheds light on the Genesis story. But for now, let me ask again, is this story in fact a fall story?
It’s not so clear, is it? If you were faced with the choice of the knowledge of good and evil or life, even eternal life, without this knowledge, which would you choose? That’s the question we are being asked to ponder in Genesis 3. Ponder it with me over the next few posts.