I began this series of posts with the question, “Is Genesis 3 a fall story?” The question can be answered in two ways. The first would be to say, yes, it is a fall story, but not in the usual sense. Better, and what I suggested in the previous post (“Is Genesis 3 a Fall Story and Does it Matter? II”) is that it is not a fall story but a story about who we are as human beings, which is a whole lot more complicated than the usual reading of Genesis 3 would allow.
If you want to grasp what is going on in these early Genesis texts, pay attention to God (Yahweh God) in Genesis 2-4 and 6-11. This is not the remote God of the theologians but a God who interacts with the humans he has created, adjusting creation over and over again to fit his creatures.
Already in Genesis 2:18, the Lord God says, “It is not good for the human (in Hebrew, ’adam is the common word for “humanity”) to be alone.” When the animals prove not to be suitable companions for this first human, God divides the human into two, man and woman. After the human couple gain the knowledge of good and evil, God drives them out of the Garden of Eden into a life filled with struggle and sorrow. When their descendants become more and more corrupt, we are told that “the Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” God determines to wipe humanity from his creation with a flood, but he preserves Noah and his family. After the flood, God, makes new arrangements with Noah. And when the humans build a tower in Babel, God confuses their language and scatters them to the four corners of the earth. In each case, God makes adjustments to his creation.
Genesis 3 is key in this sequence for in this chapter the first humans reach for that knowledge which up to this point has only belonged to divinity, the knowledge of good and evil. It’s this knowledge that sets humans apart from the animals and makes them capable of great good and great evil. Genesis 3 tells a story not so much of a fall as of the way humans grasp for something for which we are not fully prepared, this knowledge. Our grasping seems to have turned out badly not only for us but for creation itself. We are possessed of powers that at this point in the development of our species threaten to destroy us and all creation with us.
Genesis 3 invites us to reflect on that, who we are as humans, what’s right and what’s wrong with us. The story is subtle and powerful, but it has been undermined by a wooden reading of it that makes it an arbitrary test of obedience and, far too often, ends up in misogyny, blaming Eve for the troubles of the human race. In these posts, I have been inviting you to a richer reading of the texts.
But, I hear you say, what about Paul? Doesn’t Paul in Romans 5 (see also 1 Corinthians 15) require a reading of Genesis 3 as a fall story? Isn’t this a crucial part of Reformed and other theologies? Creation, Fall, Redemption. Isn’t that what Romans teaches us? It’s those questions I hope to address in this post.
Perhaps the first thing to note, if we are to look at Paul’s presentation of the Christian gospel in Romans, is that Paul doesn’t start with Adam. He gets to Adam in chapter 5, but he starts with the mess human beings have made of things. We are godless, sinful, guilty together of violating the rule of God. Paul does not need a fall story to say this; it’s quite enough to observe human beings in the flesh.
Out of this—skipping for now a bit of crucial theology at the end of chapter 3—Paul turns to Abraham and the theme of faith. The key text in this section of Romans is Genesis 15:6: “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted it as righteousness.” In this section of Romans, Paul is contrasting faith and law. The law looks back at what we have done. It judges us. Faith looks forward to what is being born. Faith—the faith of Abraham—is waiting, waiting for God to fulfil the promise that he has made. That’s the point of Genesis 15:6.
At the end of chapter 4, Paul says that our faith is also like this: “Not only was it written for Abraham that ‘it was counted [as righteousness],’ but also for us, to whom it will be so counted, to those of us who trust the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, Jesus, who was handed over [to death] for our transgressions and raised up for our righteousness” (4:23-25).
It’s these verses at the end of chapter 4, Paul’s chapter on the faith of Abraham, that introduce Romans 5, which begins: “Being then righteous by faith, we have peace before God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Peace” here echoes the Hebrew shalom, which means not just peace but well-being, wholeness, health. “Righteousness” echoes the Maccabean martyr stories (see 2 Maccabees 7:14, 23) in which resurrection is the reward for those who suffer horrible tortures for their faith. Resurrection wasn’t for ordinary people; it was for the heroes of the faith. When the rich young man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he probably has these same stories in mind. His question is whether if he is to inherit eternal life, he needs to do as these martyrs did.
To that question, Romans 5:1 answers that we are righteous by faith like Abraham. Like Abraham, we who believe are waiting for something to be born, not in this case a son but a new human race. Our face is turned not towards the past but towards the future.
It’s out of this thought that Paul a few verses later (12) launches into his discourse on Adam and Jesus. The introductory verse in this section is notable not only for what it says but what it doesn’t say. What it says is: “Therefore, as through one person sin found an opening into the world, so also death found an opening through sin, and thus death spread because all sin.” What it doesn’t say is what the Latin says, “death spread to all humanity in whom [Adam] all sinned.”
It was, at least in part, this misreading of Romans 5:12 that led Augustine into developing his theology of original sin. David Bentley Hart in a footnote to this verse in his translation of the New Testament says of that the Latin of Romans 5:12 is “one of the most consequential mistranslations in Christian history.” IF we have that mistranslation in mind when we read the rest of Romans 5, we will get Paul’s point wrong.
With verse 12 as the topic sentence, Paul goes on to develop the thought in terms of two humanities or perhaps better, two epochs. Verse 17 is key, although not easy to interpret: “If then by means of the trespass of the one death took over [literally “reigned”] through the one, how much more will those who receive the overflow of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.”
Note how Paul marks the two epochs. In the Adamic epoch, death rules. Indeed, this is the reality with which we live, do we not? In an age of COVID, of destructive climate-change induced storms, and of human violence, death does indeed reign. What Paul puts in front of us is the promise that death will be defeated and that, in Christ, we will rule and rule “in life” no less. As Abraham was called to look up at the stars and imagine them children, so we are called to look at this promise and believe that indeed this is what is to come.
In all of this, as John Walton, a conservative biblical scholar has observed, nothing requires us to read Genesis 3 as the story of the Fall. Paul here is reading scripture as he reads it in other places, as a document that speaks on a deep literary and theological level.
The Genesis story plays on two meanings of the Hebrew ‘adam: “humanity,” all of us together, and a single “human being.” In some places in Genesis, ‘adam is used as an ersatz name, “Adam.” These are stories about a human couple but always they are also stories about the human race.
Paul is doing the same thing. “Adam” for him means not just the Adam of the Genesis stories but the human race, all of us together. Sin enters the cosmos, as Paul says in Romans 5:17, every time one of us sins, and through us, not just the first human being but everyone of us, death enters and rules. We are in that sense all portals for the entry of sin and death.
In the same way, we become in faith Christ portals—openings for the grace of God. Life enters through us. This is our vocation as human beings. What this requires of us, as it did of Abraham, is leaning into the future, waiting in faith for what God is bringing.
What I regard as one of the chief failures of much of popular Christian theology is that it doesn’t take evil seriously. It doesn’t take evil serious in part because it doesn’t take the Bible seriously. Those who read Genesis 3 as a fall story are not taking the text seriously, not pondering who we are as human beings, the powers we have to build and destroy.
The evidence of this is how Christianity in our time and in our culture has become the last resort of those who would destroy rather than heal, who seek their own rights rather than the rights of others, who would elevate themselves by pulling down the rest. The root of this desecration of our faith lies in part in how we fail to take the Bible seriously—including and especially Genesis 3.
With that, I’ll bring this post to an end. I hope in the next few days to post another look at the fall of the human race in Genesis under the title: “Why Do We Insist on Making Genesis 3 a Fall Story and Ignore the Fall Story That’s There?” Stay tuned.