Fall stories are important (fall stories of the theological sort; not stories about the season). They account for what has gone wrong in our world. Perhaps, that’s not quite the right way to put it. “Gone wrong” implies that there was an earlier time when things had not gone wrong. But not all stories accounting for evil in our world require a time when things had not gone wrong. The wrong can be always with us, a condition of being human. Whatever the case, it’s important that we get right what’s wrong with our world and ourselves, or we will try to fix the wrong thing and fix it in the wrong way. Which, I believe, continues to happen.
In this series of posts, I’ve been talking about the story in Genesis 3 that in some theologies is known simply as “The Fall,” as if that were the only reading of the text. My NIV Bible, for example, entitles Genesis 3 simply as “The Fall.” The same for the ESV. Titles are placed there by translators and editors; they have no status as scripture. But they direct the eyes and minds of readers in certain directions, and in this case in the direction is a reading of Genesis 3 as the story, even the history, of “The Fall.” A reading that, in my opinion and that of many biblical scholars, does not arise out of the text.
Despite the titles affixed the Genesis 3 story, it’s not called “the fall” anywhere in the Bible, nor is it transparently a fall story. Those conclusions have been the burden of the previous posts. I’ll not review those posts here, except to say that there are other stories in the Bible about the origins of evil, including a story that rarely gets mentioned. A forgotten fall story. It’s that story that is my focus in this post.
This fall story is not long, so I’ll quote it here in its entirety and in my own translation: “And so it happened that the human race began to expand on the face of the earth [in the Hebrew original, it’s the ‘adam, “human race,” on the face of the ‘adamah, “the ground,”a pun repeated from 2:7]. Daughters were born to them—to the humans—and the inhabitants of the divine world [in Hebrew, “sons of god”] noticed that human women were fine [to look at], and they took them for wives, whomever they chose. Yhwh [the ancient and unpronounced name of God] said, ‘My breath will not forever abide with humans, after all they are but flesh. Their lifetime will be a hundred and twenty years. Now there were in those days—and later, too–Nephilim on the earth because the inhabitants of the divine world had had sex with human women who bore them children; they were famous warriors of old. (Genesis 6:1-4)
This startling passage appears to be a fragment of a larger story. In fact, we have a version of that larger story in the 3rd century BCE book known as 1 Enoch. Actually, 1 Enoch has not just one but several somewhat different versions of the story existing somewhat uneasily side-by-side.
So, what is the story here? That’s not entirely clear. Consider again Genesis 3. Genesis 3 frames the human dilemma in terms of two trees: a tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Life and knowledge. You can have one or the other but not both. If you choose the tree of knowledge, you thereby choose death; if you choose the tree of life, you are not permitted to choose knowledge of good and evil. It’s this dilemma Yhwh God puts before Adam and Eve.
Think of these choices as mediating between two worlds. One is the world of nature, of the animals. Animals lack the sort of knowledge that is represented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They lack, for example, the kind of knowledge that leads to the shame that Adam and Eve experienced after they had eaten of the fruit of the tree and become aware that they were naked. Nakedness in this story is not just physical nakedness but that capacity that humans have to distinguish between who they are on the outside—appearances—and who they are on the inside—our interior life. Animals seem to lack this capacity—or, at least, so the story assumes.
This knowledge, said in the story to be divine knowledge, once gained by human beings alienates us at a fundamental level from the world of nature. We are not simply animals. Or, to put this more precisely, we are animals but we are also something something else, something more, something God-like.
This capacity is not something that was conveyed directly by the fruit of the tree. The fruit contained no such magic. Humans stepped into this new knowledge not by eating the fruit but by reaching for it. Once humans opened themselves to this knowledge they became something new and alien in the world of nature: creatures who were self-aware, who have the capacity to create culture, who have the knowledge not only to survive in the world but to alter it. Gods, as it were.
But humans at the same time remain a part of nature, a point that is emphasized by the internal Hebrew pun between ‘adam, “humanity,” and ‘adamah,” the soil of the earth. As God says to Adam, “Dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). We die. But something had changed. Before we knew good and evil, death was natural, as it is in the animal world. Even in the Garden, there had to be death. Eating requires death. Even eating the fruit of the tree requires the death of the seed of the tree. But now in the story death takes on a new dimension. It becomes tragic. It’s this the Lord God means when he says in Genesis 2, “On the day you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], you will surely die.”
Genesis 3 represents one strand of thinking in the ancient world about what it means to be human. The same themes are explored in Mesopotamian stories like the story of Adapa and the South Wind and Gilgamesh, both which have considerable overlap with Genesis 3. But there are other strands of thinking about the human condition in the ancient world at large and in the Bible. One such is the story I quoted above, the story of the congress between divine beings (“sons of God” in the Hebrew) and humans (“the daughters of men”). What happens when the line between the divine world and the human world is crossed? In some respects, it’s the same question as the one posed in Genesis 3, but it’s posed in very different terms.
As I mentioned above, Genesis 6:1-4 appears to be a fragment of a larger story. (In fact, all of the stories in Genesis appear somewhat fragmentary, as if in every case there is more to the story.) 1 Enoch (the 3rdcentury BCE compilation of Enoch stories), in what has become known as the “Book of Watchers” (chapters 1-36), explores at least three different ways to tell the story, each with a somewhat different accounting for the corruption of creation.
One is very much like the fragmentary story in Genesis 6. The divine beings, the “sons of God” initiate the action. They look at women on earth, find them beautiful, and decide to take them for themselves. Out of that union come giants, the Nephilim, and heroes of old, powerful people.
This story reflects Mesopotamian stories of ancient kings like the story of Gilgamesh, who is said to be both human and divine. But in 1 Enoch, the divine beings go a step further. They not only take human wives, but they share with them secret knowledge, knowledge until then known only to heaven. The knowledge is particularly of the magic arts, but in some places in the account it also includes what we would call technology, especially the technology of war. It’s this knowledge, transmitted from the divine beings to their human wives, that corrupts the human race.
This is a Pandora’s box view of human evil. We have come to possess powers and knowledge that can do great good or great harm. Take the knowledge gained in the past century about the atom. It has given to human beings—mere mortals, as we are—not only new understanding of our world but the capacity to blow it up, to destroy it. Are we wise enough for such knowledge? Or, to bring the discussion into the present, what about our knowledge of the genetic code and how to manipulate it? Are Crispr babies next? And do we have the wisdom for that possibility and, perhaps, eventuality? Once out of the box, there seems to be no putting it back in. We have been given knowledge too wonderful for us.
In a variant telling of the story, also in 1 Enoch, the divine beings share their secrets, but it’s the humans who use it to draw the divine beings down to earth. From the secrets taught to them by the Watchers (the divine beings), women learn the art of makeup and thus seduce the Watchers. This telling of the story hints at the misogyny inherent in the 1 Enoch stories. There is a deep suspicion of women, the power they have to entice and control not only earth but heaven.
A third version of the story suggests that the problem is not just knowledge but the mixing of spirit and flesh. Or, better, power. A being consisting of both the stuff of heaven and the stuff of earth can only be, in this view, a monster. We catch a whiff of this telling of the story in Genesis 6:4 and in a passage I haven’t mentioned up to now, Numbers 13:33. At the end of Numbers 13, men sent to spy out the land of Canaan return to the Israelite camp to report their findings.to Moses and the others. They say that the land is wonderful, as advertised, flowing “with milk and honey,” but that the people of the land are too strong for them. They are tall (13:32), and some of them are descendants of the Nephilim, descendants, that is, of the union of divine fathers and human mothers (13:33).
There is no way to tell if the spies actually believed this, but it points to a particular kind of ancient and, for that matter, modern corruption, the corruption of the powerful, people who can do as they please and often do just that. At the beginning of the Gilgamesh story, Gilgamesh is said not only to wear out the young men of Uruk with his games but to require that he spend the first night with their brides. In this view, unchecked power leads to evil. In the Gilgamesh story, it’s death that finally checks his power, the death of his friend Enkidu and the prospect of his own death. Wisdom is taught to us by death, which may also be part of the point in Genesis 3.
So why are we the way we are? The Bible ponders this question and suggests not a single, simplistic answer, but several answers. One group of answers suggests that evil comes to the human race from the outside, the Watchers in our Genesis 6 and 1 Enoch stories. A separate strain of stories but still along this line suggest that evil is fundamentally disorder, represented symbolically by the chaos monsters known the Bible as Rahab and Leviathan. Another group of answers suggest that not only creation but the divine world itself has been spoiled by the peculiar creatures we humans are, mortals in possession of divine knowledge.
The modern world inclines more to the second group of answers than to the first. Science suggests that we are descended from a long line of creatures who survived by being vicious—killers. In this view, even today our civilized ways only paper over a human nature that is fundamentally selfish and ruthless. What’s further is that this is just how God sees it in the verse following the Genesis 6:1-4 story: “Yhwh saw how great the evil of the human race had grown to be on the earth and how their every impulse and thought was only evil all day long” (Genesis 6:5).
On this view, one to which I personally incline, the human race has not awakened to evil; what we have awakened to is goodness. Paul gets at this in Romans when he says, “To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law” (Romans 5:13). The law here represents our awakening to goodness—to God, to love, to beauty, to all the goodness that we long for. Before we had awakened to goodness—before, that is, we knew good and evil—we were like other animals in the business of survival. Killing was not murder until we knew good from evil. But once we had awakened to the possibility of goodness, we could no longer be what we had been. There is no going back. There is only going forward, which is what the “kingdom of God” in the preaching of Jesus is all about.
In that sense, our history as a human race is not so much a fall as an awakening, and the Bible is the story of that awakening, and it’s into that awakening that we are called by our Lord, who is, as Hebrews has it, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Perhaps I’ll go there next in this series of posts, not to what’s wrong but to how God sets is right.
Until then, Clay