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


  1. I also used to think that the choice in Genesis 3 is a strange one? What does God have agianst knowledge? And why would the tree be called the tree of the knowledge of good AND evil instead of OR. . . .?

    I now think that the choice was about the SOURCE of the knowledge of good AND evil. God made the other animals with inborn instinct. This animal in his image he gave the choice of whether to accept what God said was good and evil or to want to decide for themselves what was good and evil. Who would be the source of that knowledge. The tree of the source of the knowledge of good and evil would be the test! But they wanted “to do what was right in their own eyes.”

    I am using here Augustine’s testing period of going FROM posse peccare AND posse non peccare TO EITHER non posse peccare [if they trusted God] OR TO non posse non peccare.[if they did not]. Already in early childhood we say, “I do it myself!” and “Who made you the boss of me?”

    The promised salvation from this deathly consequence is the gift of rebirth with the law of God written on the heart. Now I will be able to keep the tenth commandment so that “no thought or desire contrary to any of God’s commandments should ever arise in my heart.” [HCQA 113] and thus the rest also. Because that will be what I want.

    • Hi Daniel, I wrote you a rather lengthy response and then, it seems, lost it. I’ll try again, this time keeping my response shorter, I hope.

      I’m not sure Augustine helps in this case. You are right to suggest that Augustine’s reading of the Genesis texts is important. His view of sin and the fall has haunted Western theology since the early fifth century CE. The question is whether Augustine’s legacy in this matter has been salutary or misleading. Perhaps, it’s both, but I think on the whole it’s been a great theological distraction.

      The part of Augustine’s teaching on the fall that you cite, the whole posse pecarre series, does not arise out of the Genesis texts. This formula sets up Genesis 3 as a test of obedience. On this view, the point is not the trees and what they represent but the command that the first humans not eat of the one tree. The tree could just as well have been an apple tree (as it’s always represented in cartoons), conveying to those who ate of it nothing more than a tasty bite to eat. The point (in Augustine’s reading) is that it was forbidden. But this reading–common enough still today–misses what is going in the text. The tree in the middle of the garden was the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It’s this knowledge that Eve reached for when she reached for the fruit. It’s what the text says. It’s this knowledge which is, at least now, a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. We are knowers of good and evil. We would not be otherwise. And it’s this knowledge which is both wonderful and dangerous, which is the point of the story. Because we have this ability to reflect–this knowledge–we imperil creation itself. Global warming, nuclear destruction, species destruction–all of these are the consequences of our possession of this knowledge. Augustine, of course, didn’t read Hebrew. Nor much Greek. And he didn’t have the Mesopotamian stories like Adapa and Gilgamesh that raise the same questions, sometimes in almost the same terms. His discussion of sin owes more to the theological debates of his time than to the text itself.

      I should perhaps say more about this, but I’ll not extend this response further except to mention that another part of Augustine’s legacy is his idea of original sin, based in part on a bad Latin translation of Romans 5:12 (check out the footnote in David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament for the details). Wrapped up in this is his abhorrence of the sex act. The Bible has much to say about evil, and what it teaches is instructive for our present age, but in grasping this crucial part of the biblical conversation, Augustine, great in so many ways, has not been helpful.

      • Clay,
        Thanks for your response. Partly because I do not reallly understand what you are saying, and partly because I think you might not understand what I was trying to say. I will make another stab at saying how I understand our original sin and rescue.

        I think that the crucial question is this: What was the KNOWLDGE that this tree would give? [Think of Adam and Eve as “us.”]

        We already knew what the words good and evil meant because that was the name of the tree. If you know what good is, you already know what NOT good is. If you know what light is, you know what darkness is. And we already knew one evil thing; namely, the thing that God called the tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil was not good for us to eat from, eating from it was evil. [Trees are not good or evil in themselves]

        So that was the TEST–would we believe / trust God telling us not to eat of it (that eating of it was not good for us)? OR would we want to decide for ourselves what was good and evil? It was not just a test of obedience to this command; it determined whether or not we, and the whole human race, would know how to be what God intended us to be

        It could not be more stark. God said not to eat. But it looks good to us. We like deciding for ourselves. So for a number of reasons, including that it would make us like God, we ate, As always, the tempter used half-truths. Deciding what was good and evil is an act of the maker [think manufacturer’s instructions]. We would be [TRYING to be] LIKE God. The tempter just did not tell us that we were unable to do it correctly–the not true other half of the temptation
        Failing the test meant the begining of our self-destructdion
        Passing the test would have meant that we would be willing to let God guide us to life, health, and peace. The right way to live would be willingly what we wanted, as instinct was created into the rest of living things.

        So what was the Knowldege that eating or not eating from it would provide? It would decide the SOURCE of our knowledge of good and evil ! It is the tree that asked: Where will we get our knowledge of good and evil FROM? From our maker? From ourselves?

        God’s rescue plan is described in various ways redeeming us from this deathly self-inflicted ignorance.
        First chapter of Isaiah describes our problem as not knowing as much as animals who have instinct.
        He told us what the inner law would have looked like, including that crucial last commandment that we would then have automatically wanted to love God and our neighbor [But knowing that AS A LAW, does not enable us to do it.]
        He will take out our heart of stone, and He will write his law on our heart.
        We must be born again
        We are set free from the tyranny of the devil, from the law of sin and death Ro 8.2
        The Spirit we received brought about our adoption to sonship Ro 8.15

        I will also check out those other references you provided.

        With appreciation,

        Daniel Bos

      • Daniel, thanks for your reply. I’m sorry that I have not been entirely clear in what I have written. The story is enigmatic, as all good stories are. In what follows, I’ll try to be plainer.

        I do understand what you are driving at in your responses to my post. You are suggesting the story is not so much a matter of knowledge–the knowledge of good and evil–but of judgment: who decides what is good and what is evil. Choosing against the command of God, the couple decides (and we with them) to make themselves the measure of good and evil and thereby to put themselves in the place of God. Is this an accurate summary of your point of view?

        I get this. Something like this is at the heart of the book of Job. But this is not what the story in Genesis 3 is about. Or, as we shall see, not just this.

        Your position seems to me to neglect what the story actually tells us: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is about knowledge. The tree appears in four places in our story: (1) in 2:9-10 which introduces the trees and, by placing the tree of knowledge of good and evil last in the sentence, draws the readers attention to it. Nothing much there.

        (2) It appears next in 2:16-17 where the Lord God gives the command permitting the `adam (not yet gendered) to eat of all the trees of the garden with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and adding that “in the day you eat of it, you will die.” In a previous post, I raised the issue of the meaning of the Hebrew here. Does the infinite modifier intensify the meaning of the verb in this case, “you will surely die” or something of that sort, or does it have a modal meaning (see Waltke and O’Connor Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 587), something along the lines of “you will know death in a new way.” I suspect that this grammatical distinction is one of the things that is at stake in Eve’s discussion with the serpent. The serpent fails to grasp the true meaning of the statement, as have many readers ever since.

        (3) It next appears several times in 3:1-7, the dialogue between Eve and the serpent and the account of what happens when the human couple actually eat the fruit. This is the key section of the story. It’s worth noting that the serpent is right in saying that reaching for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will given humans divine powers. It’s here that the choice is most clearly framed: If the human couple eat of the tree, they will have divine knowledge but at the price of death (see Gilgamesh and Adapa); if they don’t eat of it, they will have life but not divine knowledge. Which would you choose?

        And, last, the tree appears in 3:22-23 when the Lord God says that now that the couple have eaten of the fruit, they have become like “one of us” (divine beings) “knowing good and evil.” This last remark by God clearly says that something has changed with regard to human beings: having before not known good and evil, they now know it. Having before not had divine knowledge, they now have it. This is exactly what the serpent promises in the dialogue with Eve. Their eyes will be opened, and indeed when they eat the fruit, their eyes are opened, and they discover that they are naked.

        It appears from the use of the phrase “good and evil” elsewhere in the Bible (it seldom appears) that it can be used to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood in all its ramifications (note Deuteronomy 1:39) including sexual awareness (see 2 Samuel 19:36). The story cues us to this aspect of the meaning of the phrase by drawing attention to how the couple becomes aware for the first time the they are naked. It’s more than this, of course. Eve in considering whether to eat the fruit sees not only that it is good to eat and lovely to the eye but that it conveys wisdom. Indeed, another aspect of “the knowledge of good and evil” appears to be a capacity for self-determination as an aspect of adulthood, which fits in some measure with what you were saying. (It should be noted that the words here are not moral words: Hebrew tob and ra` refer to the experiences of good and bad, not to moral categories, for which Hebrew has other words.)

        All of this is tied up with being human. We have, as the story indicates, reached for and grasped this kind of knowledge. This is both our promise and our peril. It’s as much an ascent as a fall, which is just what the story says. We are now, as God says, like one of them–the denizens of heaven rather than earth. We cannot be again as the animals appear to be, not knowing good and evil. The typical theology of the fall misses the paradoxical meaning of the story. But the ancients didn’t. As I mentioned before Genesis 2-3 appears to be in conversation with other ancient stories.

        So, Daniel, you are not wrong. The impulse to self-determination is part of the story, but is that all bad? That’s what the story is asking us. And, as usual, the wisdom is less in a single answer than in the discussion itself.

      • My position is that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil really IS about knowledge. The Tee was the test.

        If they in obedience to God did not eat, he would have given them the knowledge they needed to know about what was real, what the good life was, and what a good person was. God was their maker. He knew what was and was not good for them. They would know what they were made for and how to live life to the full, flourishing in shalom. It is the manufacturer who gives the manufacturer’s instructions about the proper use of the item. It is the creator who knows how he made mankind to live. He would not only give them the information about true human good and evil; he would create in them the desire to live that way–non posse peccare.

        If in disobedience to God’s command they did eat of the tree, then they would be condemned to have to figure out for themselves what was real and what was good and not good. That was the serpent’s half-truth: “You will be like God.” It would be laughable if it were not so tragic, Adam and Eve wanted to decide for themselves how to live! That is the kind of thing that only the creator God can know and give to us. And now they were condemned to have to do so for themselves. They and all their descendants have not been able even to keep themselves alive. Mankind was now destined to die.

        Throughout all the prophetic literature, beginning in Isaiah chapter 1, the prophets lament that God’s people do not have true knowledge. They know less than the animals who at least know where their true home is. God given instinct is what we call how animals know how to live the good life qua animal.

        For the animal made in God’s own image, he gave them the choice to accept his love and wisdom as better than their own. Now mankind’s only hope for rescue from death is to have a restart–to be born again. We are all looking forward to the time when we will live in knowledge like Jesus did, with his knowledge of what is good and evil for us written on our hearts the way God intended from the beginning.

        I have not yet, if ever at age 81, figured out the rest of the theological implications of this position. But it fits with the HC understanding of the tenth commandment. This tenth point of how God intended us to live was the good news that we are supposed to do it automatically. Even though we cannot do that yet, resurrection is coming! That must have been the Apostle Paul’s understanding when he says that “Thou shall not covet” finally made him realize that he was unable to use the law to get himself fully righteous. The tenth commandment, thankfully, condemns all our attempts at self-righteousness. How can you TRY to do something automatically?


        Thank you for letting me talk about all this.


  2. C. Who is this chaos monster, Rahab? Any relation to the Jericho Rahab? If not, where is she mentioned or is it he? Al

    • Hi Al, I’m not sure my original response to you comment went through, so here’s another stab at it. The Rahab I referenced is the chaos monster mentioned Isaiah 51:9, Psalm 89:11, and Job 9:13. In Hebrew the two names are spelled differently. The name for the chaos monster is spelled with a middle h sound, the letter he in Hebrew; the Jericho prostitute’s name is spelled with a middle chet, a sound we don’t have in English. It’s the same letter as you find at the beginning of Hanukkah and chutzpah. It comes from a root that means “to be broad.” Do with that what you wish.

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