The Human Peril: A Reading of the Story of the Fall

Some weeks back, the award-winning Tucson choral group, True Concord, presented the premier of a stunning new work for choir and orchestra: Earth Symphony (“Choral”), music by Jake Runestad and libretto by Todd Boss. The work tells a story with biblical themes, creation, fall, and restoration, but the story is both different from the biblical story and deeply disturbing. 

The primary voice in the libretto is earth itself. In the liquid clarity of Boss’s poetry, Earth tells first the story of the creation of humankind with delight. After eons of emptiness, “Then you were born:/Humankind! and soon upon your face/there dawned a trace of mind.” Humans reflect back to Earth Earth’s own image: “You were my light. Never shall I dare to dream/another dream so bright.” Earth’s fond name for humanity is “Mirabilia,” “Miracles.”

The fall is told in terms of the Icarus story: the child who flew too close to the sun, whose wings melted in the heat, and who fell into the sea. Humanity in its heedless desire to fly higher turns Earth itself into heat, destroying its home, twisting Earth “against my nature,/waste me to tinder,/roast me under the torches of the sun/till I’m undone.” At last, humanity destroys itself, and in the story Mirabilia sadly ceases to exist.

But all is not over. Earth continues and recovers: “Ivy shall recover every avenue,/seaweed swallow every drain,/and forestry  sow a sorcery/over every human stain.” But the witness to all this beauty is gone: “none shall witness,/while my wordless work is done.” The Earth Symphony ends with Earth singing: “There will come a day/ like the first day,/ so heavenly, so clear. Mirabilia,/ you would love it here.”

The Bible also tells a story something like this, but in the Bible humans get a second chance. It’s the story or, perhaps better, stories that come immediately after the stories with which we are all familiar: the seven-day creation in Genesis 1 and the story of the Garden of Eden and its aftermath in Genesis 2-4. We scarcely notice in our theology what comes next in chapters 4 and 6, chapters which contain pieces of another story.

Part of the reason we spend little time on these chapters in Genesis is that they are hard to assimilate to the story of creation and fall that we have for long years told in our theologies. Every such story must account for who we are as human beings—creation—and what has gone wrong—fall. One line of thinking in the Bible—perhaps the dominant line—is that these two things go together. As human beings we possess godlike knowledge, but we lack the wisdom to use it wisely. We use our knowledge not only to build but to destroy each other, other creatures, and the earth itself.

At the beginning of Genesis 6 there is a fragment of a story about sexual liaisons between the denizens of the divine world, in Hebrew the “sons of God,” and humans, in Hebrew the “daughters of the human race.” The story is small and incomplete. It tells us that Yhwh was not pleased: “My breath will not forever remain with humanity . . ..” And it notes that the product of the liaisons between the divine beings and the human were nĕphilîm, giants, and that the children of the nĕphilîm were the legendary warriors of old. All of this suggests that there is more to the story, that something is being left out.

Several versions of the more can be found in the 3rd century BCE Book of Watchers in 1 Enoch (chapters 1-36). It’s not clear whether these stories were simply imaginative expansions of the story in Genesis 6:1-4 or whether Genesis 6:1-4 is a short distillation of a longer story that already existed at the time Genesis was written and on which the Book of Watchers draws. I think the second of these to be the more likely. Genesis 6:1-4 appears, at least to me, to be leaving things out, to hint at something larger.

As it stands, Genesis 6:1-4 is an introduction to the fall story. Something has gone terribly wrong in God’s creation, and God is ready to end the whole sad experiment. In Genesis 6:6-7, Yhwh, looking down at what humans have become repents that he has made the human race and promises to “wipe out” not only humans but all the creatures that draw air. So what has gone wrong?

The Book of Watchers stories suggest two things. One is the mixing of creatures from the divine world with creatures from the human world. The giants that result from these unions are soon eating everything in sight and destroying the earth (1 Enoch 7:3). But this is not the dominant explanation for what has gone wrong. In the second explanation the problem is not giants but knowledge. The Watchers—denizens of heaven, angels in our terminology—convey forbidden knowledge to humans, especially technical knowledge: metallurgy, how to make weapons of iron and how to work gold into jewelry, sorcery, astrology, and more. Their leader Asael “revealed the eternal mysteries that are in heaven which the sons of men were striving to learn” (9:6, translation from George W.E. Nickelsburg and James C. Vander Kam, 1 Enoch: The Hermeneia Translation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012). 

The Genesis account has already broached the issue of knowledge in a somewhat different way in the Garden of Eden story where the choice presented to Adam and Eve is knowledge or life but not both. Choose the tree of life, and you are not permitted to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Choose the knowledge of good and evil, and you are not permitted eternal life. This is the setup in the Garden of Eden.

The human pair choose knowledge, as I suspect we all would. But what is this knowledge, the “knowledge of good and evil” (Hebrew hadda`at ṭôb wārā`)? It certainly includes self-awareness, as the story makes plain. Immediately after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness. In another place, the same phrase is used to describe children before the age of self-awareness who are said “not to know good and evil” (Deuteronomy 1:39; see also Isaiah 7:15). And once in the Hebrew Bible, an old man, Barzillai the Gileadite, claims he is too old any longer to know good and evil (2 Samuel 19:35).

Awareness is more than sexual knowledge. It’s that kind of self-consciousness that permits us to reflect on life, on good and evil. In fact, without this kind of awareness there is no good or evil. No one holds a mountain lion responsible for taking down a javelina in the mountains next door to where I sit writing these paragraphs. But were I to wander over into the same mountains and kill another creature, let alone another human, questions could and should be raised. In the Garden of Eden story the first humans are faced with a choice between two worlds: the world of the animals, who do not choose between good and evil, and the world of the gods, who do so choose. In the end, humans end up straddling these worlds. We have divine knowledge but animal bodies. We know good and evil, and we die. This is our peril and promise.

The declarations of Yhwh at the end of the Garden of Eden story are carefully nuanced statements of the consequences that follow on such knowledge. They are not framed as divine curses. The snake is said to be “the most cursed of animals”—but who is doing the cursing? The woman, perhaps? And the ground is said to be cursed on account of the man (3:17), but for the most part what Yhwh declares is what life is like east of Eden: for the women, childbirth and a conflicted relationship with her husband; for the man, scratching a living from the ground until he ultimately returns to it. But this knowledge, this passing from the childhood of the race to adulthood, is more than simply self-awareness. It’s a door that opens onto greater and even more dangerous knowledge, and it’s that greater knowledge—the knowledge that underlies human science and culture and much more—that underlies the stories in Genesis 4 and 6.

Genesis 4 is the Cain and Abel story. It’s never quite lost to the storyteller that Cain’s name means “smith,” someone who works in metal. (And Abel’s name means “breath” or “vapor,” not the sort of name you want to give to your children.) It’s Cain and his line that contributes the elements of human culture, including the first city (4:17), agriculture (4:20), music (4:21), and toolmaking (4:22). The knowledge of good and evil and the capacity for human culture are  related—they belong in the same family.

Mesopotamian literature reflects on the same nexus. The Adapa story, for example, turns on the technical knowledge that Ea, Adapa’s patron god, has given him, knowledge that enables Adapa to break the wing of the south wind. Human knowledge leads to ecological disaster. One of the oldest parts of the Gilgamesh epic, the hunt for Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest, works the same ground. Gilgamesh and Enkidu succeed in killing Humbaba, thus robbing the forest of its protection from human exploitation. Soon a giant old growth tree is floating down to the temple of Enlil.

In all of these stories, our capacity to destroy lies at the heart of who we are as human beings. We are not homo sapiens so much as homo perditor, the hominid with the inbuilt capacity for destruction and the inclination to do so. It’s this that both the flood story in Genesis and Todd Boss’s libretto for Earth Symphony(“Choral”) ponder: human evil leading to ecological disaster.

We should take this seriously. It’s our fall story. My criticism of the way the fall story has typically been read and explained is that it is not serious about human life. It proposes that God long ago set up an arbitrary sort of test for Adam and Eve (in reality, in this theology, the test is of Adam alone, since Eve’s sin doesn’t count as original sin). If they pass the test, they will live forever; it they don’t they will not only die but be excluded from the Garden and cursed in a variety of other ways. If this test seems arbitrary, bad parenting, at a remove from human reality, it’s because in fact it is. What sense does this story make of God or humans or anything else?

It’s not that story which is being told in Genesis 3 or in Genesis 6. Those are stories we are still living. Those are stories based in the reality of human life. Unless we come to terms with those stories—the relationship between knowledge and evil—we will continue to destroy what we have been given. And then, one day, as Boss’s libretto has it, Earth may sing sadly, “Mirabilia, you would love it here.”

I will stop here with the fall, but there remains the question of restoration. In Todd Boss’s libretto, earth is restored but not the human race. They cease to exist. What does the Bible say in response to this story of who we are, the creatures inclined and equipped to ruin creation? I’ll come to that in the next post in this series. There are, it seems to me, at least two answers in the Bible, one provisional and the other promised. Stay tuned.


3 responses to “The Human Peril: A Reading of the Story of the Fall”

  1. This interpretation of Genesis causes one to reflect on what is human nature. Humans desire knowledge in order to both improve the world for human comfort and destroy it in carrying out human desires such as ambition for greatness.

  2. We must carefully observe the role of animals in our study of good and evil!
    Look at the role of Rime in Heartland!
    Dogs know in an instant who can be trusted.
    Thanks to the “Keeper of the Stars”

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