Having explored the Old Testament view of God and of the nature of humanity in chapters 3 and 4, Iain Provan (Seriously Dangerous Religion) turns to the age old problem of evil and suffering in chapter 5. If there is a personal, benevolent God why do evil and suffering mark the world?
Genesis 3 plays an important role in Provan’s approach to this question … “it is the embrace of evil, our biblical authors claim, that explains much of the suffering that arises in the world.” (p. 106) The word “much” is quite intentional, and quite significant. Provan puts forward a view that many will find surprising. He does not think the biblical authors had any intention of attributing all pain and suffering, particularly so-called natural evil including earthquakes, windstorms, accidents or disease, to the fall of the man and woman. The proposed absence of these in the initial good creation of Genesis 1 and 2 is an ideal that we read into the text, not one that is derived from the text. So-called “natural” evil then is not the result of God’s upheaval and curse of all creation, with fangs, stings, cancer, earthquakes, and tsunamis just punishment for the sin of a man and woman in a garden. Rather this “natural” evil is simply part of God’s good creation. Some level of toil and suffering is intrinsic to the world God made. The biblical authors did not see natural phenomena as troublesome, however much they might concern us. Genesis 3 is not intended to address the problem of natural suffering.
Death is an enemy to mankind, but Provan notes, in common with many other Christian scholars, that death is not foreign to the earthling in 2:17. God does not have to explain the concept, the earthling knows already. Immortality is a potential state, a divine gift from God, not the natural state of the original humans in Genesis. The presence of the tree of life, and the need to exile the humans from the garden to keep them from the tree, makes this clear. Genesis 3 is not intended to explain the presence of death or human mortality, although it does shed light on the absence of God-granted immortality.
What then is the question addressed in Genesis 3?
The Entry and Embrace of Evil. Provan suggests that it is the increase in suffering that comes from the embrace of evil by God’s creatures. The best way to lay out Provan’s argument is to let him speak for himself. The embrace of evil starts with a nonhuman creature.
Genesis 3 opens by facing this reality directly: evil has, indeed, entered the world. It introduces us immediately and surprisingly to a creature of God who is apparently not under God’s sovereign control nor under human dominion but who has apparently already “gone bad.” (p. 109)
The serpent is associated with chaos and darkness in the ancient Near East, but Genesis makes it clear that this snake is merely one of God’s creatures. It carries no divinity or near divinity of its own.
The authors of Genesis, then, are clearly alluding to an image that has deep roots in their cultural setting in the ancient Near East. The Genesis serpent is clearly not a god—that is explicit. Nevertheless, he does seem to represent dark, personal, but nonhuman forces that Genesis 1–2 has not led us to expect can exist in cosmos that is “good.” … For the authors of Genesis, then, the existence of evil in the cosmos is to be attributed to the misuse of something that is intrinsic to the cosmos: the moral freedom of some of its creatures. (p. 110)
The humans in turn exercise their moral freedom, at the snake’s suggestion, to turn from God. Provan sees the knowledge of good and evil as associated with the idea of adult independence from a parent. “It is the wisdom that might enable a person to make his or her own judgments—autonomously.” (p. 113) While it is good for human children to grow up, it is not good when humans seek after independence from God.
They want this other kind of wisdom too, and they are prepared to disobey God to get it. In doing so, they reveal that they have essentially decided no longer to be image bearers at all. They want to be gods, in the fullest sense, rather than representing and mediating God to creation. They want the autonomy that wisdom brings.
… Wisdom itself is not problematic—but grasping after wisdom out of a desire to be like God certainly is. (p. 114)