Reading Genesis 3

After a few essays laying the foundation, the recent book Evolution and the Fall edited by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith turns to biblical and theological studies. In the first essay in this section J. Richard Middleton, professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, looks at the theological and biblical themes found in the first few chapters of Genesis. Some of the material has already been covered in more detail in his earlier books The Liberating Image and to a lesser extent A New Heaven and a New Earth.

There are literary cues in the text of Genesis that should inform our reading of Genesis 1-3, and especially Genesis 3. The scientific challenge to certain popular readings doesn’t trump scripture, but it does draw us deeper into the text, contemplating the intended meaning of the text. The original ancient Near Eastern (ANE) audience didn’t come to the text with the same questions we have today. Among the literary cues are word play and puns. I will summarize many (but not all) of the points raised by Middleton.

1. Theʾādām-ʾădāmâ connection. In Genesis 2-3 “the word for the first human (ʾādām) functions as part of a Hebrew pun or wordplay.” (p. 73) An English equivalent might be human from humus. There is an aural and ontological connection between the first person and the ground from which this person is shaped. Dirt or dust comes up again as human toil of the ground becomes difficult and in the sense that death results in a return to dust. While it is wrong to read evolution into the text, the fact that humans and animals alike are shaped from the ground means that evolution and common descent don’t change any fundamental teaching of the text.

2. The Garden of Eden and the breath of life.When YHWH God forms the human being from the dust of the ground and breathes into the earth creature the breath of life … the text narrates God’s consecration of humanity to bear the divine image, or – more forcefully put – to become the cult-image of God on earth, a distinctive site of divine presence.” (p. 75) Genesis 1 describes creation as God’s temple culminating in the creation of humans as his divine image. Genesis 2 describes humans created with the breath of life and placed into a divine garden, “the locus of divine presence on earth.” (p. 74) The image of God refers to a calling or vocation, the humans are placed in the Garden to fulfill their vocation, perhaps to mature in their calling, – but the calling remains even after expulsion from the garden.

3. The garden as a localized cultivation project. The garden in Genesis 2-3 does not describe the entire earth and does not represent ‘nature’. Rather, it is a localized and cultivated area. One of the implications is that “the “curse” is not an ontological change in the ʾădāmâ, but rather a changed relationship between theʾādām and theʾădāmâ.” (p. 77) Middleton goes on to comment:

Minimally, the call to “work” and “protect” the garden (Gen. 2:15) or “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28) suggests that though the world was made “very good,” it was never perfect, in the sense that it could not be improved. While the use of the forceful verb “subdue” (kābaš) suggests that there would be significant exertion in the agricultural task, might the verb “protect” or “guard” (šāmar) indicate there was something to guard against? The primeval world was not without danger. (p. 78)

Human vocation as the image of God started in the garden (so Genesis 2 informs us) but was always intended to go beyond this (Genesis 1).

4. The tree of life and the warning about death. While there is sense of immortality attached to the tree of life, the tree in the garden is symbolic of more than just mortality and immortality. As the man and woman did not drop dead upon eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, death in this passage does not seem to refer simply to biological death. Middleton notes that the passage could refer to the introduction of mortality, but this is contradicted in Genesis and other places. Even Paul (1 Cor. 15:42-49) appears to acknowledge Adam as created mortal – of dust. Death could indicate a reversion to mortality – the man and woman must now be kept away from the tree of life. Middleton suggests, however, that life here refers more completely to human flourishing Death begins to encroach upon life when the humans turn from wisdom and obedience. Proverbs describes wisdom as “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (3:18) while the psalmist describes himself as “like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand“(88:5) because he experiences the absence of God. Death is biological and figurative at the same time. While human separation from God is a consequence of sin, the text need not imply that all death is a result of sin.

5. The tree of the knowledge (or knowing) of good and evil. Middleton again works through a number of thoughts, but concludes that the tree as off-limits was probably temporary. Genesis 2-3 suggests the creation of humans who need time to grow into all that God intended of them. While an understanding of good and evil is important, it actually starts with trust, obedience, and patience.

In accordance of what we know of moral development, children (and by analogy, the first humans) would initially need to trust their (divine) parent, obeying parental directions for what makes for flourishing, (and what to avoid), thus learning a pattern of virtue, being formed into the sort of persons who can then (at a later stage) be allowed to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (read: decide for themselves). (p. 82)

A process of maturation was and still is part of God’s plan. Disobedience makes this much harder.

6. The snake was in the garden. The text of Genesis does not describe the snake as intrinsically evil. However, the snake is in the garden and the snake tempts the man and the woman. The snake possesses “street smarts” and there is a word play or pun in 2:25-3:1 (remember that the chapter and verse division is a much later addition). The Hebrew words for “crafty” or “shrewd” and “naked” set this up. “Here we have the identical word (ʾārûm) used with radically different meanings; the words are formally homonyms, yet they are semantically (almost) antonyms. This jarring pun signals, on the semantic level, the deception the snake will perpetuate , and its instrumentality in mediating the first sin.” (p. 86) Certainly the humans sin, but they are not the origin of sin.

7. The consequences of sin. The very first consequence is the vulnerability brought on by the transgression. Nakedness is now a problem and the man and woman hide. When questioned by God, the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake. The snake, originally the most cunning (ʾārûm) of the wild animals the Lord God had made is now cursed (ʾārûr) among all the animals. For humans God describes the consequences, but does not (necessarily) introduce new punishment. Increased pain in childbirth, hierarchy or dominion in relationship, and painful work among thorns and thistles are all consequences. The subsequent chapters (4-6) describe an increase in sin.It is important to note that this is not described as inevitable. God tells Cain “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (4:7) Cain doesn’t master it, but the implication is that he could – it was not an impossibility.

The narrative of Genesis suggests a process by which humans become more and more under the sway of sin. After Cain’s murder, sin grows and snowballs, evident in Lamech’s revenge killing of a young man who injured him, a killing that he boasts about to his wives (Gen 4:23), until in Genesis 6 every “inclination of the thoughts of [the human heart] was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5), and the earth was corrupted or ruined (šāḥat) by the violence with which humans had filled it (Gen 6:11).

There is no question but that the consequences of sin are severe. However, in all of this there is no indication that God changed the nature of the universe or the anatomy and diet of animals to punish humankind.

Middleton offers no nice clean solution to the questions raised when evolutionary biology, the development of humankind, and the theological (and historical) narrative of Genesis are considered together. However, it does seem clear that the so-called “plain” meaning of the text espoused by some from a 20th or 21st century Western perspective does not do justice to the subtlety and message of the original text.

How should we read Genesis 3?

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