Evolution and the Sin in Eden
A New Christian Synthesis

Chapter 5: The Sin as Told in Genesis

It is not by fortuitous oversight that the Bible hastens to relate the story of original sin on its page two. The arrangement is designed to project sin as a high profile truth of the faith. The first page relates truth Number One: God is our Creator. The second teaches truth Number Two: we are sinners and Christ is our Redeemer. Page one of the New Testament then follows through with the narration of the coming of the Redeemer.

Chapters 1-3 of Genesis plus the Gospel story about Christ form the very basis of revealed religion for a vast part of mankind, for the millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in particular. Genesis 1-3 is known to almost every one in the world to some extent, even to those who do not yet know Christ and His will to redeem us. These chapters of Genesis continue to generate belief in the Creator God who cares about humans, and who gives them a code of proper conduct which He expects them to follow.

If we ask whether the first chapters of Genesis narrate factual history, or whether the content is didactic mythology, we pose the problem too simplistically. History and symbol are both there, but the sacred author clothes history in symbol and sacralizes myth with revelation. There is history, very basic history, but just where symbol ceases and naked chronology emerges is not all clear to us. Writing of chronological history was invented only a few thousand years ago, whereas the events of Genesis 1-11 bear the marks of oral tradition which humans may have been passing down to succeeding generations in an unbroken thread of legend from time immemorial -- perhaps in some form even from the very day on which original sin was committed; the event which we have good reason to believe occurred maybe 200,000 years ago, give or take handfuls of some tens of thousands.

It is difficult to find a more succinct and satisfying explanation to identify what is history in Genesis, and what is symbol, than this passage from the Encyclical Letter Humani Generis promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1950:

The first eleven chapters of Genesis...do in some true sense come under the heading of history; in what exact sense, it is for the further study of exegetes to determine. These chapters have a naive, symbolic way of speaking, well suited to the understanding of primitive people. But they do disclose important truths, upon which the attainment of our eternal salvation depends, and they do also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and of the chosen people. It may be true that the ancient authors of sacred history drew some of their material from current popular stories. So much may be granted. But it must be remembered that they did so under the impulse of divine inspiration which preserved them from all error in selecting and assessing the documents they used (trans. of Jaques Dupuis in The Christian Faith, No.239, hereinafter referenced as Dupuis).

In brief, the sacred writers were artists who could make the truth shine with splendor through symbol and even myth, in a manner designed to make the truths intelligible to children as well as to adults. In this the sacred writers are by no means less artful than was Aesop who constructed homespun fables pleasant in the telling, very meaningful for teaching about life, often making animals do the talking to heighten the drama of the foibles of people. Genesis, however, is a sacred narration on a "distinctly different level from" profane writings (Humani Generis, Dupuis, ibid.). We study Genesis, then, with reverence and at the same time we search for the truth clothed in symbols.

The nature of the sin of Adam and Eve as described in Genesis is raw disobedience to a command of God. Among the trees which God had planted in the Garden of Eden, two were special: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of what is good and what is bad. God put the tree of life into the midst of the garden, but the other tree was also located where it was easily accessible. God then gave this command:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" Gen 2:16-17.

The test was not an ordinance laid down by God as though to thump His chest and exhibit arbitrary power. The ordinance confirmed what was already written into created nature. Adam had no right to treat good and evil alike, as though there were no difference between the two. God's injunction seconded and confirmed Adam's intuition. Adam could already know, at least in a dimly intuitive manner, that he is always invited to help himself to the tree of life -- to nourish himself with what is positive and good, with God's grace. He could likewise know that it was obligatory to abstain from engaging indiscriminately in evil conduct as though there were no difference between good and evil, as though truth did not exist, and as though God would not care about his moral behavior.

Adam already possessed an obligation to honor and obey his own natural intuitions about goodness and truth. It is not right for a man to treat good and evil as though they were the same, as though both grew from the same tree. This intuited obligation God now confirmed and made unmistakably clear by the revealed commandment. The test was whether Adam would obey his conscience after God had improved its power to judge correctly with revelation; and had suffused his mind with the light of faith. God had spoken a "Thou shalt not." Adam's action was raw disobedience. He was inexperienced to be sure, but disobey he did, and God held him responsible for the misdeed.

Some exegetes also find hints in the narrative that the author had an additional agenda in mind, namely to dissuade the Israelites from taking part in fertility rites of the Canaanite religion. The serpent which appears on the scene thereafter was a sex symbol associated with the worship of the god Baal and the goddess Apo, both fertility deities (cf. Bruce Vawter, 181). The fig leaf detail may suggest a connection with fertility rites. Some theorize, therefore, that the author of Genesis knit details into the story designed to dissuade the Israelites from assisting in fertility rites.

Whatever merit that theory may have, the Genesis story is not primarily a lesson in chastity. For readers of the Bible today the story of the Fall is first and foremost a lesson that man the creature has an obligation to obey God his Creator. Man must be true to himself in his actions; he is an image of God, and by natural bent acts like himself when he acts as a member of God's family ought to act; over and above this he must obey God who clarifies by revelation what man already knows less clearly by powers of reason. Man must obey, must do good and avoid evil, or take the consequences.

We all feel a bit of empathy with Adam and Eve so far, curious about what might happen if they do disobey. God had told them that one of the fruit trees was off limits for them, namely the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." But what fruit is ever sweeter than forbidden fruit? And what grass can ever be greener than grass across the fence? The prohibition was a temptation, a challenge, a gauntlet lying there waiting to be picked up.

The Genesis text indicates that God issued the prohibition by a revelation -- that is, by a word spoken to man by God. God was ordering them to follow His instructions, to obey Him in this matter, regardless of what they might wish to choose. Their motive for complying would be faith in God the Speaker, over and above a conclusion of reason. God was asking them to grasp His invisible hand and walk with Him, without looking back at what their own preferences might be.

Everyman, however, lusts for independence. We want to make the laws ourselves, create good and bad by fiat of the will, explore the dangerous and unknown. We are fascinated with lighting matches when we are children, and dream impossible ambitions even when we are old. Shall we yield to God who claims obedience because He is Lord and Creator of the universe? Such is the test put to Adam and Eve. And such is the test of Everyman throughout mortal life. Philosopher Peter Henrichi describes reason when it seeks to be detached from its anchor in truth:

Amongst the false gods that man has devised for himself, there is none that has usurped the place of the true God more gravely than reason. The French Revolution put reason on its altars ... "the supreme eye of reason, which has come to scatter the clouds of darkness." But there is no need to go back through the centuries. We know from our daily experience how apt reason is to be substituted for the Holy Spirit...

Reason, the faculty that directs human action, operates by drawing its conclusions from the premises that it posits, in this way fashioning its own system. By its very nature, reason wants always to be right. It is argumentative and loath to let itself be convinced. Jealous of its autonomy, reason upholds the independence of man, a rational animal, who derives his dignity from it - not to mention his pride... "Vainglorious reason" is par excellence the instrument of human pride, an instrument by the aid of which "God is dispensed with in an atmosphere of haughty disdain" (Henrichi, p. 638).

Saint Augustine (354-430) assumes that Adam and Eve must have sinned by pride as a prelude to the final Fall:

For the evil act (original sin) had never been done had not an evil will preceded it. And what is the origin of our evil will but pride? For "pride is the beginning of sin" (Ecclus 10:13). And what is pride but the craving for undue exaltation? And this is undue exaltation, when the soul abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself (City of God, 14:13).

Though pride entered the sin, the author of Genesis wants us to know that very commonplace human drives were involved: an appetite for food, plus curiosity, all topped by confused and unwise ambition. Readers easily empathize with Adam and Eve, knowing similar movements in themselves. The sacred author highlights three kinds of temptations confronting Eve: the fruit on the tree whets her appetite, esoteric gnosis promises elite mysticism, choice of what is good and what is evil would make her creative, like God. These temptations are common to all mankind. As John wrote: "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father" (1 John 2:16). The sacred author is teaching the entire human race, by means of this narration, about temptations which we all meet.

The expression "knowledge of good and evil" is an umbrella term to cover universal moral knowledge, from A to Z, from top to bottom, from horizon to horizon. By possessing knowledge of good and bad Eve would gain dominion over it. She would decide what is for her a good, what is for her an evil. She would be morally autonomous, without need of direction and instruction from outside, from any source other than the self. It points to what Pope John Paul II recently called a "'creative' understanding of moral conscience," an exaltation of freedom almost to the point of idolatry (Veritatis Splendor, No. 54).

A creative conscience rejects obedience to God and enthrones arbitrary choice as supreme, as untouchable, as god. Such is the final temptation which the serpent whispered to Eve: "You will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Another tree stood in the middle of paradise, the tree of life. From this tree Adam and Eve were allowed to eat. It is the tree of moral correctness. God thereby invited them to take the high moral ground, to live according to the moral pattern which God laid out for them. But Eve, and Adam beside her, were not standing under that tree now. There were out exploring to find something more exciting.

The Fall as Narrated in Genesis

Enter, the serpent. This is the primordial revelation in the Bible that an enemy of mankind is on the loose. That this despoiler is introduced as a serpent is an insightful bit of artistry in the text. Almost universally, humans think lowly about snakes. Wet, slimy, fire in the eye, forked tongue, hissing noise, cruel jaws, poison of fang, lacking sentiment -- snakes have few friends.

This particular snake exhibits consummate serpentine craft. Eve is no match for it. The beguiler begins its talk in a friendly and sympathetic manner. The first greeting is baited to trap Eve into a dialogue. Eve owed reverence to God, to whom she should have turned for help. She should have turned to her husband to get help and advice. She should have turned her back to the serpent to avoid meeting this trial all by herself alone. Instead, she conversed with the serpent, God's enemy. It was already an insult to the Lord God.

The serpent had evidently cased the place before. It knew about God's prohibition against eating the forbidden fruit, but lied about it: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'" Eve corrected the error, but then added a bit of untruth to the prohibition to make it appear unreasonable and arbitrary: "God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it lest you die.'" There are two untruths here: it was the tree of life which stood in the "midst of the garden" (Gen 2:9). Eve had relocated what was of greater interest for herself; she regarded the bad tree as the midst of the garden. For Eve it was evidently in the central place, absorbing lustful attention. Second, God had not forbidden them to "touch" the tree. That bit of exaggeration originated with Eve.

The serpent's velvet-smooth promises were exactly what Eve's ears were itching to hear: "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." A great promise. Eve got carried away by the dream. She fell fast and hard. She likewise seduced her husband to do as she had done: "She took the fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate."

St. Irenaeus (c. 125-c.203) observes that the two were still inexperienced, for God had not made them wise nor holy beyond the range of their early condition (Adversus Haereses IV,38,1). Adam was simply too immature at the time to live like a practiced and holy adult: "God had the power at the beginning to grant perfection to man; but as the latter (Adam) was only recently created, he could not possibly have received it...or retained it" (IV,38,2). The shock of their initial defeat awakened them and stimulated them to grow up. "Humankind needed to grow accustomed to bearing divinity" through trial and gradual maturation (III,20,2). Irenaeus scolds us for wanting to be holy instantly and without effort. He has little respect for holiness that did not mature through corresponding effort: "Things which fall into our lap and things acquired after much effort are not cherished in the same way" (IV, 37,7). For Irenaeus, the Adam and Eve who fell when still inexperienced, but who bravely rose again to live more wisely, are an example for all of us to follow.

An anti-climax follows the sin: God did not strike them with instant physical death, contrary to what they might have feared because He had told them: "In the day that you eat of it you shall die." But they didn't fall down physically and die. The sacred author is an artist. We are supposed to do some thinking on our own to solve what he leaves unsaid. God had stated clearly that they would die in the day of the eating. As we shall see, St. Augustine solved the problem by stating that they died spiritually on that day, and physically later. When they sinned, they died spiritually (City of God 13:23). The Council of Trent, as we shall also see, defined that Adam died a spiritual death as a result of his sin. The sacred author teaches the message cryptically by describing how they had been friends with God before the sin, but feared Him after the sin. He invites us to ponder the matter deeply.

After the sin, the "eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons." The nakedness factor invites our attention, but we shall pursue the matter more at length elsewhere. The text describes how they now feared God: "And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden." God will drive home to them that they had done wrong by disobeying, but He would also promise them a Redeemer.

The Gravity of the Sin

The punishment which God inflicts on Adam and Eve is a measure of the gravity of their offense. The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the point:

387. Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind's origins. Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God's plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.

The great lesson we should learn from the sin of Adam and Eve is that God loves us, that He will help us to rise from the sins we commit, and that Christ is our Redeemer.

Next Page: Chapter 6: After the Sin
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