September 24, 2006

Genesis 1-3 -- Original WHAT?

Today's reading is Genesis 1-3 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

We begin today with the first story, the creation. And what better way to begin a new blog than alienating a good portion of my readership? So today, I will be talking about Original Sin, and why I think it doesn't exist.

Genesis 1-3 contains two stories: the seven days of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:3), and the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:4-3:24). These are among the best-known stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, as a recap for those of you who may have been hiding under some sand in the Arabian desert for the span of your natural lives, here is a brief summary of the Adam and Eve story:

God creates a man (Adam) and places him in a garden called Eden. He tells Adam he may eat of every tree in the garden, except for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God proceeds to create a wife for Adam (named "Eve" at the end of the story). Enter the serpent, who tempts Eve into eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and she proceeds to give it to Adam, who also eats it. God returns, punishes them for what they've done, and casts them out of the garden of Eden.

So far, this seems a fairly straightforward story. But "straightforward" has never meshed well with organized religion. Thus we have the Christian interpretation.

Christianity adds another layer of meaning to this story. According to Christianity, Adam and Eve were originally in a state of Grace, completely pure and untainted. When they ate of the forbidden tree, they committed the first sin, the Original Sin, if you will. In committing this sin, they damned not only themselves, but also all their descendants. Until the time of Jesus Christ, no human being could return to the state of Grace. Only with the death and sacrifice of Christ were humans given the possibility of re-entering Grace.

This is a lovely interpretation, with one problem: it has absolutely no support in the text.

The text does, in fact, tell us the punishments Adam, Eve, and the serpent received for committing the first sin. Let us examine these punishments.

First, the serpent. Please note that there is no reason to assume, based on this passage, that the serpent is anything other than the animal recently featured in a Samuel L. Jackson movie ("Snakes on a Plane," for those hiding in the Arabian desert). There is no reason to think that the serpent (nahash in Hebrew) is the same character as the stubborn angel in the book of Job (satan in Hebrew) or the adversary in the gospel accounts. As far as Genesis is concerned, it's a snake.

How does God punish the serpent? Let us look at Gen. 3:14-15. The punishments are as follows:

1. The serpent shall go on its belly
2. The serpent shall eat dust
3. There shall be enmity (hatred) between the serpent and the woman
4. There shall be enmity between the serpent's children and the woman's children
5. The woman's children will bruise the head of the serpent's children
6. The serpent's children will bruise the heel of the woman's children

To me, this seems perfectly straightforward. Snakes do go on their bellies today; I have yet to see a snake with feet. They might not eat dust, admittedly. On the other hand, most people I know don't like snakes, my teenage cousin excepted. I don't know about you, but I'd certainly try to bash the head of any snake slithering in my kitchen. I see nothing in this list that suggests hell, demons, devils, or anything similar.

Moving onwards to the human participants of our story, let us examine the punishment for the woman, in Gen. 3:16:

1. The woman will have pain in childbearing
2. The woman will be subservient to her husband

Again, these are secular punishments. Women do have pain in childbirth (if you don't believe me, ask your mother). And, at the time this text was written, women were subservient to their husbands. In fact, women have been subservient to their husbands for most of recorded western history. It is only in the last hundred years that the situation has begun to change in favour of equality, and only in certain parts of the world.

Finally, the punishments for the man, in Gen. 3:17-19:

1. The man must toil in order to have food from the ground
2. The man will work his whole life in order to eat

Yet again, the punishment reveals itself in the world today. Farming is hard work, yet without it, people can't eat. Unless people keep working (or pay someone to work for them), they will starve.

Finally, in Gen. 3:23, God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden, never to return.

The punishments God meted out to his subjects were all worldly in nature. When this story was first written, it was probably used as many creation myths were used, to explain certain facts of life. "Why must we work?" "Why is childbirth difficult?" "Why are women subservient to men?" "Why is life difficult?" To answer all these fundamental questions, Jews could look to their holy text.

Jews do not believe in Original Sin, with good reason: it's not in the text! It is only with the advent of Christianity that the concept of Original Sin enters into the Eden story. Christians needed a reason for Jesus' death to be meaningful, and so they cast back upon the Eden story another layer of allegorical meaning. Namely, Adam and Eve were not only given worldly punishments, but also spiritual ones, so that Jesus could negate these punishments.

My question, when all is said and done, is this: if Jesus' sacrifice negates Original Sin, and the spiritual punishment is lifted from his followers (ie: they are no longer in a state of Original Sin, but instead may return to a state of Grace), does his sacrifice also negate the worldly punishments listed above? Obviously not. Christian women still have pain in childbirth; Christian men still need to work the land (or pay someone to do so). God's punishments still rest on the children of Adam and Eve.

The idea of "Original Sin" is a superfluous layer of meaning added on to a worldly, secular story. Early Christians added it to give meaning to their saviour and martyr, Jesus Christ. The story works perfectly well without it, and there is no need to include it at all. Of course, if you choose to believe in Original Sin, that's fine. Faith allows people to believe in far stranger things than every person being born in a state of sin. I'm just saying that you can't base it on the story of Adam and Eve.

So, have I alienated all my readers? I promise I won't always be this controversial. But, if you managed to read this far, you'll probably be able to deal with anything I toss out about future readings.

Don't agree with me? Debate me! Find me chapter and verse, and let me know why I'm wrong!

Until next time, happy reading.


Hugh Mannity said...

I guess snakes do eat a fair amount of dust, even if unintentionally. After all if you're wriggling around on your belly, you're going to stir up any dust there is and it's going to get into your nose and mouth (and eyes come to that) and probably swallowed.

Now that's out of the way. Thank you. That's a fascinating analysis. Makes perfect sense.

I've always had problems with original sin for a number of reasons:
1. If He's a God who loves His children, as we are often told, why does He express this love by punishing generation upon generation of them for something only 2 of them did.

2. Most Xian interpretations put all the blame on the woman. Yet Adam had free will. He didn't have to eat the fruit -- the woman and the serpent didn't hold him down and force him to eat it. Ergo, I believe he's just as culpable as the woman. Yet "the woman tempted me" has been his get out of jail cheap card and been one of the main justifications for the subjugation of women -- because they have poor judgement. Yet Adam's judgement was just as bad...

Julie said...


In response to your points:

1. If you look at the Old Testament, God is often seen as vengeful, angry, and violent. He has a chosen people (the Jews), but punishes them severely when they stray from His path. It is only with the New Testament that God's love and benevolence are emphasized.

2. In an odd bit of chronology, Eve is not actually given the commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge. God issues this commandment to Adam in Gen. 2:16-17, but only creates Eve in Gen. 2:21-23. Admittedly Eve does know about the proscription (see Gen. 3:2-3), but the order in which events are depicted suggests that Eve was not given the commandment by God. It bears thinking about.

Thanks for your comments!


heather said...

playing devil's advocate here: why would an ability to return to the state of grace negate the this-worldy punishments? if suffering is the way to redemption then childbirth seems like a way to knock off a couple of years of purgatory.

Julie said...


The assumption you're making is that "suffering is the way to redemption." Many Christian branches believe that embracing Christ is the way to redemption, not suffering. If embracing Christ is the way to redemption, why wouldn't the worldly punishments be reversed when you embrace Christ?

Further, Purgatory is not a concept of the Bible itself, I don't think. It was created later by the Medieval Church. If the only two options are "redeemed" and "damned," then once you embrace Christ, you should be completely redeemed -- no halfway measure for *this* saviour!


Anonymous said...

Original Sin was invented by Augustine of Hippo, who used to be Manichaean (a non-Christian religion that believed in an absolute dichotomy between good and evil).

He was opposed by Pelasgis of England. Pelasgis lost.

In the 2nd century, there were many Christian groups, about 50% of whom (especially under Marcion) believed that the "God" in the old testament was basically evil, and that the serpent was really the hero. The group were termed "Gnostic", and the ones that went so far as to worship the serpent and Christ (who they viewed as similar to the serpent) are termed "Ophites".

As for the (false) dichotomy "redeemed" vs "damned". What if embracing Christ was the option that resulted in "damned"?

nonezoner said...

First of all, original sin was not "invented" by Augustine of Hippo nor was it assigned only to the Garden of Eden story. It just appears that a combination of what Paul's genuine letters have to say about the nature of sin in combination with the Eden story do make sense in light of the concept of Jesus as the fulfillment of Torah--that Jesus took on the sins of the world. An observation is that even if people really put forth an honest effort to not sin, they would still sin--it is not a possibility to be sin free in this world and that is why the radicalness of Jesus' death on the cross makes sense. Otherwise, what are people "saved" from? The end result is that we are truly utterly dependent on God for salvation. We are loved by God fully and completely and we are united with God in Jesus death and resurrection and in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Original sin is simply disobedience which we start doing at a very early age--that is simply a description of our inclination as humans. You can call it something else if you like, but that is what I call it as a ELCA Lutheran.

Julie said...

Nonezoner: Thank you. That is exactly the Christian point of view I was trying to express in my post.

I think you point out the key difference between Jews and Christians when you say, "Otherwise, what are people "saved" from?" The Jews would answer: "Nothing. There is nothing to be saved from, therefore we don't need Jesus."

Yes, people sin from an early age, if by "sin" you mean "go against the commandments in the Bible." For Jews, the punishments for disobedience and rewards for obedience are all real-worldly and written in later books (mostly Leviticus). There is no need for a salvation in the afterlife, as all the reckoning is done here on earth.