Ancient Answers


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Thank God for the Fall

My Logos Bible software posts a Bible verse every day as a color slide. I use this daily verse to compose my own reflection on it. So when I logged into my Logos account early this morning, I found today’s highlighted verse is one that I referred to yesterday when I reflected on Jesus as the icon/image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Today’s verse draws a sharp contrast between Adam and Christ. As any mention of Adam needs some explaining, it is incumbent for me to do so here. Just like yesterday, the discussion has to be a bit on the theological side, as necessitated by the verse itself.

Adam was, according to Genesis chapters 1 & 2 the first human being created by God. And Eve was created from Adam’s rib, according to Genesis 2. Male and female God made humanity; in his image and likeness he made them (Genesis 1:27). The story of origins culminates in Genesis 3, the story of the fall, where Adam and Eve transgress against God’s commandment and are sent out from the garden where they were created. The most crucial result of the fall was that human beings became subject to death. Presumably there would have been no death if they had not transgressed, and they would have remained in the garden.

The story, of course, is archetypal and no one who has gone to school and knows anything about science can accept the story as anything more than a poetic explanation for death and sin. I have never taken the story literally. It is simply impossible for me as a former scientist to accept the story of Adam and Eve literally. It’s a powerful metaphor of human sin and mortality, but impossible as fact. Sorry if that offends any literalists. And Paul, of course, takes the story literally and states the obvious: Death came through Adam, but resurrection and eternal life comes through Christ. The Fathers of the Church (why are there no Mothers of the Church when we talk about theologians?) were inspired by such statements in the New Testament and were motivated to call Jesus the “Second Adam”, in the sense that Jesus undid the fall and reversed the sentence of death that fell upon humanity. As I said, powerful stuff – regardless of whether you take the story literally or not.

But here is a conundrum that arises in my mind. Let’s for the sake of argument take the story as factual history. Some of the Fathers of the Church saw dimensions in the story that Paul did not appreciate or conceive. Some of the Latin Fathers saw the fall as a felix culpa, a “happy fault”. Among the Greek Fathers, Irenaeus of Lyon saw Adam and Eve as childishly immature in the garden, before the Fall – with potential for growth, to be sure, but immature nevertheless. Here is my question. If Adam and Eve had not fallen and had remained in the Garden, would there have been any civilization? Would there have been a Homer or Socrates? Would there have been a Parthenon or the pyramids of Giza? or the Sistine Chapel? Would there have been a Shakespeare? a Beethoven or Mozart? a Tolstoy? Ella Fitzgerald or the Beatles? Sorry if I’m so eurocentric in my examples. I’m not one of these new folks who put down the achievements of western civilization.

Without the felix culpa, we would have none of the great achievements of human civilization – nor, of course, any of the evils, like the Holocaust or 9/11. We accept the evils as manifestations of the dark side in human coexistence, because the manifestations of light and beauty are so much grater and more enduring. This is the great tradeoff of human history. But the greatest gift of the fall is that it made possible the coming of Christ in our midst. We look at Christ and we can’t imagine life without him. And I prefer to focus on the felix culpa version of the Fall. Because it gave us civilization in all its great achievements. And it gave us Christ, who brings gifts and promises greater than anything Adam and Eve received in the proverbial Garden. We’re not in the Garden. Thank God for that. If we were still in the Garden we might still be Irenaeus’ immature children. We’re in a magnificent place called Planet Earth! Can we start treating it as a garden of delight and take better care of it? That would be another glorious result of the felix culpa.


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The Root of Religious Conflict

The daily lectionary of Lent continues with three readings from the Old Testament: Genesis 3:21-4:7; Isaiah 4:2-5:7; Proverbs 3:34-4:22. For the most part I continue to use the Revised Standard Version as my basic English translation of the Bible. Occasionally I use the New Revised Standard Version when I want more inclusive or contemporary language, but I grow weary of the NRSV’s frequent sacrifice of good English on the altar of political correctness.

The Isaiah reading is interesting for the parable of the vineyard – a parable that became a model for the many similar parables that Jesus told. The language is beautiful, indeed the parable is a “love song”(Isaiah 5:1). The harsh judgment on Jerusalem and its inhabitants comes precisely because God poured so much love on the vineyard! It is a counterpart to the judgment that was passed on the first man and woman.

It is indeed the Genesis reading that must again grab our attention. Our reading begins after God has pronounced punishment on the serpent, the man and the woman (Genesis 3:14-19). The man was first called “Adam” in verse 17. But, of course, the word had already appeared in the narratives, not as a proper name but simply the noun for “man”: אָדָם ( ‘adam ) has been used for humanity collectively (1:27) and for a man individually, specifically a male individual (chapter 2). But note also Genesis 5:1-2, where the noun stands for both male and female, a return to Genesis 1:27. In verse 20 the woman is given the name Eve by Adam, to signify her role as “mother of the living.”

So now, as a couple with proper names, Adam and Eve enter history. God makes garments of skin to clothe them (verse 21) – again, anthropomorphic, mythological language. Why skin? one might ask. There are spiritual interpretations – such as those offered by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and recent Greek theologians like Nellas, and I’m sure the ancient rabbis had their interpretations as well – but perhaps it’s best to accept that these garments were made from animal skins because animals were close at hand; and certainly these garments offered superior protection than the fig leaves that Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness (3:7).

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God drives Adam and Eve out of the garden lest they eat from the tree of life and become immortal. God’s self-reflection is fascinating for its utterly mythological construct: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” So was the serpent right after all? Was God’s greatest fear that the humans would become “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5)? And now that they know good and evil, they must be kept from eating from the tree of life – a tree from which they originally were allowed to eat! So is that all there is to being “god”? Knowing good and evil and living for ever? It’s rather mind-numbing, to be quite honest. Is this the same God who will send his son to become human millennia later? Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden and cherubim guard the tree of life with their flaming swords.

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Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. The story of the two brothers is split between today and tomorrow’s reading, which is unfortunate. But the opening section we read today tells us the most important thing we need to know about these two brothers: their murderous rivalry. And this rivalry between brothers will manifest itself elsewhere in Genesis and in the subsequent history of the twelve brother tribes of Israel.

But what is the cause of this rivalry? Why, what else? Religion, of course! The fellowship of humans with God does not vanish after the exile from Eden, but it becomes something else. No offerings to God were needed in the garden. But now offerings become part of the human response to God. And the first conflict in human history arises from two competing offerings! And it seems that God stoked the fire. God preferred the offerings of Abel to those of Cain. And is that really God speaking in verses 6-7, or just a psychotic projection of Cain’s own conflicting affects? The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Easy for God to say, after he has shown favoritism! 

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Well, there you have it, religious conflict at the very origins of human existence. Is it any wonder that religious conflict is still the number one cause of human suffering? My long-distance friend and fellow blogger, Mike Mair, in his blog dealing with the story of Cain and Abel included a humorous anecdote about Nasruddin, a favorite character for preachers and one whose exploits I have sometimes used in my sermons and writings. Here is the Nasruddin story Mike used to illustrate the Cain and Abel story:

There is a wicked story about the mad mullah of Arab legend, Nasruddin. One day two boys approached the mullah and told him they had found twelve glass marbles in the street and were wonderng how to divide them fairly between them.

“How do you want me to divide them?” Nasruddin asked, “According to my justice or to Allah’s”

“According to Allah’s of course,” they answered.

So Nasruddin gave 11 to one boy and 1 to the other.

Doesn’t this sound like Yahweh as well? Doesn’t God show favoritism in the Cain and Abel episode? Did God set up Cain to murder Abel? Or was the voice that Cain heard simply the projection of his own fears? Could it be that religion is nothing else than the projection of man’s own fears and convoluted moral codes? I prefer not to reach such a conclusion – though certainly “religion” is a word loaded with both positive and negative connotations. So I’m going to continue reflecting on Genesis during this Lenten season, hoping that Isaiah will shed some occasional light as well. Proverbs is not crucial, but I’m ready to receive any “wisdom” that book might provide. The God question continues to be the central question for many people, myself included. And the events of Genesis chapters 3 & 4 certainly are problematic.