Monday, August 29, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 3

When thinking about what I would write for this chapter, I pretty quickly decided I will do something brief now and come back and fill in more material later. Because this chapter is really pretty definitive for the rest of human history. The stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are interesting and all, but this chapter provides a summary of sin, the condition of man, and redemption. So, I will write more later, when I have more time.

Some points.

First, the serpent is pretty clearly either a representation of the devil or the devil in some alternate form, because in several places later in the bible the devil, or Satan, is called a serpent. Even Christians who don't interpret this story literally will generally say that the serpent represents the spirit or the will of Satan, who is in some respects an archetype of sin. In this context, when I use the word "sin" you can just think, "opposition or rebellion against God for whatever reason(s)". More broadly, sin can be defined as "missing the mark", as in attempting to do something and falling short from that goal. So in that general sense, it doesn't always have a moralistic connotation (as in, murder is sin), but the moralistic connotation can be considered a subset of sin. That is, all moral failings are sin, but sin is not all moral failings. The moral connotation tends to dominate its usage in commonplace English, however, and similarly it tends to dominate in Biblical passages as well. However, to my recollection the underlying Hebrew/Greek does not necessarily include that moralistic tone when you study the original words.

Second, and this is much discussed in some circles, note that the woman does not precisely quote God when she states the commandment to not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. People tend to draw this in a multitude of ways, anything from "the man did not teach her the command correctly" to "they are putting a fence around the command" to "the snakes wiles are already implanting deception in the woman's mind" and so on and so on. I think a lot of this is (as I said in a previous post, but different context) building a rather large structure on a small base. In my opinion, it is as likely as anything that the original writer is just providing a brief recap of what was just said in the prior chapter. We see this type of brief summarization in some other places in the Bible as well, so it doesn't seem particularly unusual to me. I just mention it because many armchair theologians "draw a lot of water out of this rock". :)

Third is this:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise

This verse is in parallel with 1 John 2:16, which talks about the "lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life". In this case, being delicious is the lust of the flesh, beauty is the lust of the eyes, and desire for wisdom is the pride of life. I can only imagine that 1 John is drawing from this verse, but I can't confirm the fact. Anyway, it provides a good alternate view on the same subject, which is these three-fold appetites that can lead to deception and ultimately lead one away from God.

Fourth, a lot of people also make a big deal out of this brief passage: "and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate." There are a variety of interpretations, one of the most common being the presumption that Adam was present with Eve during the discussion with the Serpent and subsequent fruit-eating. If you make this assumption, then a natural conclusion is that he didn't say or do anything (as he is not recorded at all until this point). So a lot of people take this as evidence of the sin of passivity. At the least, the husband should be taking an active role in preventing the woman from violating God's command. Or, as some take stronger positions, he is the man in the relationship and should therefore be exercising authority over the woman and prevent her from eating the fruit. As I made clear before, I tend to view marriage as a union of equals so I don't agree with the stronger position in that sense.

Another common approach to this passage is to say that the dialogue is heavily compressed and does not represent a singular event. Rather, some analysts say that this passage represents weeks or even months of subtle manipulation from the serpent to convince the woman to eat the fruit, and that after that, she went and somehow got her husband to eat it. Biblical literalists (generally) tend to dislike this approach because it doesn't jive with a literalist's sense of temporality. However, I think it's pretty reasonable given that there is a lot of evidence in Genesis 1-4 of compressed temporality all over the place. Among other places, there are obvious temporal gaps in the follow verse pairs: (Gen) 2:25 to 3:1, 2:15 to 16, 2:7 to 8, 2:18 to 19, 2:20 to 21, and so on. Now admittedly Gen 3:7 and onward represents a fairly contiguous set of events, but that doesn't mean that the parts before it are necessarily contiguous.

Anyway, I don't really have a "horse in this race", as to me I don't really care which approach (or neither) is correct. From a theological perspective, it doesn't matter. But people debate this stuff so I figured my readers might be interested.

Fifth, When it says their eyes were opened, this provides the counterpoint to what we read in chapter 2 about them not having any shame. They are now opened to self-perception, which results in guilt/shame and as a result, they try to cover themselves up. They are, like so many other people, ashamed of their true identity and try to cover it up in a protective sense. I have a whole philosophical nugget about "protection" and how that relates to clothing, but don't have time now to write it. Maybe I'll edit it in later.

After this, they hide from God. This already speaks so much about the shame they feel regarding themselves and their actions, about how it has already broken their relationship with God so that they no longer trust him and much like they tried to conceal their bodies behind fig leaves, now they try to conceal themselves from God. There are so many possible reasons why they might be hiding from God that I don't feel like speculating which is correct. It could be anything from fear of punishment, to shame of letting him down, to embarrassment, etc.

In the next few verses, 3:10, we see that the man was ashamed because he was naked. So again, we see that the "knowledge of good and evil" really just led to self-awareness with a perspective of a broken identity: that he is unhappy with who he is, and that is what leads to these attempts at compensation (by blaming others or the fig leaves) or simply hiding from those from whom they fear judgment.

In verse 11 God pretty much figures out what happened, and in verse 12 we see the very beginning of what has since become a worldwide pastime of countless generations: the blame game. The man blames the woman; the woman blames the serpent; the serpent got nobody, so he gets the first curse. And so forth. So on the surface of things, the man and the woman are both correct. They are speaking the truth. But there are two problems here. The first is the implicit attitude problem, that they are trying to deflect criticism from themselves to someone else. This is especially bad for the man, who deflects criticism onto another person, who he is supposed to love and cherish. It should be little surprise that, after being fingered by another, the woman should also try to deflect blame. The second problem, which is related to the first, is that they are essentially ignoring or (perhaps more accurately) concealing their own culpability in this matter. Yes, the woman told the man to eat it, "the woman who you gave to be with me" (so it's not enough to blame the woman, he's throwing a sideways accusation against God for placing this horrible deceitful woman with him and the woman tricked him and it's not his fault!), but there was no application of force here. The man knew the commandment just as well as the woman, so he must have at least partially agreed to disobey God's command. Even if he was fully deceived into eating it (like somehow he didn't know what the fruit was), he still hid from God rather than approach him openly, so one way or another he was opened to having a broken relationship with God, and just as his eyes were opened his heart towards God was closed in the same measure.

For the woman, while she does not launch a sideways accusation at God, she has more obvious personal culpability because it is immediately clear that she, at least, knew she was eating the forbidden fruit. On this point the text is undeniable, regardless of what deception she was taught by the serpent. But even with the woman, she finds it irresistable to try to shift blame to another, to the serpent who deceived her.

My sixth point is another subtle one: why is God asking anybody anything? It really is perplexing to the first-time reader, because God is omniscient so he should already know the answers to these questions. This leads to an interesting conclusion, which is that God does not ask questions because he wants to know the answer, he asks questions because he wants the answerer to know both the question and the answer. This is another philosophy nugget, but to put it in a nutshell, asking questions is a long-proven teaching method, and here is no exception.

So after all the blame shifting, God starts to pronounce curses in accordance with the action of each person/serpent. Note that the curses are in reverse order from who has been blamed/questioned (man/woman/serpent, serpent/woman/man. This is a common Hebrew literary technique called chiasmus). The first curse is pronounced on the serpent, and since the serpent is considered an allegory (at least) of the devil, it is still relevant today.

Eating dust seems like a pun to me. Remember that dust is the source of man. So on the one hand, because the serpent has no legs, it walks face first in the dirt all day long (as an animal). But on the other hand, you can consider it a broader metaphor for how the devil will spend the rest of his existence trying to consume the lives of men. God further declares a warfare between the serpent and the woman. Of course, the warfare had already started because the serpent was trying to deceive the woman, so there were no good intentions already.

Anyway, God says the enmity will be between their "seed", which emphasizes descending generations (and therefore, an ongoing struggle). Many commentators point out that "a bruised heel is painful but a bruised head is fatal", so clearly this is not considered an equal struggle nor does it have any sense of parity. Lastly, the seed of the woman is widely considered in conservative Christian circles to be a reference to Jesus.

The curse of the woman is something people study and write about a lot, but I will keep it brief. The description of the woman "desiring her husband" and him "ruling over her" represents a dual fracture in the husband/wife relationship. The word "desiring" is generally related to the issue not of desire in the modern sense, but control. It really is describing a conflict over control of the other, where both partners desire to control the other.

The most significant curse is the one on Adam, which is definitive for the human condition. In brief, it describes that work is now toil/difficult (this is not how life is supposed to be. Work is a challenge but should not be strife - again I am just summarizing), that provision (bread) is attained through sweat (difficult, laborious effort). That the ground will yield thorns and thistles (both are inedible, tough weeds with lots of spiky defenses - this shows the denigration of nature from kind and hospitable garden to tough, difficult wilderness), until the ultimate result of the curse, death, and returning to the dust.

Death was not an original part of the creation. Adam and Eve, had they not sinned, would have lived forever in a world that includes work, but different work from how most people understand the word today. It is work free from stress and overbearing difficulty. They would have lived in a world free from the thorns and plagues of modern life that destroy lives and tear down the constructs of human society.

At the very end of the chapter, the man and the woman are driven out of the garden and must now fend for themselves in a newly harsh and cruel world that is (unfortunately) of their own construction. But God has not abandoned them, and as sin has now laid its foundations down into the world, God begins the process of redemption.

He covers them with garments of skin, which foreshadows the sacrificial process of atonement, and ultimately foreshadows the sacrifice of Jesus to bring about human redemption and reconciliation with God, reversing the curse and bringing true alignment with the purposes of human creation, which were outlined in chapters 1 and 2.

TODO: Add discussion of nakedness as biblical motif.


Anna Tan said...

With regards to "and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate" - I don't think it's really a big deal, but to my mind, it gives the impression that he knew what was going on *and* he knew God's commandment (the commandment was given directly to him, not to the woman), so he really should have said something. Maybe the Bible glosses over whether he did protest or not, but as you said, it's not something that's going to make any difference to us now.

I had a thought about the curse of women, which I posted about on Medium here: Thought you may be interested.

Daniel S. said...

I completely agree that Adam shares in the culpability with his wife. If I were to re-write this chapter today, I would probably frame it differently.

I do feel that Eve led Adam into this sin by eating the fruit and giving it to him. But that absolutely does not excuse Adam's willingness to go along. In the end, I feel like Adam had a responsibility towards Eve, to lead and protect her. Adam was created first and he knew God's command. I think that is why the curse of death fell on Adam and not Eve, but ultimately God held Adam responsible. This is also why Paul held Adam responsible in 1 Corinthians 15. Adam is used as the biblical type for original sin, not Eve. See Job 31:33, Hosea 6:7, Romans 5:14.

I can only imagine though, what the world would have been like if Eve ate the fruit and Adam did not. Would Eve have been cast out of the garden?

Another dimension to this: perhaps such a situation would not be possible. If Adam and Eve were united in one flesh (such that Eve literally wasn't even named until after the original sin broke them apart), I am not sure if it's even possible that Eve could have sinned without Adam's agreement, because they were one flesh. If Adam had resisted sin, I think he could have resisted for both of them. Possibly the same is true for Eve, though as I said before, God ultimately held Adam responsible.

I read your blog post. My thoughts:

The word "desire" is the same word that God uses when he says that "sin is crouching at your door, and it's desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen 4:7). So the curse on women is that they would desire a husband the same way sin desires a person. Take from that what you will. Because I'm traveling right now, I don't have access to my usual Hebrew resources, or else I would look up the exact definition for you.

Personally, my opinion is that the curse is mostly reflecting the conflict that would exist between men and women, with women desiring (to control) a husband and those same husbands ruling over them (harshly). IMO, it represents a dysfunction on both sides of the relationship, and reflects a brokenness that was created between the two genders at the fall.

But I guess your argument is that the curse is more about women's sense of identity and purpose being tied up in marriage, than the particular dynamics of how that marriage operates?

As far as singleness goes, 1 Cor 7 makes it really clear that being single is actually a good thing if you do not "burn with passion" as a result. So being single and fully devoted to the Lord is a great thing, and this obviously applies to women as well as men.

Anna Tan said...

I've been trying to figure out how to answer this for a very long time. I guess it's one of the things I'm still struggling to define, even for myself.

Yes - I agree that the curse represents the dysfunction/conflict in relationships, especially with women desiring to control their husbands. This is where I agree with the hierarchy of authority in the church and in the home; but also where I would stress on mutual submission, co-partnership and, ultimately, first amongst equals (if this makes sense to you). Which is why Adam is held responsible when both were in the wrong.

But (and this is where I may be interpreting "desire" wrong), because of the emphasis the church and society puts on marriage and family (maybe more so in an Asian society), this has also turned into a deep and unhealthy hunger in young women that they feel that they *need* to get married at all costs in order for them to be normal or to "fulfill their purpose".
I have had girl friends who purposefully and willfully take themselves out of serving in the church in order to date non-Christians who express interest in them because none of the guys in church are interested. This may be unique to my church which I personally think is a little too strict on this; i.e. you're not allowed to serve if you're not in a "biblical relationship". At the same time, I also feel as if they are also willfully opening themselves to danger because of this overwhelming desire to be in a relationship, and the church's unhealthy response to single women.

Also to single men, though not as much - just today at our Young Adults gathering in church, our YA pastor was teased about being single and attempted match-making nearly took place. Maybe I am just a little too serious because I don't think this is a joking matter. If not addressed properly, it can really become a point of contention and bitterness.

I have nothing against singleness. I guess I am just upset at the distorted way the church (mine at least) seems to view it, though they do not actually *say* it.
If you haven't realised, I can be pretty emotion-driven.