Was there a ‘Fall’?
Have you noticed that impressions of the Bible’s Creation story tend to be weirdly unrelated to the text? Two white people eating an apple by a tree? Nope. Blaming the woman? Didn’t happen. Men told to dominate women? Sorry. And is there a ‘Fall’? Christians like to say so, but in Genesis 1, God says the world is good! He never changes his mind.
“For everything God created is good,” as Paul affirms in 1 Timothy 4:4. No fundamental change of status occurs. The “Fall” is a myth.
Growing up Evangelical, I heard it so many times, I didn’t even know how to think of “religion” without that concept. Checking in with Bible scholars, I found cues to a different reading.
Warning: You won’t get to blame women!
In Genesis 1, God says the earth is “good,” then “very good” — but what does that mean? For Christianity, it meant earthly life used to be a perfect paradise, with no suffering, pain, or problems. It isn’t that way now, therefore, the “Fall” must’ve happened.
Is that really what the Hebrew word tov means? There is no divine dictionary, so we’d look around for context. The scholar John Day, in From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1–11, points to Judges 15:2, where we find the same ‘good’ as in Genesis 1. Here, Samson’s wife has been married off to somebody else, and her father says: “Isn’t her younger sister more attractive?”
Whatever this father thinks about this daughter is what God thinks of the earth. Is this really a praise of her looks? In the world of Judges 15:2, what might matter is whether a wife can pop out the kids. The father might be saying: this daughter is more fertile than her sister — for being younger.
Let’s put that possibility together with a fact: in the Bible, the earth is seen as female. In Genesis 1, God might be saying of the earth: She’s fertile!
And that would remain true today.
‘Fruit’ means whaaaat?
The dirty secret of Christian interpretations of the Bible is that they were cooked up by guys who came along a millennia later. What did they know about Jewish spirituality? Basically nothing. The familiar, traditional reading of the Creation story was devised by Augustine of Hippo, a 4th century Berber who didn’t know either Hebrew or Greek.
A series of improvised, kooky readings were proclaimed as spiritual downloads from Heaven, and the tradition kept the scam going until the 20th century. Then the realization began to develop among scholars that Christianity didn’t actually know as much as it claimed.
In Ronald A. Veenker’s 1999 paper, “Forbidden Fruit: Ancient Near Eastern Sexual Metaphors,” we learn what “fruit” means. To a traditional Christian reader, who thinks sexual repression is the road to divinity, it is an incredible slap in the face.
It turns out that “eating fruit” in Genesis 3 is a simple metaphor for intercourse and, therefore, the biblical narrator wishes to tell the reader by means of this metaphor that Adam and Eve experienced sex for the first time in the Garden.
That “eating” is synonymous with “sex” is often noted in the Bible, as the paper details. Note the girl in the Song of Songs 4:16b: “Let my love enter his garden. Let him eat its delectable fruits.”
Or Proverbs 30:20: “This is the way of the adulteress: she eats, and wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’” Veenker comments: “It is quite clear that the biblical writer understands the verb ‘to eat’ as ordinary coitus as opposed to the modern usages implying oral sex.”
Women aren’t blamed
For Christian tradition, it wasn’t clear why God even made a woman. Eve was the beginning of “evil.” Augustine was puzzled: Why didn’t God make another male? “How much more agreeable for companionship in a life shared together would be two male friends rather than a man and a woman,” he writes.
Over time, Genesis seemed to read as basically a misogynist text — as if any of that in the text!
In the Garden, the male is never placed over the female. The two are created together to be helpers.
A violation happens, but the woman isn’t held to fault. She was deceived — lied to — as Paul notes in 1 Timothy 2:14, and he’ll use Eve in 2 Corinthians 11:3 to refer to everyone capable of being deceived. She’s told she won’t die if she eats the fruit of the special tree, and believes it.
The text of Genesis goes out of its way to side with Eve. The serpent is said to be ‘crafty’, as she is honest and forthright. As Paul Heger notes in Women in the Bible, Qumran and Early Rabbinic Literature, “this detail indicates the author’s sympathetic attitude towards the woman, displaying an understanding for her falling into the trap of this wily character, who skillfully frames the discussion to attain his goal.”
The set-up seems fable-like, but remember this is a theological text that uses parables and stories to communicate deeper meanings. As Michael Heiser notes in The Unseen Realm, “the vocabulary and the imagery are designed to alert readers to the presence of a divine being, not a literal snake.”
To study the hints & cues in the text is to start noticing a lot of possible plot points. If the serpent knows the woman will die if she eats the fruit — is it trying to kill her? Recall Jesus says the ‘devil’ was “a murderer from the beginning . . .”
The first humans are children
God intended for the humans to eat the fruit of every tree eventually (cf. Gen 1:29). They’re just not ready. The crux of the Garden story is that the humans are children.
Both Jewish tradition and early Christians understood that Adam and Eve were children. Iraneaus of Lyons is especially noted for this view. A key layer of the story is that it’s a developmental drama: children are growing up.
When you become sexual, a change in status can occur. You may have to leave home. You’re grown up now.
To grow up means you’re not a child anymore, and you’ll now face all the adult decisions and dramas — including, eventually, death. This is the story of the children of Eden.
They are growing up, become sexual, and must then leave the garden, the womb where they were born. The man must go to work, and the woman will have pain in childbirth. It’s the story of life.
What is ‘knowledge of good and evil’?
The phrase is central to the Eden story. Christianity assumed an ethical context, as if the idea was something like ‘moral decision-making’.
It might’ve been a clue that, in the Bible, “know” and “knowing” are often references to sex — as in Genesis 4:1, and regularly thereafter. But Christianity wasn’t good with clues.
The phrase also occurs in Deuteronomy 1:39 in reference to children, “who today have no knowledge of good or evil . . .” Is this referring to the kids being able to make good choices? Try this: the concept in play is sexual maturity.
The Dead Sea Scrolls had a specific usage of the phrase which, indeed, defined it as a sexual concept. In a 1957 paper, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” Robert Gordis notes that in a scroll which was ‘rules’ for young men in the community, we learn: “He shall not come near to a woman, in order to have sexual relations with her, until his completing twenty years, when he knows good and evil.”
Gordis concludes: “the only conception of the ‘tree of knowing good and evil’ that is validated by the Genesis narrative itself, besides being supported by biblical usage elsewhere and by the evidence of comparative religion and mythology, is that the tree of knowledge represents ‘sexual consciousness.’”
If they learn it too soon, and in the wrong way, that is a story also familiar from the lives of teenagers everywhere. It’s the human story.
There is no ‘curse’ on the female
The man is ‘cursed’ (with working), and the serpent is ‘cursed’. The woman, however, is not cursed. Christians assume so, but yet again, it’s not in the text. Here’s a typical translation of what God says to her in Genesis 3:16:
Then he said to the woman, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth. And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” (ESV)
The problem is that the word translated ‘rule’, teshuqah, doesn’t mean that.
Joel N. Lohr’s 2011 paper “Sexual Desire? Eve, Genesis 3:16, and תשוקה” lays out the evidence. Not just the Greek version of the Bible, but the Syriac, Samaritan, Old Latin and Coptic versions all translated teshuqa in Genesis 3:16 with the different concept of ‘turning’ or ‘returning’.
Only in the Latin Vulgate, by Jerome, do we first get Genesis 3:16 having ‘control’ or ‘rule’. So Christianity decided to go with that.
Then came the Dead Sea Scrolls, with additional usages of Hebrew words, and scholars realized that teshuqa did mean change of direction, with the idea of going back. As Lohr glosses Genesis 3:16: “Despite increased pain in childbearing, Eve would actively return to the man.”
God is acknowledging that childbirth will be really painful, but that the woman will keep doing it. She will bear the cost of life.
Eve is the hero of the story. She realizes humans have the divine power. They can create new life. She sees this prospect is good.
She’s lied to, yes, but guess what? You can wise up and grow up.
In Eden, and out of Eden, the humans have challenges placed in front of them, but was it ever intended to be different? As Paul says in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good . . .”
That to me looks like a story of . . . growth and change.