The story of “The Fall” is so much easier to teach to children than to grown-ups. Children easily relate to this story: God told Adam he could eat from any tree in the garden, but one. A crafty snake came along and convinced Eve to take a bite. She gave it to her husband, who also took a bite. Then they both hid from God because they knew they had done wrong and they also discovered that they were naked (a detail which makes kids giggle!). When God questioned Adam, he blamed Eve, who in turn, blamed the snake and then all three got punished. Every child without exception can relate to being asked not to do something by an authority figure and then doing it anyway, trying to blame others, and getting in trouble. The message of the story to little kids is simple: We all mess up sometimes; it’s best to listen to God and do what he commands.
Somehow this story gets enormously more complicated and problematic reading it as an adult. Among the reasons…
- It raises hard to answer questions: Why did God put a tree in the Garden of Eden with such dreadful consequences? What was the serpent doing in the Garden of Eden in the first place?
- The story has all kinds of messy consequences for women.
- This story is woven into St. Paul’s challenging theology of redemption.
Dare I try to address some of these harder issues?
The Problem of Sin
Let me start with why the serpent and the tree were in the garden. In this physical world in which we live, there are certain limitations and wherever there are limitations, there will be the temptation to ignore the limits. Also, as people of faith, we take it as a given that God is loving and good. The first chapter of Genesis assures us that God created the world and called it good. And yet, we know from experience that there is much sadness and evil in the world. Solomon expresses this beautifully in Ecclesiastes 1:13: “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of many to be busy with.” Later in Ecclesiastes 4:1-4, he laments:
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors was power; and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead are more fortunate that the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”
It can be hard to reconcile our faith in God’s goodness with the unhappy situations in the world. This struggle is as real for us today as it was in Solomon’s time. What Genesis 3 teaches: Much of what’s wrong with the world is the fault of humans. We have free will. We could choose to make things better. We could choose to follow God’s ways, but too often we don’t. We could choose love over fear.
For Paul, the serpent in the garden becomes a reminder to Christians of the importance of staying true to the Gospel that we’ve heard preached in the Bible. He writes in 2 Corinthians 11:3-15 “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Paul goes on to give this troubling warning: “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” The serpent is in the garden to remind us that even in paradise there were temptations. In this world, we need to be on our guard.
Eve and the Struggles of Womanhood
I’ve been really wrestling with what to say about this. Here’s just a few of my complaints: Eve, the mother of all living, gets blamed for a lot and yet she wasn’t created yet when God told Adam not to eat that fruit. She had no experience to suggest the Serpent might be lying to her. Wanting knowledge and wisdom is generally an admirable quality. When Solomon asks for wisdom, it pleases God. And it was a pretty simple mistake; personally, when I am told that I can’t eat something, then all I think about is eating it! In the next generation, Cain kills Able, which seems like a much worse offence, and yet we remember Eve as the one who ruined paradise!
God gives woman this punishment:
I will surely multiply you pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.-Genesis 3:16
Childbirth becomes painful and there’s suddenly a shift in the story from harmony between the husband and wife to power struggle between them. There’s a sense in which this story explains some of what seems given about life. Childbirth IS painful. I know exactly what is meant by “Her desire shall be for her husband.” It’s a feeling that hits me from time to time when I am in the midst of juggling work, caring for our home, preparing meals, planning special occasions, and caring for children while my husband is busy with work and the demands of his life. It’s not always easy striving to be a Proverbs 31 woman! And for much of human history women have not had the same rights as men.
I probably could just let the story simply rest as an explanation for the struggles of being a woman, but then St. Paul offers an interpretation of this story that leaves me scratching my head again:
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. -1 Timoth 3:11-14
With regard to St. Paul’s words, I know deep in my heart that St. Paul would personally encourage me to come learn about Jesus and that he would welcome me as his sister in Christ. I appreciate how he commends many women in his letters and I don’t want to paint him as a man who does not appreciate women; he gets enough grief from others. That being said, I would love to ask him: Why focus on the punishment rather than finding a way to make life more like it was in paradise? The Bible tells us that we are all created in the image of God, male and female. In chapter 2 of Genesis, Adam and Eve were so close and dear to one another. Where there’s love and mutual respect, each person’s voice is heard and taken into consideration. This sounds a lot more like paradise to me, and every day I pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” Holding women to something that Eve did thousands of years ago seems inconsistent with the overall message of freedom, forgiveness, and grace found in Paul’s letters, especially when we see how quick he is to proclaim that Jesus overcame Adam’s transgression.
St. Paul’s Challenging Theology of Redemption.
As Christians, we tend to read and interpret Genesis 3 through the lens of St. Paul, who refers to the story often in his writings. In Romans 5, St. Paul draws parallels between Adam’s disobedience and the obedience of Jesus, between Adam bringing death through his sin and Jesus bringing the promise of eternal life. Paul shared his understanding that both Adam’s trespass and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have universal implications: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18) When Jesus hung on the tree, he took the curse of death upon himself; he met humanity in our experience of death so that we might share with him in the experience of resurrected life. In attempts to explain this mystery Christians turn to big words like forgiveness, liberation, expiation, redemption, and justification. Our sins and transgressions are expiated by Jesus’ death on the cross so that his righteousness takes the place of our unrighteousness, his obedience for our disobedience, his holiness for our unholiness. In this exchange, Jesus takes on our sin and pays the ransom himself so that we may be redeemed. When we accept by faith what Jesus has done for us, we are justified, no longer guilty before God. We still face death, but Christians claim that death has lost its sting. Just as Jesus shared in our death, we will share in resurrection life.
Reading the story of the fall again, I took heart noting that as God was passing out the consequence of sin, he also promised a savior and offered hope for the future through the offspring of Eve. To the snake God said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 2:15) Christ’s feet were nailed to the cross and we can be assured that the head of the serpent will be crushed. Eve’s most precious and lasting legacy is our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here’s what found it’s way into my margins…I fell back on using my favorites, micron pens and colored pencils.