(this essay is found online at http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0507.asp)
How many children have remarked to their parents: “It isn’t fair! Adam and Eve ate the apple, and all of us are stuck paying for it!” Actually it’s more than children who carry this attitude. Trying to understand the story of Adam and Eve and Original Sin can be a daunting exercise for anyone. But should it be? Exactly what is Genesis teaching here? In this Update, we will first take a look at the Book of Genesis. Then we’ll see what it teaches about Original Sin.
Seeing the Larger Story
When we approach the Adam and Eve story (found in Genesis, Chapters 2 and 3), we usually start on the wrong foot. We should not look at this just as the story of Adam and Eve, but see it as part of a larger section. We really need to look at the first 11 chapters of Genesis. These 11 chapters set the whole story of God, Israel and all that follows in the Bible in a universal, cosmic setting. What is described here has implications for the universe and all people in it. Here’s a quick look:
After the creation account (Gn 1:1—2:4), we hear the story of Adam and Eve. It is the first of four basic stories in Chapters 2—11: first, Adam and Eve (2:4b—3:24); second, Cain and Abel (4:1-26); third, Noah and the Flood (6:1—9:29); and fourth, the Tower of Babel (11:1-9). If we look at these closely, we will discover that each one of them, in fact, has the same basic story line: human sin is followed by punishment, but the last word in each story is one of grace from God.
In each of the stories, the trouble begins with human sin. Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree (2:16-17; 3:1-7). (What kind of fruit is not mentioned and it is immaterial. The idea that it was an apple seems to come from a Latin pun: the same word, malum, means both “evil” and “apple.”)
The man and the woman together violate God’s command. Cain assumes to himself power over life and kills his brother, Abel (4:8). The generation of the flood fills the earth with wickedness and lawlessness (the Hebrew term used here covers all kinds of social injustices) (6:5,11).
Finally, the people of Shinar (in Babylonia) want to ignore God and make for themselves a great city, a great tower and a great name (11:4).
The sin in each of these stories is one and the same, and it is named in the first story. The snake spells this out clearly for Adam and Eve, “You will become like gods!” (3:5). We, as human beings, as creatures of God, overstep the limits of creaturehood and prefer to play God instead. We reject being an image of God (1:26- 28). We want to be Number One. And what happens when we do this?
In each story, the human attempt to play God is followed by a punishment. For Adam and Eve, it is basically death (2:17; 3:19). Cain is made to wander alone over the earth (4:12). The flood comes and destroys the sinful generation and with them all other living things (7:6—8:14) with the exception of Noah and company. At the tower of Babel, the people are scattered, and their languages are confused (11:7-9). If the sin in the stories is one and the same, the punishments also are really one and the same. It too is named in the first story: “the moment you eat…you shall die” (2:17). The punishment is death, but here we have a problem. For us, death usually refers to the moment of our last breath on earth. The Bible takes a broader view: Death is the breaking and collapse of all of our relationships on all their levels. Death is not just a moment at the end, but a whole realm of brokenness that affects our lives on many levels.
This realization can help us deal with a difficulty in the Adam and Eve story. They are told that at the very moment they eat of the tree, they will die (2:17). They eat, but go on living, Adam for 930 years (5:5)! What is happening here? The fact is that the very moment they ate, they did die. The process began. They realized their nakedness and were ashamed (3:7); they hid from God (3:8); they argued and blamed each other (3:9-13). The harmonious relationship between the man and the woman was broken; it would end in subjection of Eve to her husband (3:16). This subjection does not represent God’s purpose, but is the effect of sin. To seek to perpetuate such subjection in the name of the Bible is surely a travesty.
Further, the relationship to animals, represented by the snake, is cursed (3:14), as is the relationship to the earth itself, which now gives life (crops) only with difficulty (3:17). With sin, all our other relationships—those to God, to ourselves, to other people, to the natural world—break down. Curse is the power of death; blessing is the power of life.
In the other stories, death is manifested in diverse ways. The first death recorded in the Bible, that of Abel, is not a “natural” death at the end of a full life but rather a sinful one, a murder. Since Cain cannot live in peace with his brother, he must wander alone, separated, out of community (4:12). Human injustice (6:11) in the days preceding the flood breaks down the social order. The cosmic order likewise collapses and returns, as it were, to chaos. With profound insight, the tower of Babel story recognizes that the scattering of people and their inability to communicate with each other is likewise a manifestation of brokenness, of death.
One further dimension of this punishment of death needs to be noted. Even though God is depicted as intervening like a judge and speaking a sentence, the punishment is not arbitrary and imposed from the outside. The punishment flows from and expresses the inner nature of the sin. We humans are created from the life-giving word of God and breathe with the breath of God (2:7). To reject God is to turn our back on the source of our life; it is to reach out and turn off our air supply.
What is the cutting off of life but death? Since we have broken our relationship with God, the source of our life, all our other relationships begin to come apart too. Death is not an arbitrary punishment for sin; it is an expression, in a certain sense a “sacrament” (an exterior sign of an inner spiritual reality) of what sin really and truly is. Our rejection of life is at the same time both suicide and homicide! Our last breath is simply the last step.
Signs of grace
God creates a harmonious universe and fills it with life. By rejecting our imagehood, we bring death and brokenness. Who will have the last word? Each of the stories leaves us in no doubt: God’s will for life and blessing prevail.
Immediately after the sentence of death, Eve is named the “mother of all the living” (3:20) and God makes garments to cover their shame (3:21). Cain fears that he will be killed, so God puts a mark on him (a tribal tattoo?) as a sign of care and protection (4:15). Noah, a righteous man, his family and some animals survive the flood and are the source of new life on the earth—God promises not to destroy the earth again (8:21-22). The tower of Babel episode is followed by the call of Abraham, which marks a further step in God’s new beginning. God still wills life and blessing for all creation. “In you [Abraham], all nations of the earth will be blessed” (12:3).
What’s Original Sin about?
How does all this relate to Original Sin? Right at the beginning we need to ask a basic question: What do you mean by Original Sin? The term “Original Sin” (peccatum originale) was coined by St. Augustine (353-430), and his framing of the question has tended to dominate in Western Latin Christianity. He distinguished two aspects of Original Sin, the “originating” Original Sin (peccatum originale originans) and the “originated” Original Sin (peccatum originale originatum).
The latter (originated) refers to the concrete human condition which is present at the birth of each one of us. We are all born into a world which in fact is already broken; it is present at our birth, and we enter into it. It is about our existence right here and now. This is a present, existential understanding.
The former (originating) refers to the concrete sin of historical first parents, Adam and Eve. Way back at the beginning, these first parents sinned and set the whole thing in motion. Their guilt is passed on down to all future generations. This is a past, historical understanding. But is this what Genesis is really teaching?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current” (#110).
Applying this principle, Scripture scholars today are taking a new look at this story. We realize more clearly now that the story of Adam and Eve is rather something like a parable. The truth is in the message of sinfulness rather than in factual history.
The overall narrative of Genesis 2—11 reflects a “creation-flood story” that was well known in the ancient Near East; several examples have come down to us from Mesopotamia. The biblical authors used this familiar (to them) story to teach their own distinctive view of God, the world and human beings. In other words, to read the story of Adam and Eve as a historical account is to misinterpret the text. Like a parable, it teaches a profound truth.
Does this lessen the importance of the story? Quite the contrary! It does indeed speak about the origin of sin. At the origin of our broken, “death-filled” existence lies the human attempt to play God. We violate the limits of creaturehood, and consequences follow.
In fact, not only is the Adam-Eve story about Original Sin; so are all the stories of Genesis 2—11. Each in its own way deals with an aspect of the sinful condition present at our origins. Recent theological studies of Original Sin, following more closely the teachings of Genesis, tend to view it in precisely these terms. It is about the concrete situation of human life and society rather than about some kind of taint or blot passed on biologically throughout human history. The focus is on the “originated” Original Sin.
Was there then an historical Adam and Eve? Cain and Abel? Noah and the flood generation? Builders of the tower of Babel? Not in a literal sense. These are stories composed with figurative language; they do not give us that kind of historical information.
But we can ask our question differently: Are there an Adam and Eve? Cain and Abel? Noah and the flood generation? Builders of the Tower of Babel? Here the answer is a definite Yes.
If you ask, Where, then, are Adam and Eve?, the answer is: We find them when we look in the mirror. We are Adam, and we are Eve; we are Cain and Abel; we are the flood generation who spread injustice over the earth; we ignore God and build towers to make great names for ourselves. The man and woman of Genesis 2—3, as well as the other characters of the primal stories, are intended to represent an Everyman and Everywoman. They are paradigms, figurative equivalents, of human conduct in the face of temptation, not lessons in biology or history. The Bible is teaching religion, not science or literalistic history!
Primal stories such as these deal with basic structures of human existence in the world and before God. They are not windows down the tunnel of history; they are mirrors reflecting our own faces. When we violate our creaturehood, when we reject being image of God and try to play God, now, as then, we bring “death” (in the rich biblical sense) and brokenness into the world. Original Sin should be one of the easiest things to understand and appreciate. Look at the daily news! Its effects are all around us. We live in it up to our ears!
Genesis teaches the truth. These stories are ultimately about us and the damage we do to ourselves, to others, and to God’s good creation when we forget who we truly are and turn our backs on God, in whose image we have been created. Whenever we play God, the consequences are destructive. Since this is the case, then, God help us! And that, of course, is the rest of the story.
Michael D. Guinan, a Franciscan priest, is a professor of Old Testament, Semitic languages and biblical spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California.