Monday, 7 April 2008

The Fall of Man

My inability to find a supermarket open after 4pm on Sunday has led me to dwell instead on religious matters. As someone who used to be a fervent believer in the Bible, it never ceases to amaze me how easily I once overlooked certain obvious nonsenses in the whole thing. I mean, for example, take the original "Fall", i.e. the famous Adam and Eve thing.

"And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. ... And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." - Genesis 2:8-9,16-17.

1. If God didn't want Adam to have the knowledge of good and evil, why plant the tree in the garden?

2. If Adam doesn't have knowledge of good and evil, how's he supposed to know that disobeying God is wrong?

3. If Adam "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die", why did he not die for another nine hundred and thirty years (minus the length of time (no more than 130 years) spent in the garden before eating the fruit)?

Now, we all know what happened next:

"Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which [is] in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree [was] good for food, and that it [was] pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make [one] wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons." - Genesis 3:1-7

4. The implication in verse 1 is that God did not make the serpent. If not, who did? And if he did, why did he make such a sneaky creature and why did he not warn Adam and Eve not to listen to it? (Omniscient God, surely could have seen that one coming?!)

5. The serpent is always made out to be the deceiver, so how come he's the one that tells the truth?! As the serpent told them, "your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." ... "And the eyes of them both were opened". God himself confirms what the serpent told them:

"And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know 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: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." - Genesis 3:22-24.

6. If Adam was to die the day he ate the fruit, why the need to keep him away from the tree of life?

7. If Adam only "[became] as one of [God and ???]" after eating in the fruit, in what capacity was he created "in the image/likeness of God" (Genesis 1:27/5:1)?

8. Given the presumed perfection of Adam and Eve, made by God himself, the fact that they now knew about nakedness, their obvious inability to resist any form of temptation, and the lack of contraception... how did it take 130 years for them to make a baby?!

Answers on a postcard please...

I can't help but feel that far from the eating of the mythical fruit, the real "Fall of Man" was when widespread brainwashing with this nonsense became the norm in Western civilisation.


  1. Hi Rich - Long time no see. Didn't know you blogged but just been looking through some of your stuff. Very interesting. Sorry this is a way old post, but as it's one of my favourite scriptures I hope you don't mind me commenting. Your questions are a pretty comprehensive smashing of a certain 'fundamentalist' view of the text, and fair enough say I. But my opinion is that fundamentalist view is woefully inadequate as to the nature and meaning of the text, so in effect you are knocking down a straw man. I have taught at length on this and can go into more detail via PM... but briefly I would flag up these points. Firstly, the genre of the text is myth not history or science text book. You cannot make expectations of a text that are outside its genre, in the same way that you are unlikely to find poetry in a recipe book. Secondly, the key word here is 'Knowledge' (hebrew 'Yada' as in 'yada yada'). This carries not the idea of conceptual awareness (in the sense that the Adam & Eve characters were unaware of the concept of 'good' or 'evil'), but of possession, interaction, discrimination and a deep intimacy (remember Adam 'knew' Eve and she conceived... it's a euphemism for sexual intimacy). So bottom line, Genesis 3 is about moral autonomy; The impulse that we all feel to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong rather than accept God's view.
    I recognise that this is probably not the rather obnoxious, fundamentalist view of the text that you have perhaps experienced (and I have been called a heretic for articulating it!) But much of theological academia would concur. I sympathise greatly with many atheist arguments, but the arguments are often sited in rather trivial territory, theologically speaking. If you want to attack religion and fundamentalism, I'll be right behind you and bring the sandwiches. But there is a depth, intricacy and (dare I say it) beauty to theology that fundamentalism cuts the nerve of, and most atheism fails to engage with.
    It would be really great to catch up again and talk more. Hopefully you still have my email, or failing that, message me on FB. Cheers bud! Jamie F

  2. Hi Jamie! Comments welcome.

    It's true that the fundamentalist interpretation is not the only one. It was, however, the one I was taught as a child - and was reinforced as a young adult - and the one that many still believe and indoctrinate others with, so I do not really think it is a "straw man" in absolute terms. As a general attack on Christianity, yes, but as an attack on the concept of "The Fall of Man"? No.

    Having said all that, I have experienced the more liberal interpretations of the text too and, personally, find them devoid of anything of value beyond the interest and curiosity that comes with the myth of an ancient culture. Without the dogma of fundamentalism, Christianity becomes a rather wishy-washy take-it-or-leave-it and make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair. I am happy for others to take it but I am going to leave it. My atheism stems from the absence of evidence, need or desire for a deity (in that order).

    Far from this passage being an exception that should be treated as myth rather than history or science, there are no passages in the Bible that can be reliably taken literally. I think it is all myth. There is no objective way to determine which parts are (or need to be) literally true and which parts are not. (Nor any consensus on the matter.)

    I can construct various world views in which a deity exist but, without exception, these are either deities with whom I actively would want nothing to do with (malicious and/or deceitful) or deities that serve no useful purpose (aloof and distant) and thus I passively want nothing to do with.

    So, yes, I agree, the fundamentalist interpretation is woefully inadequate (and it is this interpretation that I am attacking, not the passage/myth itself). I'm happy to hear your take on this passage but I'd be very surprised if (a) I hadn't heard it before and (b) my atheism did not already consider it. (There's a pretty good chance I held the same view myself during my transition phase.)

  3. Nice to chat Rich! Let me be clear about my intentions here (they are honourable guv!): I'm not here to talk you out of your atheism! I'm engaging in a conversation about the text (and about anything else that comes up). I respect your position.
    I'm interested in the view you expressed here: "... there are no passages in the Bible that can be reliably taken literally. I think it is all myth. There is no objective way to determine which parts are (or need to be) literally true and which parts are not."
    Is literal truth the only kind that is valid? If we accept for the moment that the whole Bible IS myth, does that mean that it has nothing of use to say about the human condition, no insight, no wisdom?
    As an analogy, consider a Regimental diary from WW1 as compared to the war poetry of Owen, Sassoon etc. The diary would contain 'true' facts (insofar as they could be established), such as troop positions, orders, casualty lists etc. But I would suggest that the poetry would contain its own brand of 'truth' relating to the experience, the feelings, the existential reality of the men on the front line. I would argue that this poetry would be equally valid to someone attempting to discern the truth of that situation, even though it occupies a more subjective literary genre.
    It would be hard to relate my 'take' on the passage in a brief way here. And in any case I would not wish to offer it up as some kind of polemic to challenge your view, or a piece of dogma that You Ought To Believe (TM). Ultimately, I find Gen 1-3 beautiful. I cannot make you see the beauty in it any more than I can make you see the beauty in a piece of music or a painting that I enjoy. If you don't see it, you don't see it.
    But if you ask me to explain what I see, then it is this: a) That there is a central Truth to the universe, to reality. That's the reason we ask questions: because It is there to seek (& we are made in its image?). b) That purpose, meaning and relationship are part of this reality and are central to the human condition, not peripheral. c) That when we are in harmony with this Truth we prosper, we are running with the wind; but when we are in disharmony, there is friction, dissonance and we do not prosper – not out of 'punishment', but because we are opposing the nature of the universe (a bit like arguing with gravity... it never goes well).
    That's about the best three line summary of Gen 1-3 I can come up with! I want to repeat, I don't offer it as something to convince you propositionally of anything: I don't think that's how it works actually. I find it beautiful, and hopefully even if you don't see the beauty, you will at least have a glimpse of why I do (and that maybe it's not 'because I'm stupid'). It's a bit like my wife: you may not love her, but at least you may understand why I do!
    If you want to relate to scripture you have to relate to it personally, subjectively and on it's own terms, not terms imposed externally. And if you are seeking consensus... forget it! Did you seek consensus when choosing a wife (maybe you did you old romantic!)? The text does not offer itself up as a series of propositions to be accepted / rejected in a conclusive manner to arrive at an outcome. It's not a map book or owner's manual (despite cringe-worthy preaching to the contrary). It offers itself as a revelation, a journey, a mystery, a critique (of itself even) – something to be interacted with, contested, argued over and perhaps ultimately cherished.
    I've written in more depth on some of these issues on my blog if you feel like checking it out:
    Cheers mate.

  4. Don't worry, I don't think you are trying to convert me, any more than I am trying to convert you (or anyone) to atheism. (I'm not.) Like you, I see a beauty and a wonder in stuff that I think that others - the religious - are missing out on. For me, a deity or supernatural element belittles and diminishes the true wonders of the natural world: the human brain; the way that unseeing, unthinking and uncaring molecules can interact to produce something as amazing as an ant, or a cat, or a person (or a bacterium etc. etc.); the way that unseeing, unthinking and uncaring cells and molecules can ultimately evolve into something as amazing as an ant, or a cat, or a person (or a bacterium etc. etc.);  the truly awesome size of the Universe; the enormity of time; the insignificance of Man in the grand scheme of things but the ultimate significance of a man to a select few; true altruism. You get the idea. I'm happy for you that you see beauty in that myth, and happy for me that I don't.

    "If we accept for the moment that the whole Bible IS myth, does that mean that it has nothing of use to say about the human condition, no insight, no wisdom?"

    Not at all. Myths and legends say a lot about the human condition and provide both insight and wisdom. Is Homer worthless because it's myth? Does Shakespeare say nothing about the human condition because it is fiction? No. 

    Do myths tell us something fundamental about the fabric and the nature of the Universe? Personally, I don't think so, because I don't rate "personal revelation" as a particularly reliable or trustworthy source of evidence. (As a scientist, quite the contrary in fact. We wouldn't need statistics otherwise.) But, yes, I can see the appeal and, no, it is not because you are stupid. Your brain (in my opinion) is just wired a slightly different way. Not better, not worse, just different. I would be denying my own essence - real disharmony in my book - if I were to pretend that I could accept things purely on faith, or gut instinct. It's just not how I operate.

    I think people often assume that atheism is a very negative and reactionary thing. Whilst I admit that my rejection of Christianity was, I see atheism itself as very positive. It is, as you allude to, "running with the wind"; embracing (I believe) the true nature of the universe. There is more than enough beauty and wonder in this reality for many lifetimes of exploration and curiosity. There is power in shaping our own destiny, purpose and meaning. I just have no need, or desire, to look in ancient texts for these things, although is interesting to see what ancient cultures thought. I feel like I have been there, tried that and life's too short. I prefer to spend my time pondering mysteries that might be solved in my lifetime. If I'm lucky, I might even solve some myself! (I'll still be interested to read your blog, though. One has to keep an open mind.)


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