Genesis 3 for Today
by Herb Drake

Copyright (c) 1998, Herb Drake.

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Genesis 1-2 presented a ideal picture of how humans are to properly relate with each other, their environment, and with the creator. Genesis 3 suddenly brings us back to reality, providing a symbolic, theological discussion of how it was that the world became "fallen." The problem is that of "sin"--its appearance, its nature, and its consequences. But just as important, it is also the chapter that reveals God's grace. That is, it is the first of many instances when humans sin, are justly accused, and yet receive a judgment tempered with the grace of God.

Most of us will remember the key event of this chapter--the drama of the prototypical woman and man of the garden who eat the "forbidden fruit." We are to understand their action as "sin"--but why? What is so wrong with a piece eating fruit that it might have such tremendous consequences?

Prior to the event, all we are told about the "tree of knowledge, good and evil" that produces the fruit, is that the act of eating the fruit brings knowledge--all knowledge--the idea here being not just how good differs from evil, but all knowledge in between. So the proposition is that God makes the tree available, but commands that humanity remain in the comfort, ease, and happiness of an eternal relationship with Him--but humanity demonstrates that it would rather acquire the tools (knowledge)-- that will allow it to participate in its own destiny. So the first sin is not about eating a fruit, but it is about rejecting God. That is what sin is.

It is a fact that the only reason Genesis gives as a reason that the eating of the fruit is a "sin" is simply that to eat the fruit is a direct violation of God's good command. That is the way the Bible defines "sin." We, in other words, are absolutely powerless to define what sin is and what it is not. Why? Because "sin" is not something that one does against another person--rather, to sin is to disobey God. This is an important biblical concept; if we were to define sin as something that is against another person, then any group of people could mutually agree to do anything they wanted and they would thus be in a position to declare that activity to be non-sin (do you suppose, had the man and woman agreed among themselves that it would not be a sin to eat the fruit, that God would have treated the matter any differently?). But when we use the word "sin" properly, its use is limited to those activities that violate the will of God. And how do we know the will of God? We can only know that through God's revelation of his will to us. And that is where the Bible comes in; God does not limit his revelation to the Bible, but He does make it quite clear that nothing that he reveals will contradict that which has already been revealed (see Deut. 13:1-4). This concept that revelation builds on that which has already been revealed is maintained even in the New Testament (Mt. 5:17-19).

The treatment of sin in Gen. 3 puts the "first sin" under a microscope. First, it introduces the "serpent," who serves as an advocate of sin by providing a temptation. The account is clear that the serpent is a good creation of God, yet its appearance here carries with it the notion that the evil that propels the serpent is somehow coming from outside. The precise source of the evil is a matter that has kept theologians busy for centuries, and will continue to do so--and no dogmatic attempt to answer that question will be made here. Many are quick to say the serpent is "Satan," citing Rev. 12:9 ("that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray"). This might be valid when reflecting upon Genesis from a New Testament perspective--but the fact is that a personified incarnation of evil appears nowhere else in Genesis, or any of the other books of this early period of the Bible's development, make it very difficult to argue that the author of this portion of the Genesis text had any such idea or that this would have been understood by the early hearers of the text.

The effect of the serpent is to persuade the human (in this case the woman) that the sin is not a sin (a common tactic in today's "liberated" and "post-Christian" world). He predicts what will happen if the sin is carried out--the woman's "eyes will be opened" and that she will, by acquiring knowledge, "be like God."

Just as in any sin, the tempter here is half right--the sin delivers some immediate benefit, but never the full measure that was promised. In this case, the woman's eyes are opened--yet it quickly becomes clear that she never comes even close to being "like God." The account describes the woman's decision to eat the fruit in great detail, dwelling on how she considered the matter in her mind. In fact, it can even be argued that the precise microsecond of the sin took place before she actually ate the fruit; it took place with her contemplation of the serpent's temptation. In his classic commentary on Genesis, Gerherd Von Rad put it this way:

The serpent "asserts that it knows God better than the woman in her believing obedience does, and so it causes her to step out of the circle of obedience and to judge God and his command as though from a neutral position. It imputes grudging intentions to God. It uses the ancient and wide-spread idea of god's envy to cast suspicion on God's good command. And man's ancient folly is in thinking he can understand God better from his freely assumed standpoint and from his notion of God than he can if he would subject himself to his Word."

As the chapter continues, we see the consequences of the sin. This begins with a question that jumps out of the page to confront every reader of Genesis: "...the LORD God called to the man, 'Where are you?'" Just like any of us when caught with a hand in the cookie jar, the answer goes something like this, "It's not my fault. It was the woman--and not just her--it was your fault for creating her in the first place." The same kind of avoidance of responsibility takes place when the woman is asked: "It's not my fault either. It was all the serpent's fault." So these two prototypical sinners demonstrate the buck passing that is such a big part of our fallenness--our choice to be disobedient to God.

As was pointed out in the last issue, a major consequence of the first sin is the broken relationship between humans and God, symbolized in the discovery of the "shame" of their nakedness. God's grace is abundant, however--the deserved death sentence is delayed until after the couple can raise descendants, and God, himself, kills animals in order to obtain hides that he forms into coverings for them. A judgment upon the earth nevertheless follows, and it is not until the New Testament that, through Christ, it can be reversed (see Romans 8:18-25). Human history is launched, and God, as the lord of history, will ensure that the outcome of that history fulfills his goals for the creation.