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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Pete’s Bible Trivia Bonanza #10—the Adam story is(n’t) about “the fall”

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

excitementDid you know that “the Fall” of Adam in Genesis 3 isn’t about a fall into a state of “sinfulness” that all humans thereafter will inherit simply by being born? It is a “fall” story, but a fall into a life of pain, struggle, and eventually death.

In the story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3), after the couple took a bite of the forbidden fruit (not an “apple”), God brings down upon the trickster serpent a curse: he shall crawl on his belly, eat dust, and enmity shall be between him and the woman and her offspring (Genesis 3:14-15). (Christians have tended to interpret this as a sign of enmity between Satan and one offspring, Christ, though “offspring” here has a plural meaning. But I digress.)

The consequences of disobedience of the woman (named Eve a few verses later) are: pain in childbearing and a desire for her husband who will rule over her (Gen 3:16). Just what is meant by this has been a topic of debate since roughly forever (which I’ll get to in a future PBTB), but I only want to note that the woman’s punishment has to do with childbearing and her relationship to the man (Adam). It is not stated explicitly that this punishment is for anyone other than this particular woman, though, judging by how the biblical story unwinds, that can be assumed.

And this brings us to the point of all this, the punishment brought on the man/Adam (Adam means man). For obeying the woman, the ground will now be cursed and only through great labor will he be able to produce food from it—plants or bread. And after a life of labor and toil, Adam will return to the ground (Hebrew ’adamah) (Gen 3:17-19).

Death. Mortality. That is the ultimate consequence of this first sin.

What is missing among this list of punishments is what many Christians think is the whole point of the story: inheriting a “sinful state”—meaning, being born into an inherited state of sinfulness and guilt before God.

This story, in other words, is thought to answer the question “Where did sin come from? Why are we sinful?” But it doesn’t. It describes an act of sinfulness/disobedience, but there is no moral to this story here or anywhere in the Old Testament, “And this, folks, is why we are born into a helpless state of guilt and condemnation before God.”

Let me be clear: the Bible, both testaments, speak clearly about the reality of sin. But the Bible doesn’t explain where sin came from, which has fueled endless theological and philosophical speculation.

We might like the Adam and Eve story to be that explanation, but it isn’t. It has be be brought into the story, for it isn’t found there. We should also take note of a point commonly raised at this juncture: if the sin of Adam and Eve is the cause of an inherited sinfulness for all humans, where did the sinfulness come from that led Adam and Eve to disobey in the first place?

This is why Judaism doesn’t talk about “original sin” as something inherited through conception and birth. Judaism prefers to leave the matter open by acknowledging the reality of sin but without trying to explain how sinfulness came to be. Judaism is content to speak of the “evil inclination” of humanity, taking its cue from the Flood story, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

Of course, this raises the issue of Paul’s reading of the Adam story in Romans 5:12-21, where Paul seems to say that our guilt stems directly from Adam’s the-fall-raphael-ldisobedience—if you are born of a woman, then you are guilty in Adam’s act.

I can only say in the context of a brief blog post that Romans 5:12-21 is anything but clear, and perusing a few decent commentaries will appropriately complicate what some might think of as a straightforward piece of theology. (You can also read a couple of my posts, like here).

Paul is anything but clear, but let me suggest that his focus in this portion of Romans is on death coming as a result of sin (Romans 5:12), which is precisely what we read in Genesis 3:17-19, and that the “condemnation” we all endure because of Adam (see Romans 5:18) is the condemnation not of final judgment because we are sinners but of the fact that we all die—this is the “condemnation.”

And if it could be shown that Paul does indeed uphold the notion of the Fall as Christians typically understand, it creates another sort of problem—why Paul reads something in Genesis 3 that isn’t there or anywhere else in the Old Testament. But now we’re getting far afield.

Again, I am not suggesting that sin isn’t real. It is. I know. I read comments on my blog, after all. I also know myself. And sin is a given throughout the Bible. But our inherited “legal” state of sinfulness and guilt by birth, so common a view among Christians, isn’t something you can find in the Bible—and especially not in Genesis. If you want it there, you have to put it there.

And that’s fine, I suppose. As long as you know you’re doing that.

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