The Temptation, the Fall and the Curse
Man as a creature given amazing powers was of wise necessity placed under the obligation of filial obedience to his Maker. His temptation and fall are to be regarded as events at the beginning of human history. They are described, (as the New Testament describes, in parallel fashion, the temptations of Jesus), as vivid 'extended metaphors' 1; this treatment ensures an emphatic and timeless impact, i.e. on all generations of reader. In the New Testament the serpent is unmasked as the great Adversary, Satan. The punishment for disobedience was inevitably death, the ruination of relationships ‑ man with God, man with his fellows, and man with nature.
Nowhere is the Bible's account of man so far more realistic than Darwinism's as in the matter of moral experience. Darwinism after all contributes virtually nothing to the moral outlook of ordinary men and women, however well‑read they are in its intricacies. But moral principles and their sanctions, whether welcome or not, are rarely absent from their minds and regarded (deep down) as vastly important. At least in the West almost everyone would admit that these principles owe an enormous amount to the Bible. But what, in any case, is the nature of moral obligation, and where does it come from? Why are its demands inescapable, and why so comfortless and tormenting? Why does it turn all of us at times into hyprocrites ‑ hard on others and soft on ourselves? To the writer, biological theory has no conceivable answer to these questions; the Bible's is both rational and satisfying, humbling yet full of hope. It discloses why man's life is too often "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (as the materialist philosopher Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, 1651) for a very understandable reason. He is a rebel, "alienated from the life of God" (Paul in Eph.4.18), cut off from his true source, and out of harmony with himself and his fellows. That is the Bible's answer, and it is with this that secular Darwinism has to reckon.
Man is a created being with a conscious power of responsible choice; this is implied by his being given a command to obey (compare Joshua 24.15). His position can be illustrated by an analogy from C.S. Lewis. Suppose a wise, generous and beneficent King gave each of his hitherto inexperienced citizens a fine automobile and told them to enjoy themselves on the roads he had built in his domain. The result would be catastrophic ‑ unless at the same time he gave them a highway code, a set of rules drawn up by himself and binding on them all. Merely to tell them to be 'loving and kind' wouldn't be enough. The code, if carefully constructed, would have to be strictly enforced, too. This illustrates the rationale behind the biblical statement that the Creator placed man, (to whom He had clearly given vast powers and privileges, Gen. 1.26ff), under the restraint of implicit obedience to Himself. But there was existent a watching adversary, of whose origin the Bible discloses little, but whose destruction the Creator had in mind. Man was tempted by the adversary ‑ and fell.
At this point I can hardly do better than quote what the great German commentator Gerhard von Rad wrote on Gen.2.16;17:
"For the ancients the good was not just an idea: the good was what had a good effect; as a result, in this context 'good and evil' should be understood more as what is 'beneficial' and 'salutary' on the one hand and 'detrimental', 'damaging' on the other. So the serpent holds out less the prospect of an extension of the capacity for knowledge than the independence that enables a man to decide for himself what will help him or hinder him. This is something completely new in that as a result man leaves the protection of divine providence. God had provided what was good for man (2.18!), and had given him complete security. But now man will go beyond this, to decide for himself. What the serpent's insinuation means is the possibility of an extension of human existence beyond the limits set for it by God at creation . . . . . . That the narrative sees man's fall, his actual separation from God, occurring again and again in this area, (and not for example, as a plunge into moral evil, into the subhuman!), i.e. in what we call Titanism, man's hubris ‑‑ this is truly one of its most significant affirmations". (GENESIS, Eng.tr. 1961, pp.89f)
The wording of the command thus implied that man was not to assume he had the power to decide for himself what was right or wrong; the Creator retained that prerogative Himself. Logically, it had to be so. Would C. S. Lewis's beneficent King have been wise to leave it to his citizens to make up their own minds on which side of the road to drive, and whether 'green' or 'red' meant Stop? Eve's sin was in effect to take this autonomy. "Why not be like God, deciding for yourself what is good and evil? Why wait to be told?" suggested the evil one. "Yes, why not?" thought Eve; and she went ahead. There is profound diagnosis here. This (quietly defiant?) self‑sufficiency was to be the seed of 'no absolutes', 'every man (and woman) their own boss'; and, as Adam was warned, mankind's tragic history of greed, lust, enslavement, torture, war and every sort of human misery has inevitably followed. Its effects are never ending. They are more than ever apparent today, often very public and unashamed. Dishonesty, gross sexual display and indulgence, violence, lawlessness, evil broadcasting ‑ all 'no problem' to our modern culture. All this should, on any reasonable assessment, bring to the Genesis narrative a profound respect. Certainly Jesus of Nazareth gave it such, and his own life was the direct negation of the scene in the Garden (Matt.4.4; John 6.38; 8.28f). His own recorded temptation provides a standard to which reference will be made in a moment; and his call specifically to faithful discipleship assumes the deepest significance 2.
It has become customary in many quarters to scoff at the biblical narrative of the Fall, but this is foolish. The profound theological and psychological insights of the story have often been recognized. How subtle is the approach of temptation! How simple‑minded and unreflecting Eve's declension into self‑pleasing! How fundamental and far reaching the results for the race! Loss of inner harmony is immediate. Then come fear, alienation from their Benefactor, disloyalty to a bosom companion, and finally murderous hate towards a brother 3. All this is so perennially up‑to‑date and true to experience that the story of the Fall is with justice regarded as the story of Everyman. But this by no means exhausts its trueness. As the Cross was a unique historical event, and yet is also the story of Every‑disciple 4, so (it may be convincingly argued) was the Fall a unique historical event, and yet is the story of Everyman. The New Testament, in fact, makes much of the parallel between the two, as well it might; for the correspondence between them (sometimes of similarity and sometimes of contrast) is too far‑reaching to be accidental. The same is true of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness 5. I shall return to this again in a moment.
Of course, the view taken here (that we are meant to regard the Fall as a matter of history) does raise a number of immediate questions. Was the serpent a 'real' snake? What was the actual nature of the sinful act? What would we expect to see in an imaginary video‑recording of the event? Similar questions however can be asked about the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness (Matt.4.lff), and on subsequent occasions (Luke 4.13). So far as these are concerned any attempt to interpret them in terms of what might be 'videod' is inept: there is no 'exceeding high mountain' from which 'all the kingdoms of the world' can be seen6, nor was Satan a fleshy adversary when Peter made his thoughtless remark (Mark 8.33), nor was Jesus given a visible cup to drink before his passion (John 18.11). The problem for the secularist in all this is that he doesn't believe in an Unseen World 7, and until he does, such things will always be sticking points. But the issue of an Unseen World is a main concern of this whole book, not just a trivial extra. We are back to square one, and there we must leave it for the moment. We shall see later that this issue lies outside the sphere open to scientific investigation.
It is in this way, i.e. as 'extended metaphor' 1, that I read the Genesis account. The Bible later records, it is true, the visible appearance of actual heavenly visitors (though never of demonic ones) on a number of occasions, but these are clearly different. There is a concreteness about them which prevents them being taken merely as 'extended metaphors' 8. Another quite different suggestion taken by other commentators 9 is that what we hear is just a soliloquy, two sides of Eve's nature engaged in dialogue, the serpent merely objectifying the dark one. This too is unsatisfactory; it clearly doesn't do justice to Genesis or to the Bible as a whole. It reduces everything to psychology, a conclusion from which the temptation of Jesus himself could hardly be excluded 10.
Positively, several important advantages can be suggested for presenting the message of the Fall in the way the biblical writer has chosen to do. Such 'extended metaphor' has a power and a vividness which brings the whole thing to life. It engages and challenges thought, and rouses even idle curiosity: what was the actual nature of the forbidden act 11, and what were its immediate visible consequences? More abidingly, an account in such terms does not become out‑of‑date as historical culture and conventions change. These at least are reasonable observations, and with them we shall pass on to the next matter that concerns our discussion.
We approach now the question of the Curse. The fact that human life is lived under a dark shadow hardly needs arguing 12. At the end the grave takes all; but even before that there is failure, lack of fulfilment, enmity, tragedy, pain and bereavement. So far is this so for the greater part of humanity that it constitutes a never‑exhausted argument against a God of love. It is an argument not easy to counter, for there are times when even the most fortunate feel the force of Omar Khayyam's sentiments:
Ah Love! could Thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,
would we not shatter it to bits ‑ and then
Remould it nearer to the heart's desire?
Why should human existence impress us like this? The answer secular Darwinists attempt to give (in terms of the 'selfish gene', say) is a mockery. It may explain why lions tear antelopes to pieces, but it never comes near the great question of why the human spirit suffers such torments. How could natural selection lead to such a state of affairs? Even if the neo‑Darwinists could think up some quasi‑Darwinian mechanism for humanly‑inflicted suffering, man's inhumanity to man, it could never measure up to that which it was devised to explain: a feature so universal, so massive, so tragic and so essentially ethical. It is here that the Bible comes into its own. It is the result, it says, of man's rebellious act, of his demanding autonomy, and of the alienation from his Creator it inevitably brought. What did this alienation mean? In one word, it meant death.
In order to understand what the Bible means by 'death' certain things must be made clear. In the first place, it makes no suggestion that when man was first created his earthly existence was to be endless. With a finite earth and the command, 'Befruitful and multiply', it is almost self‑evident that this could not be so. How his earthly life would have terminated we do not know; the nearest the Bible comes to telling us is the comment it makes about Enoch, that he was taken up so that he should not see death . . God took him 13. Further, there is reason to believe that the function of the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden was to ward off disease and painful old age 14, and this again speaks against an inherent physical immortality. In agreement with this is the great messianic prophecy of Isaiah 65. When God creates his new heavens and new earth (v.17) in which nothing hurts or destroys (v.25), human life will still have its allotted span (vv.20ff), and then presumably be taken to a higher sphere, as Enoch's was.
In the second place we must suppose (following the argument of chapter VII) that Adam and Eve would have observed death in the animal world. The sight of a dead animal would, in fact, have exemplified the fate in store for them if they disobeyed. How exactly would the spectacle have struck them? Our scientific culture has conditioned us to think of death as essentially a physical change. Accordingly we try to establish death by instrumental tests 15. But this misses the point. The biblical understanding of life connects it with knowing, existential knowing 16. It thus implies entering into relationship ‑ with God, with other persons and, to a lesser extent, with things. That is why the Bible links life with light (which displays relationship) and with love (which fulfils it) 17. To the Bible therefore life is not a property of the thing‑in‑isolation. It consists in cognitive and responsive relationships with things and especially with persons; and death is the ruination of those relationships. The most striking and poignant thing about a dead animal or person is not that it has changed‑in‑itself, but that it has changed‑in‑its‑responsiveness to us and to the world. It not longer recognizes us, or exhibits any feeling towards us. The sun comes out, and it shows no pleasure at the warmth of its rays, and so on. So far as others are concerned, and the great world outside, it knows nothing and answers nothing. That is the fate with which Adam and Eve are threatened, and this is probably how they would have regarded it. Relationship is the key category, both here and in all of Gen.3, and beyond. This can hardly be over‑emphasized 18.
"In the day you eat of it you shall die." The opening phrase here is not necessarily a precise time‑pointer; in the original Hebrew it is exactly the same as the corresponding phrase in Gen. 2.4, where it is indefinite in meaning. However, it is clearly unacceptable (if only because we have moved now into the realm of human history) to demand that it span the 900 or so remaining years of Adam's life (Gen. 5.5), as we must do if we insist that physical dissolution is the primary reference. There is no doubt that the punishment for sin included physical death, but death as we now know it; for the event we now know as death has a sting in it, due to sin: man is now a rebel 19. But (it is worth reiterating) we are certainly not free to conclude that before his disobedience man's earthly life was of an immortal quality and would have been endless.
Death as penalty highlights the significance of relationship; and the most important of all relationships, the one from which all others are nourished, is that of fellowship with the 'faithful Creator' (1Pet.4.19). It was this which was shattered the very moment when, (in terms of the 'extended metaphor'), the forbidden fruit touched man's lips. Spiritual necrosis set in instantly. He was 'cast forth as a branch and withered' (John 15.6); and ever since, he has existed (except where God reaches down in grace and rescues him) in the darkness of spiritual death. The New Testament especially speaks of this with great force and plainness of speech: "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God," said Jesus to a procrastinator. The mind of the flesh [our natural mind] is death., but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace wrote Paul 20. Other consequences followed inevitably and in their own time. Driven out of the favoured habitat of Eden, barred from access to the Tree of Life 21 whose healing virtues (Rev.22.2) had perhaps warded off accident, illness or senility, man's pilgrimage became "one long march into the night", as Bertrand Russell put it 22. Outwardly, human society became corrupt and estranged from nature, which from now on was something to be thoughtlessly plundered and exploited; inwardly, man's psyche became the arena where impulses of lust, greed and cruelty fight incessantly (and often successfully) with nobler instincts for the mastery. Finally, with no victory in sight, his years come to an end with a sigh23.
There is a sense of realism about all this. It rings true; human life is like this when we stand back and look at it. God is to most people the Great Uncertainty, more often than not regarded with very mixed feelings. People neither know Him, nor (if they are honest) are they sure that they want to. Alienated from the life of God, estranged and hostile in mind is how the New Testament describes man's present condition in relation to God 24, a condition resulting from that for which Christian theology has coined the phrase 'original sin', a nature we are born with. Doesn't universal human experience corroborate all this? Unexpected mention of God in conversation does not commonly fill most men and women with a sense of pleasure, openness and spontaneity. Alas, it is rather the reverse; man is in the far country 25.
It is in terms of a spiritually‑changed relationship too that man and woman henceforth had to face life together. For Eve, to whom the experience of childbearing was to become more painful, the clue is to be found not in deleterious anatomical or physiological changes but in the entrance of anxiety and fear 26. Who does not know how easily these things can change what might otherwise be exhilarating challenges into terrifying ordeals? Then there entered into human consciousness a strange and discordant new emotion ‑ shame. Man and woman became 'ashamed of their own naturalness', as Carl von Weizsacker the distinguished astrophysicist, once put it 27. Even now this remains a burden. Any attempt to deny it means brazening things out in defiance of an inborn instinct, with loss of poise and dignity. Sexual relationships became soured after the Fall. Tyranny now adulterates tenderness, coarse sensuality sensitivity; love‑hate is too often a frequent alliance in the encounter of man and woman. The Bible poignantly illustrates this in the moving story of the passion of Amnon for his beautiful and virtuous half‑sister Tamar:28
Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred. And Amnon said to her, "Arise, be gone!" . . . . Tamar put ashes on her head . . and went away crying bitterly
"Yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" 29. Feminism may be.a protest at this, but it often tends to be a hard, loveless and self‑defeating one. The 'gay' life may seem to some to offer a way round it, but it brings its own bondage and disillusionment 30. The problem lies too deep for such superficial remedies, Genesis implies. Self‑centredness is now too fundamental a characteristic of our fallen make‑up.
To Adam too the curse brought a changed relationship to work, all too evident, we may remark, in our affluent industrial society. Gone, very often, is the pure joy of labour and service 31. What the Bible is saying is not that (in the particular sphere of agriculture which was Adam's) new and nasty species of plant appeared, or that old and pleasant ones grew spines. There was rather a change of outlook and relationship (again) 32. Common and hitherto delightful tasks became suddenly burdensome, as they are always liable to when godliness and goodwill fall from their pre‑eminence. Plants which man cannot turn to his own use he now often regards with displeasure; they are weeds. Correspondingly man has become the exploiter of the lower animals, not their friend and benefactor 33. The satisfying and gracious harmony between man and nature has become a discord; the ecological conflict has begun 34. It is the self‑centred impulse, not the Judaeo‑Christian tradition, which has laid the foundation for the crisis 35.
In all these respects relationship is the key category. As with Othello towards Desdemona an alien spirit has entered the consciousness of mankind, and pure happiness has fled. This is the condemnation.
Of course the judgement did not mean that all joy was to vanish from the partnership of husband and wife, all childbearing a nightmare, all pleasure in work or joy in nature to be a thing of the past,. God's judgement is always tempered with mercy, and designed, where possible, to remedy the fault; and the sentence here is certainly very far from savage. It is mitigated too by the immediate promise of a Deliverer 36. Yet who can deny that there is correspondence with present actuality in the description of what is to be mankind's lot? Romantic love still holds out to young men and women (at least sometimes) the prospect of sublime happiness ‑ rarely, if, we are honest, ever truly realized. Work, for all its reward, is over‑burdened with anxiety, rivalry, boredom or distastefulness; and so on. But these things were not designed to be so. When God made man and woman "He blessed them and said . , have dominion". They were to 'reign in life' 37. Why then are things otherwise? Why are men so often against women, children against parents, class against class, race against race, superpower against superpower? The Bible answers realistically, "disobedience and the curse".
It is sometimes suggested that the only intelligent and acceptable interpretation of the Garden of Eden narrative today is to regard it as 'myth', like say the tale of Prometheus. This would allow it to be 'true' in some sense to experience, but not historically true. It would be the story of Everyman (as noted before), and the moral choices all men and women face in life. This cannot be regarded as a satisfying view, for several reasons. It fails to do justice to the New Testament understanding of the matter 38. It gravely weakens the authority of the biblical testimony, an authority to which Jesus himself appealed 39. It runs counter to the strong impression made on the ordinary reader, that the narrative is meant to be read as history, for it runs continuously into what is plainly so meant and betrays no suggestion that it is to be read otherwise. Most obviously, to regard it as 'myth' (in the sense noted) is to leave biblically unanswered the cardinal questions, when and how did this sad human condition originate in the first place? Was it always like this? Why does death get us in the end? Finally, this interpretation by liberal scholars as 'myth' is liable to be curiously lop‑sided. On the one hand many scholars who favour it accept the biblical teaching that man's salvation is through a series of concrete historical events 40 ('salvation history'); on the other, the Bible's account of how humanity came to need salvation in the first place is denied historical concreteness. This is highly unsatisfactory.
At the opposite extreme is the 'creationist' view, already noted, that the curse was accompanied by great changes of a morphological, physiological and behavioural nature in the earth's fauna. That would make it the occasion when there first appeared savage predators: lions, wolves, crocodiles and sharks, along with all the parasites and disease organisms. Previously everything had been gentle, sweet and loving! For all this to be read into the words of Gen.3.17,18, which make no mention of anything remotely of the sort, seems quite unacceptable. One can hardly appeal to the great prophecy of Isaiah 11; its language is so metaphorical at the outset (rod, stem, branch, root, belt) that it hardly demands a literal understanding at the end, especially when Genesis offers this no support. In the case of plants there may be a little more to be said, but I take the view that the curse meant rather a breaking of the harmony between man and nature, that unwanted plants became 'weeds', thorny ones a painful nuisance. 'Thorns', in fact, is a biblical metaphor often used for experiences unpleasant and painful, cf. Num.33.55: Josh.23.13; Jud.8.7; Hos.10.8).
The interpretations I have been criticising misunderstand the genius of the Bible; they cannot be convincingly defended by sound exegesis, or it may be added, by science or common sense. In them, man's failure, as subject, to be God's fellow‑worker on the earth becomes overshadowed by changes to the fauna and flora, as objects; these take the limelight off him! What the text is meant to convey is that the great deterioration in man's life had its locus in his self‑assertion, not in the epidermal outgrowths of plant stems; that at least is how I understand it. Together with views which would insist that later on the Flood was a worldwide phenomenon, they forget that the revelation was delivered to early Israel, not to a society for whom the antipodes are now almost next door!NOTES
1 A 'metaphor' is a figure of speech in which "a thing is spoken of as being that which it only resembles, as when a ferocious man is called a tiger". It is an 'implied simile', and is used for vividness and power. Often the resemblance applies to one aspect only (a 'model' on the other hand ideally embraces all aspects, quantitatively). An 'extended metaphor' carries the resemblance to more than a single aspect: John 15.1‑8 is an example.
2 The Bible lays great stress on man's teachability; among many refs. see Deut.4:14; Ps.19.12; 32.8f; Luke 10.38ff. For the whole content of Gen.3 see the excellent discussion in Henri Blocher, op.cit.
3 Gen.3.7‑12; 4.8
4 Luke 9.23; John 12.26; Rom.6.3‑11
5Rom.5.12,15‑21; 1Cor.15.21,22; Co1.3.1,3. Consider also the locality (a garden); the role of the Tempter (cf. Luke 22.53); the aloneness of the victim; the prospects: either great gain (Gen.3.6), or great suffering (Luke 22.44).
6 Luke 4.5
7 M B Foster, MYSTERY AND PHILOSOPHY, (SCM Press, 1957). Scientific evidence is in principle, accessible at will; contrast Job 1.6ff.
8 See for instance, Gen.16.7ff; Exod.3.1‑6; Judges 13; and in the N.T., Luke 2.8‑14; Acts 10. For such 'theophanies' see chapter II
9 e .g . Cassuto, op.cit.
10 The Bible nowhere asserts that all temptation comes through Satan (cf. James 1.14); but severe temptation sometimes does, as for Jesus.
11 The idea that it was the eating of an apple is due probably to a confusion between the Latin words malus (evil) and malum (apple). The description of Eve's act as 'extended metaphor' parallels that of the corresponding trials of Jesus (Mark 10.38; Matt.26.39; John 18.11). See further, Appendix V(i)
12 The book of Ecclesiastes stresses this, so do the Bible's historical books (e.g. 2Kings 10; 25.6,7; Matt.2.16). Modern man is so used to it that he takes it for granted.13 Gen.5.24; Heb.11.5
14 Gen. 2.9; 3.22; Ezek.47.9,12; Rev.22.2,14; cf. also Isa.65.20. As with the other tree, the language may be meant either to be taken literally (the tree was a sacramental symbol), or metaphorically. For the latter case see note 21.
15 e.g. by the onset of a flat electroencephalogram
16 John 17.3; death is correspondingly linked with ignorance, Eph.2.1 with 4.18. This connection is often noted in the Bible: see Pss.6.5; 88.10‑12; Eccles.9.5,6,10; Ezek.37.13,14.
17 Deut.30.20; Job 3.20; Ps.36.9; John 1.4; 8.‑12; 1John 3.14
18 The Bible is fundamentally about relationships. The names Old‑ and New 'Testament' or 'Covenant' (as diatheke means in the Septuagint) make this clear.
19 Paul's treatment of the subject in Rom.5.12ff and 1Cor.15.21,22 puts this beyond dispute for those for whom Scripture is 'God speaking'; cf. also 1Cor.15.56 and Heb.9.27; Luke 12.20.
20 Luke 9.60 NIV; Rom.8.6 RV. See also Luke 15.24,25; Eph.2.1,5; 1Tim.5.6; 1John 5.12.
21 Access to the Tree of Life may itself stand as a metaphor for the truth expressed in John 15.1‑6; cf. also John 6.52‑58; Co1.3.3,4; 1John 5.12; Henri Blocher seems to take this view (op.cit. pp122‑125)
22 Bertrand Russell, A Free Man's Worship in MYSTICISM AND LOGIC, (Pelican Books, 1953). Bertrand Russell, a noted mathematical philosopher, was by confession a 'non‑Christian'.
24 Eph.4.18; Co1.1.21
25 Luke 15.13; cf. also the verdict of Rom.1.18‑32
26 Anxiety and fear are thus often stressed in the Bible as outstanding consequences of a fallen nature (Luke 12.5; contrast Ps.91.1‑6; 1John 4.18).
27 THE HISTORY OF NATURE (Routledge and Kegan Paul). His reference is to Gen.3.7.
30 One is reminded of the evils of sadism, masochism and paedophilia; cf. Rom.1.26‑28.31 Ruth 2.4; Ps.104.31; Neh.4.6; 12.27,43; John 4.32,34; 15.11; Eph.6.5‑8
32 Accentuated no doubt by the change from the horticulturally‑pleasant environment of Eden to the tougher and rougher region outside.
33 Hence the need for such injunctions as Deut.22.6; 25.4 cf. also 5.14
34 Isaiah 24.4‑6; Lev.18.27,28
35 Contra Lynn White, Science 155, 1203, (1976). Compare this with Ps.145.9; Isa.40.11; Matt.6.26; Luke 15.4ff, etc.
38 See especially Rom.5.12‑21; 1Cor.15.20‑50; John 8.44.
39 Mark 10.6‑9. It is difficult to see how if it is 'myth' (in the usual sense) it can have any real authority on the point at issue here.
40 Such as the Exodus from Egypt, the Babylonian Captivity and the Crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.