Friday, April 27, 2007

A Theodicy of Genesis 3:1-5

I promised Cervantes a response to this post on Genesis 3:1-5 to get things started. As a feminist I have to say this is probably one of my least favorite parts of the Bible. All the better to examine it I suppose.

First of all when you read the Bible it's best to begin by looking at the context. Who was it written by, who was it written for? Consider the time period and culture and their limited understanding of how the world worked. Consider their deficient science and their use of allegory and metaphor.

Thus we have the talking serpent.

So please, for Missy, let's assume the serpent in the story, despite the charming bit of mythology there about it's evolution into a belly crawler, is not a serpent or snake per se, but rather acting as an agent. Who is it meant to be an agent for? Who would the first readers interpret this to be? "A generally unpopular taxonomic order."

The official position of most Christian faiths is that this is Satan (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 391), some sort of fallen angel: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing." Lateran Council IV (1215)

The command in Genesis 2:17 stresses God's lordship and man's obedience. Again, think about the culture of the time, 1500 BC, a culture trying to understand who God is, trying to explain what God is. Primitive, uneducated people would understand what a lord was and this was used as a simile to help identify God. An unfortunate distortion when looked at from a modern perspective. But I would maintain we have evolved and so has our view of God. We're looking back on a people who still performed blood sacrifice and burnt offerings. I think it's okay to say our view of God has evolved since then. In the tradition of litanies, there is no one name for God. God is key, rock, door, dove, and wind. But at a time when patriarchy was the way of life, when men were seen as the only fully developed creature on earth (women resembled teenage boys, so they were not considered fully developed, ergo not fully human) when authority was unquestioned and obedience a virtue, this was a way to discuss God.

All of that said, here are some of the points raised:

  1. the serpent was telling the truth
  2. how did the serpent know the truth?
  3. why can the serpent talk?
  4. God lied about the tree of knowledge of good and evil
  5. why would God not want Adam and Eve to know good from evil?
  6. why place the tree in the garden?
  7. if God is all knowing, it's a setup
  8. what if the snake was a she?
  9. what are the assumptions about divinity, authority
  10. what world view, what morality is promoted?
  11. the greatest factor about the knowledge of good and evil is about sex for when they eat of the fruit and their eyes are opened they knew themselves to be naked rather than obtaining any actual wisdom.
  12. what is original sin?

Dang. That's quite a list. 1, 2, and 3 are going back to my point about understanding the serpent to be an agent or metaphor for Satan. The tempter, the evil one. We can come back to this later if you REALLY want to.

As for number 4, did God really lie? A slightly more nuanced perspective is that Adam and Eve were condemned to a mortality of the spirit as opposed to an instant death. Christians cling to the concept of original sin as point and purpose of Jesus the Savior. You can't tamper with original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ. So you might weave in the doctrine of free will at this point. That choosing good over evil is somehow morally superior than doing good just because you're forced to. Now it's thouroughly murky--God doesn't want us to know good from evil because that is the way of falling away from God (5), but in order for Adam and Eve's choice to have any meaning it has to be real, thus the tree and the set up (6 and 7).

What if the snake was a she? Nah. I think it's safe to say it doesn't matter that much to the story, but if it were a she then it would have been well stressed throughout history so we could properly hate female animals.

Numbers 9 and 10; there are assumptions being made here about divinity and authority and I think it's right to challenge those assumptions. As I noted earlier, they are based on the understandings of 1500 BC. They looked at the world around them and made understandable allegory based on that. What can we say God is like? What is our relationship with God like? Well, it's a little bit like a lordship... Let's look around at our world today and reask these questions.

Number 11; I think we'll get to that in 3:6-15.

Number 12; at it's most basic, the original sin was envy, desire... coveting. Disobedience brought about by envy.

So what do I think of this passage? What do I get from it? I'm not a fundamentalist and the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. I believe this is an allegorical tale used to make a point about something that happened very long ago in pre-history. I believe Adam and Eve were not the first humans, but they were the first something. Something significant happened to two people. Two people who were awakened to the idea of a creator-God and who felt a personal relationship with that God. Two people who sensed there was right and wrong, sensed that there was a choice as well. Somehow this was passed on orally and finally written. From that short passage I get that there are rules in life; that we have a choice between good and evil; that in the world and within ourselves there are temptations to be faced in terms of making decisions between good and evil; and that the original sin was wantin'. I want. I covet. I'm jealous. I desire. I envy. Not just wanting, but wanting so much you're willing to break the rules. That's, I guess, when it becomes a sin.

I think it's significant that envy is the original sin.