05 February 2017

A Sunday School Lesson: The Genesis of Evil

God's intentions in the garden are inscrutable from the text of Genesis alone.

The basic outlines of the story are well-known to all.

God placed man and woman in a garden that provided all their needs. God required that they “tend” the garden and “keep” it. Tending the garden meant work. As inferred from later passages in Genesis, this work differed from the difficult, frustrating labor mankind faced after expulsion from the garden. Keeping the garden meant protecting it. The text does not elaborate on the nature of any threats.

The trees in the garden included a tree of life and tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Both grew in the midst or center of the garden. God forbade eating from the latter tree. He never explained what it was or why he excluded it from their use. The warning of immediate death for doing so contrasted this tree with the tree of life. Nothing, however, is told about this latter tree.

God occasionally visited the garden.

This formula seems to set up some kind of test of obedience that would lead to life or death. But of what kind of test? Tests generally seek an evaluation or assessment of a subject's knowledge or skills. The purpose of tests is to acquire information about a test subject that was not previously known. If this is the case, it suggests that the God portrayed in Genesis is not omniscient. He needed a test to acquire knowledge about man's obedience. The reaction of God to man's failure of the test confirms this view. In contrast, if God possesses omniscience and  knew already the result, then it is not so much of a test as a temptation. The circumstance then appears to be an attempt to lure man into acting against God's command. But if God lured man into sin, he did it indirectly. He used a serpent.

A literal reading of the passage suggests that the tempter was nothing more than an ordinary serpent. The passages describe him a more “subtle”or crafty than any beast of the field made by God. This seems to include the serpent among those beasts of the field. The fact that a serpent talks at all testifies of the mythical nature of this story. Usually in mythical stories, the world in which the stories take place differs from the world as we know it. Perhaps the underlying assumption is that animals talked in the time before "the world as we know it." Or perhaps as biblical literalists sometimes assert, Satan possessed the snake and gave it power to talk. Or maybe the talking snake simply is humorous irony. Instead of humans charming the snake, in Eden the snake charms the humans.

In the Genesis account, the serpent inquires about God's command:

“And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” Genesis 3:1

After Eve confirms his inquiry, he challenges God's statement:

“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.” Genesis 3:4-5

The text does not elaborate on the appeal of being like gods. The bible already described man as created in the likeness of God. And why does the text refer to gods (plural). Are there other gods than the creator? Neither does the text does explain on what the knowledge of good and evil adds to mankind's similitude to divinity.

At any rate, serpentine intruder succeeded in his tempting of Adam and Eve.

The account is unclear in its temporal progression. Traditionally, Eve takes from the tree alone in the serpent's presence and only later shares with Adam. The passage, however, is unclear on this point.  Adam may have been present during the entire temtpation. Or only later after the departure of the serpent Eve brought Adam to the tree and plucked from its branches the forbidden fruit.

"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." Genesis 3:6

Nothing obviously extraordinary transpired at this point. Most significantly, they did not die that day as God threatened.  And the only new knowledge of good and evil mentioned is that concerning their nakedness.

"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 3:7

The passage alluding to the opening of the eyes uses sensory perception as a figure of speech for cognitive understanding. They always perceived their nakedness. Now they understood it. And thus the Genesis author introduces the naked truth  about the long obsession of the Semitic peoples to nakedness, sex, and women  seen primarily in the Arab and Islamic world today.

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