An Alternate Reading of Genesis Chapter 3 and Mission

This article shows how Genesis chapter three, in contrast to the traditional interpretation that it is the description of the human fall and the origin of sin, allows an alternate reading. It points out, further, the implications of this new understanding for the theology of mission today.

Almost coinciding with the birth of the Bronze Age (ca 3500 BC) one of the first civilizations of the world arose, the Sumerian civilization, in Mesopotamia. The people that developed it are believed to have come from Iran. However, it was established in the midst of a people who dwelt in Mesopotamia as well as other parts of the Near East, such as western Arabia, Syria and Palestine, the Semitic peoples.

Tera, the father of Abraham, the Patriarch of the Hebrew people, belonged to this Semitic race. When he migrated from the Chaldean city of Ur to Haran (Gen 11:31), and later his son Abraham, to Canaan, naturally their mental baggage contained not only elements of Sumerian/ Mesopotamian culture but its religious ideas as well which, eventually, were transformed and refined to be incorporated as part of the myths of the Bible (Myths understood as in comparative religions), in the context of the Exodus experience and the Covenant.

The migration of peoples in more or less 1900 BC served as the remote background of the oral traditions that, almost a millennium later, were assumed into the written text of the Bible.

The heart of the Exodus experience, the central and identity-creating event in the history of the Hebrews, was the Goodness of the God who delivered them from the Egyptian bondage, under the leadership of Moses. “I have seen their affliction, I have heard their cry” (Ex 3: 7), was the clarion call of this God. As Cardinal Walter Kaspar has pointed out, God’s self-description to Moses in Exodus 3: 14, is: “I am always for you and with you,” (and not, “I am Being”, in Latin: Ego sum qui sum,[1] but in Hebrew, hasa and not haya.[2] It was the beginning, not only of their religious and national identity, but also of the religious text, the Bible. What is brimming all through the Bible is this Goodness of their God. The whole Bible is a narrative of God’s love, reaching out. The biblical salvation history begins with Exodus, not with the creation story that we have in the book of Genesis. Genesis puts us in relation to the ancestors/patriarchs of the Israelites.

Though, traditionally Moses has been considered as the author of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, based on the studies by scholars like Julius Wellhausen, it is universally acknowledged as the result of different sources.

Thus, contrary to the earlier perception of the book of Genesis as the work of a single author, giving a continuous history of the universe and of human kind, based on internal evidence and style, scholars agree on four sources: J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly) and D (Deuteronomist) which, probably at the time of Ezra (458-390), was collected and codified into a single book by a priestly author.

The different parts of the book of Genesis have not only different sources of origin but also different emphases and subjects.  The first chapter of the Book of Genesis was written during exile by the priestly tradition, under the impact of the Babylonian creation myths, but always emphasising the uniqueness of the God of the Hebrews who not only created everything in six days but rested on the seventh day. Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, is different from others, in so far as God rests on the Sabbath, making it sacred as well, which, one could say, is inspired by the Sinai covenant mandate to keep the Sabbath holy (Exo 20:8-11).

An important aspect of the priestly account of the creation of human beings in Genesis 1 is stated soberly: God blessed them saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it…” (1:28). Further, God gave them the right to eat every plant and tree all over the earth as well as all animals of the earth and birds of the air (vs 29 & 30). God was pleased with God’s creation that God found very good.

In contrast, when we come to the Yahwist account of the creation of humans in the next chapter, though God made a suitable partner for man (Gen 2: 18 & 22), the divine plan as expressed in the priestly account, namely,  “being fertile and multiplying and filling the earth” (1: 28), remains inoperative in so far as man and woman lacked self-perception and the awareness of their gender difference and sexual potency, notwithstanding the declaration of the divine intent of marriage, where “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gen 2:24). The divine design of being fertile and filling the earth, according to the Yahwist account, is realized only through the events narrated in chapter three, underlining human accountability, described as the ethics of responsibility by the renowned Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.[3]

Though there is an aspect of disobedience in 3:3, disobedience does not exhaust the meaning and purpose of the chapter, rather it has to be seen in context. Here is the challenge for the reader to be open to the unfolding of the narrative with its various nuances.

A major element of the chapter is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The phrase “to know good and evil,” frequently meant sexual maturity in Hebrew. Taken together with the snake, which symbolized fertility, and the mention of their shame at being naked, it seems clear that through all these, the author was connecting the fundamental human self-awareness and sexuality and achieving the divine plan of filling the earth that was expressed by the priestly narrative in 1:28. However, this is converted into reality through human choice and human collaboration, even as God gives humans the role of naming the animals of the ground and birds of the air (2:19). This is emphasized by a further assertion:

“The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals” (2:20). By eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge through their own conscious choice, humans become aware of their nakedness (Gen 3:7), i.e. they come to the awareness of their sex difference as well as the purpose of it, they are not just partners or companions anymore.

The narrative continues to flow smoothly with God accompanying humans, showing further, how God prepared Israel’s ancestors, beginning with Abraham.

The Yahwist narrative in Genesis chapter 3 also explains questions about human life such as: why women have pain in childbirth, why people have to work for a living, why we wear clothes, why people are ashamed when naked, why there is death, why snakes crawl on the ground.

Without considering this comprehensive outlook, it was held how Genesis chapter 3 was the description of sin and human concupiscence.  The very term ‘sin’ occurs for the first time in the Bible, only in the context of Cain killing his brother Abel (4:7). The creation account of chapter one, which is of later origin, as we have seen, has no reference to sin.

The whole of the third chapter of the book of Genesis is shrouded in the mystery of sexuality that has played an important role in most religions, either glorifying it like the Sumerian religion, or shunning it as a cause of suffering, like early Buddhism. Though the Bible has a glorifying approach to sexuality (Gen 1: 28; 2: 24), it explains sexuality and sexual attraction, by stating that humans realized they were naked, along with painful procreation, through the beguiling work of the serpent. This is subtly reflected also in the New Testament in so far as Paul imposes periods of abstinence (1Cor 7: 5f) or Jesus’ speaks of making oneself a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven (Mt 19: 12).

Sexuality and progeny in the Bible is a source of blessing. Accordingly, to be without progeny, to be barren, is seen as a matter of dishonour and shame. Not only do we come across songs of love in some of the Biblical books, but also the Song of Songs is one of the canonical books of the Bible. Marriage and wedding celebrations are occasions of joy. Jesus went so far as to compare the kingdom of God to an eternal wedding celebration (Mt 22:1ff)! In the same spirit, some Jewish Rabbis explained how the sacred night of the Sabbath was the most appropriate time for marital intercourse, reflecting divine intimacy!

Sexuality and love are part of creation and are, thus, gifts of God’s goodness. Even as creation, in general, is good, orderly and under control, as coming from God, so too must sexuality be. Humans are responsible for the world and sexual behaviour as they are made co-creators with God. They are God’s deputies. They must exercise this wisely and prudently, according to God’s plan. Further, as Joseph Blenkinsopp has underlined, “The Eden story is nowhere referred to in any pre-exilic text, that is, at any time prior to the Neo-Babylonian period.”[4]

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, according to Genesis chapter three, is not because of human sin, as much as due to God’s fear that the humans will become immortal like God by eating the fruit of the tree of life (Gen 3:24)!

True, the Yahwist takes into account the universal perception of the sexual weakness of humans, prompting to sin, affecting even key Biblical figures like David. Under the influence of the Zoroastrian principle of Ahriman, the source of evil as opposed to Ahuramazda, the principle of light and goodness, and the Enuma Elish myth of Enkidu losing the gift of living forever through the intervention of a snake, the Yahwist attributes the eating of the fruit to the influence of the serpent, the principle of evil. The emergence of evil is subsequent to creation by God.

In Genesis 1-11, the deluge is the decisive event after creation, and not the eating of the fruit in Gen 3:1-7. The deluge is an act of un-creation, in contrast to the creative process described in Genesis chapters one and two.

This should not belittle the sexual realism of the Yahwist picturing the profound wonder of sexuality with its joy, overshadowed by the agony of deviation and sin. All these are presented in broad strokes. Ultimately, it is all part of the divine mystery and the awesome human responsibility, as unfolded in the course of the God of salvation.

Such a broader understanding of Genesis chapter three could compliment the one-sided and sin-dominated interpretation of it, and it can lead to a deeper appreciation of the centrality of the divine goodness. Even if chapters one and three are originally independent, in the biblical context, they are complementary. Together, they bring out the divine goodness and faithfulness, along with human frailty and the tendency to sin, yet without disposing of human accountability. That is the role of Genesis chapter three.

The Ministry of Jesus with its Consequence

What has been said holds immense significance for the mission of the church today. It is well known how mission in the past, almost exclusively, was contoured and justified by the presumed fall of the first parents risking the salvation of all humans. The Christ event was read nearly always as remedial to that loss. Anselm of Canterbury, thought to be the Father of western theology by some, went so far as to say that Christ through his blood purchased the souls back for God that had become the possession of the devil when humans ate the apple at his bequest. Some scripture scholars, like Martin Kaehler, saw the gospels especially that of Mark, as a passion narrative with an introduction, ignoring all the beautiful things Jesus did and said! Accordingly, it was said that the redeeming death of Jesus made up for the sin of the first parents and this made God reopen heaven for humanity[5]. The Church became the depository and dispenser of that salvation. The Church’s mission was, primarily, to make that salvation available to all humans in every part of the world. Traces of that theology can be detected even in Vatican II’s Mission Decree, Ad Gentes, when it states: “Though God, in ways known to God alone … Church is the God intended means of salvation” (n 7), forgetting the very description of God as a “fountain like love” given a few paragraphs earlier (n 2).

Another shortcoming of the interpretation of the Christ-event by linking it to the fall of the humans in paradise, is that it is blind to the scientific data based on human fossils as well as human tools, that human beings existed almost for three million years whereas the whole of the biblical story, as we have seen, spans only for about 5000 years.

There is a radical need to return to the gospels and to the early Church that hardly mentions original sin. The fresh approach to Genesis Three, outlined above, can place one on the same wave length as that of Jesus. Since the time of the return from the Exile there was the hope of the One who would bring about the redemption and restoration of Israel, the Davidic Kingdom, even though the term messiah occurs only in Daniel 9:25. True, one could trace the earliest promise of the Messiah in the promise made to David by Nathan, the prophet (2 Sam 7:10-15), in the context of building a Temple for the Lord.

The Messiah is the promised one whom Yahweh would bring about and who would embody the identity and mission of Israel, to be a light to the nations. Through the prophet Isaiah the Lord spoke: “You are my witnesses, my servants whom I have chosen to know and believe in me and understand that it is I” (Is 43:10).

The kingdom-centred mission of Jesus can be understood only in the context of the Old Testament, beginning with the divine promise of establishing the kingdom forever (2 Sam 7:13). Since then there was the undying faith in God establishing God’s reign that will last forever, despite the setbacks suffered through selfish kings, the exile and foreign invasions, including that of the Greeks and the Romans.[6]

With Daniel, the Messianic expectations become more vibrant, with the hope for the One who comes like the God of Israel’s scriptures, on the clouds (Dan 7:13). He will receive a kingdom that replaces the earthly kingdom of the beasts (Dan 1:2; 2:37; 7:6). God’s eschatological kingdom in its eternal duration will actualize in the Messiah (Dan 2:44; 6:26).

Jesus concretizes the messianic expectations by announcing the arrival of the divine reign (Mk 1:14; Mt 4:17), linking it with the great biblical theme of the Jubilee Year, though now it is not just another Jubilee, but the Jubilee, “the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:19; cf. Lev 25:8ff). Jubilee was the good news primarily to the poor who had lost their land or who had become slaves. Jubilee retrieved the original equality that the Israelites had when they came to the Promised Land.  Jesus spelt this out through his announcing the good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and setting at liberty those who were oppressed, through the power of God’s Spirit (Lk 4:18-19). In the fourth gospel the Jubilee, the kingdom, is experienced through the deeds of light (Jn 3:16-21).

The biblical idea of salvation and the naming of God or Jesus as saviour has to be understood from this integral sense. No wonder, Cyrus the Persian king who sent Israelites back to their own land is called a saviour (Is 44:24 – 45:8). Similarly, Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles qualifies a man as saved because he is healed of being a cripple by the power of the risen Jesus (Acts 4:5ff).

Jesus makes God and God’s reign actual, tangible. “Those who have seen me have seen God” says Jesus (Jn 12:45; 14:9) for he, as the one descended from God, is the only one who has seen God (Jn 1:18; 6:40, 46). By doing the Father’s will and speaking the Father’s word Jesus becomes the concrete presence of the Father.

Jesus Christ is the vibration of God, God’s body language, one may say. Albert Einstein gave the relativity theory, i.e., reality, at the sub-atomic level, is a combination of matter and energy as shown by the perception of light as a shower of particles as well as a wave of energy. Historical Jesus is to be approached not only through the historical critical method, but also through certain ‘waves’ (shem in Hebrew), by looking into the overflow, breath, rhythm and the tenor of his entire ministry. The Father and the Father’s reign was his shem, his vibration. This should modulate our mission today.

The idea of divine presence is a theme dear to the bible. Already in Genesis chapter 3 we see how God was moving with humans (Gen 3:8). This divine presence becomes more articulate, especially at moments of human helplessness, such as during the Egyptian slavery (Ex 3:7) or during the Hebrew plight through the desert (Ex 40:38), and through many other ways, finally culminating in the Incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1: 14), who is called “Emmanuel, God is with us” (Mt 1:23). The entire ministry of Jesus was not only an articulation of God’s presence but simultaneously it was also a manifestation of the way humans become present to God and to each other (Lk 10: 37; Jn 13:34). Through this presence of love, the community of his disciples will produce the same fruit as did Jesus (Jn 15.1). In this connection we can appreciate Peter’s summarizing of Jesus’s ministry as going about doing good (Act 10:38).

Jesus did create a new community and entrust it with his own mission (Mk 3: 14-15), implying at the same time the need to have a community of the disciples in every culture to continue that mission (Mt 28: 19), nevertheless, Jesus never spoke of a loss of salvation for humanity or that his death was for winning the salvation back,[7] to be made available in the community, the Church. Jesus explained the existence of evil not to a human fall, but to the work of an enemy who sowed the seeds of darnel among the wheat (Mt 13:24-30).[8] Jesus was ever led by the goodness of the Father, who makes his rain fall on the good and the evil alike (Mt 5:45), the Father who is concerned about the lost one, even as he is similar to an employer of labourers who does not want anyone to be unemployed so as to hire labourers even at the eleventh hour and paying all a just wage (Mt 20:1-16).

When asked as to what must be done to be saved Jesus quotes the love command from Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18), (Lk 10: 25-28). Similarly, Jesus pronounces how salvation has come to Zacchaeus when the latter has followed the love command (Lk 19: 9), even before his death on the cross!

The logical consequence of his inclusive, compassionate, love-centred and forgiving ministry, in contrast to the practice of the then religious leadership, was the crucifixion. The litmus test of his passion is that he was put to death on a Roman cross, with the title “King of the Jews.” The execution of Jesus cannot be separated from his ministry. That ministry attracted rejection by the religious leaders of the time, right from the beginning of his ministry (Mk 2:1ff). In a sense, Jesus prepared his own death by pouring out his energy and compassion on behalf of the poor and the outcaste, the sinners, the suffering, those on the margins. His commitment to justice, his proclamation of universal salvation (Lk 4:25-27), his prophetic mission, forgiving sins, all stirred up the powers of opposition that led him to the cross. He came to cast fire (Lk 12:49), the divine reign that challenges the listener to be open to all, and freeing us from a tribal view of a God who is exclusive, for the privileged, and sticking to rituals and purity.

The climax of Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities was Jesus’ authority manifested in the solemn entry into Jerusalem fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9.9, that the religious authorities understood (Lk 19:37-40). That was followed by the cleansing of the temple and teaching in the cleansed temple qualifying the then religious leadership as a den of thieves. “The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people, meanwhile were seeking to put him to death” (Lk 19:47).

Mission Today

The Christ event is a memory and a metaphor. It is the memory of the Incarnation and ministry of Jesus due to which he was executed at Jerusalem during Passover by the Romans at the behest of the religious authority but was raised by God and made Christ (Act 2:22-32). It is at the same time a metaphor inviting the disciples to follow his path holding his identity, his message and his mission. At the heart of the gospels is the element of conflict leading to death, resurrection and mission.

The Christian reading of the bible and approach to mission today, must be contoured by the divine passion for compassion, divine love that is communicated in creation and in the Incarnation. Hence, the Divine Mission began with creation and not with Incarnation.  Even as creation was the divine reaching out (protensio, in Latin), through God’s Word and Breath/Ruah, Christ event was God’s self-revelation on human terms (Jn 1:8; 12:45; 14:9). It shines all through the ministry. Zacchaeus, seen as evil, wicked and sinner, becomes significant for God, for he too is a son of Abraham (Lk 19:9). The least meritorious become significant for God.

Biblical narratives, unlike a book on cooking, with its direct meaning, have a depth of inexhaustible meaning that has to be plumbed out. There is always room for further insight and understanding. One need not limit oneself to the past interpretation of Genesis chapter three as a narrative of fall, sin and punishment, but can see it from the perspective of “the fountain-like love of God” (Ad Gentes n.2). Bible is faith stories, stories of God’s action in history, rooted in the culture of the people to whom it was revealed. They help one to encounter God, a God who has carved humans in his palms (Is 49:16) and who like a hen tries to bring all under its wings (Mt 23:37).

For the earliest Christians, mission was sharing of an experience. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us, that we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you…” (1 Jn 1:1-4). In the light of the resurrection of the Lord the followers of Jesus felt empowered and impelled to share their experience of discipleship.

Scripture scholar John Shelby Spong has argued: “What the gospels tell is the presence of God in a contemporary moment, they interpreted this moment by applying to it similar moments in their sacred story when they were convinced the presence of God had also been real to their forebears in faith … That was the only way they could understand and process the God presence they found in Jesus that was so powerful.”[9]

Mission today has no other motive than what late Pope John Paul II has said, “To serve human beings by manifesting the love of God made present in Jesus Christ” (Redemptoris Missio 2). In this the Pope was only true to the concluding instruction of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes: The Church “will share with others the mystery of the heavenly Father’s love” (GS 93), and make all aware of the divine salvation and respond to it.

Obviously, the practical expressions of this service of love, respond to the context. In a religiously pluralistic context like most parts of Asia, the priority will be Inter Religious Dialogue. Where justice is trampled upon and human dignity is thrown to the winds, mission primarily will be an involvement for prophetic justice and advocacy for the margins. It could be empowerment in different forms, and caring for the sick, the lonely, and for creation. It calls for the creation of new communities where they are not existing. In all this, the Christian community tries to be “the letters of Jesus Christ” (2Cor 3:2) or “the aroma of Christ” (2Cor 2:15), thereby becoming “the light to the world” (Mt 5:14). The Christian community becomes the Sacrament of the divine salvation, divine reign made present in Jesus Christ.

As the recent Magisterium of the Catholic Church, especially Pope Francis, has taught, the Church has to become the carrier of the Goodness of God, inviting all to respond to this Goodness, by being good to one another. “The heart of its message will always be the same: the God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ” (Evangelii Gaudium n 11).

(We thank the author for sharing this article with our SEDOS readers. It is a chapter of a book he is working on. )

[1] Kaspar Walter, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and Key to Christian Life, New York: Paulist Press, 2014, 129.

[2] Julian of Norwich had spoken of the identity of God’s Being as God’s love. Love is not something God has or a property of God. Cf. Brant Pelphrey, Christ Our Mother: Julian of Norwich, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989, 25.

[3] Jonathan Sacks, To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, London: Continuum, 2005. One of the challenging ideas of the bible, as Jonathan Sacks describes, is that God invites humans as partners in the work of creation: naming, tilling, caring for the earth, procreation and others revealing God’s faith in humans.

[4] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1992, 64-65.

[5] The protagonists of the fall and atonement theology do not realize that the very fact of procreation is the result of the eating of the fruit. Without that heaven would not be populated except for Adam and Eve!

[6] Cf. Tim F. LaHaye and Ed Hindson (eds), Exploring Biblical Prophecy from Genesis to Revelation, Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2011.

[7] Though Jesus in the Markan gospel, as in other gospels as well, constantly seeks to make the Father and Father’s reign known, and that he was the path to be followed by the disciples (Mk 10:35-45), the church had to wrestle with the problem why, innocent though he was, was put to death. This brings in the idea of the “ransom” (Mk 10:45) even as the servant’s death in Isaiah 53:10 is an “offering for sin”. In the same way Paul, struggling to reconcile Jesus’s death on the cross with the Deuteronomist pronouncement of curse on the one hanging on the tree (Dt 21:23), would say “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). This is similar to the dialogue in the Matthean story of Jesus’ baptism by John. In Mark we have the primitive story of the baptism. But to overcome the embarrassing aspect of the Messiah going through John’s baptism of repentance, Matthew introduces the dialogue between Jesus and John justifying Jesus’ baptism only “to fulfil all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-16).

[8] Neither did the followers of other religions ever believe that they could be saved only   through the church and not through their own religions.

[9] John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, San Francisco: Harper Collings, 1996, 19-20.

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