Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Painful Truth

"When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it."  (Genesis 3:6)

The Bible’s story takes a terrible turn for the worse.  Adam, the one bearing God’s image who has benefited so magnificently from God’s kindness and generosity, decides that he knows better than the maker of all things.  Adam evidently managed to persuade himself that though God had promised a severe sanction were he to eat the forbidden fruit (“You will surely die” 2:17), God would not actually follow through on this.  This betrays his fundamental distrust of God’s word, and his complete misunderstanding of God’s person and character.

His wilful disobedience earns him a stiff rebuke, and his wonderful relationship with his creator is irrevocably damaged.  Not only that, his relationship with his wife is marred, and his authority over the rest of the created order is undermined; both of these act as permanent consequences and perpetual reminders of his selfishness and arrogance.

At one level it would be easy to look at Adam in shock and disbelief that he should selfishly and carelessly forfeit so much, yet as we read his story, do we not see our own story mirrored?  Can we really be so bold as to claim we have never wilfully chosen to do what we know is out of keeping with the character of the God whose image we bear?  Have we truly never doubted God’s willingness or ability to hold us to account?

For reflection:
  1. To what extent do you feel Adam's punishment fitted his crime?
  2. What does this answer reveal about your own understanding of the person and character of God?
  3. Adam is immediately banished from the Garden of Eden so he cannot eat from the tree of life, but he doesn't physically die until chapter 5.  What does this indicate about the Bible's understanding of life and death?  What might it teach us about God?


  1. Genesis 2&3 seems to tell us that it all went pear-shaped (or apple-shaped?) when Eve trusted in the reassurance that 'the snake' gave her about the consequences of eating the fruit. It does, after all, seem a very laudable goal that "your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil". What does this tell us - always believe the first thing you're told? How was she to know that the snake was not to be trusted?

  2. Strictly speaking, I suppose we should say it all went the-fruit-of-the-tree-of-the-knowledge-of-good-and-evil-shaped! It is curious how so many people have latched onto the idea that it was an apple (an example of an illustration playing too important a role in the teaching on this subject, I think). Some wag once said that the problem in the Garden of Eden wasn't the apple in the tree, but the pair on the ground!

    The issue isn't so much about believing the first thing you're told - that could be a disaster if the one doing the telling is untrustworthy or unreliable. The crux of the matter is actually in the character of the one doing the telling. In Eve's case, she knew from God-the-creator-of-all-and-giver-of-abundance (possibly only via Adam, but possibly directly too) that she was not to eat of that particular fruit on pain of death. As we read, we see for ourselves the beauty in the character of this God. On the evidence before us, she and we have every reason to trust him.

    Although we are warned by the narrator, there is no evidence that Eve knew from other sources that the snake was untrustworthy (or otherwise). Indeed, the story reads as if this were the first ever encounter between them. Her judgment about the snake's trustworthiness must therefore be made from the content of her conversation with it. As we read, we are also effectively invited to consider the snake's character from what it says.

    The snake quickly calls into question both the trustworthiness and the benevolence of God, and speaks words about the forbidden fruit which are in direct opposition to the words of God on the matter. The result of this is that Eve is faced with a stark choice - to trust the God who made her, gave her all that she needed and made her life a delight, or to trust one who is fairly plainly an enemy of that generous God. Fundamentally, it boils down to the choice to trust God (and demonstrate that trust by obedience) or not.

    The goal may appear attractive, and it is certainly cleverly worded, but its laudability is actually rather questionable because it directly contravenes the expressed will of God who has, thus far, shown himself to be seeking nothing but that the man and his wife might flourish. Oddly, when we examine it more closely, it offers the chance of being "like God" to one who is "made in the image of God" which is hardly a promotion!

  3. ...but Eve presumably didn't understand good from evil - that God was good and the snake was evil. That was something she was promised from eating the fruit.
    I'm happy to accept this story is allegorical anyway but, since it is a foundation of Christianity, surely its fundamental logic has to be robust, doesn't it?

    1. The presence of the tree (of the knowledge of good and evil) in the garden gives Adam and Eve the possibility of acting in disobedience to God’s command. This suggests to me that even prior to eating the fruit they are free moral agents – the fact that they have both the prohibition and the possibility of transgressing it means they do have some degree of understanding of what is good and what is not. In this regard, the snake’s temptation about the gains they could make in the knowledge of good and evil is very much like his suggestion that they could become like God; it’s a temptation to grasp after something they actually already possess.

      However, we still have to wrestle with the fact that it is after they have eaten the fruit that God describes them as “knowing good and evil” (v22) indicating something has changed. I suggest that before the incident with the fruit, they do not “know” good and evil in the sense that they have not chosen to act in any way which is contrary to God’s will for them and therefore have no personal experience of evil (though plenty of experience of good!). They are moral agents (having a concept of good and evil) but prior to partaking of the fruit, their moral judgements have been made entirely in step with those of God. Afterwards it is very different.

      As is always the case, the outworking of the temptation is so different from how the offer initially appears; Eve looks upon it as an opportunity for “gaining wisdom” (v6) but it results in her alienation from God. Her decision to disobey God’s command is effectively a rejection of God as the one who determines what is good and evil. It is an arrogant move that indicates she has come to believe that only she has the right to decide what is good and evil for her life. She has moved from the position of having no experiential knowledge of evil to defining her own moral framework in opposition to God; she has decided that God’s good word is not good – she has accepted the snake’s deception that it is suffocating and restrictive – and this is itself an evil act (i.e. it is contrary to God’s good word, and therefore by definition, evil). Instantly on eating the fruit (acting on their belief), as the snake promised, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened (v7) – and they were ashamed; “knowledge of good and evil” brought with it not wisdom, but shame and strife – separation from one another and from the God who loved them.

    2. ..but if the bible is intended to be our route to belief, then surely it shouldn't need us to assume other significant parts of the story (eg that Adam and Eve already knew good from evil)? That's like looking at a map when you have fortuitously arrived and realising that half the important features you needed to make your way were never shown!

    3. I think I would look at it another way. I wonder whether our approach to the text of scripture needs to be more in the vein of a holistic literary study and less like a scientific experiment in which we seek to set up controls to isolate our subject from all other influences. I don’t believe the Bible expects us to assume significant things so much as it expects us not to discount what should be reasonable assumptions for those made in the image of God to make. I would argue that if we approach it as a coherent narrative, it is actually harder to justify assuming that Adam and Eve have no ability to make moral judgements than assuming they have.

      1. We should note that the text does not tell us Adam and Eve lack the ability to make moral judgements: sure, the snake's words are calculated to imply to Eve some lack in Eve, but we know, because he directly contradicts God ("You will not surely die"), that he stands in opposition to God, so we readers need to exercise caution before accepting his version of events.

      2. We should also remember that by this point in our reading, we have already learned that Adam and Eve have been made in the image of God, who has himself determined what is good and what is not good.

      3. The narrative is written for readers who have a moral compass (however corrupt it may be), and is framed in such a way as to identify to them that Adam and Eve's action is morally wrong - insofar as it is blatant disobedience of a clear command of the God who made them and the whole universe they inhabit; the God who has determined what is good and what is not.

      In light of the above, I believe that it is entirely reasonable for us to assume as we read that, like us, they (as our first parents) had some concept of good and evil prior to eating the forbidden fruit.

      If we were to follow the alternative, the story rather unravels: if Adam and Eve had no concept of good or evil, then their eating the fruit is at worst an ignorant mistake. This would make God’s reaction to their “mistake” (the curses and the banishment of 3:14-24) completely unreasonable and present him, in contrast to the Bible’s portrayal of him thus far (and subsequently), as a capricious tyrant. At best, their consumption of the fruit is, of course, their first step to freedom from a domineering deity (who has curiously been presented thus far as caring and generous!).

      There is a certain appeal to taking this alternative view. We might like to treat our sin as “mistake” rather than rebellion and it may suit us to view God as unreasonable rather than just, but that’s because we, like Adam and Eve are attempting to live within a different moral framework to the one that our maker has established for us. We don’t want to feel guilty and we don’t want to accept the consequences for our actions; if we can shift the blame and the responsibility, we will. And that’s the beauty of this simple story – it sheds light on our attitude of heart; just look who Adam blames when God confronts him about his disobedience… “The woman YOU put here with me...”