In writing the introduction to the 1993 document on The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote,
This study (of the bible) is never finished; each age must in its own way newly seek to understand the sacred books.
More than 50 years ago Pope Pius XII recognised that the first chapters of Genesis do not contain history but are examples of a special literary genre. To try to bring together in plain and understandable language, exegetical, linguistic, archaeological, and theological questions is a daunting challenge.
Again, the words of Pius XII come to mind:
Let all other children of the Church…avoid that somewhat indiscreet zeal which considers everything new to be for that very reason a fit object for attack or suspicion.
Even more significant, in the same passage, he calls us to judge such work with equity and justice, but above all, with charity.
Some serious questions
Did it all begin with perfect intelligence, no suffering, tiredness, or death? If the first human beings were so perfect, how come it did not occur to them that in falling into sin, they would lose everything that God had given them? Was God so angry that the first people suffered tremendous punishment because they ate a piece of fruit, and we are stuck with it in our throats to this day? Would women not suffer in giving birth if Eve did not eat that fruit? Would serpents fly instead of crawl? Would we all walk around naked without feeling shame? Would we have been immortal, and, if so, what was the tree of life doing in the story, anyway? And would there be no global warming, or deserts upon the earth?
Questions like these flow from the Genesis account and its setting in Paradise. They are not questions we should be afraid to ask, or are disrespectful of the text, or that lead to not taking the text seriously.
Rather the text of Genesis 2-3 is a serious attempt to face the painful question of where evil in the world comes from. It is only in interpreting the text correctly that we will find the rich message the story offers. The account does not refer to any real historical event that marks the beginning of history; but it most certainly refers to the ongoing history of humanity!
The author, the Yahwist, a Jewish teacher from around the mid-10th century, became conscious of many things that were wrong in his Jewish society; things were bad and moving towards a disastrous end.
The writer, inspired by God, wrote this account, not to give details about the origin of human life but to alert the readers of his time about problems that threatened their very existence and to suggest some solutions.
Love and pain
Some realities of life were supposed to be a joy for all, but were often a cause of suffering and pain. Many people were not aware of this, or considered them to be natural or inevitable.
The author felt challenged to make a list of the bad things happening. As a married man, he saw how a good and beautiful thing like marriage could be turned into an instrument of domination. The woman feels attracted to her husband but the man considers her inferior to himself. She is deprived of some rights and treated as an object. Why this ambiguity in love? Taking his pen, the author wrote: your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you (3:16).
He saw how pregnancies involved inexplicable pain and often death, for multiple births produced a high rate of deaths for women and children. How was it that the coming of new life, a reason for great joy, entailed so much suffering? He wrote: I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing: in pain you shall bring forth children (3:16).
Labour and animals
The daily labour produced suffering; the desperately hard grind of providing for family needs from the arid, Palestinian soil produced sweat, tiredness, pain, and the anguish of not making enough to feed his family. He wrote: in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread (3:17-19). The land produced thorns and thistles instead of food for people. The harder the work the more the land resisted: cursed is the ground…thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you, and you shall eat the plants of the field (3:17-18).
Even the animals that should be the friendly named beasts were hostile. Our writer was prone to attack by lions and serpents. A friend had perhaps died as a result. Were not the animals provided to serve humanity? But they could not be trusted; they were a threat to human life: there is enmity between serpent and the woman, between its seed and her seed (a plural!) (3:15).
The fear of God
Life itself seemed ambiguous as it stood under the shadow of inevitable death. Why is the end so tragic and painful, ending all one’s hopes, dreams, and activities? Our author wrote: You will return to the earth from which you came, for you are dust, and will return to dust (3:19). Even God was at once beautiful, lovable, yet terrifying. Why the fear of God who both rewards and punishes? I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid, so I hid myself (3:10).
Pope Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) gave a very clear and revolutionary direction in article 42:
A knowledge and careful appreciation of ancient modes of expression and literary forms and styles will provide a solution to many of the objections made against the truth and historical accuracy of Holy Writ.
The literary form in use throughout the opening chapters of Genesis is etiology, an attempt to explain the cause or reason why something is as it is.
The everyday list of calamities our writer has encountered are those of everyday life: love and pain, marriage and childbirth (the labour of woman), arid farmland that had to be worked by the sweat of one’s brow (the labour of man), animals that threatened life, and the God of a religion that had a lot of fear in it.
Our author arrived at two critical questions: Why do we suffer such ills? Where do they come from? As we shall see, his answers gave us the profound reflection that is the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.