With the conclusion of the pre-history of Genesis 1-11 in Wel-com 2007 (click here), it is important to look back over the pattern that emerged. God’s initial creation (1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-25) has, from chapter three onwards, faced human sin and de-creation through four texts: Adam and Eve (3:1-24), Cain and Abel (4:1-16), Noah and the Flood (6:5-9:17), and the Tower of Babel (11:1-9). A regular threefold pattern has been followed: humans sin, punishment follows, but God’s act of grace has the final say, a point I will develop at the conclusion because grace will have the last say.
Sin as fractured relationships
The Hebrew notion of sin involved ‘missing the mark’, notably in the area of human relationships. The entire tragedy of the four stories is the fracturing of relationship, not living up to what we are called to be. In teaching this material I like to draw a chart with Hu(man)ity as the central word and draw lines out to various points. The first fractured relationship is with God as the intimacy between the man and the woman (humanity) and God in the garden is broken; they hide from God because they are afraid (3:8-10). Clearly, following this is the broken relationship between the man and the woman (3:12), so well expressed in the little poem ‘Adam blamed Eve (after blaming God!); Eve blamed the serpent (at least she didn’t blame Adam!); and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on (how did that creature get around in the first place?)’
A line between (man) and man brings up the murderous conclusion of the rift between Cain and Abel, and ‘sevenfold vengeance’ (4:15). The broken relationship between humanity and nature (surely such a critical issue today) brings in the Flood story, as well as the earlier ‘cursed is the ground’ (3:17-19).
The Tower of Babel is a wonderful expression of the fractured relationship between humanity and humanity as race relationships disintegrate. The relationship between humanity and the animals moves from the delightful story of giving them names to their becoming food and fearful of humanity (3:14; 9:2-3). We could even include division between humanity and the self as nakedness follows innocence (2:25; 3:7, 10-11).
At the origin—then and now
From this pattern emerges a significant truth. We should not look at just the story of Adam and Eve when we talk about Original Sin. We need to see their story as the first of a larger section. What do we mean by Original Sin, a term not in the bible but coined by Augustine, and dominating Western Christianity? He distinguished two aspects of Original Sin, the ‘originating’ Original Sin and the ‘originated’ Original Sin.
The latter refers to the concrete human condition which is present at the birth of each one of us; we are all born into a world which is fractured. This is all about our existence right here and now. But the first term (originating) refers to the concrete sin of historical first parents, back at the beginning, that set it all in motion, and whose guilt is passed through all future generations, a past historical understanding. But is this what Genesis is really teaching?
Scripture scholarship is taking a new look at the story of Adam and Eve in light of paragraph number 110 of the Catechism. This quotes Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu on seeking the intention of the author and taking account of time and culture of the writers. Scholars see the Genesis story as a parable, with its truth lying in the message of sinfulness rather than in factual history. Like a parable, it teaches a profound truth.
Does this lessen the importance of the story? Quite the contrary! It does indeed speak about the origin of sin as our attempt to play God, violating our creature-hood and missing the mark in a multitude of ways. The consequences follow. All the stories of Genesis 3-11 tell the consequences of ‘originated’ Original Sin.
We are these people
Instead of asking was there an historical Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Tower of Babel, we can ask Are there an Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Tower of Babel? The answer is definitely ‘Yes’. Where are they? Look in a mirror for we are they! If those broken relationships feel familiar it is because we live them. Everyman and Everywoman find their history in these primal stories of our basic existence in the world and before God. Look at the daily news. We live in these stories up to our ears—if we open them!
Thank God that the last word in these sin stories belongs with God. Our third pattern after creation and de-creation is re-creation.
After each human disaster an act of God’s grace occurs. God replaces those horribly itchy fig leaves with clothing, a sign of human dignity (3:21). Cain is marked with a protective tribal tattoo as a sign of God’s care and protection (4:15). Noah and his family and the animals survive the Flood and are the source of new life, with God promising never again to destroy the world (and, as a reminder, tying a large, rainbow-coloured ribbon around God’s finger!)
But what sign of grace follows the Tower of Babel? Go to 12:1-3 for the call of Abraham, a new beginning of life and blessing for all the nations of the earth. God’s grace has the last say. God help us – and isn’t that what the rest of the bible story is about?
Guinann, Michael D: Adam, Eve and Original Sin.