Theology in 3D

The Fall: When and What, Exactly? (Part 1)

Layton Talbert | January 15, 2019
New Testament

Got an interesting email from a doctoral student who’s writing his dissertation on the relationship between Genesis 3:15 and the biblical concept of the world and worldliness.

I have a question in regard to … the serpent’s temptation of Eve…. Would you say that her first “sin” was giving her allegiance to Satan by listening to his words and not strictly adhering to God’s words? Then, because she had oriented herself to listen to Satan, she immediately developed fallen, sinful desires for the forbidden tree? So then the first sin is not the eating of the fruit, but giving credence to the words of Satan in preference to the words of God. By doing so, she abandoned her innocence as someone oriented towards God’s commands and gave herself up to a sinful human nature. Then her sinful human nature began to sinfully desire the fruit of the tree. Would you agree with this?

We have to be very careful about over-analyzing and over-explaining events beyond the text of Scripture. For example, here’s Griffith Thomas’s commentary on Genesis 3:

The root of sin should be understood. The foundation of all sin lies in man’s desire of self-assertion and his determination to be independent of God. Adam and Eve chafed under the restriction laid upon them by the command of God …

If this is an explanation of the Fall, I’m not seeing that in the text. It doesn’t even seem to be a point suggested by the serpent. At what point did this ‘chafing’ begin? Doesn’t this imply that a sinful attitude preceded and caused their sinful action? His knowledge of post-Fall revelation and the fallen human condition seems to color his analysis of pre-Fall conditions. He continues,

Man does not like to be dependent upon another, and subject to commands upon another, and subject to commands from without.

Again, aren’t we talking here about fallen man? Or did God somehow create man with this flawed internal inclination?

He desires to go his own way, to be his own master, and as a consequence he sins.

If this is his explanation for what happens when we sin, he’s right on target. But surely that’s a consequence of the Fall, not a cause of it. By linking this line of reasoning back to his notion that “Adam and Eve chafed under the restriction laid upon them by the command of God” he seems to suggest that some internal sin preceded and caused “the” sin. It’s a precarious thing to read the post-Fall revelation we have about the nature of (fallen) humanity back into the nature of pre-Fall human. Because we are sinners from birth, what is true of us before we commit any given act of sin was not true of Eve before she actually sinned—at whatever moment that happened.

Getting back to the email, then, the first act of sin seems to be the second half of Genesis 3:6—the actual eating of the fruit—since that is specifically what God forbade (Gen 2:16-17). In fact, it’s worth noting that the verb “eat” appears 19 times in Gen. 2b-3! Trace the connection from 2:16-17 to 3:1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 11, 12, 13, and 17. The narrative makes it clear that the issue throughout is always the eating, nothing else. God apparently never prohibited their looking at the fruit, thinking about it, or even desiring it; he forbade their eating it.*

There’s more to ponder about both the timing of the Fall and the nature of that sin. For one thing, imagining alternative scenarios can be helpful. We’ll do that in the next post.

*What about touching it? It’s hard to know what to make of Eve’s assertion that they were forbidden even to touch the fruit (Gen 3:3). The standard explanation is that Eve is misstating or exaggerating God’s prohibition. But from what motive? If she hasn’t fallen yet, she has no sinful inclinations yet. In my estimation it’s almost as easy to posit that she’s relating something that God did, in fact, say but has been left unrecorded, as it is to posit that she’s adding to God’s word. The only detail that gives the edge to the latter is the text we’ve been given (Gen. 2:17). Even so, it seems iffy to read too much into Eve’s words.


3 responses to “The Fall: When and What, Exactly? (Part 1)”

  1. Joseph Jo says:

    This is something I have thought about for a long time, and I agree with you that there is a fundamental difference between pre- and post-fall humans. Great subject to discuss! Looking forward to reading the next post, Dr. Talbert!

  2. […] on God’s words as the point of attack. Here Griffith Thomas is on safe ground (unlike his previously cited comments) because he sticks closest to the […]

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