Theology in 3D

The Fall: When and What, Exactly? (Part 2)

Layton Talbert | January 18, 2019
Old Testament, Theology

Amazon lists at least five books titled [Just] What [Really] Happened in the Garden of Eden? I’m sure there are others by virtually the same title. So I’m not pretending to resolve that question definitively in the space of 1500 words. My purpose (if I may wax Carsonian for a moment) is to try to ‘tease out’ the instant and the essence of the first human sin based on God’s testimony to the event in Genesis 2-3.

With the proliferation of even evangelical readings of these early events in Genesis, it is worth observing that part of the fallout of the Fall is our inherent proneness to misread the divine explanation of our proneness even to misread divine explanations. If you follow. In one of those ubiquitous book titles (Abner Chou, ed., What Happened in the Garden?), Grant Horner sums up that point this way:

No other text tells you so clearly why you tend not to read that text rightly. . . . So why are there so many varying interpretations (and therefore misinterpretations) of Genesis 3 [and, I would add, Genesis 1-2]? I would like to suggest … that the text of Genesis is not the problem. It is the explanation (102, 109).

So there’s lots of ink out there devoted to pondering the issue that I’m just poking my little probe into here in a humble blogpost. And last time I suggested it could be helpful to walk through alternative scenarios and then compare them with what we know from the text.

What if Eve had wandered over and handled the forbidden fruit, pondering the serpent’s words, but in the end decided not to eat it. Would that have been a sin? Would that have constituted the Fall? I don’t know on what grounds that could be defended scripturally.

Or, suppose she had talked over the serpent’s propositions with Adam, but then they still decided against eating it. Again, I think one would be hard-pressed to scripturally identify that act as sin, given what we are told in Genesis 2:16-17, since in the end they would have heeded God’s sole prohibition.

Or again, as my emailer wondered, what if she takes the fruit in Gen 3:6 with the intentionof eating it — but then she doesn’t eat it. Suppose Adam intervenes and takes the fruit from her, and she then realizes she should not have listened to the serpent or taken the fruit with intent to eat it. Would her initial choice and intention to obey Satan’s words rather than God’s have been the first “sin”? Would her intention itself have been sinful because she had already disposed herself to listen to the serpent’s words instead of God’s?

Or (I will offer one more to make a point), what if she doesn’t eat the fruit but begins to grow deeply suspicious of God as a result of the serpent’s insinuations? My question is, could she begin to grow suspicious of God (in any sinful sense) without eating the fruit? I don’t know that we could defend a definitive answer to that either, mostly because all we know and all our revelation to inform our answers to such questions is post-Fall.

I suspect C. S. Lewis has imagined the workings of the unfallen human mind as well and as thoroughly as anyone in the extended temptation scene of Perelandra. In response to the urgings of Weston (the tempter), the questions and responses of the green lady (the “Eve” figure) reflect curiosity and rationality and, yet, a sustained innocence. And in the end, she rejects the temptation. Of course, Lewis is fiction. Which is the point. That’s pretty much all we’re left with when we start trying to extrapolate beyond the text, especially when it leads us to suggest things that seem to contradict the text we have.

My purpose in posing alternative scenarios is to analyze them in the light of the revelation we have about that event. We can put only so much weight on arguments derived from what didn’t happen. Based on the revelation we’re given, it seems there was no human sin up to and through the first half of Genesis 3:6, but that 3:6b records the act that constituted the first sin and, hence, the Fall (i.e., the spiritual death forewarned in Gen 2:16-17) with its consequent transformation of our disposition away from God that we call depravity.

I would, however, describe the essence of that first act of sin not as some surging urge to rebel against God, but as the decision/choice to believe and act on someone else’s word other than God’s. Everything in the narrative rivets our attention 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 text:

…the temptation is associated entirely with doubt of God’s Word: “Hath God said?” This is characteristic of sin at all times; the doubt, the denial, and the disbelief of God’s Word.

“Chronologically” speaking, then, everything from her decision to her movement to her eating is part of “the sin.” But it’s like chronologically dissecting the moment of salvation, where multiple things happen essentially in the same instant (faith, regeneration, justification, reconciliation, Spirit-sealing, etc.). We can take a theological scalpel and dissect that moment of salvation and argue that certain things logically precede other things—but for all practical purposes they’re simultaneous, part-and-parcel of the same moment of salvation. The same seems likely to be true of the first sin. The only moment the text definitively puts its finger on as the moment of sin is Genesis 3:6b.

The rationale of the temptation itself is to question, attack, and undercut the words of God and, therefore, the character and being of God himself. The nature of sin, therefore — both at the Fall and ever since — is to decide to trust and act on anyone’s words instead of God’s.

8 responses to “The Fall: When and What, Exactly? (Part 2)”

  1. Ethan says:

    Is it possible that the kind of spirit that prompts picking the fruit (with the intention of eating it), is the kind of mindset Eve could never really turn back from? There’s a kind of commital-response we have when we make the first big move in anything sinful. It is technically POSSIBLE to stop sinning. But it’s practically very difficult once we take that first step (which is, on dissection, the first part of the sin).

    • Of the imagined alternative scenarios I posited, that third one seems to me the closest thing to sin (if not actual sin), because it assumes a decisioned intentionality to do exactly what God said not to do. Of course, it didn’t happen that way, so speculation about what it might have signified kind of dead-ends. Because, again, I think we make a fundamental miscalculation if we assume the process of sin and its ramifications were the same for Eve as for us. We begin in fallenness, with all our faculties and affections twisted away from God. She didn’t. The point of the scenarios is primarily to drive us back to what the text itself identifies as the act of sin (eating the fruit), and what its description of the temptation itself signifies about the nature of sin (believing/acting on anyone else’s words in opposition to God’s words).

  2. Thank you for pointing out the problem of the problem with thinking. The noetic effects of the fall not only require that we think carefully, and then still treat our thinking with suspicion, but that we also realize the need for God’s revelation of truth.
    In addition to the timing of the fall, comprehension of the particular sin that occurred is helpful if not essential. Eve’s (and Adam’s) temptation was not to “eat” or “touch”. In fact, the fruit was not the point of the sin, nor the cause. It was their turning from God’s claim as the author and determiner of truth, right and wrong, absolute knowledge, and their desire to be “like Him”. The serpent tempted them both with the lie they would be “like God” and able to determine what was sin, and what wasn’t. The moment in time when this occurred, when they decided they would determine what was right and OK and good, and what was not allowed. When they chose to discard God as the arbiter of truth, and claim they had that role, the rebellion was in full.
    This moves the timing away from the moment of the bite, if you will, to the moment of the will and mind. The fall occurred before the act of eating. It occurred clearly when the decision to become “like God” occurred. And that preceded physical action.
    Thank you for these great blogs and thoughts. And, thanks to Greg Stiekes for his teaching on this particular subject that has helped me.

    • Your argument makes a good point but raises a question: Would they have died if they had never actually eaten the fruit, since God specifically links the dying with the eating (2:17)? Again, the Spirit himself keeps the eating on the forestage all through the narrative. Of course, there was nothing magical about the fruit itself that actually conveyed knowledge; in that sense, the fruit is not the issue. The issue is (a) the authority of God to make the prohibition, and (b) the reliability of God’s words (which included linking the eating with death [i.e., the Fall]). Back to my question above, we could probably argue that once the decision was taken to eat, the eating was itself certain. That doesn’t make the eating irrelevant or disconnected from the actuality of the Fall; the act was itself essential to the Fall, or we’re not taking God’s words in 2:17 as authoritative. That returns to the point I made in the post about dissecting the parts of the event which occurs in the narrative essentially as a single moment. Because the text links all this together, I don’t want to “over-explain” the text as we have it. The eating is important because the text keeps saying so. Yet the nature of the temptation itself–with its point of attack targeting God’s words–unveils the underlying nature of both temptation and sin.

  3. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the careful, textual insights.
    Would it be possible for you to weigh in on Adam’s role (if any) during Eve’s temptation? She gave to her husband “with her” has led to several strands of speculation. Was Adam present but permissive? Was he close by but unaware of her conversation with the serpent? Did he join her only after she ate?

    • Hey, Andrew, good to hear from you again. Most translations render the final phrase of 3:6 something like this: “and she gave [some of it] to her husband who was with her and he ate.” It’s unclear from the text whether Adam was present during the conversation in 3:1-5; it seems to me unlikely for several reasons not least of which is the structure of the divine testimony to the event in which Eve appears to be the only one approached and engaged in conversation by the serpent (implying a divide-and-conquer strategy?). The prepositional phrase in 3:6 (simply, “with her”) may allow but does not require his presence for any activity but the eating.
      As I always warn my students when handling narrative, be wary of getting sidetracked trying to provide speculative answers to questions that the narrative simply doesn’t address and, in some cases, obviously doesn’t care about (e.g., was Vashti right or wrong to reject Xerxes’ command?).
      So, was Adam present? It’s impossible to dogmatize and, therefore, perhaps intriguing but ultimately pointless to draw conclusions about what that speculation might or might not have meant. Here’s what I think we know about Adam: (1) Eve appears to have eaten first but both ate (Gen 3:6). And yet, (2) Scripture lays culpability for the Fall on Adam (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:22), though perhaps in a representative sense. Maybe the most theologically loaded assertion is (3) Eve was deceived but Adam was not (1 Tim 2:14).
      As for other broader speculations related to the Fall, I tried to address some of them in an earlier post

      • Jon Cheek says:

        On whether Adam was present with Eve at the time of temptation, it could be significant that the serpent uses 2nd person plural pronouns in 3:1 and 3:4 (“you shall not eat,” “you will not surely die”). Granted, the serpent could be talking to Eve and referring to the implications of the command for the couple. So this does not prove the point dogmatically, but it may be an additional argument suggesting that Adam was present, particularly when followed by 3:6 “She also gave to her husband with her.”
        Victor Hamilton says, “The narrator does not intend to have the reader suppose that Adam and Eve are in two different places when the dialogue is in progress” (Handbook on the Pentateuch, p. 41).
        But it does seem that we should be something less than dogmatic if we want to assert that Adam was present.

        • Good point, Jon. I’d forgotten to include the pronouns though, as you say, the precise implication of the plural pronouns in 3:1ff. is less than certain. Interestingly, the pronouns in 2:16-17 are singular and directed specifically to Adam (presumably prior to Eve’s creation, 2:18ff.), though she is obviously informed of them (3:2ff.). I agree with you that it’s unwise to be dogmatic or to draw inferences on the assumption of Adam’s presence given the ambiguity of the data we have in that respect.

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