29th August 2014
Last week on the golf course, we encountered a troop of monkeys whose members had picked out one of their number and seemed to be trying to drown him/her in one of the large ponds that are scattered along the course. We scared them away. The victim was left standing alone by the water, staring around him disconsolately. He didn’t even have the motivation to move away to a safer place. Primates are generally highly social animals, and the psychological effects of ostracism by their fellows can be devastating. I don’t know if they came back to finish the job when we were gone, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Fallenness, it seems, is not the prerogative of the human race. Other primates have it too. Perhaps where we differ is in having eaten from the tree that gives knowledge of good and evil which may explain we would take the trouble to scare off that pack of bullying, malevolent monkeys who apparently had no conscience at all about their brutal behaviour.
I’ve noticed this fallenness before, in other species. When I lived in Saudi Arabia we often encountered troops of baboons hanging round the lay-bys on the highways, hoping for a free meal. Watching the utter selfishness of their ‘might is right’ behaviour towards one another, I often found myself thinking, “This must be what it’s like in Hell.”
The Bible actually has two accounts of what is often referred to as ‘the Fall’. There’s one in Genesis, and there’s one in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and they are substantially different. We tend to overlook the differences. What happens is, we take Paul’s account—and the interpretation popularised by large segments of the church over hundreds of years, including such notables as Augustine—and we read it back into the Genesis narrative, without realizing what we are doing.
If you blank out Paul’s later commentary, forget everything he said about it (which is not that easy to do) and just take the Genesis 3 account on its own, it seems to me to be addressing a slightly different issue to the one that Paul deals with. The question addressed in Genesis 3 is not “How did we get to be so utterly cut off from God?”, or “How did death come into our lives?” , but rather, “Why is everyday life so damned HARD??”
The story opens with Adam and Eve in the garden. (Eden in Hebrew means delight by the way). It had a pretty nice climate, requiring only a limited amount of agricultural effort to produce abundant food. Childbirth was painless, and probably a few other benefits. After they eat the fruit, Adam and Eve—as well as everyone who came after—find themselves booted out of this congenial environment into a rather more harsh and unforgiving place. Now they have to slave from morning to night to eke out a basic survival in the face of droughts, floods and pestilence. Childbirth is no longer painless, and life is generally a whole lot tougher and more challenging. We may even see a gradual, generation-by-generation drift further away from God. But what we don’t see here is a once-and-for-all sudden dramatic shutting off of the relationship with God.
All this is not really surprising. After all, the story was written originally to be read by Jews, and Jews didn’t (and still don’t) see themselves as being spiritually dead or spiritually cut off from God. They saw themselves as being God’s chosen people, and very much spiritually alive. They were however very aware of the hardness of the struggle for every day survival. They knew all about the frequently hostile climate, famines, precarious food supply, not to mention disease, war, oppressive rulers, and all the other problems that afflicted mankind in those the ancient times. So a story that comes across as saying something like, The reason your lives are so hard is because you have disobeyed God, would have made a lot of sense to them.
Probably a lot of Christians have no real interest in understanding Genesis in isolation from Paul. They take the view that St. Paul has explained to us what the story really means, and that’s all that really matters.
For myself, since I’ve moved away from the “magic book” approach to biblical interpretation, and prefer now to approach it more according to the principle of “original intent”, I’m very interested. I’m actually interested in both—what the writer of Genesis was trying to convey, and also how Paul used the story to convey his own understanding of the human predicament. I think they are both important.
When we come to St Paul, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind his context. Paul’s primary objective in Romans is to convey a message about the extraordinary greatness and magnificence of the salvation that is on offer. And in order to make this meaningful he needs to spend the first few chapters building up on just how bad we really are, and the dire predicament that the human race is in. Unless he can demonstrate our total lostness, it’s hard to demonstrate to us our need for a saviour. This is why Adam comes in for such a hammering. St Paul knows existentially from his own experience that the human race is lost. I think most of us when we are born again go through that existential process of understanding: if I’ve been “saved” then presumably before it happened I must have been “not saved”; and if I was “not saved” before, then presumably others must also be in that same situation. I certainly did. It was probably my first thought after I became a Christian.
So we know it empirically, by common sense and logic, but—for a first century letter-writer—it’s actually quite difficult to prove theologically. The reason it’s difficult to prove theologically is that it’s not a very active Old Testament concept. As I’ve said, the Jews didn’t see themselves as lost and in need of a saviour; and their sacred writings reflect that. Probably they still don’t, which is why a lot of them are unimpressed with Christianity and Jesus Christ.
So Paul is looking around for ways to make his point that we are indeed hopelessly lost and that without Christ there’s just no hope. He talks a bit about the realities of human behaviour that we can all observe; he finds a few helpful Old Testament quotes; and then he comes to Adam who makes a convenient scapegoat. He’s not disagreeing with the Genesis account, he’s just taking it a whole lot further, making it somewhat more extreme than the original story portrays.
This doesn’t make Paul wrong of course. The story in Genesis is probably a symbolic rather than a literal one, so Paul is entirely at liberty to reinterpret the symbols as he feels fit. A parable can be looked at in many ways, that’s the whole point of a parable, it speaks on many levels. I’m just suggesting that his perspective is a little different from what most people might think. He’s trying to emphasize the lostness of humanity by whatever means he can in order to magnify the greatness of our salvation through Jesus Christ.
For myself, I don’t really need Paul’s understanding of Genesis 3 to make the point. I can see how lost we are just by opening my eyes and looking around. I can see it in our human world, just as I can see it among the murderous monkeys on the golf course and among the brutalized baboons. That, tells me all I need to know about the lostness of the human race. The primary issue is not in how we got here, but in what we are, that we are indeed lost. How we got to be what we are, what is the actual origin of that lostness and sinfulness, is a different question. And for that question I don’t have to look much further than the monkeys and baboons to see a fairly obvious answer.