In a search for myths about the origins of human culture, I came a across an article with a perspective on Genesis I had not previously encountered.[1]  The idea of comparing Genesis with the Gilgamesh Epic is hardly new, but the author’s perspective of it was, and it had immense implications for our understanding of fallenness and salvation.

The author argued that in Gen 2, just as in Gilgamesh, there is no story of a ‘fall,’ but rather a story which explains the origins of human society.  The story of the tree of knowledge is simply a reflection on the implications of society and reproduction: in other words, sex and mortality are the opposites of the same coin.  In his view, G-d does not punish the characters in the story: he merely tells them the implications of what they have done: they will no longer be ‘animals,’ they will participate in and create society, and they will die.  They are no longer like G-d—sexless and immortal.

This reading is an interesting reading, and while it has difficulties, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for the radical implications it has for our understanding of sin and salvation.  If one were to accept this reading as the intended reading, then all doctrines based on Original Sin would either have to be abandoned, or would have to find a new basis.  If sin didn’t enter through the world through Adam, then how did it enter?  And if death is not a punishment due to sin, then what is the significance and role of the Resurrection?

The Cross and Resurrection are indispensable to Christian faith, but what they mean somehow has never really been answered.  There are four ‘theories of atonement’ that have circulated for more or less the entire life of the Church: ransom theory (Jesus paid Satan the price to win us back); penal substitution theory (G-d punished Jesus in our place); the exemplary/ moral example theory (Jesus’ death is a model for us to follow); mythic/symbolic theory (Jesus’ death is a symbol of transformation).  Variants of these basic positions have been and continue to be held by Christians, either singly or in combination with others.  But if there is no Original Sin, then several of these theories are untenable.  And while the last model contains some truth, it hardly seems to explain the import of Jesus’s death and resurrection at all—why doesn’t the Church then find the myth of Sisyphus as compelling?

If one was committed to a new reading of Gen 2, in theory one could take the same route as the writers of the Book of Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36), and blame it on a later descent of fallen angels to earth, thus answering the question of the origins of sin.  But, it seems to me, that humanity itself is quite capable on its own to corrupt itself, and to do so in seemingly insignificant ways (like eating a piece of fruit?)  The reflections of Hannah Arendt on the Shoah come to mind here: the horrific nature of that event came about less by an entire society becoming hate-filled demons, but by individuals turning a blind eye and doing nothing, or by simply aiding the various mechanisms which went into the operation.  Maybe Klaus on the street didn’t shoot any Jews, but he may have helped install the wire fencing.  Or sent his children into the Hitler Youth.  Perhaps the immensity of experienced evil comes about through the slow accumulation of ‘tiny’ evils: of apathy as well as avarice.

But the original question still remains: did the author of Gen 2 consider the taking of the forbidden fruit to be a sin, or simply a necessary step towards the creation of human society, with all its attendant positives and negatives?  While there may be observant (sociological?) truth in the observation that reproduction necessitates death, is that necessarily the message Genesis intends for us?  I’ll have to keep thinking.

 Jason M. Silverman
4 October 2007

  [1] Oosten, Jarich G. “The Origins of Society in the Creation Myths of Genesis: An Anthropological Perspective. Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschriff 52 (1998): 107–123.