Genesis: the snake had a point

Genesis: the snake had a point.  There is more than one way to read Genesis.  One is to read it as an account by God dictated to Moses.  That seems unlikely, but it’s a view widely held among the very religious.  Certain problems, like the earth being created in 7 days, are dealt with by transforming days in eons.  Some small amount of metaphor allowed. 

Another way is to focus on the structure of Genesis, the way in which it combines different sources and traditions, edited, sometimes clumsily, to tell an epic myth of origins.  A myth that’s at its heart is true, not to history, but to human nature.  I agree with the second way, but I think one learns much by the first approach for what it says about man and God.  I am going to take seriously an author who employs it.  “Take seriously” means worthy of criticism.

Garden of Eden.  The snake had a point.

The story of the Garden of Eden is familiar.  God creates Adam and Eve, telling them they can eat the fruit from any tree, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  But the sneaky snake comes along, tells them that if they eat from this tree they can become like God, knowing good and evil.  So, Eve takes a bite, and offers the fruit to Adam.  He takes a bite, and an angry God kicks them out of Eden, telling them that they and their descendants will have to work hard for a living, and women will bear their children in pain and travail (Genesis 2-3).*

Recently I reread Genesis, and it seems to me that the snake had a point.  Adam and Eve became fully human only by defying God and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Good and evil, says Bruce Waltke, are intended to encompass all moral knowledge,

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Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr

The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith—Reinhold Niebuhr      

adam-and-eve-798376_1280Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr.

I never took the concept of sin seriously until I read Reinhold Niebuhr.  I think this is mostly because I didn’t read Niebuhr until I was in my sixties, when I began to take a lot of things in life more seriously.  If so, then perhaps I should say that Niebuhr is a particularly good interpreter of a concept that hovered just out of my range until now.

Communal idolatry

For Niebuhr, sin is most clearly seen and expressed in communal idolatry.  This is the context of the epigraph that opens this post.  We see sin every day in the actions of groups, and above all nations.  I discussed communal idolatry in a previous post, so I won’t spend much time on it here. 

In sin, we worship the idols of the group.  And not just extremist groups or nations.  In the midst of World War Two, Niebuhr argued that the American idealization of liberty could itself degenerate into a form of idolatry.  As Andrew Bacevich puts it in his introduction to a new edition of The Irony of American History, Niebuhr

went so far as to describe the worship of democracy as “a less vicious version of the Nazi creed.” He cautioned that “no society, not even a democratic one, is great enough or good enough to make itself the final end of human existence.” (Bacevich, p xii; Niebuhr, 1944, p 133)

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