Adapted from image at El Escorial, Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo, Ms & II. 5 f° 18. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B_Escorial_18.jpg

Adapted from image from El Escorial, Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo, Ms & II. 5 f° 18. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B_Escorial_18.jpg.


Continuing in the spirit of my last post (which was some time ago now), I want to present another way in which Genesis 1–11 promotes what may be called a low view of humanity. This time I’ll focus on the story of the first transgression of humanity, in Genesis 3.

Consider the Man’s response when God finds him hiding in the garden and confronts him (Gen 3:10–12):

The Man said, “I heard your sound in the garden, and I was afraid, because I am naked, so I hid.”

Then Yahweh God said, “Who told you that you are naked? Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you not to eat from?”

The Man said, “The woman who you put here with me––she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

When I teach this story in my theology courses, I stress what I’ve generally been taught, that the fall into sin leads to almost instant alienation between the Man and Woman, and between both of them and God. The Man’s blaming of the Woman shows that the Man is no longer willing to live in a world of openness and truthfulness. He doesn’t want to admit what he has done, so he presses it off on whoever else is available. There also is a hint that the Man is ultimately blaming God for putting the Woman in the garden with him.

One key to understanding the story properly is to realize that the name Adam is simply the Hebrew word for Human, and that the story is really telling us about the nature of the human race.

Winston and Julia in 1984

That traditional reading is fine, but I think the text may intend to say something even more damning about humanity. To highlight the point, I’d like to compare the story with a scene from the end of George Orwell’s 1984.

If you’ve never read the book, the protagonist is Winston Smith, a nervous, desperate man who decides to defy the totalitarian state headed by Big Brother. He begins a secret love affair with a like-minded woman named Julia, but they are eventually caught by the secret police.

The climax of the book is the story of how the state goes about breaking Winston through torture and brainwashing. Eventually, they strap Winston’s face to an opening in a cage containing a ravenous rat –– which Winston has previously revealed to be his greatest fear. Here is Orwell’s devastating account of Winston’s response:

And then––no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment––one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over:

“Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not Me!”

The torture is halted immediately. Their goal is to break Winston, and with this outburst they know they have done it.

Back to Eden

Now consider the Man’s situation in Genesis 3. We, as readers, know that the Man and the Woman are about to be punished together, and that God will mitigate the threatened punishment of immediate death, instead driving them out of the garden to face a difficult life, with death only as a distant eventuality. But at this point in the story, the Man knows nothing of this outcome. What he knows is that God has told him that the punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil will be death.

When God asks the Man if he has eaten from the tree, the Man essentially stands alone: he’s the one God is questioning, and he’s the one who faces the punishment of death. And what is his response? It was the woman. And implied: Do it to her instead. Kill her instead.

What Orwell imagined as the lowest a person could be made to sink, the most pathetic cry of a tortured, broken man, is essentially what Genesis says that we became the moment we turned from God. Surely this Man is the father of Cain, who would murder his own brother out of jealousy. Surely this Man is the father of humanity, a race that would carry out the great atrocities that dominate our history books and newspapers, and also the small-scale atrocities that happen behind the closed doors of our homes.

Bringing it Home

Here’s what should terrify us most: the Man didn’t offer up his wife to death in his place because he was cruel. He did it because he was weak, and desperate. This is the human condition, as Genesis presents it.

Some people are indeed cruel, and the Bible has plenty to say about them. But this passage confronts us instead with the moral implications of our cowardice. If Cain shows the danger in jealousy, and the Tower of Babel shows the danger of ambition, then perhaps the story of the Man’s excuses shows the danger of fear and denial and self-preservation.

Certainly, not every person has done something as horrible as Adam, though it is commonplace enough for us to lie or cheat in order to cover up our failings. Yet for most of us it is only by the grace of God that we have not been put in a situation with stakes like those faced by the Man in the Garden. Most of us have not had our own cowardice exposed on that type of stage.

There are of course some courageous people in the world, but we as a race cannot therefore separate ourselves from Adam. As a whole, this is who we are, a humanity that is broken and fallen and capable of doing things that shock even us, the moment that we do them. This also is why the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is not an aberration from the larger human story. Indeed, in some ways it is the exact same story, as the crowd at the foot of the cross shouts: “Do it to him! Do it to him! Not us! Him!”

And it is by the grace of a truly marvelous God that Jesus calmly answers, “As you wish,” and that the moment that exposes again the depth of our fall is the same moment that offers us hope of deliverance from it.

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