By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Let’s look at the story of Adam and Eve, a story of rebellion in perfection; but not, perhaps, the story that many people think they know. The story of Genesis, as it would have been read by the ancient Israelites, is not the story most people today understand, especially Christians, when they read the story of Adam and Eve.
The Fall and the Nature of Evil
We read the story of Adam and Eve today as the story that Saint Paul tells, in his New Testament letters of Adam and Eve and of Genesis, the larger story; or at least what later readers took to be Paul’s story. Here, Satan in the guise of a serpent creates all evil in the world in a context in which God creates a totally good, totally ordered cosmos out of nothing.
Adam and Eve are not just the first people to fall in the world; they, in some sense, inaugurate the history of evil itself. This is a reading that is profoundly informed by the experience of Jesus Christ, which has shaped Christian accounts.
But we want to look at the text in a more archaeological sense, in terms of how it was most likely to have been read by its earliest audience. For these early readers, the Fall is more representative than constitutive of the reality of evil in the world.
Adam and Eve are the first to actualize the potential for evil, which was part of the cosmic structure that God had created from the beginning. The Genesis account suggests that evil and temptation were a potential presence in the world.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Nature of the Temptation
What exactly is the nature of Eve’s temptation? The language that we get of Eve—“seeing that the fruit was good to eat”—suggests a perverted vision, a parody of God’s seeing that the world is good.
Eve’s temptation here is, in some ways, a temptation to behave as God does: the temptation to judge, to judge for herself; a temptation to theological sovereignty.
This raises another set of questions: When exactly does sin begin? When exactly is the moment of sin? Where does the fall start? This is enormously rich for the later theological traditions that comment on these texts, Jewish and Christian alike, because it bears importantly on what exactly is the sin.
We are again tempted to ask more questions: Is it the experience of temptation? Is it the sheer disobedience of the will that prompts the act? Why, after all, is the tree there in the garden at all? And why is it that the knowledge of good and evil is the crucial thing here? What is it about the knowledge that’s so destructive for humans?
Learn more about the nature and origins of Evil.
The Nature of ‘Knowing’
This knowledge appears four times in the story, and it seems to mean a kind of knowledge that encompasses all things; not just the meaning of these two terms, “good” and “evil”, but more like “from alpha to omega”. Yet the term still seems loaded with a meaning that is both ominous and opaque. Why is the knowledge of good and evil a problem?
One clue here may be in the term ‘knowing’ that is used. The Hebrew root of this word is yd’ or yada. This is not simply an abstract conceptual knowledge; the ‘knowing’ in this sense is the same word that is used in the Bible with a sexual connotation. It designates an intimate experience, more than a merely intellectual acquaintance. Such knowledge gives its knower a certain set of skills and a certain kind of maturity perhaps; but, the Bible suggests, it is a flawed maturity.
This knowledge is both an accomplishment and a burden, a blessing and a curse; but mostly a curse. Perhaps, the story of Adam and Eve is telling us, all such human maturity is accidental and reluctant. Perhaps any real wisdom contains within itself a certain ambivalence about the cost incurred to gain that wisdom. Very few 20-year-olds want to be 80; but very many 80-year-olds are at least sometimes interested in being 20 again. Innocence doesn’t look so bad from the side of experience.
Learn more about human rivalry with God.
Evil: An Individual and Communal Act
There’s another thing about this story that is really interesting to think about: Adam took the fruit as well, in a way of an act of solidarity with Eve. There’s a weird community suggested to evil here. Once they have both eaten of the fruit, then their eyes were open, and they worked together. Evil is not simply an individual act; it is compounded and enriched and deepened by the communality that comes with evil as well.
Once this evasion has happened and God begins to lift the kinds of punishments that will ensue because of it, this litany of maledictions seems endless: effort, pain, labor, enmity, and nature. The litany is endless, in fact; and this is, ironically perhaps, truly the real fruit of tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden as a consequence of their sins. The gates of paradise are closed to them, and to all who follow them. All of us now live, as it were, East of Eden.
The nature of evil in the story of the Fall is interesting: It’s clearly a form of rebellion—a kind of rivalry against God, to be like God—perhaps initially inadvertent, but then it compounds itself in Adam and Eve’s flight and hiding from God. There’s a longing for rivalry with God, but at no point are humans actually able to rival God. There’s a fundamentally futile character to evil and rebellion in this story.
Common Questions about Adam and Eve
In the general reading of the Adam and Eve story, Satan in the guise of a serpent creates all evil in the world in a context in which God creates a totally good, totally ordered cosmos out of nothing. Adam and Eve are not just the first people to sin; they, in some sense, inaugurate the history of evil itself.
For early readers, Adam and Eve are not the first sinners, but the first to actualize the potential for evil, which was part of the cosmic structure that God had created from the beginning.
In eating the fruit, the intention was to achieve knowledge of good and evil, and thus have God’s vision. In this way Adam and Eve were trying to rival God.