Original Sin 7 – God & Man in the Creation Narratives

This post is not going to be one that covers the few prooftexts in Scripture that generally tend to be the focus in discussions on the topic of original sin. I wanted to make sure at the outset that nobody reading this post did so with the wrong expectations. I will look at those specific texts later as I explore the historical context for the development of the idea of inherited guilt within some segments of Christianity. That’s where that particular discussion fits in my personal narrative and I think that’s the best context in which to discuss those few texts.

In this post I’m going to explore a few things about the God I found in the Holy Scriptures as I began to try to grasp the uniquely Christian narrative of God, Man, and their relation to each other. The Scriptures are an ancient text and that tends to make them a little harder for a modern American to read and truly understand. But these were hardly the first ancient texts or the first sacred writings I had ever explored and tried to understand. I recognized the challenge and knew that I would have to have a better grasp of both ancient and second temple Jewish culture. And to understand the new Testament, I would have to then perceive that culture’s interaction (in light of Christ) with the ancient Greco-Roman world (with which I already had a fair degree of familiarity).

So I read the Gospels (the obvious place to start) several times, trying to absorb what they said about Jesus of Nazareth. And I noticed something that caught my attention. Jesus insists, in more than one place, that the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings speak of him. It’s particularly dramatic in Luke on the road to Emmaus, but that’s hardly the only place. And so I began to gather the impression that it was not enough to simply have some understanding of ancient Jewish culture and historical context in order to read what we call the Old Testament. From a Christian perspective, it had to be read and interpreted through the lens of Christ, which means that a Jewish and a Christian reading of a text might very well be entirely different. I was also reading other ancient Christian writings and their authors confirmed my impression. Any and every Christian reading of our Holy Scriptures must first and foremost be christological in nature. The text is illuminated in and through Christ. I explain that because it conditions the way I read and understand the Holy Scriptures and thus necessarily frames the narrative arc I see in the text.

The best place to start, perhaps, is at the beginning. In the West, Genesis 3 is typically read as a story of legal violation and condemnation. The first man and woman are tempted. The first man and woman knowingly break God’s inviolable and holy law. The first man and woman are “separated” (now there’s a concept that requires very careful nuance and unfortunately rarely receives it) from God. The first man and woman are condemned by God to death and punishment and eternal torment in hell for their guilt for breaking God’s law. (And tied into that usually runs a thread that creates a problem for God either with his honor or his ability to forgive. Basically, you usually end up with a God who is either overly concerned about his honor or a God who cannot forgive an offense without payment. Now, that does not correlate very well at all with the God we find in scripture and it oversimplifies mankind’s problem and the measures necessary to save us. But that’s an entirely different series. Not this one.) And then their descendants, all of humanity, inherit from that first couple the guilt for their one violation of God’s command.

The problem with that narrative is that Genesis 3 simply doesn’t read that way without some serious distortion. That part of the narrative opens with the serpent telling the woman that she would not “die by death” from eating of the fruit. Instead, they would become like gods — a short and easy path to deification. (Ironically, God had created humanity in his image to bless creation and to grow and mature into communion with God. But the proper path was through obedience and faithfulness rather than disobedience and faithlessness. The serpent tempted the first couple with a false path toward the goal for which they were intended in their creation.) When they eat, their eyes are opened and they know shame, something they had never previously known.

So now they are condemned by God and “separated” from him, right? So then why is it that the next twist in the story is that God comes looking for them? They have tried to turn from God. They have moved away from their only source of life. In effect, they are seeking a non-existence they have no power to attain (since everything is sustained by and contingent on God who is everywhere present and filling all things). Hiding from their only source of life, they are mortal and are now ruled by death. But God does not permit that separation. And in this first turn of the story, we immediately see Jesus, also called Immanuel — God with us. We hide. God comes to us.

And what does God do? He curses the serpent. But the man and the woman suffer the natural consequences for their choices. Moreover, all creation is cursed, not by God (read it carefully), but by us. And God tells us that we are formed from the earth, and it is only when the clay is joined with God’s breath that we become a living soul. So, having turned from God’s breath, from God’s life, we are dust returning to dust. And yet, we are also eikons of God — a God who does not begrudge any of his creation existence — and as images of God, however damaged, we have no means of completely ceasing to exist. (That’s the source of the description of death as Sheol, Hades, or Hel — in Jewish and Christian rather than pagan terms. We became ruled by death and descended into it, but were unable to pass completely into non-existence. That was mankind’s ultimate plight from which we needed rescue. That’s why our problem required a solution as utterly amazing and unimagined as the Incarnation.)

And then God clothes the man and the woman. He covers their shame. But in that act, I also see a prefiguration of the Incarnation. Jesus takes on our nature in order to clothe the nature of man with the divine nature and through that union to heal and transform the nature of man.

And finally, lest we bind ourselves forever in ever corrupting flesh, God seals us from any other path to a sort of fleshly immortality that would not heal our corrupted nature and bodies. It’s clear in the story that he does this as an act of love and mercy on our behalf.

So tell me, where in this story is man truly “separated” from God. Yes, we try to turn from God. We try to hide from God. But God searches for us. God clothes us. God protects us. We have created a sort of separation from God our source of life within ourselves. That is true. But God never draws away from man in the story.

And where does God condemn man? Yes, he describes the consequences humanity will suffer flowing from our turn from him. And God describes how through that turn from him, we have cursed creation and creation will therefore no longer exist in harmony with us. And yet even as he describes the consequences, he gives the first promise that he is working to solve the problem. The promised seed of the woman is Christ. In the story, God does not condemn us. Instead, he immediately promises to rescue us from our own folly.

The God in our text, the God revealed to us in Jesus, is not a God of condemnation. He is not a stiff and unforgiving God. He is a God who overflows with mercy, a God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive, a God whose justice is love. We’ll look more at that God in the arc of scripture tomorrow. I don’t know a whole lot about our sacred text. I still feel woefully ignorant. But nowhere do I see the story of the sort of God who condemns all of humanity for the inherited guilt of a single act by a single pair of distant ancestors.

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