parents are soooo embarrassing

or at least that's what Cain and Abel must have thought. not only embarrassing, but they made such bad choices.....

so here is a discussion regarding Original Sin in the Old Testament, it is based on Genesis 3 - 4:16.

Genesis 3:1-4:16

For this task we must acknowledge our own biases and try to ‘lay aside any ready-made views or doctrines which we have been wont to associate with its contents, and which inevitably transmit their colour to its statements; remembering that what New Testament or patristic writers understood from it only enables us to estimate what it meant to them, not what it implied to its compiler or to the generation to which it was addressed.’[1]

In v1 we are introduced to the serpent, an animal that has been ‘excessively interpreted’[2] However, the text itself is decidedly less interpretive of this animal. It seems unlikely that the serpent is the Devil in the narrator’s mind[3], rather the serpent seems to be a literary device designed to produce a movement in the narrative[4]. Additionally, the serpent’s role in the text is not that of overwhelming temptation – ‘That he transferred the impulse to temptation outside of man [sic] was almost more a necessity for the story than an attempt at making evil something existing outside man [sic].’[5]

But not without reason has the snake been interpreted so vividly. The word arum, translated ‘crafty’ in most of our translations, flavours our ideas that this serpent is not altogether for the wellbeing of the humans. However, he is arum because the LORD God has made him so[6]. The word arum may also be translated ‘clever’, ‘prudent’, ‘shrewd’. In Proverbs[7] the arum or ‘wise’ person is contrasted with the ewil or ‘fool’. In Job the connotation is altogether more negative – the purposes of the arum are to be thwarted[8]. So the sense of the word arum is necessarily ambiguous.

For the modern reader entrenched in negative pictures of the serpent in the garden, it may be a surprise to read that this creature belonged to the LORD. It is the LORD God who has made the serpent. We are not permitted to make this an entity outside of the LORD’s purposes for His garden – that interpretation simply will not do.

And so the first question is asked – ‘Did God say…?’ The serpent suggests that God is not as is imagined by the people. It is the woman who is spoken to[9], and so it is the woman who replies. Her response is to correct the serpent; she engages in hermeneutics[10]. Some see this as a step outside the limits of humanity[11], creating a law for herself and her husband by means of exaggeration, however the danger may lie somewhere else entirely.

The prohibition, a means of blessing, is under analysis. God is made the object of the conversation, is ignored[12] – ‘The serpent is the first in the Bible to seem knowing and critical about God and to practice theology in the place of obedience.’[13] The serpent turns the life-giving boundary[14] into a threat[15] and so it is the serpent, not God, who introduces the notion of death as the primary agenda for humanity[16]. Reality is distorted; the safety of God is re-interpreted as a place to escape from. The woman corrects the serpent’s misrepresentation of God’s prohibition, but the idea lingers – the possibility of a way of being that is different to God’s way.

In vv4-5 the serpent imagines the possibility for the humans - God is open to be judged. The humans are invited to step out of the ‘circle of obedience’[17]. And here again is an ambiguity - does the text say ‘like gods/God knowing good and evil’ or ‘like gods/God and knowing good and evil’? One translation emphasises that the humans will become ‘like gods/God’ and the other emphasises the ‘knowing good and evil’[18]. It may be better to understand this to mean an all‑encompassing ‘all things’ – it is to know ‘all-things’ that is to work outside the remit of God’s limit of human creatures, especially as the sense of the word yd’ (to know) goes beyond intellectual knowing, but means capability, experience and discovery[19] – in this case to discover our limit was to go beyond our limit.

But we must not reign in this enigmatic statement to mean all that we would have it mean through our own agendas ‘the fascination of this statement is in its lack of restriction, its intangibleness; it is intentionally mysterious, and after it has brought the thoughts of man [sic] into a definite direction, it is again open on all sides and gives room to all whispering secret fantasies.’[20] And so the deed is done – the rapid language of verse 6 indicates the seriousness of the action. For many throughout history this has marked the moment of our ‘fall’. It may be noted here that the lack of comment at this point by the narrator is significant. The text simply describes something that seems to be entirely possible within the scope of the human creature’s potential.

Verse 6 sees the disappearance of the arum snake. His arum has not been good for the human pair. They eat[21]. The pair become aware of their nakedness, shame has entered their world in the form of dissonance in human and divine relationships, the outcome of which is seen profoundly in verses 8-13. The humans hide from each other and they hide from God. This is the narrator’s response to the disobedience of the human pair – relationships are corrupted[22].

The choice for good or evil is brought vividly to the foreground of human life. Whereas many have said that this is a picture of ‘fallenness’ it is perhaps better read as a constant truth being brought into sharp relief – it is better to live in obedience to God.

And so the judgment is given, but it is tinged with mercy, God clothes the humans[23] [24], covers their shame where they could not, and sustains their life![25] There is disagreement as to whether the judgments are prescriptive or descriptive and the text may validly be interpreted in either sense. However it is indisputable that eternal life for the humans would be unbearable in this pattern of disobedience that they have set up for themselves and in this context we see mercy in the dismissal from the garden[26]. We also see the consequences when the man names the woman; an act of dominance[27]. However, her name may give hope. The name ‘Eve’ may be ‘mother of all living’ or may have connotations of emptiness, however the text tells us that she was named Eve because of her motherhood – there is a glimmer of hope for the human pair; this is not the end.

At this point there does not seem to be any sign that the nature of the human beings has been changed. In fact the only real glimpse of this is in verse 22, but in this case the change is one that will make them like ‘one of us’ rather than a lower form of creature. This verse has difficulties in interpretation, although it seems that the most likely interpretation would be that the human pair have stepped outside the limitation of their being – to be like ‘one of us’ is death for ones who are not ‘one of us’. It is their very nature as it is that prevents the human creature from being anything other than what it is – a human creature.

And so we move on to the story of Cain. There is a ‘brother‑problem’[28], a problem of relationship. Both brothers bring an offering and whilst there is not much in the text to discern a difference, I disagree that the point of this text is that God has a capricious freedom[29]. God’s ways may be veiled to us, however there is a glimmer of a reason in the fact that Abel brought the firstlings and the fat portions against Cain’s ‘offering of the fruit’. Or ‘Perhaps the silence is the message itself. As outside viewers, we are unable to detect any difference between the two brothers and their offerings. Perhaps the fault is an internal one, an attitude that is known only to God.’[30] In any case God seems to assume that Cain knows the reason for his rejection[31] and then lays out his choices[32]. Von Rad suggests that God is appealing to the better motives of the human heart – but if humankind is fallen, from whence these ‘better motives’? Rather we must say that if the choice is laid before Cain[33] then this choice was entirely possible for Cain. Cain might have chosen to master his sinful inclination[34]. Cain chooses to have sin devour him. Sin is made an entity outside Cain, sin committed becomes a habit - a pattern of disobedience leads to a crystallising of that disobedient pattern. Abel is murdered and God calls Cain to account for his lack of responsibility towards his brother[35]. The consequences of Cain’s actions are a further distortion of relationships. A further break in the relationship between ‘brothers’ has created a further break in the divine-human relationship: Cain is sent further away. But God is again merciful, a protective mark is put over the wayward brother, God chooses the fate of this brother and makes it clear that no place, not even the ‘land of wandering’ is outside God’s care.

Eichrodt[36] talks of a creature once held in the will of God and now corrupted and enslaved by the evil impulses of sin. This of course is the traditional way we have interpreted the text, but it holds some serious questions for us which cannot be shied away from. If the creature was once held in the will of God, obedient to the will of God, which for Eichrodt is the opposite of the enslavement to sin, the corruptness of nature that awaits beyond Genesis 3, how did the first disobedience happen unless the creature was capable of disobedience? The nature of that creature, even held in the will of God, must have had the potential of disobedience. Conversely, Cain is expressly told that he has a choice. Unless God is the play actor extraordinaire that some would have us believe, Cain really did have a choice and so must have been capable of choosing obedience. Perhaps the difference is the context rather than the nature of humanity. For the first creature the context is one of obedience – that is the habit of the creature. For Cain, the context is one of disobedience; he has lived in the consequences of his parent’s decision. His step of disobedience is from within that pattern of disobedience. Some would suggest that Cain’s behaviour is inevitable because of the new nature of humankind[37] - but what of Abel? Abel, who chose to give the good offering, the firstfruits of the flock, the fat portions? What of Abel who had lived in the consequence of his parents’ decision and who still formed a habit of obedience? What of Abel?

In conclusion it is very dubious to create a doctrine of human nature simply from Genesis 3 and 4. In fact there is every reason to see in the story of Cain the true weight of our own sin – I cannot blame my sin on my inherent nature - mea sola culpa.

What of Abel? His blood not only cries to God from the dust, it cries to us - Choose!

[1] Tennant F R, Doctrines of the Fall, page 9
[2] Brueggemann W, Genesis, page 47
[3] Von Rad G, Genesis, page 85
[4] Indeed the serpent, who has a lot to say for himself in the first few verses, simply melts from the text in v6, never again to speak in this narrative.
[5] Von Rad G, Genesis, page 85 (italics mine): this goes against the weight of traditional interpretation regarding the serpent’s role.
[6]Additionally the word arumim in ch2:25 would be recalled. The humans are arumim and not ashamed. Echoes of this joyful nakedness should resonate when we read the word arum in the following verses.
[7] Proverbs 12:15
[8] Job 5:12
[9] Although the man is with her: Genesis 3:6
[10] She interprets what God has said to her and to explain how this will outwork in their common life: they are not even going to touch the tree!
[11] Perhaps even the limits of specifically female humanity: Von Rad G, Genesis, page 85
[12] To contrast with all good theology where we are invited to ‘speak words of God’ with God – to enjoy the unfolding journey of discovery as we walk with God and towards God.
[13] Brueggemann W, Genesis, page 48
[14] Genesis 2:17
[15] Genesis 3:3
[16] Brueggemann W, Genesis, page 48
[17] Von Rad G, Genesis, page 86
[18] Von Rad G, Genesis, page 86
[19] Von Rad G, Genesis, page 86
[20] Von Rad G, Genesis, page 87
[21] The ‘apple’ of Church tradition is thought to come from the latin malus (evil) and mallum (apple), but is not found in the text.
[22] Von Rad, page 88, assumes a priori that there is a ‘fall’ and thus interprets these verses from that perspective, however the text itself has little to say about the human nature.
[23] ‘To be clothed is to be given life’, Brueggemann, page 50
[24] Vriezen, page page 210, suggests that the covering is the only merciful act of God in this text, but what of the goodness of God in separating the humans from the place that would keep them in eternal life in the pattern of disobedience they have cultivated for themselves? Of the God who sustains life, in order to restore real life? Of the God who does not destroy to start again somewhere else? This is the God that I hear from this text.
[25] ‘When the facts warrant death, God insists on life for his creatures.’, Brueggemann, page 50
[26] ‘the withholding of a good which for man [sic] would have been unbearable in his present condition.’: Von Rad G, Genesis, page 94
[27] This is not the same as the definitive moment of ch2:23 in which the male and female are defined by each other.
[28] Brueggemann, Genesis, page 55: he also comments that this is a common theme ‘Why must a certain man always have two sons? Why not only one? Why not only me?’
[29] against Brueggemann, Genesis, page 56
[30] Vriezen TH C, Old Testament Theology, page 224
[31] Verse 6
[32] Verse 7
[33] Even with an emphatic pronoun ‘you, you must master it’
[34] Cain also has the possibility of exercising another inclination - ‘Furthermore, if we postulate a bias toward evil to account for some behaviour, we ought logically to postulate a bias toward good to account for the rest.’: Tennant F R, Original Sin, page iv
[35] Von Rad G, Genesis, page 102
[36] Eichrodt W, Theology of the Old Testament, page 404-413
[37] Following from the suggested change of nature in Genesis 3


dave williams said...

Not being near a library I'm interested to know a bit more about why Von Rad draws the conclusions he does about ther serpent. Is it simply that he doesn't expect people to beleive in an actual devil at the time the narrator writes -or something else. Of course we are guessing from that author -but to what extent does the rest of the canon and other traditions inform our interpretation?

As for the Serpent as simply a literary device. Hmm -no. The Serpent has a central role here. Not only is he the first to challenge God./ He is the first after God to speak. Those who see the reversal of creation order ar eonto something here. Thern there is the place of the serpent in other ANE cultures. Is it chose at random when others worship a snake? (Leaving aside the possibility that just as God uses men to speak so animals eg. Baalam's ass might be used from time to time and that the account is actually reflecting the events more or less as they happened)

jody said...

well, I think that there is very little evidence for 'the Devil' in the OT at all - Job being 'ha'satan' and other issues surrounding the story of Job, which I'm sure you know.

I think that the serpent as literary device was pretty much found in all the commentaries, even Eichrodt whose conservative and I understood that von Rad is quite conservative too. I think the idea that the serpent as a 'central role' is to be disputed, the central theme is the reaction of the human pair and the snake disappears from v6, at least in speech.

If we put the tag 'evil' on to the snake then we have to deal with the fact that this is one of God's creatures whom God has made to be 'arum'. And we also have to deal with the fact that the text gives little or not space to the snake after the human pair's response and in most of the rest of the OT. In fact in the rest of the OT the 'fall' narrative is not mentioned at all as an explanation for the wrong perpetrated by human beings, interesting if it is the basis of the ills of humanity.

I am up for debate on this one, in fact the essay that this discussion belongs in was marked by two tutors, one who agrees with me and one who disagrees, but the one who disagreed still thought it was well exegeted.

dave williams said...


I'm not interested in numbers (although "ALL" the commentaries -really? Every one Wenham, Calvin etc etc? I'll take your word for it!). I'm interested in his reasoning -or in the absence fo it -yours.

Yes the serpent dissapears off the scene -but not before he too has been cursed -he is a participant in the rebellion and fully punished -whether he represents Satan, creatures or both.

Yes the Old Testament has little to say about Satan -but canonically as Christians we read the whole Bible as informing our interpretation now -not just OT.

And is the serpent an arbitary literary device -why a serpent? Is it right to ignore the presence of serpents in other ANE cultures?

And part of me wants to ask the question "Why would someone say that the serpent is just a literary divice" what presuppositions are driving them that way.

jody said...

sorry, wires crossed, I meant all the commentaries that I had consulted. not being able to consult ALL commentaries I make sure that I take a breadth of perspectives when writing an exegetical essay (it is one of the fundamental criteria) and I was trying to say that the issues surrounding the serpent were not really 'way out there'.

I'm surprised it is for you. what do would you say about the serpent?

davewilliams said...

I'm not saying that it's "way out there" but I'm assuming there is some reasoning for it.

What would I want to say about the serpent. Well on the one hand I wouldn't want us to focus on him in the sense of "The serpent made me do it" -that is not a valid excuse according to God but note that does keep him very much in the story line.

I think there are a number of things going on. Who speaks in the conversation is important -the creature being the first to speak after God. Then there are the words that he says -the nature of his challenge to God's word. The nature of Adam and Eve's engagement with him -are they as Van Til says starting to seek to think autonomously. There is the relationship of God to humans to creatures -which is reversed. Adam and Eve are not allowed to blame each other or him though they are responsible for their actions.

I would also want to think about the serpent in the Bible -Revelation and the Dragon, the nature of testing and tempting -Israel in the wilderness, Job, Jesus in the wilderness etc

I would want to consider how the role of the serpent resonantes in the ears of those who live in ANE cultures at the time this account is being told and/or written down.

Revd John P Richardson said...

FR Tennant's statement, quoted at the outset, cannot become the basis of a Christian hermeneutic. According to this, we are to empty our minds of our New Testament understanding when we read the OT text. The result, however, is that in some cases, whereas Christ and the Apostle's came to conclusion A, we might (Tennant clearly presumes we will) arrive at a contrary conclusion B, which we would nevertheless label the 'true' conclusion.

This overlooks, however,a fundamental of the Christian faith, which is that Christ is the interpretive key to the Scriptures. Without Christ, we may 'search the Scriptures', but we will not find eternal life in them.

The last statement in the essay is, then, surely correct: "it is very dubious to create a doctrine of human nature simply from Genesis 3 and 4".

However, the conclusion, "mea sola culpa", in unwarranted and indeed is in stark contrast to the Anglican Articles: "Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk) [that would be the 'mea sola'], but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation." (IX)

I have a feeling these observations aren't going to make much difference, though!

Karen said...

Is a Jewish perspective of help? Here are some Rabbis' answers from popular Ask The Rabbi sites - probably aimed at Christians (?!?) and the non-theological person.


and also this which is shorter but similar,


Whilst having mostly accepted the total degeneracy view of human narure for most of my christian life, as borne out by tradition, reason and teaching as well as my "convesion" experience, I find myself wanting an answer to these questions,

If we humans are unregenerately of a corrupt nature due to Original Sin how come we are still here and how come we still here before Jesus' saving work?

If we are so degenerate why didn't we wipe ourselves out by various methods a long time ago?

This matter cannot simply be a matter of our inner spirit's journey to heaven or hell or annihilation. Our inner spirit is or is not conforming to Christ whilst we are alive; accordingly there are good non-Christians doing good things who may be less sinful by commission or omission than some Christians. It seems strange that they are destined to hell-fire simply through, as Billy Connolly decribed it, "a conversation between a talking snake and two hippies."

dave williams said...


It is probably helpful to understand what Christian and especially reformed theologians are actually meaning by those terms.

1. Total Depravity refers to the complete effect of the fall -all aspects of our lives are affected. We are not able to respond to God except that he works in us. That doesn't mean that we aren't capable of good works, creativity etc
2. The idea of common grace that God hasn't allowed us to follow our rebellino to its natural conclusions. He puts restrainst in place such as the law.
3. Why are we still here -because God's purpose isn't to take us off to float on clouds with angels but to renew his creation
4. As you will see from previous comments it isn't about a snake and a conversatino with two hippies. Rather it is the nature of that conversation and the choices that come from it. Note I may believe in original sion but can't help but observe that we have ratified our support for Adam and Eve's decision ever since.

jody said...

well, this is an interesting conversation.

I think I am still more on the side of thinking that it is 'mea sole culpa' - otherwise is it not a case of saying 'it isn't my fault' and God punishing us for something that is not our fault and thus unjust?

my nature made me do it guv...

davewilliams said...


It's more a case of saying that we as a human race are corporately responsible -in Adam -he being our federal head/representative. But we also demonstrate our individual responsibility in that we choose to sin. So God's justice is there in that he judges humanity and confirmed in that individually I deserve it. And yet his grace is there in that in Christ I have life just as in Adam I had death.

But you will have to engage with Paul's commentary in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians -which is exactly why as John R said we cannot read Genesis 1-3 without the New Testament