The Fall From Grace

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Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field 

that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, 

Did God actually say, You1 shall not eat of any tree in the garden? 

(Gen 3:1)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In chapter three of Genesis we are introduced to original sin begins not with an explanation of sin, but an alternative to the divine image: the serpent. As postmoderns, we dismiss the personification of evil here and run to the first act of sin. The only duty required of Adam and Eve is not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:17). Their freedom extended to all other aspects of life. They do not question God’s authority or even chide at their duty, but they are introduced to someone who does: the serpent.

Conceptual Problems with Original Sin

Our focus on the first act of sin reveals at least three problems. First, the modern preoccupation with original sin limits sin to a single, static act. We then take this conceptualization of sin and debate its reasonableness rather than exploring what the text is saying. Second, the text itself goes on to show intensification of sin over time, but this polluting characteristic of sin is seldom observed or discussed. Third, the introduction of the serpent in the text characterizes sin as rebellion, which is also seldom observed or discussed. 

The intensification of sin begin early.  Although Adam and Eve were created in Genesis 1, when God rests on the first Sabbath in Genesis 2 they are not mentioned (Feinberg 1998, 16). The first sin in scripture is then argued to be a sin of omission (not doing good). It occurred when of Adam and Eve refused to participate in Sabbath rest. It was as if God threw a party and they refused to come. 

After that, the sin in Genesis escalated from disrespect into open rebellion. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve commit their first sin of commission (doing evil). In Genesis 4, Cain kills Abel and Lamech takes revenge. In Genesis 5, Noah—the man who rested in Hebrew—is born (Feinberg 1998, 28).  In Genesis 6, God tells Noah to build an ark because he planned to send a flood in response to the depth of human corruption and sin. After the flood, only Noah and his family remained, a re-creation event (Kline 2006, 221–27). 

Neglecting sin’s wider context leads us to misunderstand the biblical text, which the Bible clearly stresses sin as a defining human characteristic.

The Who Question Widens Our Understanding of Sin

The fall from grace is trivialized in characterizing it as a static, one-time, event because sin’s dynamic, polluting, and rebellious characteristics are neglected.

If the who question is taken seriously, then the trivialization of the text goes further. Adam’s manhood takes a beating here. What sort of man leaves his wife to contend with a snake? And who does the snake talk to anyway? Eve is frequently maligned in discussions because she first believed the serpent and:

“saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” (Gen. 3:6)

The text itself makes it easy to believe that the fall from grace occurred, in part, because of character deficiencies in both Adam and Eve. 

Eager to avoid having to explain these deficiencies in the first family, most postmodern commentators are happy to skip over the who question and debate the reasonableness of a static act of sin. More importantly, focusing on sin as a static act neglects the bigger problem that the who question raises: sin pollutes our identity and leads us to underestimate the problem of idolatry, which the Bible takes seriously as suggested by the Second Commandment (Exod 20:4).

Dynamic Aspects of Sin

The dynamic characteristics of sin arise, in part, because of sin’s polluting characteristic implies that the first act of sin makes the second act easier as we become more callused and may develop a taste for sin. An individual sinner may become a serial sinner, as we see most often in the case of murder and various sexual crimes, but which can be a problem for any type of sinful behavior.

The cycle of killing and revenge killing is another pattern of communal sin that can only be broken once someone decides to practice forgiveness or enemy love, which is Jesus’ focus.

Moses anticipated one communal pattern of sin in Deuteronomy 30:1-3. You (plural) will sin; be enslaved; and cry out to the Lord. God will send you a deliverer and restore your fortunes (Brueggemann 2016, 59). This pattern outlines biblical history and with it the rise and fall of nations.

What is interesting about the dynamic aspect of sin is how Jesus deals with it in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). In the parable, the younger son thinks only of himself in asking for his inheritance and leaving home for a faraway country where he squanders it. What is unique about this story is that the suffering that the young man goes through draws attention to his sin and allows him to see the error of his ways. He grows up and learns to love his father. Unlike the account of Moses, the cycle of sin is broken and his life transformed.

New Testament Treatment of Sin

The transformation of the Prodigal Son requires us to take sin seriously. When Jesus casts out demons, he clearly takes the who question and sin seriously (e.g. Mark 5:8). Many commentators quietly scoot past such passages or explain them away as first century psychology. However, if Jesus is truly divine (characterized as omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent), then the New Testament’s confession that Jesus died for our sins must be taken seriously (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3). Otherwise, our sins are not forgiven, our salvation is at risk, and our preaching is in vain (e.g. 1 Cor 15:14).

Jesus as Denominator

The fall from grace is more important than most postmodern Christians are willing to admit. If we cannot admit our sin; we cannot be forgiven. This is why we must make our faith the number one priority and focus on the divine image. When Jesus becomes our measure of all things, then with the help of the Holy Spirit we can recognize and resist evil

References

Feinberg, Jeffrey Enoch. 1998. Walk Genesis: A Messianic Jewish Devotional Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books.

Kline, Meredith G. 2006. Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

The Fall From Grace

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com


 

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