Falling further…

I’ve had some push back to my last post, “The fall and rise of Original Sin”, and want to engage with that. My friend is offended because he sees me as saying that God is a liar. I’m sad that what I’ve written has had that effect – unlike Peter Rollins (who I’ve read a bit of over the last 24 hours and to whom I’ll be coming back) I don’t aim to offend (and certainly not to the extent, as he has said, of offending myself as well!).

Giving offence is, then, not what I intended to do. At the most, I might be saying that on one interpretation of Genesis 2&3, the author of Genesis (I do not, of course, consider that biblical authors are transmitting God’s dictation in what they write!) is saying that God is a liar, on the basis that he states in Gen. 2:17 that God says  but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die”, but that the actual punishment (if indeed it should be regarded as punishment) is expulsion from the Garden, a life of toil rather than of plenty and painful childbirth for Eve and her descendants. Indeed, if we take the genealogies in Genesis 4&5 on face value, Adam survives for a lifespan of 930 years, which does not look like instant death (and as I indicated, the Hebrew of Gen. 2:17 has a connotation of an immediate consequence and is sometimes translated as “in that day you will die”).

It is not uncommonly argued that death was in fact a part of the punishment, in which case interpreters are forced to argue that “in that day” refers not to a day but to something like an age; this is also one way of interpreting the seven days of creation earlier in Genesis to avoid an insistence on a literal seven day creation, so tends to be an easy step to take at that point. However, as I also remarked, the fact that in Gen. 3:22 ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’ means that it is really not legitimate to claim that actually Adam and Eve were immortal from the start, and only became mortal as a result of God’s punishment.

Another argument I hear about this is that this is analogous to God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac which is subsequently overturned; God is being merciful. This is, I think, a better argument than “well, God lied”, but still means that the serpent was being truthful in predicting that death would not actually be the consequence. There is, however, no wording indicating a change of mind, so this seems a stretch.

I did, of course, give another potential interpretation as an aside – that God was not so much lying as indulging in parental hyperbole (exaggeration). In fact, I think that within the logic of the story, this is probably what the author had in mind; I doubt he intended to portray God as mendacious, but suspect he thought that parental hyperbole was not “lying” but merely use of colourful language.

This seems to me to illustrate a profound difference between the way I approach biblical texts and the way my friend does; I try to read the texts as naturally as possible, and if they seem to be portraying something I take exception to, I note that but do not expend much effort on trying to explain it away. This is, of course, very different from approaching them with a developed conception of theology which then does not permit the author to have been saying something which may, on first reading, seem bizarre, or offensive, or contrary to the character of God as I understand that to be.

Interestingly, one strand of Jewish thought (though a minority opinion) holds that when God pronounces the whole of creation, after the creation of man on the sixth day to be “very good” (after merely pronouncing the results of the first to fifth days as “good”), given that man is seen to be sinful, this must mean that “very good” in fact means pretty much the exact opposite. This is, to my mind, an example of the imposition of a developed conception on the text, here holding that because creation including humanity is obviously not “very good” and yet God is apparently saying that it is, he must mean something other than the natural meaning of the words. Judaism does not see the Fall in the same way as Christianity, nor does it have a concept of original sin, as otherwise the Fall can be taken as terminating the state of “very good”, perhaps.

Where I do import ideas from scriptures which are outside a passage (or at least the individual book involved or the set of books written by the same author), it is generally limited to ideas which appear in previous scripture. Thus, when interpreting New Testament writers, I assume that they are working on the basis of the developed theology of Judaism as it was at the time. With Genesis 1-3, however, there is no prior Jewish scripture, so I do not find myself able to assume that the ideas of any form of Judaism are imported, and certainly not the idea that God is incapable of saying something which is not seen to be exactly as things turn out to be. I do, of course, take into account Mesapotamian creation myths in assessing Genesis 1-2, and note the similarities and differences, though these do not really impact on this discussion.

So, what I do not feel able to do is to decide that God cannot be seen to say anything which is other than exactly factually correct and thus decide that in fact, somehow, death “in that day” was one of the results of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and “in that day” needs to be reinterpreted accordingly; I just follow the evidence of the text.

Of course, it may be that the text says something offensive, something contrary to my view of who (or what) God is. Many parts of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles fall into that category, and I cite as an example 1 Sam. 15:2-3 .

The link is to a discussion, which includes the following comment:- Why would God have the Israelites exterminate an entire group of people, women and children included?
This is honestly a very difficult issue. We do not fully understand why God would command such a thing, but at the same time we trust God that He is just – and recognize that we are incapable of fully understanding a sovereign, infinite, and eternal God. As we look at difficult issues such as this one, we have to remember that God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.” This is an example of retrojecting our assumptions about God into a text, or in this case a set of texts. The base assumption is that the God who commands mercy not sacrifice and that we should love our neighbour as ourself in later scripture cannot be seen to be ordering genocide.

Of course, this assumes a few things itself. It assumes, for instance, that the authors of these books have correctly understood an inspiration, that they have not embroidered that inspiration with their own preconceptions, that that inspiration is from God, and that the character of God is unchanging.

Starting at the end of those assumptions, can I reference the remarkable work of Jack Miles in “God, a Biography” and “Christ, a Crisis in the Life of God”. Miles sets aside the assumption that the character of God is unchanging (among other things) and treats the Bible as a work of literature in which the main character is God; he then proceeds to analyse the character development of the figure of God through the books of the Bible, treating them chronologically (which is not always the order in which we see them). He definitely finds that the character develops and changes.
This is an interesting approach. Among other things, it resonates with process theology in that God is not seen as static and unchangeable. It is, however, probably more offensive to the conservative reader than anything I have written to date.
I set on one side the assumption that the inspiration is throughout from God. It may or may not have been, but it is the position of both Judaism and its successor Christianity that that is the case, and in order to write in either tradition I probably need to hold to that assumption. Some of the Gnostics, arguably Christian of an heretical bent, did determine that the God portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures was a lesser character called the “demiurge”, but this is too far from anything remotely like orthodoxy to be useful except in its own context.
I do not have any confidence that Biblical authors have not embroidered their inspirations with their own preconceptions. This is, I think, to be seen in Genesis 1, which clearly imports the world picture common to Mesapotamian and other creation myths, including Greek and Egyptian, this being of a flat earth covered by a bowl-shaped “firmament” with gates in the firmament to let in rain and in the earth to let in the waters below. An obvious example, but emblematic of more subtle preconceptions such as those of classical Greek philosophy which I have recently been criticising in my series about process.
I do not really need to address whether the authors have correctly understood the inspiration they received, as the previous criterion will in all probability exclude from “inspired” any material which is not; it will have arisen from their preconceptions.
So, what the previous post gave was what I think to be a fair reading of the passage, working from these principles.
Before leaving this topic, I think it reasonable to mention that, coincidentally, I picked up Peter Rollins’ book “The Idolatry of God” last night and am therefore sleep-deprived (particularly as I went on to read some of his “Insurrection” as well before finally sleeping). This makes me think that I may not have given enough space to discussion of the advent of the sense of self in the first post, as Rollins spends half a chapter on this. He draws from the work of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in talking about the “Mirror Phase” of child development, when after not really making a distinction between self and other, children begin to develop that (it occurs between about six and about eighteen months). Rollins comments that only with the advent of the sense of self can people be truly said to be born, a “second birth”, and that among other features this brings a sense of deep and abiding loss as we become aware of a world outside ourselves which is not us. The result is an illusory sense of loss; illusory because it is something we never had in the first place, if for no other reason that there was no “self” to have had it, whatever it may have been.
Rollins goes on to link this with creatio ex nihilo (as an illusory something is created out of nothing), with Paul’s attitude to the law as increasing sin, as the sense of absence plus knowledge of prohibition is needed in order to become truly obsessed with something and, of course, finally with original sin, which Rollins identifies as this feeling of a void which needs filling, a lack which we obsessively need to correct.
As I argued in my previous post, however, I see original sin as being merely the apparently very real separation between self and other (including, of course, self and God) and its immediate consequences, and not as requiring any obsession. Granted, pursuing control and acquisition at the expense of others is definitely part of sin, but I do not see that acting selfishly, being self-centred or fearing loss for the self inevitably stems from this. There is a tendency, but there is no absolute requirement that every individual act on it, and some may not. I am not one of them.
However, I am a mystic, and a part of the mystical experience involves the boundaries between self and other breaking down. It is not really possible for me to regard that boundary as anything other than an illusion (and the sense of self may itself be an illusion) long term, although I can be and have been suckered into treating it as real. Rollins goes on in the remainder of the book to advocate the embracing of the feeling of loss as an inevitable part of being human and not regarding God or religion as a means of filling it, hence the idolatry of the title. For me, this seems unnecessary, as I am provided with memory of experiences in which both division and loss are illusory.
Nonetheless, I can recommend Rollins, although with even more of a safety warning than Jack Miles, given his tendency to offend even himself…

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