Theology & Spirituality

Why the Fall Makes No Sense

A Baffling Story

Christians need a coherent account of the Fall, but our forebears have not given us one. If they had, 20th century biblical scholars would not have written things like this:

“The sheer irrationality of the command, not to eat of the tree, and of the threat to deprive of life if it was eaten, has had great effect on the history of understanding. . . . God . . . is placed in a rather ambiguous light. He has made an ethically arbitrary prohibition, and backed it up with a threat to kill which, in the event, he does nothing to carry out.”1

That was James Barr in 1992. If our Fathers and Mothers in the faith had bequeathed to us a coherent account of the Fall, surely the Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University2 would have known it. And surely it would have made Sam Dragga’s reading (from the same year) unnecessary.

“[T]he prohibition is crucial to Yahweh’s dominance of creation. Yahweh desires the human beings to abide as two naïve children without sexual knowledge. Yahweh intends to create only two human beings, two children eternally worshipful of their creator.”3

If the tradition had a convincing account to offer, surely there would have been no room for such a bizarre reading.

“You keep saying ‘surely’,” you point out, “but all you’ve given us is an argument from silence based on cherry-picked quotations.”

And you’re right. But even sympathetic authors like R. W. L. Moberly and Walter Brueggemann seem to be baffled, saying things like (a) there is “lack of justification given by God for his prohibition to eat of one particular tree,”4 and (b) “the gift of life in the human heart and in the human community is a mystery retained by God for himself.”5

“In my experience,” you reply, “if you can’t find a good solution for a theological problem, it’s because you’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe if you read more conservative theologians, you’d find the account you’re looking for.”

And you make a good point. But if conservative scholars have a coherent account, they haven’t done a very good job of disseminating it.

The Layperson’s Story

If you ask a normal Christian how the story of the Fall goes, you’ll hear something like this:

Scene 1: God makes a garden and creates humans.

Scene 2: God tells the humans to eat the fruit of the garden, but chooses one tree to be off-limits, threatening to kill the humans if they eat from it.

Scene 3: The humans inexplicably decide to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit.

Scene 4: God punishes the humans by cursing both them and the natural world to everlasting decay and eventual death.

If you ask your sibling in the faith why God curses the humans in Scene 4, you’ll be told that God was punishing them—as they had been warned in Scene 2—for their disobedience.

If you ask how it could be right for God to kill people for eating fruit—a punishment that surely exceeds God’s own eye-for-an-eye rule (Exodus 21:23–24; Leviticus 24:19–22; Deuteronomy 19:21)6—you’ll be told that God can make whatever rules God wants. And besides, the humans chose the punishment by choosing the crime.

If you then ask how it makes sense to create an entire universe and then jeopardize it by attaching a disproportionate punishment to a temptation you—who tempt no one (James 1:13)—deliberately put in the humans’ way, you’ll be told that love is meaningless if it comes from a robot. The humans needed to have a choice.

If you then ask how the logical and necessary connection between having choice, having free will, and being able to genuinely love justifies the arbitrary (i.e., willed, non-necessary) imposition of a universal curse of death and decay, I don’t think you’ll get much response at all. Conservatives will say, “It’s a mystery,” and liberals will say, “It’s all just a myth anyway.” Both throw up their hands and walk away.

The Whole Story

The problem with both the conservative and liberal responses to the text is that they read Genesis 2 and 3 in separation from Genesis 1.

“Yes, but Genesis 1 and Genesis 2–3 are separate traditions,” you point out. “They are two different stories from two different sources.”

And I have no doubt that they are. But Jesus cited both as being authoritative (Matthew 19:4–5; Mark 10:6–8), and they were canonized together as parts of a single whole. When you read Genesis 2–3 as continuing the narrative begun in Genesis 1, furthermore, the story of the Fall begins to make perfect sense. In fact, I would argue that we have been given Genesis 1 precisely in order to make sense of Genesis 2–3.

“How could you possibly know what the history of the text is?” you reasonably ask.

Well, there’s knowing and then there’s having a plausible story about it.

“Those are nowhere near the same thing.”

I know. But have you read Duane Garrett’s excellent book, Rethinking Genesis?

“No. Though I hear it’s excellent.”

Well, Garrett argues that the story told by Genesis 2–3 was available to the ancient Israelites before the story told by Genesis 1. However, he argues that Moses7—or whoever put together Genesis 1–3—wrote down the story of Genesis 1, and only then wrote or revised the text of Genesis 2–3.8 Beginning from this basic idea (for which Garrett can actually offer you evidence), I propose the following meta-story (for which I can offer you none).

A Meta-Story

Picture it like this. The ancient Hebrews have a story about how God created the parents of all peoples, put them in a garden, and then evicted them. In addition to this story, they have others about their more immediate ancestors (connecting the first story to their present predicament).9

Imagine, furthermore, that first story is basically true. And imagine that it genuinely helps the ancient Hebrews to understand both the basic human relationship to God and the later stories about their forefathers and mothers.

But now imagine that the same questions and problems arise for the ancient Hebrews regarding the story of the Garden as do for us. They too find it to be a mixture of helpful—“So that’s how a faithful God could end up with such an oppressed people”—and confusing.

Then God’s work through Moses begins. Imagine that Moses learns from God that the reason the story of the Garden is confusing is that it is Act 2 from a four-act play. The people know Acts 2 (the Garden) and 3 (the Patriarchs), and are living Act 4 (the Exodus). But Act 2 remains confusing because Act 1 was either never known or forgotten.

So, imagine that God tells Moses what happened in Act 1, and Moses puts it into a literary form his fellow Israelites would readily appreciate. He then adds Acts 2 and 3, making editorial and stylistic changes as necessary to create a coherent narrative.

Then, imagine that people eventually forget the primary reason Act 1 was included in Genesis. They stop reading Genesis 2 as continuing the narrative of Genesis 1, and start reading it as a repeat of chapter 1’s Day 6. This is natural, of course. Humans are created on Day 6 in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 tells us once again about the creation of humans.

The progression of a story, however, does not have to match the temporal progression of events in order to be continually building and moving forward. Think of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, J. J. Abram’s Lost, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. A narrative can follow its own path of development without simply playing back a chronological recording of what happened.

People, however, eventually began reading the text of Genesis as a series of episodes (like a sitcom or a children’s Sunday School storybook) because of Genesis 2’s jump back to Day 6. They began reading Genesis 2 as simply repeating Day 6 with more detail, rather than as extending the narrative begun by Genesis 1 along the trajectory established by Genesis 1. The story Genesis was trying to tell fragmented in their experience, and the confusions about Act 2 returned.

The Same Old Story

If that meta-story is right, our problem is not that our foremothers and -fathers failed to give us a coherent account of the Fall. The coherent account of the Fall was given to us through the introduction of Genesis 1 into the text. Our problem is just that what has been in the text all along is easy to miss.

“So you, at long last, have come to put everything right?” you ask. “How blessed we are to be alive at this moment of rediscovery!”

I know. This is how it always goes. Every new theory is presented as being a recovery of an ancient wisdom that was lost long ago. Proponents of The New always claim that it is older than The Old.

But as Christians, are we not committed to believing that such recoveries sometimes do take place? Think of the way Jesus opened the scriptures to his disciples (Luke 24:26–27, 32, 44–49). Think of the way the Reformers reasserted the Augustinian primacy of grace. Think of the Anabaptists’ return to Matthew 5–7 and the Charismatics’ return to Acts 2. And are outsiders right to see doctrines like the Immaculate Conception as innovations? Surely our Catholic sisters and brothers would disagree.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether you buy my claim to be recovering the original reading of Genesis 1–3. What really matters is whether I can convince you that mine is the right reading. Next time, therefore, I will give you my argument that the story of the Garden and Fall in Genesis 2–3 makes perfect sense when read as developing and extending the narrative of Genesis 1. I will then leave it up to you to decide whether I’m onto something, or am just as confused as Barr and Dragga.


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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

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  • Benjamin Winter

    I too appreciate your working-through of the text in this post; it’s the only way to come to terms with the complexities that revolve around human origin in sacred writings. Hence, I agree with your comment below (Micah), about what can be read into the text.
    My main questions are about the purpose/end of your reading. I think this will become more clear in the next post. It is my opinion, though, that there is no real way for human minds to solve the problem of evil (i.e. the problem of the fall). While it’s healthy to see various explanations in interplay throughout the Christian tradition, this is one of those doctrines where only a Church Body can receive my unhesitating assent, regardless of how convincing your or anyone else’s analyses may be. =)

  • I read Rethinking Genesis. I found it in a used bookstore, and I thought it was so obscure almost no one else had ever read it. If you cite it, I for one will strongly back up the scholarship and diligent research of the author. I am looking forward to your conclusion as well.

    • micahtillman

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s read it! I was so impressed by Garrett’s approach to Genesis that I also bought his commentary on “Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs” as well, for some reason. (I think I was just thoroughly confused by Song of Solomon, and thought maybe Garrett could help. He did, fortunately.)

  • Lila Toney Fair

    I’m hooked– waiting for the follow-up article with great anticipation!

    • micahtillman

      Thanks Lila! I wanted to write just one post, but it got too long. We philosophers have a tendency to go on and on . . . . 😉

  • mmchanb

    Good morning, Micah. I enjoyed the playful dialogue style of your article.

    God did not threaten to kill humans in Genesis 2, nor did He apparently kill Adam or Eve. But that might be your exact point? I look forward to your follow-up article.

    • micahtillman

      Thank you! And I think you’re right. It’s . . . interesting (?) . . . how much one can read into a text. You think “x” implied by what the text says, and then someone points out that the text could be implying something completely different (“y”) instead. (Of course, the same problems happen in conversation, not just texts, so it’s good that we have other people around to help us catch our mistakes.)