J. Richard Middleton gave an intriguing paper on Genesis 2-3 at an SBL seminar on the theological interpretation of Scripture. He was trying to answer the question of the nature of the first sin, and concluded that the first sin, which led to a proliferation of sin in succeeding generations, was the violation of the limit that God set. Violation of the boundaries that God sets, the failure to respect the radical otherness of the "Primal Other" unleashed boundary-busting sin that violated the limits and otherness of human others.
Along the way, Middleton made some good observations on the text.
He suggested that the plot of Genesis 2-3 is a matter of Yahweh meeting two lacks in the original creation (much as he meets the "lacks" enumerated in 1:2 during the creation week). The two lacks are a lack of water and man for the ground, and a lack of a companion for the man. Each of these lacks is filled in a two-stage process: Water flows from the earth, and then Adam is created; Adam views and names the animals, and then Yahweh creates woman. The fulfillment of the lack is marked by a pun: adam/adamah and ish/ishshah. After Adam and Eve sin, there is dissonance at precisely these points: Adam is estranged from the ground that will produce thorns and thistles; Adam and Eve turn on one another instead of being harmoniously helpful.
Another pun, on "nude" and "shrewd" (as Everett Fox translates), points to another dimension of the effect of sin. Though the Hebrew words are similar, Middleton suggested that in meaning the two words are virtually antonyms. Adam and Eve are initially naked and open, but when they have sinned they need coverings and protections, and become not naked and transparent but "shrewd," like the sly serpent.
During questioning, Middleton made a couple of other interesting points. He argued that the tree of knowledge would eventually have been offered to man, citing passages in Samuel and Kings where humans receive the knowledge of good and evil. The reason they didn't receive access to the tree immediately was that they weren't prepared; they needed to grow up.
He also suggested, intriguingly, that "original sin" in the sense of the systematic dominance of sin, doesn't come directly from Adam but develops through the events of Genesis 4-6. Cain still has the capacity to resist and triumph over sin. But by the time of the sons of God, sin has become so endemic that Yahweh destroys the earth and starts over. Systematic sin develops in time, not all at once in the garden.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 08:44 PM
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