What Really Happened in the Garden?: Enns Review Redux, Part 1

When I wrote my review of Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins a couple of weeks ago, I was discouraged by how much I had to excise to keep it accessible. So I hope to keep talking in the coming weeks about points or sections of the book that I liked but didn’t seem to fit with where the review ultimately went.

One of those is Enns’ treatment on pages 82-92 of what Genesis 2-3 – the “fall of man” – might have actually been saying to its readers. Because here are two phrases you don’t find in that passage: “original sin” or “fall.”

In fact, the first use of the word “fall” to describe what happened in the Garden of Eden doesn’t come until about 500 years after the birth of Christ – as many as 1,000 years after Genesis is compiled in its final form. Augustine of Hippo (the St. Augustine) uses the phrase, and it’s probably not coincidental that he was writing during the fall of the Roman Empire. Our experiences shape our reading of any text, including scripture. The events of Augustine’s day, with an assist from Paul in the New Testament, shaped how he read Genesis 2-3, and therefore shaped how we read it, too.

As Enns argues,

[W]hat is missing from the Old Testament is any indication that Adam’s disobedience is the cause of universal sin, death and condemnation, as Paul seems to argue. In fact, even though death is mentioned as a consequence in Genesis 2:17 and 3:19, the Old Testament nowhere returns to this scene, though there is ample opportunity. If Adam’s disobedience lies at the root of universal sin and death, why does the Old Testament never once refer to Adam in this way?

All italics are the author’s; all bolding is mine.

Enns uses this to begin talking about Paul’s creative interpretation of the Eden story, arguing Paul extrapolates a theology  the Old Testament itself does not support. I touched on that somewhat in the review, so I want instead to look at the question this paragraph raises: If Genesis 2-3 don’t actually support a reading centered on the fall of humanity and the doctrine of original sin – if they aren’t even historically true – what are those chapters saying?

I have an interest in this topic because I wrote a paper on it last semester. Before I get into that, we’ll let Enns have the floor.

Earlier in the book, he argues Adam, Eve and Eden function not as a story of the origins of humanity but as a story of the origins of Israel, and that the parallels between Adam’s disobedience and exile from the garden with Israel’s disobedience and exile from Palestine are not exactly subtle. Enns calls Adam a “proto-Israelite,” written (or edited/redacted) by a postexilic author somewhere around 500 B.C.E., when the Israelites were returning to Jerusalem and forging their identity as Jews.

Now he adds another possible interpretation:

This view was advanced by second-century apologists such as Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, and it continues to be advocated by the Orthodox Church. According to this view, the garden story is not about a descent from a pristine, untainted original state of humanity … . Rather, it tells the story of naivete and immaturity on the part of Adam and Eve and the loss of childlike innocence in an illicit move to grasp at a good thing, wisdom, represented by the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve are like children placed in paradise, where they are to learn to serve God and grow in wisdom and maturity, to move toward spiritual perfection.

“The issue at stake in the garden narrative,” Enns later writes, “is how humans are to obtain such knowledge: in God’s way or some other way.”  And still later: “The problem is the illicit way in which Eve tries to obtain wisdom – quickly, prematurely, impatiently.”

Quoting Proverbs 3:18, in which wisdom is described as “a tree of life to those who embrace her” (CEB), Enns draws the obvious connection with the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had a choice of trees, representing the acquisition of wisdom God’s way or their own way. “Life can only be gained through wisdom , and wisdom is rooted in the fear of God – which in the garden story means obeying God’s command,” Enns writes.

Seeing the story of Adam and Eve as a wisdom story nicely complements reading it as a story of Israel’s exile: both are Israel-centered rather than universal. Reading the Adam story as the story of Israel’s disobedience and eventual exile from the land parallels Israel’s narrative tradition in the Old Testament. Reading it as a wisdom story parallels Israel’s wisdom tradition. And both readings make the same point from two different angles: failure of God’s people to follow God’s path has disastrous consequences.

We could say much more on this topic – and we will!

Looking at this story as one of a metaphor for the loss of childlike innocence is not unique to Enns; some, in fact, view it as a positive development, a story of the maturation from childhood to adulthood, with which I frankly have a hard time getting on board. Nevertheless, tomorrow I’ll look at some of my research into the ways biblical scholars have interpreted the Eden story in recent years, especially in light of the striking similarities it bears to a similar story of creation and loss of innocence found in the ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.


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