December 15, 2019

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey: Chapter 2 – Scripture on the Fall

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey
Chapter 2 – Scripture on the Fall

We will continue our review of God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey.  Today is Chapter 2 – Scripture on the Fall.  In Chapter 2 – Scripture on the Fall, Jon discusses those passages of scripture typically used to justify the idea of a fallen creation.  He begins with Genesis 2:15-17:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 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.”

Jon notes, after John Walton and others, that “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is a merism indicating “discerning and discriminating wisdom”, which is consistent with Eve’s observation that the fruit was “desirable for gaining wisdom”.  Since elsewhere in scripture wisdom is both desirable and offered as a gift of God (Proverbs 1-9), Jon supposes that God always intended for Adam to gain wisdom by a learning process and communion with him.

The Fall of Adam- the Cistine Chapel

 Jon specifically notes that the warning was given to Adam alone, and the penalty for disobedience – death was also given to Adam alone.  Even though Eve is the one deceived into eating, it is Adam whose punishment is linked to it and who alone is named as the one excluded from the garden, and from eternal life, and who is later said to be the one through whom sin and death entered the world.  So Adam obviously has some archetypal role for humankind, but no such representative role is indicated by scripture towards any other part of creation. 

The fact that “he must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” implies that humankind has no innate immortality, but only that granted by God.  When I first heard this through John Walton and The Lost World of Genesis One, it came as a shock to me, but he is clearly correct; eternal life is a gift of God gained through communion with Him, not something Adam and Eve had naturally before their disobedience.  Jon says:

This leads us to consider the case of the animals, which according to the “traditional view”, did not die before the fall.  If this were the case, then either Adam would have been alone in needing to eat from the tree of life to avoid death (a strange situation for the one made in God’s image and likeness), or all the animals in the world also must have had access to the tree of life.  This makes no sense whatsoever in material terms, if we are to imagine snow leopards, kiwis, jellyfish, and even earthworms migrating to Mesopotamia, on a regular basis, for their dose of life.  Remember, that there was just one tree of life, in one garden small enough to be cultivated by a single human couple, in one small corner of the Near East.  And for the animals to have incurred death after the fall, Adam’s exile would have had to apply to them too – something on which the text is as silent as it is about their implication in Adam’s sin.

There are no grounds whatsoever, then in Genesis 2-3, for suggesting that any other creature other than Adam and Eve ever had exemption from natural death, nor was threatened with death together with Adam, nor incurred the penalty along with him. Mortality was their natural state, as we shall see below. The New Testament goes along with this in speaking only of the resurrection of human beings to new life in the age to come. We therefore simply have no warrant from the Bible for suggesting that animal death came through the sin that condemned Adam to death.

Some try to say the curse on the snake – crawl on your belly, eat dust, lose your legs (which the passage never says the snake had legs) – is a “template” for widespread change in the entire animal kingdom.  Jon says that is “sheer fantasy”, at the least, it is a bad case of eisegesis.

Fossil Thorn from the Devonian, 359-419 million years ago

Next up for more eisegesis is Genesis 3:17-19:

17. To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  18. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  19. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

But all it actually says is that, for Adam, the productiveness of the ground will be cursed, and that by the greater vigor of the living order in the form of thorns, not that prior to the curse thorns didn’t exist.  Also, the curse on the ground is said to be lifted, in Genesis 8:20-22, as part of the covenant with Noah:

20. Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

22. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”

The third passage used to say natural evil is the result of the fall is the creation ordinance of Genesis 1:29-30 in which humanity and animals are allocated vegetable food.

29. Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Jon points out that even if we took this as precluding non-vegetarian animals at the creation, it would have nothing to say about the absence of animal death.  Herbivores die from many causes other than being eaten by predators.  Also, even if taken literally, the passage simply prescribes green vegetables for all flesh, it does not proscribe meat at all – once again, eisegesis much? 

What about the post-flood permission to eat “everything that lives and moves”.  Jon says:

Whatever the implications of the post-flood permission in Genesis 9, and indeed of the verse about vegetation in Genesis 1, we should note that it adds nothing to the case for an animal kingdom taking to bloody pursuits, because the later concession applies only to humankind, not animals.  And even that happens not at the time of the fall but ten generations later.  No description of any transition in the diet of the creatures, whether actual, permissive, or evil, is given in the text at all. 

Finally, what about the argument that the repeated use of the phrase, “God saw that it was good” cannot be truthfully applied to things as they are now.  Therefore, that means that before the fall things were much better, if not perfect, then they are now, and this necessarily means there was no death, no decay, and no suffering.  Jon makes two points to this argument.

The first is that what God has created as good in his eyes may have no bearing whatsoever on what is good in our eyes. 

The second is that the Hebrew word translated as “good” (tob) has a wide semantic range that may or may not carry moral connotations.  As John Walton has pointed out in his Genesis books, “good” can mean “usefulness of function”, so that “God saw that it was good” can mean “God saw that all was functioning as he intended it should”.  If “good” has this functional sense, rather than ethical significance, then there is nothing the makes it necessary for creation to have been profoundly reworked to account for appearances today.  We cannot look around, fail to see perfection, and conclude that “goodness” has gone out of it.  As Jon says, “it is fairly self-evident that any such conclusion must be fatally subjective.”

In the comments on the last post on, Is there Purpose in Biology, frequent commentator, Burro (Mule), quoted a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, a book about a man’s journey to a planet where the inhabitants never experienced a “fall”:

‘All the same,’ said Ransom, unconsciously nettled on behalf of his own
world, ‘Maleldil has let in the hnakra.’

‘Oh, but that is so different. I long to kill this hnakra as he also longs to kill me. I hope that my ship will be the first and I first in my ship with my
straight spear when the black jaws snap. And if he kills me, my people will mourn and my brothers will desire still more to kill him. But they will not wish that there were no hneraki; nor do I. How can I make you understand, when you do not understand the poets? The hnakra is our enemy, but he is
also our beloved. We feel in our hearts his joy as he looks down from the mountain of water in the north where he was born; we leap with him when he jumps the falls; and when winter comes, and the lake smokes higher than our heads, it is with his eyes that we see it and know that his roaming time is come. We hang images of him in our houses, and the sign of all the hrossa is a hnakra. In him the spirit of the valley lives; and our young play
at being hneraki as soon as they can splash in the shallows.’

Interestingly, Jon refers to Lewis’ book and says:

“C.S. Lewis was quite justified biblically in having his fictional hrossa hunt and kill the fierce hnakra in the unfallen world of Malacandra…”  “No, only God can decide what constitutes the goodness of his world.  And since he has not told us in Scripture that he has altered his ideas and changed things (either deliberately or by force of changed circumstances), then once again we simply have no justification for inventing a new universe out of thin air, or out of over-interpreted Bible verses, which amounts to the same thing.”

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    Some try to say the curse on the snake – crawl on your belly, eat dust, lose your legs (which the passage never says the snake had legs) – is a “template” for widespread change in the entire animal kingdom. Jon says that is “sheer fantasy”, at the least, it is a bad case of eisegesis.

    True. But the fact that there is a deceptive snake in the Garden before the disobedience of Adam and Eve clearly indicates that in the imagination of the story moral evil in the Garden, and presumably in the rest of creation, preexists any disobedience on the part of humanity. Unless, of course, one wants to argue that deception, lying, in some way is not a moral evil in the story, or not a moral evil for the snake — I would be interested in hearing that argument, though I tend to believe it would have no more legs than the snake.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Robert, you should review Chaplain Mike’s piece on “surd evil” (https://internetmonk.com/archive/another-look-surd-evil-serpents-and-the-cosmic-battle-2). Added bonus: in the comments is the origin story of the name “Headless Unicorn Guy” 🙂

    • Or that the snake is symbolic of a prior spiritual evil, like the NT interprets it as in Revelation.

      • To boil down the post MikeG referenced in one sentence…

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        John Walton argues for something both more complex – and eminently practical; a Chaos [somewhat] distinct from Evil.

    • Richard Beck found that the elimination of the Devil,”that ancient and arrogant spirit” according to a prayer I repeat every evening, gelded progressive Christianity and left it insipid and flavorless. That the oh-so-clever modern world should leave off believing in the Devil is no surprise; we live in an age that abhors fecundity and wants to geld everything, yet somehow ten years ago, Beck found that there is something in evil that does not reduce in our analyses. So, we are forced to reimagine him. Beck does a great job, by the way, and is far more courageous in his imagination than the collection of progressive fundamentalists that comment on his blog.

      For some reason, God saw a cosmos with a Devil preferable to one without, and somehow there is bound up in the idea of the Devil the concept of Freedom. Barfield’s discussion on the progressive Liberation of the Logos comes into play here; the austrolopithecine mother cooing to her infant on the darking savannah already contained in her DNA, that ballet of nitrates demanding and surrendering electrons, all of our vaunted human wisdom; Gilgamesh, Jeremiah, Plato, Lucretius, Newton, Faraday, and Hawking. But it wasn’t free.

      Of all the people on this board, I have less sympathy for the classical liberal concept of Freedom than most. When I saw a piece of artwork by an acolyte of Richard Rohr that illustrating an article here about three weeks ago, I knew immediately that my sympathies lay with the figures on the top half of the drawing more than they did with those on the bottom. Instinctively I felt the figures on the bottom couldn’t be trusted with that freedom, and that they would use that freedom to do ridiculous, objectionable, and banal things. Worse than that, I would be expected to rejoice in them and be thought defective if I couldn’t.

      It is beginning to dawn on me, just beginning because the idea beats against the tide of a lifetime of egotism and elitism, that maybe what God wants us to do with the freedom we find in Christ is not to voluntarily and joyfully recreate ex corde the top half of the illustration, but to take some risks and fail, sometimes spectacularly, in the service of an end whose glory we cannot yet even imagine.

      • Robert F says

        Yes, indeed. God preferred a creation with a devil to one without a devil, and the devil was in creation before human beings or biological life itself appeared on the scene. Progressive as I may say I am, I have never for long stopped believing that the words devil and demon appropriately and accurately personalize the conscious reality of evil’s power and horror. On this we agree.

        • It’s clear that evil existed before the Fall, before Adam and Eve sinned. Witness the snake.

          Is evil necessary to sin? Probably. But they appear to be distinct.

          Is sin necessary, or at least useful, to grace? Martin Luther may have stumbled onto that (Sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be more bold).

          Would grace, and the Cross, have any meaning if not for sin? (Romans 5)

          So, was sin part of the plan? Was evil? We are firm in the doctrine that “God is not the author of evil,” (or of sin), but how can we describe the Cross without them?

          I go ’round and ’round with this, like I do with the Trinity, and with relativity.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            “For if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomable at the foundations of the Earth.”
            ? J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

            It’s on my desk; just because it feels so darn true. I’ve given up trying to calculate out a world that works any other way.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Maybe straying off-topic, but that the “traditional view” [aka: “pop culture view”] of Genesis is receiving such a wide-spread critique is something I find very encouraging.

  3. Burro (Mule) says

    Can’t get this posted here the way I want to, so I posted my response over at my blog.

    Forgive the self-promotion.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      Ooops.

      Sorry.

      • Mule (or Burro),

        There’s something I need to get off my chest. Not sure if you’re aware, but… a mule can’t also be a burro. I mean, a burro is the daddy of the mule. So what’s with the parentheses?

        Not sure how that goes in the Latin. And what was the problem with your handle “Mule chewing briars?” I seem to remember that it got blocked by the filters or something.

        Sorry to ruin your evening. By the way, I’ve bookmarked your article. Looks good.

  4. I suspect the account in Genesis simply wasn’t as freighted for the ancient Jews as it became for early Christians filtering it through an apocalyptic viewpoint. It took hundreds of years and a revolution in thought for Snake to become Satan.

  5. Christiane says

    the great cycles of life, the ‘natural world’, not so ‘simple’ when examined closely

    in our modern world, how would WE have written ‘Genesis’ ???? what themes would still show up told in a way that could be understood today ?

    the closest I can come to finding any kind of ‘modern’ appreciation for the natural cycles of life showed up in this form:

    https://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/170424155211-capsula-mundi-poland-exlarge-169.jpg

    so ‘nutrients’ are passed on . . . a strange arrangement where the dead human person decomposes and nourishes the living green plant . . .

    I think God might like this, why? I’m not sure, but it seems somehow a way to be ‘grateful’ for the way He designed life-giving and sustaining energy to be stored and to flow from one form to another in the economy of life

    anyway, it’s either this for me or a wooden casket and no embalming nonsense . . . . a green burial, yes
    https://vimeo.com/65019294

  6. Dana Ames says

    “Jon supposes that God always intended for Adam to gain wisdom by a learning process and communion with him.”

    “Adam obviously has some archetypal role for humankind.”

    “…humankind has no innate immortality, but only that granted by God…eternal life is a gift of God gained through communion with Him, not something Adam and Eve had naturally before their disobedience.”

    “We cannot look around, fail to see perfection, and conclude that “goodness” has gone out of it.”

    All points quoted are features of EOrthodox theology. Forgive me, I can’t help myself. It’s interesting that so much of what gets posted about origins that seems to be a new theological discovery makes me smile, because, well, Orthodoxy was there first… [As to what was going on before humans came on the scene – God was working, in ways that haven’t been revealed to us yet. The allowance for the devil falls under that category as well. What we do know is that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world.]

    And, Christiane, “green burial” is the preferred way in EO. Doesn’t happen all the time, for various reasons, but that’s how the Church invites us to show the respect our bodies and the earth deserve.

    Dana

    • Christiane says

      Hello Dana,
      I’m not surprised by that. I find it comforting.

    • I love it when you pop up with this stuff Dana. I’m still thinking, still praying. I’ve made it into the Anglican Church now.

      • Dana Ames says

        Higher up the “liturgical candle” is a good move 🙂 There’s a lot of beauty in Anglican worship, lots to hold on to when there is turmoil in other areas. The BCP and the Northumbria Community prayer book greatly nourished me for most of my years “in the wilderness”. Good to hear from you, Beaker.

        Dana

  7. Robert F says

    tiny baby birds
    given by a tornado
    received by vultures

  8. I need to carve out the time to go through these posts properly, but I just wanted to say that I used to think about stuff like this ALL the time as a younger Christian & could never find anything evangelical that touched on it. So it just rattled around with loads of other unresolved issues, that do affect how you think about the world & life, & how you behave.
    Thank you so much for being a place which looks at these subjects.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I just wanted to say that I used to think about stuff like this ALL the time as a younger Christian & could never find anything evangelical that touched on it.

      Like Gnostics of old, evangelicals had become so Spiritual(TM) they’d ceased to be human.

      “God lives in the real world.”
      — Rich Buhler