Hostile Partings - the Fall of Man
What made humanity fall? What severed our relationship with God, with each other, and everything, and eventually led us into destruction? Genesis has a surprising answer; it was eating from the Tree of knowledge of good and evil. But, why would something so seemingly trivial have such dire consequences? (Genesis 3)
1:13 Humanity and the Tree of the knowledge
8:11 The Serpent's fatal accusation
14:07 Distrust of God and hiding from God
19:59 Ruined relationships
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Someone once asked me this question in a seminar that I taught: Why did God plant the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden, only to tell us to not eat from that tree? Why would God plant such a tree if eating from it brings death?
And I think the answer is: because that tree needs to be in Eden; it has to be one of the trees that grow in the birthplace of humanity. Because that tree and its fruit represent one possible way we could choose to live our lives, one path that will lead humanity away from God, and out of Eden. And that path has to be available.
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Welcome to "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our sixth episode of the second season, "Hostile Partings – The Fall of Man.”
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In our modern era, the Genesis account of how the first humans lived among the trees in the Garden of Eden, connects to a number of different ideas. Evolutionists are reminded of how, biologically, the human species evolved from creatures that likely lived in the trees and fed on their fruits; trees were the home of humanity’s evolutionary ancestors. Anthropologists have speculated that the life in Eden may be describing how humanity lived before the agricultural revolution; the Garden of Eden is humanity’s idealized memory of living as foragers, eating what they find already there in nature, rather than making a living through hard labor that goes into raising crops. Mythologists have made comparisons between Eden’s Tree of Life and Tree of knowledge to the World-Trees and the Life-Trees that appear in many, many folklores and myths across the world. And these different connections do present further insights into the possible biological and cultural roots of the Genesis account of Eden and its trees. But, I think such insights either lead to, or can be understood as part of the larger idea of what these Trees represent.
In one sense, the trees in Eden are literal fruit trees, but they are also something more. It seems to me that in Genesis, whereas “seeds” represent Life, and “trees” represent something like the vast stretch of possibilities that Life holds, and what Life can bear when it is nurtured and tended to. And God lays the responsibility of doing so to Adam. Humanity is to be the caretakers of the Garden of Eden, rather than just mere foragers; they are to discern and nurture the myriad of possibilities that Life holds so that it can bear fruit.
At our best, that is what we do; that is what humanity does by filling the earth and ruling it as the representatives of God. By exploring the whole world with those we genuinely love and trust, and understanding it with our ever-expanding language, we become capable of discovering the hidden wonders and possibilities in all that God created, and bringing forth their full potential. And we can wield this capability to bless and nurture Life and the world around us—not just human lives, but that of other living things. However, that is not what we have done; far too often, we have done the opposite, exploiting and harming everything around us. At some point, we turned; we ceased being the representatives of God, and became something else. And our whole world is now incomplete, because we are no longer what we could have been. Centuries after Genesis was written, the apostle Paul would write this in his letter to Romans. “All creation is waiting for the children of God to be revealed; for creation has been left wanting… with hope that it will join the children of God in their glorious freedom from bondage and decay. And the whole creation has been groaning since then as if in pains of childbirth.”
Why did it turn out this way? According to Christianity, the turning point was the “Fall of Man,” which severed humanity’s relationship with God, and led us into a path of destruction, greed, and evil. And again, it is a “Tree,” that is at the root of it. Genesis recounts that there was one particular tree that humanity was forbidden to eat from—the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God spoke to Adam, saying, “If you eat of that tree, you will surely die,” and the original Hebrew wording is that which is used in pronouncing a death sentence. Yet, Adam and his wife eats from that tree; and if you read ahead to what happens afterward, you’ll find that they are not killed exactly—it’s not like they are sent to the gallows or something. What God pronounces upon them is largely a radical change in how they will live; and God sounds less like a judge and more like a, well, a doctor grimly informing the patient that they now have a terminal disease. And this change is the Fall of Man.
Yet, the most striking point here is that this turning point, this catastrophic Fall was due to eating from a tree. Why? Why would eating from this Tree of the knowledge of good and evil have such dire consequences? And if “trees” in Genesis represent something like the myriad of possibilities that Life can bring forth, what possibility did this particular Tree represent… that it would prove so fatal to us?
One popularized reading is that eating from this tree represents humanity gaining knowledge or wisdom; so, Genesis is equating knowledge with falling away from God. I find this to be the least convincing view by far. First, even before eating that fruit, Adam was already able to classify different living things by name, tend and nurture the trees of the Garden, and even compose an impromptu romantic poetry. More damning point, as we’ll see, is that a serpent persuades humanity to eat the fruit, by claiming that it will give them knowledge, but after eating the fruit, the woman says that the serpent deceived her—that it was lying.
A more nuanced view is that eating from this Tree represents humanity gaining the knowledge specifically of morality; in this view, humanity was innocent because they could not tell what was right or wrong, like how children could be innocent and cruel. But, though it’s not obviously wrong, this reading does not seem to quite fit with everything. There is nothing about the way Genesis describes the first human couple in Eden that suggests that they were immoral, or even amoral. There’s no indication that they did bad things without knowing it was bad. If anything, it seems they had some rudimentary moral sense; the serpent persuades them to eat from that Tree partly by insinuating that God is deceiving them out of greed or envy.
So, what did it mean then to eat from this Tree? I believe a more substantial answer is found in the particular details of why they ate the fruit, and what exactly happened to them as a consequence… both of which will be about how they relate to God and what God represents for them.
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Christianity has traditionally understood the Fall of man as resulting from an act of disobedience. God spoke to Adam that they must not eat from the Tree, and they disobeyed that command. And this is quite true; it is by and large, what happened. But, it leaves too much out. It’s not like they simply disobeyed God one day just for kicks. Genesis paints a very specific story of what happened—what exactly they did, why they did it, and what happened when they did it. But, this understanding does raise a very important point; it wasn’t just the fruit, but the act itself that brought about the Fall—the two are linked. And that’s why that larger story about the motivation and consequence of that action is even more important.
So, let’s go over that story.
When the first man and woman are at the center of Eden, the serpent speaks to the woman. Now, snakes evoke a dual response from humanity. On the one hand, primate species, including humans, possess an innate fear of snakes—we react more negatively to snakes than we do to, say, lions or bears. This may be due to our evolutionary history, where snakes were a real threat even when we were safe from other predators, up in the trees or in our shelters. Yet, on the other hand, in many cultures, including that of ancient Middle Eastern civilizations, snakes were believed to possess spiritual power, and were symbols of wisdom and perpetual life. And something speaks to humanity through the serpent—something that resonates with everything that the serpent represents. Later Jewish and Christian traditions would identify this something as the “adversary.” The devil.
The term, the “adversary” denotes the role of an accuser, and that is what the serpent does. It first asks, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree?” And the woman replies, “We can eat from the trees in the Garden, but God did say that we must not eat from the tree at the center, or touch it, or we will die.” It is then that the serpent levels a fatal accusation. God is lying. “You will not certainly die,” it says. “For God knows that when you eat from this tree, your eyes will open and you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”
Yet, if you’ve read through the Genesis creation narrative, you should notice that something is off. God created humanity in the likeness of God; so, why would God try to prevent them from being like God? They’re already like God. The serpent is saying that you cannot trust God—not just about the Tree, but about everything. And it works; the woman look again at the Tree—the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil—and its fruit looks attractive, great to eat, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So, she takes and eats it, and then gives some to the man, who was right beside her as all this was going on, and he eats it too.
The act of eating something has spiritual significance in the Jewish and Christian Bible—and for other cultures too. “You are what you eat,” goes the health slogan. In a religious sense, “eating” often signifies taking in something to be an intrinsic part of you. This is key, for example, to the Christian rite of the Eucharist, where you eat the bread and drink the wine that signify the body and blood of Christ; and this isn’t meant to be cannibalism—it is a symbolic act of taking in the life of Christ, of how he lived, died, and brought about our salvation in his resurrection, deep into your own life. So, when the first human couple ate from the forbidden Tree, it was an act of taking in something to be an intrinsic part of them. But, what led them to eat was their distrust toward God. They did not merely consider the serpent’s accusation that God was deceiving them, but they acted as if God really was their enemy, and by eating that fruit, they made this distrust and hostility an intrinsic core of their life. (This is why there is a long tradition in Christianity that understands the Eucharist as the antidote to the fruit from the forbidden Tree. Eating from that Tree severs us from God, and eating from the life of Christ, reconciles us to God. )
There is a very particular kind of knowledge that you gain from learning to distrust others. It is knowledge of what might be the case, even if it turns out it actually isn’t the case. Your spouse might have been cheating on you, even if they actually haven’t, and do truly love you. It is knowledge of what might happen, even if it actually does not happen. Your friend might betray you someday, even if they actually don’t. This knowledge is poisonous and unreal—it is not about what really is true, but only about what might be true, or may become true, and especially what you are afraid of being true. But, it is a kind of knowledge nonetheless.
And so, Genesis recounts what happens when humanity eats this fruit; when they take in for themselves this possible way of living, their eyes open and they realize that they are naked—because knowledge from our distrust opens our eyes to see in what ways we are vulnerable. So, Adam and his wife hurriedly sew fig-leaves together as covering for themselves. But, that isn’t enough when they hear God in the garden, so they hide from God. And then, God speaks to humanity, “Where are you?” Adam is forced to confront what has happened, and he replies, “I heard you, and I was afraid because I am naked. So, I hid.”
[ pendulum ]
There is a fundamental problem with distrusting God: God is Reality. Or, to put it differently, Reality is like a speech, and God is that which “speaks” Reality in every aspect; that is in one sense what God is doing in Genesis by creating all things by speaking them into being. So, what does it mean to distrust that? In season one of this podcast, we considered what it means for God to speak to us, by observing that there is something within us—a voice, a figure, or a better version of us—that connects us to what is real, beckons us toward what is good, that inspires us to love what’s around us. It is a voice that speaks to us to engage reality in good faith —truthfully, fearlessly, and lovingly. So, what would it mean to distrust this voice, and distrust it at the deepest level? How would our lives look like with that distrust? And the answer is we stop listening to that voice. We hide. But, why?
There is a crucial difference between having questions or doubts about something and distrusting someone. Questions lead us to look closer—to engage and explore. However, distrusting someone means everything they say or do when you engage them is suspect; their actions and words may be deceptions or even worse, hidden maneuvers to harm you. If so, what would it mean for us to distrust God? It would mean we are in a terrifying predicament because all of Reality is God speaking. So, we may be deceived about everything; we may be harmed by everything.
However, the world can harm us; we would be utterly naïve to believe otherwise. The world is beautiful and wondrous, but it is also hard, and rife with danger. Nor does the world prevent us from making mistakes; we may not be deceived about everything, but we can very well be mistaken about everything. So, the forbidden Tree seems to have granted humanity knowledge we really needed! And this is in a sense true, according to Irenaeus, one of the church fathers living in 2nd century; and he was a key figure in bringing together the New Testament—the Christian portion of the Bible from the letters and the Gospels that had been passed down. Now, he taught that the knowledge that humanity gained in their Fall was something we would’ve learned eventually. The problem was that we gained this knowledge in a wrong way, before we were ready to learn it. So now, we need to relearn it.
This knowledge, I’d say, is that we are vulnerable, and that there are good things and bad things that can happen to us. There may be times when we are perplexed, confused, hard pressed, and hurt. But, this truth was learned through distrust of God, rather than within a bond of trust. Why is this a problem? Here’s one way to think about it. When I was a child, I had a puzzle game that had differently cut pieces, which could be put together form different shapes. The game had a long list of different shapes that the pieces can be put together into, ordered by level of difficulty. I quickly put together the easier shapes, but, began having trouble with few of the advanced ones. Then suddenly a thought struck me. How do I know the game-makers are telling the truth that these pieces really can be put together to form all of these shapes? What if they lied, or were mistaken? Then, something curious happened. I began to give up more quickly before solving a puzzle—even the lower level ones—and eventually, I stopped playing the game altogether. With trust, we continue to engage; with distrust, we stop engaging.
Reality that God speaks holds infinite possibilities, and it is terrifying to peer into that sea of possibilities and hear what God may be speaking. Because there may be things we find good, but also things we’d find bad for ourselves. Yet, there are two ways of living in response to this. First is to listen to God that speaks to us—to engage reality in good faith, together with those we love and trust, to learn and grow, and overcome Life’s hardship, until our lives bear fruit that make living worthwhile. Second is to hide, to see hardship not as something to overcome, but as attacks hurled at us by an enemy, by reality that is hostile to us. How we will respond depends on whether we trust God. Our lives are at the mercy of what God may speak; and if we distrust God, we cannot bear to engage reality and put ourselves at God’s mercy.
And so, Adam and his wife sew a covering of leaves for themselves, because they are naked and vulnerable. But, they realize that this simply is not sufficient. So, when they hear God, they hide. Yet, God speaks anyway. “Where are you?” “I heard you and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid.” God speaks again, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the forbidden tree?”
And here is where the consequences of the Fall begin to affect not only how we relate to God, but how we relate to each other and everything else. Adam’s answer is shockingly petty and cowardly. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit of the tree,” he says, “And I ate it.” Not only does Adam throw his wife under the bus, he also subtly implicates God for what he has done; it was the woman that God created that gave him the fruit. Yet, he does not mention that he was with her when she took the fruit, and they ate them together.
And his answer indicates that he now relates to truth—to reality—in a profoundly distorted manner. What he says to God is superficially true, but dishonest at its core. God asks what he has done, and he answers it by first talking about what someone else has done, and then what God has done, before acknowledging what he did. He orders and emphasizes certain truths over others to deflect his culpability unto his wife, and to God. He picks truths that serve his ends; what is good or bad for him trumps what is true; and since every truth is God speaking, how he relates to what God speaks is now distorted for his own ends.
God turns to the woman and speaks, “What have you done?” And her answer in comparison is much more honest. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Of course, this honesty may be because Adam has succeeded in a play for power; he took the initiative in deflecting the blame.
God declares that the serpent is now a cursed symbol for humanity. But, what God speaks, at least according to the Christian tradition, are directed mainly against the adversary itself, the devil. “I will put an enmity between you and the woman, your seed and her seed, and he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”
Much more can be said of this, but for now, we are interested in what is happening to humanity. God speaks to the woman, “I will make your childbirth very painful, and with painful labor you will give birth…. And your husband will rule over you.”
This has often been understood as justifying men’s dominance over women, but I think that’s missing the mark. What God speaks is a consequence of the Fall—a consequence that New Testament writers declared it would be undone. With the Fall, how humanity relates to each other profoundly changed. With our distrust, we perceive God as a potential enemy that threatens our good; and likewise, other humans are potential enemies too.
But, the problem is, our cognitive capabilities require large brains, and that makes child birth difficult, and this leaves woman vulnerable. Now, when humanity loved each other—when Adam declared that the woman is “the bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh,” the most precious part of who he is, this temporary vulnerability would have been just another occasion to support each other. But, now man and woman are potentially enemies, competing for dominance. So now, her vulnerability is a weakness; she is dependent on the man, and he will exploit this dependence for his own good. So, the woman will bring forth new life in painful labor, and the man will rule her in this fallen world; and it seems apostle Paul links this with how all of Creation is placed in a similar situation, likewise awaiting the children of God, as if in pain of childbirth.
God then turns to man and speaks. “Cursed is the ground because of you, and through painful toil you will eat of it. It will produce thorns and thistles for you… and you will eat by the sweat of your brow until return to the ground…. For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
In our previous episode, I described a kind of living so immersed with what we’re engaged with, that we forget our sense of self—a life that finds what we’re doing so meaningful and compelling that the conscious division between ourselves and what we’re engaged with fades. If we’re engaged with all of reality this way, any set-back or the unexpected things are simply part of our journey, part of our enjoyment; we trust that Life will bear fruit.
But, with our distrust of God, this immersion is broken. Just as how my distrust that the puzzle has a solution stopped me from solving it, our distrust has severed our engagement with reality—with God—and we’re stopped in our tracks. No longer does Life bear fruit, because we do not trust it will; every unexpected thing, every set-back are thus now thistles and thorns, threatening us. And with the loss of love for each other, replaced by fear and play for power, we are no longer “the bone of my bones” to other human beings, but simply dust—just another creature borne of earth.
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Eating from the Tree of knowledge in distrust of God, humanity ceased to be the true representatives of God, and was left with a broken image, an earthen shell. And so, God declares that humanity now must become subject to death.
And this will have ramifications reverberating through the generations.
And we will continue to explore what that is throughout this Season; so, please join me next time on “What do you mean God speaks?”
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