The story of the Fall enjoys a peculiar place in Christian thought. Together with the creation account in the two chapters that precede it, it is one of the few Old Testament narratives consistently to escape the relative neglect the Hebrew Scriptures often suffer. While the characters of Abraham, Moses, or David may be accorded an exemplary significance within their respective narratives, the story of the Fall has a more direct and immediate etiological relevance to us. It explains the cause for the plight in which the human race languishes and introduces the first gentle rustlings of redemptive promise.
Unfortunately, as we have detached it from its setting within the Old Testament narrative and re-contextualized it within our more abstract narratives of the human race’s universal predicament, the story of the Fall has often been flattened out. Like a tree cut off at the trunk, its extensive root system within the broader scriptural narrative is abandoned, leaving it much reduced.
Articulating the Fall in the context of our theological systems or evangelistic presentations, we tend to frame it in terms of grand universals—sin, death, mankind, etc.—and miss how much the Genesis account is shaped by its particular details. For instance, Adam and Eve sin in different ways: Adam transgresses, but Eve is deceived. The judgments upon them differ too. Adam sins, not just as a generic human being, but as the appointed priest of the Garden sanctuary. He is the one charged with upholding and teaching the law of the tree and guarding the Garden, and by implication, his wife from attack.
Although the Fall leads to alienation from God, it is a relative not an absolute alienation. It is exile from a very particular location: the place of God’s special earthly presence in the Garden sanctuary. The exile of Cain in Genesis 4, for instance, is a further judgment and alienation. The Fall of Genesis 3 is a decisive and definitive event, but it belongs to a much larger story of the subsequent spread of Sin and its effects in the world and, on the other hand, of the reversal and unworking of the Fall through God’s providential and redemptive action in history.
In the event of the Fall we see the advent of Sin into the world. We are prone to narrate the coming of Sin as a binary matter: once humanity was at peace and in communion with God and then it disobeyed the law concerning the tree, came under the rule of death, and was alienated from God. There is truth in this telling, but it can miss the fact that Genesis 1-11 describes a gradual and progressive intensification of the grip of Sin upon the world, the Fall of Adam only being the decisive and seminal first stage.
The sin of Adam is followed by events such as the fall of Cain, the fall of the ‘sons of God’, and the fall of mankind at Babel. Each of these sins occurs in a particular realm and context and has its own significance and consequence. In each of these sins we see a new stage in the unravelling of humanity begun by Adam’s sin. They continue the story of Adam’s Fall, but as they develop beyond it, they shouldn’t just be subsumed under it.
The sin of Adam and Eve in eating of the tree is followed by the fratricide of Cain, who leaves the presence of the Lord and founds a city in the name of his son. Cain’s line go on to form a culture based upon violence and bloodshed, typified by the vengeful Lamech (Genesis 4:16-24). The first sin of Adam and Eve, like ink dropped onto a piece of paper, spreads out, until we begin to see the institutionalization of evil in Cain and his offspring. By the time of the Flood, the entire fabric of human society, its institutions, members, practices, and ideologies were so compromised and corrupted that the thoughts and intents of men’s hearts are described as being ‘only evil continually.’
The story begins with Adam’s rebellious sin against God his Father, spreads to the sin of brother against brother, and later to sin in the areas of culture formation and marriage. Another progression is seen as we move from the environment of the garden of Eden (Adam’s sin), to the land of Eden (Cain’s sin), to the land east of Eden (Lamech’s sin), to the whole face of the earth (the sins of the ‘sons of God’). Sin spreads throughout all human relationships and environments. The process of maturation suggested in the creation account of human multiplication, geographical filling of the earth, and cultural subduing of it becomes expressed in a story of the spread of sin.
Genesis teaches us that evil goes back to the very roots of human culture and civilization and virulently infects all levels of our existence and thought. Thinkers like René Girard and Jacques Ellul recognize something of the message of such passages when they see in the story of Cain and his offspring the manner in which human civilization and culture is founded upon primal violence, a truth generally veiled by myth, but revealed in the account of Genesis. In this sense Genesis serves as a sort of anti-myth, uncovering the graves that are hidden by the false and lying myths of the pagans.
Paul expresses this progressive development of sin when he speaks of Sin coming to life with the introduction of the Law, for instance. Sin and death are things that spread and develop over time. They are not static realities. The Law smokes sin out and makes it manifest, perhaps most notably through the sacrificial system. However, in reading Paul we risk focusing merely on the Adam and Christ polarity and missing the more subtle and complex narrative of Sin that is hinted at in his arguments.
Adam’s sin was Sin in a form of infancy. Adam, unclothed like a baby in the ‘kindergarten’ of Eden, was given a basic sacramental food commandment, but no larger body of laws was in existence. Man’s moral duty was fairly inchoate at this point. There were no Ten Commandments, just a single law concerning the tree in the sanctuary. As the narrative of Scripture progresses, the concepts and realities of righteousness and sin fill out. The story of the Fall should be recognized as the seed from which later sin develops. This more fully grown sin is a far more developed phenomenon, expressed against far more developed revelation. The sins of the opening chapters of Genesis are the founding sins, the sins that permeate all human existence and are ultimately the seed of rebellion on which our culture and its institutions are built.
In addition to presenting us with a narrative of spreading sin, Scripture also echoes the narrative of Adam’s Fall at crucial junctures in its history. In Genesis 9, for instance, a new creation is established after the flood and God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, blessing them, setting them over the rest of the animal creation, giving them food rights and restrictions in a manner similar to the original creation account in Genesis 1. Like Adam was originally called to, Noah takes up the role of a gardener and the cultivator of fruit, planting a vineyard (Genesis 9:20).
This new ‘garden’, like the Garden of Eden before it, becomes the site of a fall. There are several echoes of the Genesis 3 account in 9:20-27. The fruit is taken and ingested (v.21), there is a revelation of nakedness (vv.22-23), covering up with clothing (v.23), the realization of knowledge (v.24), a curse on the seditious tempter (v.25), and a judgment (in this case positive) on the two other protagonists (v.26-27).
The fall narrative pattern is taken up again in Genesis 16. Once again, a new covenant order has just been established, along with the promise of fruitfulness and multiplication (15:5, 18-21). Seeking to resolve the problem of Sarai’s barrenness, Sarai offered Abram Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, intending her to be a surrogate mother. The story of Genesis 16 is deeply redolent of the Fall narrative. The woman (Sarai) offers her husband something (or in this case someone—Hagar) that is desirable to obtain a good end (getting offspring). The husband ‘heeded the voice of his wife’ (v.2; cf. 3:17). The woman takes and gives to her husband, who partakes. There is then the opening of eyes, as Sarai becomes despised in Hagar’s eyes (v.4), a revelation of shame or nakedness (‘when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes’—v.5), judgment, followed by expulsion or departure from the ‘garden’ (as Hagar flees from her harsh mistress).
Another ‘fall narrative’ can be found in Genesis 25. In 25:26, Jacob comes out of the womb of Rebekah grasping the heel of his brother—like the serpent bruises the heel of the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15—and is named ‘the one who takes the heel’ or ‘supplanter’. Coming in from the field, Esau begs for some of the ‘red, red thing’ that Jacob is cooking. David Daube has suggested that Esau thinks that Jacob is cooking a blood stew, forbidden food according to Genesis 9:4. We are then immediately told that Esau’s name was called “Edom” on this account, a name whose similarity to “Adam” (the same Hebrew consonants as “Edom”) should not pass unnoticed. Jacob, playing the part of the serpent, offers the supposedly forbidden food in exchange for Esau’s birthright. The pivotal character of this narrative is stressed by Calum Carmichael:
Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob is the foundational event in the history of the nation. All later developments about Israel’s rescue from Egypt as God’s firstborn son, and Israel’s religious and sacrificial life as centred on the Levites representing that firstborn son (Num 3:40-51), begin with the episode in Genesis 25.
A further “fall narrative” is found in Exodus 32. The Law has just been given to Moses on Sinai, establishing a new covenant order. However, as Moses descends the mountain he discovers the covenant has already been broken. Just as God inquired of the one given the priestly charge to guard and to keep, Adam, in Genesis 3, Moses—who was as YHWH to Aaron (Exodus 4:16)—asks Aaron, the one with the priestly responsibility, what he has done. Aaron, like Adam, blames the ‘bride’ for tempting him (32:21-24; cf. Genesis 3:9-12). Moses sees that the people are naked (‘unrestrained’ v.25) and that they have rendered themselves shameful before their enemies (cf. Genesis 3:9-11).
Moses then did what God did in Genesis 3. When Adam, the priestly guardian of the sanctuary of Eden, fell, God drove him from the Garden and established sword-wielding guardians to take his place (Genesis 3:24). In Exodus 32, Moses calls those on YHWH’s side to rally to him and they are established as the sword-wielding avenging angels of the covenant. The Levites are set apart and take the place corresponding to that of the cherubim in Genesis 3, guarding the sanctuary and being men of sword and flame. Instead of driving Israel out from the camp like Adam and Eve from the Garden, however, YHWH left the camp (33:7-11). The golden calf incident at Sinai plays a role in the story of Israel analogous to that of the original fall and so the use of a related narrative framing should not surprise us.
These “fall narratives,” while repeating a fundamental pattern, exhibit considerable individuality. The roles of the various protagonists in the narratives vary quite markedly: the definite and detailed form of the archetype grants much more scope for meaningful variations. Each account shows pronounced features both of repetition and of variation, like themes in a musical composition. The fact that all have the features of a ‘fall narrative’ type-scene serves as a means by which their readers can arrive at a sense of their theological meaning.
Each of the narratives I have mentioned plays a relatively crucial role within the broader narrative arcs within which they are located. Furthermore, each narrative plays, not upon a literary convention existing without the text, but upon a fundamental narrative of the biblical account. The fall narratives sketched above reveal a progressive and escalating unfolding development of the themes introduced in Genesis 3, as in a rich and artful symphony, the fall being recapitulated in the life of the patriarchs and Israel. The literary relationship that I have identified between Genesis 3 and Exodus 32 grounds, for instance, the theological analogy that some have seen between Sinai and Eden, as Israel recapitulated the sin of Adam—Adam is a type of Israel.
This relationship between Adam and Israel makes more sense when the Fall narrative is read with attention to its particular details. The fact that Adam is characterized as a priest and the Garden of Eden as a sanctuary helps us to appreciate that the establishment of Israel as a kingdom of priests and the institution of the tabernacle is a partial reversal of the Fall, a restoration in some measure of the degree of fellowship that was lost at that time. In keeping with this pattern of reversal, the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle follow the pattern of the seven days of creation. God is rebuilding the order that man’s sin destroyed.
The fall narrative also relates to further literary patterns of redemption within the Old Testament. For instance, the serpent’s deception of the woman recorded in the fall account is ‘answered’ by the divine poetic justice of a narrative pattern in which women deceive tyrants, especially in order to protect the promised seed. Sarai deceives Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20) and Abimelech (Genesis 20); Rebekah deceives Abimelech (Genesis 26:6-11); Rachel deceives Laban (Genesis 31:33-35); the Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-22); Rahab deceives the men of Jericho (Joshua 2); Jael deceives Sisera (Judges 4:17-22; 5:24-27); Michal deceives Saul (1 Samuel 19:11-17); Esther deceives Haman. In these and other examples we see promising tokens of God’s continuing providential hand in history, his subtle assurances that all that was broken will one day be restored.
These themes do not end at the threshold of the New Testament. In the story of Mary we see the faithfulness of a new Eve. In the deception of Herod we see the outwitting of the serpent. In Christ’s temptations in the wilderness and later in Gethsemane we meet a new and greater Adam. The gospel narrative doesn’t merely harken back to the opening chapters of Genesis: all of the intervening explorations of the themes of the Fall account are also at play, whether the story of Noah, Abraham, or Israel.
I have provided a whistle-stop tour of key scriptural instances of the continuing resonance of the Fall in the continuing narrative of creation and God’s chosen people. Although I haven’t closely interpreted any of these examples, recognizing the way that the story of the Fall is at play beneath these other stories can be profoundly illuminating for our understanding of their meaning. Conversely, through its ongoing resonance within the larger chamber of the Scriptures, the significance of the original event of the Fall itself and the biblical shape of God’s overcoming of it become more distinctly apparent.
Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.