What is Sin?

Can we uncover the mother sin behind all particular sins?

Jan_Brueghel_de_Oude_en_Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Het_aards_paradijs_met_de_zondeval_van_Adam_en_Eva

Three months ago I was teaching a class on the creation stories presented to us in Genesis 1-3. Chapter 3 describes an encounter between Eve, the first woman, and a snake. The ensuing conversation leads to Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit.

Christian theology calls this story the Fall, that fatal moment when the first parents fell for temptation and sin entered into their world. It has played a central role in Christian theology ever since the apostle Paul expounded upon it in his Letter to the Romans.*

The dialogue between the snake and Eve (Genesis 3:1-7) particularly fascinates me. I call it the first theological conversation in the Bible. I have written about it in two previous blogs, The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 1and The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 2.

This time when I was teaching my class, I found myself focusing my attention on the exact nature of the sin that Adam and Eve commit. It struck me that this particular sin is the core sin behind all other particular sins.

A Theological Debate between the Snake and Eve

Ultimately the theological conversation of Genesis 3:1-7 is a question about the character of God and the amount of freedom God extended to human beings. We gather this as we listen carefully to the conversation between the snake and Eve,

The snake begins with a question, not a statement. This means Eve cannot avoid becoming engaged. The question is: Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’

It’s a subtle question. First, when the snake says You, he uses a plural You. This is a question directed to both Eve and Adam. He phrases the question in the negative. But it cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.

It plants just a hint of doubt or confusion in the woman’s mind. She must stop to think a moment: Did I hear God’s command right? Just what exactly did God say? This brings her imagination into play. And imagination easily becomes an instrument for deception. We all know that when we lie awake at night in bed thinking about some stray remark a person made to us. Was he or she making a subtle criticism? What did she or he mean?

Eve’s imagination thus becomes engaged. She responds:

We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’

On the whole Eve has quoted God’s command accurately, but she adds a provision. You shall not touch the tree. God did not say anything about touching. Due to her imagination, Eve has already misquoted God. That plants a seed of an idea in her mind that God is being exceedingly restrictive. God is not only forbidding eating, but also touching. This God may be a God who delights in denying experiences to human beings. Rather than being a God who shares abundance, God is a hoarder.

The snake seizes his opportunity. He responds to Eve:

You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

The snake denies God’s word outright. He suggests that God is a liar. God is holding back on the truth. But why would God lie to the humans? The snake suggests that it is because God wants to preserve his own superiority. God knows that if the humans eat of the fruit of the tree, they will become divine in status. They will know good and evil just as God does. God wants no rivals in his universe. He is a self-serving God who puts his own interests first, just as a powerful king or autocrat on earth might do.

The real question then that the snake is raising is: Is God a God who truly cares for his creation, and especially for humanity, in a loving way? Is God a God who does not seek to serve himself but the creation he has brought into being? In short, can God be trusted with Adam and Eve’s best interests?

The snake suggests that God cannot be trusted. Now Adam and Eve will have to decide for themselves.

The Promise of Knowledge

The theological debate is ultimately one about trust. But it also involves a discussion about knowledge. What is so dangerous about knowledge that God would restrict access to it?

I understand the meaning of the phrase “the knowledge of good and evil” to stand for omniscience.** It is knowing so comprehensively that we can make independent decisions about what is in our best interests and what is not. Such knowledge would then allow human beings to live their lives without any relationship to God, in fact, to become rival gods to God.

That would deny the very reality of creation. For as creatures our existence depends upon God and upon God’s benevolent actions within creation. If we try to become independent of God, we bring disharmony into the very structure of God’s creation.

The inevitable consequence is a corruption and frustration of God’s benevolent creative purposes. If human beings strive for omniscience, they are playing with fire. They run the risk of setting off a conflagration that will destroy their lives and the world in which they live.

For the Biblical tradition, the fundamental source of man’s suffering, disharmony, and unhappiness is not ignorance as it is for much of the Greek philosophical tradition. It is a broken relationship with the ground of the universe’s being.

Now that ground of our being can be understood as an impersonal force. That is the conviction of the Star Wars movies, when the characters talk about the power of the Force. Did you ever notice, however, that since that Force is impersonal, it can be drawn upon for both good and evil?

For the Bible, however, that ground of being is understood to be a presence, a personal presence. The Biblical writers call that presence God. Because God is a personal presence, then the ground of the universe’s being is not indifferent to creation and its well-being.

Can We Count on God?

Still the question humans face—as Eve faces in this first temptation–is the question: Can we count on this God, who is the ground of our being, to be for us? Is God motivated by care and benevolence towards our well-being, or is he motivated by his own self-interest?

If the latter, then we are wise to take our own independent action to ensure our own well-being. Why is that wise? Because we cannot depend upon this God to be always for us.

The fundamental issue then is trust. Can God be trusted? For the Biblical mindset, to restore harmony between humanity and the God who is the ground of their being, humanity must experience a restoration of this broken relationship. Faith understood as trust, not knowledge, then becomes the Biblical road to salvation.

We see in our story that by his suggestive questions the snake raises questions about the very trust that is the foundation of Adam’s and Eve’s relationship to God. He plants doubts in Eve’s mind about the character of God. Is God being benevolent in placing boundaries on human action? Are those boundaries expressions of God’s good care for us, or are these expressions of God’s fundamental selfishness?

He succeeds in his effort to nurture doubt. Eve gives the tree a second look. She notes its beauty. She sees how nourishing its fruit is. She craves the wisdom it conveys. That wisdom promises to secure her against all the vicissitudes of life.

She reaches out and picks the fruit and eats it. She gives some of the fruit to her husband who eats it as well showing that he shares his wife’s doubts. Faced with the anxieties involved in living in this world, they seek to secure their welfare by trying to possess the certainty promised by knowledge. The desire for certainty becomes the stumbling block.

The fatal stone has been thrown into the pond. It triggers ripples that move out farther and farther into their world and their lives. What we find in the rest of the chapter are the consequences of their trying to secure their lives independently of a trusting relationship with God.

The first consequence is that their eyes are indeed opened. They have gained knowledge, but this knowledge shows them that they are naked. They have become conscious of their vulnerability. They try to protect that vulnerability with a makeshift apron of fig leaves.

A Story of Universal Insight

As I thought upon this story, it seemed to me that this conversation between Eve and the snake highlights the central question of human existence. Can God (or if you want to secularize the question, the universe) be trusted to be for our best interests, be trusted to have our best interests at the center of God’s heart…or not?

A lot of modern science will answer that the universe is totally indifferent to human well-being. Nature does not care if we live and flourish. The seemingly random forces of nature have killed off millions of species and individuals over the course of earth’s billion-years history. If unchecked, nature will do the same to us.

So we hope to master and channel nature into serving our best interests by coming to understand its laws and processes. Knowledge becomes our tool for mastery. Certainty becomes our salvation.

We delude ourselves that we know what is best for us. And so we take a multitude of actions to secure your survival and flourishing. This anxiety leads inevitably to all our strategies to secure our well-being apart from God. Our lack of trust in God’s good motives and power does indeed become the mother sin that ultimately gives birth to all those other sins that Christian theology has liked to call the Seven Deadly Sins.

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* See especially chapter 5 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

** I explain in detail why I understand the knowledge of good and evil as omniscience in my previous blogs, The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 1, and The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 2.

 

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God’s Friend

The Old Testament accords that honor to only two humans.

Rembrandt_Abraham_Serving_the_Three_Angels

Abraham serves the three angels, painting by Rembrandt, 17th century.

I was reading in Isaiah 41 this morning when I stumbled upon this sentence fragment:

But you, Israel, my servant,

                        Jacob, whom I have chosen,

                        the offspring of Abraham, my friend…(Isaiah 41:8)

 It is part of a passage where God is addressing Israel about its divine calling–the calling to be God’s servant. But what immediately arrested my attention is that fact that God also calls Abraham his friend. I had never noticed that before.

Now this is to accord to Abraham an enormous honor, at least in the values of the ancient world. For much of the ancient world, friendship was regarded as the highest and most intimate of human relationships. It was a far higher form of human relationship than was marriage. I discussed in my previous blog posting Jesus’ Privileged Friends why that was.

Here in this passage of Isaiah God calls Abraham his friend. I wondered if Abraham stood unique in the Old Testament in bearing that honor. So I checked my Bible concordance to explore if anyone else had been called that.

I found that Abraham was not alone in this honor. One other Old Testament figure has been accorded that same honor: Moses. In Exodus 33:11, we read: Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. Apart from these two giants of the faith, no one else is raised to that honor.

Compassionate Friends

In the case of Moses, friendship with God is described as a relationship in which God speaks to Moses face to face. In some mysterious way Moses has access to God where Moses may speak his mind freely with God and engage in some persuasive debate. We see this in Exodus 32-33 where Moses tries to persuade God not to destroy Israel after the debacle of the golden calf. Moses becomes the compassionate defender of sinful Israel.

Likewise we see Abraham play this same role in Genesis 18 as God reveals to Abraham his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This revelation evokes from Abraham an effort to speak up compassionately for the righteous people in these two cities who will be lost in the destruction. Abraham dares to call into question God’s compassion just as in a sense Moses does as well.

This is one of the extraordinary privileges that is accorded to Abraham and Moses as God’s friends. One gets the sense that God would not tolerate such presumption from anyone else, but because of the high regard he has for both men he pauses to listen to them and in the case of Moses to even change his mind.

It is truly an extraordinary motif in these two Old Testament passages. But the most extraordinary twist upon this motif comes in the New Testament in John 15:14-15. There Jesus at the Last Supper calls his own disciples his friends:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

What is extraordinary about this passage is that the disciples are far from being giants of faith when Jesus accords them this honor. They will soon show themselves highly fallible as Peter denies Jesus that very evening and the other disciples desert Jesus in his time of greatest need.

Yet what Jesus does in this passage is point to that intimate relationship with him that he extends to all his disciples, including us today. For the end goal of spiritual formation–for most of us an arduous, life-long journey–is this privilege of becoming what Jesus says we are: God’s friends.