Peter Enns recounts a conversation he had with a Jewish colleague in graduate school about the story of Adam and Eve:
So my classmate and I were having lunch talking about this story and I mentioned casually the “fall” of humanity.
“The fall of humanity. You know, Adam and Eve’s sin plunged all subsequent humanity into a state of alienation from God.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Really? That’s odd, since it’s so obvious.”
“No it’s not. The story nowhere says what you just said it says.”
“Well then what do you make of Satan tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit….”
“What do you mean ‘who?’”
“Satan? There’s no Satan in the story. There’s a serpent, just a serpent. He’s called the most ‘crafty’ of the creatures that God had put into the garden. He’s a serpent. A crafty creature. That’s what the text says.”
“But the serpent is talking.”
“Because it’s a story.”
It came as a bit of a shock to me that what I thought I “knew” the story of Adam and Eve was about wasn’t really “in” the story itself, but how I had been taught to interpret the story. The dominant Christian reading is rooted in the apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, where Paul seems to place at Adam’s feet (not Eve’s, curiously) the blame for human misery.
I was reading a Bible story book to my kids the other night and was struck by how much interpretation had been imported into its version of the Garden of Eden story. It included a full-blown quasi-Miltonian account of the serpent as Satan, the fallen angel who had rebelled against God. This isn’t exactly explicit in the original text, to put it mildly. This rubbed me the wrong way, because I felt like the Bible wasn’t being allowed to speak for itself, but was being overlaid with the “official” Christian interpretation.
Of course, it would be naive to suggest that you could have a story without some kind of interpretation. But the Bible’s stories can and have generated multiple meanings over the centuries, even within a broadly Christian framework. As Enns points out, the “fall into sin” is a particularly Western Christian understanding of that story–one that is absent from, or at least less emphasized in, Eastern Christianity.
I don’t have a good solution to this, but as I’ve been exposing my kids to the Bible, I’ve become more aware of the fact that many of the interpretations we take for granted are less than obvious. While I want my children to be inculcated with the Christian narrative, I don’t want to drill into them an overly pat understanding of the Bible. The Bible is often richer, weirder, and more interesting than our familiar theology leads us to think. Instead of thinking they have all the answers, I’d rather my kids experienced what Karl Barth called the “strange new world” within the Bible.