Keep the Bible weird!

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 what?

“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….”

“Who?”

“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.

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5 thoughts on “Keep the Bible weird!

  1. I think that Enns is making the mistake of privileging a non-canonical reading of the text over a canonical one. Read within the context of the canon, it is very clear that the serpent is identified with Satan (cf. Revelation 12:9). Satan is also frequently identified as the tempter, and not only in Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. Even a close reading of Genesis will reveal that the conflict with the serpent and the promise associated with it is carried forward into the rest of the text of the book in subtle ways (typological recapitulation, for instance) and that a deeper primaeval or spiritual conflict is implied to lie behind the terrestrial conflicts experienced by the characters at various points.

    This continues elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, have you noticed how often women achieve poetic justice by deceiving ‘serpents’ (Sarai and Pharaoh, Sarah and Abimelech, Rebekah and Abimelech, Rachel and Laban, the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh, Rahab and the leaders of Jericho, Jael and Sisera, Michal and Saul, Esther and Haman, etc.), often in protection of the seed? We don’t come to Genesis 3 as to a text that no one has ever read before. Most importantly, we come to it as a text that has been subjected to extensive intratextual reading through the rest of the book of Genesis and the canon more generally. Most people don’t appreciate the textual scaffolding that underlies the relationship between the serpent and the figure of Satan, but this doesn’t mean that it is inappropriate for them to make the identification.

    The story of the Fall is much the same. In Genesis, the Fall could be argued to be more of a progressive alienation than in its representation in the Western theological consciousness: the Fall moves out from the Garden and humanity’s relationship to God and man’s relationship to his wife, into brother killing brother in the land (Cain and Abel) and the violence of Cain’s line typified in Lamech, then into the filling of the entire world with violence and inappropriate sexual relations between the sons of God and the daughters of men. However, our reading of the Fall as a much more definitive event is coloured by Paul’s reading of it in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and elsewhere. This is not a bad thing, even though any serious biblical scholar should be aware of the ways in which later readings may have over-determined earlier texts.

    1. I should also add that our account and theology of the Fall should be bolstered by a recognition of its typological recapitulation and inversion at various points in Scripture. The sin of Ham, Abram and Hagar, Esau’s loss of his birthright, Israel’s sin with the golden calf at Sinai: each of these events is cast within the literary forms provided by the Fall. Later, Jesus’ temptations serve as the inversion of some of these themes.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Alastair. You raise good points, as always.

    I’m not opposed to giving a certain pride of place to canonical interpretations (not going to speak for Enns) or to later readings found in the post-biblical tradition. However, I do think it can be helpful and illuminating to recognize these as readings, as opposed to being simply the “plain sense” of Scripture. What I’m much less sure about is how an individual believer should navigate these readings, much less how one should expose children to different readings without unduly confusing them. I do think that sometimes the “approved” or “official” interpretation can become a substitute for engaging with the text in all its particularity–and that such an engagement can be an occasion for “more light and truth” to break forth from the Word.

    Does that make any sense?

    1. Yes, it does, and I am largely in agreement. Canonical readings of texts should not negate other readings, nor should they allow innerbiblical interpretation to be used to deny the plurality inherent in the text.

      One of my reservations on the particular case of Genesis 3 is that Genesis employs the themes of that particular story over the course of the book. Even if we take a source critical approach, paying attention to the original text itself will probably require attending to more than Genesis 3 in splendid isolation from all of the rest of Genesis or other sections of the Pentateuch. Such attention might reveal the way that the protological and archetypical conflict and events of Genesis 3 maintain a shadowy presence within later recapitulations over the course of history and an unidentified yet malign power is delicately insinuated to lie behind the conflicts of history. I am not sure that Enns has taken sufficient account of this.

  3. Agreed. And I think your point about not reading the story of “the fall” in isolation is gets additional support if (as I think Enns believes) the Pentateuch was composed (or at least collected) around the time of the Exile, since it becomes part of Israel trying to understand its own history of covenant, disobedience, and reconciliation with God.

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