In my exploration of the garden of Eden story, I read books by a couple of authors which I found incredibly interesting (and a sort of antidote to the book by Zevit). James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick both seemed to be searching the story for truths rather than trying to fit the story around their own ideas. Neither of them believe the Genesis story is about original sin, and their conclusions are difficult to challenge.
I especially enjoyed The Fall and the Ascent of Man by Joseph Fitzpatrick. Add it to your shopping list. The book is too meaty for a blog, but I’ll give you a synopsis. He begins by explaining the ideas of predestination and original sin, showing how they arose. He then talks about the work of Mary Douglas, who extensively researched the culture of early societies and primitive religion. She found that people made sense of life by putting things into tight categories, and this became a way to remain safe. Fitzpatrick says the garden story was written as a myth, to explain a situation. Due to the tight boundaries that defined the categories of things, the garden story was challenging. When man was made ‘in the image of God’ this confused categories—was mankind animal or divine?
Fitzpatrick points out that the Hebrew story contains no words about sin, or punishment, or rebellion or disobedience. These terms do appear in other stories of this time, so the author could have included them, but he didn’t. Instead, Fitzpatrick thinks the story is a sort of ‘coming of age’ story, that explains why humans are higher than animals. He thinks that both the breath of God, and the eating of the fruit, signify humans evolving to a level higher than the other hominids. He doesn’t think the banishment from the garden was a punishment (it actually doesn’t say that it is, when you read it carefully). The people were banished to stop them eating from the tree of life, because immortality/eternal life is from God, and not something humans should think they can acquire by themselves. They were created mortal, and remained mortal. Death is not a mistake, we are meant to have a use-by date.
The story (according to Fitzpatrick) shows how humans evolved into a unique species, able to respond to God, and their task is to refine this, to become ‘more human’ until eventually they are complete, and able to commune fully with God. He thinks the prohibition to eat the fruit is part of the story, not an enforced command, and the warnings about death signify the death of their ‘animal-ness,’ their future inability to simply behave like a beast and not be aware of moral issues. (Though I must say, there are some people who I see in the media who seem to be having a pretty good attempt!) He shows how there is so much in the rest of the Old Testament that shows how God wants people to gain wisdom/knowledge, that it makes no sense to assume in this story he did not.
He seems to agree with Zevit, that God’s words after the fruit-eating were statements of fact, rather than future punishments. Due to the people eating the fruit, certain aspects of life would appear more difficult until finally they die. The snake is accursed (‘You are an accursed animal’ past tense rather than cursed/punished future tense.) The new awareness of the people would change their relationships, make them notice pain and hardship. (Though he seems to ignore that God says ‘I will increase…’ the bad things, so I’m not sure how he reconciles that.) He absolutely dismisses the idea of ‘original sin’ though he does believe that all humans do wrong, and need God to make them whole/complete.
One of his points is that if you believe in ‘original sin’ it allows you to behave in pretty atrocious ways. The Crusaders had every right to conquer and destroy nations if they believed those cultures were doomed to hell, and saving their souls was more important than their physical rights. Fitzpatrick thinks such actions cannot be justified, and the church should be serving not just its own members, but all of humanity. All humans are precious, simply because they are human and therefore in the image of God (as opposed to being dragged down by original sin and doomed to destruction unless they change). He writes: “As one Christian rather shockingly has said, ‘Jesus did not come to make us into Christians; he came to fulfil us as human beings.” Our evolution into Godly humans began in the garden of Eden story, and continues today. It’s an interesting thought.
In terms of the book (which has way more in it than I can do justice to here) I found it to be very accessible (no need for a dictionary to decipher long words!) He explains his views gradually, and clearly, so although some of his conclusions are complicated, by the time you get to them you understand what he’s trying to say. Like I said, add it to your shopping list.
Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Ascent-Man-Genesis-Supports/dp/0761857540/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2E3Y908AYOLQZ&keywords=joseph+fitzpatrick&qid=1643218545&sprefix=joseph+fitzpatrick%2Caps%2C58&sr=8-1
Hope you have a great week and feel like you’re more than an animal. Thanks for reading.
Love, Anne x