Throughout our previous two posts on Genesis, we have encountered some beautiful things. We have seen what it means for God to be the Creator of Heaven and earth and how we should read these accounts (Genesis: The Book of Life). We have also learned what it meant for the human being to go beyond the limitations of singular, monadic existence and to live in the marital bond of self-sacrifice (Genesis: The Book of Love). Let us now explore what the first few chapters of this text have to teach us about sin and death, and their entry into the world.
The human being is created and then we read of God putting His Spirit into this human being. Therefore we read,
“And God formed the man [ton anthropon] of dust of the earth, and breathed upon his face the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.” Genesis 2.7
Some explicit details are given to us here of the formation of the first human being (anthropos). We read that this human being is made of the dust of the earth but that this alone is not enough for his composition. Subsequently the ‘breath of life’ is put into this man at which point he becomes ‘a living soul’. From this text and from the text we read later, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”, we learn that humanity is not a possessor of a life on its own. Rather the existence of the human being is a free gift bestowed upon them by God. St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches,
“Man then is a rational creature, but composite, of soul that is and of this perishable and earthly flesh. And when it had been made by God, and was brought into being, not having of its own nature incorruption and imperishableness (for these things appertain essentially to God Alone), it was sealed with the spirit of life, by participation with the Divinity gaining the good that is above nature (for He breathed, it says, into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul). But when he was being punished for his transgressions, then rightly hearing Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return, he was bared of the grace; the breath of life, that is the Spirit of Him Who says I am the Life, departed from the earthy body and the creature falls into death.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John; Book 1,9. Commentary on V.14. PE. Pusey 1874
Life is no simple commodity that is handed out and/or later revoked. God is life and participation in Him constitutes our existence and our true life. This is the first state of the human being, created in union with God. Humanity is given The Holy Spirit by which the human being becomes ‘a living soul’.
But the story of creation does not end there. What follows in the Genesis text is a condition put upon the human’s state and being,
“The Lord God gave a charge to Adam, saying: Of every tree which is in the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — of this one you shall not eat! But in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Gen 2.16, 17.
Therefore we read from St. Athanasius about how it was that the human being was to maintain the life that was entirely gifted to them,
“Knowing that the free choice of human beings could turn either way, He secured in anticipation the gift that he gave by a law and a place. He led them into his paradise, and gave them a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they would possess the life in paradise that is without sorrow or pain or care, as well as the promise of incorruptible life in heaven. But if they transgressed and turned back and became evil, they would know that they would suffer in death and corruption that is according to their nature and that they would no longer live in paradise but would henceforth die outside it and remain in death corruption.” St. Athanasius (DE 3,4)
Athanasian scholar Khaled Anatolios explains saying,
“Reading this passage in its native context, embedded as it is within Athanasius’s explication of the ontology of creation, we can glean from it that the divine law secures the grace simply by explicating the terms according to which the gift is to be received. As such, the law is neither something heteronymous to the being of creation, nor in tension with divine goodness and generosity. Rather, it is precisely a manifestation of the ontology of creation as entirely and comprehensively gift. Even in the ostensible mode of threat, the divine law simply announces the fundamental terms of the God-world relation within the ontology of gift by warning that the rejection of the gift of participation in divine life does not only result in but, in fact, simply consists of the forfeiture of creaturely being.” Khaled Anatolios, Creation and Salvation in St. Athanasius of Alexandria,” On the Tree of the Cross. George Florovsky and the Patristic Doctrinee of Atonement. Ed. Matthew Baker, Seraphim Danckaert, & Nicholas Marinides. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Seminary Press: 59-72
This axiomatic belief of sin as ontological (i.e. relating to the nature of being) in its consequences is played out in the Genesis text if we simply continue to follow the story as it is told to us. However, we usually pass by these details so quickly that we may be missing all that they have to say to us. Is the human problem of sin summarized as the offence of an angry judge who is irate at the eating of a tree or does the text speak to us of an even deeper problem?
God’s pronouncement is not that He will be angered with their sin or that they will face His wrath; rather His pronouncement is that they will die. We may sometimes gloss over this text as saying, “I will kill you” but this is simply not present. Rather it is to be read as: “the consequence of this action will be your demise”. Far from being a bolt of lightning from on high that smites them, it is their sin which kills them. Let us continue following how this unfolds to see how this could possibly be the case.
The serpent comes to tempt Eve and speaks and a conversation ensues,
“The serpent said to the woman, Why has God said, Do not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said to the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God said, You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die. And the serpent said to the woman, You shall not surely die. For God knew that in whatever day you should eat of it your eyes would be opened, and you would be as gods, knowing good and evil. And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes to look upon and beautiful to contemplate, and having taken of its fruit she ate, and she gave to her husband also with her, and they ate. And the eyes of both were opened, and they perceived that they were naked.” Genesis 3.2-8.
As we turn to consider this conversation we see many elements at play in a short passage. First, the temptation comes to the woman that perhaps God has asked them to not partake of any of the trees of the garden. The woman correctly replies that is one tree of which she may not eat, ‘the one in the midst’. Interestingly the tree forbidden to them (the tree not given to them) is now presented as the tree “in the midst”, that which is the centre of their attention. We should recall that Genesis 2.9 has described the Tree of Life (not forbidden to them) as that which is ‘in the midst’, but now the one forbidden to them is said to be ‘in the midst’. The serpent then implies that God is somehow envious of His status and is not wishing to bestow His goods upon the human being. He says, “God knew that in whatever day you eat of it… you would be as gods”. This ultimately becomes the undoing of the human being. Now they perhaps believe that God is in fact envious of His place above them and that they can become what He is. A shorthand for this would be to say that the human being now believes that he might become self-sufficient, not needing God for any reason. Lyonnet comments,
“Besides this external act of disobedience, explicit mention is made of an internal act, from which the external act proceeds. Under the instigation of the serpent, Eve and Adam desire to be like gods (3:6), knowing good and evil. Not that they wanted to know all things, but they wanted to decide themselves what was good and what evil, they wished to enjoy a moral autonomy. But, by claiming this, man practically denies to be a creature and upsets the order established by God: whoever makes himself like God implicitly asserts not to need God. As a consequence the relationship between man and God is radically changed... Under the instigation of the serpent Eve let certain disturbing thoughts occupy her mind: that the word of God, which threatened death, was not absolute or unconditional (3:4), that the precept given by God was not for the benefit of man, but a means by which God would defend his privileges (3:5). Thus she entertained doubts about the word of God, to whom, she began to believe, man was like a rival. Following this line of thought one would come to be convinced that the absolutely transcendent God, who lacks nothing and desires nothing but to bestow His benefits upon man, is in fact a creature in need, holding fast to his own advantages.” Lyonnet, Stanislas, Stanislas Lyonnet, and Léopold Sabourin. Sin, Redemption and Sacrifice. A Biblical and Patristic Study. Vol. 48. Gregorian Biblical BookShop, 1998. p5-6.
St. John Chryosostom had already said similarly in his own account of this story in his commentary on Genesis,
“Then, [the serpent] not being satisfied with contradicting the words of God, he goes on to misrepresent the Creator as jealous so as to be in a position to introduce deceit by this means… Such, after all, are the stratagems of the enemy: whenever he lures someone to a great height through deceit, at that very point he casts them down into a deep abyss. The woman, you see, had dreams of equality with God and hastened to taste the fruit: she had evidently set her mind and her thinking on that goal, and she thought of nothing else than how to drink the cup prepared for her by the wicked demon.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 16 on Genesis, tracts 9-10 as in Chrysostom, J. (1992). Homilies on Genesis 1–17, trans. R. Hill. P212-213.
A little while later in his commentary, St. John Chrysostom will, in fact, describe the eating of the tree as itself a symptom of the transgression already committed,
“What I mean is that someone could ask what particular quality was it which that tree had that resulted in the opening of their eyes from eating it, and why is it called the knowledge of good and evil. Wait a while, if you don’t mind: I want to discuss this, too, with you for a moment and teach you.. What I mean is that it wasn’t the eating from the tree that opened their eyes: they could see even before eating. Instead, the eating from this tree was the symptom of their disobedience and the breaking of the command given by God; and through their guilt they consequently divested themselves of the glory surrounding them, rendering themselves unworthy of such wonderful esteem. Hence Scripture takes up the point in its customary way with the words, (131c) “They both ate. Their eyes were opened, and they realized they were naked;” because of the Fall, they were stripped of grace from above, and they felt the sense of their obvious nakedness so that through the shame that overcame them they might know precisely what peril they had been led into by breaking the Lord’s command.” Ibid pg 216.
It is for this reason that the fathers of the Church did not believe the tree to be evil or have itself the poison of death within it. The deadness arising from it comes from the radical change that happens in the God-human relation. St. Gregory the Theologian speaks about there not being evil in the tree,
“This being He placed in Paradise, whatever the Paradise may have been, having honoured him with the gift of Free Will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of his choice, no less than to Him who had implanted the seeds of it), to till the immortal plants, by which is meant perhaps the Divine Conceptions, both the simpler and the more perfect; naked in his simplicity and in artificial life, and without any covering or screen; for it was fitting that he who was from the beginning should be such. Also He gave him a Law, as a material for his Free Will to act upon. This Law was a Commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the Tree of Knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted; nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38 The Oration on The Theophany, 12.
The problem is not a poisonous plant or a dangerous fruit. The problem in all of this has become our own blind love of ourselves. St. Athanasius teaches us that this problem runs very deep in that the human being now becomes self-absorbed, they will now look to themselves as the source and purpose of all things.
“But men, making light of better things, and holding back from apprehending them, began to seek in preference things nearer to themselves. But nearer to themselves were the body and its senses; so that while removing their mind from the things perceived by thought, they began to regard themselves; and so doing, and holding to the body and the other things of sense, and deceived as it were in their own surroundings, they fell into lust of themselves, preferring what was their own to the contemplation of what belonged to God.” St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, 3.
Looking to themselves, they thought they might be their own gods, that they might be self-sufficient, the lords and masters of their own lives. What does the text tell us they find? It says to us that upon the act of disobedience (which we know was in a pursuit to become ‘as gods’, no longer needing God), they find themselves naked, bereft of all things. As we continue reading, we find this built upon by the next few details in the story. God goes searching for Adam and Eve,
“And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the afternoon; and both Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God in the midst of the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called Adam and said to him, Adam, where are you?” Genesis 3.9-11.
This text is almost nonsensical if we consider it simply at the literal level. How could Adam and Eve, the creation made by God, simply hide from The Almighty God? For the ancient Jews and the modern Christians alike, it would seem completely insane to claim that God actually had to go on some sort of search-and-rescue mission looking for these two in the very garden He has just made. But does the story read like this in order to convey to us an even greater reality about the destructive act just perpetrated? This story itself is already conveying the sense that this act is far deeper than we may have appreciated. Adam and Eve have, in fact, hidden themselves from God by their own sin. Sin is that very act wherein we have altered and departed from our previously held communion and union with God. Here this is portrayed through the almost comical idea of God having to go looking for Adam and Eve. St. Irenaeus of Lyons explains beautifully,
“Communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store. But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness; and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits which He has in store. Those, therefore, who cast away by apostasy these aforementioned things, being in fact destitute of all good, do experience every kind of punishment. God, however, does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good. Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never- ending. It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves, or have been blinded by others, are for ever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not, [however], that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them: and therefore the Lord declared, “He that believes in Me is not condemned,” that is, is not separated from God, for he is united to God through faith. On the other hand, He says, “He that believes not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God;” that is, he separated himself from God of his own accord. “For this is the condemnation, that light is come into this world, and men have loved darkness rather than light. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that performs truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that he has wrought them in God.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies V, 27, 2.
The one who blinds himself cannot claim that the shining light is responsible for his lack of sight. Similarly, the one who has departed from Him Who is Life cannot hold life responsible for his death. Adam and Eve in partaking of this tree become the cause of their own undoing in seeking a life outside of Life Itself. This powerful truth is brought out through the text’s stark description of God having to ‘search’ for Adam and Eve. Again, if we are taking a cursory read through this text then we may altogether miss this detail. It is Adam and Eve who, through their sin (their turn inwards and towards themselves as St. Athanasius has put it) have hidden themselves from God and fundamentally changed the relationship they had with God. If human existence and life is fundamentally understood as gift, then rejection of the gift (or Him Who has given it) is a rejection of life itself and therefore a fall into death. Thus we read from the Wisdom of Solomon,
“Seek not death in the error of your life: and pull not upon yourselves destruction with the works of your hands. For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living. For he created all things, that they might have their being: and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of death upon the earth: (For righteousness is immortal:) But ungodly men with their works and words called it [death] to them: for when they thought to have it their friend, they consumed to nought, and made a covenant with it, because they are worthy to take part with it.” The Wisdom of Solomon 1.12-16.
The fundamental change here is not a legal decree by the Almighty God but a willful choice by the human being to live a life divorced of life. The one who, seeking ‘better things’ (in this case, ‘you will be as gods’) is the one who make a covenant with death and consumes it to their destruction. Again, we have seen this played out in the Genesis story through God’s having to look for Adam and Eve, since they have hidden themselves. It is not God Who is doing the hiding and it certainly is not God Who turns them away because of sin. Rather, sin is their turning away. If we continue to follow the Genesis story we see this played out in another episode shortly thereafter in the lives of Cain and Abel.
“And Cain said to Abel his brother, Let us go out into the plain; and it came to pass that when they were in the plain Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and killed him. And the Lord God said to Cain, Where is Abel your brother? and he said, I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper? And the Lord said, What have you done? The voice of you brother’s blood cries to me out of the ground… And Cain said to the Lord God, My crime is too great for me to be forgiven. If you cast me out this day from the face of the earth, and I shall be hidden from thy presence, and I shall be groaning and trembling upon the earth, then it will be that any one that finds me shall kill me. And the Lord God said to him, Not so, any one that slays Cain shall suffer seven-fold vengeance; and the Lord God set a mark upon Cain that no one that found him might slay him. So Cain went forth from the presence of God and dwelt in the land of Nod over against Eden.” Genesis 4.8-17.
If we peer closely into the text we see that Cain himself is fearful that the Lord shall cast him out of His Presence and that someone shall avenge Abel’s blood. The Lord replies, “Not so!” And in fact sets a protective mark on Cain that no one should kill him. The loving Lord takes measures and steps to restore and protect Cain. But then look closely at the next line. Cain is not cast out, Cain “went forth from the presence of God”. Cain’s moving away from the Loving God is resultant upon his sin, in fact it is the actual ontological implication of his sin. God is not angered nor has He decreed anything against Cain (the opposite in fact) but Cain by his sin has cut himself off from the Divine and the text communicates this by the elegant turn of phrase “Cain went forth”.
Sin as ontological rift in our relationship with Life is what is communicated to us in the first 5 chapters of the book Genesis. Far from being a moral decree or from being a simple legal offence, sin affects the depths of our being in that it cuts us off form the Living God. Much like the prodigal son, we are called to a life of repentance not simply to feel guilty about what we have done, but rather to return to The Father who bestows His Life upon us freely. The life of Adam and Eve in the garden after their sin and our lives as a result of our sin is put beautifully by St. Gregory of Nyssa in speaking about the two trees,
“We are meant to grasp the following principle: that life is the very centre of God’s plantation. Death on the contrary is, in and of itself, rootless and unplanted, since it has no place of its own. It is in consequence of the absence of life that death gets planted, when living beings lack participation in the nobler condition. Life, then, stands at the midpoints of the Divine plantings, while death exists as the result of a falling away from life. Hence we can see why the One who has conveyed this principle to us in enigmas says that the death-dealing tree too-whose fruit, he says, possesses a power mixed together out of opposites-stands at the centre. he has laid it down, in effect, that good and evil are one and the same thing, and in doing so hinted darkly at the nature of sin. For some pleasure or other is the instigator of all vicious actions that get carried out, and there is no such thing as sin that is disjoined from pleasure (whether the affects stem from spiritedness or from desire). Hence the fruit is called “good” because of an erroneous judgement regarding what is good, for such it seems to people who identify the good with pleasure. Later on, however, it occasions sour digestion and is found to be bad, just as Proverbs says: “For the lips” of vice “drip honey, which” at the time “is as smooth as oil in the throat” but later is found to be “more bitter than gall” for those who are wrongly delighted by it (cf.Prov 5:3-4).
Now the human being who had turned away from the rich assortment of fruits that are good was filled, because of this disobedience, with the fruit that works corruption (whose name is “sin the death-dealer”); and for this reason humanity was straightway done to death as far as the higher existence is concerned, having take on the non-rational and brutish life in place of the more Divine. And once death had been mingled with human nature, deadness, in step with the successions of offspring to parents, made its way everywhere. Hence a dead form of existence enfolded us, since life itself was, in a certain sense, dying; for as soon as our life is deprived of immortality, it is a dead thing. For this reason, the One who is made known “in the midst between the two forms of life” (Hab 3:2) stands in between these two kinds of life, in order that by removal of the worse he may award the spoils of victory to the one that is undefiled. So just as by dying to the true life humanity fell instead into this dead form of existence, so too when it dies to this dead and animal life, it is redirected toward life eternal-and this stands as a certainty, that one cannot live the blessed life without having become dead to sin.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily XII on Song of Songs. Trans: Gregory of Nyssa: homilies on the Song of Songs. Vol. 13. SBL Press, 2012. pp 369-371.
With sin, a dead form of existence enfolded us, since life itself was, in a certain sense, dying. Adam and Eve bring upon themselves death, since the Source of Life, was in a certain sense, dead to them. This is what sin does to our human life. This is what God has come to save us from (God Saves His People) by reuniting us with Him in His Incarnation, Life, death and resurrection. This life in God is what is constantly ministered to us in the Life of The Church through His body and blood, the ascetical practices, the liturgical life and all that is offered to us. This is offered to us so that our very mode of being changes to a life which is always inclined towards Him Who cares for us, receiving His Life ever more.