CNS Bible Blog: The ‘death penalty’ of Adam and Eve

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

If the opening story of creation in Genesis elevates our minds to appreciate the beauty and dignity of all creation, the stories that follow very quickly point out the pitfalls and dangers belonging to human life.

In the first story, human beings were compared to the divine: “Let us make them in our image.” In the following story, humans are made from earth. But they have the breath of God in them and so they have become a living being.

Michael Kolarcik S.J.

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

After God generously grants to Adam all the trees in the garden as food, one particular tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) is forbidden. With its eating comes a serious warning, “for in the day you eat of it, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Much has been made of trying to interpret the meaning of this tree and the actual punishment that follows from its eating. But I want to point out a few simple features of the story which are often overlooked.

The death that reads like a warning is a very technical term in Hebrew. It is the death penalty indicated by two words: you will “die the death.” Philo of Alexandria interpreted it as the second death or spiritual death. It does not necessarily mean mortal or physical death, but conveys more the meaning of “the most serious thing that can happen to you,” ­namely the death penalty.

In point of fact, when Adam and Eve do eat of the tree they do “die the death,” but it is not an immediate physical death. They have become afraid of their weakness, of their dependency on each other, of their sexuality. And so they hide because they were afraid. Notice, the very first comment about Adam and Eve after they eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree is “then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked … and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God…” (Gen 3:7-8).

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve are depicted departing from Eden in a stained-glass window at St. Nicolas Church in Feldkirch, Austria. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

The punishments which follow all touch on relationships: the relationship between the animal world and human (the serpent and the woman), the relationship between the man and the woman (Adam and Eve) and the relationship between humans and the earth (Adam and the earth). Where there was once harmony, now we have tension, competition and resistance. Without a trusting relationship with God, humans have become frightfully afraid of their mortal humanity. But not everything is lost.

Even though Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden, God makes for them clothes of skin before sending them out, never to return to this place of paradise (Gen 3:21-24). Notice the first thing that happens to Adam and Eve once they are outside of the garden! “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the LORD'” (Gen 4:1).

This is nothing short of the blessing of man and woman in Genesis 1: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth'” (Gen 1:28).

The opening stories of Genesis continue to place before our imagination our deepest desires for unity and creativity as well as our worst fears of failure and death. This I believe is why they continue to speak to us even with all their implied difficulties.

CNS Bible Blog: Genesis, Chapter 1 – Is creation good?

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The first chapter of the Book of Genesis is more than likely quite clear in our imagination. In six days God creates, separates, names, commands, and blesses, and on the seventh day God rests.

As we read Genesis 1 or hear the story read at the Easter Vigil, God’s word majestically creates and displays the cosmos before our imagination. If there is one word which perhaps best describes the value placed on creation in this story, it would be the word, “good.”

Michael Kolarcik S.J.

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

And God saw that it was good! We hear this judgment altogether seven times in the story (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). You might think there is a judgment of goodness for each day of the week, including the seventh. But that is not the case. In fact it is quite interesting to notice where the judgment of goodness in God’s creation is made and where it is not.

We might then see that the judgment of the goodness of creation is not simply an idyllic affirmation of creation. Rather, even despite the chaos and instability of the universe and in human beings, the Genesis story affirms the goodness of the created world.

The unfolding of creation in six days is quite stylized. In the first three days God creates a habitat of spaciousness. In the following three days, God creates inhabitants who are to thrive in their corresponding habitats. Notice the balance of the six days of creation:

Day 1 – Light, darkness; day and night       Day 4 – Sun, moon, stars; day and night

Day 2 – The dome above, waters below                  Day 5 – Fish, birds; sea and sky

Day 3 – The earth, vegetation                        Day 6 – Animals, humans male/female

Day 7 – God rests; the sabbath is blessed

Notice how each day has a double creation involving one or two of the four various activities of God associated with creation (separating, naming, commanding, and blessing). It is also interesting to notice how vegetation in Day 3, the last created element of the habitats, is both an inhabitant of the earth and itself becomes a habitat for animals and humans on Day 6.

But this is all part of the artistic display of the story which highlights the value of goodness associated with creation.

Now let’s pay attention to the places where God’s judgment of goodness is not made.

On Day 2, we do not encounter the judgment of goodness for the dome. But we hardly notice this since on Day 3, as if to compensate for this lack, we have two judgments of goodness regarding “vegetation.” Why does the story not highlight the goodness of the dome?

The next rather surprising silence of the judgment of goodness occurs on Day 6 regarding human beings. Though human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, the story does not highlight the goodness of human beings.

Even after the animals were created we heard God’s judgment of goodness (Gen 1:24), but not for human beings. Again, as if to compensate for this lack, after the gift of food to animals and humans Day 6 concludes with a general judgment of goodness for all of God’s creation: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).

And so both Day 3 and Day 6 have a double judgment of goodness. Why is the narrative silent on the goodness of the dome and of human beings?

It is not as if they are evil, since both the dome and humans are included in the final judgment of goodness. Genesis 1 knows how the dome and humans are associated with chaos in the stories that follow. Adam and Eve introduce moral chaos and alienation from God in their act of disobedience. Moral chaos spreads to their own children as Cain kills his brother Abel.

Later, because the violence of human beings becomes unbearable to God, the forces of chaos in the flood are unleashed on all life precisely through the dome. Destructive water is unleashed from the portals above the dome and from the depths below.

The Book of Genesis

A page from the first Bible printed in America, produced in 1663 in the native Algonquin language. The edition is a holding of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The story of creation in Genesis could not quite bring itself to name the chaos in the cosmos and certainly the chaos of which human beings are capable as “good.” But notice that even with the instability of the cosmos, where chaos at any point may rise against life, and even with human potential for violence, the Genesis story affirms strongly the goodness of creation.

The silence of the judgment of goodness for the dome and for humans has the effect of inviting us to a stance of humility before the grandeur of creation. Yes, though creation is a good and beautiful habitat for such a variety of creatures, there remain within it forces of chaos.

Though human beings are the pinnacle of the created world, they are equally capable of great love and terrible violence. In fact, in the face of so much violence as that which we see in the flood story, it would be easy to have a view of creation that is dark, violent and miserable. There are such stories of origins in the ancient world. The Genesis story of creation affirms the opposite. It affirms the goodness of creation even with its instability and violence. This is perhaps its enduring value and appeal.

The Genesis story holds up before our imagination our deepest desire for a good habitat in relation to a loving God even as we face our fears of mortality and violence. In this story God is telling us that even with its instability, and even with our propensity for violence within it, creation is good indeed!


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