The Relative (Un)Importance of Genesis 3

A traditional interpretation of Genesis according to classical Christian theology places great emphasis on a schism between humanity before and after the events in Genesis 3. Traditionally regarded as “the Fall,” these events help to motivate what classical Christianity has long emphasized as the Bible’s own storyline, one for which the cross is the next major event of history—creation, Fall, redemption. This is a common interpretive tradition, one whose greatest support base are those interpretive communities primarily influenced by Christian creeds and systematic theological categories (e.g. Scripture, God, man, sin, salvation, the church).

Within this very broad frame of reference—creation, Fall, and redemption—much weight is placed on the events of Genesis 3. They belong to a plane of significance shared by only two or three other events in history: creation, the cross/empty tomb, and the return of Christ. Does the book of Genesis understand the events of chapter 3 to be as significant to human history as the events of chapters 1 & 2, not equal to any other event that unfolds in the book itself (or, for that matter, the Hebrew Bible)? I do not believe it does.

A recently published monograph by Matthew Thomas on the toledot (oft. translated “generations”) formula in the book of Genesis may help to emphasize the problem as I see it. A relatively stable formula, “These are the generations of . . .” (. . . אלה תלדת) occurs 11 times in the book of Genesis, dividing the book into 10 different sections (if we combine Esau’s two toledot sections, 36:1-8 with 36:9-37:1). According to Thomas, it is significant whether or not the syntax of the toledot formula is independent or dependent (i.e. whether or not the demonstrative pronoun “these” (אלה) is proceeded by a conjunction (ו) or not). Five of the formulas are independent, and they serve as headings of major units which, in his own words, “drive the structure for the book as a whole.” He provides the following chart to illustrate his observations:

The five independent toledot are significant for the trajectory of the Genesis narrative. According to Thomas, “a pattern of a narrowing of focus emerges as in each generation the reader’s attention is drawn toward one descendant.” One of the interesting aspects of this pattern of narrowing is how relatively insignificant “the Fall” is for developing the story. The events of chapter 3 are of no greater significance (and arguably less significant) than the events of chapters 6-9 for developing the story. Genesis does not recognize a transition from a pre-fallen to a fallen humanity, but rather from creation (toledot of the heavens and earth), to humanity (toledot of Adam), to righteous humanity (toledot of Noah), to Semites (toledot of Shem), to Israel (toledot of Jacob).

Genesis tells the story about the beginning of Israel, beginning with the broadest frame of reference possible, the heavens and the earth. Eventually, it arrives at the eponymous ancestor, Jacob/Israel, and his twelve sons, the eponymous ancestors of the tribes of Israel. Biblical theologians will do well to recognize the narrative structure of the book of Genesis, those things which receive greater emphasis in the text or which promote the progression of the narrative, and to emphasize these. While “the Fall” will remain paramount to classical articulations of the Christian faith, the events of Genesis 3 simply are not as significant for the story that Genesis is trying to tell. Biblical theologians must follow a different path.

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2 thoughts on “The Relative (Un)Importance of Genesis 3

  1. ISTM that it is intended to explain:

    * why snakes have no legs
    * why snakes bite
    * why people fear snakes
    * why people kill snakes
    * why we wear clothes
    * the origin of domination and submission, desire and BDSM
    * the origin of conscience
    * the origin of the menstrual cycle and cramps
    * why we have to work (and work hard) for a living
    * why we get sick and die

    If I’m not mistaken, Judaism tended to see the intermarriage of the sons of the god(s) with the daughters of men as more of an indication of why people are so darned evil. The Book of Enoch belabors this, giving names to the angels, and describing how the different ones taught different evil “devices” to the people. Of course, like the first story, the dangerous beauty called “woman” is to blame for their downfall.

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