Updated: Feb 26, 2020
I arrived in Munich last week, and throughout our various adventures, one of the things that has stood out the most to me has been the epic Old-World churches that line the storied city. Whether you look at Christian theology as a means to guide your life, or whether you look at it as simply a piece of history, or whether you see it as nothing more than myths and lore, one cannot deny its profound influence on Western Europe, and the creation of the Western world.
After my visit to St. Peter's in Marienplatz, after climbing 300 steps to the top and 300 steps back down, and after sitting in on a choir practice during my visit, I was inspired to revisit some biblical stories and analyze them as pieces of literature. I decided to start at the beginning, with the story of Adam and Eve and man's fall from grace, as it has been the basis for so many pieces of literature that have come after it, both Western and Eastern alike.
The story of the first man and his fall from grace has captivated readers for centuries, being the subject of a wide variety of debates and arguments ranging from the role of women in The Bible, to the physical manifestation of the mark of Cain.
Today's article serves as a rhetorical criticism of Genesis 1-11, a form created around the time of Augustine, which seeks to analyze the text as it pertains to its intended audience, deciphering what the text means to its audience and the ways it inspired them, as well as analyzing the writing techniques implored throughout the passages. Specifically pertaining to Genesis 1-11, we will discuss the role of Eve in philosophy, the meaning of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, and what this means for the human condition.
At the end of Genesis 1, we see that God has created man and has given him complete dominion over the earth. An integral part of Adam’s dominion was his connection with the plants and soil;
“God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed
that is upon the face of all the earth,
and every tree with seed in its fruit;
you shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29).
In this passage, we see God’s bond with Adam through Adam’s bond with the land. He lives off the land with ease, never going hungry or wanting for anything. When Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise in Genesis 3, Adam is stripped of the deepest bond he has with God, his dominion over the land.
Adam is cursed with rigorously working the land in order to sustain himself, making his authority a laborious one where sustenance will only be brought about through his own blood, sweat, and tears:
“And to the man he said,
‘Because you have listened to the voice of
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it’,
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth
and you shall eat the plants of the
By sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return’” (Genesis 3:17-19).
Let’s take a moment to discuss the final line of this passage, which further illustrates the relationship between Adam and the land; that he was created from the land, and when he dies he will return to it. When he was in favor with God, the land provided for him, but when Adam loses God’s favor and is expelled, he must now bend the land in order to make it provide for him. Adam’s punishment is a shuttering of the human-earth connection, and is the first time we witness the theme of alienation, as Adam is alienated from the land, and humans are alienated from God.
In the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of Lent, a 40-day-long period of fasting and reflection that culminates with Holy Week, honoring the three days that Jesus was killed and rose from the dead. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics line up in front of the altar where a priest draws the sign of the cross with ashes onto people’s foreheads and says “out of dust you were taken, and to dust you shall return”. This line is taken from Genesis 3:19, and is said to remind us of our own modern-day alienation from Jesus, echoing the original alienation of Adam.
Genesis 3:19’s significance goes beyond religious tradition; however, in its capacity to point to the chemical makeup of humans. Genesis was written long before scientists had discovered that humans were composed of molecules, atoms, and quarks. In one line, Genesis transformed a complicated topic into a digestible format for a simpler audience with a simpler science.
As we look forward to Genesis 4, readers witness the theme of alienation continue with Adam’s son, Cain. Cain farmed the land and would bring fruit that he grew as an offering to God, but when Cain murders his brother, Able, out of jealousy, we see that his punishment has to do with land once again, in similar fashion to the punishment of his father, Adam.
“And the Lord said, ‘What have you done?
Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!
And now you are cursed from the ground,
which has opened its mouth
to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
When you till the ground,
it will no longer yield to you its strength;
you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:10-12).
Immediately we see God referencing the land in his discussion of Abel’s death. God tells Cain that Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground, since it is on the land that Cain killed his brother, and it is on the ground that Abel’s blood was spilled. Despite Cain’s wicked tendencies, he had a connection with the land. Not in the same manner as his father once did, but Cain had the ability to work the land effectively and prosper from it. After the murder of his brother, Cain is cursed from the land completely. The land will no longer bend to his will, and he is completely alienated from its sustenance. Additionally, the rift between humans and God has grown larger.
Often times, we see biblical references make their way into pop culture, such as Lazarus’ name used to symbolize being brought back to life, or Judas’ name used in reference to betrayals by a trusted friend. In North Carolina, there is a plot of land a few miles outside of Siler City that has remained completely barren for centuries. People have tried to work the land and plant there for years, and nothing has ever been able to grow there, not even weeds. Rumor has it that anything placed on this plot of land either disappears or is dead by the next day. Some call this piece of land the Devil’s Tramping Ground, others have come to know it as Cain’s Garden.
Throughout the first part of this discussion, we have taken a look at the different forms of alienation in early Genesis, as well as the rupturing of the human-earth connection. Now we will take a look at the much more complicated Eve, her fall from grace, and the punishment she was forever cursed with.
Eve has been the topic of many philosophical and religious debates for centuries. Before women’s suffrage, many religious figures pointed to Eve’s indiscretion as proof of women’s tendency to seduce men and bend them to their will. Often times, she was portrayed as weak for giving into the snake and the temptation he presented. Augustine tradition sexualizes the trickery of the snake and his relationship with Eve. Throughout time, she has carried a lot of the blame for man’s fall from grace, and she has been the symbolic figurehead for sin, disobedience, and evil seduction.
When Eve is expelled from Eden and given her punishment, she is cursed with painful childbirth, and is told that her lust for her husband will keep her reproducing, despite the fact that childbearing will bring her unbearable pain. It is because of this verse that women have been painted at times as being more sexual creatures than men, and it is at this point that famed biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, believes patriarchy was introduced. Other critics; however, have come to know her as an interesting and powerful female figure whose intelligence caused her counterpart to blindly follow her.
Phyllis Trible often described Eve’s discussion with the snake as the first theological debate to ever take place. This point is important to consider because it paints Eve in a different light. Rather than the evil seductress who was easily manipulated, this perspective empowers Eve, depicting her as a precautious, thought-provoking intellectual who was willing enough and bright enough to engage in a discussion with something as cunning as the serpent.
He begins by challenging her faith, asking Eve about the tree that God had forbidden her from eating from. Then he goes on to directly oppose God’s instruction;
“But the serpent said to the woman, You will not die;
For God knows that when you eat of it your
eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,
knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-6).
What we see here is Eve’s interest in knowledge and her desire to attain it. Her yearning for wisdom allowed her to engage with a challenger, the serpent, and her discussion with him has come to be recognized as the first conversation on Earth concerning the nature of God. Because of this, Eve is often argued to be the first theologian.
Phyllis Trible has argued that greater things are created last, that the second draft is always an improvement of the original draft. Following this principle, it would appear that Eve is the better human draft, since she is the more intelligent one willing to engage in a discussion that went outside of what she knew.
When the snake is punished, God tells him:
“Because you have done this,
Cursed are you among all the animals
And among all wild creatures;
Upon your belly you shall go,
And dust you shall eat
All the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
And between your offspring and hers;
He will strike your head,
And you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:14-15).
Eve’s offspring can be interpreted as Jesus Christ, who stomps on the snake’s head when he tempts him during his 40 days of fasting in the mountains. Christ will stomp on him again in the garden when he is waiting to be arrested and taken in to be crucified. At this point, Christ knew he was going to die, and he felt the fear that only human flesh can feel. Similar to when he fasted for 40 days, Christ was in his weakest moment, which is why the snake chose to appear. Again, Christ stomps on his head to silence the temptation, following the punishment stated by God, that Eve’s offspring would strike the serpent’s offspring’s head. The snake’s power is crushed once again when Jesus is nailed to the cross, as he fulfilled his promise to save mankind, and the devil’s reign is now finished, now metaphorically striking the serpent at his head for the final time.
Each tradition has their own perspective on the fall from grace. Following the Augustine tradition, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace was a rupture of the human condition, which in turn had a severe physical effect on human kind. Sin is now inherent in humans, and it is passed on to their offspring through the act of sex.
Hebrew tradition; on the other hand, views their fall from grace as a simple story of expulsion, with no huge cosmic change occurring at the end of it all. They view the story as a simple tale of disobedience, whereas Augustine views it as the moment when the God-human relationship was permanently shattered. This relationship continues to worsen as Cain murders his brother, who is cursed from the land, and whose descendants were believed to be as wicked as him.
The Canaanites were believed to be descendants of Cain, who later created Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities that God wished to destroy because of their wickedness. Eventually came the Nephilim, an odd breed that came from fallen angels and descendants of Cain, continuing the tradition of depravity passed on through Cain’s lineage. His descendants grow to be more immoral and nefarious than their forefather, which causes even greater alienation from God. Eventually, God becomes so disillusioned with his creation of humans, that he decides to wipe them out, leaving only Noah and his family, as he saw them as the only humans with any semblance of piety remaining.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight,
and the earth was filled with violence.
And God saw that the earth was corrupt;
for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth” (Genesis 6:11-12).
God curses the earth with a flood killing every living thing that wasn’t in the arc that Noah built. Once he had flooded the land and eliminated everything on it, he made a promise to Noah:
“I will never again curse the ground because of humankind,
for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth;
nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:21-22).
This is the point where we witness redemption. The bottomless pit of alienation had grown so deep and so rapidly since Adam’s expulsion. Brothers were alienated from brothers, humans were alienated from God, and humans were also alienated from the earth. Now, God was prepared to get rid of humans completely due to his dissatisfaction with the wickedness of their ways. Noah served as the only glimmer of hope in God’s eyes, and he proved to be worthy of God’s trust. This small seed of hope was big enough to save humankind, and as a result, God made a covenant with him.
“I establish my covenant with you,
That never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood,
And never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11).
God leaves the symbol of the rainbow to signify his first covenant with man, which also marks the dawn of a new relationship between humans and God.
While many theologians see the fall from grace as a rupture of the human condition because of the physical changes that followed suit, as well as the alienations that Adam and Eve suffered, I believe it can be argued that the rhetoric throughout the story of Noah points to a different stance on the human condition.
Through God’s covenant with Noah, God’s chastising of Adam and Eve, and the indiscretions committed by them, their descendants are redeemed. God’s faith in humanity is restored, and as a result, he promises to never involve himself in the daily workings of humans again, swearing to leave the humans alone to deal with issues on their own.
In a way, this is almost reminiscent of the point where a parent gives their child room to breathe and grow on their own, allowing them to make their own decisions and deal with the consequences. The story of Adam and Eve is more than a simple tale of obedience, it is a tale of the human condition, and our natural inclination to be curious, to want more, and to, at times, lose our way. The story of Noah stands as a beacon of hope, which is a light we witness much more in the New Testament. In the New Testament, we will see women forgiven for their mistakes, such as Mary Magdalene, and we see man forgiven for their disobedience, such as Peter, who denied Jesus in his time of peril, and Paul, the man who killed Christians by the dozen, but was forgiven, ultimately authoring more than half of the letters in the New Testament.
Adam and Eve’s expulsion is detailed with a strong, fear-bearing rhetoric that is meant to bring readers sadness for what was lost and for what could have been. Matters seem to get worse as Cain grows more impious than his parents, and his descendants grow to be more heinous than him. But as we know, it is always darkest before the dawn, and the hope in Noah’s story foreshadows readers to a dawn that is promised to come.