Many understandings of Original Sin, the sin committed by Adam and Eve, tend to describe the sin as the eating of a forbidden fruit. While this description is not inaccurate, it is incomplete and many rightly wonder as to how and why all this trouble came from the mere eating of a piece of fruit.
It may be helpful therefore to consider the Sin of Adam more richly. While the eating of the fruit is the external act, like any human act, it proceeds from the heart and admits of some complexity or stages.
Perhaps a quote from the Book of James will help frame our reflections since it describes the stages of sin:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)
And thus we can distinguish the following stages of sin:
1. The lure of Temptation
2. The engagement of desire
3. The conception of sin
4. The birth of sin
5. Spiritual Death
And thus when we consider the Sin of Adam and Eve we can see these stages at work. Perhaps we do well to examine these stages and also add in some of the subtleties and presumptions of the story.
Preamble- God had put Adam in the garden even before Eve was created. As the text says,
The LORD God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden in order to have him work it and guard it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”(Gen 2:15-17).
And therefore Adam’s task was to work the garden and also to guard, (to keep watch over) the Garden. There was also a boundary that God told him not to cross regarding the tree. Of the fuller meaning of that tree we will treat in a moment, but for now note that God does not explain why, but simply notes the danger and asks Adam to trust him that the tree is trouble.
Thus, in three words, Adam is to: tend, till and trust. As we shall see, Adam fell short in two of these, and they are aspects of what we have come to call Original Sin.
1. The Lure of Temptation – The story of Original Sin opens with the description of the serpent which is described as the most cunning of all the wild creatures God had made (3:1). While most of us imagine a snake of some sort, that description is given only after God curses Satan who is allegorically represented by this creature. Exactly what this creature looked like before the fall, is not stated, and hence we need not imagine a talking snake. Whatever the creature Satan made use of, (or what the author of Genesis allegorically made use of) it is the way in which Satan interacts with Eve.
Cunning and subtle, Satan uses intellectual arguments to appeal to aspects of what would later come to be called pride and sensuality. He also seeks to undermine her trust in God’s goodness.
He begins his temptation by attempting to make God seem unreasonable, suggesting that God had forbidden them to eat from any of the trees in the garden. Eve easily deals with this temptation and dismisses it, correctly stating that it is only one tree that has been proscribed. Of course this is a common tactic of Satan even to our own day; namely, that God is unreasonable, that He demands too many things, forbids too many things, etc. This accusation of course, wholly ignores that God has given incredible liberty to the human person, who, unlike any other creature except the Angels, is able to say “no” to God.
Satan’s second attack is more successful. He declares that God is not telling them the truth. In effect he says that God who has given them everything, is holding something very important back. In effect Satan argues that God is restraining them from being the gods they deserve to be. In pointing to the fruit of this tree, Satan says, in effect, “Why do you let anyone have power over you? Why do you let anyone tell you what to do? Why do you not instead say, “I will do what I want to do, and I will decide whether it is right or wrong!” Satan temps to an incredible pride, “You will be gods!”
And thus Eve is in the first stage of the sin, the lure of temptation. But we do well to ask where is Adam at this time? Satan has been speaking with Eve. Yes, but where is Adam? The text says he is right there with her (Gen 3:6)!
Now here’s a problem integral to the sin of Adam. He was told, among other things, to guard the garden; that is, to keep watch over it. It is arguable whether he could have prevented Satan from being present at all, (he probably could not), but surely he could have sought to protect and guard his wife! Satan is manifest, and Adam says nothing, and does nothing. He does not seek to ward off the evil one, neither does he assist his wife in refuting the tempting thoughts. No, he stands quietly by. Here is a passive husband.
As the head of his family he had every obligation to come to his wife’s help, to protect her, to assist her in this grave temptation and threat. But the text reports him doing nothing but standing quietly by; indeed, so quietly, that when I point out to many people the sixth verse which says he was “with her” they are surprised. Even many modern passive husbands would intervene when they see some strange individual speaking to their wife.
“But Father, but Father, are you saying that Adam has already sinned even before Original Sin is committed?” No, not necessarily, but the point here is that Original Sin is a more complicated reality than merely biting into a piece of fruit. It, like many sins, has layers. Adam may not yet have sinned, but his silence is surely puzzling, indeed troubling. To be tempted, is not sin, for even Jesus was tempted. But to do nothing in the face of temptation for ourself or others is to at least open the door to the next stage of sin.
2. The Engagement of Desire – The text says, the woman saw the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise (3:6).
Temptation, is merely a thought that either occurs to us, or is presented to us by another. If I were to say to you, “Why don’t we go down to the corner store and rob it.” I have simply presented to you thought, or course of action, which may or may not appeal to you, based on your background and proclivity to daring and violent actions, greed etc. But temptation of itself is merely a thought.
But in the second stage of sin, the tempting thoughts of Satan now engage Eve’s desires. The fruit engages her sensual desires, for it looks tasty, and delights the eyes. It also engages her intellectual desires, for it has been described to her as a source of empowering wisdom.
Thus, temptation begins to move from being a mere thought, to becoming a kind of force or power. Her desires have been engaged and ignited. Things are a bit more difficult. Mere intellectual response will not be enough, the will must be engaged in such a way that the desires will be curbed and subject to truth and right reason. Either she will obey God who has given her everything, and thus decide reasonably, or she will yield to temptation and desire and unreasonably accept the proposal of Satan who has given her nothing except to appeal to her sensuality and pride.
Again, we can simply note the silence of Adam. How tragic this is. Eve seems quite alone and without support in this moment. One would hope in any marriage, that when one spouse is struggling, the other will be strong. Adam remains silent. He is no leader, he seems to wait and see what his wife will do. He is a passive husband.
3. The Conception of Sin - The text simply says she took of its fruit (3:6). In reaching out to take hold and possess this fruit, she conceives sin in her heart. Her husband will do the same thing, taking hold of it before he eats it.
What are they taking hold of? Several things.
First, as we have seen, there is a colossal pride. Satan had said, “You will be gods.” Now they are laying hold of and conceiving of this idea. They are laying hold of the prideful and rebellious notion that “I will do what I want to do, and I will decide whether it is right or wrong. I will be under no one’s authority; I will do as I please; I answer to no one; I am god.”
They also sin against gratitude. For God had given them everything. But even paradise was not enough, they wanted more. Ungratefully, they reject God who has given everything, and turned to Satan who “promises” more, but has delivered nothing.
Finally, and most problematically, they sin against trust. Note that the tree is called “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” To “know” in the Bible almost always means more than simple intellectual knowing. It means to know something by experience. Thus, in naming this tree “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and commanding them to stay away from it, God is saying:
I am asking you to trust me to tell you what is good and what is evil, and not to demand to know this personally for yourselves. I want you to trust me, and that I tell you this for your own good. But if you take from that tree, you are insisting on knowing for yourself what is good and what is evil; and more importantly, you are insisting on knowing and experiencing evil.
Thus, Adam and Eve refused to trust God, and insist on knowing, that is experiencing, for themselves the difference between good and evil. The Catechism describes Original Sin in this manner:
Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.(# 397)
So we see that at the heart of Original Sin and all other sin is a refusal to trust God, a refusal to trust his goodness and an abuse of our liberty.
All of this has been conceived in the heart of Adam and Eve as they lay hold of this fruit.
4. The Birth of Sin – Given all our work, little needs to be said of this stage, the sin is engaged. Note, that Eve eats first, and then entices her husband. More of this will be spoken of in a future post, probably tomorrow, when I reflect on St. Paul’s commentary on the Sin of Adam. Here, suffice it to say that the sin of Adam and Eve are described somewhat differently here in the text. Eve is described as being deceived, and Adam is described as being, in effect, seduced. Neither of them are without blame, but the nature of their temptation, and the engagement of their desires, is slightly different. Again, more on this later.
5. Spiritual Death – Adam and Eve do not drop dead in physical death; but rather, they die spiritually. And this is symbolized in many ways in the verses ahead.
In their experienced nakedness they feel exposed, no longer innocent, they feel vulnerable, naked ashamed. Righteousness and integrity have died in their hearts, now they are dis-integrated and disoriented, turned away from God and turned in on themselves.
Most seriously, they are cut off from God. who is the source of their life. When God walks through the garden at the usual time, they do not run to him, but from him; they are afraid. Having died spiritually and embraced the darkness, they now fear He who is Life and Light. They cannot endure his presence.
Recriminations follow, and the prophecy of suffering, strife, and ultimately death. The wages of sin is death. God would spare them of this, had they been willing to trust him. But Adam and Eve wanted to know for themselves. Mysteriously, they sought a “better deal” than Paradise, even knowing the price of it would be death. So tragic, foolish, and horrifying.
Therefore, dear reader, pardon this rather long essay. But too often Original Sin is reduced to the mere eating of a piece of fruit. Far more was at stake, and far more was going on beneath the surface, in the subtleties of the story. There were many moving parts, and layers to the sad reality that we call Original Sin, and the sin of Adam.