Sunday, May 5, 2013

An Approach to the Fall Story in Genesis, Part One

Over the last week, I have been contributing to Feast Upon the Word, a Wiki commentary on the Standard Works of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Typically, each page is divided into four sections: Questions, Lexical notes, Exegesis, and Related Links. If there is something that doesn't quite fit these categories, users can post it on the related discussion page. I am generally trying to answer something in the questions section with my contributions.

The site's users posed some very good questions about Gen.3:21-24. I would like to answer them, or at least suggest possible directions. However, I think my answers would prove too controversial for the site, so I'm going to post them here and hope for the best. Here are the questions:

  • Verse 22: Was there death on this earth prior to Adam partaking of the fruit (before answering see Bible Dictionary entry for the fall)?1
  • If there was no death previously, how does this fit into popular views of theological evolution, evolution or other controversial issues? Can current views of science be reconciled with the creation account, or is this simply a matter of faith?
  • Is the death referred to in verse 22, a spiritual or physical death? Or both?
  • If the account in symbolic, what is the tree? Is it the atonement? A previous atonement (assuming Adam could have come from another Earth)?
  • How do we find our way to our own "tree?" Can we partake (of the atonement) and live forever after we overcome our sins?
  • Did Adam feel guilt for this transgression (See 2 Nephi 2)? What is the role of guilt?

Note that many of these questions assume that modern Mormon theology can answer these questions as if the author of Genesis had these things in mind. The first question is explicit about it: consult the Bible Dictionary first. The Bible Dictionary, of course, interprets the Fall story in light of later revelation. Assuming all the scriptural writers were speaking with a unified voice and the author of Genesis knew what the later writers knew, then the answer is simple. No, there was no death prior to Adam partaking of the fruit. The answers to the other questions will tend to fall in line. But is the answer really that simple?

I have already noted in another post that I don't assume scriptural writers mean the same thing even when speaking about the same topic using the same words. I also noted that not making this assumption has some staggering implications. At a very minimum, it is hard to talk about what Scripture “teaches” without qualification. To say, “Scripture teaches X,” assumes the various authors spoke with a (more or less) unified voice. That may be true, but we just can't assume it. Thus, when the first question implies its own answer by asking us to consult the Bible Dictionary, my response is, “Hold on, not so fast!” While I don't deny later writers have interpreted this passage to say there was no death before the Fall, that doesn't necessarily mean the author of Genesis intended that meaning.

If we can't properly talk about what Scripture “teaches,” what can we do? We start at the beginning. We try to figure out what each individual author meant, without necessary reference to later interpretations.2 If a later writer uses a previous author's writing, we try to figure out how that material is being used, without necessary reference to the original author's intent.3 Should a unified voice emerge when we do this, fine and well. But if a unified voice does not emerge, then we will have do deal with it. I think it is more likely that we will find that we will many recurring themes, but that the individual authors are going to have different takes on those themes.

What if we find that the scriptural writers are not speaking with a unified voice? I don't think this is a cause for concern. After all, the Scriptures as we have them were written by numerous authors over a span of some three thousand years. We should expect differences in outlook and even contradictions. Differences and contradictions only matter when we impose inerrancy on the authors—and Latter-day Saints really should know better. Furthermore, the whole point of the Mormon doctrine of continuing revelation is that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom” (A of F 9). The author of Genesis had to work with the light he had no less than Paul and Joseph Smith did. We need not suppose these writers all had the same knowledge. Instead of trying to impose the framework of modern Mormon doctrine on the authors, let us see what they have to say for themselves. After that, we can start suggesting answers to these questions.

I will begin this process in Part Two by considering the question of whether the author of Genesis intended to describe the origin of death.

1 The reference is to the Appendix “Bible Dictionary” attached to the Bible published by the Church (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979). The entry “Fall of Adam” is found on p. 670 of the Appendix.
2 This doesn't mean we can't use later interpretations as evidence regarding the original author's intent. When the interpreters are part of the originally intended audience, their readings can be particularly valuable as evidence of original intent. This is especially true when the original author's thoughts are (like most Scripture writers) unknown or lost.
3 For example, when I quote or cite another author's work, I don't necessarily mean to say that author intended the use I make of it. As a Book of Mormon environmentalist, I make free use of some historicist works even though those authors and I have radically different starting points and come to different conclusions regarding the same evidence.

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