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Genesis, Original Sin, and Original Happiness

Christians see in Genesis 3:15 the promise of the Messiah-Redeemer whose task it will be to conquer sin definitively and to restore humanity’s lost innocence.

"Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" (1827-28) by Thomas Cole [WikiArt.org]

Throughout both creation accounts, the emphasis is on the order, beauty and happiness which resulted from God’s creative activity. Often, people think of original sin when they think of Genesis, but a more basic theme is that of original justice or original happiness because that was God’s original plan and still remains our ultimate destiny. However, sin did enter the world, so we must deal with this reality as well.

The sacred author firmly believed that God had created everything good, yet evil was an obvious and potent force in human life. How did this happen? Chapter 3 is the simple yet profound explanation for the origin and power of evil.

The Tempter is portrayed as a serpent; thus, the immediate source of sin does not spring from humanity itself. But why a serpent? Perhaps because the Yahwist wanted to attack the serpent worship of the Canaanites to which the Hebrews were being attracted. Just what was this first sin? Only conjecture is possible, but the language of the text strongly suggests that Adam and Eve wished to be autonomous and independent of God, with unlimited experience of life. If that is so, it is understandable that the effects of original sin are still with us today, indeed, in our spiritual DNA.

Both the man and the woman are partners in the offense, but when asked about their sin, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. Failure to assume responsibility for one’s actions is likewise part of a sinful condition. Linked to the fallen state is an awareness of their nakedness, a further indication of their dissatisfaction with the way they were created.

Once God judges their guilt, He inflicts punishments: first, the serpent’s influence and power will eventually be destroyed by one born of woman; next, woman will be mistreated by man; finally, man will find work a drudgery as the soil rebels against his efforts. Thus, all involved in this primal catastrophe are punished.

Interestingly enough, part of the punishment of the serpent (who introduced evil into the world) is that he will be overcome and that this victory will return people to their original state. Christians see in Genesis 3:15 the promise of the Messiah-Redeemer whose task it will be to conquer sin definitively and to restore humanity’s lost innocence; that verse bears the awe-inspiring name of protoevangelium (that is, the first proclamation of the Gospel). Once again, God’s tender mercy is seen, so that even in the midst of disaster and punishment, He gives the promise of future happiness.

As the author proceeds in the story, he singles out Cain and Abel as prototypes of the kind of people we shall always have with us. Abel is just and pious (such rarely do well in our world), while Cain is envious and grasping (when we are more interested in ourselves than either God or neighbor, the result is always a kind of murder).

Time passes and sin spreads its influence, so much so that God regrets (humanly speaking) having created human beings. Wickedness becomes the reason for the great flood, an event included in the literature of many peoples, most notably the Babylonians. In the Scriptures, however, God is merciful – sparing Noah and his family because of their goodness. Even the flood itself is seen as having a pedagogical value: It should teach people to obey God, lest a worse disaster ensue. The early Christians looked on the ark as a “type” or foreshadowing of the Church, through which people are saved from sin and death.

After the flood, God enters into a covenant with Noah, who represents all future generations. A covenant is a pact or agreement, usually between two equals. God’s willingness to take the initiative in forging such a relationship is yet another indication of His great love. His only request is the same one He made at the outset – that His laws be obeyed. This is the first of many covenants described in the Bible, with the last and greatest being the one made for us through the Blood of Christ, sacramentally renewed in each offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The sacred author was painfully aware of two things: first, that there were terrible divisions among the peoples of the earth; second, that humanity never seems to learn its lesson. In response to these realities, the author recounts the story of the Tower of Babel, a moral story condemning an attitude of self-reliance, which is presumptuous. The author views the multiplicity of languages as a punishment for the pride and arrogance of the builders. The story sounds like that of Eden (Paradise Lost) all over again. Christians see the effects of Babel decisively reversed by the effects of Pentecost when all people understood once more because they were focused on doing God’s holy will, rather than their own.

Two aspects of this story of primal evil and redemption should be given further consideration.

St. John Paul II devoted nearly five full years of Wednesday audiences to in-depth catecheses on these early chapters of Genesis, eventually dubbed his “theology of the body.” Those addresses are essential reading for anyone desirous of understanding the biblical message and its application to the mystery of the relationship between God and man and between human beings.

The protoevangelium was a kind of launching pad for Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman to reflect on both original sin and original justice. He saw the three characters of Genesis 3:15 reprised in Revelation 12, where once more we encounter a woman, her child and a beast. The drama of the first book of the Bible is resolved in the last as the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Son defeat Satan. Newman’s meditation on these first chapters of Genesis led him to a profound appreciation of the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception – long before its dogmatic definition in 1854 by Pope Pius IX and even before his own reception into the Catholic Church. Indeed, in his “Letter to Pusey,” he coined a charming and insightful expression for this woman who was “full of grace,” namely, “the Daughter of Eve Unfallen.” A magisterial treatment of Newman’s Mariology can be found in the doctoral dissertation of Father Nicholas Gregoris, The Daughter of Eve Unfallen: Mary in the Theology and Spirituality of John Henry Newman (Newman House Press).

With primeval considerations in place, we are poised to reflect on the foundation of the Chosen People.

Related at CWR:
“Four basic truths about Genesis and Creation” (February 12, 2019) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 114 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

3 Comments

  1. To me the Fall of Man story in Genesis cries out for a mystical exegesis.

    When I read about the seven days of Creation in Genesis, to me the seventh day, the day of rest, looks like it was made for contemplation. When God rested on the seventh day could it not be said that this rest was contemplation?

    We are made in God’s image and likeness. A primary characteristic of God is one of union, the intimate union of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God in Three Persons. This being so, union with God would be a primary part of our image and likeness. God is Love, so our union with God would need to be one based on free will in order to be based on true love. Paradise is called a walled garden. A monastic cloister can be considered to be a walled garden. Eden was a primordial cloister where Adam and Eve were being spiritually formed to have their bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit through divine union. St. John of the Cross wrote a book about divine union titled “The Ascent of Mount Carmel.” The Fall of Man was the fall from off of Mount Carmel. In Original Sin Adam and Eve corrupted their contemplation.

    The passage that covers the Fall of Man describes the forbidden fruit as being desirable, and makes reference to Adam and Eve’s eyes. The eye is talked about in Matthew 6:22-23:

    “The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be”. (NABRE)

    In the Old Testament the punishment is often in the form of the offense. In Original Sin Adam and Eve valued the gifts more than the gift Giver, which suggests an unholy lust for the things that are God’s. Thus concupiscence entered the world.

    In Christianity there are two kinds of death. The first is the death of the body, and there is the second death of mortal sin that leads to Hell. When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened they were no longer illuminated by the light of God’s graces. This is when the darkening of the will and intellect took place and they underwent the spiritual death of mortal sin that God warned them about. Through Original Sin Adam and Eve had stripped themselves of the robes of righteousness, leaving them truly naked. Denuded of grace, spiritually dead.

    The choice of the talking snake was an excellent representation of Satan. The mouth can produce lying speech. In a snake this is also where the fangs are located, which in the case of poisonous snakes can issue deadly venom. We can find a description of the devil in John 8:44:

    “44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (RSVCE)

    If you carefully read the Fall of Man in Genesis, what the snake was promising Adam and Eve was autonomy from God. The Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in harmonious intimate union. They are not competitors. The snake was setting things up that the relationship between God and Adam and Eve was a competitive zero-sum power struggle; that they had to act ungodly, be disobedient, and breach the union of their relationship with God to gain autonomous godhood. Being made in God’s image and likeness, anything that would alienate Adam and Eve from God would also alienate them from each other, and would include self alienation. Satan views his relationship with God to be a power struggle.

    When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened this was when the poisonous venom of the snake’s lies found its target and they died a spiritual death. What took place in Eden was that Adam and Eve took their spiritual direction from the serpent and not from God.

    The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. To me the loin cloths are the mystical representation of the barrier between God and man that was brought about by Original Sin, and represents the veil of the temple, because Adam and Eve’s bodies could no longer be the Holy of Holies where there could be the pure indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The loin cloths, the veil of the temple, were the mystical representation of the stain of Original Sin on the souls of Adam and Eve, the same veil of the Temple that was torn in two when Christ died on the Cross for our sins, and opened the Gates of Heaven.

  2. How can a loving God portend great eternal punishment and suffering, but appears not to have “kick started” humanity on “evil”? Many times I struggled with Genesis only to find I ended up where I started. When an all knowing all omniscient God brands all of humanity with “original sin”, the very humanity he created to honor and love him, I get concerned for the real intent. Putting babies in Limbo is just one.

    • You seem to have a problem with free will. I just read an article titled “Owning up to our lesser evils” by Elizabeth Bruenig. In it she wrote:
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      “…that evil is thoughtless, that it engenders a refusal to reckon with the nature or consequences of one’s actions. Evil rejects reason and contemplation, and it is fundamentally unreflective”.
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      Too many people want unlimited freedom of action with unlimited freedom from suffering the consequences of their actions. Adam, Eve, and Cain were totally irresponsible in their actions.

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