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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